It’s good to talk, but not always easy

There’s been a lot of talk the last few years about the stigma of mental health. The public, media, politicians, doctors and various mental health organisations are all in agreement. We need to talk openly and supportively about mental health issues. Perpetuating the mental health taboo only adds to feelings of isolation for people who are struggling. They can come to believe that there’s something wrong with them, that everyone else is great and only they have these difficulties.

So if everyone thinks we should be talking about mental health, both our own and other people’s, why is it still so difficult to broach this important subject? And believe me, as someone who has experience with stress, it can be very difficult to talk about. We love to talk, text, tweet, whatsapp, Instagram, Facebook, blog and snapchat about the good times, but opening up about our struggles is a very different story. I have a few ideas, based on my own experience, as to why this is the case.

Firstly, telling the truth about the tough times we have is a bit like exposing an open wound. Kept bound up under our outer layer of seeming contentment, the wound is hidden from others and we can downplay its severity to ourselves. It’s an illusion and it does nothing to heal the hurt, but the prospect of acknowledging that struggle is often terrifying. ‘What if I can’t feel better? What would people think if they knew? If I open up, will the dam break and overwhelm me?’ These are the kinds of questions hovering at the edge of a mind too scared, too caught up in the struggle, to ask for help.

As much as our own feelings can overwhelm us, the fact remains that the mental health stigma still exists. When you do open up about these issues not everyone is helpful, some without meaning it. It’s an awkward conversation, the proverbial elephant in the room. Casual friends and acquaintances ask vague questions that feel loaded with subtext. How do you answer them? (Seriously, if you have an answer I’m all ears)

To me, what is worse than the vague query is the inevitable ‘But you look great’ comment. I’m never sure about the intention behind this particular remark. Perhaps they’re trying to be comforting, as if somehow looking well trumps feeling like crap (it doesn’t). Mostly it feels judgemental, as though if you look well you should cheer up and get over it or worse again, that you can’t be feeling that low if you’re looking so well. Not really a supportive message to send, whatever the intention. The fact is mental health issues often don’t have visible symptoms, unless a person is supposed to dress shabbily and neglect their appearance just so they can look sick. Also, the things we do to look good (new haircut, nice outfit, bling, carefully applied make up etc.) are often the only armour we have when facing the world, the veneer hiding the truth so we can get through a difficult day. If we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, then it’s high time we stopped judging the illness by the outfit.

Another counterproductive response that can also feel like judgement is the litany of questions and advice. ‘So what are you doing about it?’ ‘Have you tried ____?’ ‘You know what you need…’ ‘If I were you…’ This can feel accusatory, as though you’re not doing enough to address the issue. The thing is when someone has opened up like that they’ve taken that all-important first step and admitted there is a problem. They’re already working to get better and unfortunately these things take time. Asking questions is not going to magically speed up the healing process, any more than telling a broken bone to mend will negate the need for plaster casts. My advice is to avoid giving unsolicited advice. You don’t know what someone’s story is and chances are anything you suggest is something they’ve heard before.

What it comes down to is this: other people don’t get it. Often times a person going through an emotional rough patch will think irrationally. Even when they know something is irrational or untrue (and I have some experience with this), their thoughts are being influenced by hurt and even toxic feelings. When you’re in a bad place, it’s hard to block out your inner demons and comments like “That’s not right, what would you think that?” though perhaps true only contribute to feeling like you’re alone and there’s something broken or wrong in you.

With family, talking can also be a challenge. First of all, the stakes are too high. These people love you and they want you to be happy, so finding out you’re hurting can cause them pain as well. They’re invested in your wellbeing more than most people and while they might be supportive, their first instinct may be to try to fix the problem. Of course there is no simple or quick fix and family can be too close to the issue to think clearly about it. It’s a complicated balancing act – on the one hand telling too little leaves too much room for a worried imagination but on the other telling too much can lead to emotionally complex, exhausting conversations that you might not be ready for.

I don’t claim to be an expert on the subject but I will say this much: I have needed someone to talk to during past difficulties. The challenge was finding the right approach for talking about it and the right person/people to talk to. I found a way that works for me and I’m not sure I’d be doing as well as I am today without the support I received. Whatever your approach (and as with most personal matters it’s not a case of one size fits all), knowing you have a family and friends who love and support you can give a person great strength when facing tough times.

Wishing you blue skies, lovely views and happy days xx

Google grinds my gears!

