Friday, 30 August 2013

The all time high that's coming crashing down around us

The recent story to break in the press about legal highs caught my eye but was not much of a surprise.  Deaths due to so-called 'legal highs' have shot up by 80%.  The figure sounds appalling but does not, in reality, tell us much, except that there are more reported deaths accounted for by the usage of synthetic drugs.  Statistics lie, after all.  Or rarely tell the full story.  I was pleased to be able to step in when LBC 97.3FM asked me for a professional opinion this evening (the piece was subsequently deferred due to the recent developments in Syria).  

Spice, meow meow, black mamba, mexxy, benzofury, bath salts*.  They're all the rage.  Have been for a while, and this tragic reality is an accident that's been waiting to happen.  It was, I think, only a matter of time.

The main problem with these manufactured psychoactive substances so readily available to anyone with access to the internet is that they are largely untested.  Law enforcement and safety testing lag behind, as the young market laps up the next stimulant or cannaboid to hit the massive market.

Asia is the source for the majority of these substances that are deliberately packaged in a way to appeal to their target audience.  While the US accounts for the lion's share of the booming market, Britain remains particularly receptive - we're well known for our experimentation and over 700,000 Britons between the ages of 15-24 have tried something or other.

The numbers stack up.  A quarter of European adults, that's 85 million people have used an illicit substance.  There's little wonder that no fewer than 73 substances were 'launched' last year alone.  

The problem is immediately apparent - there has been an explosion in the production resulting in a complex market boom that is way beyond the resources of the powers that (in theory) be who are left to pick up the pieces after the damage has been done.

So, what's the answer?  Well, there isn't an easy solution.  We live in a world that is developing faster than we know, and thrive on the thrill of the new.  What's really scary is how these narcotics occupy a socially acceptable position, and lead people to think their experiments are low risk.  When mixed with alcohol many of them have deadly effects.  We need to wake up to legal highs.    

*  Some more about legal highs...
Synthetic cannabinoids
Annihilation, Black Mamba, Spice, Amsterdam Gold, Bombay Blue Extreme, X, Karma...
These mimic the effects of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main active compound in cannabis, and are usually sold as herbal smoking mixtures.
Annihilation, for instance, is marketed as 'herbal incense' and sold in packets decorated with a picture of a mushroom cloud.  
Anecdotal evidence of the effects of AM2201, the synthetic cannabinoid commonly found in Annihilation and Black Mamba, includes increasing heart rate and causing panic attacks and convulsions.
As with all legal highs, it is unfortunately not clear for users what brands are legal and which are not, and many brands vary enormously in the compounds they contain.

Miaow miaow, Bubble, White Magic, MC, M-Cat, Bounce, 4-MMC
The stimulant mephedrone is the leading new drug to gain traction in the British drugs market, despite being made illegal several years ago.
Often regarded as having an effect similar to ecstasy and cocaine, mephedrone can make users talkative and euphoric or sick and anxious. 
Like similar more traditional drugs, it can risk overstimulating the heart and nervous system. 
Mephedrone is now a class B drug but some similar brand names have not yet been banned.

Ivory Wave, Purple Wave, Vanilla Sky, D2PM
A powerful stimulant usually sold as 'bath salts', the amphetamine-like effects of 2-DPMP, 2-diphenylmethylpyrrolidine, or desoxypipradrol, have been found to cause 'prolonged agitation' lasting for up to five days in some cases.
Like many other 'new' and once-legal highs, there is little research into its long-term effects.  

APB or Benzo Fury
APB compounds such as 5-APB and 6-APB are stimulants found in the drug Benzo Fury, which is marketed as a legal high. Testing of Benzo Fury purchased online has found some to contain 5-APB or 6-APB whilst others contain completely different active substances.
This is regarded as an ecstasy-type drug, based on MDA and with similar effects and risks. 

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Don't call me Madam

My blueberries did not scan first time.  The supermarket assistant tried again.  And then figured it might be quicker, and more straightforward, to manually enter the product code.  It worked.  The label hadn't.

They don't always.  Within the briefest of interactions, which could not have lasted more than a minute the member of staff had used a gender specific pronoun no less than three times.  Each time completely, I felt, unnecessarily.  

I felt riled up.  But I did not let on.  Instead, I enquired whether I might make a suggestion which was  immediately welcomed.  I explained that whilst I hadn't been offended or insulted, the use of the word 'Miss' might well alienate some shoppers.  

