Christmas stories

……of Christmas past and present

Christmas 2012 – both Christmas Day and Boxing Day them self were stress free, it’s the build up to them that seemed stressful, regardless of how little importance I’ve attached to them over the years, somehow the thought that shops will be shut for two whole days, fills many people, including myself,with panic and by the look on their faces, desperation. One of our comments feedback for an earlier post about general stress, referred to the possibility that some Xmas stress results from feeling  that our gift giving may not have much monetary value compared to those we receive.

For me the convenience of local corner shops and petrol station , although offering only limited food stuffs, at greater expense than the supermarkets, are so convenient. I don’t resent the extra few pennies because they truly deliver a service, I’ve known the shop owners and the take-a-way owners for the 20 plus years I’ve lived in the neighbourhood. This Xmas Day, one was open 8.30.a.m. ,both all day Boxing Day together with the take-a ways, no need to starve, for myself I’m happy to forgo the traditional roast meals until the the bigger shops are open again, or easier still, as I probably will,  have it out! at non Christmas prices. If you have limited time off because of work commitments, feelings of obligation to entertain or be part of other people’s festivities, the pressure is on……of course some find the tradition pleasurable.

I found both days very relaxing and enjoyable, having refused  invites for dinner and wanting to be at home, with flexibility about whether people popped in or shared simple non traditional food. No definite plans were made until the day, the people who came and I, shared a little more of our personal stories, discussed our experience with mental distress and what might contribute to maintaining our well being iin the year to come, there were more philosophical discussions about the complexity of intimate relationships…….as Pa Larkin, ‘Darling buds of May’ and a new found friend frequently says, …perfect! ….yes it was a perfect Christmas….but I still feel a sense of relief that it’s over, possibly that is something to do with my ‘Christmas past’

Boxing Day 1958


looking as if enjoying the festivities, the photograph hides the reality of  troubled lives, two,were affected seriously by mental and emotional distress and the little girl………. went on to be similarly affected, albeit well into mid life, then I could truly sympathise with my brother and mothers experience.I do not hold with the theory,particularly prominent at the time that mental illness ‘ran in families’ …genetic. I have always railed against that idea, I don’t claim to have a clear alternative opinion of the causes or solutions.

Lily P

‘Twas the night before Christmas

1982, Christmas Eve…….fully pregnant, calm…… thinking I had a week to go before delivery, then suddenly while cooking dinner I  got a clear sign that baby had different ideas, I was alone, not even sure the phone would work as I was in a developing country, there was no ambulance service anyway but I rang a friend, somehow I got to another friend who was a midwife,finally the baby was delivered in the early hours of Xmas day.

Throughout the pregnancy I was physically well, but I was anxious that I may experience the puerperal psychosis my mum had when she had my older brother, some women experience it with each pregnancy they have, in between pregnancies they remain free from ‘altered states’. I don’t remember the birth being painful but it was an overwhelmingly spiritual and physical journey, where I felt pushed into a different level of awareness, perhaps for some it is just hard to tie those realms together, we all experience pain in  different ways. The baby blues, which is very common often comes the day after delivery, for me I sobbed uncontrollably for a couple of hours, this and the much  later experience  at menopause has made me curious about the connection between sudden hormone change and mental wellbeing.

The journey home from hospital later in the day was the scarier experience, this little scrawny bundle totally dependant on me for everything……anyway we all survived and I had her at home for 16 years, always independent, that’s the age she decided to leave home. For the most part she has made her own path with little input from me, but when she has been on the scary boundaries of ‘night country’,* she has called home.

Although we will be separated by a large distance tomorrow on her 30th, I know that’s where my thoughts will be, ‘may God bless and keep you always’, darling…….Obi…., she would never forgive me for using her real name!


* Sam Keen, American Philosopher calls this ‘the Dark Night of the Soul’

Christmas Well-being! Thoughts, feelings and numbers to call.

Wishing everyone well this christmas


Maybe because Christmas is *supposed* to be a happy family time is the reason it may be difficult for some, in fact for many!   Whilst some people may be in a position to really enjoy christmas and embrace it, some of us will struggle and others may simply put up with it.

Here are some ideas if it all gets too much !

Christmas is short-lived, it’s just one day or if you count the whole thing it’s a week at the most.   Putting things in perspective is a good idea if you feel any distress.  Remembering that feelings may be heightened during this time and that you’re likely to feel very different once christmas is over is helpful.

