How to feel grateful when you don’t think you can

thanks2Today was my first real American Thanksgiving, and I have to say that I am totally sold (not that I thought I would ever turn down an excuse to have a big feast!). I love this holiday’s focus on spending time with family and friends, and the idea of having a special day every year to remember to give thanks for all of the blessings in our lives.

As Verily shared today, gratitude needs to be a habit that we practice all year round, not least because it comes with some amazing health benefits. Did you know that “human beings are typically biased toward negative information”, and that the benefits of making a conscious effort to overcome this negativity bias include better mental health as well as a stronger immune system, amongst other things? The interesting thing here is that research shows that positive thinking doesn’t necessarily come naturally to most people, meaning that it has to become a habit that we prioritise, just like exercise and healthy eating.

thanks3It seems like this has become common knowledge recently, with apps like Get Gratitude to help, as well as plenty of gratitude journals and daily planners featuring gratitude sections. My friend just launched a beautiful daily journal called Bloom Lovely that asks you a simple question every day to encourage reflection, alongside inspiring quotes to keep you focused on the important things in life. I love journaling, and am a big believer in the therapeutic power of writing and reflecting on your day.

This Thanksgiving, I’ve been thinking a lot about what we can do when we find ourselves unable to focus on the positive, or when it feels like a big emotional strain to think of things that you feel grateful for – and I think I have the answer.

I’ve always thought of myself as an optimist, and prided myself on being able to make the best of a bad situation. Living through a rough few years, though, I’ve realised what it’s like for positivity to not always come naturally. It took me a while to accept that that was just the way that I felt and I couldn’t change it by giving myself a pep talk. Once I did accept this, though, I found a new way of injecting some colour back into my world that I think is pretty magical, and I would love to share with you.

Every day, I started trying to find one beautiful thing – whether that was a sight, a taste, a smell, or a sound – to write down in one short sentence at the end of the day in a simple pocket-sized notebook. One time it was a freckle on my daughter’s knee, another it was a flock of noisy seagulls as they flew low over a bridge in the bright afternoon sunlight, another the delicious taste of olives and a cold glass of excellent pinot grigio.

I wasn’t trying to force myself to think of something that I felt grateful for. I certainly wasn’t trying to ‘think positive’ or ‘look on the bright side’. In fact, the habit didn’t require anything of me at all, emotionally – all that was necessary was for me to observe the world around me more carefully, which was actually a pleasant way of distracting my mind from the things that made me feel sad.

thanks1The glorious thing about this habit is that while it only takes only a few minutes to do every evening, it has the power to completely transform my outlook for the entire day. In the back of my mind I’m always watching out for the magical moment that I would like to record; some days when the sky is grey I have to look a little harder to see something special in the quality of the light or to hear the beauty in the sound of rain drumming on windows, and other days I feel dizzy with the flood of beautiful details everywhere I turn. As Louisa May Alcott says in one of my favorite quotes, “It’s amazing how lovely common things become, if only one knows how to look at them.”

I’ve found that keeping what I call my beauty journal has started to create a habit of open and receptive watchfulness; it doesn’t even matter if I occasionally forget to write down my daily beautiful thing, because the habit is becoming a natural reflex.

When you think about trying to develop a more positive outlook on life, it can sometimes seem like an impossible task. But I’ve discovered that gratitude and happiness stem from living in the moment and simply observing the world around you. So if you’re ever feeling down, don’t try to force yourself to feel any other way – try simply looking out for one beautiful thing a day and see what happens.

On assisted suicide, choice, and personal freedom

ernest hemingway quote, quotes about writers, write hard and clear about what hurts, writing, creativity, pain, death, assisted suicide, cancer, end of life care, terminal cancer

Yesterday Verily Magazine published an article that I wrote about how my father’s recent slow and painful death from prostate cancer convinced me that assisted suicide is not the answer to suffering. It is a sensitive and very controversial subject, and I was expecting a lot of readers to disagree with my conclusions, so the flood of indignant – even angry – comments on social media and on the article itself came as no real surprise. There wasn’t space in such a short article to go as deeply into how my personal experience is relevant to society and law-making as I would have liked, so I thought I’d address that a little here.

