Art Journaling

A few months ago, I started art journaling. I now journal most days, and I absolutely love it.

I’ve decided that one of my new life goals is to be one of those people who always has some paint somewhere on their body/hair/clothes. I do it for myself, not others but I’ve started to post some of my pages on 04.jpgInstagram, and sometimes also share them on Twitter and Project 365. People often thank me for sharing them, comment that they can relate, tell me I’ve inspired them to start journaling and share their journal pages with me. I absolutely love hearing from all of these people, it’s wonderful. I’ve shared it with my GP, and other health professionals a few times, which I’ve found to be really useful because sometimes I struggle to communicate with words, so paint can help. The response I’ve received, coupled with the amount I felt it was helping, but also challenging me, and some great sessions doing it alongside a friend, have inspired me to keep going.

Quite a number of people have asked me how they could start art journaling. I am by no means an expert on the subject (I make it up as I go along to be honest), but I thought I’d attempt to write some tips on how you could get started, and to answer some of the questions that people have asked me, so here goes…

What is art journaling?

According to Wikepedia, art journaling is ‘a daily journal kept by artists, often containing both words and sketches, and occasionally including mixed media elements such as collages.’. I wouldn’t really say I was an artist… to me art journaling is expressing myself in a vaguely arty way, in the form of a book, so I suppose the whole concept of ‘keeping a vaguely arty journal’ is open to interpretation, and up to you to make it what you want it to be.

The Book

However you decide to journal, you’re going to need to start with a book in some form. For17270804_1159074677538533_1120881872_n some this could be a lined notebook, or a book with black or coloured pages, others might like to do an altered book. You’ll also need to decide what size you want it to be, and what sort of binding. I personally use an artist sketchbook because the pages are a bit thicker, and I tend to use a lot of paint/glue/things, mine is A5 because I felt like I’d get overwhelmed with anything bigger, and smaller would be too fiddly, and mine is casebound but if I was buying a new one I think I’d get a spiralbound one because it’s exploding a little at this point.

Equipment

05.jpgOnce you’ve got a book, you need some things to help you fill it. I’m a big fan of paint – it features on most of my pages. I personally use acrylics, but I’m not really bothered about brand or anything like that. Sometimes I add water to it, sometimes I use it in a thicker form, I often paint over other things. You don’t need to use acrylics, though, you could use poster paint (which is usually cheaper) or any other paints that take your fancy.

A printer can be useful to print your own photos, or letters, or anything else you fancy popping in. Magazines can be good for those sort of things as well – free campus newspapers are a good start, or I often use the Aldi specialbuy magazines. You can always pick up gossip magazines pretty cheaply (or if you’re feeling brave enough to ask, you might be able to inherit some from a doctor’s surgery).

Wallpaper can be great for different textures and patterns. I’ve never actually bought any, I just collect samples from B&Q, Wilkos, Homebase, and The Range.

27.JPGIn terms of a hierarchy of journal needs, I’d put some form of marker/pen near to the top. This can be sharpies or felt tips… anything you fancy writing with. I started with some glittery gel pens which I picked up from Morrisons which are good because they wrote over paint. As time’s gone one, I’ve picked up sharpies in different colours and thicknesses, some metallic markers, and a white pen.

You’re likely to need some sort of glue – pritt stick for paper things, PVA for tissue paper, cocktail sticks, or bits of sponge, and bostik if you need something a bit more hardcore for sticking bits of CD or things like that. I also have Mod Podge, but I’m still a little undecided on whether I’m a modpodge fan or not.

You might like to use some other art things like chalk, pastels, pencils, colouring pencils, ink, graphite pencils, watercolour pencils, or anything else you might associate with ‘art’, but they’re not essential, it just depends on the sort of thing you want to create.

If you want to do more mixed media type things, it can be good to pick up random bits and bobs. I use a17092837_1151419201637414_765826869_o lot of found objects like sponges, cut up CDs, cocktail sticks or toilet roll – I just collect them when I find them and keep them in my ‘box of stuff’. I have other things in there that I’ve bought specifically, too, like ice lolly sticks, tissue paper, and string. Personally, I also love polyfiller – it’s not made specifically for art purposes, it’s for fixing hole in walls among other things, but it’s really good for creating different textures.

Another thing you might want to buy is some form of plastic sheet (if you’re like me and tend to journal on the floor…). I just picked up a kid’s party tablecloth from the 05.jpgsupermarket for a couple of pounds which does the job and makes it easier to clean up.

If you don’t feel like using a lot of stuff, or getting much out, then that’s okay, too! Do a sketch page, draw something and colour it in, print a few pictures and write something over them. I love messy journaling, but I know lots of others don’t, and that’s absolutely okay.

