Monday, 29 April 2013

To cleat or not to cleat?

My ride today was possibly my favourite ever outing on two wheels.  An unplanned reconnaissance expedition, which took me out and about the North Somerset countryside for just shy of 32 miles.  I did not anticipate the climbs.  A precursory glance at an OS map might have been well advised.  My legs will doubtless tell the story tomorrow.  I had but one unfortunate mishap en route.  Having miscalculated an incline, I discovered myself to be a gear that was too high for the sharp incline.  There was no option other than to admit defeat, which I did none to gracefully crashing down on a welcoming verge which was thankfully there in lieu of a pavement.

My being ‘in the regions’ meant that a concerned and charming motorist pulled over, to enquire as to whether I was alright.  I was.  She took one look at my cleats, and expressed disdain (on the basis of her own experience), suggesting that they were probably not advisable around the locality.  My cleats and shoes are currently integrally connected.  I think I’d rather crack on mastering my gear changing, than do away with these particular bits of kit.  But the generosity with which the advice was proffered stood out as a rather lovely reminder that I am out of the hustle and bustle where no one notices, and if they do, it doesn’t feel as though they have much time to care.


Saturday, 27 April 2013

Filling in the blanks

Two dear friends have both been victims of strokes recently.  Horrid reminders of one’s frailty, they seize their moments and have left a trail of concern in their wake.  One was a TIA, the other a more serious episode.  Both required hospitalisation.  It got me thinking about my own cognitive functioning, in a way I tend not to – we don’t realise how much we have, until we can no longer call upon it. 

The stroke ward looked much like any other hospital ward I have visited.  But there was a particular tone to the quietness that felt heavy, almost ominous.  The staff were pleasant, and attentive.  Watching and waiting for important indicators of progression or regression.  I flicked through the leaflets there for patients, and their visitors.  I was struck by one in particular advertising a service undertaken by professional actors who read to stroke patients, and help their recovery in this way.  I had not previously heard of the initiative, and marvelled at the concept. 

Thankfully the two people I have known to have experienced strokes recently are both making a good recovery.  They are now vulnerable to future episodes, but will be closely monitored, and managed with appropriate medication.  It is not possible for anyone to yet predict prognosis with any accuracy.  The brain remains mysterious, and silent.

I have no clue what happened to my own today.  Having been driving for almost an hour I thought I had left something important at home.  I turned around, irritated by my carelessness, and the impact it was going to have on my overall journey time.  What a waste of time, and petrol!  I drove for 20 minutes in the opposite direction, before recalling that I had in fact packed the item the previous day, in anticipation of my journey.  I turned back, and re-joined the motorway in the same place I had earlier, and navigated the variable speed limit, and negotiated the average speed check.  I took a deep breath, and forgave myself.  Things could be worse.

As they felt to get when, in the same afternoon, I called into an unknown branch of my bank, where my spirit of adventure got the better of me, and I decided to use the ‘Express Banking machine’.  No one else was using it.  As I approached it, with some degree of trepidation, my mind suddenly went blank.  I could not recall my PIN.  The code I use every day, usually several times a day.  It was not where it is usually to be found.  My fingertips deceived me, and I found myself hopelessly trying a number of combinations I knew to be wrong, but had to rule out through a process of elimination.  The bank’s fraudulent use policy kicked in, and allowed me no further attempts.

I was devastated.  I have a brilliant memory.  What had happened?  How could it let me down in this way?  I suddenly felt quite distressed.  It was uncomfortable.  I felt vulnerable.  And alone.  No one else, for obvious reasons, knows my PIN (I do, on occasion, in certain contexts, follow advice).  It didn’t matter how many times I tried to visualise the sequence, using the key pad on my phone.  Gone.  It wasn’t there.  My memory was on strike. 

And then, almost as quickly as it’d vanished, it came back to me.  I could remember the number.  I’m not sure which I felt first; silly, or relieved.  Looking back, I feel grateful.  I had panicked and that had, I now see, made it worse.  My mind has been very busy of late.  I wonder whether the mind, a little like the physical body that so often struggles when it’s invited to rest, has a built-in circuit that shorts occasionally, prompting us to acknowledge and respect its capacity.  

