As I glanced at a colourful note on my computer screen depicting a wobbly yellow egg timer with ‘Breathing Space’ written in purple pen across the top, I realised that my anxiety levels had been quite high for some time. This note is to remind me of the breathing space tool from a mindfulness course I did last year ( https://www.bemindfulonline.com/ ), it helps me to centre myself by focusing on the breath and body.
I am slowly adjusting to the idea that my mental health needs to come first, so after acknowledging this excessive ongoing anxiety I sent a few emails, removed some things from my diary and hey presto the beginnings of this blog post wrote itself. It had been on the back burner for quite some time, however despite my best efforts at spontaneous creativity over the winter months I just wasn’t feeling it. As I started unintentionally jotting in my notebook I found a sense of peace.
I will begin by admitting that I have struggled with my mental health since I was a teenager, my adult life has been shaped by long bouts of undiagnosed and untreated depression. I found ways to suppress it, to hide it as much as possible and I found ways to disconnect.
I never asked for help, the idea of sharing my innermost thoughts and feelings with the village GP was horrifying to me and in my family these things weren’t talked about, or in reality understood. I have always felt that I didn’t want to take antidepressants, I am not sure why I was so adamant about this, perhaps it was a mistake, perhaps I should have tried but for better or worse I stubbornly thought I could do it myself.
The truth is a part of me feels like I lost a decade of my life this way, during this period I knew I was unhappy, lost and stuck but I did not know how to change that. And depression itself cultivates and propagates these feelings of powerlessness and if we cannot find a way to believe ourself out of a situation, it is very difficult to make it a reality.
And you know what, anxiety is exhausting and depression is exhausting and the thing with the bad days, weeks or months is that when you are in the middle of them they feel like always and that is hard to deal with. I have been learning about the importance of talking kindly to myself, about holding onto the good days and about the value of positive reinforcement and meditation.
I have found the time and space to take better care of myself, mostly, and I have noticed that I have started to smile more and laugh more and I am very grateful for this. I consider myself a solitary member of the LGBTQ+ community having spent much of my life living in the village of a small town working behind bars. I struggled to find my place in the world and at the age of 38 I still find it hard to look people in the eye.
I bear the scars of shame, prejudice, conflict and internal struggle and I know that I am not alone. It comes as no surprise in a world where casual sexism, racism and homophobia are often the norm and the Daily Mail seems omnipresent, popping up constantly like a shitty tarot card. I have been openly gay since my mid twenties and tentatively called myself bisexual since I was a teenager. I don’t talk about it all that much, I just don’t often have an awful lot to say on the matter, particularly not over the bar.
And I cannot count the amount of times I have found myself apologetically explaining to some guy for the tenth time that there is absolutely no way that I want to go out for a drink with him and no there is no chance of him turning me and yes actually I am quite sure of that and yes I have tried. It is best to cut these things down quickly because you know that it is not going to be any easier when he has finished his next pint.
In a way the inappropriate comments and incessant curiosity of the regulars or any old Tom, Dick or Harry that felt the need to interrogate me on the matter over the years forced me to own it and it takes courage to stand alone in difference and not everyone has the strength to do that. Though please do not underestimate how difficult it is existing in a world when it felt as though my love was simply not valid, it did not fit, I did not fit and as much as I spent many a happy hour there, I had always longed for something more.
The burden of difference should not be underestimated and it is important for people to understand that prejudice is damaging and homophobia is hurtful, even if you just said it really quietly and you were only joking anyway! I don’t say this all that much though, because it turns out people have delicate feelings when these things are brought up.
After over a decade working in hospitality this life came to an unexpected end as Corona-19 caused the seemingly unstoppable cogs of the capitalist machine to slow and appear to almost come to a halt before my very eyes, via Facebook and Google. Simultaneously the sun came out and I retreated to an overgrown back yard to spend some quality time wrestling with my frenetic mind and trying to meditate for more than 30 seconds at a time.
And I found solace there, every morning I would go out into the sunshine and try to concentrate and stay with my standing meditation. I would get distracted, go away, came back, get bored, came back, scratch, come back and as I went through this process the weather held beautifully, I persevered and loved every second of the sun on my pallid winter complexion.
As the days and weeks went by the sun slowly tanned my face as I battled my impatient mind, I started cutting back the massive rose bush, nettles and creepers and to my delight I found an enormous lump of slate in the middle of the pond. The sun started on the left of the yard, arced over the garden and illuminated the slate beautifully in the late afternoon, the pond punctuated for much of the summer by an abundance of pink rose petals.