Where to buy stuff

A lot of people art put off starting a journal because of cost, but it really, really doesn’t need to be expensive. Personally, I do own a fair amount of artycrafty stuff, but I’ve been collecting it for about ten years. You really, really do not need to break the bank. You also don’t need to go out and 10.jpgbuy everything all at once, I tend to just pick up little bits as and when I feel like it (or as and when I have money…), and have built up my collection that way.

The Works is good for cheaper art bits. They also often have mixed media bits for a pretty good price.

As well as having wallpaper samples, The Range do a lot of art bits, normally at a pretty decent price.

Supermarkets often have a stationary/kids craft section now and I often find things there, whether it be pens/markers, or fun things to stick in. They also often sell glue and string.

Poundland sometimes do acrylic paint and often do washi tape or other things you can stick on.

WH Smith do a lot of traditional art things, sketch books, and some children’s art things which are sometimes cheaper and can often be quite fun.17236856_1159084200870914_1478726121_o.jpg

Hobbycraft is heaven in craft form. They don’t tend to do things quite as cheaply as The Range or The Works but they have some wonderful and exciting things which you can treat yourself to.

B&Q sell polyfiller, and have wallpaper samples. They also have lots of paint chips which you could use for the names or the colours.

I live in York, so I’m lucky that we have a lot of local independent shops. But there may well be some in your area so it can be good to have a potter. They often have owners who will chat to you and offer advice and tips, they might even know of local art/craft groups you could go to which can be great for meeting others and finding inspiration.

Inspiration

I am constantly inspired by those around me. There are some fantastic art journals on Instagram and Tumblr. Some of us have started using the tag #journalthefeels, but there are loads of other tags out there that people are using such as #artjournal, #arttherapy and 16990766_1147368452042489_1259755976_o.jpg#journalpages.

Whenever I find a quote or lyric that I relate to, I copy and paste it into a word document. It’s an ongoing thing, about four pages long now – others might write them in a book or something, I just find a word document easier because I can delete them when I’ve done them. I tend to find the quotes/lyrics on the usual social media sites (pinterest, tumblr etc.), through books that I read, or through songs that pop up on the radio or my Spotify discover.

Pinterest has a lot of journal prompts, too, if you’re struggling for ideas.

Top Tips

As I said before, I’m by no means an expert on all of this, but I’ve come up with a few top tips which are hopefully helpful:

  • Let your book evolve with you. When I started, my book was a bit more ‘formal’. The front page is my safety plan and there are other pages in there like ‘Coping With Flashbacks’, but as time’s gone on I’ve done it in a much ‘looser’ way. I don’t tend to do specifically therapy-type pages and just go with how I feel in07.jpgstead, because I find it works better for me. Others will be different though and will prefer the more ‘formal’ type of approach. You might start your book one way and then move in a different direction and that’s okay! Let it grow with you.
  • Do it for you, first and foremost. We spend so much of our lives trying to please other people, or trying to do what we think others want us to do. If you start posting photos of your work online, especially, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of trying to do pages you think others would like to see, or ones you think will get you the most ‘likes’. It can also feel like once you’ve started posting, you have to post every page. You don’t. This book it yours, not anyone else’s. Hate paint? Don’t use it. Not a fan of quotes? Don’t use them. Want to just paint a page black? Go for it. It’s your book.
  • Just start. Staring at a blank page or a blank book is super hard. If you’re anything like me, a white page invokes fear and ‘argh’ feelings. Get rid of the white, even if you don’t know what you want to put on the page.
  • Everyone is creative, and you’re not bad at art. So what if your school art teacher never gave you a decent mark? Who cares if the arty mess that you make on a page doesn’t fit your traditional perception of ‘art’? If you enjoy it then it doesn’t matter. If you find it to be a helpful way of expressing yourself, who cares what it looks like? I personally don’t believe that there is a single person on this planet who ‘has no creativity’, it’s just that everyone’s creativity looks different.
  • It’s never going to be perfect, so don’t even try to make it that way. I really, really struggle with this and it challenges me daily. I can always see ways I could improve things, or just think things are rubbish, but perfection is an impossible goal, so there’s no point even attempting it.

This has become incredible long, but hopefully it’s readable and helpful. I absolutely love seeing other people’s journals and hearing their ideas, so if you journal too, or this has inspired you to start – please share it with me if you feel up to it!

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The Sound Of Grief

Mum was a bundle of energy. As I frequently say to people – I’m not sure I remember her ever really sitting down until she became ill. She was always moving, always on-the-go, always running from one place to another doing various activities.

Our house was always a busy one; three children, a handful of friends, a collection of musical instruments, a pet or three, and every now and again an extra ‘borrowed’ pet. It never was going to be the quietest of places.

If there wasn’t a hum of voices filling the house, there was music. Mum played the saxophone (foghorn) and was part of a band. My Dad and one of my brothers played the piano and we had a drum kit in the lounge. When people weren’t making their own music, the CD player was on in the kitchen – Mum often put Caro Emerald on and danced round the kitchen whilst cooking or baking. There would normally be music coming out of the lounge, too, and at least one bedroom.