As you may know, Google bought YouTube some years ago, meaning that the ads on YouTube are Google ads. And yes, we’re all irritated by those pesky video ads that delay us getting to that amazing cover version of a pop song, the hilarious epic fail video we wanted to see, the adorable animal video that brightens our day or that fascinating TED talk we heard about from a friend. It’s one of those frustrations that are a normal part of the digital age.

But it is not the usual ad-related irritation that I speak of.

I’m taking aim at targeted advertising. You know the kind of thing that takes that endless list of info gleamed from your accounts and turns it into advertising specifically for you. I don’t necessarily have a problem with that in general – frankly, anything that prevents me watching ads for creepy horror movies is a welcome idea. The reality however isn’t the steady stream of superhero movies, awesome books and home decor ideas that I wish it was.

Why? Because apparently all Google knows about me is that I’m a woman in the 25-35 year old age bracket. Despite my relief that Google seems to know somewhat less about me than I thought, what this means is that I get bombarded with ads for pregnancy tests.

Evidently, if I’m in the aforementioned age bracket, the only thing I can or indeed should be thinking about is having babies.

No. Just no.

I hate being reduced to nothing more than a womb and a biological clock. Many women my age might in fact be thinking about starting a family and I respect and admire them (it’s a tough job that never ends and anyone should be commended for assuming such a huge responsibility), but do we seriously have to limit our perception of women’s interests to a single topic? Does the world really think I’m only interested in babies? I love babies (truly – if my siblings are reading, take note that I want nieces and nephews at some point) but I also love books, food, music, theatre, movies, art, languages, board games, home decor, clothing, travel, comedy…. I could go on but you get the idea.
I pride myself on being a multi-faceted person. I’d appreciate if Google would do a better job of reflecting that in their advertising. And I know that Google has very little to go on, but surely there’s more to a woman (any woman… Every woman) of child-bearing age than her capacity to reproduce? Trust me, there is. Get it together Google. I and others like me deserve better.

Simple pleasures: freezer cooking

I cook for one, which means the temptation is often there at dinner time to grab and sandwich or order take away. A busy day can leave me short on motivation to cook, so I combat this with (when I’m organised) freezer cooking. I take an afternoon and make a couple of big batches of different dishes, divide them into individual portions, put them in freezer bags and pop them in the freezer. There’s nothing like getting home after a long day, happy in the knowledge that a Mum-approved, decent dinner is just a few microwaveable minutes away. Not exactly a life hack but I’m all in favour of anything that takes even the smallest amount of hassle out of my day. Today’s menu includes fajitas and stir fry and it should get me through the weekend.

Walking on sunshine

People talk about seasonal affective disorder and how the dark, cold winter months can get people down. On beautiful sunny days like today, I’m inclined to think it’s human nature to be affected by the weather and the seasons, though perhaps some of us are more influenced by it than others. I always long for that first really bright day of spring when you feel your spirits lift. The proverbial “grand stretch in the evenings” that we Irish discuss with great frequency when the days are noticeably brighter and longer.

It was so lovely to get out for a walk in the sunshine today, however brief it may prove to be. There was a wonderful atmosphere that only comes from a lazy sunny afternoon. It was strangely quiet around where I live. People were out enjoying the sunshine but it was a peaceful and contented enjoyment and it was as if everyone was savouring the moment.

I’ve never really thought about the reason for it but the song Walking on Sunshine by Katrina and the Waves has long been my ‘happy song.’ I hear it and feel energised and upbeat, a response similar to my reaction to a sunny day. Perhaps this isn’t a coincidence. Music is another example of something that can alter our mood. The songs we love can cheer us up, while the power of association can make other songs poignant or even painful.

It’s funny how humans work. Our moods can be lingering or fleeting, building slowly or changing on a whim. And the smallest thing – the weather, a song or who knows what – can make or break our emotional wellbeing for the day.

Take care of yourselves. Get out and enjoy the sunshine when you can. Listen to that great tune, the one you haven’t heard in ages, that puts a smile on your face. These little things are the building blocks of happiness.

Fresh baked perspective, straight from the oven

This blog is rapidly becoming my own personal confessional. Rather apt considering I haven’t been to confession in… A long time. Today’s confession? I’m a sucker for clickbait. You know the kind of thing: ‘This person ______. You’ll never guess what happened next!’ And no one does clickbait better than Mr Sulu himself, George Takei. I’ve followed Mr Takei and his husband Brad on Facebook for quite a while and their posts are an entertaining combination of clickbait, pop culture and political/social commentary. Recently, I spotted the following article on Brad Takei’s feed:

The notion of the inner bully that berates a person and harms their mental wellbeing isn’t all that new. In college, our psychology lecturers called it negative self-talk, that internal narrative that diminishes our self-worth and prevents us achieving our potential. It’s that little voice criticising, telling you that you can’t do things and that you’re not worthy.