The more time I spent in the sun the more time I wanted to spend in the sun, I love to listen to the birds and watch the clouds, I noticed the plants and flowers grow and I began to notice the breeze moving over my skin. I managed to stay a little longer, a little longer and slowly, slowly it started to get easier.
Slowly I learnt to stay with my breath, with the sensations in my body, to let go of the endless stream of thoughts, fears, anxieties. And although this was a lonely time for everyone, I found a sense of connection to myself and to the natural world. And whats more, as if by magic a whole new world of possibility opened to me.
But in this new world of opportunity my problems and insecurities followed me and they grew, the Autumn of 2020 was a very challenging time. I struggled massively with my mental health and accepted that this time I needed to find help, I realised that if I wanted to change my situation I needed to face some big issues within myself. But I will come back to this point after a return once more to the villages…
I joined a TaeKwon-Do club at my old school after moving back home from uni, as a kid I always loved action films and I was mesmerised by the beautiful TaeKwon-Do kicks. I have always felt a draw to the martial arts and in reality I was angry and I didn’t feel safe. In my family to show emotion was to show weakness so my childhood was punctuated by angry exchanges, as emotions ignored and untended grow into a lifetime worth of frustrations. My armour as an adult consisted of these same mechanisms so this conflict followed me, it became me, I became it.
My 9 year TaeKwon-Do journey did changed me, it made me a better person. I spent hours seeking beauty in these difficult movements, I learnt through blood sweat and tears about determination and self control, I have never really physically hurt anyone and during this time I learnt that I really never want to. This was a most welcome revelation, getting punched in the face taught me about humility and compassion, but my problems and my unhappiness remained and as time progressed it became clear that what I was really seeking could not be found there.
During this time, much to my teachers dismay I started learning some Wing Chun and dabbled in other martial arts, eventually finding a brilliant yoga class. I found yoga as challenging as TaeKwon-Do and it took me a really long time to move away from the ‘push, push, push’ approach of the martial arts, it took a while but I slowly began to soften. Before I left the villages behind and moved to Bristol I began learning a little Tai Chi.
I eventually settled in St. Werburghs, Bristol drawn by my dream pub, the graffiti tunnel and a sense of villageyness which I recognised later, I guess it just felt like home. I was lucky to find 2 wonderful teachers here so I continued to learn Wing Chun and Tai Chi, both Chinese arts with interesting similarities. So my pub life continued and I kept learning, finding time between the beer and the pool.
Winter 2019 had been a pretty grim time, I had been in London in October protesting climate breakdown and the whole pub was in a funk over Brexit, there was anger and feelings of hopelessness and fear for the future. I am really glad I stuck with the martial arts because like so many difficult times in my life before it acted as my anchor and when lockdown came I had somewhere to turn.
I realised during the first lockdown in those sunshine filled hours when I was able to forget about the craziness of the outside world for a while, I realised that I felt happier than I had in years. Though as I said by the autumn I was struggling again with my mental health and my sense of self worth and like pretty much everybody I was struggling with the uncertainty and isolation which has become the norm over the last year or so, I was searching for something.
I had always wanted to teach but I never found my outlet, as I studied Fine Art I dreamt of lecturing, this never came close to materialising and the martial arts never appealed to me in that way. I had considered Qigong on a few occasions, Qigong translates roughly as energy work, Tai Chi is highly attuned to this. Perhaps you have seen the videos of the groups in the park in China first thing in the morning.
Qigong is quick to learn, accessible and is absolutely brilliant for health and mental wellbeing, I like to think of it as mindfulness in motion. I had a revelation November time, I googled Qigong courses half in desperation and one particular course stood out. I checked to see where it was, aah London and would you believe it, St. Werburghs! I spent all weekend writing my application, I put my energy, heart and soul into it.
By the time I had finished writing it I felt like one big important part of the jigsaw of my life was about to slot into place, I got an email back a few days later saying the last place had just been offered to someone else. Their response was as of yet unknown and I was to expect an email in the next few days.
Nine days later I received an email offering me the place, as I came to the quote at the bottom of the email I cried and I really don’t cry all that much. I cried because I had been struggling and I cried because I knew that I had found the right teacher and because I knew that after all these years I had finally found what I had been looking for.
“Whichever path Love’s caravan takes,
that is my road and that is my religion”
[Ibu Arabi 1165-1240]