When grief lies down

Picture this, if you will…An old woman, looking at the ground, is mindlessly walking loops of a communal living room, occasionally muttering something unintelligible to herself. Another old woman, still in her dressing gown at lunchtime, is sitting at a table hunched over a bowl of unidentifiable pudding, crying ceaselessly while she asks someone to “Make it stop.” An old man with a birds nest of dark grey hair falling to his shoulders (one assumes, from how well the residents are cared for, that this is because he’s a grumpy old bugger and his temperament makes a hair cut impossible) asks me, with deep concern, if I can please explain why he has had a tooth removed.

Grief.

For a while, I didn’t want to go and see Mum. It was too hard. Our relationship too sticky, the rest home to confronting. But then things shifted and softened and I found myself wanting to see her. And I thought to myself, with – in retrospect – a tiny amount of hubris, that finally going to see Mum was easy. Um. Yeah. Until it wasn’t.

Yesterday, I found myself doing loops around the dementia unit beside Mum not knowing what to say to her. Not that anything I say makes sense to her, it’s more about me being there and the sound of my voice, of course, but suddenly I ran out of things to talk about. I found myself wishing desperately that I had a sibling there to chat with while we walked alongside Mum. Someone to share this load with. But I didn’t, so I left. I went and sat in the car, cried quite loudly for a few minutes, was given gentle nudges from both collies, pulled myself together and drove home. Only to get grumpy with Adam because he commented, as we tried to listen to an interview together, that “I wasn’t really there”, to which I replied “I had a really hard visit to Mum but I don’t want to talk about it” because I really, really didn’t know what to say.

Grief.

A couple of weeks ago, at the end of a massage, my very lovely therapist was brave and wholehearted enough to not only acknowledge this post about the miscarriages but cry with me. She. Cried. With. Me. And I cannot begin to tell you how healing that was. But also how revealing it was to suddenly become aware of how much I’d needed that reflection. It was the first time in seven years since I lost the babies that someone has reflected my grief, with unapologetic and unembarrassed tears, back to me. The first time I really felt I had company in my grief.  

Grief is mostly a solitary thing in our culture, at least that has certainly been my experience. We grieve, mostly, alone. Behind closed doors, we hide it’s wholeness, it’s all consuming nature, from others, even those closest to us. Grief is awkward, it makes us vulnerable, inarticulate, tricky, puffy. There is a statute of limitation on grieving, after a certain time we’re expected to have pulled ourselves together and if not over it, at least have the good manners to hide it so it doesn’t make others feel awkward.

And yet awkward it is. Grief is messy and unpredictable, if often arrives unannounced. It is also very physical. If we don’t express it and instead we shove it down, grief resides somewhere in your body until one day – and that day could be a decade away – you accidentally squash a snail or drop a full jar of tomatoes on the kitchen floor and burst into uncontrollable sobs.

I am aware that friends of mine who live (or even those who are American and live elsewhere) in the United States are currently grieving for their county. I am aware that friends are navigating their way through the slow loss of parents to disease that comes with old age. I know that family and friends are grieving loved ones taken far too quickly by cancer. Others are grieving life changing transitions forced upon them by circumstance. 

Lately, sitting in quiet conversation with Adam, my parents-in-law, and some local friends, we’ve been sharing our grief about our dying world. We’ve come together to take part in an online conflict transformation summit but we’ve inevitably touched on the grief we all feel, and don’t quite know what to do with, while we watch ecosystems collapse as humanity accelerates towards the edge of the cliff. And while it is important, essential, wonderful (pick a word) to maintain hope, it is – I am increasingly sure – necessary to be true to your grief and find a community who can not only hold space but share it.

Grief. 

Are you grieving? 

Do you feel seen? 

Is there someone sharing your grief? 

Are you able to share the grief of someone else?…

“After a while, though the grief did not go away from us, it grew quiet. What had seemed a storm wailing through the entire darkness seemed to come in at last and lie down.” 

Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow.

Mum, at rest.

Do I want to talk about this? Yes.

25 June 2020

Seven years ago this evening I was lying, very uncomfortably, in a bed in the maternity wing of the Wellington Hospital having the first of three miscarriages. Adam’s still grumpy about the fact that the only thing they could find for me to eat was white bread and vanilla ice cream. As I lay there, ignoring the little pot of Tip Top’s finest and thin white bread which was tired enough to be curling up at the corners, a very dear friend was in a room at the other end of the ward with her brand new healthy baby.  The last thing in the world I could bring myself to do was let her know I was there, miscarrying.

Every year, on the anniversaries of three babies lost – 25 June, 22 September, 31 December – both Adam and I are tender. He’s currently lying by the fire, I’m sitting here, self-medicating with dark chocolate and wondering how vulnerable I feel like being this evening. Do I want to raise the uncomfortable subject of miscarriages again? I do, because here’s the thing…we still don’t talk about them enough. 

Women are left to process the grief and shame and sense of failure in losing a baby largely alone. There are myriad ways of experiencing infertility as a woman. I can’t speak to Adam’s experience, although I do know his is equally lonely and complex. Amongst all of my friends – and I am so lucky to have so many wonderful ones – there is not a single woman that I know of who shares my reality of recurrent miscarriages (and the subsequent hormonal rollercoaster) without a successful pregnancy to follow. Miscarriages without the happy ending.

