Meet the maker Folksy interview

I was recently asked to share on the Folksy blog, my thoughts about my crafting process and how crafting is therapeutic to me. It is so lovely to be a featured maker on Folksy!

If you would like to read more, my interview (and lots more meet the maker interviews) can be found on the Folksy blog over here:

http://blog.folksy.com/2018/02/20/good-news-from-bad-craft-as-therapy

I have already had a lot of lovely, moving messages in response to this for which I’m very grateful – heartfelt thanks to everyone who got in touch.

Bibi

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Connection and positive triggers

When I am feeling wobbly and am struggling, the most powerful thing that can help me is the feeling of being connected to someone who cares. It is something I have struggled with a lot of my life and so when it happens, it feels pretty magical and special. I have found it a bit easier to find that connection in nature, with animals and birds than with people on the whole.

It is one of the main things I learned about in Compassion Focused Therapy which I wrote about a while back. Connection links us to a soothing mechanism in our brains that helps with turning down our threat system – the “smoke alarm” that is usually what cause so much trouble for me.

The problem with interpersonal trauma and that caused by people you trust especially, is that this soothing system is also linked to more threat and danger. So soothing starts to feel impossible. Especially in the presence of other human beings. And so begins a great deal of isolation and difficulty connecting with other people.

But with compassion focused therapy I learned to gently begin exploring connection in a safe way. I started by practicing, using imagery to try to imagine what a feeling of safe connection with a “perfect safe space” would be like and later on to what connection to a “perfect compassionate companion” would be like.

This very quickly gave me lots to work with in terms of working out what I didn’t like about this feeling and why I didn’t trust even this imaginary creature! But as I practice, I learn to more easily identify and feel more comfortable with that feeling. I have learned to treasure these magical moments of soothing connection as they become more available to me. Not only for what they are, but also because they show me how things can change for me.

One of the most memorable such magical moments for me was realising I really trusted my then-therapist. Realising I could tell her the most difficult thing I could think of using my words, and face to face – a way I rarely communicate actual feelings, nevermind ones this overwhelming. I don’t think I had ever been that vulnerable or shown my whole self to someone like that before. And to my extraordinary relief, she responded in the most compassionate and understanding way possible. I know therapy isn’t all about “breakthrough moments” but this moment felt exactly like that – though I know that if we hadn’t then maintained a trusting a relationship for months afterwards, I doubt I’d still feel anything had shifted.

It was a moment when trust had just pushed through the surface of the soil where it had been nurtured and poked its little leaves out. It was still very fragile and needed to be made stronger but that was the moment it suddenly became visible.

I formed a trusting connection whilst truly vulnerable and the power of that still remains. There are times when I try to use compassion focused therapy meditations or imagery exercises and I cannot. There are times when I feel entirely unreachable. But there are also times I feel almost unreachable.  During those times, the recordings I have of imagery exercises read aloud by my therapist are more able to reach me than anything else. I feel able to let her voice in when noone elses’ will be allowed. I am able to listen at first and then when I feel a bit more ready, able to listen and follow the “safe space” exercise. But only with this recording, of this person, from this time in my life.

Moments of connection do not just happen in therapy, but also in my real life relationships – and more so, now I practice these exercises – a photo, a card or a little trinket given to me by someone who cares for me can also do a similar thing.  As can photos of those special moments in nature when I suddenly felt safe, free and soothed by the beauty in front of me.

When we talk about trauma, we often talk about triggers – things that connect us again with a difficult or dangerous time, that throw our brains into that threat-focused state. I like to think of reminders of these magical moments as “positive triggers”. And like the other kind, they can be smells, sounds, sights or tastes. I use smells (lavender) when using my “safe space” imagery to try to link that feeling of safeness to a smell I can take with me wherever I go in everyday life. And I know that the light shining through the leaves of various trees in my safe space imagery, is something that feels extra special when I encounter the same light and trees in real life. We do have to nurture these positive triggers a lot more than we do the other kind that seem so easy to form and so difficult to shed, but we can do and they can make a difference in dark times.

 

I’ve created these little cards specifically to try and start the seeds of some positive triggers for people who are struggling.  Instead of sending a card-sized card, these little designs are credit-card sized to fit easily in a wallet. They can be carried with them wherever they go and remind them of the person who cares for them and sent them the card.

They are made from recycled cotton t-shirts – so you could add some drops of your favourite smelly to them (maybe on the back so as not to discolour the design), they look pretty (I hope!), they feel nice and they have a little space on the back for a crisis number, a personal message from a friend or other reminder. You can get matching stickers as an extra reminder to place on a phone cover, at your work desk or somewhere else helpful.

If you are are currently committed to, or on a journey of developing self-compassion and able to handle such a gesture, you could even buy one for yourself!