First of all though, I should probably clarify quite a basic point: many people object to the use of the term ‘assisted suicide’, preferring terms like ‘assisted dying’ instead. I keep using ‘assisted suicide’ because I believe that is the most accurate description of what we’re talking about here. The dictionary definition of suicide is: ‘the act of killing oneself intentionally’. Someone who chooses assisted suicide is intentionally seeking to end their own life, and they want medical help to do so. If we’re going to have an honest discussion about this, we have to call it what it is. Whether the actual act is right or wrong is another matter.

One thing that pretty much all of the objecting comments have in common is an underlying accusation that I am trying to tell other people what to do in an area where it should be totally up to their own personal choice. What was right for us isn’t necessarily right for everyone. Who am I to tell people that they can’t decide how to end their lives, that they must stick with it if they don’t want to? My father didn’t want assisted suicide, but if he had and I had stood in his way, I would have been a horrible selfish monster. And I am an awful person for telling people what they can and can’t do, right?

So, when it boils down to it, this is an argument about freedom and choice.

The thing is, I think it’s very disingenuous to claim that you are not directly impacting my life if you are campaigning for this change in legislation; to accuse me of standing in the way of your personal freedom, without acknowledging that you are doing the same to me. You may think that I can happily ignore any changes in the law that I want to, that it doesn’t have to concern me, but you’re wrong. You’re talking about making a radical change to the society in which I live, to the society in which I will someday die, and that is something that affects me in a very real way. I have every right in the world to protest that, quite aside from the personal experience I related that informs my views.

The fact that these proposed changes to our law wouldn’t just impact the select few who choose assisted suicide without affecting the rest of us really hit me when my father was dying, and that is why I decided to share our story. The very week before my father died, a proposed change to British law allowing assisted suicide was being discussed in the House of Lords, and in a horrible twist of fate, the experience our family was going through made us a textbook case for the debate. Everywhere I turned, the press was full of it, and it felt like they were all talking about us. It was as if they were putting value judgements on the last few years of my father’s life since his terminal diagnosis, crowding into my head and telling me I was selfish for being glad that assisted suicide wasn’t an option so that we could have as much time as possible together without the added stress of having to consider an ‘alternative’ to him seeing life through to the end.

As I sat by his bedside in the hospice during those last weeks with my family, utterly grief-striken, I was unspeakably grateful to the nurses who shifted his weight so that he didn’t get bedsores, who kept checking his pain relief was working even when he no longer proactively told them. We put ice chips on his tongue when he could no longer drink to relieve the dryness in his mouth. When his lungs started to shut down, my mother made sure that he was given oxygen to prevent him feeling like he was being asphyxiated (a childhood fear of his); it couldn’t make him live longer, but it made him more comfortable. We held hands and told him we loved him, over and over again.

It wasn’t about trying to keep him alive, stringing out the suffering longer than was necessary; it was about making every last moment he had with us as comfortable as we possibly could. I’m not arguing that people have to accept treatment for their terminal illnesses, though in our case we were glad to buy as much time as we could. All I am arguing is that we cannot pass a law that permits doctors to kill people, even as an act of mercy. If assisted suicide laws become widespread, our already stretched palliative care systems will fall into horrendous neglect. For every terminally ill person who claims that their choice to end their life impacts them and them alone, there is another terminally ill person whose palliative care will suffer if the campaigners have their way, placing an even heavier burden on terminally ill patients and their families than they already have to carry.

I can’t stress this point enough; for all that suffering is an intensely personal subject, in debates about changing the law it is anything but private. The motto of the hospice where my father died was ‘Believing every moment matters’. Would our society think this way if assisted suicide became widespread? Would our doctors and nurses still be properly trained in palliative care? Would it not be the case that more of us would start to think like the Lithuanian Health Minister, who has recently said that euthanasia is a good alternative where palliative care cannot be afforded, opening up the way for euthanasia of the poor?