When Mum first became ill, the house only became noisier. I had moved to uni by that point but would come home most weekends and whenever I did, there were visitors. I don’t think there were ever just five of us in the house. Mum’s friends from uni would visit, or some family would have travelled up North. At the very least there would be some friends from the village or a neighbouring town popping in.

A year after Mum was diagnosed as terminal, she ended up in a coma in hospital. At that point, she was silent, but her room wasn’t. You would imagine someone being in a coma in the middle of the room might result in a bit of a sombre atmosphere, but it really wasn’t. We would spend most of our time there with various combinations of family and friends. It was almost a happy atmosphere – people were sharing stories and memories. There was laughter. I remember tearing up at times, but on the whole I remember feeling like although we were separate from the world and time lost all meaning; laughter and smiles prevailed through it all.

Once Mum came home from hospital, the noise subsided. We still had visitors, people still came to see her – in fact I only remember a single day between her coma in February 2015, and her death in October 2015, when I had some time alone with her – there was always someone around. It was quieter, though. Visitors would sit in the lounge with Mum just talking, or with the TV on in the background. There were occasions when it was busier and louder, but on the whole I remember it being more still.

On the one day that I was alone with Mum, the silence was almost loud. Mum slept for most of the morning. There was nobody else in the house. It was still and so quiet. It no longer felt like my house.

I remember staying over at a friend’s one night, and in the morning we were woken to a clattering in the kitchen and the sound of general family life. Until that point I hadn’t realised how much my house had stopped sounding like a home.

When Mum died, the house was full of people. The church was full of people. There was hardly space to breathe at times. There were words, there was music, there were children running around, adults talking, people generally catching up and exchanging memories and condolences. People speak more softly when someone dies. I’m not really sure why, but they do.

Mum died in October, her funeral was November and then it was Christmas. Throughout all of this time I carried on living at uni. The house I grew up in wasn’t home any more. The sound of it was wrong. Life became quiet. Having too much noise put me on edge and made me feel horrible – grief sensitised me to sound and I just couldn’t deal with anywhere particularly busy or noisy.

I’ve well and truly moved out now, but each time I pull into Dad’s drive, I still expect to see Mum running around the kitchen or working in the office. The house doesn’t have the ‘right’ sound any more.

Mum had so much life, love, and passion in her. She lived every single day. She tried new things, loved her job, cared for each of us, had fun with her friends, and picked up various hobbies. She wasn’t quiet, and neither was her personality.

Grief is so loud yet so quiet at the same time. Slowly, slowly, I am able to listen to, and enjoy music again. I can have the TV and the radio a little louder. Some songs or sounds will still set me off. I’ll be trundling along and out of nowhere a song or a sound will hit me, my chest will explode, and I will cry and cry. That can often be a relief in a strange sort of way, though. Sometimes you really need to cry.

I’m not ‘there’ wherever ‘there’ is. I will never live another day without grief, but I am learning to live alongside it. It doesn’t go away, but it does get better. The ‘I can’t breathe’ moments become further apart. I’m able to listen to music again, I finished a book the other day for the first time in years, I can put the radio on, and at times I can play the music super loud in my car and have a good old sing-a-long.

One day, I will have my own kitchen, I will embarrass my family by cranking up the CD player (or whatever magical invention exists in the future) and singing along to whatever music takes my fancy. I will have a house that is a home. It will have its own sound. It will be full of love and light, just like Mum was.

This was originally written for Let’s Talk About Loss, a safe space to talk through taboos and address the reality of losing a parent when you are young.

Featured: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/naomibarrow/grief_b_15181620.html

Please Don’t Limit Your Unity

Today is World Cancer Day (apparently we’re having all the awareness days this week!).

The hashtag for the day is #ActOfUnity.

I think it’s wonderful that people are coming together to stand in solidarity with cancer sufferers. Cancer is scary, cancer is a life-wrecker, cancer is, let’s be honest, a bit of a dick.

I struggle with days like this, because thoughts go round and round my head: ‘why did others recover?’, ‘why didn’t Mum?’, ‘why did this happen?’, ‘why isn’t she alive to say “I kicked cancer’s bum”’, ‘why did this happen’, ‘why, why, why’. Then I feel angry, frustrated, and go and look at puppies or something instead.

My plea, for this World Cancer Day, is that in your ‘unity’, you include friends, family, and carers. Not just those ‘actively’ affected, but also those who have had someone close to them die from cancer. In fact often, a few months after the person has died is the time when they need more support, because that’s when the busyness ends. When you’re not spending your life running between hospital/uni/work/home/sleep/appointments/everything, and then home/crematorium/funeral planning/funeral/family/uni/sleep, that’s when everything hits you. It doesn’t just hit you once, either, it hits you time and time again.

