Saturday, 10 March 2018

Something extra - ground breaking BBC podcast on cancer and mental health.

Nine years ago I met a young woman called Rachael Hodges. She was working on a late night radio programme on BBC 5Live with Richard Bacon. At a challenging time in my life, which meant difficulty in sleeping, I became a regular listener to late night radio, especially the Richard Bacon Show. Rachael was the sidekick, keeping him in order and helping provide huge entertainment, especially for a small band of dedicated listeners at 12.30am. I'm asleep at that time these days.

Life moves on and there have been many changes for everyone. Rachael still sometimes works on late night radio, though at the moment she can be found on Drive Time at 17.00pm with Tony Livesey. Since 2009, Rachael has moved with BBC5Live to Salford, married Steve Bland, had a child called Freddie and developed a particularly complex type of breast cancer.

Since her diagnosis and using her journalistic and broadcast skills, Rachael has been writing an award winning Blog, 'Little Me, Big C'. After connecting with other bloggers with cancer, three of them have created some podcasts for Radio 5Live called, 'You, Me, Big C'. The podcasts were launched this week. They were motivated by finding that there was little out there for women in the 30s/40s with a cancer diagnosis.

I have listened to 'About the head' podcast today. In my opinion it is the most open, honest and helpful conversation that has been made by people experiencing cancer. No psychobabble, just raw honesty. I haven't been diagnosed with cancer, but have learnt a lot listening to three amazing women. Personally, I believe it to be groundbreaking and post it on here to help others, which is the whole purpose of this blog.


Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Who are you really? Is your childhood label past its sell-by date?

This is the *extended Wellbeing Column, first published in the York Press on Tuesday, February 27th, 2018

I have been reading and thoroughly enjoying, an autobiography by the actor, Stephen McGann. At present, he can been seen playing the doctor of ‘Call the Midwife’, a BBC TV series written by his wife, Heidi Thomas. The book is titled ‘Flesh and Blood: A history of my family in seven sicknesses.’ *Personally I think it's one of the best non-fiction books I've read (listened to).

Stephen’s life story has been beautifully written and in an unusual style. With a degree in medical science, Stephen has written his life story and that of his family, through the eyes of seven medical diagnosis that affected his family through one hundred and fifty years.  Seven chapters full of medical, family, social and cultural history. As I ‘listen’ to books, I also have the bonus of hearing Stephen McGann voice.

*Fascinating, when through his wife's discovery, he finds a great uncle and ship's fireman, mentioned as a survivor on the Titanic in 1912.
Horrifying, as it becomes clear that he and one of his brothers were part of the crowd at the Hillsborough disaster in 1989.
Movingly poignant, when reading about his wife's illness in 1998, which touched on my own personal experience with my husband.

Why do I think the book is worth mentioning in this column?

Stephen is the youngest of four brothers with a younger sister. The McGann brothers are all well known actors. As he was growing up, Stephen was ‘the sick one’, or ‘the weak one’. A quieter child with respiratory problems which gave him his family identity. Certainly not a child destined for a career on the the stage. But he refused to give in to his medical problems and fought against living up to his place in the family as the sickly one.

As I listened, I was reminded of adult man with anxiety problems, who through childhood, was used to his mother introducing him as. “This is Peter, our anxious one.” Now grown-up, he was reinventing himself and due a suggestion made by Dr Robert Winston on a TV programme, had made a list of all the positive characteristics he knew he truly was and kept it as a reminder in his wallet. 

Oliver, the youngest boy of four children, was experiencing an apparent school phobia and wouldn’t leave his mother at home alone. There was no phobia, but a fear of leaving his mother, who said on a daily basis, “I won’t be able to manage without him.” One reassuring conversation between his mother and the boy changed everything in a day. * I was making home visits to Oliver's mother, when I realised what was happening. I suggested that she spoke to Oliver about how she was looking forward to him going to school and reassuring him that she would be okay. Later that day, he went out in the car with his siblings and father to the shops. Something he wouldn't do before the conversation with his mother.

*I was 'the naughty one', with it's own consequences.  In the majority of cases, I don't agree in blaming our own troublesome actions on other people and thus negating adult personal responsibility. It is used as an excuse when losing control over a situation.  I do think there are reasons behind our problematic actions. Recognise a reason, do not use it as an excuse and then take control. Too many adults with mental health problems are having internal dialogues as the children they were labelled.

Are you still believing an unhelpful identity given to you in childhood? It’s time to stop. If we think like the children we once were, we may well behave as we once did. Is your family label past it's sell-by date?

‘Careful the things you say
Children will listen’
From Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim 


Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Intense 'hits' can become addictive.

This is the *extended York Press Wellbeing column, first published on Tuesday, January 30th  2018.

I was feeling fed up and my thoughts turned to chocolate. My thoughts nearly always turn to chocolate when feeling fed up. If not chocolate, something sweet. I won’t be alone and if it’s not something sweet to manage a negative mood, many people will turn to either shopping, drinking, drugs, gambling, sex, or even inexplicably to most people, self-harm. Something to distract one from accepting uncomfortable feelings and working through them. Compensation or a reward which quickly ‘hits the spot’.

*Self-harm presents images of scars, blood and burns and is certainly used to provide an intense hit, instead of managing uncomfortable or distressing emotions. But much of our everyday behaviour could be called self-harm couldn't it? If we've been diagnosed with something which could be helped by a change in our lifestyle, how many of us carry on as before, perhaps taking medication rather than changing lifestyle behaviours?  When we ignore the signs and make in choices and engage in behaviours that could be harmful, isn't that self-harm?

I’ve been writing a magazine article for Tidings magazine, a publication of Colostomy UK, about my reactions when my husband was suddenly taken seriously ill four years ago (happily he is fully recovered). Leaving the hospital at 10am in a state of shock and my mind all over the place, I craved chocolate and red wine. I could acknowledge that the wine was to ‘fuzzy the edges’ and was unwise, as I had to drive later in the day, but chocolate was an easy solution. My favoured chocolate is 90% dark chocolate, but that wasn't going to do. I needed something sweeter and more intense and turned to a Twirl bar with ‘An intense chocolate hit’ written on the side. It certainly does that, though it’s probably an intense sugar hit too. Another one and I was feeling better. Deep down I didn’t really want to eat all that chocolate, I just wanted something to take the uncomfortable emotions away. Twirl bars became my comfort food for a month and even now, when most days I can ignore the blue and yellow packaging, sometimes I give in. 

I’ve thought back to the earliest feelings of eating something sweet to make me feel better and up pops childhood experiences. *I can recall a 'stolen' digestive biscuit in an aunt's house, when I was bored and a sneaky lemon puff biscuit when I was stuck indoors unwell. 

I observe the behaviours still being played out today when I’m out and about. A crying child, a carer and instant gratification to “make it feel better”, usually food based. Most of us have done that and the message is absorbed at an early age. To make us feel better we need a treat and it’s often something sweet. 

* If the memories are not of something sweet, they may be of something that was fun. I recall a man with a gambling addiction. His childhood memories were of his mother having fun with him at seaside fruit machines. 
The need to do something 'to make us feel better' is connected with feelings of not feeling good enough, the driving force of multiple psychological problems rooted in childhood.

Cravings and planning the next ‘hit’ can be symptoms of addictive behaviour. If it’s getting out of control, seek help. Short-term gain, long-term pain.