The person to whom I addressed my concerns looked, at first, quizzical.  Then increasingly perplexed...  It was obvious that this wasn't a suggestion of the variety that they had foreseen.  

They proceeded to recollect an experience where it had been suggested that 'Madam' might be preferable.  I refuted this, with growing energy, eager that they might see the point; highlighting the assumption to be found in either.  

I expanded, drawing attention to the name badge I could see, placed in a prominent position, presumably as a required part of the standard uniform.  I compared the unadorned breast pocket of my own denim jacket.  

Labels (when placed with care) are perhaps useful on boxes of blueberries.  They have little, if any, use when it comes to people we don't know, and are unlikely to get to know when we make assumptions based on our conditioned interpretations of their outward appearance.  

The supermarket assistant thanked me profusely, communicating (what I felt to be sincere) gratitude for 'an outside opinion'.  I walked away feeling hopeful that I might have prompted someone to think twice before they jump to a conclusion that might negatively impact someone's afternoon, day or week.  

No gender specific pronouns have been used in this post. 
That's because they're often quite superfluous.


Sunday, 25 August 2013

Sweet Bird of Youth

Another year has flown by.  It was Mum's birthday this week.  Birthdays are important - to me, at least.  We have begun to take them quite seriously.  Her consultants don't have much confidence she'll have many more.  Old age, sickness and death - the three certainties, according to he who has become known as the Buddha.  The thing about chronic illnesses such as COPD and Emphysema is that they may rule out the first option.  She has yet to turn 70, but has the lifestyle of someone who's enjoyed great many more years.  

The illness sits between my mother and I. Every contact is contaminated with reminders of its ever increasing presence as it plunges its claws ever deeper.  It has sapped so much life out of her, which I hate to acknowledge but can no longer ignore.  Our theatre trip together this weekend was a something of a joyous reprieve - we all enjoyed the change of scenery and the production was, we all agreed (in contrast to some of the distinctly unappreciative reviews received), utterly brilliant.     

Sweet Bird of Youth has something of an unlikely plot.  The chances of Alexandra Del Lago and Chance Wayne striking up the companionship around which the play takes shape is spurious at best, but believability aside, the play was a lot of fun.  I simply adored the touching portrayal of the neurotic Del Lago, who is convinced her career has come to an abrupt end with something of a drab finale, her disappointment about which has doomed her into an alcohol fuelled oblivion.     

Much of the play didn't quite add up, and yet little of that seemed to detract from the performances, which I considered first-rate.  Another successful Spacey staging at the fabulous Old Vic, where we were looked after exceedingly well, wheelchair and all.  It made for a fitting space in which to embrace the agonising topic of ageing which I feel is glaring me head-on just now.  

Chance:  Well, some more oxygen?
Del Lago:  No.  No.  I must look hideous in it.
Chance:  Oh, no, honey.  You just look exotic.  Yeah.  Like a princess from Mars or a... big, magnified insect.  

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Out of sorts

It was a nasty shock and an unwelcome reminder that Charlotte is, whilst very athletic (winning the Womens 4-Up 10mile Millennium Time Trial at Bicester last Tuesday), still a cancer patient.  She is awaiting a final instalment of surgery (the 'finishing touches') and, following her somewhat traumatic pre-op on Wednesday, was taken unwell on Thursday.  

This is a woman who knows her body very well.  It has been through a lot.  She has carried herself with such grace, and when unable to do so alone, allowed others to step in and support her through the most gruelling phases.  Treatment took priority last year, and this year has been about living in the solution - on Tamoxifen.  The green juices and (slightly adjusted) exercise regimen have already paid dividends.  Charlotte is now a triathlete (although she's keeping it quiet-ish) - having done a sterling job at the Shock Absorber WomenOnly triathlon at Dorney Lake on 14 July (the challenge version, of course, involving 800m swim, 31.8k bike, 6.2k run), finishing 16th/149 in the blistering heat.  

So, feeling clammy, light headed and nauseous were all signs that something was amiss...  Her blood pressure plummeted on Thursday night, and her surgery had to be postponed.  No one ever said this fight was going to be simple or straightforward.  The road has taken twists and turns, but the territory is now somewhat more familiar.  She is expected in theatre next week.  In the meantime we plan to make the most of the fine weather and swim.  Characteristically, there is and need be no drama.  Out of sorts perhaps but it's business as usual.  I'm looking forward to the relaunch of Charlotte's Web Log.     


