Guest Blog – In Memory of Ann Elizabeth Hemmings

My dear friend Liz who I met when I did my undergrad at Warwick University wrote this piece about her Mum. She (Liz) doesn’t remember but I stayed with her at her home one holiday sharing her bed because she was struggling so much with not sleeping and missing her Mum. The reason she doesn’t remember is because that’s how painful grief is. This piece is by her in tribute to her Mum on what would have been the month of a special birthday. She was only 45 when she died. The rest – is from Liz……

This February would have been my mum’s 70th birthday. When I imagine her as a 70 year old, I’m certain there would be little difference; for one thing her hair would still be a new colour each month! I want to mark the birthday that should have been, to express the pain and joy that thinking of her brings. I wrote this piece seven years ago, and the journey brought me great comfort. For all those who have felt the desolation of bereavement, I hope it brings you comfort too.

I was eighteen when my mum died. Before her funeral my step-dad gave away everything she owned. His crushing grief was of course responsible for what he did, but the cause could not alter the result: all that remained of her was gone. There was nothing left for me to see, touch or smell. Even the bowl of her nick naks, kept by the telephone for years, was donated to the charity shop. As with the contents of that small bowl, which I can no longer recollect, memories of my mother’s image and more profoundly of who she was and how we were together, have begun to fade into my subconscious over the years, as if they were disappearing into quicksand. 

That there has been no one to share my grief has added to my struggle to truly remember my mum. With the exception of my step dad and my dad (my parents divorced when I was three), no one in my present life ever knew her, and neither of my dads finds themselves able to talk much about her. She had no siblings, same as me. There is no one to remember my mum with, to laugh or to cry over that beloved life. My paternal grandmother, almost one hundred years old and now insensible to the present, often asks me how she is. This one small acknowledgment of my mum once owning a life and creating my own, temporarily warms the cold corners of my body created by her absence. This is the only time she is mentioned or remembered and it is not enough. How is it possible to remember her true likeness then; her absolute essence, when there is nothing left but the whispers of a treasured past buried deep under desolate grief?  

The answer may have now presented itself, finally after eighteen years. In an attempt to distract my grandmother from her illness with memories of a happy past, I discovered, with the thrill of serendipity, boxes of old photographs containing the life of my mother. This discovery has come just in time. My mother has been gone almost as long as I knew her. I find that I can’t even dream about her. I only remember a handful of dreams and in them there is always something dark and portentous; death is waiting in the room with us. The pain of my prolonged bereavement, caused I am sure by the solitude of my grief, is responsible for this I think. So I must take some action, before she fades too far from my memory and I lose the essence of her completely. Perhaps through the discovery of these photographs, and so the rediscovery of her image, I will find a peace that lets me find her again in my dreams; how she truly was and not with the shadow of what is to come darkening every moment of light.

I may not have many of her actual belongings but, like history itself, belongings are perishable. Once they are dislocated from the owner, they can inflict pain when seen and touched in such disassociation. Yet, viewing them in a photograph, in their rightful context, allows the scene to come alive again and so too the person within that scene. If I want to rebuild her life, our life together, then I can use these photographs to rediscover what she wore, the activities she liked, the perfume she wore and so how she smelled even. Remembered objects are no longer dislocated but reclassified through the photographic scene; I am able to take back control of my memories and she is returned to me in a richer form. Her facial expressions are telling of an incomparable personality. These, coupled with the clothes she wore and the objects she owned, spark the memory of occasions from my early life when I saw these things and felt that love first hand. 

The writer, Roland Barthes, describes such emotionally loaded details within an image as the punctum. The punctum attracts you and stays with you; it bruises you. It is not always seen consciously but when it is, it fills the entire picture. Experiencing the punctum is like being wounded. Barthes says, it is, “an element that shoots out of the image like an arrow and pierces me. My delight and my pain.”I experience all of these things as I gaze at an image of my mother standing next to a horse when she was about eight years old. The shape and light of her eyes and the curve of her lips; everything about that expression, even on such a young face, possessing no comprehension of future motherhood, brings her back to me so completely that her presence fills my body like a warm, dancing flame. 

Interestingly, I found that I could not bear to reproduce that photograph here. Somehow the details became lost in the reproduction as I attempted to scan it on to the page. But as I looked at the original image I started to wonder; would the image have ever reproduced truly? I then recalled Barthes having the same feelings when considering the photograph of his mother in the winter garden and to my surprise I found his feelings to be completely valid. As the punctum is essentially personal it can only wound the individual experiencing it. Therefore, the image of my mother with the horse, will only wound me,as it exists only for me. 

As I examined more and more of these old photographs, I realized that I hadn’t known my mother as completely as I’d previously thought. Such images of her before I ever knew her, before she was even a mother, reinforced how history separated us. She had a life before I existed, and not just that, but even after I was born she had an identity other than simply, ‘mother’.

