43 years ago, when I graduated with a degree in Ceramics, I knew that there was something wrong with me – mentally, emotionally – but I didn’t know what or how to deal with it. Since then I’ve been close to the edge more than once and in more ways than one. I nearly lost my life during a psychotic experience in Iceland, felt broken to the point where I didn’t think I could possibly mend, and ultimately pushed myself through such extreme, painful experiences that many times I wondered why.
Thankfully, I also thought ‘why not?’ and bit by bit I found a way through.
Being in survival mode doesn’t leave any energy for forward planning, including consideration of what I would do when I retired. The idea of doing some work with clay again suddenly came out of ‘nowhere’ and I’ve been enjoying going to workshop sessions at a studio not too far from where I live. However, I also thought it would be good to be able to do some work from home, especially during the winter months when I can’t work outside in the garden.
The work I produced at college for my degree show was fired initially to bisque level and then finished in a sawdust kiln. We have no space here for a proper kiln but I’ve been exploring possibilities for sawdust firing; even firing ‘greenware’, that is without having put the pieces through the initial bisque firing. This will produce porous pots that are not ‘vitrified’ as they are when fired to higher temperatures, but some beautiful subtle effects can be obtained.
So with a few basic tools and a dining table, I’m off to a good start. I’m still going to continue to attend the studio sessions – apart from anything else it’s a lovely encouraging atmosphere and I enjoy the companionship and sense of shared experience. But it’s also great to be able to ‘sit and do’ at home – to make whatever I want to make – without time constraints or consideration of anything other than what I’m working on.
This brings me to Poetry/Pottery Rule No. 20: Enjoy the process.
Now that does sound like a plan – the housework may not get done, but these are pots that won’t need washing up!
1978 was the year I graduated with a degree in Ceramics from Bristol Polytechnic.
I’d reached out to art in my teens as a way of asserting a direction, without knowing where that direction might take me. It was driven by some deep-rooted instinct; an instinct which for a long time I thought had failed me. But it hadn’t.
As it’s turned out, my life has taken many “twists and turns, and loops and leaps”, most of which have left me struggling to find a foothold. Finally, however, I feel I am on firm ground, and astonished to find myself turning back to working with clay, after a break of over 40 years.
What’s even more astonishing is that I’m not only loving working with the medium, I’ve got ideas coming into my head from goodness knows where. I’m not having to push myself just to produce something, anything, as I did when I was at college (although I was proud of what I did produce in the end; it was no easy feat, considering the complexity of mental health problems I was dealing with).
Art didn’t work as a therapy for me when I was younger; the damage went too deep and I had to find ways to dig it out – just like clay has to be dug out. What I’ve got now is malleable and mouldable in whatever way I choose. I can be creative in any way or ways that suit me; working with clay or words; working with my life.
I hope my pots can be poetic; and that my poetry will continue to be potty.
When I was young I didn’t really follow any one I wasn’t into screaming at the Beatles Or collecting singles or going to concerts I’ve always been a bit behind with a lot of things I can never remember names Or who played what or where or when But then that maybe only matters In pub quizzes or if you want to feel flattered By other people praising you for what you know It would be nice though, sometimes, to be the one Who remembers what they heard when they were young And relate it to a first kiss, or a walk in the park But then I never could get up with the lark Always had a bit of a struggle, doing the usual things Although I did listen quite a lot to Cat Stevens Wishing I could be Sad Lisa but ending up just being sad Still, it hasn’t all been bad At least I haven’t got cluttered up With a load of CDs that I don’t know what to do with And now that I’m 61 I can listen to anyone Or anything I choose And my music collection Is out there waiting for me Just as it was All those years ago When I was young
I first encountered Qigong when I was exploring anything and everything that I could find that I thought might help to restore my mental health from a point of crisis to some semblance of stability. That was over 25 years ago, and I had a long and arduous journey ahead of me. Along the way I took part occasionally in Qigong classes and workshops. It wasn’t until some years later, however, when I was struggling to push through the challenges of a demanding job – in itself part of my recovery process – that I considered a more regular commitment to the practise of Qigong.