When Mum was diagnosed, I remember emailing a well-known cancer support charity asking what help they could offer me and my family. Their response? They couldn’t offer anything unless the ill person triggered it (and Mum wouldn’t have done that – her and Dad decided given her job we had a lot of support already). I understand where my parents were coming from, I understand that the charity has to have cut-off-points, but it was still a tricky response to hear, particularly because if I had a pound for every time someone had told me to go to them over the last 3 years, I’d have a deposit for a mortgage. Everyone assumed they would offer help to those affected-by-extension. But they didn’t. Why was I left out of their compassion?

Cancer doesn’t just affect the ill person, it affects all of those around them, and it keeps on affecting them, even after the person is in remission, even after the person has died.

I didn’t used to get angry. I didn’t used to panic that my family were dying/dead. I didn’t used to feel sick when my phone went off. My asthma didn’t used to be this bad (a lesser-known side effect of stress). I used to be able to sleep in my childhood bedroom. I used to be able to be able to see cancer adverts on TV and ignore them. I used to be blissfully bumbling through life thinking I had all the time in the world left with Mum. I used to be able to get angry at her and know she wouldn’t leave. I used to be able to give her a hug. I’m terrified of leaning on anybody because if your Mum leaves, then who won’t?

I’m not writing any of this to make anyone feel sorry for me, or because I want anyone to offer me life-changing advice. Life happens. There’s nothing anyone could have done to prevent or cure Mum’s illness. I’ve had a lot of support through it, even now, because I’m really, really, lucky. My family are wonderful, Hope Support do a group Facebook chat every two weeks, my GP continues to either help me through life, or drag me through it depending on what mood I’m in, the welfare tutors at uni were brilliant, uni counselling helped a lot while I was there, my uni college administrator is an excellent hug-giver, I have some incredible friends who understand that sometimes I need to talk, sometimes/always I need to craft, and sometimes I need to just be quiet, and my work are super supportive.

Having people around you makes such a difference, even if you don’t want them around you, just knowing that they’re there can help.

So this World Cancer Day, please do unite. But please don’t limit that unity to those with a cancer diagnosis. Please stand in solidarity with the family and friends of those affected by cancer. Please stand in solidarity with those in remission from cancer. Please stand in solidarity with those who’ve had a loved one die from cancer (however long ago it was). Cancer doesn’t just affect people while it’s happening, it affects them for the rest of their lives.

The Moment Everything Changed

It’s ‘time to talk day’ tomorrow. I was volunteering at a time to talk day event when Dad text me asking me where I was and came to pick me up. He told me in the car that Mum’s cancer had come back and that there wasn’t a cure. From that point on my Mum was no longer invincible and everything changed.

Mums aren’t supposed to die, or to get sick. Especially not healthy Mums. They’re supposed to always be there. They are one of the few people in life who don’t get fed up with you (or if they do they’re not meant to show it), who put up with all of your flaws.

In that moment everything changed.

Dad told me that Mum’s cancer had come back. That there was no cure. We were driving from the White Rose Centre to home. I didn’t cry, not really. I looked out of the window. We drove home. Mum and the boys were there. We didn’t talk about it.

I went back to uni that night. I started crying and didn’t stop. I think I maybe text one of the people I was living with in halls. I text a friend from home who drove over to be with me, with another friend. The two of them sat with me until the early hours of the morning. They tried to persuade me to go home, but I couldn’t. They helped me tell the other people I was living with. The next day I sat with a welfare tutor for hours (even though it was a Sunday). I cried, I talked, I sat in silence. I tried to make some sense of it all. We wrote a list of all of the people I needed to tell.

I miss her and sometimes I need her more than others. And given that I’m now 22 and rather more independent, I probably wouldn’t be living at home and wouldn’t be able to crawl into her bed, like I did at 16/17 when things were rough. But I would have been able to text her, and to be honest some days I might have gone home for the evening and got a Mum hug. I miss her. Some nights are long. Sometimes everything feels dark and twisty. And sometimes at 22 you still really need your Mum.

Toast Didn’t Kill My Mum

It’s rare that I write a blog post directly in response to things I see on my Twitter feed. A lot happens in the news every day, and there are many people, far more qualified than me, who write articles informing us, explaining things to us, and offering up their opinions on the various things happening in the world.

However, I’ve decided to make an exception this week, because I am fed up of seeing articles pop up telling me that if I eat a certain food, it could lead to cancer.

