Monthly Archives: June 2014

All in the Mind

I usually have a lot of time for All in the Mind on Radio 4 and its presenter Claudia Hammond, but I have become increasingly uneasy listening to the recent coverage of the All in The Mind awards. Over and over again I hear that these awards are being given to people – carers and professionals – who have ‘gone beyond the call of duty.’

As if uneasy themselves, they did tackle this in one programme discussing whether ‘going beyond the call of duty’ might conflict with professional boundaries. However, the focus was on how these kept clients safe, there was no mention of what they might mean for the carers/workers. Many people (including me) seek support for their mental health because of past or present issues within relationships. We search for a replacement relationship, one which is nurturing, with us at the centre. Often we find this replacement relationship with a mental health professional. Yet it can only be a temporary alternative. Professional boundaries are about making this temporary substitute safe for both people, without them the danger for the carer/worker is burn out.

I am very grateful to those professionals who have held me and nurtured me, when I have felt very vulnerable. I am also very grateful that they were clear about their own boundaries and kept themselves safe and well – otherwise we would have both sunk together.

People working in the mental health field are already loaded with responsibilities in an under-funded service over-burdened by targets and now we have to ‘go beyond the call of duty’ to gain recognition for what we do? That sets up, I believe, unrealistic expectations on all sides, but maybe especially for those seeking help. Of course, I support anything promoting good practice which must include treating people as individuals and not as a bag of symptoms, as well as treating everyone with respect. Yet what about respect for the worker/carer, for their needs to set limits? Furthermore, for professional staff to be able to treat those they care about considerately, the staff must also be treated with respect. This is sadly lacking in many working environments causing stress and distress. What purpose is there in adding to the load by acknowledging only those who ‘go beyond the call of duty’?

Many go into mental health jobs because of their own experience of mental distress and with a sense of wanting to help others. We often discover very quickly that the only person we can save is ourselves, the deck is stacked against saving anyone else. We fall short, we are vulnerable, we are fallible. Yet an important lesson for maintaining mental health is that it’s OK to be all these things. So let’s have an award for falling short, that’s what I say.

I do wish everyone who has been nominated for an All in the Mind award well and I hope they have the support they need to maintain their own mental health. I would ask, though, that in the future, the All in the Mind team have an award which celebrates the ordinary, the just getting by; because understanding that we are all limited and flawed and, even so extraordinary, is a valuable tool for maintaining our mental health and our humanity.

“And Some There Be” by Kate Evans, 2008
On the road to Cap del Pinar
a plaque reads: “Victorious engineers 1939”,
to those who
dug, blasted, pinned, tarmacked,
built this precipitous way.

And I thought

how often do we commemorate
the men and women who
quietly, gloriously,
create, not destroy?
The triumphant cleaner?
The undefeated carer?
The conquering call centre clerk?
The broadbacked brickie?

I wonder whether
in amongst the celebrity, the influential and the hero,
there’s room for the mediocre,
for the does their best,
for the not quite good enough?

Where indeed stands
the marble memorial
to the ordinary?

To the majority of us?

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Permission, commitment & feeling the fear

There is a danger for programmes in which authors with publishing contracts talk about how hard the act of writing is, that the speakers sound supercilious and ungrateful. For part of its fifteen minutes, that’s exactly how Rachel Johnson and her interviewee AL Kennedy came across on last Tuesday’s One to One on Radio 4. I wanted to throw something at the computer (I was listening on IPlayer). Luckily they saved themselves by recognising how arrogant their ‘plaints sounded, though it was a close run thing. (Note to self, if I ever become a writer people listen to, may I please remain humble and appreciative.)

And it was a good thing that I didn’t throw my computer out the window, mostly because it would have cost me a great deal to repair it and also because AL Kennedy did eventually say some useful things about the craft of writing. Firstly, that writing – or any creative art – is about giving oneself permission to engage. There are so many reasons not to and so many internalised (or not so internalised) voices telling us we can’t or shouldn’t, if we can’t give ourselves permission, no-one else will. Secondly, we commit ourselves to what we are doing. The question we must ask ourselves is if we don’t take ourselves seriously, if we constantly let ourselves be side-tracked and give our craft a low priority, why would anyone else treat what we do as having any kind of significance?

AL Kennedy then went onto say that giving ourselves permission and making a commitment is frightening. She said (I paraphrase), you’re packaging your soul up and putting it out there, and that’s scary. There are other things which could be frightening, perhaps we give ourselves permission and make a commitment and we don’t ‘achieve’ against some kind of scale of what it means to be a good writer? Or perhaps we do achieve? Perhaps we can fly? Proving wrong long-held beliefs about how rubbish we are at everything….

It’s worth hearing this from a published writer. However, how we manage to keep going as an individual will vary. My strategy is to surround myself with people who encourage me and do believe in my writing. Though, on those grey mornings with the doubts nuzzling in, and since I don’t have a publishing contract or an agent to keep me focused, all I can really do is keep putting one word down after another, and then another, and then another…

To plan or not to plan

This week I have dived into writing the third in my crime series, a novel which I have tentatively called The Art of Breathing. I’m excited to be back with my characters and enjoying hearing what they have to say. This is one of the good things about writing a series, being able to consort for longer with characters who I have become very fond of and watching them grow and evolve.

The first two novels in the series – The Art of the Imperfect and The Art of Survival – came out of a rangy, loosely plotted creation I wrote in 2004. Crafting them into the crime genre gave the structure and pace the story badly needed. In number three, I am beyond the confines of the original, virgin territory, it is exhilarating and scary. So for the first time in my life, I found the need to plan before writing. Normally I write and write and write some more before I even think of the shape of it all. However, I went with my instincts and have created a rather lovely spider’s web of characters-action-backstory which interweave in a very satisfying way. Best of all it got me going and the words have tumbled out.

It will be interesting to discover where this new method of working will take me.