Eleanor Roosevelt said ‘No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.’ When the person making you feel inferior is you, it can be hard to change your thinking and deny that inner bully consent to hurt you. For me, two of the hardest lessons learned as an adult were that I can’t fix other people’s issues and that only can fix my own issues. To put it another way:

(That poster, among others, popped up in work and it really resonated with me)

How does all of this relate to me? I’m sure you can imagine that when a person is struggling to find their way in a job that perhaps isn’t suited to them, they can start to have quite a lot of negative self-talk. ‘I’m terrible at this.’ ‘What’s wrong with me?’ ‘If other people can do it, why can’t I?’ After a while, this kind of talk can extend beyond your professional life and start to affect your overall self-esteem. You lose sight of what you can do well when you’re so focused on what you find difficult.

So I’ve been trying to remind myself of the things that make me feel good about me. Today, that takes the form of baking. I’ve been making soda bread since I was a twelve-year-old home economics student, and I’m so well practised at it that I no longer bother with the weighing scales. As much as I dislike cooking, baking has always had a therapeutic quality for me. I pick a time when I have nothing particular demanding my time, stick on some tunes and away I go. Preheat the oven, mix the dry ingredients, add the buttermilk, knead the dough…. This is a comfortable, predictable routine that soothes me. Woe betide anyone who messes with this ritual, as my poor brother discovered years ago as I was just starting to recover from a particularly stressful day. I had to apologise twenty minutes later for the undeserved rollicking I gave him for a simple bit of good-natured sibling banter.

But I digress.

Not only does baking relax me, but I’ve come to find making ‘my bread’ (or as my friend’s children call it ‘flour bread,’ owing to the dusting of flour on the base of the loaf) is actually a self-esteem boost for me. This is my domain. All humility about my bread has long since been dispensed with. Nobody does it better. A fresh loaf can easily be frozen for future consumption, but in most houses it doesn’t last long enough to warrant freezing.

These are the kind of things we all need to hold onto when our inner bully strikes. When my negative self-talk is telling me I’m no good, I need to have a list ready of all the things I am good at. And I need to start doing those things more often to remind myself of my abilities and put that inner bully back in her box.

So today, I’ve been baking. I’m off to taste the fruits of my labour. Yum!

Stalled – what next?

As the title of this post suggests, I’ve somewhat stalled of late. My last post was a confession of my doubts about my current career; but as liberating as it is to admit to what I don’t want, it leaves me a bit uncertain about what I do want. I’ve seen a career guidance counsellor, which was actually affirming in so many ways and gave me lots of ideas. However, no matter how helpful that was, it doesn’t spell out the next steps in my life.

And so we get to the real issue. The truth is, I might have hit this crossroads long ago if it weren’t for the comforting consistency of knowing what comes next. Fear of the unknown is an effective paralytic. So I’ve been staying the course and being responsible. I said to someone recently that my parents raised me to believe that the world was my oyster. I could achieve anything if I put my mind to it. The problem is, I haven’t been living as if that were true. As much as I truly believe that many people need to change course in their lives or take the road less travelled, I never counted myself as one of ‘those people.’ I’m ashamed to say that despite having a complete respect for those who strike out in new directions after years of the same thing, I was smugly congratulating myself for having my life figured out. I didn’t need to find myself. I had a steady job, my bills were paid and I had a good standard of living. I was a responsible, productive member of society.

Pride goes before a fall. I should have known.

So the question becomes about what to do next. I’m taking a career break (I’m fortunate both to have the option and to have employers who have granted me the break) and will be putting together my first CV in many years. I’ll be applying for jobs (fingers crossed!) and hoping I don’t end up back in that single bed in my parents’ house again. I want new experiences and adventures. I want to meet new people and learn new things. I want to take the road less travelled. My motto from now on will be:

Get out of your comfort zone.

Blogging is a part of that. I’ve developed a habit of being cautious, guarded and discreet, almost to the point of repression. I find myself wondering if I’ve been confining myself to a role I’m not suited to, squashing the parts of me that don’t fit that role in the process. I need to rediscover those parts of me. I need to open myself up and let my guard down. It’s not easy to break the habit of a lifetime. I don’t know where all of this is leading, but I’m holding out hope for something good.
Edit: Sometimes I wish computers weren’t quite so smart. One of the guidance counsellor’s recommendations was a masters degree that I really love the sound of. I’ve researched it and I can’t afford it. At least for now. Doesn’t stop Facebook from knowing my search history and posting ads from the university on my news feed though. Oh well.