My Mum had cancer. My Mum died from cancer. Mum was a normal weight, she didn’t have the ‘cancer gene’, she never smoked, never got drunk, ate relatively healthily (she was fairly convinced chocolate could cure all of life’s problems, but balanced it out with all the other major food groups so it was all good), she exercised, wasn’t overly sleep-deprived the majority of the time, she never used sun beds, rarely got sunburned (not content with suncream, we went one-step further in our family and wore long-sleeved tops when it was particularly hot (ginger genes!)), she never used drugs, in fact I don’t think pre-cancer she was even on any prescriptions bar an inhaler. She still developed cancer aged 49. It still came back aged 51. She still died aged 53.

Mum was obviously unlucky, and I’m not saying that all of the science linking various cancers to various lifestyle factors is wrong – far from it. There are clear links between sun damage and skin cancer, alcohol and liver cancer, smoking and lung cancer etc. (for more on scientifically proven links, check out the cancer research ‘causes’ page). Most weeks Mum, a palliative medicine consultant, would come home from work and tell us smoking horror stories – I think if any of us had ever come home with a whiff of smoke on us, she would probably have temporarily disowned us.

That being said, there are some, quite frankly, bizarre claims flying around at the moment, and they’re just not helpful.

The three I’ve seen this week are: burned toast can cause cancer, potatoes can cause cancer, and toothpaste can cause cancer. All have some scientific link between food item (for the purposes of this blog, toothpaste is a food), and cancer. None have proven the link in humans.

There are so many food controversies surrounding cancer; often the same food is listed as a cure and a cause, depending on the study. It’s just not helpful.

Perhaps there is a very, very small link between an ingredient in toothpaste and cancer (in rats) – but I’d go out on a limb and say that it’s probably more damaging to your health to never clean your teeth, than to use a blob of toothpaste twice a day. (After all, unhealthy gums has been linked to heart disease, so we’re clearly all stuffed either way, and might as well die with nice teeth than no teeth!).

We’re all going to die of something at some point. As someone said to me on Twitter the other day: life causes cancer. None of us are going to live forever. Every single one of us is going to die at some point, of something, or in the words of John Cleese: ‘life is a terminal disease’.

Mum died, arguably, before her time, and I clearly remember asking her once she was diagnosed as terminal whether she was angry that it was happening. Her response? God had given her so many days, and she’d lived those days to the full. (She was religious, but change ‘God’ for ‘life’, or the religious figure of your choice, and it still works). She was definitely stronger and more dignified than I think I’d be in that situation – I think I’d be annoyed, upset, and pretty angry – but Mum was right, she really did live every day to the full.

Which would you rather – surviving until 103 but never really living, being scared of everything you touch (and never having crispy potatoes or slightly over-done hot-cross buns), or dying at 53 having lived a full and happy life? I know which one I’d choose.

Until there is solid evidence that burning your toast, cleaning your teeth, and having some gravy-drowned roast potatoes with your Sunday dinner causes cancer, I suggest you take these articles (and any others with equally tenuous links) with a pinch of salt and carry on living your life. Life is short – make sure you live it, don’t just survive it.

Featured: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/naomibarrow/toast-cancer-risk_b_14420240.html

Stress Free App Review

The other week, a lovely person contacted me on LinkedIn, offering me the chance to try out the ‘Stress Free App‘ for free.

1I was admittedly somewhat sceptical at first. To start with, I’m scared of technology. For someone who blogs, and spends too much of their life on Twitter, I’m not all that good when it comes to apps. I only got a phone that doesn’t freeze about a month ago, my brothers frequently despair at my complete inabilty to understand Snapchat, and I have been known to reply to a text two weeks later – you get the picture. So you could say I’m a bit of an app novice!

I am also someone who has had depression/anxiety/whatever else for years, who has tried many interventions and many medications, who has spoken to a fair number of people, had tonnes of appointments, and is generally pretty jaded by ‘the system’. In summary, if someone tells me to ‘just breathe’, it makes me want to hit them.

So you could say, I approached this app with a bit of a ‘this probably won’t do anything’ attitude.

Given all that, I have been pleasently surprised!

When you first open the app, it takes you through a series of questions which assess your mood. These are pretty standard – anyone that’s ever been under services will have filled in something similar. If you score at a certain level, it recommends you speak to your GP, go to NHS online, or go to the Mind Helpline Page (not only does it recommend it then, but it also repeats that recommendation on a daily basis depending on where you rate your mood, which is really good).

It then asks you to rate your mood on a scale, then to put in where you are, what you’re 16325376_1117023151743686_294081394_odoing, what you’re thinking, and whether there’s another way you can think about it. After that it makes certain recommendations on activities you can do within the app. It repeats this exercise every day, and eventually builds up data which can help you identify how your mood has changed, what might have contributed to your mood being that way, and how else you could think about things

16325536_1117023578410310_2014548681_oWith regards to the activities themselves, there are a few different ones you can try. A lot of them centre around breathing and relaxing. I am a hater of mindfulness in the typical sense – I always focus on my breathing, forget to breathe, and get more stressed (not ideal!), but I must admit, the tasks were pretty relaxing, and focusing on the little guy on the screen really helped because it meant I didn’t forget how to breathe. I did it before bed one night and it was really good because it relaxed me enough to begin heading off to sleep (and I’m someone who has a lot of problems sleeping).