Google searches came up with limited references to Qigong being offered locally. Luckily, one of these few was an evening class at a school just a few miles from where I was living, in Leeds.
An online Medical Dictionary notes:
Qigong (pronounced “chee-gung,” also spelled chi kung) is translated from the Chinese to mean “energy cultivation” or “working with the life energy.” Qigong is an ancient Chinese system of postures, exercises, breathing techniques, and meditations. Its techniques are designed to improve and enhance the body’s qi. According to traditional Chinese philosophy, qi is the fundamental life energy responsible for health and vitality.
The Dictionary goes on to state:
Qigong may be used as a daily routine to increase overall health and well-being, as well as for disease prevention and longevity. It can be used to increase energy and reduce stress. In China, qigong is used in conjunction with other medical therapies for many chronic conditions, including asthma, allergies, AIDS, cancer, headaches, hypertension, depression, mental illness, strokes, heart disease, and obesity.
Qigong is presently being used in Hong Kong to relieve depression and improve the overall psychological and social well-being of elderly people with chronic physical illnesses.
While I can’t claim that I commit to a daily practice – not yet anyway – I have been attending these evening classes – and some day workshops at weekends too – with the same teacher ever since.
When the Covid lockdowns first started, Sue Dunham – the teacher – was quick off the mark with setting up Zoom classes. Just as in the live classes, Sue’s commitment to her own practice and to sharing her knowledge and vast experience has shone through into these Zoom sessions.
Sue doesn’t just demonstrate what to do for us to follow. She talks through and builds up each movement step by step, repeating as necessary; infinitely thorough and always engaging. Her approach is very meditative and mindful, working deep on different themes in each group of three classes. During the height of the pandemic, focusing on the lungs could not have been more appropriate, and we’ve also recently worked on the spine and the digestive system.
Though the movements are slow and steady, I find that I sleep really well after a class session, and wake in the morning with the sense that I’ve had a really good workout, even though it isn’t ‘exercise’ in the conventional sense.
According to Sue:
“Qigong is an extraordinary practice: it can bring you to question fundamental beliefs about mind and your life, bringing you to that in a supported, gentle way. I have found it to be accessible and yet challenging, it’s enigmatic but intriguing!”
One of my favourite Qigong movements is called ‘Healing Form’, and Qigong has certainly become an essential part of my own movement towards health and healing.
When I started to become aware of my body, as a teenager, it was on the basis of how it looked. The negative compulsive obsessions I developed were – I realise now – associated with complex psychological and emotional traumas that have taken me 50 years to unravel.
Fortunately for me, my body was and is healthy and, while I continued well into adulthood to control my life by controlling what I ate, my body served me well. Deep roots hold tight, though, and it was a long time – being ultimately faced with the choice of life or no life – before I was able to find the strength, coping mechanisms, and resolve, to push through and come out the other side.
Qigong has helped me to work at a deeper level with my body – my amazing body.
It hasn’t provided me with a miracle ‘cure’ but it has helped to shift my focus into health and wellbeing, which is where it should be.
I feel a lot ‘lighter’ these days, even though I’m 65 and probably weigh at least 4 stone more than I did when I was 15. At six-and-a-half stone and still feeling the need to lose weight, I was weighed down and locked in as a teenager.
Some of the grief, sadness and regret linger on, but less so day by day. I’m thankful for a lot of things and hope that I can continue to be so for many years to come. Qigong helps me to nurture my body, with all its intricate mechanisms for feeding and flow.
One of the wonderful things about this practice is that it takes me beyond what I ‘know’, what I can measure or evaluate, into that sense of wonder, about what I don’t know, with all the associated mysteries of those realms.
When I’m practising Qigong, under Sue’s infinitely patient and painstaking instruction, I feel as graceful as a dancer, and that – for me – is something of a miracle.
The Covid pandemic has shown us just how vulnerable any of us can be, at any age, but also how those vulnerability factors can increase as we get older. The more we can do ourselves to mitigate those factors, the more likely we are to be able to lead fulfilling, meaningful lives for longer. That’s my plan, anyway, and I’m sticking to it!
The predicted weather was cold, with possible snow and hail. Even so, we set off, determined to make the most of the chance to meet up outside and walk with others, following the ‘Rule of Six’.
