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Surviving lockdown (again)

I think I have read about 20 articles with this title in the last week. Here’s one with a difference.

Don’t start baking banana bread. Don’t learn something new. Do NOT decide to start running marathons. Screw zoom family quizzes. That shit is bad for you.

Sitting around with too much time on your hands can lead you down the road of the big three: Fear, guilt and shame. The big three will lead to depression and anxiety. They will shred your self esteem and rob you of joy. They will wreck your sleep and disrupt your relationships. The big three are the single most destructive emotions and can very quickly overwhelm you. They are the overarching umbrella under which will dwell many hundreds more of other negative emotions which effect your general wellbeing.

So how do we quell fear, guilt and shame? Let me take you on a journey of discovery….. I love neuro science. I am entirely unqualified to talk about it but because of my mother’s brain tumour and my son’s autism, I spent countless hours reading about it.

Your brain is currently playing tricks on you. We are social creatures. We are meant to live in communities who help each other and work together and even the most introvert among us needs the company of others for our own wellbeing. But western culture has spent decades trying to slowly erode the social aspects of the fabric of our society. When we choose to go to a big supermarket, rather than go to the local shop, we don’t ask the checkout assistant how their kids are by name. When we work in an “open plan” office but don’t even know the name of the person who sits 1m away, something has gone wrong. Most of us do not know our neighbours. A huge proportion of society live hours away from their family. The concept of “community” or tribe has blown away in the wind over the last 30 years. And now we have been told to STAY AT HOME.

So let us understand how this affects our brains, the single most important organ in the body. The brain is the central processing unit of the whole body. It is an amazingly complex and incredible entity and if the brain is not healthy, everything else starts to be affected. The brain is in control of your hormones. Hormones are the signals for all the other organs to perform. Hormones are the conductor of the great orchestra of your body. The hormones govern your sleep, your appetite, your fertility, your mood, everything. When the brain is not 100% healthy, the hormones go out of sync and the music of your body goes out of rhythm. Your brain has three functioning states: Conscious, semi conscious and unconscious. It fluctuates between these realms and tries to communicate in a physical way, if something is not right. We are only just starting to understand the tip of the iceberg on how the brain functions.

But let me illustrate this in a practical way. For 5 years I have suffered with insomnia. I go to sleep fine, but I wake up at 3 am. I have tried literally everything anyone has suggested to try to remedy this, but nothing works. In the end I accepted that it was my age and my hormones. This was how it would be now. I have also had this strange eczema on my foot. It has been there for so long that it was just who I was. I had horrid feet and that was who I am. Thirdly, when I wash my hair, it comes out in massive handfuls. I had thought it was an afro hair thing because I remember my mother having the same thing. So imagine my surprise, when over the last 6 months, all three of these things vanished. Here is my hypothesis….

Dopamine is the brains reward chemical. You get these by eating food, completing a task and doing self care activities. I recently started eating breakfast. This is something I have not really done for 10 years. After making three breakfasts for the kids (EACH!!) I just could not face making myself some. It was with hindsight a form of self punishment. I think subconsciously, I did not feel I deserved any. Santa gave me a stocking this year. In it were lovely hand creams, hair products and lots of really nice quality chocolate. I have been having long baths and doing face masks and shit. I have been doing this without guilt.

Serotonin is the brain’s mood stabilizer. You get this bad boy by exercising, walking in nature and with sun exposure. This last year I have changed my world of work from being in an underground building to being outdoors all day. I now have a physically active job doing forest school and nature connection. I absolutely am living my dream life and my work makes me so happy. Lockdown has meant that our opportunities for being able to produce serotonin have been limited to 1 hour a day, and now it is winter, that is probably being diminished.

Endorphin is the pain killer. All of us most likely have some physical ailment which lurks like a shadow in our lives, coming to the fore in times of stress. For me I get back ache. When it is overwhelming, I take a pain killer, but for the most part, I know the triggers and have a range of other remedies I can use the manage it. Endorphin is produced when you laugh, during strenuous exercise and when you get pleasure from eating chocolate (smaller but still significant). Again, lockdown is going to have an impact on your brain’s ability to produce this important hormone.

And lastly, but most importantly: Oxytocin, aka the love hormone. This little nugget of hormonal joy is released by holding someone’s hand, giving your dad a hug, playing with a baby niece. Oxytocin is by far the most sensational of the hormones. I had found myself watching endless romcoms during the previous lockdown trying to remember what it felt like to be in love. After a while I thought “How much of this shite cinema is it going to take?” Then when I finally did feel love, it was like fireworks exploding in my brain. I felt 12 again. It was as though the wold had been sugar coated and everything was golden sunshine yellow. Hello stranger!!

But then Boris has made it illegal to hug your Nan! You have to feel guilty if you break a rule from time to time. You have to feel ashamed if your walk to get chocolate and wine because “Is it an essential journey?”. We are being made to fear everything and everyone by the media. The big three is currently crushing our souls.

So here’s my advice. Be hedonistic and forgive yourself. What goes on in lockdown, stays in lockdown. I went for a walk with a friend yesterday and she has been a bit down this week. At one point I stopped and asked her “What brings you joy?” and she found it very difficult to answer. Most of us spend so much time trying to make others happy, we don’t even know what makes us happy anymore. In the end she concluded it was dancing. “When was the last time you went out dancing?” I asked. About 1992 was the answer.

Lockdown is messing with your head. Drink the wine. Lie on the sofa and watch your best films. Play with your children. Let the house go to shit. Cook your favourite food. Talk to your neighbours. Walk through a forest. This is not the time to make big life decisions. Don’t try and make massive plans. We can’t bloody plan anything at the moment. You have to find the joy in now and not feel ashamed, guilty or fearful.

xxxxxx

How is Lock down going?

