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What the hell is Tre?


5 Minute Read

Have you heard people talking about Tre? I have. So I invited Tre teacher, Sylvia Tillmann to explain.

How are you post-pandemic? Well, not so post.

I spoke with friends the other day about how we were – and still are – coping with a global pandemic, a couple of lockdowns and the ups and downs of life.

We are a mixed bunch of people between the ages of 50 and 70.

Some people have dogs and enjoyed the company and the daily walks – at least something was dragging them out – some people are very much into gardening, others kept sane by swimming in the sea all year round. I noticed that nobody in this group complained about this era and the ‘new normal’; in fact, we all welcomed the more reflective mode, fewer commitments and concentrating on what was really important in life.

As for myself, I reassessed my life and reorganised my career during the first lockdown. With a business background and on furlough, I was grateful for the time I was given to take stock.

First I enrolled in various business courses, but then I asked myself: ‘What does the world really need? Surely not another business guru!’

I concluded that we all need laughter, optimism, community and a robust immune system – and I trained as a Laughter Yoga Leader.

That was fun and being interested in alternative health, positive psychology and what makes us tick, I found it amazing to see how much research has been carried out on the benefits of laughter.

I loved it, but I wanted to take it further.

Having listened to many lectures, presentations and discussions on trauma – after all, we had all just experienced a collective trauma, I rediscovered TRE.

What is TRE? I hear you ask.

TRE (Tension and Trauma Releasing Exercises by Dr David Berceli) is a somatic stress management tool I had experienced once, about ten years ago.

I honestly can’t remember if I didn’t get it at the time or if I totally dismissed it because ‘I had never experienced trauma’ – or so I thought!

Now I was convinced that TRE could be an amazing self-help tool to support anybody who’s struggling – psychologically or physically.

I decided to go for it.

This training took everything I had learned before to a whole new level. My go-to modality had always been talking therapies, I had counselling sessions myself and then completed the foundation training as I wanted to train as a bereavement counsellor.

Learning TRE addressed everything I missed when working cognitively. The mind is super busy, the thoughts are going round and round and … well, at least for me, it didn’t help me massively.

Why not give our busy minds a rest and concentrate on the body?

And that’s exactly what TRE enables us to do. Practising TRE means – literally – to shake off tension and stress.

To shake it off? Really? How does it work?

The easiest way to explain TRE’s principle is by watching a dog.

Yes, please bear with me …

A dog who experiences a stressful situation immediately shakes off the excess stress after this encounter and then happily gets on with life.

Animals do it automatically, but people have un-learned this process, although we are genetically encoded to tremor – and it would be so good for us.

That’s where TRE comes in, as it activates our stress release mechanism.

Over the course of the training, I also learned that trauma isn’t just big T trauma, i.e. the truly awful things that can happen. The simple fact that we are human beings means that we all experience trauma to some degree – think of family/relationship issues, work/money stress, health scares/illness, divorce or death etc.

This time I really got it. TRE is making so much sense because mind and body are intrinsically linked, so let’s include the body.

Let’s explore it in a bit more detail: When we experience stress, we mobilise energy to defend and protect ourselves, which is helpful. But if we want to run or fight and we can’t, that energy doesn’t get used up and stays inside of us.

The result is that we stay on high alert, i.e. high on adrenaline and cortisol, always expecting danger, constantly ready to fight or flight – we might have sleep issues, psychosomatic pain or avoid certain situations that caused this response.

This is exhausting and only when we are able to complete the cycle, i.e. use up the excess energy, the body can find its equilibrium again.

By practising TRE in a safe and controlled manner, this energy can be accessed and discharged.

How to practise TRE?

TRE starts with six warm-up exercises to fatigue the muscles and prepares the body to tremor. This is followed by a grounding exercise and then the actual TRE process. By lying on a mat, feet sole-to-sole, knees out, the tremors emerge. Your brain might perceive it as unusual, if not weird, but for the body, it feels quite natural. Afterwards, participants report a deep relaxation.

How does it make me feel?

I’ve been practising TRE for well over a year now and it only takes about ten minutes a day. I credit TRE with becoming more resilient – I’m just so grateful for having TRE during the pandemic – and also with the disappearance of my lower back and hip pain.

Over the last few years, I struggled with pain and sometimes it was so bad that I thought I have to stop playing tennis – which I love – and wondered if I need a hip replacement.

TRE helped me to shake off that tension in my back and hips – I don’t know what I was holding on to, and I don’t need to know; that’s the beauty of TRE, there’s no need to verbalise anything.

Curious to find out more? Check out Sylvia’s website on www.tremendousTRE.co.uk. She runs regular TRE courses, mainly online, so you can stay in the comfort of your own home.

Is Etiquette Dead?


5 Minute Read

I’m a swimmer. A pool swimmer. I’m proud to be part of a world – a swimmer’s world – where etiquette and codes of conduct prevail. There, at the foot of the swim lanes is a sign, Pool Rules. It’s clear and simple.

I pride myself on etiquette in and out of the pool, and thankfully there is a place I can go where civility is recognised and respected. That said, alas, lately I’ve noticed that even pool rules are being flouted and broken, and that is when I feel as if I am completely alone. A lone shark, seeking solace and a sign that etiquette is not yet dead.

I have had more than one incident of a ‘surprise sharer’ – someone who thinks nothing of getting in and starting to swim without asking – I would never share a lane without first getting a thumbs up from the person who was there first – that’s what we do! It’s a common courtesy.

Quite often, if I’m asked, I will agree to share – but please ask first. Once sharing has been established, there is no certainty that the rest of the codes of conduct will be observed. Beware of the powerhouse swimmer – who I’ve agreed to share with but who still breaststrokes across the entire lane, or freestyles so ferociously that swallowing their kick water is impossible to avoid.

Then there are the little fishes outside of the swim lanes but who seem to have a strategy to flip for fun over the ropes into the swim lane at the exact spot and at the precise moment I’m passing, resulting in near misses with precious children, and a ‘what if’ shock to my system. Contra-indicative to doing exercise for health or activity for relaxation, to say the least!

There are also, what shall we call them, lane hogs who clog up the lanes and cause traffic. Lane hogs like to think they are swimming but they are mostly taking up valuable swimming real estate. They may swim a lap, but then they stop, and stand. There’s no rhyme, no reason, there is no pattern to their process unless you call swim, stop, stand and chat a pattern. They might swim another lap, but then again, they might not. That’s not lap swimming, sorry!

I want to continue to swim, so I keep my opinions to myself for as long as possible. I have even tried going to another pool club! But there is increasing evidence on my arms and legs of lane-rope cuts and bruises from avoiding collisions with humans; audible yelping, like Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy, ‘I’m swimming here!’ which no one seems to hear. I am left feeling stunned, shocked, nearly defeated, and dare I say, invisible, what are my choices?

I do not want to be invisible. I want to be seen and heard. And I want everyone to observe the pool rules!! Why is it so difficult? I watch and I wonder, is it just me? I’m new here. I am not an influencer here. My mind spins and seeks solutions.

I spot Marilyn, and the clouds lift. Marilyn swims. She also knows and talks to everyone. She lives in both camps. She’s got all the gear – the mask and snorkel, the fins, the webbed fingers. When she’s not swimming, she gets into the pool in a full outfit, including hat, long-sleeved shirt, leggings and shoes, to walk and chat! This is a sight to see. It’s quirky, and it serves a purpose – it’s a new trend to avoid sun exposure. The sun mimics a light bulb over my head.

‘Marilyn,’ I say, ‘we should have a fashion show and you should definitely be in it.’ She laughs out loud. As one hilarious idea leads to the next, a fashion show is born – and the theme is Pool Rules.

