Just recently I received a fan email about Girdle of Bones. Yes, I know! Me – fan mail!? Wowser! It was a delightful surprise, particularly since it’s over two years since I (self)published the epic tome. But reading the email reminded me of just why I wrote the book in the first place.

Hey Nicky, I hadn’t realised you wrote a book. I think that would be my opening line when introducing myself to all people, in all settings, at all times.

What a journey! I won’t fanboy too much, but I really did enjoy it. Your resilience is, of course, the highlight of Girdle of Bones, and as I read I could feel it providing some much-needed perspective for myself… Medically, your advice about autologous blood deposits is such an important piece of knowledge I will take with me going forward. Questioning your doctors/performing your own research, something I am guilty of not doing, is something that will now remain front of mind when I have extended dealings with them. … I’ve already recommended your book to an aunt of my wife’s as she is possibly going down the path of a hip replacement. I know it will be of great use if she takes up the offer.

Anywayyss.. I did just wanted to pop in to say I really enjoyed it and hope you are spending your increased spare time working on more pieces so I can read on in the future. T.C.

Rather lovely, really. Thank you, TC. You made my day 🙂

So there I was, later the same day, feeling all shiny and pleased, when I bumped into someone from the local writing group. Much like most acquaintances when they bump into each other unexpectedly, we did the usual slightly awkward hello-how-are-you things for a couple of moments. Then, just as I was turning away, feeling reprieved, she popped in ‘‘So… you’re not writing anymore, are you?’

Ouch. Not an unreasonable comment, I guess, considering I have been AWOL from writing group for quite a while, but still… It felt like I’d been slapped by a wet fish… and my shiny writerly bubble was thoroughly burst.

All it took was seven words, delivered in a perfectly pleasant tone of voice, to supply a surprisingly effective dose of negative mental realignment. Perhaps I was feeling a little defensive about being absent from the group and not making contact with them?

No matter. Taking a deep breath, I let one of my mantras play inside my head – the equivalent of counting to 10: You’ve donned your big girl panties perfectly well when faced with far more confronting situations than this one, girl…

That allowed me to step back from what was, no doubt, just a passing comment. Then I just smiled. I smiled and told Patsy that I write when I can. She smiled too, said she hoped to see me back at the group sometime soon, and we parted ways.

But it made me think. In fact I thought about Patsy’s question far more than it actually warranted before eventually realising that it was irrelevant. I do write – I write when, where and what I feel in the mood for. Sometimes it’s just a brief note about something that catches my attention; at other times it’s as though my pencil is an extension of my hand.

But no matter which end of that writing scale I’m on at any given time, writing is part of who I am – whether others see me do it or not. (If I was five years old, I’d add: so there!) 🙂

It’s not what (or when or why) you do it, it’s whether you have fun on the journey.
Thanks for the reminder, TC.

Over the weekend I was having a chat with someone who’s been having a bit of a hard time coming to terms with some changes in their life. She spent a fair while telling me in some detail about the negatives, the unhappy-making things, and the things that cause her dissatisfaction. The list was long, with most of the issues carried forward over many years and none of them seeming to have any clear pathway to resolution.

It took me back to my mental first aid training last year. At the time the instructor stressed that, as often as not, people just need someone to hear them. That talking through an issue can make a huge difference in terms of coping and moving forward. So I listened.

When the conversation moved on, I found myself asking what sorts of things make her happy. Just simple, everyday things. Her response was, ‘I’ve never really thought about life that way.’ That made me sad.

But here’s the thing: life’s full of potentially unhappy-making events and experiences. They’re there, right in front of us or lying in wait around unexpected corners or concealed in the strangest of places. Every day. But so are happy-making things.

Happy-things don’t have to be epic happies, like successfully completing a project, or finding a solution to global warming, or resolving a relationship issue. They can be things as seemingly-trivial as taking a moment’s pleasure in sunshine on your shoulders, or someone smiling at you on the train, or seeing a dog chasing a ball in the park. It can be anything that, in that moment, makes you smile. That smile – that moment when your face softens and your eyes sparkle – that can be your positive for the day. If you let it.