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Opening our eyes (and our ears) to really think about gender

I didn't know I was an adrenaline junkie.  But it appears I am.  I think you have to be, to take to the streets of London on two wheels.  Either that, or someone who would fit somewhere on some clinical spectrum.  I could probably meet the criteria for one of two DSM diagnoses, but we needn't go there...

Some days I choose to pedal.  Others I get in my car, and drive.  More often, I take the bus.  The point is, I have choices.  I have different identities I can move between.  Without so much as batting an eyelid (or is that eyelash?)  It's a little like my clothes.  My appearance changes with my mood.  I have a degree of choice as to which version of myself I present to the world.  And I occupy a different self when I'm home alone.  

I'm not the same person at work as I am at home.  I'm not the same person around my family, as when in the company of my friends.  I may be a different person depending on my context.  And I move into and out of contexts.  Sometimes, I feel a need to escape from context altogether.  But again, that's probably another blog post.

I am fascinated by all things gender.  How do we arrive at a construction of our gender, and how do we know when we've got there?  Today was a great opportunity to explode some of my thinking around this, surrounded by fellow professionals also interested in supporting individuals for whom gender has become difficult.  

Dr. Victoria Holt is someone who knows a lot about gender, and about young people and their struggles with gender.  Gender Identity Disorder may soon become known as Gender Incongruence.  Those among us who try to keep up with the lingo are hovering somewhere around Dysphoria at present.  Sometimes it feels as though we really are in no man's land.  

But incongruent with what?  This, it seems to me, is the crucial question.  I sat in a 'goldfish bowl' discussion exercise and challenged the idea of the gender binary with every effort I could summon.  The novel idea that pre pubertal children, under 12, might be supported to explore their gender by occupying their preferred role only serves to reinforce roles, and this is surely what needs to be taken to task...

I loathe with a passion completing forms that claim to be about Equal Opportunities and Diversity Monitoring.  No problem with the goal, but the means seem inherently and repugnantly flawed.  Don't ask me whether I'm male or female.  Ask me something else.  Ask me about my gender identity.  Go on, I dare you...  So few forms I fill in, even here in the so-called modern West, offer me the opportunity to tick a box that states that I'm transgender, even fewer that I'm genderqueer, or queerying my identity.  What about 'Gender Fluid', 'Thinking about It', or 'Pangender'...  Ooooh, I can see the eyebrows twitching.    

Gender simply doesn't fit the binary.  Biology tells us this in no uncertain terms.  The only successful treatment for gender dysphoria is endocrine intervention.  And yet the gatekeepers remain psychiatrists.  Make sense of that, if you will.  

Hormone blockers are a fabulous discovery.  They've been around for a while.  It is believed that their effects are fully reversible.  So why aren't they dished out, liberally, to all of us who might want to suspend our physiological development and avoid the trauma of an unwanted puberty?  Possibly, maybe, I'd respectfully and lightly surmise, because they are expensive.

Blockers give their fortunate recipients time to think through their options, and explore their feelings in relation to their gender.  By the time they are prescribed, under the careful guidance of a multi disciplinary team, the young person has usually been aware of their dysphoria (and therefore distressed, if not disturbed by it) for at least a decade.  Some would argue that interfering with the 'natural' trajectory is tantamount abuse.  I wonder whether to withhold access in the circumstances, following thorough assessment and formulation, is ethically viable.  

And breathe...!

It's a delicate balance to strike.  As a therapist, I need to be-ware of my politics.  I am passionate about supporting young people to live more comfortably in their skin.  Adolescence is hard enough, when one is relatively stable and secure in one's gender identity.  Blockers aren't the B-all and end-all, but they are a start.  The research shows that most of the children who present as dysphoric pre pubescence do not pursue reassignment.  What it doesn't show is what happens to them...  There are inadequate follow up studies at present.  What we do know is that those who present at or after puberty more often than not do persist, and pursue transition - of whatever shade.  

A throwaway remark, an untimely intervention, forbidding a child to act in a manner that feels comfortable and true to themselves - these are the scars that young people are most harmed by.  Who's to say that girls shouldn't play football, or that boys shouldn't attend ballet classes?  Where did we get these notions from?  And why have we clung onto them?  

If I ruled the world, I'd get rid of cards that say 'It's a Boy!' and ban obstetricians from announcing a baby's gender at birth.  Gender might be best thought of as something we grow into, and might well grow out of.  It can't, I think, be happily or successfully separated from any other part of our identity and is therefore, the journey of a lifetime.  A journey that no one can take for us, and from which no one can spare us.  But, just like the roads I cycled to and from Archway, many rattling potholes to be circumnavigated along the way.  