We make our peace with how life turns out, don’t we. As you’ll see from the photos I post every few months of our life here at Peka Peka, it is beautiful. But it is not idyllic. Life is messy and behind the glorious images of sunsets there are trips to see Mum in dementia care, the wild ride of perimenopause (can we please talk about that too?!) and summoning the energy and enthusiasm to be a part of another conversation about the shared reality of motherhood while I sit there, very quietly, managing my grief and irrelevance. I may well have friends who read this, who have been aware of my journey over the last seven years, who can’t quite stop themselves from thinking “Jeez, is she still caught in that story? Hasn’t she finished grieving?” No. The answer is no. In the same way I still really – if not nearly so acutely or relentlessly – miss my Dad, I am still very sad we don’t have children. I wish we hadn’t lost our babies. I wish I didn’t feel so alone amidst the sea of mothers with children and their stories.

I’m posting this not because I want to check my FacebookDo tomorrow morning and see lots of notifications of comments of support. I’m posting this for two reasons. Firstly, if by any chance you share my reality and would be willing to have a conversation about it, I would truly, truly love to hear from you. Secondly, if you have experienced the grief of miscarriages, I would like to honour that grief. Whoever you are, wherever you are, in whatever situation, know that you are not alone. (P.S. Adam tells me I’m quite brave about having hard conversations and holding space for grief, so if you would like to talk, message me, I’d be honoured to hear from you.)

P.S. I wasn’t sure which photo to include, so chose the one from my library closest to the 25th of June, 2013. Adam and our fuzzles.

How lockdown breathed life back into ElementAll

At the beginning of this year, I made the decision to close ElementAll. Increasingly I felt torn between channelling my energy into the development of our small regenerative farm and community, and this small clothing company. As I looked out into an increasingly unpredictable world, in which we’re all navigating the chartered territory of climate change, producing a very small range of locally produced merino garments didn’t feel like the best path for me. Then Covid-19 happened.

Thanks to several weeks of lockdown, we found ourselves with time (how privileged my husband Adam and I have been to ride out isolation in this place, in safety and comfort) to reevaluate the way we’re living our lives, to reconsider our priorities. Time and a slower pace created some key pieces of self-awareness which have shifted my relationship to ElementAll.

The first realisation was that it turns out I’m considerably more extroverted than I thought I was. Which is apparently no surprise at all to Adam, but it was to me. I’m an only child, I absolutely need time to myself, but it also would seem that I need very regular connection (in person, Zoom won’t do) with people. This is directly relevant to ElementAll, as one of my seemingly relentless struggles has been the isolation. Doing it all myself, but most importantly ‘by’ myself, has made commitment hard.

In an attempt to solve the problem of feeling isolated (at least for the next few months), we’ve set up an informal co-working space in the living room of what was, until recently, our BnB. Serendipitously, a dear friend has moved to Waikanae from Melbourne for a new job and Covid-19 means she can now work remotely two days a week. However, her scrumptious 18-month old daughter (delightfully, my goddaughter) makes doing this from home a challenge. Solution? She now comes up here. It works for her but also having the company makes a very real difference to my motivation and enthusiasm.

The second key realisation I had during lockdown was the importance of logistics in getting things done. Wonders will never cease, you say, but bear with me. Adam, an experienced manager and facilitator, observes that people generally favour one of three ways of approaching problems. The first is strategic (looks at the big picture, ‘where are we going’), the second is tactical (how to deploy resources to achieve the strategy) or the logistical (who needs to do what, when and then the actual doing). I tend to address problems strategically – looking at the big picture is my happy place – then to a lesser extent tactically. Logistics, the actual doing of the thing, is the least interesting part of the puzzle for me and consequently my weaker muscle.  

Stay with me while I tangent briefly. Many years ago, in a former job as a policy analyst for the Pharmacy Guild of NZ, I spent six months working on pandemic planning for the Avian Flu. As soon as Covid-19 began to take off in Italy, my experience suggested that this could be very serious, even for New Zealand. As we moved through Level 4, I’d spend a couple of hours every day reading long-form articles from science writers and following family doctors, other scientists and experts in public health online. In addition, it turned out a friend was working as a key member of the team coordinating New Zealand’s pandemic response and we’d often talk as she walked home at the end of the day. 

As I read, listened and digested a lot of information, it dawned on me that the logistical response to Covid-19 was critical. The necessary strategy was fairly clear, the tactics super important, of course, but what was absolutely essential was a well-executed logistical or operational response. No good having a tonne of PPE squirrelled away in a warehouse somewhere if it’s out of date or doesn’t reach the medical staff on the ground. No good having an apparel company if I’m not attracting customers, ordering fabric and capturing essential data in Excel spreadsheets. Understanding the importance of logistics has reframed my relationship with ElementAll, which means that instead of focusing on the big picture, I’m going to spend three months on the nuts and bolts. 

The third realisation, triggered by a shift in my relationship to logistics and a growing awareness of the impacts of climate change, is that it’s all too easy to be overwhelmed by how much there is to do. I’d convinced myself that a very small sustainable clothing company was simply not enough and that it existed in competition with the regenerative work we’re slowly doing here at Living Ground. But of course, it’s not in competition, it can fit elegantly into our lives here. At this point, I honestly believe that every little bit each of us can do to make our corner of the world more sustainable (ideally regenerative) is worthwhile. We all still need good clothing.

My original intention with ElementAll was to create the most sustainable, resilient, and ethical little clothing business I could, and that hasn’t changed. The garments are still made in Wellington, by Jan and Marilyn at Stitch Products. While I dearly wish I could buy merino that was guaranteed to be New Zealand merino (NZ produced textile from NZ sheep), at this very small scale, I can’t. However, the ZQ merino I purchase from The Fabric Store is Australasian and ZQ prides itself on being the world leader in ethical wool. The Fabric Store – as ‘middle women’ (in the case of the lovely folk I deal with) – is a New Zealand owned and operated business about which I only have good things to say (click here for their statement on sustainability).  