I talk to Mikey, the entertainment director. He is cautiously enthusiastic, whatever that means. Maybe he knows something I don’t. I talk to some of the others, Sue and Donna, and they love it! They start to list some of the ridiculous rules at the club and discuss which rules should be changed. Like, NO Restaurant Food on the Top Deck. Like, the Snacks Only rule. Like, NO Wheels on Beach Bags. It’s not long before Sue and Donna have their theme – Sue will wheel Donna in as if she’s on a parade float. Their rule will be – NO Wheels on Beach Bags. And they will campaign to change it. It’s pretty wacky, and I’m not feeling so alone anymore. Together, we hatch the idea of a Pool Fashion Show and Water Escapades Show. It will be a variety show. We will involve the lifeguards, and Mikey will recruit all the young families with children. I don’t know what I’ll be wearing yet, but I will be campaigning hard for in-pool rule adherence.

At the end of the day, I sit with Donna and Sue in the cafe, and we chat further about the show. Then the mood changes; clouds descend again. Donna is concerned that this theme might expose her as a rule breaker. She is not so sure it’s a good idea. Sue and I muse, ’Oh really? What rules are you breaking?’ Donna goes quiet. Time passes. I take my cue from Sue, and I don’t press her any further. We do not get an answer. And we never do the show.

An Unexpected Hospital Stay in the Middle of the Pandemic


1 Minute Read

Foolish me. I presumed I had it under control at 85. I planned to live for about ten more years and then, in my mid-90s, die of a heart attack. After all, I was in rude health, ate healthy food, exercised and walked a lot. After all, I was in charge of my body. And then my illusions were shattered when, after doing some maybe too energetic Qigong, I was suddenly debilitated by a smarting chest and pain down both my arms. It was aching so much that I even took a painkiller.

The next morning, the 11th of February 2020, I was a bit tired, but not worried. Still, worried enough to tell my children who insisted I get in touch with my GP immediately. I didn’t want to, I have forever avoided doctors, but let them talk me into it. The GP sent me to UCLH for a check-up that afternoon. I thought it wouldn’t take long, so much so that I did not take my phone charger with me.

At first, the medics who examined me said that there seemed to be nothing wrong, and complimented me on my health. Then, after hours of various scans, a painful angiogram, x-rays and what have you, they told me that I’d had a heart attack, and had blood clots on my lungs. Which explained why, for years, I had breathing difficulties, which I’d put down to age.

Before I was aware of what was happening, I was wheeled to a ward, given hospital pyjamas and slippers and told to put my clothes in the cabinet next to my bed. When they then connected me to a beeping machine I felt that my life, as I had known it, was over. I was now an invalid. Not valid. In-valid.

To my question: “How long do I have to stay here for?” I was told that I would have to go to Barts Hospital, which specialises in the treatment of heart conditions, to have a stent put in a blocked vein leading to my heart. As, at the moment, there were no free beds there, I’d have to wait here until one was available.

This was a bad state of affairs, but what preoccupied me the most at that moment was the low battery signal on my phone. What would I do if my phone died? It was my lifeline to the outside world. The free world. But I still had enough power to WhatsApp Johnny, a friend who lived nearby and asked him please to go to my house and get the charger. “It’s the white one plugged in the extension under my bedside table. And also please bring me essential oil of tea tree, lavender and frankincense, which are on the bedside table. Also, a sleeping mask and earplugs. They’re in a small, brown cotton pouch on top of the cupboard in the bedroom.  You can leave them at the hospital’s reception desk. And please turn my computer off, and bring me the book on the settee in the sitting room. Thank you so much, Johnny, I really appreciate it.”

Providentially, I have a key-lock by my front door so he was able to get in and bring me what I’d asked for.

My phone fully charged, I WhatsApped my children and other friends to give them my bad news. Everyone was shocked. And given fucking Covid, no one could come to help me.

So began my lost days as I waited for a free bed at Barts Hospital.

After weeks of lockdown, I was suddenly in company. My Covid-free ward was jumping with comings and goings. Patients spoke to one another, and jolly nurses chatted to me as they brought me medication (I had never taken a pharmaceutical till now), checked my blood pressure, injected me with blood thinners and tested my ailing heart with machines.

The nights were another story. Some of the nurses were not going to make the patient’s life pleasant. They talked loudly to each other, were brusque when they came to check my blood pressure and the peeps on the machine. In no way helpful or willing to say something nice, or anything at all. Others hardly got out of their chairs. They are getting us back for the years they’ve been treated as second-class citizens, I thought. And who could blame them?  One night, when I lost my bearings as I was trying to find the lavatory and asked a nurse for help, she vaguely pointed in some direction which did not make it any easier. I knew that had this happened during the day, the nurse would have taken me to the toilet herself.

During the interminable days – which I tried to handle by reading and WhatsApping a lot with my children, one in Italy the other in New York which meant I had to handle my condition on my own – I thanked the heavens for cell phones.

Young doctors, accompanied by a student or two, came around in the early afternoons. They didn’t have much to say except that no bed was as yet available at Bart’s.

I’m used to taking a daily shower, but there was no way I’d make do with the hand-held shower in the cold bathroom, so I washed in the basin using a paper towel provided by the hospital. I wished I’d asked Johnny to bring me a face cloth and my face oil.

As everyone knows, hospital food is disgusting, so I’m not going to go into it, except to say that it’s beyond me why there’s no awareness in the NHS about nutrition. Fortunately, a friend sent a rescue package with yogurts, kefir, green grapes, two novels, hair scrunchies and a white cashmere shawl.

I’m used to walking and exercising daily, so I walked as much as possible around the ward and did a bit of stretching. The others looked at me as though I was doing something abnormal. But then, I’ve never been regarded as ‘normal’.

The large windows at the end of the ward faced a nearby building, so there was no view on to the street. I never knew what the weather was like outside.

Patients came and went daily in the ward, and on the night when all hell broke loose, a middle-aged Polish woman, Anja, was in the bed on my left. She was at all times on her phone. In the bed in front of her lay a very old lady who seemed on her last breath. The compassionate male nurse, Silvester, from the Congo, was forever waking her up asking her what date it is. It’s the 14th of February, I said to myself, a fact I only knew because it’s my grandson’s birthday. Next to the old lady, a rough-looking working-class woman, Louise, in her early fifties, was constantly wailing for the doctor because she had pain, she said. The Polish woman told her she was given liquid morphine at night. Louise, looking displeased, went to the loo and came back with a long strand of lavatory paper stuck in her anus. She did not wear pyjama bottoms so we were treated to a full view of her large, varicose-veined legs.

Our lights were already out and I was about to put my sleeping mask on when suddenly screams and crashing of furniture came from the male ward adjacent to ours. I bolted up in my bed.

“Oh dear God,” Anja said. “What is happening? Did you hear that?”

How could I not have heard such a din?

The guy continued screaming and throwing stuff about. Finally, policemen and security guards marched in loud, authoritarian droves down the corridor. The man screamed more, the cops screamed back at him. “We’re going to take you back to prison.” He screamed “NOOOO”, and I thought, oh my God they brought him here from prison!

After they finally managed to drag him away, it seemed peace had been restored. But it hadn’t. Louise got out of bed, threw a faux-leather jacket on her shoulders and said, “I’m going out.” Nurse Silvester didn’t seem bothered and shrugged his shoulders. I told him, “No, you can’t let her out. It’s freezing outside.” Again he shrugged his shoulders and avoided my eyes.

“I’m going out,” she repeated determined. So I went over to her, and putting my arms around her I said, “Sweetie, you can’t go out, it’s freezing. Now, take your jacket off and get into bed.”

I was quite proud of my authority, as she sat on her bed weeping like a small child.

In the meantime, Anja called Silvester and said the old lady was coughing very badly and maybe she had Covid. Silvester went to check, I put a scarf around my nose and mouth, Anja got on her phone, Louise continued weeping, Sylvester, rolling his humorous, dark eyes, brought me a mask. To our relief, the old lady did not have the dreaded Covid.

The next day I emailed my son the horror story. “I felt like I was in a Beckett play.” I wrote. “Although I’d rather be in a Chekov one.” “Waiting for Stento,” my son wrote back.