There are also a few other things in the app. One is the message in a bottle – that’s really 16326276_1117023648410303_1004923591_ocute. It just pops up with a nice little message or quote every now and again. There is also a ‘zen garden’ which is a little app-based sandpit – you can fill it yourself with water, shells, a sandcastle, a starfish, and you can rake the sand. I found myself spending a fair bit of time listening to the music, raking the sand, and completely chilling out.

16326075_1117023458410322_1432358713_oI don’t know how much this app has helped me on a large scale – I think that would be difficult to quantify over a few weeks. I also have a lot going on in my life at the moment and a long history of illness which does make things a bit more tricky. However, I would say that it’s really good for helping you to manage your breathing, to slow down a little, and to de-stress. I think that the daily mood-and-activity check in could be really useful – you could even share it with a counsellor or mental health team. I like that it refers you to your GP if it feels as though that is necessary, particularly because it doesn’t just flash up once (it’s very easy to press ‘x’!), but a number of times.

Additionally, I’m a fan of the chilled out music, and I think I’ve fallen a little bit in love with the little alien dude who takes you through each task.

Overall, if you’re looking for an app to help you log your mood, reframe some of your thinking, and generally chill out, this app could be the one for you.

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Making a Distress Tolerance Box

Anyone that’s been under a mental health team for a while, is likely to have heard of the term ‘distress tolerance’. The basic idea is that you build up your tolerance to distress, in a healthy way. Often it’s used if you’ve been using maladaptive coping mechanisms (in other words, not coping with things very well). You’re often encouraged to ‘sit with’ crappy feelings, whether it be feeling low, feeling anxious, stressing about food, needing to self harm, feeling at war with your family, or something else.

It can be super helpful to have a distress tolerence box to help with this ‘sitting’ business. I’ve been building mine up a while, so I thought I’d share it in case anyone else feels like setting up their own box.

Often you’re encouraged to try and work on the five senses: something to see, smell, taste, feel, and hear. In my case, when I’m struggling, I can’t deal with taste or strong smells, so I haven’t included those in my box. I also can struggle with noise, so I don’t have that in their either (though I’ll often leave the TV on quietly). Personally, the things that help me most are things to feel, and things to do, so those are the things my box mainly focuses on.

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To begin with, you’re going to need a box. Make sure it’s pretty enough that you’ll want to use it, sturdy enough to not fall apart when you fill it, and big enough to fit stuff in. I got mine from HomeSense and it definitely didn’t break the bank.

Then you can start to fill it and that’s when the fun begins!

Everybody’s box will be individual, because what works for one person won’t necessarily work for another, but here are some ideas of things you could include, and where I got them from.

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To start with, I have things from my friends. Things that remind me that I’m loved. Things that remind me that I’m not the worst person in the world, and that I’m lucky to have some wonderful people in my life. Some of these things are cards, some are letters, some are quotes that people have sent me. I have a seperate box of letters and cards, as well as the ones in my box (plus a few more on my wall – I pen pal with a fair few people!), but the ones that I’ve put in this box are ones that have particular meaning to me. Some include photos, too, which is always lovely. If you don’t have letters and cards from people, you can always ask your friends to send you things to include. It’s a really hard thing to ask, but from experience, people normally love to do it!

As well as letters, cards and things, I have some envelopes which are a little more specific which one of my friends sent me. They are envelopes with ‘open when…’ on the front – they’re a really lovely idea and if you don’t feel able to ask a friend to help you with it, you could always write your own, there are loads of ideas for topics online.

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Next, I have some important reminders. Personally, one of the things I struggle to deal with is scales, so I have a scale disclaimer in my box. I also have a box of ‘press pause’ cards which can be bought from Blurt, because often when I’m struggling everything can feel overwhelming and too fast, and that can help me to break out of that zone, and take a deep breath.

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I also have some other nice little things I can read. A little book of hope which Mum bought me, a little box of happiness, some worry dolls which a friend bought me, a bookmark and pen with some quotes on, and a little bag of happiness which is from the World Mental Health Day that I ran at uni a few times. You can buy them from not on the high street, or you could make one yourself!

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Moving on from the sentimental bits and bobs, I have a lot of different things to touch. I have a handwarmer, because I find temperature can be really grounding. I also have some stretchy toys which I got really cheaply from Hawkins Bazaar’s party bag section, and some balloons with different textures in and a bag of jelly balls which were sent to me by  friend (check her out on instagram at the.recovery.shoebox.project). I also have a couple of puzzles which I can fiddle with – a wooden one and a metal one.