As I launch myself back into ElementAll, logistics are my priority. I’ll continue to investigate my supply chain and work to make it even more sustainable, ethical and resilient. There are new designs in the wings (long-sleeved tops just waiting for a handful of samples and some promotional photos) for both women and men. I’m excited to share the stories of some of the remarkable women who wear ElementAll.

In the meantime, I’ll sign off with a bit of house-keeping, then a thank you note. The price of ZQ fabric is higher than the premium merino I’ve used before and the margin for the Fabric Store is smaller, consequently, you’ll see there is an increase in price for the cardigans. While the tunics remain at $150, the cardigans are now $195. You will also see that the colours have been updated. The ZQ range is larger than the 11 listed on the ElementAll website, and you can find the full range of ZQ colours here – if you’d like to order a garment in one of the colours we haven’t listed, just send an email to tink@elemental.nz. 

Finally, I’d like to say a very, very big thank you to those of you who have remained ElementAll cheerleaders. Jo, Adam, Anna, Emily, Emma, Tina, Stephanie, Ray, Kath and Vanessa. Thank you. Your support means more than I can say.

More soon.

Tink

Riding the Perimenopausal Rollercoaster

A fourteen year old Tink. Not looking particularly moody, but I can assure you I was.

In early May I turn forty-seven years old. Which at times, I find almost unbelievable because there are many moments in which I feel as uncertain and ungainly as I did at fourteen. Which, in fact, makes total sense because at forty-seven I’m as hormonally challenged as I was in 1986. Yep. Let that sink in. At forty-seven my hormones are as out of balance as they were when I was a spotty, moody, sometimes-really-unpleasant-to-be-around, teenager. Why? Perimenopause.

Perimenopause. Let’s say that again because it’s so unfamiliar to most people that my writing app tells me it’s not a real word.

Perimenopause, the stage all women go through, generally between their early forties and early fifties. These sometimes crazy-making years riding the hormonal rollercoaster which precede menopause and mark the end of a woman’s reproductive stage.

I continue to be astonished, ASTONISHED, by how little this is acknowledged or talked about. Here I am, in my fifth decade as a female human being and before I stumbled across perimenopause, while doing some health research four years ago, I had no idea that I would experience a second major hormonal transition in my life.

We hurtle into our teenage years with some anticipation of ‘hormonal stuff’. Our parents, caregivers and teachers are under no illusion that this period is challenging for the adolescent and the people around her. So why don’t we do that for perimenopausal women? We’re left to suddenly find ourselves in this unanticipated territory of mood and sleep disruption, short term memory issues, foggy brains, irregular menstrual cycles, heavy periods, migraines, digestive issues, low libido, weight gain, vaginal dryness and bloating, amongst other symptoms. We’re expected to continue moving at full tilt, all the while juggling careers and families, without any awareness or support. The people around us wonder what on earth is up with the sometimes crazy middle aged women in their lives, without understanding that their hormones are out of balance and it has a major physiological, psychological and often spiritual impact.

My perimenopause started in my early forties and was exacerbated by a series of miscarriages and the subsequent stress of these and other significant life events. Over the last several years I’ve come to understand how complex and extraordinary our endocrine system is. It’s tempting (but impossible) to tease out which symptoms are due to prolonged stress and which would have occurred regardless. It’s also a moot point because it’s just not that simple. For starters, pregnenolone – the master hormone for our sex hormones progesterone, estrogen and testosterone – is produced by the adrenal gland. The prolonged stress of our far-too-normal overwhelming lives, has a significant effect on our adrenal system and consequently how much pregnenolone is available for the necessary balance of sex hormones. In short, for most women in their middle age, life is chronically stressful.

So what can we do about it? How can we support each other and ourselves through this major hormonal transition? Well, quite a few things actually.

We need to talk about it, especially since our medical system certainly doesn’t.  It seems to me that one of the unhelpful consequences of the tiny nuclear families so many of us live in, is that we’re missing the wise grandmothers and aunties who can say to us, “Oh sweetheart, this is normal, I’ve been through it. I know how hard it can be, here’s something that will help.” In my experience, talking about this stage in my life with close friends, family and a knowledgeable and supportive health practitioner has made a huge difference. Understanding that this is natural and normal and that I am not in fact going crazy, has helped helped a great deal.

On a very practical level, what continues to be of quite remarkable help, is an awareness of those things that support me in managing my version of perimenopause. I’ve learned the hard way – as have many women – that while caffeine and sugar (dark chocolate, sigh) provide me with an immediate and glorious fix to my fatigue and low mood, the pay off is not worth it. These things stress my adrenals further, create even more imbalance and do not make for a happy Tink (or husband, for that matter). I’ve learned that stress makes perimenopause worse and so finally, after years of not really committing to it, I’ve found that a daily practice of yoga and meditation has a disproportionally positive effect on my mind and body. And finally (because I could go on but should get off my soap box), sleep. Nothing seems to knock me off my perch more than bad sleep, I’ve learned that having a light and early dinner in order to not overtax my digestive system, getting off my computer or phone by 9pm, in bed by 10pm and a short breathing exercise to relax my nervous system, are key ingredients for a decent sleep.