What I found out later when Louise again put on her faux-leather jacket and a cap on her short-cropped brown hair – was that she was actually allowed to go out because she needed to have her fags.

No wonder I’d made her spill so many tears as I’d prevented her from feeding her addiction.

Before she came back, they had unplugged me and wheeled me to another ward where I waited two more days before going to Barts.

Anja came to chat with me in the new ward. “She’s a very odd woman,” she said about Louise. Louise came also, I had now become her best friend as I’d put my arms around her. She said she was going to the shops and did I want anything. “About four mandarins please,” I told her and gave her money. I wasn’t expecting to see any change, and my expectations were verified when she brought me the fruit. Once she left, nurses came over to tell me everyone knew her at the hospital as she came in and out and was a difficult patient.

The windows of this ward faced the street and my view was of rain on roadworks.

Finally, Barts had a free bed and I was ambulanced over. I was the only one in the ward. It was very quiet; the few nurses were busy at their desks and no one spoke to me as I waited in trepidation for my stent operation.

A nurse brought me a document to sign, a release form that stated I would not sue if something went wrong with what they were about to do to me. I signed without a second thought. I had given up any will. I was a leaf blown about in the winds of the system.

After about an hour, a doctor came to talk to me. “The ink they put into your body in order to find where the stent should go is damaging to the kidneys,” she informed me.

I didn’t know that, and frankly, had I known I would still have gone on with the procedure even though my kidneys were not in the best of shape. “It’s an age thing,” my GP had told me some time ago. “Nothing to worry about.”

“Would you like to participate in an experiment we’re doing regarding the kidneys?” the doctor asked.

“Sure. What do I have to do?

“Beetroot is very healing for the kidneys. It contains niacin. I’ll give you beetroot pills to take daily and you’ll have to go to your surgery to take blood tests once a week.”

“Oh, I see,” I said. “I honestly don’t want to take blood tests every week, so I’m sorry, but  I won’t participate in the experiment,” I told her as I made a mental note to drink beetroot juice daily when I was back home.

Finally, I was wheeled along deserted corridors to the operation theatre. The surgeon in charge explained the procedure. “You’ll be put on a table in front of a large screen. You’ll be turned on your left side so you’ll be facing the screen. You’ll see your heart on it. Then you’ll be injected with a red dye so we’ll be able to look for the blocked vein.” There were more instructions, but I lost him. He then proceeded to tell me he needed to go somewhere else, “But you have a very expert team that will take care of you in the best possible way,” he said as he rushed off.

The six people in the operating room were jolly, put me in the right position, told me not to worry they knew what they were doing, and injected me with morphine.

In my drugged state, I could vaguely hear them talking amongst themselves. Seemed an obstructed vein wasn’t easy to find, but finally, they got it and put the stent in place.

Back in the quiet ward, I felt very tired as I waited impatiently for some hours for the ambulance to take me back to UCLH, where the sweet nurses welcomed me back, “Heh, Hanja, how did it go?”

The next day, Thursday the 18th, I binned the horrid hospital pyjamas, changed back into my own clothes, and waited impatiently for the ambulance to finally take me home.

 

 

The Vaccination Story


8 Minute Read

Each generation leaves a legacy behind them – there are tales of love and war, myths of gods and goddesses but it is only written or oral words that can really give us a real narrative of what happened.

The history of human health can be analysed through forensic investigation. Current scientists can work out what our ancestors ate and what diseases they died of and this will be true of the future. To think about the next generation I want to take a look at the past, then explore our current health narrative.

I will be discussing vaccination in a positive light and making an argument as to why we need to think about disease prevention for the people who will be following us, once we have departed. If you have doubts, then please take the time to read what I have to say, as I believe I have a lot to share with you. I am going to start my exploration with a story of a milkmaid and a doctor.

Edward Jenner (1749-1823) is credited for the development of the smallpox vaccination. However, apparently, it wasn’t him who made the connection between using the serum of cowpox to vaccinate against smallpox. It was one of his milkmaids who told him she knew getting cowpox gave her immunity from smallpox.

Jenner took this idea forward and developed the world’s first-ever immunisation. He was what we would call today an outsider scientist. He took his idea to the established medical community, only to be laughed out of the room. Eventually, his idea was accepted and smallpox was eliminated from the world in 1977.

Nonetheless, the day immunisation was invented, the anti-vaccination movement commenced. Soon after nonsensical myths started, such as parents believing that the vaccine would give their children bovine features or at worse turn them into cows. Infant deaths were associated with the inoculation months and years after it was given and as we will see, there are similar myths today.

I argue that many of us in the West live behind a golden veil of adequate healthcare, especially those who live in the UK. Before the World Wars, people still lived in fear of becoming infected with life-crippling/threatening diseases such as tuberculosis, polio, pertussis, and measles. Life expectancy was short and if you did make it to older age, it was probably grim.

After the Second World War, Bevan developed the National Health Service alongside Public Health Services and these included vaccination programmes; the idea being that vaccines prevent us from having to be hospitalised. Anti-vaccination beliefs still continued, especially and not unsurprisingly with the thalidomide scandal in the 1960s, however, uptake did remain high until the 90s.

In 1992 Andrew Wakefield, a pro-vaccination Consultant at the Royal Free Hospital published an unethical study in the Lancet. He had a financial interest in selling the single vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella; so he set out to discredit the MMR, a single jab containing all three vaccinations. He claimed that it upset gut bacteria and was an underlying cause of autism. It is important to note that the underpinning paradigm of science is to disprove theories, not prove them, and since then study after study has found no correlation between the MMR and autism. However, the combination of his falsified research, sensational journalism and wider use of the World Wide Web, led to a more powerful anti-vaccination movement. Wakefield now makes a fair amount of money from his anti-vaxx campaigns, but I must emphasize, he had a financial interest in the single vaccines.

Anti-vax, vaccine hesitation is a complex matter and I for one have had many heated debates on social media. I have very good friends who do not like vaccines for all sorts of reasons and I respect their views. I do know there have been unethical practices, injury and death. But lessons are continually learned in the science community and as we have seen from AstraZeneca and Pfizer human trials, strict protocols and independent monitoring programmes are in place to ensure public safety.

People should also be able to challenge and ask questions, but my beef with the anti-vax movement is the spread of myth and lies. With the spread of COVID infection and the development of the new vaccines, myths have started to appear. I could not believe it when an old friend of mine put up a petition to stop Bill Gates putting a microchip in his vaccines. Another was that the Pfizer vaccine changes one’s DNA. Do these myths ring any bells? If these myths prevail and spread, this will prevent vaccine confidence and reduce take-up, this I believe will have disastrous consequences for the people in the future.

Many of the diseases, which we are able to prevent, are treated with antibiotics and antimicrobial medicines. It is a well-known fact that we need to reduce our use of these. I am a mere nurse, but what I do know is that current scientists watch how diseases behave and work out how organisms can be manipulated not to harm us. The Pfizer vaccination is a perfect example of this, as it can look at the genome and behaviour of a virus and the vaccination gives a message to the cell to tell it how to defend itself.  With this incredible piece of science, I believe that it won’t be long until we will be able to reduce our antibiotic, antimicrobial use.

Not everybody is a lover of science, and of course, many people would like to live a natural lifestyle, so vaccines and medicines are counterintuitive to this ideology. I question what natural means in this sense? I know that if I were dumped in the Amazon for a night, I would be munched on by all sorts of weird bugs pretty quickly. Equally, I live in a city and if I were deprived of clean water, sanitation and vaccination, invisible diseases such as cholera and diphtheria would also be sitting at my bedside waiting to get me.

The obsession with our individual natural health can be coined as healthism. This is the notion that one’s own health is a priority above anyone or anything else.  The Internet is awash with natural health advice and one recent argument I have fought against on social media is that herd immunity is a more natural way to beat COVID-19 than vaccination.