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I find things to do really helpful, so I have quite a few things to do in my box, so that I can pick and choose depending on what mood I’m in. I have some little cross stitches, some colouring books and an origami book (with colouring pencils – the last thing you want to do, when feeling distressed, is to hunt around for some pencils). I also have some ‘make your own bunting’, a ‘paint your own suncatcher’, and some mazes and other paper puzzles, which were all from the.recovery.shoebox.project.

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Finally, I have some things to remind me of my inner child (because if you can’t look after you, sometimes it can be helpful to think about treating yourself the way you would treat your child). Bubbles, glow sticks, play doh, a little googly eyes monster, and a glitter jar (which was also from the.recovery.shoebox.project, but they’re pretty easy to make).

So, that concludes the little tour of my box. Pinterest has loads of ideas for other things you can include. If you don’t feel able to put your own box together, I highly recommed subscribing to Blurt’s Buddy Box – they send little self care packages every month and quite a few of the items in here are from those boxes, and I have other things from them on my noticeboard and walls. Other ideas for things you could include are: nail varnish, face mask, oils/sprays of your favourite scents, photos of loved ones, a list of songs you could listen to, or a USB stick with a playlist on, a teddy or other soft toy, tea bags, chocolate your favourite book… it contain literally anything that you feel could help you deal with feeling crap.

I hope this has been helpful to some people, of course once you’ve made your box, the hardest part is remembering to use it rather than resorting to doing not-so-helpful things! Please feel free to comment with other ideas for things you might include – I’m always up for adding more things to my box, and it might help others, too. If this kind of thing is helpful, please let me know and I’ll have a think about other posts I could do in a similar vein.

Sending warm hugs to everyone struggling at the moment Xxx

Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise. -Victor Hugo

Is it getting easier, or am I just numb?

There have been a few things that have happened in the past few weeks which would normally trigger off ‘missing Mum’ alarm bells. They range in size, from those that would have knocked me for a few days, to ones which are just a bit tricky.

Things like:

  • Christmas (without Mum)
  • New Year (oh look, you have to survive another year without your Mum)
  • Getting a new phone (my old one was inherited from Mum, but there’s only so many times you can apologise to the person on the other end of the phone for the fact that your alarm is going off (while on the phone) and you can’t switch it off because your phone has frozen… before a new one becomes a bit necessary. I have mitigated it slightly by putting my favourite picture of us as my background, so I’ve still got Mum in my pocket)
  • Feeling ill (my flatmate and I had a discussion last night over which of my meds it might be a good idea to take, whether NHS 111 might be a good plan (nah, they’ll either tell me to go to bed or to A&E, and I don’t feel like going to A&E) and eventually concluded that heat packs, gaviscon and sleeping tablets with a ‘maybe it will be better tomorrow?’ would be a good plan)
  • An exam (who knows how that went as I’m currently a person of no brain and not really well enough to do much at all never mind take an exam, but I couldn’t postpone it again, and the invigilator said that I’ve aged well, so I feel like I won a little bit)
  • Upcoming appointments that I’m not feeling too fab about (Mum’s are good people to text ‘arghhhhhhhhhh’ to).
  • Feeling like generally, with my health, I don’t know whether I’m coming or going, and what to believe (Mum was always fairly blunt, if I walked in looking like I was dying she would tell me)
  • My mental health being a knob (seriously, as a twenty-something year old it’s hard enough to navigate life and try to keep yourself alive without your head attempting to kill you)
  • New year new diet crap (which she would have healthily laughed at and torn apart whereas every time ‘veganuary’ and ‘a researcher has decided that breakfast is bad for you’, I wish I was well enough to join in)

However, despite all these things, the ‘missing Mum’ part of my brain appears to have disappeared (along with the rest of my brain, arguably).

It’s not that Mum doesn’t ever enter my head, but when she does, at the moment, it’s in a much more clinical sense, with all of the emotion removed. It’s not that she never enters conversation, either, because she does (most recently this evening, with the exam invigilator), but when she does, and people say they’re sorry, I normally meet it with a bit of a shrug and an ‘it’s life’, where it might previously have set off cartwheels in my head.

I’m not sure if it is actually getting any easier, or if I’m just numb.

A lot of things, or perhaps everything, is pretty numb right now. It’s not as bad as it might sound – I’d rather be numb than distressed. I often end up in a weird depression-anxiety battle, with depression pulling at me to do nothing, and anxiety screaming at me to do everything; at least when I’m this low the battle pauses because anxiety gives in. So with everything being a bit numbed, it’s hard to know whether grief is lessening, whether it’s becoming the ‘new normal’, or whether depression is just smothering it.

For now I’m just going to keep plodding along, because I’m not really sure what else I can do.