It may sound a bit self-help and twee, but I’ve found that outlook makes an enormous difference to coping with all the weird stuff that life throws my way. Actively choosing to be receptive to the joy in the small stuff, making a conscious decision to look for happy things, changed how I looked at the bigger issues as well.

So, perhaps, dear friend, since the big issues are so very big and have no endgame in sight, perhaps try changing how you think about life. See if it helps to make a conscious decision to try to take pleasure each day in the small things, in the everyday things – and let’s catch up again next week and see how you’re travelling.

Autumn roses: my smile for today.

I woke up to a seemingly endless loop of this song playing in my head on Friday morning.

Why would Windmills of Your Mind be bobbing around in my head at 5.30am on a random Friday? Worst than that, why would it lurck at the edge of my consciousness all day: an annoying, self-inflicted earworm that simply wouldn’t go away?

Round like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel / Never ending or beginning on an ever spinning reel / Like a snowball down a mountain, or a carnival balloon / Like a carousel that’s turning running rings around the moon / Like a clock whose hands are sweeping past the minutes of its face / And the world is like an apple whirling silently in space / Like the circles that you find in the windmills of your mind!

The lyrics popped up odd times all day. The circle in a spiral just kept on turning and by home time it was driving me nuts!

Then it occurred to me that it might just be a calling card. Could it be that my subconscious was trying to get my attention and have a chat? I’ve been ignoring her for a while now, so she perhaps she’d taken the initiative and inflicted an earworm on me to get my attention?

Once I’d considered that, I then also had to consider what she might be trying to tell me. My best guess was that she thinks I need to take a breath and step back slightly from the fever pitch of activities I’ve inflicted on myself over the past few months. It’s a pretty reasonable guess, actually, as she and I both know my tendency to get crazy-busy to the point of burn out. Juggling three jobs plus volunteering and home life has been a bit of a challenge over the past month. The pace has eased somewhat now, but probably not quite enough.

Some years ago I took part in a programme called Smart Busy to try to teach myself how to take that step back. Jane Genovese, a grad student at Murdoch University, was working on a PhD thesis focusing on creating healthy and effective mental and physical habits. Her programme involved six 2-hour workshops, covering topics such as mindful living, taking back your time, what really matters in life, keeping track of expenditure, de-cluttering, healthy eating and planning for the future.

It was surprisingly useful to most participants. It made us all reassess what we were doing and why – and to then make the necessary mental shift to be smart-busy instead of crazy-busy.

And it worked. For a while anyway.

But it turns out that maintaining (new) good habits is a whole lot trickier than conceptualising them. Unless one is mindful, priorities can get muddied. This leads to stress and fatigue undermining even the best of intentions and luring one back to that ever-spinning reel. In no time at all you’re just plain busy. Too busy ticking things off mental checklists to have fun, to spend time with people who matter, to eat properly or get enough sleep.

It can be tricky to figure out that we’re on that track. Sometimes persistent ill health is the red flag that makes us pay attention, sometimes a friend brings it to our attention… and sometimes our subconscious sends us a really annoying earworm to deliver the message!

So, thanks, subconscious-me – I’m paying attention. I have a plan (and no, it’s not just another check-list!) and will follow through on it, starting with this blogpost. Writing down some goals is a baseline, as is keeping them realistic and achievable. So here we go:

  • Accept that there need to be trade-offs to achieve better outcomes and offload some tasks. First up is getting a cleaner in to help out at home.
  • Friends and loved ones matter more than anything, so it’s essential to nurture and maintain those bonds. To do this I need to  commit to taking the time to not be too busy for the people I care about.
  • I’m a writer, even though I seem to forget that when I get crazy-busy. So it’s back to writing something – anything – every day, simply for my own pleasure.
  • My alter ego is a kitchen goddess wannabe, but she’s taken the back seat for quite a while now. It’s time to let her have her way in the kitchen at least once a week to create some magic that will encourage me to eat better. Our Tasmania food tour next month will get her on track.
  • The dogs drive me nuts, but I love them dearly and need to remember that.  I have a pup asleep on my feet as type this – so that’s a good start.