Looking at countries where assisted suicide has been legal for a while is telling; in the Netherlands, the number of mentally ill patients killed every year has reportedly tripled in recent years. Earlier this year, Belgium extended its euthanasia laws to children and minors. Where the Hippocratic oath is scrapped, a whole host of nightmarish scenarios become possible, even probable.

Activist Penny Pepper also believes that assisted suicide threatens some of the most vulnerable members of society; not only the mentally ill, children, and the elderly, but also disabled people like herself. She argues that her life is just as valuable as any other, despite pain being ‘a constant’ factor. (That she even has to remind us of that is a mark of where this debate is heading.) She is afraid, like me, of what would happen to palliative care if assisted suicide laws were passed. ‘As an activist I want to rage, rage against the dying of the light, with every beat of my heart’, she writes. ‘I want assistance to live now; I want decent social care, left alone by government and not subject to cuts; and I want palliative care from doctors doing what the best of them do to the highest degree – helping me to live well.’

I do not want to live in a world where people kill themselves for fear of being a burden, as Giles Fraser so eloquently wrote for the Guardian.

People on both sides of the debate feel moved to share personal stories precisely because, in this case, the personal is not private. Much as my heart goes out to people like Brittany Maynard in their suffering, they are trying to influence legislation which will touch my life, and the lives of my loved ones, so I feel that I must speak out. Is she allowed to make her pain public in defence of her beliefs and choices, but I am not? Ultimately, whoever is right, I don’t think that’s consistent or fair.

Perhaps the objection to the term ‘assisted suicide’ is founded on the fact that it implies a choice. Perhaps people who seek assisted suicide don’t feel like they are choosing to die because they have already been given their death sentence, but rather that their hands are being forced by horribly difficult circumstances from which they can see no escape but a quick and painless death ministered to them by a medical professional. I understand that, and I sympathise; I really, really do. I know what it is like to reach the point with a loved one where you wish for death, knowing it will be a kind of merciful release when it comes. I know what it is like to be haunted by images of a dying face for months after the difficult passing of a loved one. I won’t deny the pain and trauma of these experiences, or try to claim I have all the answers and a neat theory of life, the universe and everything.

But, even though at first to many it may seem counter-intuitive, my father’s struggle with cancer has convinced me that if we really want to help the dying, we need to make the time that they do have left better, not cut it short. Better pain relief, better nursing, better care. That is what assisted dying should mean. No one should ever have to turn to suicide, assisted or otherwise. Some life, even when it is severely compromised, should always be better than no life.

That is what I will fight for until it’s my turn to leave this world, and if you want to call me selfish, so be it. Just remember that no one ever makes  a choice like Brittany’s in isolation, and that if you change the law it will impact me and everyone else in the society we all share.


Phantom limbs

a moment of calm, window, avoiding stress, the culture of busyness, health and well being

One time I sat in on a friend’s psychology lecture when I was visiting her at university and I learnt about phantom limbs, the syndrome that sometimes occurs when someone has lost a limb but still feels as if they have it. The lecturer talked about how this can be a big problem in situations where the person in question feels like their phantom limb is tensed and the muscles are clenched, causing them very real pain. They have to be gently led through the process of relaxing the non-existent limb before they can begin the process of teaching their body that the limb in fact is not there at all.

Recently, I keep thinking about this syndrome in relation to the importance of self-care. I’ve realised that I’m experiencing life a bit like someone who has a phantom limb at the moment. I have a mental ‘to-do’ list that feels like a tightly clenched fist at all times. I believe that I have to somehow manage to be the baby’s primary carer at all times, as well as earn a living, write things that I am proud of, take care of the housework, be a kind and generous friend, write letters to loved ones, be well-read, interesting, and up-to-date with current affairs, start writing my novel, found a website (you get the picture)… all without ever asking for help. Needless to say, it’s impossible to live up to these self-imposed standards.