Monday, 12 August 2013

Ever beginning

As I sat in the traffic, something unusual caught my eye.  Not, for a change, someone running the red light.  Something altogether more interesting.  Something altogether more beautiful.  He had bottles lined up, and several more in the air.  He threw them and then caught them in sequence, with precision.  With masterful artistry.  For the briefest of moments, I was captivated.  

And then it was time to continue with my journey...  

It's these moments that might appear in a Pleasant Events Calendar*, were I to be completing one.  And so I might.  It reminded me that pleasant things can occur quite out of the blue, in corners that we least expect to find them.  I have never met the juggler, whom I presume to be a bartender with flair, or one in the making.  And it's unlikely to ever happen, yet in that moment, what I saw him doing changed my day.  For the better.

I enjoy teaching mindfulness.  It is a privilege to begin with a new group.  Fresh blood, all there with a common purpose though different reasons and motivations might have inspired them to take that bold step and walk into the space for the first time at the beginning of an 8 week programme.  All ten of us in the room are interested in how to live life more comfortably.  

My role is not to improve the lives of those I come into contact with.  There's no difference to my stance whether in the consulting room with clients, or teaching a mindfulness class:  life happens.  Awful things happen to good people.  We can't control much of what happens.  We do have a say in what happens next.  And that's the bit I'm interested in.  

When we step out of the 'thinking about' mode, we have a better chance of 'being with' all our experience, be it good, bad or ugly.  And from here we can notice, firstly, how quickly we classify everything that happens, and then perhaps begin to practise becoming more skillful at how we respond.

Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.  That's not always true (say for instance when you stub your toe, pain and suffering might well both be on the cards - if only briefly).  But on the whole it stands up (I have found that the sooner I accept that I've hurt my toe, and stop chastising myself for being so 'stoopid' to do that for the umpteenth time, the more quickly it transforms, lessens and passes).  

The juggler reminded me of another foundational tenet of the programme I am leading: practise, practise, practise.  There will always be obstacles - mindfulness is simple, but far from easy...  

Making friends with the barriers that beset us is a destination along the way, but we are not moving towards some enlightened state in which we will become immune to the hazards of everyday existence.  Far from it; the aim (were there to be one) would be to live more fully in each moment, and to live more comfortably alongside all of our experience, noticing rather than getting caught up in the habits and patterns of mind that tend to attract us, and can then devour us.  

* The recording of pleasant events has been shown to encourage participants to spend more time thinking about pleasant events and consequently feeling the pleasant emotions that go with the event.  This is not about reliving monumental joyous events, but rather noticing the small moments of daily pleasure that we often overlook. An important component of the home practice following the second class is an invitation to experiment with recording pleasant events. There are five steps to the process: 1. Recording the event; 2. Asking yourself if you noticed pleasant sensations during the event; 3. Noting in detail physical sensations that occurred during the event; 4. Noting your mood, feelings and thoughts that accompanied the event; 5. Noticing you mood in the present moment while your are remembering and recording the event.  From Williams et al., (2007)  The Mindful Way through Depression:  Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness.    

Saturday, 10 August 2013

The lens through which I look out over the vista

It's not always clear to those who ask me about my practice and the areas in which I specialise.  I have never sought to be able to do everything.  I'm not sure it's possible.  I was drawn towards the addiction field.  It called me, and I landed.  I paused a while, as there was a great deal to absorb.  

I learnt what I know about addiction from the inside out, and I was supported in my development by some fabulous individuals whom I met along the way.  But addiction is, I came to see very quickly, but a symptom.  People do not, generally, fall into drink and drugs, or other self defeating behaviour quite by chance.  We are taken to dark places by dark things, and most people who find themselves in the grips of the cunning, baffling illness that is addiction, have experienced some dark events.  

So, whilst working with those seeking to heal and recover from their addictive behaviours, I became increasingly aware of the layers that so often lie beneath these behaviours which are often most usefully conceived of and addressed as maladaptive coping styles that no longer work, and that will be required no longer should appropriate substitutes be located, and implemented.  Trauma and addiction are wedded to one another.  The correlation between the two is convincing.  Where there is addiction, there is usually (though not always) trauma.  So, to work therapeutically and effectively in the addiction field, one must equip oneself to recognise, and understand the implications of trauma.