Reflected Realities at The Arches Project

“The Road Less Travelled” – self-portrait with Silver Birch and lichen. (Faber-Castell Polychromos coloured pencils on Fabriano Artistico Hot Pressed 300gsm & handspun newspaper yarn. (£180)

I wanted to share the piece I have created for the “Reflected Realities” Exhibition by The Arches Project in Digbeth (June 9th – June 23rd) . You may have followed its progress on my instagram page, or this may be the first time you have seen it but now you can see it in real life at the exhibition in Digbeth, so do please come along!

When the most profound questions about life have to be confronted to survive, traumatic experiences leave us scarred and fragmented but can also foster great resilience and a more intimate and different connection with the world around us. Deceptively delicate looking, the Birch tree’s deep roots, when properly nourished, also make nutrients accessible for many other species.

To create this piece, multiple layers of coloured pencils have been worked into watercolour paper and newspaper stories have been painstakingly remoulded, crumpled, softened, cut into strips and spun through the fingers into yarn. These techniques are slow, sometimes tedious and often painful, mirroring the process of recovery.

 

 

When it changed.

A version of this post is also published on “The Mighty” here.

I have long been fascinated and moved by the beauty and complexity of biology. All through school, I lapped up popular science books and TV documentaries like a starved cat confronted with a bowl of cream. I studied it at uni, I loved it so much I did a PhD. And once I had recovered from the PhD, I went back to loving it again.

For most of my life, the most emotional you would actually see me in public (most of the time) was when listening to science seminars – anything from quantum physics, molecules, natural history to astronomy. I’d get shivers down my spine and tears, actual tears of Awe.

Although I stopped wanting to do the routine science stuff that fits pieces into that picture, I have never stopped looking adoringly at it.

So when I’ve thought about my mental, psychological or emotional health in the past, I’ve very much focused on the biological explanations. I knew there were limitations, social aspects to consider, and that the brain is so complex we may never understand it fully. But it was always my focus. It felt comfortable, interesting and right.

I think this was only partly because of my love of science. I think it was also because it made it easier to keep the focus mainly on me. My response to events, my faulty thinking, my difficulties coping and my personal vulnerabilities. This focus made things easier to manage. It’s less messy to only deal with your own head and not to get stuck in the murky waters of politics, society and power structures too.

I alternated between feeling like the most accomplished Vulcan in the universe who was fully disconnected from emotions; and experiencing utterly uncontrollable overwhelming feelings that came from nowhere.

And at both ends of the spectrum, it felt like my brain was somehow not like other people’s. Either people didn’t get the hurricane in my head or they seemed so vulnerable and needy compared to my ability to not let things faze me. The disconnection was with myself but with everyone else too. All around, counsellors, psychologists and other people (especially other girls & women) seemed to speak a language I could understand but not speak.

They talked of ‘processing’, ‘needing to express’, ‘bottling up’ or pushing down’ feelings. They often wanted to talk about their feelings, even when there were no solutions to be gained or any new information to add by doing so. I always tried to listen when people needed me to, and hoped it helped, but I never fully understood what they were getting from it.

So a biochemical explanation felt so right intuitively to me. It’s exactly how everything felt. Like random wonky wrong chemistry.

And then something changed for me.

I read “The compassionate mind“, a book by Prof Paul Gilbert. It changed me by letting me start somewhere familiar. It started from what was a deceptively biological perspective – evolution.  We are born more vulnerable and stay more vulnerable longer than most other mammals. Then follows a no-nonsense explanation of how the human brain works because of this vulnerability. It creates a physiological need for safeness, bonding and compassion that is firmly and biochemically embedded in our bodies and our minds and is as vital for survival as food, shelter or water.

I should confess I balled my eyes out through the whole book. And I got through it faster than any book I’ve ever read before. I think my brain had been lulled into feeling like it was on comfortable ground and then it got smacked in its little brain-face with something earth-shatteringly different. And something it couldn’t find a defence against. Suddenly I didn’t have to understand the language of emotions to get it. I didn’t need touchy feely language or to connect with the spiritual or the intangible in order to get what everyone else what talking about.

Through this lens my past approaches to therapy suddenly became really obviously deficient. I had continued to avoid my emotions by talking and engaging with an illness. This had given me validation for my pain, access to support and a level of understanding from others, but one which didn’t necessarily require me, or anyone else having to stay present with my actual emotional needs. I talked about irrational thoughts and about symptoms and “doing something nice for myself”. I spent years trying to prop up my brain with drugs, challenging my inaccurate thoughts and trying to change my behaviours. It helped to some extent, but my brain hadn’t actually been experiencing anything physiologically different, despite all this. None of these things were interacting with that soothing, bonding, safeness and contentment system I’d been reading about.