I’ll stop there for now, although I could add a whole lot more. Five items are achievable for a first pass, as long as I remain mindful of my goal. Simply put, it’s to avoid another earworm – and to enjoy life a whole lot more 🙂

A little while ago someone came through our doors asking for some help. She looked like she’d been roughed up, but was adamant that she didn’t want us to phone anyone for her or get medical help. All she wanted was to use the bathroom to clean up and, if we had any spare, some cash so that she could catch the bus.

Nothing we offered made a difference. She went to the bathroom, came out looking a little less disheveled, took the cash we offered, thanked us and left.

It freaked me out. A lot.

I felt that I should have been able to offer more, do more, help in some way – but had no idea how. It troubled me for weeks – still does, really. What also troubled me was that I had no tools to deal with how I felt about the event or how other people present at the time did. It was awkward and uncomfortable and I found it difficult to understand why I felt slightly guilty about the whole thing.

So when the opportunity arose for me to sign up for a course that would provide an overview of mental health issues and how a non-mental health professional can respond, I jumped at it.

The course is called Mental Health First Aid and it’s effectively the mental health equivalent of a standard first aid course. It was run over two days by the WA Association of Mental Health (WAAMH), who offered it at a significantly reduced cost – which was also a great incentive.

The course objective is to equip participants with the skills and resources to recognise and respond appropriately to someone experiencing a mental health crisis – at least until professional help arrives!

We covered a lot of ground, including:

  • Understanding Mental Health, including diagnoses, prevalence and common misconceptions
  • Symptoms and causes of depression, anxiety, psychosis and substance misuse.
  • How to provide initial support to adults who are experiencing a mental health crisis.
  • Crisis First Aid for: suicidal behaviour, panic attacks, aggressive behaviour, self harm, acute psychosis
  • Responding to the effects of substance misuse

Some of it was heavy going, but it was made very real for all of us by the lived experience stories of people who came in to share those with us. Then there was the added dimension of about 60% of the course participants also having their own lived experiences of mental health issues, many of them still raw and relatively easily triggered. It made for some difficult situations and complicated conversations – but all of those served to inform each of us in different ways about how mental health can and does impact people’s lives.

I hadn’t realised that one in five Australians experience mental health issues, or that anxiety and depression are major players. And yet people don’t talk about it, don’t allow mental health to be just another health issue that can be managed. Why is that? 

Perhaps part of it is fear. But if we don’t talk about the size and shape of the black dog (and his friend the elephant in the room), we won’t ever learn how to recognise it and learn how to manage it.

Having completed this very basic mental health first aid course, I feel slightly better equipped to answer some of the questions. I have facts, stats, a manual, an action plan and a certificate. These all make me feel safer. But what really made a difference was talking to people, understanding a little better how to really listen, how best respond, what sort of help to offer,  and where to find resources that can make a difference in a crisis situation.

I very much hope that if that young woman came back asking for our help again, I might just be able to do something useful for her without being quite so terrified that I’d be doing the wrong thing. And if she still only wanted to use the bathroom and get some bus fare… well, that’s okay too. 

Last week I was presented with the choice of 20+ fridge magnets and an invitation to choose as many as I’d like. The magnets were created by a friend from original photographs that he took, in and around Perth. He combined the images with words to create positive messages for himself – and then decided to share them.

The art work is terrific and part of me wanted to grab all 20 and whack them up all over my fridge. But instead I showed some restraint and spent a bit of time sorting through to see if any of them really leapt out at me and said ‘take me home’.

What I discovered is that, although they’re all lovely, only two of them really resonated with me on that particular day. One because it’s who I am and the other because I need the reminder. 

I must have looked at those magnets dozens of times since I put them up. Whenever I open and close the fridge, there they are. They remind me to take a mental step back from rushing around and be present in the moment  – and they’ve made me smile. Every time.

So thanks, friend, for sharing your thoughts and smiles. They’re greatly appreciated. Smiles are huge and happy and lovely and can totally make someone’s day – especially if they’re shared.

So here are my smiles, dear tea leaf readers. I hope they work for you too – and that you share them around 🙂