I have seen arguments for herd immunity based on the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic, citing it was over within two years. When I have tried to point out numerous times, that up to 15 million people died, and the deceased were mostly the poor, pregnant women, old and ethnic minorities, I was rebuffed. I noted that people feel that they are unlikely to get ill, as they have a great immune system, which they attribute to a good night’s sleep, healthy diet and lots of exercise. This is a perfect example of healthism, I am afraid no amount of downward dog or yogi tea, will prevent or halt COVID, it is a game of Russian Roulette and you just do not know who you are going to pass it on to.  I really encourage people to start to think of ‘we’ rather than ‘I’.

History is sadly repeating itself. Here in the UK, COVID has disproportionately affected the old, the vulnerable and those who are living in poverty, who sadly always have poorer health outcomes. Additionally, we need to look at developing countries, as we hoard our vaccines and get vaccinated, this means less for others and this is termed vaccine nationalism.  Contrary to the anti-vaxxer myth, Big Pharma has no interest in vaccinating the developing world, as there is no money there, hence charity organisations such as the Gates Foundation who make their mission to share vaccines out.

From the Rock’N’Roll 50s, Swinging 60s, Punk spitting 70s, Romantic 80s, to the Raving 90s – our generation has had the privilege of sharing close spaces, we haven’t had to concern ourselves with not breathing over each other. Back in the last century, our elders feared TB, it killed and maimed and they had to distance themselves for fear of a suffocating disease. The only passable infections that my social group ever worried themselves with were sexually transmitted disease, which meant a trip to the clap clinic.

COVID has now killed over two million people, which is probably a low estimation. Vaccination is the opposite of healthism; of course, it is important to eat healthy food, exercise and live well, however, vaccination shows that we care about others and those in the future. The world is rid of smallpox because our ancestors got the jab; are we the generation that could have rid the world of measles and polio, but decided not to?

What concerns me is whether to vaccinate or not doesn’t really concern my generation; we have made it to middle, older age. The late Ian Dury is the last person I physically saw who was crippled with polio, I have never seen someone scarred from smallpox. TB remains a worry, as I do come across it at work. I was recently shocked to find out that TB medication is now being appropriated to treat COVID patients in the West which deprives those in people in Eastern Europe, and their death rates are rising.

I am not here to try and persuade anyone to vaccinate as it is a choice and I hope it will continue to be. However, what I do ask is that as a generation – we need to think about what we leave behind and how our actions will affect those who come after us.  Sadly Jenner’s statue was moved from Trafalgar Square in 1862 as the anti-vaccination movement opposed it, so now it sits quietly in Kensington Gardens. If I had my way, I would happily push his statue back to Trafalgar Square and add the clever milkmaid and her cow, for it is they who saved billions of lives.

Why I Love Cold Water Swimming…


7 Minute Read

I have loved being either in or on the sea ever since I learned to swim off the sandy beach at Margate. I was four years old and these summer Sunday trips on the train from London Bridge station, were a highlight of my young urban life.

I can recall the sheer excitement of seeing the first glimpses of the shining sea, the squeals of joy as the salty air rushed up to my nostrils and the utter happiness of splashing about in the water, riding on my dad’s sandy back as he swam out and then being towed back in towards the shore. My dad encouraged to kick and swim as he confidently held me, letting go a little bit more each time until I could float and propel myself. The feeling I associate with being in the sea is one of glee. Yes, sea swimming is a really gleeful activity for me and continues to be so.

Of course, lockdown in these pandemic times has seen scores of people taking the plunge into the briny for the first time, and many of them continuing to swim through the summer into the autumn and onwards into the winter. People who are, somehow, now captivated by that increasingly popular lockdown activity –the Cold Water/Outdoor/Open Water/Wild Swim.

A great deal of attention has been given to something that – only a year ago – was the province of a relatively small group of oddballs who maybe commanded a column inch or two on New Year’s Day.

2020 saw the rise of the Outdoor Swimmer, the cataloguing of the many health and wellbeing benefits of immersion in cold (15 degrees or below) water.

Looking for an improvement in your mental health? Get in the water! Eager to strengthen your immune system? Get in the water! Want to fix whatever ails you?….. You get my drift. Open water swimming has been chronicled, critiqued and analysed from a dozen perspectives and yet, for every article written, there remains a weird mystique attached to the lets face it, the relatively uncomplicated act of getting undressed and getting wet.

This is my personal account of taking my existing relationship with the sea, one that has included scuba diving as well as swimming, to a new and unexpected level.

Cold Water

In January 2020, when the notion of a pandemic and the chaos that would ensue seemed quite preposterous to me, I found myself following a friend and local sporting hero on social media who had been swimming through the winter. She, along with a group of (mostly) women, regularly swam off our local Portsmouth beach, right through the coldest months of the year. It looked great, if slightly unhinged and I really wanted to join in. Then Covid and lockdown entered our lives and vocabulary and, for a while, I forgot about everything except trying not to catch the virus. Easter came and went and I hardly ventured outside of the house, not least because we had my elderly mum staying with us for several weeks and I became a full-time carer.

However, once mum was able to move back into her flat, I started going to the beach and found myself desperate to get into the sea. It was now the beginning of May and yes, the water was fresh!

The body has a clearly defined and well-documented response to immersion in cold water. It is, at once, an assault and an energising stimulant. Your blood pressure goes up, your breathing becomes gasps, your nerves zing and I swear you can feel your internal organs contract (well, maybe that’s just me!) But, and this is the thing, you can learn to accommodate this reaction, to acclimatize your body, to control your breathing (it really is all about the breath, the exhale), to relax your tensed muscles, to embrace the cold and then welcome it, wallow in it, love it.

All that is required is for you to be present, focused, alert and surrendered all at once.

The biggest benefit for me, in all of this, was not, however, the physical sense of wellbeing. It was the fact that, in going swimming in the sea, I was able to maintain contact – in real life – with my best friend, because she came too.

Since last May we have swum together several times a week, always socially distanced – she is a senior nurse in ICU and I am clinically extremely vulnerable. We’re both healthcare professionals (I’m retired) and we both understand the principles of infection control. The act of going swimming moved beyond mere exercise and getting some fresh air, it became more than a routine, providing a focus and structure in this chaotic and dystopian world. It has become a ritual, a celebration and an anchor.

The Process

Each swim begins the day before when we are in contact via WhatsApp, exchanging details of tide times, sea state, weather conditions and work commitments. We agree on a time to meet on the beach and then we prepare. Swim kit is packed. Swimsuit (our personal challenge is to avoid wearing a wetsuit), goggles, hats, tow-float, swim watches, towels, a flask of hot drink, hot water bottle, extra warm layers of clothing, waterproof changing robe all organised into a bag ready to go.

There is a methodical wonderfulness in the way we first wave to one another, then chatter briefly before setting onto the shingle, shedding clothes down to our swim gear and then striding – we always stride – down to the water’s edge and then walk straight in – without hesitation. I like to start jumping up and down in the water, laughing or shrieking, as the water gets deeper. I whoosh my out breath forcefully and inhale deeply, overriding my gasp reflex. It calms and strengthens me as I immerse myself to swim.

Catriona simply slips her shoulders beneath the waves and exhales. I watch the stress melt away from her dear face, the world’s biggest smile taking its place. We remain several feet apart as we swim, talk, take photos, marvel at nature, sing or cry. We keep an eye on how our hands and fingers are feeling – a loss of dexterity is an indicator that your body is pretty cold and you need to be getting out. During the summer months, we were swimming for anything up to two hours at a time. Now, in January, the water temperature is around six degrees and we manage 10-15 minutes before our fingers start to seize up and it’s time to exit.

The ritual extends to emerging from the sea, beaming and burnished, getting dried, dressed and warmed up as quickly as we can whilst continuing to bask in the heady mix of endorphins and companionship.