Although it did turn out to be cold, there was no sign of snow or hail. We walked through glorious countryside in bright sunshine and completed an 8-mile circuit. Not bad considering the effects of ‘lockdown winter’ with gyms closed and the impetus to exercise at home starting to dwindle. We needed those hills, that fresh air, that blast to the senses.
With 38 years between the youngest of the group, at 27, and me, at 65, our walking speeds were variable. Our younger friends waited patiently at regular intervals for us to catch up – me and my partner plodding along at a steady 2 miles an hour. We’re not going to break any records but we’re not aiming to. What we do want to do, however, is maintain reasonable levels of fitness as we progress through our sixties and beyond.
We’ve both struggled with long-term depression but also both never given up on pushing ourselves – and now, sometimes, each other – to keep making that effort – massive though it is – to maintain an exercise regime, in one form or another.
For me it’s tended to be a bit ad hoc – I find routine difficult – although for years I did cycle to work regularly. It wasn’t a long distance but there was quite a lot of uphill on the way back. I often cursed at the end of the day when I wished – how I wished – that I’d driven there in the car. But I’m sure it’s helped me a lot and I’m glad of it now. Glad to have kept going, pushing those pedals.
Every so often I used to try jogging. I found it hard to psyche myself up, sometimes got into a bit of a ‘stride’, and even completed a 10K run once. Jogging wasn’t for me though, long term. My knees complained and I had to call it a day on that one.
There were times in my life when I simply set off from home and walked until my heels bled. Not recommended but at least it got me out and active.
In later years I did volunteering involving hard labour with a sledge hammer (and called it a holiday!). For that, I set myself training targets, carrying a back-pack loaded up to 50lb in weight with books, tins of beans and bags of flour. A good friend used to come with me on some of these training walks, to make sure that I didn’t fall backwards off the hillside – with that load I would never have stopped until I landed at the bottom!
Now, I enjoy our leisure walks – sometimes with friends, sometimes just the two of us. We’re planning to do Helvellyn later this year. Must get into training again soon.
After grinding to a halt last year (when I was 64), I’ve had 12 months of resting and recuperating. It’s been great to have no time pressures, be able to catch up on household jobs and generally just ‘chill’. However, I still don’t feel like giving up on my working life altogether and have just started a new job. It’s part-time and temporary – just for a few weeks – and has tested my ability to keep calm in the face of new technology (use of a smart phone is an intrinsic part of the job). With some effort I’ve been able to keep my anxiety levels within manageable parameters – breathing through the stress and repeating my ever-faithful affirmation of ‘I choose to be peaceful and calm; everything is unfolding as it should’. There have been times when I have felt anything other than peaceful and calm but I seem to be settling in. It’s tiring, but I’m doing it.
When I was going through the worst of my breakdown, one of things I hung on to, to haul myself through, was the knowledge of how hard I’d worked when I was younger – dealing with anxiety without any coping mechanisms for a long time – to develop work skills and experience. I was determined that all that hard work would not go to waste.
I do believe that if more people had more help with anxiety and associated difficulties when they were younger, it would help to avoid the devastation that having a breakdown can bring. As a society we still have a long way to go before we can consider ‘inclusion’ a reality rather than a pretend game.
That does by no means mean that I now consider myself to be an ‘expert’ (whatever that means). However, for a long time I struggled to even form them, at any meaningful level, never mind knew what to do once I finally decided to jump in at the deep end, at the age of 24.
Up till then my life had been a relationship desert. Unlike my peers – who all seemed naturals to me – I just didn’t seem to have what it took. I had extreme social anxiety and – though I didn’t know then – depression, associated with an eating disorder and a fear of being laughed at, humiliated, rejected. So I put up walls to protect myself from what I, essentially, most wanted and needed.
Apart from an occasional snog and a few dates that did nothing to stir my emotions or hormones I thought I would never meet the man of my dreams, fall in love, be happy…
Of course, the idea of meeting someone took itself into the realms of romantic fantasy, giving me no experience of managing the reality. When I did ‘meet’ someone who I had a strong connection with, it was from a distance as he was with someone else. The distance got even greater when he went off to the other side of the world to be with her, and I lost my sense of hope.