While history often divides us, it can also offer a glimpse of something previously unknown. I only ever saw my mum through a child’s eyes, but looking through these old photographs has allowed me to discover the woman I had never known. The knowledge that I never was, and never will be, an adult with her, with neither of us experiencing that deepened relationship, I began to realise that these images of her other lifewere exactly the clues I needed to piece together who she truly was; to build an understanding of her as a whole individual with a past, present and future, however short the latter turned out to be. She was a daughter, a wife, a mother, a friend, a woman. Through this new ‘knowing’, perhaps I could, at least in part, reconstruct the adult relationship denied to us both by her premature death.

Photography therefore has served a multi faceted purpose in this journey of rediscovering my mum. In the photographs of the woman I knew, I am pricked through the memories they release. I recognise her in them, just as I recognise her in myself when I catch an expression of hers on my own face in the mirror. And in the images that existed before me, I am again reminded of her through traits, which I recognise, and am also delighted by new revelations about her. For it is the punctum again, which allows the viewer to define the life outside of the image. Barthes describes it as a kind of subtle beyond, taking the spectator outside of the photograph’s frame, to the life beyond the moment and identity captured in that particular image. 

Photography then, is capable of so much. It permits consciousness and memory and in my case has begun the vital exploration process of reclaiming the memory of my mum; to prevent her from fading under a blanket of grief that I was unable to work through, as the physical proof of her existence diminished every day. To this has been added the chance to discover, and so to remember, her, in a more complete version. Through exploring these photographs I have accompanied my mum on the journey of her life, and through this journey she has been brought back to the foreground of my memory, almost as if I had pointed a camera’s lens toward my own heart and re focused her presence there.

Ann Elizabeth Hemmings, February 21st1949 – March 7th1994

Teenager in a Toxic World

The number of teenage suicides in England and Wales increased by 67% between 2010 and 2017. At the same time the number of US teens who experienced symptoms of depression rose 33%.  Researchers have found that this rise is directly proportional to an increase in smart phone usage and thereby social media.

I became interested in psychology when trying to find the solution to my own issues as a teenager. Being a troubled teen is nothing new. What is worryingly ‘new’ is the impact that our world is having on this susceptible group. This scares, no terrifies me – I have two daughters, one about to enter her teenage years plus a nephew and niece knocking on the door of adolescence.

Taking social media specifically, how and why is it having such a massive impact? A simple framework to remind us how to protect our mental health is the 5 a day. Below I’ve explained how social media undermines each of these factors and written some brief suggestions for parents of teens (although the same applies to adults – for more click here).

Connecting with Others– is essential to our emotional well-being. You could say it’s as important as the air we breath is to our physical being. Without connection, we live continually in survival mode (i.e. stressed out). Our brain evolved to depend on others and to belong to a group.

Social media allows us to connect – to message, to re-connect with old friends, to make new ones, to share worries, but not at the level our brain requires. Take for example the neurotransmitter Oxytocin which plays a critical role in bonding with others, underlies trust and regulates social interaction. Oxytocin also acts as an ‘antidote to depressive feelings’. This is so important in teenagers that their brain actually increases the volume of receptors for Oxytocin. But social media doesn’t stimulate the release of Oxytocin in the way that face-to-face interaction does, hence leaving an immediate void.

Added to this adolescence provides the platform to develop emotional intelligence. Each interaction provides a tiny subconscious lesson which enables the brain to fine tune understanding through trial and error. Without this the brain just doesn’t learn. As a result, it becomes more difficult to connect with people in the real world. The knock-on effect of this that it limits a teens ability to communicate issues, worries and concerns which is essential to prevent anxieties spiralling out of control.

Suggestion

– Encourage them to invite their friends round to your house and  to leave their phones in the kitchen.

– Socialise as a family, perhaps invite friends with similar age teens. Then encourage everyone to put their phones down including the adults.

Giving Back. Social media provides a barrier to giving back. While a teen may encourage another friend to ‘follow’ someone or make comments like ‘you are my bestie’ this doesn’t stimulate the bits of the brain that giving a hug or listening to a friend pouring out their heart does. Giving back has the most positive impact on the brain when it’s done in real life.

Suggestion

– Encourage your teen to think of ways that they can give back. It may be as simple as being kind to or helping a sibling with homework.

Learning and Curiosity. It’s easy to get lost for hours scrolling through Instagram images or a twitter feed but that doesn’t teach us much other than who said what to whom and what Kim Kardashian is wearing. Learning, being curious and digging deeper are just not encouraged by social media. It is by its very nature meant to be quick and surface level, not reflective and deep.

Suggestion

– Help your teen find the things that they love in ‘real life’ and encourage them to investigate (curiosity) opportunities to do those things, then help make that possible.

Being Mindful in brain terms means disengaging from the busy chatter in the emotional, reactive part of our brain. However social media actually stimulates the fast thinking bit of the brain having the opposite effect to being mindful. Without carrying out mindful activities (e.g. singing, colouring, walking outside) we cannot develop the ability of the more advanced areas of our brain to manage our emotions. This provides another mechanism by which anxiety and mental ill health can take hold.

Suggestion

– Help them to understand what being mindful means and explore the what works for them . For example, my eldest daughter likes colouring but cannot stand listening to the ‘mindfulness app’ where as my youngest wants to listen to ‘the man’ (i.e. Headspace) most bed times.

