Friday, 29 June 2012

The adjournment

There will now follow a brief adjournment.  The last twenty four weeks seem to have flown by.  When looked at as an entity, it has sped past.  Recalling each phase of the journey, the sometimes gruelling terrain is recalled.  Six months ago I came face to face with one of my biggest personal challenges - getting my head around the fact that my closest friend had been diagnosed with the dreaded 'C'.  Healthiness personified, oozing energy and zest for life, appearances had deceived us all.  Treatment commenced rapidly, and it has been a bit of a whirlwind ever since.  Adverse weather conditions are, I have come to understand, best addressed head on, one day at a time...

So, eight rounds of chemo now complete, there is a short interlude before surgery.  Options have been outlined, guidance given in abundance and decisions arrived at.  The best way to approach any decision about one's body looks just like the way one would approach any other decision - to weigh up all the different possibilities, and decide what feels best, for now.  The prospect of major surgery is a daunting one.  There is no good option, for that would be not having to go under the knife at all.  But there are best options.  Placing one's trust in the surgical team is probably a good starting point.  The leaps of faith that this journey has already entailed are akin to negotiating slippery stepping stones, unevenly spaced requiring one's longest stride, wearing a blindfold and high heels.   

Life changing doesn't really cover it.  Fighting cancer is a full time occupation but deserves not a moment longer than it actually requires.  Identity is suddenly a far more fluid concept than one's so called self can usually bear, and yet there is no other option.  Cancer undoubtedly changes its target, but need not consume them.  And so I am reminded each and every time I see or speak to my dear, brave friend.  The human pin cushion whose veins are protesting and whose hair gave up some time ago has lost not an ounce of her fighting spirit and is treating this as she might a sportive.  This is a significant milestone, but the challenge continues...     


Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Notes from the Pool: Something to splash about

Getting to the pool recently has been something of a luxury.  Swimming once I've made it there has been blissful.  It's permitted reflection aplenty, and most recently, I noticed thinking later that afternoon (for I try to swim at, or shortly before, lunchtime) about the constancy of swimming for me in recent years.

It wasn't ever thus.  I returned to the water after a long gap some years ago, after a very difficult and frightening event which prompted several significant life changes, from which I needed to heal.  Intellectually, I knew I didn't want to rely on pharmacotherapy.  Intuitively, I knew that swimming would help.  I have swum ever since.  Up and down.  Down and up.  I've swum when things have been going swimmingly, and I've swum through tough times.

"The water is your friend. You don't have to fight with water, just share the same spirit as the water, and it will help you move." 
Aleksandr Popov

I swim to get away from my thoughts and back into my body.  The weightlessness I feel in the water is unparalleled anywhere else in my waking experience.  The silence is soothing, and this is where I find clarity borne of the single focus I have when I'm immersed:  it's me, my self, and my breath.  Life in the fast lane is suddenly really very straightforward.  Swimming is maintenance for my soul and wellbeing.  I return to the pool, weekly at the very least.  With these benefits guaranteed why wouldn't I?

Routine and ritual feature in my life.  Neither scare me today.  Recovery, like swimming, is about maintaining and sustaining.  Just like meetings, I don't always feel like going, but go I do as I know I'll feel better once I'm there.  Just as with recovery, my swimming practice has little to do with how far, or fast I go - it's about checking in, with the water, and with myself. 

There's no need for me to make splashes.  I don't go for anyone but myself.  My stroke tells me all I need to know about where I'm at - the time it takes me to settle in, and get into 'the zone', establishing a breathing pattern and a rhythm.  The degree to which I'm conscious of those around me, and the way I move through the water confirm or deny my success. 

Swimming can be fluid and easy, if I let it be, allowing me to glide without effort or, I can make it hard for myself, battling and pulling myself through the water rather than joining it, and becoming at one with my environment.  It's all about where my head is - physically, in terms of my alignment in the water, and metaphorically.  Swimming is my retreat and my refuge.  I go to the pool to recharge and reconnect, replenish and recentre.  What does your pool look like?               
"H2O: two parts Heart and one part Obsession."

Monday, 25 June 2012

The race is on. The time is now.

My admin is up to date.  Correspondence is replied to.  Bills are paid.  My kitchen has been cleaned.  I have exercised as much as my body will permit.  Treats have been booked.  Carbs are being loaded.  A deadline must be on the horizon...

