Category Archives: pandoraproject

healing crisis, one person at a time

My lovely friend Steve of 21st Century Soul has been a broker of healing in my life.

I met Steve through our mutual dabblings in the Dark Mountain Project – we exchanged emails in the runup to the second Uncivilisation festival in August 2011, an event that I helped to put together from behind the scenes. We communicated about event-admin details over the summer and then I must have met him briefly there at the festival – though I was in such stressed-out misery I could barely function, let alone make any real connection with anyone. I didn’t understand it at the time, but Dark Mountain was the instigator of the deepest and most difficult crisis of my life.

In her new memoir, Tristimania, Jay Griffiths writes beautifully about her own experience of crisis:

Do episodes of madness have causes? What do they need, to unfurl themselves? They unfold like tragic dramas and, just as tragedy needs a tragic flaw, a backstory and the dramatic incident which kicks off the drama, so chapters of madness also need a tragic flaw (genetic vulnerability), a backstory (long-term stress) and an incident (a trigger).

Genetic vulnerability? Tick.
Long term stress? Tick.
Trigger? Happened like this.

… And then he wanked all over me.

Gosh, that’s almost exactly what happened to me too! Only with Dark Mountain it was mansplaining intellectual ego-wanking that splashed all over me and left me stunned and vulnerable. For them it was nothing out of their own ordinary, so why on earth did I have a problem with it? No doubt they wished I would just go away quietly and leave them to their important job of shaping the cultural narrative.

Like Jay, however, the trigger had been sprung. Like Jay, I headed into a period of bipolar madness: long descents into terrifying depths and later, spinning dances among the stars and the angels.

It was during this time that I became better acquainted with Steve. We mingled in some of the same online circles and he contributed wise, and humble, contributions to the issues that were getting hashed over in the discussion threads. And then, eventually, by way of his Unpsychology project, across my threshold fell his invitation to join him in Soulmaking.

There was something about this invitation that tickled at me, something about Soulmaking that spoke to me, and beckoned me with its gentleness. It was the right thing at the right time, as so many things often are, when we look back in hindsight – even the painful things, like Dark Mountain. If I’d spent much of my growing up and adult life in building up scar tissue around a wounded psyche, then my experience with Dark Mountain was like ripping off the scab and setting the blood flowing, and now it was time to take a gentle swab to the sore spot. The wound was open but it needed a healer to tend it. Steve stepped gracefully into that role, and the Soulmakers Gathering of spring 2014 served as triage. Some wonderful and inspiring people came into my life there, and I felt a shift under the surface.

My journey with madness was far from over, but my story turned toward resolution, and began finding a path of restoration.

So this brings me to now. Steve recently published a series of essays which started with a cry of distress and discouragement at our current state of affairs, and then worked their way in – like a surgeon making an exploratory probe. In the course of this he made the following comment:

…this crisis cannot be done away with by pills and talking. It can’t be healed one person at a time…

and this pulled me up short. It felt so out of place, coming from someone who in my own life had contributed to healing – to my one person at a time‘s worth of healing – that I felt I must engage him in finding out where that thought had come from, and if it was true. It led to this dialogue between us, published today on the Unpsychology site via Medium. Please have a read of it, and join us in the conversation if you feel inspired.

I’ll end this here, with a heartfelt thank you, Steve, for Soulmakers and for Unpsychology, for your friendship and for your healing ways. xxx

in case of emergency

Whenever we have made our plans and laid down the path of our future the trickster will come along and play a trick on us.
F. David Peat, Blackfoot Physics

A few months ago I was in my front room when I heard something outside on the street. It took me a moment to make sense of it, and when I did, my adrenaline surged. Someone was crying out for help, repeatedly: “Can anyone hear me? Please help me, please help!” I grabbed my phone and went downstairs into the street, where I found three other people assembling at the curb just beyond my door. They were looking up, at the window of the flat beside mine, where my neighbour had somehow caught and trapped her hand in between the panes of the window when it had dropped down as she’d been opening it. She couldn’t move it without further crushing her fingers – she was already in great pain, tears rolling down her shocked white face.

I rang 999 while the others talked to her and tried to soothe her. Then one brave/foolhardy young man took it upon himself to climb up the drainpipe and along the narrow ledge of the brickwork – like a mountain goat perched along a cliff-face – where he managed to shift the window and free her hand. But here’s the thing: she was freed but now he was stuck, clinging to the window frame and trying to work out how to get back down. When the emergency crew arrived a few minutes later, it was him they had to help. They used a long ladder and assisted him back down to the pavement, where they chided him good-naturedly for his heroics.

We all experience crises of some degree at various points throughout our lives. Illness or injury, unemployment, relationships ending or relatives dying, or even the central heating going bust midwinter or the cat needing urgent care at the vet. Or getting ourselves painfully stuck in a window. Crisis occurs in many shapes and sizes, with its main flavour being urgency. The calm routine of a more-or-less comfortable existence is rudely interrupted. Our perspective is drawn sharply into focus upon a very particular issue, and at the same time we are jolted out of complacency and reminded that life is much, much bigger-and-beyonder than our own small stuff.

When there is an emergency, we pull up and pay attention. We become ready, poised to spring, and in most cases we step out of ourselves and become available to others in need. We go downstairs or across the street, we phone for help, or we climb a drainpipe. When there is an emergency, our better natures emerge.

Crisis is what it is. At worst, it causes suffering; at best, it allows for emergence. And Trickster knows this.

who owns wellbeing?

Two different mental health events fell across my radar this week. They both arrived by email, in their different ways. The first landed in my inbox at work: a slick mass mailing with graphics and corporate logos and link buttons, leading to an even slicker website dedicated solely to promoting a full-panel plenary of high-ranking, primarily white male, mental health policy professionals and public officials. The second was a personal message from someone who had read my piece in the LSE Surviving Work blog series, inviting me to attend a small conference on wellbeing in which “the central concern is a question of whether the wellbeing policies of large organisations actually come to undermine the very people that they are designed to support.”

Mental health is a political issue: it boils down simply to power, that is, who holds the power to define what constitutes “normal” and “sane” and indeed what is meant by “wellbeing”. The Icarus Project has written an incredibly insightful (or should that be inciteful?) publication entitled Madness and Oppression, examining the critical factor of power in the context of mental health.

When I was growing up, mental wellbeing didn’t figure in any public discussion. The fact that there are now conferences of all types to consider our wellbeing is a welcome development of the new century. It is also a sign of how distressed we have become as a society. Pick up any paper these days and you’ll find headlines about the multiple crises facing our mental healthcare services as the need rises while the resources dwindle. I’m not convinced that the professional and political classes can solve this predicament; it is going to take a quiet and creative revolution on many levels to dismantle the powers which enforce a standard of normality upon the person.

I can’t help but think of Krishnamurti’s observation: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” I know which conference I’d be going to.