Physical activity is something else our physiology has evolved to thrive on. Being active rids our bodies and brains of harmful chemicals such as the stress hormone cortisol. It’s hard however to be active and use social media at the same time. Good in that getting active limits our phone use, bad in that more social media means more chemical toxins build up in the brain.

Suggestion

– Get them outside doing something physically active. Encourage them to try different things until they find something they love.

In short – social media is bad for mental health and particularly harmful to teenagers. The easiest antidote is to think through how our brain and body evolved to live and encourage anything that fits with that e.g. being outside, spending hours sitting and chatting to friends, exploring……I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Footnote

There are many other exacerbating factors when it comes to social media, including but not limited to:

  • negative images normalising behaviours such as anxiety, self-harm and suicide
  • real life social norms being removed allowing people to be bullied and trolled
  • the addictive nature of social media drawing away from ‘real life’
  • the number of likes and followers becoming an obsessional measurement of who we are

My book Defining You which is about understanding yourself better (to improve both mental health and performance) via a range of psychological tools, is available at Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK as well as amazon.co.uk. Elsewhere it’s available on amazon.comamazon.com.au, amazon.ca and in various bookstores in Canada (e.g. Indigo) and the USA.

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Links & References:

https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/basics/oxytocin

https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/improve-mental-wellbeing/

https://fionamurden.com/2018/11/06/happiness-mental-health-5-a-day-2/

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/may/24/smartphone-teen-suicide-mental-health-depression

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/teenage-suicides-england-and-wales-2010-ons-a8522331.html

Image: pexels.com

Groundhog Day

When flicking through Linkedin and twitter do you ever get the feeling that you are being bombarded with the same message over and over again? I do. It struck me first when I was doing my business masters many years ago. I felt like the theories were repeating themselves while being vaguely morphed and renamed to suit the current context. The fact that philosophers such as Lao Tzu uttered words regarding leadership thousands of years ago (e.g. 600BC) that have stood the test of time is case in point:

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

A few years later when I did my MSc in psychology I got the same feeling. While the theories we were learning were adapted and updated the words that resonated centuries before still make sense. Take for example:

 “Ignorance is the root and stem of all evil.” Plato

 “Time is the wisest counselor of all.” Pericles

 And the one perhaps most relevant to today:

“Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” Socrates

It makes sense that these still make sense. After all people are people and the human brain has evolved very little (if at all) over the centuries, so the fundamentals of good leadership, behaviour, citizenship remain largely unchanged. What threatened people centuries ago will threaten today, what motivated then will motivate today. The difference in 2019 is the environment we live in. The rate of change itself  and the volume of data we have to deal with is increasing exponentially. As a result those fundamentals of behaviour once central to people’s way of life are getting lost in an onslaught of fads and surface level demands

What the 21st century also brings is the ability to research what works and what doesn’t, an improving capability to look at the brain (which often helpfully confirms what we have thought to be true and dismisses the theories sitting on the peripheries) and centuries of experience on which to draw. And yet we don’t.

Surely we should return to those fundamentals that have been uttered over thousands of years, resisting the need to continually rename and reframe which simply leads to  concepts becoming diluted into a myriad of un-actionable ideas. Shouldn’t we instead refine and build on what has been ‘evidenced’ to be true, adapting only in order to meet the demands of the world we live in. It’s a bit like remodelling a house to keep it up to date, rather than knocking it down and building it from scratch every few years. When it comes to behaviour taking this approach would allow us to advance our understanding both as individuals in order to really leverage our potential, and as a society.

What could you do to help this and to help yourself?

  • Check your sources. Is the information you’re taking on board from a well-meaning idea junky or something that’s properly tried and tested through either the passage of time or scientific research. What do I mean? Well take meditation – a technique that has been passed down through generations with benefits now backed by scientific research. Today we have hundreds of mindfulness apps to choose from. Some are based on proper research and knowledge (e.g. Headspace) which help people to actually learn how to meditate and progress their mental robustness.  Others are just nice to listen to but really don’t do much. It’s really important to find out whether what you are using works otherwise it’s just like throwing mud at the wall to see what sticks.

 

  • Understand what’s core to who you are as a human (i.e. here the same philosophical texts and the functioning of the brain is true for all of us). Everyone is trying to come up with something new, a different angle to try and get themselves heard – but if you capture the key principles, you can filter the information coming at you. This will allow you to pull out what is truly useful (using the techniques above), what is actually new and what will really help underpin a positive life.

 

  • Capture what’s core to you as a unique individual. While your preferences, goals, and areas for growth will morph and evolve through your life – your values, personality, natural strengths, narrative and purpose will remain more stable and consistent. So, it’s worth capturing these. You may think that they’re obvious but we forget them and without having them front of mind it’s easy to lose our way and impossible to perform at our best.

 

My book Defining You is available at Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK as well as amazon.co.uk. Elsewhere it’s available on amazon.comamazon.com.au, amazon.ca and in various bookstores in Canada (e.g. Indigo) and the USA.

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Image source: petponder.com