Indeed it is, and approaching fast.  As my tutor reminded me, elephants can be deceptive.  In the distance they look so small, tame and unthreatening.  As they approach and get closer, their true magnitude becomes clearer and more frightening.

My priority right now is not to freeze as I survey what is before me.  There is a task to be done, and do it I will.  Fears are best when met head-on.  I am well practised in the art of procrastination, but that phase has now passed.  Now it is time to remind myself of my intentions and original motivations, why I took on this project and what it means to me.

The end is in sight.  It's the final push.  I work best when I know how long I need to sustain myself for.  For me, the finish line is an important focal point.  With this, I can narrow the focus of my attention and energy.  The race is on.  The time is now.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

If... and When

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:.
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build'em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!

Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)

Kipling's poem is a favourite of mine.  He less famously referred to words as the most powerful drug used by mankind.  I find his words inspiring.  I've been thinking a lot about family dynamics recently.  Personally, and professionally, families are a solid interest for me.  They never cease to interest, excite, and baffle in equal measure.  Sharing experiences with a good friend, we began to reflect on the bonuses to be found in recovery (of any description) and self awareness allowing one to step aside, or stand back. 

Live and let live is something of a mantra for me just now.  It allows me to free up my resources and direct them towards investments more likely to produce a return (rather than adding fuel to the fire).  The statement 'you can pick your friends, but you can't choose your family' sums up the position many of us find ourselves in somewhere along the way.  Family, for me, is where recovery is most often pushed to its limits, and the often deeply engrained dynamics means this is the zone in which recovery really meets its match.

I heard someone share about their mother recently, describing her as a version of Edina from Absolutely Fabulous, famous for offering unsolicited advice and solutions to problems others have not yet noticed, let alone found troubling.  Recovery can provide the space that relationships need to thrive - offering a distance that emotional attachments can all too often negate. 

Addiction is a family illness.  It pervades the family, and affects everyone in it.  That's not to say that everyone will share the same symptoms.  Turning to drink, drugs, or some other substance is the most obvious manifestation, but addiction lurks in the shadows and the quieter effects may be no less damaging.  It is the untreated 'ism' that is pain personified.  Hurt people hurt people.  Often without knowing it. 

Knowing all this is of no value unless it informs one's response to, and within the family system.  Finding a personal meaning for the word detachment forms the basis of many recovery relationships - literally dis-engaging from another's behaviours, declaring one's independence and re-aligning responsibility to those things that one truly does have control over is an immensely liberating journey but one whose distance is not to be underestimated. 

Kipling (with whom, I just discovered, I share a birthday) was right.  Hanging up one's gloves, and choosing not to get back in the ring is, for me, the way forward.  The story continues to play out.  Most of the characters are there, true to type, familiar lines well rehearsed.  Same old, same old.  Or maybe not.  I have seen and felt the ripple effects.  There is another brilliant slogan:  Let it begin with me...  With every thought, word, action and interaction I have a choice - whether to return to my role, or surrender my script and walk off set.  Be the change you wish to see...

Reading from Courage to Change Daily Reader:  March 12

What does another person's mood, tone of voice, or state of inebriation have to do with my course of action? Nothing, unless I decide otherwise.  For example, I have learned that arguing with someone who is intoxicated is like beating my head against a brick wall. Yet, until recently, I would always dive right into the arguments, because that was what the other person seemed to want.

In recovery I discovered that I don't have to react just because I have been provoked, and I don't have to take harsh words to heart. I can remember that they are coming from someone who may be in pain, and try to show a little compassion. I certainly don't have to allow them to provoke me into doing anything I don't want to do.

Detachment with love means that I stop depending upon what others do, say, or feel to determine my own well-being or to make my decisions. When faced with other people's destructive attitudes and behavior, I can love their best, and never fear their worst.  Detachment is not caring less, it's caring more for my own serenity.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Handbags and Gladrags

I understand shopping addiction.  I respect the 12 step fellowships composed of individuals afflicted by this secret shame that hides in wardrobes.  To return or not return, that is the question that haunts the mind of a compulsive buyer.  Impulsive purchases, fuelled by something other than a rational decision made with budget in mind, and a nicely balanced equation of want vs. need. 