Back to blogging and some big changes 

By my count it’s nearly three and a half years since my last blog post. Wow. Time flies whether or not you’re having fun. Which isn’t to say I haven’t been having fun. There have been a lot of good memories in the intervening years. I’ve been telling myself for weeks that it’s time to get blogging again but I haven’t had the courage. I even thought about starting a new blog that would make a fresh start (for reasons that may become clear later) but I’ve been on a big push to get out of my comfort zone lately. And this is definitely outside my comfort zone.

Okay, here goes. I’ve been having a hard time. Not to go into details (I’m not that brave) but I’ve reached a crossroads. I’m doing a lot of soul searching. And it’s looking more and more like I might not be suited to this whole teaching thing after all. Over a decade in this job and that is a very scary proposition. There are so many parts of teaching that I like. I have immense respect for those people who were born to teach and who have a gift and a passion for teaching.

I’m just not sure I’m one of those people.

The next part is really scary. What next? I’ve been planning a life as a teacher since I was in school myself. If I’m not a teacher, then what am I? Or rather, who am I? As terrifying as these questions are, I’m also feeling so excited and, to be honest, liberated. I don’t think I realised what a burden it all was until I admitted to myself that something didn’t fit. And now, perhaps for the first time in my life, I have no plan and nothing but possibilities. One step at a time, I have to start over and see where life takes me.

If you’re reading this: keep your fingers crossed for me.

If you’re me: stay hopeful and watch this space.

In Praise of Parents (Especially mine!)

Parents and teachers. Or is that parents vs. teachers? Seems like theses days that it’s become a ‘them versus us’ situation. Why is it that the first and most important educators in a child’s life and the first formal educators in a child’s life so often can’t see eye to eye? Parents complain about unmotivated or insensitive teachers who don’t look out for their students as they should. Teachers claim their job would be infinitely easier if it weren’t for parents telling them their job or undermining their authority.

Is this really true? I believe not – or at least not to the extent some would have us believe. Firstly, I’m priveleged to work with a wonderful group of committed and motivated teachers who go above and beyond the call of duty for their students. Secondly, I’ve met with countless parents who are completely invested in their children’s education and so supportive of the work that is done in schools.

So rather than rant and rave about parents and what they should or should not be doing, I’ve decided to speak in praise of parents. Parents have the hardest job in the world. It’s 24hrs a day, 365 days a year for the rest of your life. My mother taught me that. No matter how many times I’ve told her that I’m an adult and I can look after myself, it makes no difference. She worries about me and my siblings anyway. (Not that I can judge, as a big sister I do my fair share of worrying too!) Dad’s the same in his way – always giving little reminders and checking that we’ve done the important things (whether we like it or not!). Parenting is the one true full time job and I have mountains of respect for that.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my parents, it’s that as teachers we shouldn’t simply dismiss parents who are banging down our doors about their children. Though my parents were never unneccessarily confrontational, part of what made me feel secure as a child was the knowledge that if something went wrong my parents had my back. They’d have fought tooth and nail to keep us safe and well and I’m grateful every day for that. So when a parent comes to my door angry about something, the first thing I do is remind myself that this parent is simply concerned about their child. Even if they’re not handling it appropriately, even if their reasoning isn’t perfect, they’re there on behalf of their children. So the second thing I do is communicate the fact that I recognise that fact. And I value it. I’ve found it easier to do my job if parents are working with me than against, and if there are any parents reading this I would advise you that this works both ways. Teachers respond better to and do their best to work with parents who try to be a positive presence in the school rather than an adversarial one.

Trust me, teachers want their students to succeed and having the support of parents in this is invaluable. How so? Well, as I said, parents are the first and most important educators in a child’s life. As a Junior Infants teacher, I am all too aware of how important the years before a child reaches my classroom are. Their attitudes to learning, social skills, language and vocabulary, motor skills, personal care skills and so many other factors are established in those all-important first few years and will impact greatly on how they cope with the early days of school. I count my blessings that my parents gave me such a great start in life and I have the highest opinion of all those parents out there who are doing their best by their children. As someone who doesn’t have any children, I can’t imagine it’s easy.

So how about we forget the parents vs. teachers issue? Can’t we all just get along for the sake of the children in our care?

Won’t someone please think of the children? 😉

Remember summer?


Remember that? We had a whole weekend of summer in May? And yes, that is May of this year. Trying to remind myself that there was a day this year when I was so hot I actually got heat exhaustion…
Yeah, I don’t believe it either.