I ended up marrying someone I hardly knew because he asked me! I’d just lost my job and I had been floundering without any sense of direction since leaving college two years previously – the eating disorder made it hard to concentrate on anything other than finding ways to take my mind off food – so it seemed as if fate had finally decided to go my way. Foolish, I know now. Or was it? Maybe it was, essentially, the only way I was going to learn to swim, by jumping in at the deep end. We lasted three and a half years before he said he wanted us to separate as I was ‘holding him back’.
It would have been good if we could each have gone our separate ways and found happiness with someone else. I did (after I had learnt many more hard lessons in life over many subsequent years). Sadly, he passed away while still a young man, although he had lived life in his own ebullient gregarious way up to then.
At the time when we split up I could have done with some counselling, to help me explore and start to work through all the issues that were suddenly thrown up in my head and in my heart. It was the 1980s then, though, and I hadn’t even heard of counselling.
Instead, I stumbled, crumbled, and fell into another relationship with a lifetime of unresolved ‘stuff’ still bubbling away. It can’t have been a good experience for my partner, I realise that now, although we both tried to make it work, and support each other in our different ways.
My internal volcano finally exploded when, after a joint business venture collapsed, my partner went off with someone else. The extremes of my emotions and state of mind from there went off the Richter scale and I had a breakdown (to put it mildly). I’d wanted eventually to start a family but, in my late thirties by then, I entered a period of significant instability on all levels.
I had to pull out all the stops to pull myself back from the brink and into functionality over a prolonged period and have only just completed a cycle of recovery that I started over 25 years ago.
During that time, I’ve reached out to and found many different ways of learning to live and love.
At one point I trained as a volunteer bereavement counsellor. The main model that the training was based on was the principle that, with support and time and commitment, the sense of loss doesn’t go away or get smaller, but your life can grow bigger around it. This resonated with me, and I’ve found that it has helped me to reach out and grow into an awareness of life that I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t had to learn how to find a way through.
For over five years I’ve been in a relationship with a lovely, loving, funny, kind, clever man who also struggled with relationships when he was younger. (I think there must be a lot of us around.)
Even so, the final stages of my recovery cycle have not been easy; I have had to do more than tie up a few loose ends and threads. ‘Out of the blue’ my brain took me to places where it had stored memories from 40 years ago, locked away because they were too painful for me to bear before.
I’m well on the way to having worked through them now, thanks to having the loving arms and heart of my partner to help me feel the sadness that I needed to feel; that I wished I could have felt at the time, for myself and those I was involved with.
The sadness was worse, for having stayed so buried for so long as extreme trauma that hit me during my breakdown period: trauma associated with decisions I’d made; paths I’d taken. Edvard Munch’s painting, ‘The Scream’, just about sums up how I felt inside at that time; and then some; and then some more. The collage I made in 2001 presents my own version of that scream; the scream of the agonised soul.
Recently, I’ve come across The Hawaiian Healing Art of Ho’oponopono – Forever Conscious. It’s said that things come to us in our lives when we most need them and/or are receptive to them. I most certainly needed this and it was an utter revelation to me. It has helped me to heal from feelings of guilt that have haunted me for decades, all rooted in the difficulties I had in forming, managing and ending relationships in the past.
People had tried to reach me, and I had tried to reach out to them. Ultimately, though, I needed to reach within myself – however long it took – and find what I needed to find. I’ve been fortunate to be able to finally reach that goal from within the protective space of a loving relationship.
I think I’ve learnt a lot about relationships, including knowing how important it is to keep working at them, and know that there is always more to learn. Most of all though, I’m loving now being able to love and be loved. It is worth working for, however long it takes.
We all know this and are likely to have had direct experience of these benefits.
Why, then, can it still be so difficult to find the motivation to exercise?
It’s an issue that I’ve struggled with all my life, experiencing barriers associated with body image when I was younger. I knew swimming was good exercise but would only ever go to a swimming pool or wear a swimsuit on a beach if I’d starved myself to be thin enough to feel able to do that. And even then, I felt morbidly self-conscious about how I looked. It took a long time and a lot of working through masses amount of personal ‘stuff’ before I could stop worrying and start enjoying swimming. My partner and I even go wild swimming now, and it feels wonderful.