I too appreciate a handbag.  Sitting there, looking longingly at you.  In my right mind, I can pat and move on.  Hungry, angry, lonely or tired and it might be a completely different story.  I have a strategy - avoiding shops at such times.  They spell misery for many.  And it's not only women...  I have worked with as many men who identify this trait.  Buying for buying's sake.  When the instant that they leave the shop, the buzz is over, the high collapsed.  And the torture begins.

...Do I need it?  ...Shall I keep it?  I could return it, but...  Round and round and round.  Accessories are high risk - they don't need to be tried on.  Justification seems easy.  At the time.

If sale season is hellish, but not because you can't park, if purchasing is no longer what it once was, then maybe your wallet is trying to tell you something.  If you are sick and tired of needing to sit down before looking at your bank statement (assuming you're still opening them), or of vowing not to buy on a whim again, then it may be time to take action. 

Oniomania (from Greek ὤνιος onios "for sale" and μανία mania "insanity") is the technical term for the compulsive desire to shop, more commonly referred to as compulsive shopping, shopping addiction, shopaholism, or compulsive buying. All of these are considered to be either clinical addictions or impulse control disorders, depending on the clinical source.
Originally termed oniomania by Kraepelin (1915) and Bleuler (1924), compulsive buying has been recognised for nearly a century but though clinically categorised among other pathological and reactive impulses, has been largely ignored remaining a painful yet virtually unknown reality for many people. 

Monday, 18 June 2012

Riding it Out whilst Exercising Emotions

I got back into the saddle on Wednesday.  Having spent 7 long tough hours touring London overnight on Saturday/Sunday, the break was well earned.  Spinning was tough, but it wasn't the workout itself that pushed me further than I'd anticipated but the emotions I connected with as I defied lactic acid and worked to achieve several cardio peaks amongst the hill climbs and flat sprints.

My towel came in handy, as I found myself mopping my brow, and dabbing my eyes.  Tears came, more fully later.  I was inspired to buy a bike by her.  I upgraded that bike with her guidance in mind.  She was the first person I called when I realised my trusty Langster had been stolen in Islington.  She encouraged me to put the deposit down on my first roadbike.  And this week she's being feeling crappy.

The tail end of chemo has hit hard.  It's no longer nausea that troubles her, but joint ache and fatigue that kick in a few days after cannulation.  Cycle Seven was done and dusted last Friday, but the side effects endured well into the following week.  I struggle to think of her unable to get up and go the way she always has.  It baffles me to think of her finding it difficult to bounce back. 

Charlotte is tough.  She is made of strong stuff.  The strongest to come out of the hardy North East, to be precise.  This alien has met its match, but the recent rounds of this enduring battle have been long and drawn out.  Even the finest and best polished resources are finite.  They require regular replenishment, and there is no room for extravagance where energy is concerned. 

Being firmly grounded is essential.  Cancer brings you down to earth with a crashing thud, and there is only one recourse - to get up.  Remaining realistic is a gift, and one that needs reinforcement by trusted individuals sharing an outlook. 

We none of us know what the future holds.  We can't.  It was never in any of our hands, and certainly isn't now.  And this is why sometimes I get off the bike feeling like I've been in the ring with an international heavyweight - the emotions that bubble up when someone you love is going through what she is are indeed heavy. 

I am coming to terms with another version of powerlessness.  I am accepting that life has changed.  Inexplicably but undeniably, life is not what it was.  But then that's all we ever can rely on - everything changes.  Nothing stands still.  Somehow, spinning my legs round and round, on a motionless bike in almost darkness accompanied by loud music focusing on little else but my breathing ('in yer nose and out ya mouth') is exactly what I need, to impress upon myself this noble truth. 

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Let's talk about sex

Nudge nudge, wink wink!   A bit of Rumpy Pumpy.  Practising Mattress Dancing.  Doing the Bed Boogie.  Getting stuck into some Nookie.  Going for a horizontal jog.  Visiting the Netherlands.  The birds and the bees. 

Call it what you will.  Everyone's at it, but rarely do we talk about it.  Therapy is a safe space in which to talk about experiences, real or imagined, free from judgment or taboo.  No holds barred.  Each and every one of us has a sexual identity.  All too often it is a part of ourselves that we keep hidden. 