There is so much to say about this but in this instance, I’m not going to. Instead, I’m going to finish what has turned out to be an emotional plea to really just talk about this stuff with a shameless sales pitch. In navigating my way through chronic illness, adrenal overload and perimenopause over the last several years, I’ve seen a number of practitioners. My GP is very good, but he’s heavily time constrained by a system that is fundamentally not suited to treating chronic illness or, in the case of perimenopause, responding to something that is not a pathology but still requires support. However, recently I’ve been working with (i.e. as a client) and for (i.e. writing social media content as a way of continuing my herbal medicine study) a Kapiti based naturopath and medical herbalist. Her name is Daisy Wood (her real name not a perfect brand name!) and she is specialising in perimenopause.

Daisy is at the tail end of perimenopause herself and the majority of her clients are women navigating their way through this phase of life. She is highly motivated, passionate, very thorough and kind. I haven’t delved into it here, but there are herbs that have been used by wise women (and indeed male healers) for thousands of years in the West and East to support perimenopause and menopause.  Daisy works with these herbs in addition to nutrition and other lifestyle factors. If you’re sceptical about naturopathy and herbal medicine, let me just add that my GP has prescribed the same herbs Daisy works with. If you live in Kāpiti, or the Wellington region, you can obviously go and see her, but she also has an excellent private Facebook group called First Flush where she very regularly posts material on perimenopause and converses with her community. Her posts on Instagram and Facebook are information rich and easy to read. If you want to learn more about perimenopause and find support for it, then my recommendation of her is wholehearted.

This is what I need.

I started writing this two nights ago, on the eve of a full moon, as the rest of the house was quiet, even the Guinea fowl. Last night, I was supposed to go to a gathering of wonderful women but I found myself too raw to be with people I didn’t know, so instead I continued writing. By the time I finished, I wasn’t at all sure what I’d do with these words. This is intensely personal, The thought of people I don’t know reading this makes me feel very vulnerable, but actually there are some things I really need my friends (and by friends, I mean my actual friends not just those slightly random people who’ve friended me on FB but I’ve never met) to know and maybe this will end up being read by, and resonate with, other women who’ve shared a similar experience.

We don’t usually have chocolate cake and ice-cream in the house but yesterday we had a special occasion, today there are leftovers and tonight I’m eating – without really tasting, fully aware that I’m self-medicating with food – my second bowl of chocolate cake and ice-cream.

A couple of hours ago, one of my close friends told me, with thanks to a sperm donor, she is pregnant. This evening, as she sat in front of the fire chatting excitedly to my husband about the amazing story of how quickly and easily she became pregnant, I stood in the kitchen out of sight, tears silently rolling down my cheeks as I cooked dinner. How could I possibly let her know that I found listening to this wonderful news almost unbearable? How could I tell her that this pregnancy, triggered in me a wave of grief so embodied it made my chest ache?

Last week I listened to a podcast entitled “Getting Grief Right‘ with grief counsellor Patrick O’Malley. He talked about the disservice that has been done by the dominance of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief and how there is in fact no one roadmap for grief. He went on to say that after decades of working with people who are grieving, it has become clear to him that one of the most important things people need is the opportunity to share their story and for it to be witnessed. People who are grieving need empathy, real empathy, which is actually much harder than it sounds (I know this from being on the giving end as much as the receiving one) because basically it means being able to be fully present for someone without giving advice or making well-intentioned comments designed to try and make the person feel different.

Over the last four years, when I’ve talked about the miscarriages nearly everyone has responded with undeniably well intentioned comments which are intended to shift the way I feel. For example ‘At least you know you can get pregnant’ or the variation ‘At least you know what it’s like to get pregnant’, then there’s ‘So many women go through this and go on to have a healthy baby, this will happen for you’, or ‘You just have to trust your body’s wisdom to have miscarried for a reason’, or ‘You’re still not too old’.

Even more challenging I think, has been when I’ve shared the decision to not continue trying and my process of making my peace with that decision and then having someone say ‘Oh that’s when it will happen for you, just stop trying and relax and you’ll get pregnant.’ I know they’re only trying to make me feel better, but essentially what this person is doing is disagreeing with me – I’m saying I’m not going to have a baby and they’re telling me I probably will.

Hardest yet, I think, has been this. A while ago I ran into a distant friend who is an older Mum to a new baby. She told me she was ‘shattered’ and went on to say that she wasn’t sure she’d recommend motherhood. She seemed to not entirely be joking, but I mostly took it as being something a wickedly sleep deprived new Mum might say. However within half an hour, she’d sent a follow up message saying that she knows babies is a sensitive topic for me, so she mostly wants to hide from me, but in this instance didn’t and said what she’d said because she didn’t know what else to say. Again, I have no doubt at all that she meant well and that she was exhausted but it had the opposite effect of making me feel better.

Four years ago I lost three babies, all less than eight weeks old, within six months. It is only recently I’ve been able to refer to them as babies rather than ‘miscarriages’. I am still grieving, although now not so much for them — as I consciously made time and created space to grieve after each miscarriage — but for me. For the loss of something I really, REALLY, really wanted and felt, deep in my soul, was a part of my future. I am now grieving for the loss of an opportunity to feel a baby grow inside me and to be a Mum to a tiny human Adam and I created together. 

I’ve just turned forty five. I’ve been unwell for the last four years. Losing those babies knocked the stuffing out of me. A whole bunch of tests later it would seem that a considerable amount of stuffing had been knocked out of me before I got pregnant. After years of prolonged stress, I was, the doctor assumes, adrenally fatigued before I conceived. Four years later I feel infinitely better, but it’s anticipated that I’ll need another two years to fully recover. My child bearing window is rapidly closing (if it hasn’t already). I would really love to have a baby but to be perfectly honest, right now it feels like a choice between me and a baby. At the moment, even a few days of insufficient sleep sets me back and while it seems that nothing is guaranteed with motherhood, I’ve yet to meet a mum who doesn’t suffer through months or years of sleep deprivation.