Have ‘a year’

2016 is ending, which many will be delighted about. There’s a weird thing that we all do where on one day out of 365, we look back at the previous 365 days and judge ourselves. Lots of people are posting achievements, happy moments, sad moments, words of wisdom, and hopes, dreams, and goals for the next 365 days.

I read somewhere that:

‘it’s okay if the only thing you did today was breathe’.

I would like to extend that to this year.

It’s okay if this year you ‘just survived’. It’s okay if you didn’t achieve your goals or complete all of your plans. It’s okay if you didn’t graduate, if you didn’t change the world, if you didn’t get the promotion you wanted or finish a race you wanted to run. You have still achieved something this year – you have smiled, laughed, and loved. You have brightened someone’s day, made someone smile, and made a difference in the lives of those around you.

If this year you have been in hospital, had a family member in hospital, received a new diagnosis, lived with an old diagnosis, taken medication, had an operation, had tests done, or put up with a mind or body which seem less than impressed with being alive, then I’m proud of you.

If you have had a baby, got a new job, graduated, moved house, passed an exam, received a promotion, got married, got engaged, learned to drive or raised money for charity, then I’m proud of you.

If you have taken a picture of a sunset, felt the wind in your hair, cuddled a puppy, taken the bins out, watched TV, read a book, hugged, text a friend… done anything at all that involves being alive, then I’m proud of you because at the times it can feel like there is hatred stirring all over the world and things can feel very bleak, and if you can continue to enjoy and appreciate the little things, and remain kind in the face of all of that, then you’re doing well.

I hope that 2017 is kind to you all. I hope that it brings you the things that you want. I hope that it provides you with family times and time with friends. I hope that you receive love and laughter and that you treat yourself with all of the kindness and compassion you deserve. I’m not going to tell people to have ‘a good year’, because I think that can feel out of reach a lot of the time. Instead I’m going to say have ‘a year’.

Let’s Talk About Grief

Death is part of life, but it’s also difficult, and on the whole, crap.

It might not be that bad for the person dying – they might have been ill for a long time or might be ready to die. But for those left behind it’s usually rubbish and leaves them living with grief in some form. (If there isn’t anyone left behind then that is also crap, because nobody should be alone at the end of their life, so whichever way you look at it, death is rubbish).

Despite this, grief is something rarely discussed. It’s a bit odd, because while some subjects are becoming less taboo and more talked about, which is brilliant, grief appears to be lagging behind.

I’m not entirely sure why this is. It might be because those working to break down stigma – being more open, sharing their stories, talking about difficult subjects – tend to be slightly younger and maybe haven’t yet reached an age where grief is a feature in their lives. (I appreciate this is a huge generalisation and stereotype and there are older people also doing some brilliant work).

Whatever the reason, grief isn’t hugely talked about

This year seems to have contained more celebrity deaths than any other in my memory. A lot of people are blaming 2016 but it’s more likely to be that they were all a similar age and life happens. The fact that so many people are blaming 2016, instead of seeing death as part of life, further illustrates how afraid people seem to be to see death as something unavoidable that happens to everyone. It can be far easier to blame the concept of an evil year, than to face up to our own mortality.

Mum had excellent end of life care. She worked in palliative medicine all her life, so she knew what she was doing, but she died where she wanted (at home), pain-free, next to Dad, and I can’t think of a better death than that. Mum knew what she wanted, Mum and Dad discussed it, and her wishes were made known to all of the people looking after her. I’m absolutely convinced that Mum wouldn’t have had a ‘good death’, without having these conversations frankly, honestly, and in enough time for her wishes to be carried out.

Since Mum died, I’ve blogged about grief a little, and heard from people all over the world, of all ages, who are going through a similar thing. The fact that I have heard from the variety of people I have, shows that there is a lack of conversation surrounding grief, because if my blog attracts these people (and I’m just one little person typing from my bedroom, onto a blog that I put no money into advertising), then people are clearly hunting out the ‘I get it’ of another grieving person.

I’ve found that when it comes to grief, so many people don’t know what to say or do with me. As many of my friends know – I’m as blunt as they come at times – I certainly don’t expect anyone to do and say, or not do and not say, anything at all, but I still feel like there can be a wall between me and other people sometimes. Weirdly, the people I’ve found most at loss of what to say have probably been services, some people in services are brilliant, but others blame things on grief that aren’t grief-related, ignore grief at times when it’s probably worth bearing in mind, and trot out generic lines which aren’t at all helpful. I know I’m not alone in this because I’ve spoken to other one-parent people my age who have found the same thing.

If there’s anything that comes from all of these celebrity deaths, I hope it’s that we can open up conversations around death, dying and grief. It’s something that I never really thought about until Mum became ill, but since her illness and death, it’s something I’ve realised is massively important. It’s important to have conversations with your loved ones about what you’d all want at the end of your life, it’s important to keep talking to your grieving friends, and it’s important to keep talking to others if you find that you are grieving yourself.