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I have to be honest, I am quite enjoying myself so far, but we are all on a massive learning curve. I have discovered that both boys have developed some strange habits from school.

Making a sculpture garden

Firstly, they insist on shovelling their lunch down as fast as humanly possible, avoiding any contact with cutlery if possible. This has come about from the idea that they get more play time if they eat fast. This is so extreme, I have worried they will choke a few times. “Cut the meatballs!!! For Gods sake!” The one thing we do have dear children, is time.

Secondly, they have no independence. Older son walked upstairs to find me yesterday while I had escaped to the shower. “I can’t find the butter.” he shouted through the door. I have realised the drill now. I shout back “Have you tried looking?” …. “No.” he replies. “Find a solution. I am in the shower. I am not coming back down.”

Cooking sausages on the fire

The “Home school” has been the biggest eye opener. Their answer to everything is “I am rubbish at X.” They are not, coincidently rubbish at playing online with their mates on Minecraft. They totally fear failure. There is a lot of crying, lying on the floor, blaming the brother for “distracting them.” There is a lot of “Can you help me?” which actually means “Can you do this for me?”

Poet – tree

But when you can coach them out of it (rather than teach) the outcomes have been magnificent. The issue with teaching is that we are looking for a predefined answer. Coaching involves wholistic development of the individual to improve within the best of their ability and at their pace. It is not competitive. They are not being compared to their peers. They are problem solving, rather than being given the answer. They are thriving within their own zone of proximal development. They are energised by challenge (mostly).

My biggest challenge has been keeping my temper. No one can press your buttons like your own children, add to that a highly stressful situation and no foreseeable income from us both being self employed, and it is a total temper bomb waiting to explode. I hope that we all manage to survive this things mostly unscathed with an intact marriage and untraumatized children. I would prefer not to have a mental breakdown, if at all possible. And so I am writing down our daily achievements as a way to stop me from going mad. And when this is all over, I am going to party like it’s 1999.

Film making: Garden kingdom

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Teddy and I have spent two days learning how to take film, edit it, make voice over explanation and add music and text. He then researched the things we found in the garden and put it all together. He and his brother then made a wormery to study their behaviour and investigate how they process soil.

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SENsory Forest school: Rocks

What did we learn?

We learned to speak to each other. We learned to share and communicate, and value the opinion of others. We realised that there is not one tool per person . We worked a system around it. It was based on community and fairness and patience and tolerance. It was hard. It caused controlled explosions. We worked through it.

There were some big arguments this week. The adults could not always resole them. It was ok. There was some big arguments with the adults. It could not be resolved. It was good for the kids to see. I use a phrase with my son which will not work for some years to come: “That happens sometimes.” When he cannot cope because I had said that we would go to the park after school, but then storm ” sabotage” comes in and it’s cold and rainy and horrid. “That happens sometimes”. BUT YOU SAID WE WERE GOING TO THE PARK.

Someone very dear to me asked me recently if I would (honesty) rather live without autism in my life. But genuinely, it would be like living with the storm without the rainbow.

What have we been doing at SENsory forest school?

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Week 1 theme: Light and dark

Art activity

We had two rolls of paper, one white sugar paper and one black sugar paper. I have made some willow charcoal and brought some chalk.

Nature books for inspiration

Sensory bin

Pumpkin carving and cinnamon.

Resources: One knife, ice cream scoop, plastic bowl.

Making activity

Willow lanterns with tissue paper and leaves, petals etc to decorate.

Resources: Willow, cutters, scissors, tissue paper, PVA., masking tape

Cooking activity

Pumpkin cake. See recipe.

Resources: Weighing scales.

week 2:  WATER theme

Art activity

Water painting. You use a big brush or sponge to make

Resources: rolls of sugar paper, masking tape, brushes, pots, poster paints.

Sensory bin

Water beads. Fran is preparing and bringing.

Making activity

DIY water filters.

Resources: Old plastic water bottles, sand, stones, pebbles, cotton wool.

Cooking activity

Fruit wands

Resources: Water melon, oranges, grapes, pineapple, cookie cutters, kebab sticks.

What went well?

The boys were dead keen on the water filters and love science. They are drawn to the big construction tasks. The girls gravitate towards arty and fine motor skilled activities. Nana loves cooking.

Week 3: SPACE

Art activity

Blow painting to make aliens.

Resources: Poster paint, biodegradable straws, googly eyes, black paper, toothbrushes.

Sensory bin

Sand and rocks to mimic the moon.

Making activity

Zip line rockets

Resources: String, card board, tapes, balloons, books for inspiration.

Cooking activity

Moon rock cakes.

Resources: Flour, butter, sugar, silver spray.

What went well?

The space ship building was loved by our 7 year old and he spent an hour constructing one. He was sad he did not have time to cook, but super happy when an older boy shared his with him. This boy is building really strong relationships with the three adult/ leaders. Our 13 year old girl did some nice mentoring with our 9 year old girl (who does not speak) The older ones chatted to younger ones about their experience of autism.

Week 4: Mine craft

Art activity

Design a mine craft book mark.

Resources: squared paper, felt tip pens, mine craft print outs.

Sensory bin

Material excavation.

Resources: 3kg of clay, bits of rock, plastic, pewter, coins. Tools for excavation.

Making activity

Lego day

Resources: Lego, bell tent, bell tent carpet.

Cooking activity

Pizza.

Bread flour, cheese, yeast, kettle, measuring jug, weighing scales.

Write to parents to bring toppings!!

What went well?

The pizzas went down a storm. We did get them to get involved in cutting vegetables they would not normally eat. R and Z loved the excavation. We have time in the end to pick an interesting lego shape and push in clay to make a mould.