To add another layer to this story, I was, as a psychologist once said, a parentified child. I’ve spent a lot of my life being a mother to my alcohol dependent mother. I was still doing that, in many respects, when I got pregnant. It was only when I moved Mum into dementia care a couple of years ago that my whole body heaved a sigh of relief and I felt that weight of responsibility lift. So while it might seem to some people reading this that I’m being selfish choosing my health and vitality over a baby, the decision follows decades of putting someone else’s wellbeing ahead of my own. However this layer doesn’t diminish the grief I feel for the loss of mothering my own baby and it is a grief which is impossible to avoid because I’m surrounded by friends who are mothers of young children or babies or who are mamas-to-be.

I read this to Adam last night and he gently reminded me that I need to ask for what I need, not just for what I don’t need. So here goes. I need my friends to know that I love you and love spending time with you but sometimes it’s just too hard to go to your children’s birthday parties or your baby showers. I love hearing about your children and sometimes it would mean a lot if you would stop and acknowledge that I lost mine. Pause for a moment and say ‘I’m so sorry Tink, sometimes it must be really hard to hear me talk about my children all the time.’

I wish I’d had more time with my Dad to talk to him about his experience as a doctor. I have a deep interest in healing and I remember one of the few things he said about his life as a surgeon was that one of the great failings of Western medicine is it’s non-acceptance of death. In 2013, in June, then September and then again in December I lost a baby. Now I’m coming to terms with the loss of my dream of being a mother. Friends, wherever you are but particularly those of you I see more often, I need you to witness that grief and if you can, when you can, I would be so very grateful if you could hold a bit of space for it.

The Wisdom of Rest

A little while ago, a friend admitted that when we first met four years ago, she found me slightly intimidating. I was, she said, doing all these amazing things and well on my way to becoming like another friend of ours, who is often cited as an example of an Amazing Woman Doing Amazing Things. But these days I’m not doing anything noteworthy and a part of myself, my ego most likely, felt deflated by her words. “Oh” Tink’s Ego said “but I want to be amazing again…”

An even littler while ago, I had a dream about not being enough. I dreamt of familiar people who do exceptional things, busy as bees in a collective working space and I felt I should be there with them. Instead I was on my way to a leisurely lunch with my husband and I was conflicted, the familiar voice of my inner critic was fierce with her Shoulds. “You should be doing something worthwhile” she said.

What haven’t I been doing? I haven’t had a job, I haven’t been out saving the world, I have not aimed for fast and/or high growth for ElementAll, my online clothing business. Why? Quite simply because I haven’t been well. Savings, a very small business, a family inheritance and a husband have supported my much lower key lifestyle.

What have I been doing? I’ve tried to rest but I’ve also moved my mother into dementia care, sold a family home, got married, taken care of our animals, slowly cultivated my relationship with Peka Peka, equally slowly cultivated ElementAll, tried to recover from miscarriages and learned a lot about food as medicine. None of these things are ‘tweet-able’ (with the possible exception of the clothing, although slow growth is far from sexy). For me, of course, they’re all significant but as far as my tribe goes, they’re not noteworthy, they are in fact very ordinary.

Of all the things I’ve been doing over the last four years, the most challenging and – in my experience – the most culturally unacceptable (apart from not drinking alcohol) has been rest. I differentiate here between sleep and rest because there would seem to be widespread consensus now that good sleep is critical for health. Rest, however, is a much more slippery creature.

If you search for synonyms of rest you will find a list of verbs that describe actions which are mostly neither aspired to nor celebrated: Relax, ease up/off, let up, slow down, pause, have/take a break, unbend, repose, laze, idle, loaf, do nothing, take time off, slack off, unwind, recharge one’s batteries, be at leisure, take it easy, sit back, sit down, stand down, lounge, luxuriate, loll, slump, flop, put one’s feet up, lie down, go to bed, have/take a nap, nap, catnap, doze, have/take a siesta, drowse.

If you search for antonyms of rest, you will find a list of actions we reward with praise, money (although generally much less of that in the world of non profit endeavours) and social media attention: Advance, awakening, busyness, action, energy, employment, action, labor, strive, struggle, toil, slave, sweat.

However it turns out that rest is essential for a healthy mind. “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets,” essayist Tim Kreider wrote in The New York Times. “The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration—it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”  (See also Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime)

The body also needs rest. “Right now you’re reading. But for a minute your thoughts may wander (you’re reading about rest, after all) and your mind shifts to random thoughts. You’re doing “nothing.” Meanwhile your body is re-making you with extreme velocity.”  As Matthew J. Edlund M.D. pointed out in a piece for Psychology Today, rest is regeneration. “Inside each of your ten trillion cells fly a billion protein-protein interactions every second. Every one is an information event. Every one helps change you, remake you, so you never, ever stay the same. But as far as you’re concerned, you’re doing “nothing.” You’re just “wasting time.”

The stress of significant life events and decades of relentless doing have left my body and mind depleted. This has shown up as fatigue, digestive issues, allergies and anxiety. Test results this week have confirmed – finally a diagnosis – I have adrenal fatigue or adrenal insufficiency. This means that my body is producing much lower than normal levels of cortisol (the “stress hormone”) which influences, regulates or modulates many of the changes that occur in the body in response to stress including immune responses, anti-inflammatory action, blood pressure, blood sugar levels and central nervous system activation, amongst other functions.