Taking a brisk walk and getting some exercise can often make people feel better and help to reduce negative thinking.

Use tricks to distract a troubled mind such as watching a christmas comedy, reading, knitting or doing a crossword. If your thoughts and feelings are escalating and you are struggling to manage them try focussing your mind by using techniques such as counting backwards or playing ‘I went to the shop – the alphabet game’ in your head.  I’ve been there and done it, in fact I think I played the alphabet game for an hour once!

Try to Identify or name your feelings and thought types as they arise and see if this works for you.  When you feel distressed name the feeling or thought,  for example: ‘Anger,’  ‘Sadness, ‘ ‘Loneliness, ‘  ‘catastrophic thinking,’  or ‘jumping to conclusions,’  this can help you to remain objective.

Try not to drink too much alcohol

Remember: It’s just a day, like any other day!

See what’s going on in nature – take a look at the world around you. The photo of the Robin makes me smile, sometimes nature can really help me put things into perspective!

Remember life isn’t perfect.

If you need to talk to someone and feel distressed there are many numbers you can call and people want to help!  The numbers are listed below.


Samaritans:  08457 909090 or email

Dial House is somewhere you can visit if you can’t cope – Open Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day. Call to make an appointment 0113 260 9328 (Leeds)

Connect Helpline: 0808 800 12 12 Provides up to an hour of emotional support by telephone.  Open 6pm -10.30pm every night of the year. (Leeds)

Saneline: 0845 767 8000 1pm – 11pm Offering emotional support and information

NHS Direct; Health advice and information:  0845 4647

Thanks for reading, keep well and warm xx

If you have any  tips or ideas to keep well please leave a comment !

Thanks Vicky 😉

Stress: Portrait of a killer, A documentary and review

Stress! Yes, we all know too much of it is bad. But sometimes ‘I’m stressed’ becomes so prolonged it turns into Mental Illness. Robert Sapolsky is a Neurobiologist at Stanford University and features in the excellent documentary which I have linked to the blog:  ‘Stress: A portrait of a killer’.

Sapolsky studies the behaviour of Baboons in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve. He talks about the origins of stress as a fight/flight response. The stress response kicks in so we can run away from tigers in the wild or so we can chase our prey. The problem with humans is we don’t run away from tigers anymore but this same response is still activated. We perceive situations to be life-threatening such as worries regarding mortgages, traffic jams, work issues and a whole host of others.  Sapolsky claims that whilst in the wild the stress response is activated then switched off – (you either survive or die!), with humans the response is being prolonged and that we are struggling to switch it off.

In the documentary Sapolsky suggests that people in subordinate roles in life are more prone to stress. Having a low ranking job in a hierarchical organisation can increase one’s levels of stress. He explains that these levels of stress (caused by low-ranking position) can be offset by having some status or a sense of control outside of work (for example becoming the captain of a football team.)

Within the Baboon Troup, the lower the rank of the baboon, the more likely it will suffer with stress-related diseases. However Sapolsky observed a tragedy which resulted in a change of culture within the Troup and this change resulted in a decrease in  the amount of incidences of  stress-related disease.  The more dominant and aggressive males of the Troup contracted TB and died, this changed the dynamic of the group. The group became less hierarchical and less threatening and had more emphasis on grooming and sharing, which in turn resulted in less occurences of stress.  The documentary suggests that the culture that we live or work in has a huge impact on our stress levels. 

I loved this documentary. I came away inspired and that is why I decided to upload it to the blog. I can see how my stress has been increased in situations where I had less control and where I was exposed to uncertainty and unpredictability. I think about situations both in childhood and adulthood. Having an understanding of the stress response and what may cause it has helped me manage things a little bit better.

Sapolsky suggests some Stress-Management techniques on the Stanford University Website. His suggestions include: Modifying your environment to have some control and have an understanding of what control you do have, being objective and gaining perspective on things (are you really being chased by a tiger?), having a social support network, practising stress management activities daily and not just at the weekend. Of course sometimes we may need extra help and support to reduce stressors from our lives. Sometimes we can increase our sense of control in small ways and take little steps, perhaps by organising some paperwork or by tidying up – small steps often help.

I hope you enjoyed this documentary..