The Bond

We have both noticed how much we enjoy the view of the world from sea level, in the water. It is time out of time when the world and its business stands still. The water that holds us suspended in its cold depths connects us to one another. On Christmas Eve we enjoyed singing carols as we bobbed in the waves and then on Christmas day we exchanged gifts before donning novelty hats to swim in.

As I write this – I’m thinking about the swim we have planned for tomorrow. It has been a week since our last swim, Catriona’s work schedule has been punishing to say the least, and storm Cristoph laid waste to the few possibilities of getting into the water safely.

It’s okay though. The sea isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. It’ll be there tomorrow to welcome us. We’re both hoping that the water temperature will have fallen further – another boundary to push at, another day of feeling very alive.

My Conversion to Mountains and Other Matters


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The Track Re-visited

 I am here again. On Asanga’s wild land. Slow running up the track that I walked and slowly ran up during the first lockdown in March and April 2020 when I was here in N Wales, in Gwynedd and scared. Of Covid. Of societal collapse. Of the food chain failure. Of being treated as an interloper and sent home to London.

This is where I saw that hand-written sign on the telegraph pole right at the start of the track – GO HOME STAY HOME.

What happens when you – that is me, 67, and my partner, Asanga, 77 – have in a very small way become a poster couple for Living Apart – last year we were just about to be on the One Show when Covid hit and I’ve written various articles about it – and then are thrown together by lockdown?

Suddenly instead of Living Apart – as in five hours apart by car, we were Living Together in Wales. Heavens to Murgatroyd!

The first time round, we learnt a lot. It was not a pretty sight. There was quite a lot of shouting. I am a woman of my own terrain, and then I was on his admittedly very beautiful wild terrain and in his farmhouse. The trouble for me was it was exactly that – it is his. And he had very precise ideas about the execution of most household tasks. I struggled with this dynamic. I had lived on my own for far too long. No wonder he refers to me as the Duchess of Harlesden!

I enjoyed returning to London at the beginning of June. To the friendliness of the city. To my road’s tight squeeze of terraced houses. To people. To neighbours. Friends. I revelled in that warmth. It’s a topsy turvy world in more ways than one. Well, okay, not everyone yearns to live in the countryside. But there is a growing trend amongst my friends for moving out of the city.

And now in January 2021, back on the track, there are no shoots of new growth. No blackthorn blossom. No hare. No vole. No willow warblers. Just the bare bones of the trees to identify. And those mountains.

Those Mountains

Asanga moved up here for the mountains. He has been a rock climber since his teens, but had a major climbing accident in his early 50s, took 15 years off, then returned again to the crags in his mid-60s. By the time I met him, he’d more or less given up because he couldn’t attain the same levels. I used to joke vaingloriously ‘I am your mountain now’. Ha ha.

No Ropes, No Ropes, No Ropes 

Like a balletic Welsh goat

he devils the overhang.

A saucy clamberer, his ferocity

belies any sinking libido.

Before me, he’s a circus performer

eager to reverse salty-old-lady disapproval.

Tantric Goddess (Eyewear 2017).

I’ve given up being his mountain now though! More recently, Asanga has started going to an indoor climbing wall and joined the Mega-Vet competition for the Over-70s. The wonderful Ginger Cain aged 90 died recently so maybe he’s in with a chance! Formerly a bit of a purist about outdoor climbing, he’s now an avid indoor climber too. And during the lockdown, of course, there is the Zoom Climbing Group where they cook up their next ventures – sea stacks, slabs, overhangs – when it’s possible to go out again.

Five years ago, Asanga took me into the mountains, up Tryfan, a 3,000 ft mountain in Snowdonia. I was unprepared. I had had very little sleep.

We scrambled up the final rocks and it was scarily windy and misty on top. This is what mountain-lovers call ‘atmospheric’ and I found terrifying. And the way down was much worse. Not the manouvering between rocks but the long journey down with the loose stone to negotiate. By the end, I was trembling with exhaustion.

It put me off. I love the coastal paths from Borth y Gest to Samson’s Cove, the pebbly beach at Criccieth, the Dwyfor river walks down past stunning reed beds, I love the woods at Tremadog and the walk along the Glaslyn gorge near Beddgelert.

But I was wary about mountains.

The turning point was more of a gentle roll. We had talked about going up Cnicht, which is referred to as the Welsh Matterhorn – it’s the shape – for years. But somehow we had never made it. I’d been sticking to the sea, rivers and woods.

Yet my appreciation of Asanga’s climbing skills – his nimbleness and balance, that ‘balletic goat’ stuff – had been growing. Secretly. I started to be able to actually listen to his amazing accounts of ice climbs, of Himalayan treks or of leading feats at outrageous sea cliff locations. And even watch the very occasional climbing film like Free Solo.

Gradually it came to me that it would be great to join him in some way. Not climbing. Even if I laughing talk about it. But by finally going up Cnicht together. A going towards – from me. A sharing of his mountain love.

Finally, we went. I was anxious. Not just about being on ice and snow while climbing upwards but also about wearing the right clothes. I borrowed boots from this daughter – Asanga bought new laces – he found me some purple rainproof over trousers, I had layers, a woolly hat. My first and maybe last time in a woolly hat. I have to add that I still had flowers in my hair underneath. My loyalty to floral adornment did not waver. Oh yes, and the gaiters – they had straps that went underneath my boots and waterproof material which went up to my knees.

I looked hideous but was so content to be ready for the mud, the ice, the snow. I was also warm. This was a good start. Also, Asanga was reassuringly organised when it came to getting ready. Flasks of tea and hot chocolate.

‘Look, I’ve got these two survival blankets,’ he announced showing me these two shiny packages. I am still not sure whether he should have told me that or not. But I understood that the intention was to keep us safe whatever the outcome.

Importantly for me, we discussed various possible eventualities before we went. I said that I felt vulnerable, that mountains were his territory and unknown to me, and that I might have to say that I’d gone far enough. He agreed that that was okay. I had to do this because I didn’t want to feel pressurised into going to the top. I knew that he would want to go to the peak.

The climb starts in the spectacular mountain-cradled village of Croesor and a mossy oak wood. Reassuringly, there were four young people leaving at the same time as us. ‘Good luck,’ said a broadly smiling woman.

The lowlands were muddy and sheep-scattered, we could see one peak ahead, but it turns out there is another ‘true peak’ behind that. As we walked, we looked down and saw the Glaslyn Estuary at Borth Y Gest and the Cob, as well as the other snow-covered peaks around us – Moelwyn Mawr to the right, the Nantlle ridge to the left. I was a little concerned about the clouds coming down and being engulfed in grey. I was afraid of getting lost even though Asanga knew the way.

And it was raining. Raining was unexpected and not what I wanted on this mountain walk. It turned into sleet as we got further up. But there were sheltered pauses. I avoided all the ice at first, and then found what bits I could walk on safely. Of course, it’s all about feeling confident. And the sticks – this was my first time – helped with balance. Asanga really is like a mountain creature when he gets going on these steep trails and the sticks were a good aid for me.

At about a 1,000 feet, we got to the snow line. In fact, it was still fairly thick and we were accompanied in our hot chocolate drinking by the deep croak of a raven flying back and forth. We wished for a peregrine but the raven was thrilling in itself.

Now, we started a steeper climb, winding carefully up this spinal ridge because there was a drop on the other side. I followed Asanga. I was happy for him to lead. Of course. He was exhilarated to be up here in his magnificent mountains again. He really is in his element.

I took in the silence. I felt the aloneness. The snow and ice. And that sense of expansiveness as we looked down to nothing except other hills and peaks. No cars, no villages. Just the mountains.

And as we kept on, it wasn’t physical tiredness that got to me, it was more the constant sleet and the grey clouds descending. And the drop down the side. There came a point where I felt my ‘No’ gather strength and eventually emerge. Asanga graciously accepted. We were three quarters of the way up, I didn’t feel the need to get to the peak.