Adam has encouraged me, and my body has forced me, to rest. There are days where cooking meals, walking the dogs and vacuuming is all I can do before sinking into the sofa with a cup of herb tea. Until I find my attention caught by the long grass and drag myself outside to do twenty minutes of weed eating. Because it turns out I’m not very good at not doing and I’m very good at worrying about the things I’m not doing. I sit down and quite quickly become subtly agitated by the joint forces of my inner critic and busyness addict and within minutes I’ve thought of something which needs to be done.  A big house, an online business, animals and a spray free garden mean that there is never nothing to do and in case I run out of chores, I’ve also accumulated a huge pile of non-fiction books laden with information. Thus I get caught in a loop of needing to rest but resisting it and I end up doing everything – including the rest – in a kind of half assed way.

But finally I’ve had enough of taking one step forward and one backwards and slowly (everything seems to be slow these days) I am learning to rest, to provide myself with the essential space I need to heal.  Unexpectedly this space is teaching me other things. It is teaching me to befriend my Inner Critic,  thank her for The Shoulds and remind her that she is not in fact driving this vehicle. It is teaching me to befriend my fear, particularly of the unknown (being unwell for four years and not knowing why has done a stellar job of generating fear of the unknown). It is teaching me to find joy in the ordinary, in slow cultivation rather than instant gratification, and it is teaching me to unwind much of what my culture has taught me about growth and progress and success….It would seem that sitting in the vegetable garden and quietly observing has taught me as much as getting stuck in with tools and a determination to create order.

Poet, peace activist and spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh has said that “We humans have lost the wisdom of genuinely resting and relaxing. We worry too much. We don’t allow our bodies to heal, and we don’t allow our minds and hearts to heal.”  Slowly, one very mundane day at a time, I’m reconnecting with this wisdom, disconnecting from the addictive busyness, letting go of The Shoulds and allowing my mind and body to heal.

On the sofa, no makeup (hardly ever, these days), wearing a slight frown because Dio is photobombing.

 

It begins with listening.

IMG_6612
My father Clive teaching my cousin how to putt.

I became aware of many of the lessons I learned from my father Clive after he died. In many ways, he provided an example of what not to do. As a workaholic surgeon, single figure handicap golfer and for most of my childhood also a more-than-part-time farmer, he’d nailed how to not sleep and how not to rest. How not to have a supportive, loving partnership. How not to eat well.

As I went to sleep one night in July 2014 (six months or so after three miscarriages), I noticed a tremor in my left thumb. I didn’t pay too much attention until I woke around 2am and noticed it was still twitching. Dad died of a particularly grim dementia called Lewy Body Dementia (patients experience the symptoms of both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s) and it occurred to me in those wee small hours, that a muscle twitch in the thumb or a finger is one of the early signs of Parkinson’s.

I’d previously been conscious (at least to some extent) that I wasn’t particularly well – I was really tired, had little energy and was often irritable. My twitching thumb and memories of Dad made me sit bolt upright in the middle of the night and realise ‘oh shit, I’m actually really unwell’. Of course I didn’t know I had any kind of neurological degenerative disease but from somewhere deep in my body a visceral awareness of a lack of well-being emerged.

Coincidentally, Adam had been researching nutrition and psoriasis for several months and he’d been sharing with me compelling evidence showing that nutrition can play a significant role in healing autoimmune conditions. As I lay there listening to my body, it occurred to me, that maybe Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s are autoimmune diseases? My smartphone and Google confirmed that inflammation plays a causative role in both those diseases and there is increasing evidence for the hypotheses that both these conditions are autoimmune. Another Google search confirmed that people appear to be successfully using nutrition and other lifestyle factors to reverse the symptoms of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

As I lay there wide awake, I became aware of what felt like a message from Dad forming in the shimmering dark space of the room. “Do not follow in my footsteps” it said’ “you can heal yourself with food. Decide now, in this moment, to look after yourself.”

My road to recovery began with paying attention to my body and the wisdom of my elder. I listened when my body said “Oi, listen up kid, everything is not hunky dory in here, we need you to make some changes.” Our bodies are smart. They tell us when things are out of alignment. Recurrent colds, low energy, ongoing digestive troubles, achy joints, erratic menstrual cycles, mood swings. These are signals to ease off the accelerator a bit, even perhaps pull up, turn the engine off for a while and peer under the bonnet.

My healing began with listening and I heard my body telling me that my resources were severely depleted. Figuring out how to remedy that was the next step but there was no doubt in my mind that nourishing my body and mind was critical. However healing also began with learning from Dad and listening to the advice he gave (intuited or imagined) from beyond his grave. His DNA may live in me, but this does not condemn me to his disease. Epigenetics has much to say on this subject, but that’s a story for a future post.

In the meantime, I wholeheartedly encourage you to close your computer or put down your phone. Close your eyes, connect with your breathing and slowly sense into what your body is saying.

 

 

 

On being a precious snowflake.

Precious Snowflake: a term used sarcastically by my husband’s family to describe a person who takes himself, or herself, too seriously.

This evening, four sets of neighbours are gathering at one house for dinner. We take it in turns to host and tonight the most senior of our hyper-local citizens are wining and dining us. And wine and dine us they will, as they used to own a very successful restaurant. There will be beautiful wine and mouth-wateringly good food. However I need to take my own simple food and sparkling water because I simply can’t ask them to cater for my dietary restrictions. Which to be honest, makes me feel like precious snowflake and part of me wants to make up an excuse and not go.

Years ago I worked at Te Papa (Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa) when it was a project in development on the Wellington waterfront. As a member of the corporate sponsorship team, I was involved in organising a fancy pants dinner for sponsors on the eve of opening. I can still remember how grumpy the chef was and how judgy I was of someone’s wife who sent through a list of things she couldn’t eat. I would have called her a precious snowflake. If only I’d known then what was in store for me.