I think it’s partly to do with working motherhood and needing to learn to balance things in this particularly intense time of life, but I also think that it’s an experience that is common to most of our generation in our adult lives. Why do we do it to ourselves? Why can’t we relax properly, even when we actually do have a rare moment to spare? Why do set ourselves impossibly high standards? It seems to me that we are all walking around with phantom limbs, carrying a lot of unnecessary weight.

a moment of calm, window, avoiding stress, the culture of busyness, health and well being, Paris, balcony, look after yourself quote

I’ve written before about how, as a culture, we need to slow down. But what does that look like on a personal level?

First of all, we have to get rid of the idea that looking after ourselves is somehow self-indulgent. I loved reading Robin Long’s piece about how guilt gets in the way of healthy living for Darling magazine recently. To be able to live to our fullest potential, after all, we need to be strong, happy, and healthy ourselves. To be able to give others our best, we need to treat ourselves well, too… and not feel guilty for it. (Repeat after me: ‘Feeding myself is just as important as feeding the baby!’)

I find making ‘to-do’ lists helpful when I’m busy and tired and constantly living in fear that I’ll forget something important. But we need to know when to stop with the ‘to-do’ lists, too, however helpful they can be. I absolutely love this article about the ‘to-don’t’ list, and am making an effort to see my ‘to-do’ list in the right way; I need to use it to jot down the essentials that I really mustn’t forget, being really honest with myself and keeping those to a bare minimum, have a separate section for a few more aspirational notes, and then forget the rest for now. This may even mean making my own ‘to-don’t’ list (I love Stephanie May’s version), to consciously think about which things are hanging over me semi-permanently that I need to mentally put to one side.

This leads me to the value of living with intention. I came across the lovely ‘Autumn on Purpose‘ project by Laken of Peach & Humble recently; the idea is to slow down in this new season and live with a renewed sense of calm and purpose, enjoying the present and seeking out the little things of beauty scattered through our lives every day. In the first of her weekly emails through the series, Laken encouraged us to make our own intentions. These are different from goals in as much as they are more general priority areas (or, as Laken puts it, ‘feelings and desires centered in the present moment’), not tasks that we need to complete. Thinking about what my overall life intentions are in this season helped me to clarify when I need to say no to something, or ask for help in a particular area of my life. My intentions are:

  • To be nourished in body, mind, and soul.
  • To be present with my family and not let this time slip past me, unappreciated.
  • To acknowledge the joy that being creative gives me, and to purposefully make time for work without feeling guilty.

I’ve started trying to drink warm lemon water first thing in the morning, and to make myself a bowl of hearty porridge. I try to get up early enough to give myself at least 10 minutes of quiet, peaceful, sit-down-and-relax breakfast time every other morning. I’m trying to bear in mind these tips for safeguarding your future health from Verily, as well as incorporate more of these joyfully easy every-day antioxidant ingredients into my life. I’ve asked for this beautiful magic carpet pilates mat for my birthday so that I have a motivation to tune in to Robin Long‘s wonderful (and free!) videos while the baby plays around me every day (everyone has a different form of motivation that works for them; mine happens to be pretty things and food!).

I’m trying to teach myself to be better at asking for help with the baby, to schedule my days better and plan ahead so that I have time to work during the day and can better enjoy the times when I’m not working and be more present with my loved ones as a result. I’m trying to switch off my laptop and phone whenever I can an hour or so before I go to bed, so that I can start to unwind properly before trying to sleep. I want to learn to follow Erin Loechner’s wonderful example of ‘slow blogging‘.

These things are all baby steps, and I am so far from having it figured out that it’s almost laughable. But I have one solid intention that I am going to try and hang on to: there are many things that I want to achieve, many things I want to get better at, and many ways I want to become a better person, but I don’t have to do it all at once. It’s okay to seek the order that I crave when I feel surrounded by chaos. And, most importantly of all, self-care is not an optional extra.

Have you ever had a wake-up call about how important self-care is? How have you learnt to handle stress and chaos in healthy ways?