Saturday, 20 April 2013


If I needed a reminder about why I've undertaken my first sportive this summer, being shown an extraordinary video on YouTube this afternoon sufficed.  I hadn't previously heard of Team Hoyt.  The incredible father and son combo that didn't stop with Marathons but went on to smash Iron Man competitions...

My own training is underway.  I've not got a great deal to report, but it is happening.  The weather has helped.  Enormously.  Each morning that I open my blinds to see sunshine is a blessing.  And I am trying to make the most of it.  This week I've clocked up a few miles a-round town.  It's been fun.  The potholes don't always make for a smooth journey, but the road is rarely smooth however we travel.

I'm eager to get out of the city, and spread my proverbial wings.  I am looking forward to getting out onto open roads and exploring in a more rural setting.  I've got my work cut out.  In a matter of weeks I will be pootling around the Cotswolds, on the 60 mile Ribbon Ride organised by Breast Cancer Care.  It's all building up to my epic sportive in August.  

Summer is here.  Bring it on.  I intend to make use of every opportunity to get out and about.  Have bike, will ride it!

My 1.2 - the long distance and hill climbing machine

My lovely single speed - great for getting around town


Sunday, 14 April 2013

Suit you, Sir!

Three times in less than thirty minutes is something of a record for me...

As I walked into the restaurant I was greeted in a very familiar, but inappropriate manner.

Secondly, as I was invited to place my order.

And the irresistible hat-trick as I left.  

In English, we are required to go out of our way to specify the gender of the person to whom we are talking. And yet it happens when least expected, and completely unnecessary.  Effective communication does not require us to assume gender.  It is utterly superfluous and, as I was reminded so powerfully by this brief visit to a local restaurant, a road full of deep potholes.  

The way I think and feel about my gender today is something of a work in progress.  I think it probably always will be.  As I live, I learn.  As I continue to reflect on gender, the less I think I know.  The more I might come to understand...  In the meantime, whilst thought provoking, and particularly to me as a therapist with a keen interest in and commitment to working with the rainbow that is gender and sexual diversity, this encounter has not left much of a scar.  

Were I questioning or querying my gender, this might have been the last thing I needed after a long day at work.  As a rule of thumb; if in doubt, leave it out.  Assumptions are to be avoided wherever possible, and in this case there is no logical case for gender-isation.  Mis-gendering and mis-pronouning can destroy someone's day and make your interaction with them memorable for all the wrong reasons.  Those who are seeking to pass, and are then addressed incorrectly will likely be devastated.  The rest of us could probably simply do without the cognitive detour.  

Courtesy of the utterly brilliant Tumblr:

The fabulous Kate Bornstein:

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Adding depth

Freediving is something of a new found passion.  I am a complete beginner.  But that's alright.  In fact, given the safe hands I was in on Saturday, it was very much more than alright.  I had a brilliant time.

It is joyously peaceful being underwater. I knew this before the weekend.  That was what drew me towards freediving in the first place.  The swimming pool is a place of solace.  It is where I feel most truly peaceful.  I have had moments of clarity in the pool.  I have had glimpses of serenity whilst submerged.

Swimming is one thing.  Freediving is another, though the two are not unrelated.  I approached the learning of a new skill in freediving and apnea with a degree of confidence.  I am a strong swimmer, and I previously undertook open water training to SCUBA dive.  

Freediving is about keeping it simple.  Really simple.  There are few rules.  There is little equipment.  And that's part of the appeal.  It doesn't need much gear.  And, like a martial art, it takes a long time to master.  Experience counts for everything.  Saturday's Foundation Course was about following instructions to the letter, whilst listening to my body's innate wisdom, and going with that.  It was like coming home.    

And it's all about the breath.  A single breath, to be precise.  Bingo.  This really is aquatic meditation.  The whole point is achieving a state of relaxation, to activate the mammalian dive reflex.  We, like whales, dolphins and sea lions, all have the ability to train this muscle, to enable us to remain under water for extended periods of time.  The prospect is an exciting one for someone who is happiest in the deep blue. 