Two months ago, I ate bread with gluten for the first time in two years, by mistake. The following day, intentionally I tried goat’s milk – cow’s milk is clearly a no – go but I thought I’d try another kind of milk. Within a few hours I began to feel distinctly out of sorts, the following day I had a panic attack, muscular aches & pains and digestive upset followed. I was anxious, not sleeping well, it knocked my menstrual cycle off it’s regular course and two weeks later, when I thought I was safely out the other side, my lower back seized up from all the muscular tension.

I have no doubt that the cause of this autoimmune flare up was gluten and dairy (although it took me a week to figure out there was gluten in the bread) and as wickedly uncomfortable as the experience was, it was useful confirmation. I’d been feeling really good beforehand and the flare up happened at what was usually a hormonally very stable time of the month, so the culprits were obvious. I may well sound like someone who takes themselves too seriously to the eye-rolling waiter at a cafe, but I’m not kidding when I say I can’t have dairy and gluten. My body has been a strict, but very responsive and consistent teacher.

Making paneer, feeling like rubbish (three months after my third miscarriage in six months) March 2014.

Two years ago, on a good day, I could just manage a gentle one kilometre walk. I was sleeping badly, waking up panicky in the early hours of the morning and not going back to sleep. My digestion was dodgy. I remember gingerly walking down the single flight of stairs at home, with one hand braced against the wall, wondering if I’d ever be able to bounce down them again without effort. My thinking was foggy and I couldn’t concentrate.

Today, I regularly sleep through the night. Often I wake around 3am but not with anxiety, and a short practice of breathing sends me back to sleep. I’m pooping everyday. Walking several kilometres a day and practicing yoga. My mind is increasingly clear, my body increasingly energised. My mojo is returning!

In anticipation of writing about my process of healing, last week I asked Adam (my husband) to write a few paragraphs on ‘then and now’. As he handed over his laptop he said “I’m a bit nervous about you reading this as it’s not very flattering … but you did ask?” Yes, I did ask. And no, it’s not very flattering. I read his words and feel very vulnerable. My inner critic cackles with glee and tells me I am indeed the most precious of precious snowflakes.

Two and a half years ago you were exhausted and everything was hard. Any unexpected thing was too much, dropping something, a wrong look or word were enough to tip you into meltdown. You had a hard time concentrating and focusing. You slept badly most nights, you were grumpy, stubborn and unpredictable. Your brain was foggy so processing information and making decisions was hard. Making choices to care for yourself, or allowing others to care for you, were challenging. You didn’t want to admit that you were sick, you desperately just wanted to get on with your life. You stayed awake at night researching what was wrong with you, worried that you were dying. You were seeing doctors every week, sometimes twice a week. You had panic attacks every time something unexpected happened. Days where you felt like ‘Tink’ were rare and it was crushing as they faded. 

There hasn’t been any magical fix, but slowly over the last year you’ve become healthier. You sleep better, are more comfortable in your body and your emotions are more stable. You have taken ownership of your health. You pay attention to the effects rest, food, stress and practice have on your wellbeing. You do more of the things which make you feel good and less of the things which make you feel bad. You have energy reserves and are more resilient when things go wrong. You are able to focus, make decisions and get things done. Maybe best of all you laugh more.

I do indeed laugh more. I attribute so much of my healing to nutrition and to eating food I know is giving my body what it needs, not the food which I know sends it into an inflamed tail spin. Yet learning how to rest, for someone who has been responsible for taking care of others as long as she can remember, has almost been the hardest lesson of all.

Tink
Photoshoot for ElementAll (my clothing label), May 2016, feeling much more bright eyed and bushy tailed and still a work in progress.

Over the last few months, as I’ve shared my story of learning and healing with friends, they have encouraged me to write about it. About my experience of using food, rest, gentle exercise, contemplative practice and the support from family & friends, as medicine. Between the lines of this story is my growing understanding that Western medicine doesn’t have the answers I need.

And so I will continue, although not in this post, to share more of my recipe for healing and the new science which is emerging to validate (for those of us who require validation from the scientific community) the role of lifestyle factors in healing. In the meantime, I will go to dinner with neighbours and try to be a less apologetic precious snowflake. While continuing to be mindful of others and I am also learning to say “this is me, these are my choices and they keep me well.”

 

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Just a little smackerel…

At the moment, by way of addressing an autoimmune condition, I’m on a very strict diet. Basically meat, vegetables and some fruit. No eggs, no dairy, no gluten, no grains, no alcohol, no spices, no sugar. However I am by nature a foodie and am constantly exploring ways of making a relatively small number of ingredients into something new and delicious.

I posted photos of this pie on my Facebook page recently and had a number of people ask me for the recipe. Smackerel in the title? Well apparently Winnie the Pooh was known to say “You’re just in time for a little smackerel of something.” This pie does very nicely as a little smackerel.

Purple Kumara & Pumpkin Pie (or just pumpkin pie)

Ingredients

Base

2/3 cup of coconut flour

2 tbsp of tapioca flour

1/4 cup of desiccated coconut

1 tbsp of stevia (You can replace this with 6 dates if you prefer or a whole banana – the latter will make the base a little more cake like)

1/4 tsp of salt

1/4 tsp of baking soda

1 tsp of lemon zest (More if you like it really citrus-y)

1/2 cup of softened coconut oil

1 tbsp gelatin (I prefer Great Lakes as it is made from grass fed cattle. You can order through iherb.com)

Filling

400 grams of roasted purple kumara & pumpkin (Any kumara and pumpkin will do, I’ve used purple because it is available at the moment and gives the pie such a wonderful colour, however others will taste just as good.)

