I have been reflecting on the amazing feedback I have been getting recently and feeling really proud. Proud in one way, and sad in another. These levels of confidence, self esteem and happiness should be available to all kids. The use of emotion coaching and non-violent communication, should I have come across them 10 years ago, could have saved me so much pain. The ability for all women recovering from addiction, to be able to access free at point of access nature based therapy, should be wide spread and common place. But we are one small team.
My new experiment/ mission, is to offer what we have learnt to others. To other inspired, outdoor educators and educational establishments to have meaningful and insightful and practical training which can be used at a grass root level to improve outcomes and enhance their provision. In this combined approach, we have the potential to offer what we do to a greater audience. And who knows? Perhaps the stuff I bang on about all day long will be so common place, I will do myself out of a job? One can only dream…..
Since I have started working in Nature connection and woodland therapy, I have had to get used to the fact that people often cry on me. In fact, I don’t think I ever go a full week without tears. This is not because we are uncovering some deep hidden trauma within them, because I am not a counsellor, but it seems the act of being in nature creates some kind of mental release.
What does crying signal? It can mean frustration, it can mean sorrow, it can mean grief. But it signals some kind of end. “I am at the end of what I can tolerate.” It should be a big social que to those around that says “I need help and support to do this thing.”
When I take someone on an adventure day (nature therapy day), it will involve me looking after all aspects of the day. I facilitate all the food, I plan the walk, I pick them up and drive them there. They can completely turn their brains off and relax. From the outset, conversation normally revolves around what is going on in life at the moment. As we drive further away from Bristol, phone signal goes off. There is now no internet. No social media. They put their phones away and look out the window. They start to wake up from digital coma and suddenly see the world around them. They understand that they are no longer “on call” to anyone.
When planning an adventure day, I will spend time asking what aspects of the outdoors inspires them: Mountains? Forest? the sea? raging rivers? breath taking views? I will build a bespoke day based on what makes their heart sing. Why? It makes you breath. You know, when you drive up a long steep hill and suddenly see for miles and miles? What do you do? You take a huge, deep inbreath. This is the thing that flips a switch in your brain and screams “I am alive”.
And why do people feel better after an adventure day? It is not about problem solving your issues. It is not about me offering advice or solutions. Most humans are at the end of what they can tolerate because they actually don’t feel heard. Some humans are at the end of what they can tolerate because they don’t understand the emotions behind what they are feeling. People, especially women, are so accustomed to fulfilling everyone else’s emotional needs that they have actually turned off their ability to hear their own. This can lead to massive feelings of frustration and anger, without fully understanding why. And often we think this is down to the practical and physical indicators rather than the emotions that are actually underneath them.
“I am mighty pissed off at continuously picking up my families socks. I have asked them over and over to, but they still don’t. If I see another sock I am going to scream! I don’t want to do this any more. (sobbing). I am crying about fucking socks!”
Me: “What I am hearing is that you feel like your family undervalue you. The sock is a symbol. What do you think it may represent?”
“That I am worthless. That I am not good for anything other than touching their disgusting, smelly socks. I have a joint honours degree for God sake!”
Me: “I am hearing you maybe don’t feel entirely fulfilled?”
“I put my career on hold for my husband to chase his dream of becoming a partner. I have done all the kids stuff and now they are reaching secondary age. I feel like he is never here. He said early on he had to do this to “prove” himself, but then when he achieved his goal, it got even worse. I feel like a have been a single mother the whole time while wearing a wedding ring.”
We reach the beach. We both just stand and watch the waves coming in across the sand.
“I am going to talk to all three of them. I am not able to go on feeling like I am there to serve them. We are all in this family and we will all participate. “
Me: “I think that sounds really reasonable.”
Three hours later.
“I think I am going to do a PHd. “
I love the life epiphanies people get while out in the wild. It never happens when you are in Tesco. You don’t suddenly find peace in the middle of the work day. You need a change of scene, to be somewhere that feels truly awesome and you need to be completely relaxed.
Strangely, I don’t cry. It was a mental mechanism that was turned off in me as a child and I do remember the moment it happened. Someone close to me when I eventually broke down said to me “Good. I am glad you are crying” and from that day, I have never really cried. I think that this has caused me a lot of problems in life because we all know in the fabric of our soul that crying means being broken. I have reached the most I can tolerate of this. And so I have always been described as “Strong” or “Brave” or a “warrior”. No one can be those things. Well, maybe sometimes. But it would be to deny our beautiful human existence, to not feel at the end of sorrow, grief or frustration. And so we are all having emotional journeys from which we are all trying to heal and grow from. Mine is to work on crying. Sounds totally weird, doesn’t it? Almost uncomfortable. We are told for most of our lives to supress our emotions. They make people uncomfortable. But we all reach an age eventually that actually, making people uncomfortable is the only way to move through the distress or pain they are causing us.
So imbedded in our culture is the drive to mask our emotions, that most of us don’t even have the vocabulary. I asked three children (age 9 and 11) to write down all the emotion words they could think of between them. They could come up with 7, only two of which were positive. This totally shocked me! Shouldn’t we be teaching this in schools? My kids have a weekly spelling test. When I last asked my son how he did, he said “Great. I got 9 out of 10”. I looked at the list for the week. I asked him “Do you know what ‘disenfranchised’ means?” The answer was no to 7 out of the 9 words.
The work I do is based on two practices, Emotion coaching (by John Gottman Ph.D) and Non-violent communication (Marshall B Rosenberg).
Most of the sessions are not about crying. Mostly it is laughter, talking, stories, me being a nature nerd and showing you medicinal plants and fungi, and magical sea weed to boost your immune system and invigorate your metabolism. Most of all the session is about fun. It could involve wild swimming, fire pit cooking, milk bottle fishing, paddle boarding or body boarding. A long hike or a walk through a local park.
Adventure days can be 1:1 or small group. Each session is bespoke to your particular interests and time constraints and include food and transport. Prices from £20 per hour. Available during the week or weekends.
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.
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.
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.”
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?”
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.
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.
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.
Resources: Old plastic water bottles, sand, stones, pebbles, cotton wool.
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
Blow painting to make aliens.
Resources: Poster paint, biodegradable straws, googly eyes, black paper, toothbrushes.
Sand and rocks to mimic the moon.
Zip line rockets
Resources: String, card board, tapes, balloons, books for inspiration.
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
Design a mine craft book mark.
Resources: squared paper, felt tip pens, mine craft print outs.
Resources: 3kg of clay, bits of rock, plastic, pewter, coins. Tools for excavation.
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.