Thanks Vicky 🙂

Raise the Roof at Swarthmore

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Swarthmore Education Centre has been running courses for 104 years from the little terrace in Woodhouse Square just round the corner from Joseph’s Well. It’s amazing what you can do there. Over the last 30 years I’ve started courses in classical guitar (the short-lived ‘Segovia’ phase), mime (the even shorter ‘Bowie’ period). radical psychology (the noisy ‘Reichian’ year), and British Sign Language (beginners – even that was a bit too advanced). In truth the only thing I really stuck at was the People’s Choir, a weekly gathering of about 50 of us, which I had great fun at for several years. Ok I wasn’t a great student, but the fact was I was able to have a go at all those things, and learned some interesting stuff.

In the Summer Leeds Wellbeing Web had our 2nd set of training at Swarthmore and as the course tutor I loved the relaxed atmosphere and the general friendliness. Staff seemed quite happy to be confronted by enthusiastic community journalists eager to try out their interviewing and camera skills. One particular piece of footage never quite made it to the blog at the time but it was about Swarthmore’s roof fund – here it is for the first time:

After 150 years the old roof was getting a bit leaky, so this year has seen the replacement of 4 of the rooves of the historic pre-Victorian buildings that make up Swarthmore. That still leaves 2 to do and it’s massively expensive, so more funds are needed, and the lovely people at Swarthmore are having a party – and you’re invited! Maggie says “Everyone is welcome to attend ‘Raise the Roof’, Swarthmore’s Christmas Reggae Party with reggae music from DJ Peter James and reggae band Mojah. This takes place on Friday 14th December from 7.30pm – midnight. There’s a licensed bar, and food to share (free).

Tickets £5 in advance or on the door – available from Swarthmore’s café or reception. All funds raised will go towards Swarthmore’s Roof Appeal.

See for more details or about any of the amazing things you can do at Swarthmore. (There’s an open day on 3rd January, 10.30 – 1.30 and 5 -7 p.m. if you want a look around). You can always just send them a cheque to them at 2-7 Woodhouse Square, Leeds LS3 1AD, or drop in and check out the good, cheap community cafe, and free craft cafe every Wednesday.

need someone to talk to?

Some years ago in a television documentary I watched David Smail, a former psychologist, speak about the nature of depression. David suggested that counselling or therapy might for some, be the only place they receive emotional comfort. I  found his acknowledgement of this comforting in itself as I’ve been drawn to the comfort talking therapy can bring. It has been a way of telling my story, at times I have felt ‘addicted’ to its comfort , David acknowledges this can be an outcome.

As a child there were times the adults who cared for me,  for a variety of reasons, were unavailable to me emotionally. In later life this led me in moments of distress for a quest to be heard. Though I mostly found sufficient resilience  to be my own  counsellor, listening to my inner voice, and this calmed me, at other times that voice became muffled, jumbled and distorted. On occasion this has transferred to my ability to do practical things, I got overwhelmed, confused, the simple tasks of daily life seemed very hard. During these times my experience of counselling or therapy has been predominantly helpful,  it has ‘held’ me, the process hasn’t always been comfortable or benign, there are many practitioners, former practitioners and clients of therapy/counselling who will attest to this.

Jeffrey Masson, former analyst, in his book ‘Against Therapy’ reveals that he is one such renegade; Dr.Dorothy Rowe, former psychologist, said of therapy, something along the lines of, “all therapy works, but not all therapy works completely”. Ken Wilber and John Rowan view differing  therapies as working on different levels of consciousness, for example they consider seeing a transpersonal therapist could be inappropriate if you have little or no awareness of this level of perception, by level I didn’t understand it as a superior awareness,  just different to ‘everyday’ consciousness. Fancy and mystifying terms, and buzz words abound in the therapeutic community, just as much as they do in other circles, but woe betide if in some therapies you question the theory behind it. Depending on the skill or the orientation of the practitioner this might be interpreted as symptomatic of your ‘problems’.

I have both self referred and requested professional referral to all kinds of practitioners, mostly it aided me regain some calm and it has helped me to become more fully the person I wish to be, but at times I’ve found it almost abusive. It can be a space, either in one to one, or groups where a power imbalance exists and is misused.

My quest in finding “someone to talk to…..a new hiding place”..(Dylan), has involved sharing with friends, or even casual acquaintances along the way. It has helped as they listen to parts of my story, and I try in turn to listen to theirs. Having someone reasonably capable of ‘walking’ alongside you as you relate your story, either  in bite size pieces or big chunks can be reassuring, if that is a friend, someone you trust and who has the capacity, well and good. You may be fortunate to get a professional listener who views themselves as a ‘co-experimenter’, as some Personal Construct Psychologists describe their role, but even then these processes can unleash things that are hard to contain.