And here's where it got really complicated.  When working with trauma, safety is paramount.  The therapeutic environments in which I honed my skills was well suited to this work.  Trauma first needs to be contained before it can be unpacked.  And the unpacking needs to be done with great care and attention.  But the unpacking is not, itself, sufficient to bring about the healing that survivors need and deserve.  Voids will be exposed.  Light may begin to shine through the cracks, perhaps for the first time.  Unless we can make meaning, the light will likely shine too bright, and cause blindness.  Acceptance is but a first step in a process that can take a long time, and may involve an arduous journey.  There is a lot more working through to be done.

So, addiction and compulsive behaviour was a starting point.  But, I believe we are more than our behaviours.  I am interested in what drives our behaviours, and why we become mad, bad and sometimes dangerous.  

I seek to meet the whole of every being I encounter.  And so I bring different parts of myself into my work.  Everybody has a family.  Everybody has relationships.  These may have served us well.  And they may not have done.  

Therapy presents an opportunity for a different version of a relationship.  My approach, and the ethos which underlies it, is about meeting our true selves in the here and now.  Whilst making sense of the past may be useful, there is much (and potentially more) to be made in the present.  I am all about who do you want to be, rather than who have you been told you are...       

To me, my work today reflects a journey I have been on.  I have been accompanied by some truly incredible individuals who have guided me to places I could not have come to know without actually visiting.  And I have paused along the way, and taken in the vast panorama.  I occupy only a small part of that.

I have come to know the terrain in the only way I know how - by exploring it thoroughly.  I have climbed steep hills, and taken time to get to where I am now.  I have never stopped learning.  And I learn in all I do.  I am still climbing but today have a rather sophisticated map and the bonus of knowing my limitations and an excellent network of colleagues working on the nearby peeks and also in territories lying further afield.   

I hold an MSc in Addiction Psychology and Counselling; I trained as a postgraduate to work with couples and families and continue to enjoy working with more than two chairs in the room.  I have undertaken additional specialist trainings to equip me to work ethically with those addressing disordered eating and currently work with individuals addressing issues relating to preoccupations with shape, weight, size and body image.  I have a passion for my work with those who identify as gender and sexual diversity clients and feel well qualified to support those who feel themselves to be queer or questioning.        


Tuesday, 6 August 2013

A life worth living

Dear Pool,

It was so good to see you again.  

To be greeted by your cool and refreshing water.  So empty on a Monday morning.  

The sunlight making those beautiful patterns on the painted bottom beneath me.

Enveloped by the depth, and supported by the volume.

Peaceful and serene.  

The beautiful quietness lacking language yet feeling never more so connected.  

I hadn't realised how much I have missed you, and what you give me.

It was so good to stretch, and breathe, and swim.

I have come to realise that time I spend in the water is never wasted time.

The state I find myself during and after a swim is hard to achieve elsewhere.

Whilst in water, I think, I am in my element.

I am looking forward to swimming more regularly...

We couldn't have wished for a better morning swim.  Whilst not the warmest it's been, it was quiet, and that was worth the few degrees difference in temperature.  The water was cool, and inviting.  I lapped it up.  And down.  I wasn't counting, but enjoyed finding a comfortable and meditative rhythm.  I swam for an hour, and remembered how vital swimming is to me.

We all of have things we enjoy doing that, for whatever reason, we don't do as much as we could.  And probably should.  For me, swimming is not just a pleasure, it's an important part of my well-being.  And being well is my priority.  

Why is it that we seek to justify those things we enjoy?  Why is it that we struggle to make time, to take time out?  I know why I've strayed away from the poolside:  I needed to acquaint myself with the saddle.  Preparing for a long distance bike ride (100 miles no less), means spending a lot of time on one's bike.  And I'm glad I did.  But I could perhaps have mixed my training up a bit more than I did.

Swimming is soul food, and just like my physical body, my soul and spirit need feeding well, and regularly. 