Afterwards, I felt content that I’d done it. And I know Asanga did too. I had shared a few steps of his grand passion. My going towards had created a new layer of togetherness. I could feel the difference in our disagreements. There was a different layer there. A new trust. Another bit of the love web. 

Ayurvedic advice in the time of the Coronavirus: Do we need a paradigm shift?


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These are challenging times…

Even if we are not concerned about our own health, we may have loved ones who are at risk, and it may be that the only way we can protect them is by staying away. Jobs are in jeopardy, incomes are compromised and above all, there is much that is unknown: How fast will the virus spread? How quickly will it peak? And what is my relationship to this unknown threat? Am I reassured by knowing that for most people it is a mild disease with no danger? Or is there an overwhelming sense of panic and visions of the worst possible outcomes?

Sometimes a current event can trigger deep ancestral fears that live on in our unconscious and we may find ourselves unable to keep a cool head. Recognising that this is the case can prompt us to find ways of helping ourselves; essentially by slowing down and focusing on the basics – adequate rest and some mental discipline as well as a good diet to increase our resilience.

Which is the real killer?

is it Exhibit A – THE AGENT, the focus of all our attention right now – the Coronavirus?

or is it Exhibit B – THE ENVIRONMENT – a damaged Microbiome?

We are so used to seeing the enemy as being out there, whether it’s a virus, a bacteria or a malignant tumour. If only we could avoid it / kill it / vaccinate against it: in all these approaches we are assuming the agent is the problem. However, our bodies play host to a whole concert of these agents, some of them deadly, some friendly and many which are relatively benign, as long as they are in balance. And the idea of balance is key when we are talking about a healthy microbiome.

Did you know that 80% of your immune system is in your gut? What if the choices you make – food and lifestyle could be used to enhance your immunity? Read on if you want to begin to take charge of your health outcomes…

According to Ayurveda, it’s not only what we eat that has an influence on our health. How, when and in what state we eat our food will have an influence on how well we digest it and whether it becomes nourishment for our bodies or, in an incompletely digested form, becomes the toxins that lead to poor health outcomes.

Why is this important for us to be aware of?

Because every time we trigger our stress response (fight/flight/freeze) our digestion shuts down and our immune system is suppressed. So when I listen to the latest statistics about the rising number of cases/fatalities or when I think about what will be the fate of my loved ones or wonder how we will survive financially…. my immunity drops. This information could be deeply depressing, but it could also be empowering; because it means that I hold the key to improving my immunity.

It’s also a key thing to remember because those of us who are health conscious tend to obsess about what we eat, when in fact the state of our nervous system has an even bigger impact.

We know from statistics that catching Covid19 (Coronavirus) will be relatively harmless for 80% of the population. And we know that the other 20% – those who are over 70 as well as those with pre-existing medical conditions such as diabetes, heart disease etc. have a higher risk of complications and fatalities. What is it about age or health conditions which leads to this huge difference in impact?

Most of us don’t follow a perfect diet and so one of the things that happen gradually as we age, or more rapidly if we don’t look after ourselves, is that this begins to have an impact on the gut. Inadequate fibre in the diet leads to damage in the lining of the gut as the bacteria (which live largely on fibre) begin instead to consume the mucus lining which protects the gut. At the same time, incompletely digested food creates toxins, and these together with gliadin, the indigestible gluten found in wheat, begin to leak through the damaged gut lining into the bloodstream triggering an inflammatory response from the immune system and leading to chronic inflammation – the condition which plays a major role in many of the chronic health conditions now endemic in our society.

The diet and lifestyle advice (see below) will encourage a healthy microbiome and increase our immunity and well being.

And if you are reading this and thinking: “I am definitely in the 20% and it’s too far down the line…” there are many reasons to not despair! Our bodies are all on a journey and the final destination is death. You may be further along in the journey, but we will all have to face that eventually – our bodies are not immortal… But even when it is too late to heal the body, healing is always possible for our hearts and soul. Peace, acceptance and love are experiences that we can touch and grow.

And maybe you’re not quite at that stage yet! In that case, there are more drastic measures –interventions such as detox programmes and herbal remedies that can provide more support and begin to shift long-term health issues. Those require 1:1 guidance from an Ayurvedic Practitioner or Complementary Health Practitioner. The Ayurvedic Professionals Association has a Directory of Practitioners around the country. Many of us will also be working by skype during the pandemic. And of course there are Naturopaths, Herbalists, Chinese Medical Practitoners and many other ways to support yourself during this challenging time. Set an intention for yourself and you will find the support you need.

Ayurvedic tips for boosting immunity 

Ensure you get adequate rest to allow your immune system to do its job of keeping you healthy

Keep a sense of perspective as much as possible. Fear begets fear and reduces our immunity in the process: Consider how much media and which content is helpful for you to be exposed to.

Much of what we may fear is connected to the unknown and may never happen. If we focus on the present moment and what is needed right now our energy will stay grounded.

Expressions of love boost our immunity – whether it’s speaking to someone we love, thinking about them, doing something to help someone, enjoying touch by eg. stroking a pet or the Ayurvedic practice of self-massage with sesame oil and of course, sexual intimacy: All of these will stimulate the release of Oxytocin: the ‘love hormone’ and give a boost to our immune system.

Ayurvedic diet advice for all mucus-related conditions (eg. coughs, colds, flu)

Follow a light diet with warm soups or stews and fewer carbohydrates than usual. Herbs & spices such as basil, thyme, oregano, black pepper and ginger will help reduce mucus. Use moderate amounts of high-quality fats such as ghee and coconut oil. Stewed fruit with spices such as cinnamon is a good source of iron and fibre. Above all, don’t eat unless you have a real appetite and avoid eating late at night.

Vegetables are high in fibre and detoxifying. The only ones to minimise are the nightshade family (tomatoes, aubergine, potato, peppers) as they are inflammatory. The onion family, including leeks & garlic, contain allicin which is anti-viral and antibacterial. Garlic has more potency (medicinally as well as on your breath!) when uncooked. If you can’t find fresh greens in the shops, nettles are a great source of vitamin C and iron. You can use them in soups, omelettes etc.

Small amounts of a non-dairy fermented product such as sauerkraut can be helpful as probiotic support.

Avoid the following: Dairy products, especially cheese, yoghurt, milk & ice cream; bananas; cold food and drinks (including beer); uncooked fruit, salads, raw food; food that is difficult to digest e.g because it is fried or heavy, such as red meat and wheat (spelt is a good alternative); puddings, cakes, biscuits & sweets.

Best options for a sweet tooth: One ginger biscuit or a rice cake with honey or a few raisins or a spoonful of Chywanprash: an Ayurvedic jam, which is a tonic for the lungs.

Vitamin D is essential for a strong immune system. Non-vegans will source this from fish, meat and/or eggs. The sun is an ideal source, but until we get some, vegans and anyone who suspects their levels are low is recommended to take Vit D3 + K2 as a supplement.

Ginger, turmeric and green tea support immunity. Use ginger water (made by boiling a couple of slices of fresh ginger with a cupful of water for a few minutes) and/or drink green tea or a herbal tea containing turmeric. If you have been exposed to a virus, regular warm drinks will clear it from your throat area and flush it into your stomach; so keeping a thermos flask with you and taking a sip every 20 minutes is advised.

If you use anti-bacterial products, make sure you also wash your hands before eating, as you don’t want the chemicals to end up in your gut where they can destroy good as well as bad bacteria and lead to an imbalance in the gut flora.

Beware of using Ibuprofen if you catch the virus:  https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/14/anti-inflammatory-drugs-may-aggravate-coronavirus-infection

Home remedy for immunity

Gargle twice a day (after breakfast and before bed) with turmeric and salt – as a preventative or when there is an active infection. Use ½ tsp turmeric + ¼ tsp salt in 1/3 cup hot water.