The therapy room is one of the few environments in which we can explore our desires, our fantasies and our behaviours to see where they converge and identify any sources of discomfort or difficulty.  It is a precious space, in which we can come out of the closet to give a voice to the frequently unspoken, to integrate the all too commonly ignored or sidelined parts of ourselves that if left unacknowledged can cause us great confusion. 

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Brief yet significant journeys

I have come to believe.  Despite my initial concerns, having undertaken several relevant trainings in short term work, I now know it to be highly effective in certain circumstances.  For some individuals, time limited work is the way forward, enabling them to make a concerted effort to bring about the changes they wish to see, and this focused energy in collaboration with directive facilitation can catalyse maximum effectiveness.

Therapy is about having a space to think.  If that space is empty, it can feel unsafe.  Whilst there is a lot to be said for my role as an empty vessel, bringing a blank canvas onto which a client can paint, in short term work I believe it my duty to bring quite a lot into the therapy room, where an agenda is not only useful, it is essential.  A clear plan can make the difference between a series of chats, and a productive therapy in which problems are clearly identified and then addressed.  There is an ocean of difference between awareness and action and more often than not I encounter individuals with a great deal of awareness, often gained through painful experiences, who struggle to make the most of this.  With as few as 4 sessions, significant change is possible.  Awareness needs to be converted into action.  This is the recipe.  Therapy provides the ingredients, and environment in which hope may turn into courage, where the past and present, conscious and unconscious are blended, and ultimately transformed into something digestable. 

Experience has shown me that when it gets uncomfortable enough, we change.  People have spoken of the gift of despair.  Sometimes we really need to understand what doesn't work, before discovering an alternative solution.  Having company along the way, no matter how briefly, can and does alter our perspective changing the way we see things, and how we relate to ourselves and to the world. 

Sunday, 10 June 2012

London on Two Wheels: Nightrider 2012

7 hours in the saddle.  Leaving Alexandra Palace shortly after 01:15 this morning it was hard to know what to expect.  As a small pack of us wound our way down the tight hill the ride began, and we were shortly met with a steep incline somewhere around Muswell Hill.  Warm up complete, and we wove our way through a distinctly sleepy Hampstead, passing through Belsize Park and descending into a very lively Chalk Farm and the chaos of Camden.  Weaving our way through Central London provided a rather surreal and sometimes rather scary experience - as we were setting off on perhaps the longest cycle ride most of us had undertaken, for many the evening was well underway and they were livin' it large out on the town.  Traffic lights plagued us around Baker Street and we were knocked off course for a short detour via Great Portland Street, before deciding against continuing Eastbound down the Marylebone Road.  Spirits were good, which was a bonus around Oxford Circus and Piccadilly where we encountered some less than friendly pedestrians for whose passage the pavements were insufficient.  In the midst of Mayfair madness I came the closest I've ever been to a pair of red-soled Laboutins.  Rather too close to their inhabitant, perhaps.

The first short break at the Imperial War Museum was not a moment too soon.  A loo stop was well overdue and I was grateful to be welcomed by some hospitable portakabins which interested me far more than the egg or bacon rolls others were demolishing.  Having divest myself of some fluid, and taken on some more, after negotiating Kennington, Vauxhall and Westminster - circling Big Ben before touring Trafalgar Square we finally picked up speed in the relative solitude at South Kensington where we whizzed past the Albert Hall and the Museums before almost missing the turn down Beauchamp Place to begin our southerly progression through very familiar territory in Chelsea and Clapham before heading to our half way point at Crystal Palace via Tulse Hill and West Norwood.  A sharpish climb ensured our appetite for the sandwiches provided in Crystal Palace Park from which we could survey the London landscape as the sun had introduced itself as a most welcome addition to our morning.   

I must confess to feeling somewhat disheartened to see riders coming across their finish line as we anticipated anticipated a minimum of  45k to go.  It was not yet 6 o'clock but it felt as though we'd been touring forever.  There were some pleasant undulations around Sydenham and Hither Green before we descended down through Lee towards Blackheath which looked beautiful in the morning sunlight.  We continued through Greenwich, Deptford and Southwark before our third pitstop where we stretched and refuelled in the shadow of Tower Bridge.  We crossed the River for a final time before exploring the Square Mile, and continuing through Bethnal and Stepney Greens to Canary Wharf for one of my favourite stretches of the trek, empty except for security personnel who greeted us as we continued along our route up to Blackwall and Poplar.  Whilst energy levels were on the wane, we were on the home straight and a final stop in the Milennium Park at Mile End. 