I tried jogging, but always found it so hard to build myself up to a regular routine. Lacking in willpower and discipline some people might say. Struggling with severe depression, anxiety and low self-esteem was the real reason. I’ve continued to struggle ever since, but have also never given up. Now 65, I’ve been doing on-line exercise classes, including yoga and pilates during lockdown. Last summer we did some cycling around our local lanes. We still both find that it’s an effort to go out, sometimes, but give each other a push and/or moral support when we need it. Whatever it takes.
What’s the alternative? An inactive old age with all the complications that brings?
I’ve always found it difficult to go to a gym or to exercise classes after work. Just getting through a day involved such a major effort for me. So I looked for ways to combine exercise into my daily routine. Cycling to work meant that I often turned up looking like a drowned rat, but it did help.
Even so, I continued to struggle with depression, and continued to find it hard to motivate myself to exercise enough to help it lift on anything more than a temporary basis. I felt like the only way I could sustain the ‘lift’ would be to train as if I was an Olympic athlete. I have neither the physique nor the talent to be anything remotely akin to athletic and, like most people, have had to commit a significant amount of my time to earning a living and keeping up with the usual day to day domestic activities.
There were times as well when I felt that the more I exercised, the deeper my depression went, after the initial ‘buzz’ fell away.
I continued to have to do a lot of work to try and shift it, with exercise being one of a number of tools and techniques that I’ve tried and tested over the years. It has been, and continues to be, a lifetime endeavour. I think that this is in part because of the way emotions are stored in the body, a matter which has been increasingly recognised and written about including the following article by Sean Grover (2018):
For years, I’ve made a study of where people tend to store their unwanted emotions. Certainly, not all body aches or illnesses are psychosomatic. However, as I studied people’s bodily reactions to stress, recurring patterns emerged.
Healthy vs. Unhealthy Repression
Fear is the driving force behind repression, and is frequently rooted in your past. Repression is often necessary, particularly when you feel overwhelmed or experience trauma. But an overdependence on repression fuels psychosomatic symptoms and self-destructive patterns.
In his article in Psychology Today, Sean Grover goes on to identify the ‘Top 10 Tension Areas for Unwanted Feelings’ as:
1.Lower Back: Anger 2. Stomach & Intestines: Fear 3. Heart & Chest: Hurt 4. Headache: Loss of control 5. Neck/Shoulder Tension: Burdens 6. Fatigue: Resentments 7. Numbness: Trauma 8. Breathing Difficulties: Anxiety 9. Voice & Throat Problems: Oppression 10. Insomnia: Loss of self
I find this interesting and helpful, relating these areas to recent and past experiences.
I did a lot of work on repressed anger at one point, including going to a workshop where I was encouraged to take a lot of it out on a punch bag. The physicality of the release at the time was phenomenal (although I did go into a kind of ‘toxic shock’ afterwards, so I would not recommend anyone trying this approach without a very strong support network around them).
Some years later, experiencing stress at work, I searched out volunteering opportunities, finding an outlet by doing trail maintenance work where I could break big rocks into smaller rocks to make hardcore with a sledgehammer. I came back refreshed and invigorated. Although the effects did wear off after a while, I have so far – touch wood – not suffered from lower back problems.
Fatigue and resentments strike a chord with me – I’m so good at hanging on to them, no wonder I feel tired all the time!
So, while I’ve done a lot of work on myself to get to this point, and to feel largely positive about the position I’m in, there’s still a lot to do.
It’s often the enormity – or perceived enormity of the challenge – that puts us off dealing with it, which leads to repression, which leads to depression….
There are no easy answers or quick fix solutions, especially when difficulties are deep-rooted. I just keep reminding myself that it’s all about the next step. And the one after that. And the one after that. It does get easier. Miraculously – it feels to me – my steps feel a lot lighter, at the age I’m at now, than they did when I was young, all those years ago! Something must be working, somehow. Barriers can be overcome. It’s not easy, but it’s worth working at it, bit by bit.