Monday, 5 August 2013


The inaugural Prudential Ride100 was an experience I am unlikely (and hope never) to forget.  For now, it is imprinted in my visceral memory, as my body continues to recover from the exertions it entailed.  I will, I think, be reflecting on the experience in the days and weeks to come but for now, I am deeply connected with a sense of having taken part in something terrifically special and out of the ordinary.  It was extraordinary.  There were sixteen and a half thousand of us on two wheels.  Including at least one tandem entry whose riders were doing a fabulous job and maintaining quite a pace when I saw them!  The course was tough, but did not feel as gruelling as I had perhaps feared.  

The atmosphere was intense.  From the moment we unloaded the bikes on Jamaica Road, the closest we could get to the QEOP and the former Stadium, we were in great company.  We pedalled with hundreds of others, all up at the crack of dawn (the sun had only just risen, and was not yet high in the sky), eager to get on with the task in hand.

Our 'job' was made easier by the superbly efficient start procedure.  Organised in waves, everyone seemed to somehow be in the right place at the right time, and following the simple steps.  We were guided through a process not unlike boarding a plane.  What we might have appreciated was a few more portaloos!

My tummy started to tell me I was feeling nervous whilst queueing for what seemed like ever...  I wasn't alone.  I think I have the nerves to thank for my swift start.  The first thirty five miles seemed to fly by, and I was at Ripley before I knew it.  

The hills weren't great.  I can't claim to have enjoyed what preceded the admittedly impressive view from Newlands Corner, and this seemed to be something of a consensus at the first proper pit stop at the top.  Again, there were queues to contend with but this was to be expected given the numbers of us out on bikes.  
Were I to ever organise a Sportive, I would consider very carefully the refreshments and nutrition available to participants.  Without wishing to sound ungrateful, yesterday's offerings could easily have been improved.  The numbers involved were confirmed, and therefore anticipated.  There wasn't much to choose from, and I made do on water and bananas, steering clear of the alternatives including salty crisps, pretzels and biscuits.  I'm convinced there's a gap in the market for the gourmet sportive...

At mile 55 we contended with Leith Hill.  Which must deserve the title Lethal.  Particularly with hundreds of cyclists on it simultaneously.  The ascent was hairy at best.  The hardest thing was trying to find and stick to a safe path, made almost impossible by people losing heart and giving up, dismounting right in front of your front wheel.  I puffed my way up it, and encouraged a few others to do the same.  

The top could not come quickly enough.  But come it did.  Phew.  Box Hill, whilst so often talked about in cycling circles, was nothing in comparison.  In fact, I found it rather dismal.  It stretched on and on, but clearly deserving of its acclaim as an area of outstanding natural beauty, preserved by the National Trust (who may or may not appreciate the extensive graffiti on the tarmac, designed to encourage loved ones tackling the famous incline), I think of this as a distinctly average climb.  I dare say I could do with some more practice, and there is, I'm sure, a more efficient way to get from bottom to top.  But yesterday was less about technical brilliance, and more about enthusiastic endurance.  

We headed back up towards Leatherhead, through the rolling (rather than hilly) terrain, that confirmed my training schedule to date as appropriately vigorous.  What I lacked in experience (having not spent much time in the Surrey Hills), I certainly made up for in spot-on preparation (around the North and South Downs).

What made the ride home particularly enjoyable (apart from the mileometer indicating that we were indeed on the home straight) was the support along the way.  Dorking really does love cyclists!  A substantial crowd was out, and I cannot imagine that this didn't help each and every one of us, in some small way.  I know I benefited from the whoops and woos, the clamorous clapping and the 'Go for it, you can do it!' even if the 'You're nearly there' (at mile 40) wasn't strictly accurate.

That, combined with the incredible energy of my fellow cyclists, was what I will hold onto most firmly (that, and my pleasingly hefty medal) from yesterday.  We were all there to have a good time.  And many of us were doing a fantastic job representing and (I assume) fundraising for our chosen charities.  The colourful array of jerseys were a sight to behold, and captured my attention far more than the steeds people were riding (something of a surprise, given the bike envy to which I am usually susceptible).  

The power of the collective is more than the sum of its parts.  I cannot do the maths but a lot of miles were clocked up yesterday and, I dare say, a fair bit of money.  But more than anything, there was passion out on those closed roads.  Passion amongst riders, and goodwill amongst spectators.    

At times I felt choked.  And it had nothing to do with either hyperventilation or the energy gels I consumed along the way.  It was with the powerful reminder of humanity, and the power of it.  Us.  All of us.    

I reckon I rose to the challenge...
100 miles done and still smiling!