"Freediving is about silence. The silence that comes from within."  Jacques Mayol

"From birth, man carries the weight of gravity on his shoulders.  He is bolted to the earth.  But man has only to sink beneath the surface and he is free."  Jacques-Yves Cousteau

"God is at the bottom of the sea and I dive to find him."  Enzo Maiorca

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Keeping on the straight and narrow

Today, normal is good.  Average is fine.  Routine and predictability are to be celebrated.  These are all hallmarks of my life which looks rather different to how it might have done.  If you always do what you've always done, you're very likely to always get what you always got.  If nothing changes, chances are, nothing will change.  These little snippets, whilst not the most grammatically exciting, are observations from the school of life.  I didn't learn them at any of the five universities I have attended to date.

Yoga and meditation are important components of my week.  Without them, something is likely to feel incomplete, or out of balance.  So I try and show up.  My practice is not sufficiently developed, and my focus not always terribly easy to gather and direct, so I benefit from instruction.  I practice alongside others.  We have a collective purpose.  A shared intention and a common goal.

We begin each class the same way.  With the om.  Alongside the physical practice, we seek to practice the values that underlie Dharma Mittra yoga - those of humility, compassion, understanding, humour, selfless service and non violence.  Fundamental, yet easy to let go of in the hustle and bustle outside the yoga studio.  We remind ourselves of these each time we come together, and offer our practice up - in the spirit of transcending our 'selves', in order to evolve both individually and collectively.  

Offering my practice to those I love, those I've lost, those I may have hurt, and those who are suffering, is an act of humility that invites reflection upon my actions and omissions, my thoughts, words and deeds and provides an anchor to come back to whenever distraction tempts me during the sometimes challenging practice.  My search for right alignment, goes well beyond the physical domain and the rewards of my practice far exceed improved posture.   

"Essentially, if you control your mouth - what you put into it and what comes out of it - you've controlled much of your mind already."  - from Asanas, by Sri Dharma Mittra

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Heads up

It was a shock.  When it comes to London roads, I never like to see cyclists anywhere but on their bikes.  Preferably with the full complement of helmet and visibility garb plus an array of bright lights.  With summer seemingly taking forever to arrive with us, lights are a good idea - morning, noon and night.  

He lay there, motionless, and wrapped in something that looked warm.  The road looked cold, and inhospitable.  There was police presence, but no ambulance staff or paramedics that I could see.  Such sights are never pleasant. There was nothing I could do to help at that point, so I continued along my way, rather cautiously - I felt shaken and shivered in sympathy.

A friend asked me how I rode a bike in London.  I don't have an answer.  Courage and common sense are required in equal measure.  Concentration is essential.  I think it helps that I am a sometime motorist.  I know all too well how distracted my fellow car drivers can be.  I've had people drive into the back of me.  I've had people drive into the side of me.  It happens.  I'd rather it did when I'm encased in a bubble of metal.  

I wouldn't think of driving anywhere without my seat belt.  I wouldn't pedal anywhere beyond the pavement without my helmet.  On my head. Handlebars are where I rest my (still glove-clad) hands.  They are not designed or intended as somewhere to hang vital head protection.  As cyclists, we have a responsibility to use our heads. The skull is strong but does not need to be put to the test.  

Tuesday, 2 April 2013


I love London.  I also love escaping London.  This weekend was the perfect occasion to get away.  And that's precisely what I did.  I loved getting away, a little after most people had done so.  A spontaneous decision to make haste towards a change of scenery.  Which I appreciated from the moment I woke on Saturday morning.

Rye is a beautiful and quaint town.  It is, in some ways, a quintessential English seaside town.  It made for the ideal retreat.  And whilst I wasn't the only person with this bright idea, this fact took nothing away from the overall blissful experience.  Spending time with a friend I no longer see as often as I'd like to (or probably should, given the reality which is that we are only separated by a couple of hours in the car) was heavenly.  We simply went with the flow over the weekend.  And it all flowed beautifully.  It usually does. 

Walking to Camber Sands, heading into the wind, and then carried home by it, was brilliantly life affirming.  It is all too easy to forget our own aliveness.  And it high time to reconnect with myself, and my breath.  And what better way to do it when on the coast, than with hearty coastal walks.  On Sunday we headed for a different path, and walked along the stunning coast at Fairlight.  The vast expanse of horizon, and rugged scenery made each and every blister more than worthwhile.  A max power mini break.