I realised I needed an intervention that my brain would understand and experience at a biochemical and physiological level that was fine-tuned to the systems evolution had created. Ones created precisely to down-regulate the brain’s ‘things are going wrong” system. Pills thought to increase neurotransmitters throughout the brain (and body) or to reduce the activity of neurons, may help (and may even be life-saving) – but they did not, by themselves, give my brain anything new to work with.
This was the first step on a journey of change, recovery, compassion and indeed more biology. I will tell you more next time because, in keeping with my new more self-compassionate path, I think and I feel I’ve typed enough for one day.

Cheesey, baked food stuff for eating

As you know, I struggle with preparing food, despite what DWP would have you believe. Once in a while I summon the energy to make something isn’t a ready meal or random snacks. So here is my quick and simple meal idea that depending on how big the dish you use is, could feed you for a week.

Get an oven dish – a big deep one.

Boil a few cups of water

Pour water in the dish with some dried gluten free pasta (a layer on the bottom), just cover the pasta with water

Leave it to soak and have a little sit down

I get a load of frozen veg out – I love the grilled sliced frozen aubergine from waitrose/ocado but also works with just sliced carrots, sliced peppers, beans, frozen spinach or any or all combinations of the above.

I get some garlic oil out (olive oil that has had some garlic sitting in it)

I also use frozen pre-chopped chillies, chives, basil you can either buy this already chopped or you could also chop and bag up the stuff from fresh one day and keep in the freezer for cooking-days.

After a few minutes the pasta is a little bit softer. If there’s LOADs of water I pour most of it out. If there’s just a bit or I can’t be arsed I leave it.

Chuck into the oven dish: frozen veg as you desire, quorn mince or similar if you like and then empty a tin of chopped tomatoes/tomato passata, or something like that in along with  a goooood glug of garlic oil and frozen herbs.

Add some salt and pepper and if you have some, maybe a splash of balsamic vinegar or lemon juice.

Important bit: Throw in a bag of pre-grated cheese, or shove some sliced cheese on top to cover the food.

Put it in the oven at approx 180-200 degrees for about 25-35 mins. It will all be cooked, but you may want your cheese a bit toastier or your veg and tomatoes a bit minglier. Even if you can’t wait – you can grab a bit to eat and leave the rest in the oven a bit longer!

Eat and burn your mouth and hot cheese – or be good and wait till it’s cooled down a bit.

I have no idea if there is a good vegan cheese you could sub in that would taste good in here. There are lactofree cheeses and there also I find I am okay with full fat hard cheese.

You can keep it in the fridge for a few days or freeze portions or eat the whole lot in one go, but you may overdose on cheese.

Warning: there is annoying, hard washing up – I tend to leave my dish soaking in washing up liquidy water for about a week before attempting anything with it (some days I may replace the warm soapy water but it hangs around for quite some time before being clean again. But the benefit is you’ve made shed loads of food!

Resilience

It’s not us, it’s you

You’re weak and slightly wrong

You need more ‘resilience’

or you’re going to break the bank

You see, your flesh and blood are problems

You bleed when you are cut

Your brittle bones keep breaking

Everytime you’re hit by a truck

And look, when we push you,

You always seem to fall

It’s okay, though we can help you

To live in our world

 

We can take all your bones out,

Fill you full of gold,

Replace your nerves with steel wires,

To build a cage for your soul

We can wait for a while but try not to take too long

Come back when you are ready

to live in our world.

My first low fodmap savoury muffins

Yes – I mainly make muffins when I have managed to spare enough energy to cook something for the days ahead. They really are amazing – I can minimise energy use about thinking what to eat, use of cutlery/crockery and washing up once I have a bunch of these in the freezer.

Cooking tip for fatigue/pain: I buy a lot of canned, UHT (like orange juice lunchbox cartons from concentrate) or frozen goods (including chopped herbs and sliced veg). I also buy pre-prepared food and store things like massive bags of grated cheese, bags of cooked quinoa and left over tinned stuff in the freezer. That way your ingredients last until you have the spoons to use them.

 

Mediterranean muffins!

In a measuring jug:

2 handfuls frozen chopped chives

2 handfuls frozen chopped chillies

2 handfuls frozen chopped basil

salt and pepper – to taste

a few tablespoons of lemon juice (I use a bottled version)

80ml olive oil

And a good glug or two of garlic infused oil. No actual garlic to stay low fodmap.

Add water to about 300ml

2 medium eggs

mix with a fork till mixed!

 

In a mixing bowl:

275g flour gluten free plus 2 tsp xanthan gum OR normal flour

2tsp baking powder

40g dried sundried tomatoes (soaked in warm water for 20 mins)

half tin of black olives (freeze the rest) – about 75-100g

couple of tsp smoked paprika

a couple of handfuls of grated cheese (you could also use feta)

 

Add measuring jug liquid to bowl and mix – but not too much – just till you can’t see any flour

Add some cooked quinoa (a couple of handfuls) if you have some (defrost first if you keep it frozen too!)

Put in 12 cases in a muffin tin at 180 degrees for 20-30 minuted – till golden brown.

 

This time, I took pictures:

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