And straight it was.  Through Victoria Park and then up Mare Street.  We were heading North and it felt good.  All that remained was to turn left and head West through Dalston and Canonbury.  I was thrilled to reach N1.  Highbury Fields, Finsbury Park, Haringay and Hornsey represented the final leg of our brilliant outing which finished where we had begun.  Back at Ally Pally resplendent in the morning sunlight.  The hideous hill was not going to defeat me, and I dug in and made it up without getting out of my saddle, let alone off my bike.  I passed the Finish Line at 08:15am. 

The number seven is strangely fitting.  The escapade was inspired by and in honour of my best friend, who underwent Chemo #7 on Friday.  It was brilliant to stand alongside her cheering Sam on at the London Nocturne yesterday.  Bicycles have dominated the weekend.  I wouldn't have it any other way.  I look forward to clocking up many more miles in the saddle, especially those out and about with Charlotte. 

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Life in the Fast Lane

The long weekend was high time for a long swim.  I took the plunge on Bank Holiday Tuesday and, whilst I had to contend with crowds of occasional pool dwellers, I enjoyed myself.  I found myself thinking about the stark contrast with my open water swim 10 days earlier.

It struck me that for all my many pool sessions, nothing could have prepared me for the cold water.  No YouTube clip, or virtual experience could have made the acclimatisation any simpler.  Until last Saturday I was, quite simply, an open water virgin.  That's all changed now, of course.  I have conquered open water.  I finished my first mile in 00:32:05. 

Anticipating the second part of my double fundraiser challenge next weekend, it is abundantly clear that whilst I have been enthusiastically attending Spin classes and building up my time in the saddle out and about in Richmond and around the Home Counties, this is merely preparation.  There is no dress rehearsal.  I have chosen my routes, and picked my times according to energy levels and weather forecasts.  Come what may, I will be leaving Alexandra Palace shortly after midnight on Saturday night. 

The real work is the long distance.  Just as I paused to survey the mile long course at Royal Victoria Course, the route map for the 100 kilometres circumnavigating London prompts a sharp inhalation of breath.  It will be dark.  It may be cold.  It will get uncomfortable.  

A similar reality meets all those who complete a treatment programme.  Residential or day care, the ending represents both a massive achievement and an enormous challenge.  This is where the real work begins. 

Treatment is, by its very nature, safe.  Like the clear clean water of the swimming pool, you can see where you're going, guided by lane ropes, by experienced staff and by a structure and rhythm of a tried and tested program.  You go up and down the lanes.  You get comfortable, and familiar.  There may be mishaps along the way.  In some cases, it's better that there are, for that's where the learning happens.  You lose your stroke.  Water goes up your nose.  You start again.  You are focused.  You are held and protected.  You are never alone.  
Out there in the open water, it feels as though it's every man or woman for themselves.  Not everyone speaks your language.  Fewer still really understand your dialect.  The transition from treatment to the real world is a tough one.  It is where relapse rates soar.  Preparation is one thing, but there can be no dress rehearsal.  Having worked with women preparing to leave residential treatment and day programmes, I  know very well the anxieties and fears that the ending represents.  The key to recovery is internalising what we have found to work - identifying why it is that we feel safe, and protected, and then creating that for ourselves out there in the real world, is vital to our success, and our sobriety.      


Monday, 4 June 2012

A right royal day - Sunday 3rd June 2012

A Bank Holiday is always welcome.  A four day weekend is something very special.  London has been jubilant in its celebration of Her Majesty's Diamond Jubilee.  From my humble perspective, it's been extraordinary.  The party atmosphere has been infectious, building in recent weeks and culminating yesterday with crowds of wellwishers lining the riverbanks to see the Royal Pagaent, a modern day Armada.  My own experience was courtesy of the BBC, I was glued to the coverage and enjoyed it to the full.  Some would say I had missed out, having not risen at dawn to queue and secure my spot on the Embankment or in Battersea Park.  I feel no sense of regret.  As someone who spends very little time watching television, the occasion merited a marathon viewing episode I enjoyed from start to finish.  Nothing could dampen the nation's spirits yesterday and it was a tremendous spectacle to witness.