Looking after ourselves and our loved ones and taking simple measures to limit transmission (handwashing, self-isolation if you are unwell, social distancing) and keeping a sense of perspective will help us all.

One 66 year old Man’s Route to Major Personal Change


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This is about change, personal change, the desire for it, the need for it, the context of it, the possibility of it, and the experience of it.

I don’t want to come across as preachy, self-obsessed, needy, screechy, and so on, (as if!) and I am NOT a therapist, medical practitioner, psychoanalyst or expert in any way. I can only describe my experience.

I was born in 1951, a baby boy, in what was then Cumberland, a lovely part of the world. With friendly, open people, a strong sense of mysticism rooted in the dark hills, unpredictable weather, open countryside, the lakes, the moors, the ruins, the legacy of the Lakeland poets, standing stones, Roman occupation and invasion attempts from beyond Hadrian’s Wall. There was also immense potential for drama and isolation.

Black Sabbath lived in my hometown Carlisle for a while. Their doomy oeuvre is usually analysed in terms of bleak industrialism, soul-crushing factory work but I also hear their banshee call of the wild deserted moors that they would have crossed late at night in their van. There’s also the thrill of local supernatural legends, like the Croglin Hall vampire in their songs.

My childhood was spent in a society emerging from post-war shortages, attempting to rebuild Britain, with its new heroes, James Bond, Doctor Who, the rise of television and radio, the early days of multiculturalism. Into this world, shockingly to my parents’ generation, came the revolutionary force of teenage culture, rock and roll, hippies, drugs, permissiveness, Swinging London (it sounds so quaint now, it was so exciting then), and into this world, I emerged as a young adult, longing to be part of it, but not quite sure how to achieve that, and blundering along through a very large part of my life, a spoiled only child who threw himself at the brave new land.

Alcohol played a large part of my life. I regret that. But this is all history now but then there was a backdrop to a life of bingeing, yoyoing weight, car crash relationships, divorces, rock and roll, stressful work, money worries (yes, I know, it’s the same for pretty well all of us, but, of course, the world revolves around MEEEEEE), and a gradual slomo glide towards a final crisis. There was the slow dawning that I’d got a lot of things wrong, and harmed people I really cared about.

I had a full breakdown, lots of medical intervention (the NHS were brilliant). It was described as clinical depression, something I regard as different from morbid melancholia. My physical symptoms were – trembling hands, racing heart, gasping for breath, overwhelming feebleness (no driving, no socialising, crawling to the toilet, friends doing errands for me, even driving me to the GP), long, long periods of motionless sleep, hands folded over chest, periods of staring blankly into space for hours, no reading, no TV, no work, nothing achieved, no sorrow, no joy, nothing, but sudden attacks of helpless sobbing, coming out of the blue.

It wasn’t hell, or misery; it was just nothing. Nothing mentally, zoned out, blank, gone, withdrawn inside a feeble, trembling body overdosing on adrenalin. That was a few years ago. I recovered as my GP told me I would. She was brilliant, and she was right. But it didn’t dawn on me that the real underlying problem was still there. The horrible sense of guilt and regret that I’d conducted my life badly. I did share this with friends, but they dismissed my fears, kindly, compassionately.

I felt I was stuck in an inescapable prison, I just accepted it, and carried on with life, busying myself as my strength returned, business as usual, telling myself I’m okay. Really, I’m okay. And so it went on. With that lurking black cloud of guilt over divorce, financial loss. Things that would affect my son, not just me, but were caused by me. (I’m okay, really, I’m okay).

Still binging, still chaotic. My mother died, I had to look after my very old father for several years. That was pretty tough, but it did teach me that, well, sometimes, you have to face your destiny, and that life isn’t one long joke. He passed away in 2017, after years of decline. He was in the RAF in WW2, born during WW1. Imagine the difference between us; he actually had moral courage.

In March 2018, something happened. My son sent me a wounding, angry email (he lives with me, but he used email to communicate this message). He told he it was time I stopped messing around, harming people, blowing hot and cold, complaining endlessly but never doing anything to improve things. Brattish behaviour. Spoiled child behaviour. He said in no uncertain terms that if I didn’t sort myself out, within a week, then things would be unpleasant between us.

I love my son. He is everything to me, and I hadn’t realised how bad things had got, how oblivious I had been. He told me that he was worried about me, that other people were worried too, even though I thought everything was fine. So I did what he said. It was brutal, it was hard, but I tidied up a lot of loose ends. Actually, it was laughably easy. It occurred to me then that a metamorphosis can be easy. Even should be easy. Even actually is really pleasurable.

But how could I do it? I’d been on diets, I’d been to gyms, I’d cycled, I’d been slim, I’d been fat, up and down, round and round, precious little willpower (it seemed to me, making excuses yet again), I’d be drunk, I’d be dry … there was no consistency, no sense of real, long-term gain, just knee-jerk quick fixes, including lying, deception, secrecy, all those little monsters scurrying around in the spoiled little boy’s psyche, neglecting friends, disappointing people I cared about, losing their respect, all that stuff.

So how to go about it? Some lights started to go on. I read, I googled, I youtubed, I sought out the things I’d missed or sneered at, the pinnacles of human achievement, inspiration, courage and liberation. I reflected on the notion of self-reinvention, like Bowie or Madonna. If they could do it, even in the context of the music world, then why couldn’t I? I’d remember seeing a movie, with Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin, who were trying to survive in the wilderness. And Hopkins’ repeated mantra was: “If one man can do it, another man can.”

It stayed with me. But here’s the problem: I have got fit, then slid back; I have dieted, then gone back to large fries and chocolate shakes. It’s not just how to do it, but how to keep on doing it. So I youtubed, I read, I googled … self-help stuff, motivational stuff, this diet, that diet, and still I was blundering along, but things were slowly becoming clearer.

I knew I’d been very unhappy for a long, long time, and I couldn’t break the binge cycle of action and reaction, or so I thought. How to go about it? I’d look at drawers full of clothes that were too small and think I’d never be able to wear them, but not want to get rid of them, because that would signal the acceptance of final capitulation to a chaotic lifestyle, and its aftermath. I’d waste money, miss golden opportunities, break up good relationships. It was as though I was frightened of success.

It all came to a head last March, because that same weekend I’d seen Don Giovanni in Southampton, and I’d checked the dates. Strange that it was THAT opera. THAT weekend. Synchronistic, one might reflect.

In the course of youtubing, something clicked. Motivational clips are often quite boring, predictable, and usually they are angling to sell you something, but amongst all of that there was something. Two things, in fact. One was transformation. The other was toxicity.

Let’s do toxicity first. What my son was really telling me was – get rid of poison in your life! Get rid of it. Toxicity isn’t just about substances like alcohol, tobacco and so on. There is also social toxicity, emotional toxicity, moral toxicity and, for me the biggie: psychic toxicity. I’ve listened to people moralise about young people self-harming, and, yes, it is a terrible thing, but those judging these young people might be grossly unhealthy themselves, without realising that they are self-harming too, in a terrible, terrible way, blindly, with good intentions, and, (the most horrible thought of all), that I was like it myself. Quis custodiet ipsos custodiens? Is that how it goes? So true. I was poisoning myself with guilt, regret, overwork, dark thoughts, melancholia, rejection of society, negativity, introversion. I was a psychic self-harmer. We all are, to a greater or lesser extent. It was suddenly so clear and obvious to me. I could not become well, or at least better, until I stopped poisoning myself.