1 banana

1/3 cup of softened coconut oil

1/4 teaspoon of sea salt

1 dessertspoon of freshly grated ginger (More or less to taste.)

1 dessertspoon of freshly grated turmeric root (Not essential but lovely if you have it! For both its colour and anti-inflammatory health benefits.)

1 gelatin egg (Add only when all other ingredients are blended.)

Method

Base

Place all the ingredients for the base in a food processor and blend until it forms a dough. This will be more or less wet depending on whether you’ve added a banana. If for some reason it is too dry add another tablespoon or two of melted coconut oil.

Press into a25cm pie dish greased with coconut oil and bake at 170 degrees celsius for 13 minutes, then leave it to cool while you make the filling.

Filling

Put all the ingredients except the gelatin egg in the food processor and blend. If the mixture is too thick, add another squeeze of lemon juice &/or another couple of tablespoons of melted coconut oil. At this point, you make the gelatin egg* and add that as the last ingredient to the filling. Blend again then scoop out and spread evening on top of the cooled pie crust. Place in the freezer for 30 minutes and serve.

Adam (husband) keeps saying it would be delicious with icecream. He’s right. So for those of you eating dairy, go for it – something with cinnamon would be fabulous. For those not eating dairy but some sugar, coconut icecream would be delicious too.

*gelatin egg – 1 tbsp of gelatin whisked in a small bowl with 1tbsp of warm water first then add 2 tbsp of hot water, whisk again and add immediately to the filling)

 

*Thanks to Mickie and Angie at autoimmune-paleo.com for the basis of this recipe which I’ve amended as needed to suit my diet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Presence, Part 1. Finding presence in Mum’s dementia.

Four months ago, I moved my seventy two year old Mother into dementia care. Moving Diana out of her beloved home and into institutionalised care was challenging to say the least. In spite of liking the place – especially the nurse in charge of the dementia unit and Shadow the chocolate labrador who spends much of each day at reception – there was no way I could be certain I was doing the right thing. And in the weeks and days leading up to the move, I found myself increasingly anxious. This wasn’t helped by well intentioned family members venting at other family members about how I was doing the wrong thing, and saying that I was acting entirely in my self interest.

For the last several years, Mum has had 24/7 day care at home. When I brought her home from Ashburn Clinic, with a diagnosis of short term memory loss caused by alcohol dependance, she couldn’t drive and wasn’t safe to live by herself. Initially, I found her a full-time live in companion who had regular breaks. However as the memory loss edged its way into alcohol induced dementia, the role became too much for one person and two women shared the role, then three, then four, then five. Each of them looking after Mum for a week at a time, on a roster of care I managed.

I’ve been blessed by the women who have taken such good care of Mum, whenever there has been a gap, somehow through word of mouth, I’ve found women who I have liked and women who have grown to love Mum. Which is why I decided to have one of them with us during that first week Mum was in her ‘new home’  – not just to help Mum integrate but for me too. I needed someone I trusted to help make the transition easier.

After considerable thought, I’d decided against explaining to Mum exactly what was happening as it would only have made her highly anxious. And so the carer and I took Mum up on the last day of March, simply telling her that there were a few things we needed to fix around the house and that we were checking her into somewhere like a hotel for a little while. She has always loved staying in hotels. Lovely people, good food, music, a dog and a cat. As we walked through reception and walked down to the dementia unit, she graciously enjoyed a round of introductions. We settled into her room and I made my way back to the office, to tackle the predictable pile of paper work.

In all honesty, getting her there was all I could manage that day. As confident as I felt about the place – I’d spoken with people who had family in residence and heard them speak highly of the facility and its staff – it was still heartbreaking. So I retreated back to the family home for cups of tea and dark chocolate and hugs from Adam.

As the day went by, there was no word from the carer and I became increasingly apprehensive, although I didn’t want to presume the worst.  However she eventually reappeared after dinner and I went out to greet her in the driveway – only to  be met with tears and ‘I can’t talk to you right now’. She calmed down a little after eating (apparently the food there was so bad she couldn’t eat) but then went on to tell me what a dreadful place the dementia unit was and how I’d made the wrong decision. No-one had checked in on them during the day. Everyone was more demented. Mum was not safe.

I curled up in bed that night wondering what on earth I’d done. Wracking my brain, I tried to figure out how I could have got it so wrong and seriously contemplated the very real possibility that I would need to bring her home and start from scratch.

Wide awake in the dark quiet of the very early morning, more than anything I wanted not to be the only one who could make this decision. The feeling was so utterly visceral I wanted to leave my body and run away from the lone responsibility. At the same time, in equal measure, I wanted to have someone, a parent I guess, tuck me in under the blankets and say ‘Don’t worry, I’ll do this. I’ll make this decision.’ But I couldn’t. And there wasn’t. There was only me.

There was only me.

And in that moment of realising the only person who could do this was me, the only person who could keep me safe in the middle of this feeling of all consuming lack of safety was me, the only way through this was to be right in the middle of it, in the here and now without reflecting on the past or frantically thinking through a hundred different future scenarios, I found presence.

Or maybe it found me. It was still and silent, expansive and timeless.

I wish I could say this sensation of being utterly in the present stayed with me, but its nature seems inherently elusive.  I definitely a have better idea of how to find it and somedays, I find myself passing through it unexpectedly or it gently creeps up on me. And while my intention is to deepen those practices that cultivate presence, at the moment, I find both peace and comfort in simply knowing it exists.

Next up…Presence, Part 2. How Mum found presence in her own dementia.