Someone advised me against the process some years ago as we had both read ‘Against Therapy’ and I was awaiting an appointment for a  therapy ‘suitability’ assessment. In part the course of therapy that followed, left me with an emotional whoosh of feelings and little way of stemming their flow. It was a ‘breakdown’ possibly a breakup/breakthrough of the then current untenable situation I was in just  prior to it. I  ‘fell into the hands of psychiatry’ with the resulting medication and electro-convulsive therapy. I’m sure the therapist did not expect that as an outcome, neither did I. Most likely I would align myself with the Post Psychiatry movement because similarly to them I think medication can help distressed people, but the commercial interests which are behind  it, makes an over reliance on it suspect.

I would not want my experience to discourage anyone from engaging with counselling/therapy if they are drawn to it. It can be a courageous step to discovering what your distress is about. Like many things it takes time to adjust to the process, but trusting your feelings about the counsellor or the theory they use is important, becoming informed about the different approaches can help, part of my recovery came from the wisdom I gleaned from books about the process, and also from song and poetry.

Stanislov Grof refers to some forms of apparent mental illness of ease as spiritual emergence, he does however distinguish between this and  spiritual emergency and what he terms ‘real’ mental illness……I’m not sure about these distinctions, though I would describe some aspects of my breakdown as spiritual.

Sam Keen refers to tapping into anger that has been turned inward ….inrage/depression once accessed, acknowledged and released becoming ….out rage, for a time a torrent or flood engulfing someone or anything  that  gets in it’s path, no matter how significant their role has been in the person’s life story., … muddied for some time……until the water runs clearer,….possibly channeled in a different way.

Despite my reservations,and experiences…….why am I willing to engage yet again ,with the process? I ‘ve had an appointment this week. Something happened recently which sent me into that confusing emotional spin, I made the appointment to tell another piece of my story, and because I’d had some  autonomy in choosing, where, when, how long, it might be, it seemed the safest place to test the water, for telling the next installment. The time gap between making the appointment and its arrival, had been space to regain some equilibrium and therefore I felt some apprehension about attending, ….should I cancel? Though nervous I kept the appointment. The waiting area was such a warm welcoming space, in it was an original black leaded fire range, complete with it’s oven! One of my family homes had a similar range……I felt relaxed with the memories it elicited of the family events enacted in the glow and warmth of the open coal fire….the ‘counselling’ went well, and I was given a choice of possible ways of working…..flexible follow ups with the same person seemed the most appealing on this occasion.

Writing a blog has also been partly therapeutic, another way of telling bits of my story and is my voice on wellbeing.

Sue Margaret

* details of the fireplace image by the National Trust


We Are Poets – free screening of an inspirational local film

We Are Poets

There are FREE tickets available for the screening of We Are Poets, this Friday 7th December 2012, 4 p.m. at Hyde Park Picture House, Hyde Park, Leeds. I saw this film a few months ago, when Benjamin Zephaniah turned up to say how brilliant he thought it was (see his comment below). It really is a great story of a group of young local poets from Chapeltown who travel to the US to take part in a poetry slam competition there. You follow their individual stories as they prepare, then travel to America. It features great local poets like Khadijah Ibrahim and Rommi Smith. Rommi says of it ‘It’s an inspirational film – an affirmation of the transformational power of poetry, it’s also a story of Leeds. I’d be inclined to turn up early on the day, as there are likely to be queues.’

Check it out at the Hyde Park’s listings, and read a review from the Guardian here. 

Synopsis: WE ARE POETS follows six young poets from Leeds over the course of one very special year, as they are chosen to represent the UK at Brave New Voices, the most prestigious poetry slam in America. From their inner city lives to a stage in front of the White House in Washington DC, the poets must prepare for the journey of a lifetime. Cinematic, honest and deeply personal,WE ARE POETS is a testament to the power of creativity, community and the dynamism of young people. Anyone tempted to dismiss today’s youth as apathetic better pay heed: here is electrifying evidence to the contrary.
Free screening – part of the Centre for World Cinemas at the University of Leeds’ Language/Cinema Conference. Tickets not needed – just turn up on the day

Critical reaction:

From its utterly brilliant opening, through to its moving finale, ‘We Are Poets’ is inspirational!
Amazing…It’s poetry itself. Poetry is an art, filmmaking is an art, it takes great sensitivity to bring them together – this film shows us how it’s done!