It seems to me that toxicity is very BAD for us, to put it simply, tritely even. But let’s think about it. Psychic toxicity is BAD too, banal though that might sound. You know, and you feel, how your body reacts to toxic junk food. That’s a given, I think, so … why did I do it? Some kind of post-Freudian self-flagellation thing? Probably. Nice flavour? Something like that. It’s the same with junk emotions, junk mindsets, junk values, junk irrationality, they poison you, and lead you to real self harm, to comfort eating, to retail therapy, as it’s jokingly called. To waste, to anger, embitterment, resentment, excess. Whatever. I became bloated, and limited in my choice of clothing. It was shit. Because of self-poisoning. Why? One thing is for sure: ultimately, you are the one who will pay for it. So don’t do it. It sounds banal and crude, and I do apologise for this, but I’ll still continue, even though you are already thinking about things you do to yourselves that are toxic. Do I need to name them? Do you need to throw them out, push them away like a raft that once brought you to safety, but is now allowed to drift off because it isn’t needed anymore?

It seems so obvious to stop. We beat ourselves up, and it is counterproductive. At this point I have to say this especially includes toxic relationships. Sorry. I apologise again for being preachy, I am truly sorry, but I am describing a life-changing experience. I am NOT telling you what to do.

Now is when you are really going to hate me. There is one thing that is not optional. We all know that, don’t we? Again, it’s obvious, so simple, but it seems so hard to keep going. Let’s think of it this way: not exercising is in itself a form of toxicity. You have the option. And all of this can be done at home. It is an incredibly exciting thing to experience, trust me. I’d say one of the most exciting things I’ve ever experienced, (in a very clunky, bedraggled life that has included clinging terrified onto a horse bolting through strange woodland), is to see the world this way, then react accordingly. You’re NOT on a diet, you’re NOT slogging painfully away. You are relaxing, and you are not beating yourself up any more. THIS IS THE KEY.

Soooooooo easy, soooo obvious, really. I’m ranting. Forgive me, I don’t want to piss you off. It gets worse though. It’s almost like … well, it actually is … a psychedelic experience. Seriously, your perception alters, things just seem to intensify. This is just what happened to me, between the ages of 66 and 67. I dropped from XL to M, waist from 44 to 36. Without feeling I had to do something, had to join a gym, had to get on a bike, had to limit what I ate, had to take supplements … once I stopped agonising (ie psychically poisoning myself), I just did these things naturally, with really very little effort, as though they were happening to me, and all I had to do was go with the flow, let it wash over me.

It’s boring to read this, I’m sure. I have zero willpower, but something stirred inside me (honestly, stop laughing) and I found myself going to a gym, then, imagine it, this hot summer of 2018, cycling nearly every day, off-road, in open countryside, along route 23 on the Isle of Wight, amongst rabbits, squirrels, herons, jays, woodpeckers … stopping for a pot of tea at Pedallers’ cafe (highly recommended). It was utter, utter, joy. It just was, and it still is. I even whistle sometimes. But exercise doesn’t seem like a task, it’s more like a pleasing ritual for me, doing crunches with music or a lecture playing, so I’m not exercising, I’m listening, and learning. I just do this and that while I’m listening. This has been my journey since March 2018. At some points before that, I did lose track, but life seems better now.

Sleep – That Old Bugbear!


6 Minute Read

Maxine Cook is a psychologist, complementary therapist and sleep disorder treatment specialist. She works with clients that have a long-standing problem with sleep that has become a chronic condition.

People generally tend to grossly underestimate the importance of good sleep. I’ve had countless conversations with people who say to me, ‘Oh, I haven’t slept well for years!’ It is all too often dismissed with a bit of a chuckle and a wave of the hand as if it’s not that important.

That is, however, a situation where not realising how critical it is to get a good night’s sleep (not just occasionally but regularly) is, in fact, costing people their health and in some cases their lives.

Most people are not aware of the real science of sleep, and the extent to which restorative rest supports and maintains the immune system, organ function and emotional health.

We are biologically designed to heal ourselves through various automatic processes. A direct example of this is the body’s ability to seal off a break in the skin (with a scab), to help prevent infection. Another is the body’s manufacture of white blood cells that directly attack viruses and overcome bacteria that can impair or destroy the healing process.

It is all part of our biological barometer of homeostasis, where our bodies seek to systemically maintain us at an optimal level of temperature, satiety, hydration etc. Sleep is the biggest enabler of healing and homeostasis. We are pre-programmed to go down to a baseline level of sleep each night where the body and brain automatically repair and heal from a wide variety of emotional stressors and physical complaints.

For most people, however, modern life and the stresses and challenges they bring – act as direct blocks to us getting to that level. Sleep dysfunction is becoming a problem of epidemic proportions, all across the world, prompting scientists to learn more about what lack of sleep means in real terms for our health and wellbeing.

When we experience sleep deprivation, we tend to become well acquainted with the more salient aspects of it, such as irritability, exhaustion, and an inability to concentrate. We understand how that affects our reaction times, our thought processes, our ability to sustain healthy relationships and function well at work, etc. What we tend to be less aware of – is becoming disconnected from our homeostatic process and the systemic damage we incur as a result.

If sleeplessness goes on for a long time (as in more than a few days), we actively sabotage our own ability to heal. Our immune system, for example, literally loses its ability to protect us from infection. We also fail to remain robust enough to avoid emotional consequences as well, such as anxiety and depression. These can arise when the brain doesn’t get the chance to restore and strengthen mental functioning as one of the natural healing functions facilitated by good sleep.

Sleep is the most fundamental cornerstone of health and wellbeing. Regular good quality sleep is critical to maintaining health and optimising lifespan. Insomnia can directly and systematically sabotage both. In short, we can get sick when we don’t need to, and we can die years before we’re supposed to, as a direct result of not getting enough sleep.

Each person is individually affected by sleep dysfunction. There are different types of insomnia that affect people in different ways, at different times, and for different reasons. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ remedy, which is why I tailor specific Sleep Reset Programs to individual needs.

I carry out a comprehensive health, lifestyle, environmental and social assessment with each client to determine where they are currently at, how they got there, and what individual factors are contributing to their sleep problems. I look at symptomatology and how the client’s life and health are being affected, and I then set up a treatment protocol that will deal directly with the issues that a particular client is facing.

There may be a need for brainwave re-patterning (retraining the brain to go down to the optimal baseline level of restorative, healing sleep), circadian rhythm re-setting, lifestyle changes and cognitive reframing. It could be a combination of strategies, depending on the individual. Happily, for most people, these changes are not radical.

They are more of a gentle modification, a series of tweaks and re-balances that provide a more stable platform for the treatment program to work. For instance, someone may need to eat at a different time in the evening or stop drinking coffee at a specific time of the day. They may need to simply think differently about what it means to go to bed to sleep or adjust their expectations of the capabilities of their bodies and brains.

It takes the brain roughly 60 days to learn a new habit and get rid of an old one. My most popular program runs for eight weeks, after which the vast majority of my clients have learned to sleep properly again and also the necessary tools and strategies to ensure it stays that way.

I also have a more intensive 12-week program which is only needed by about 5% of clients. They often have a more deep-seated cognitive or psychological dysfunction (e.g. trauma response or PTSD) that requires more intensive psychological support.   I offer complimentary preliminary assessments to people considering a Sleep Reset Program, where we identify the issues and discuss suitability.

The good news is that, barring an underlying medical problem, most sleep disorders are relatively easy and straightforward to correct. With time and commitment to the process, most people do resolve their sleep issues.

Maxine’s Top Tips For Better Sleep

Make sure you are adequately hydrated before going to bed. If your body needs the water, you won’t wake up in the night to go to the loo.

Sleep in a room at the optimal temperature on 18C which significantly increases the chances of good sleep.

Don’t wear restrictive clothing to bed and try to avoid synthetic fibres. The body operates well with natural materials such as cotton or silk.

Don’t read in bed to fall asleep. Read in another room, then when you feel sleepy, go to bed. The brain then learns to associate bed with sleep.

Use foam earplugs if you’re a light sleeper, as this will filter out specific noise frequencies that might keep you awake or wake you up.

Try to go to bed at the same time each night and rise at the same time each day, this will help reset circadian rhythms.

Don’t eat a full meal late at night – aim to have your evening meal finished at least two and a half hours before going to bed.

http://www.maxinecook.com/

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