The Magic of a Smile

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This post was inspired by my seven children. It was during movie night, and we were all cramped onto the sofas. The situation is usually uncomfortable, the time is spent crushed so close together that I can barely breathe, with the dog running around trying to get on everyone’s lap. I often count down the minutes for when it’s over and I can sit in comfort once more. However, this time I realised something was different.

We were watching How to Train your Dragon (a kids film I highly recommend), and for once, all the children were laughing along. I found myself looking around at them with a smile on my face. The discomfort was forgotten, and even the dog couldn’t drive me insane. The film was fantastic, yet it no longer held my attention. The children were happy and I found myself emotionally mirroring them. This led me to wonder about the power of a smile and I did some research.

Smiling and laughing have so many more benefits than I realised.

Smiling can lighten our mood because when we smile or laugh, endorphins are released which increases serotonin levels (Hormones associated with happiness), and reduces Cortisol (hormones related to stress). It helps maintain a constant internal balance. The best bit – this smile doesn’t even have to be real. We can fake one and trick our body into creating the same response.  I’m not saying that you should walk around with a permanent smile on your face. To be quite honest, if you do that people might think you’re little insane, or dare I say it, weird. Let’s face it, we love to see a smile, but if we come across someone who does it all the time without reason, we tend to be a little cautious, they may even creep us out. But a smile on greeting someone, and in place during a conversation, can only help us.

It has more than an effect on our emotional well-being – it can also boost our immune system. Studies have shown that people who laugh and smile more have a higher white blood count, giving them a better chance of fighting off infection and other illnesses.

Smiling can also help with pain and is a lot healthier for you than tablets.  The serotonin released is a natural painkiller with similar affects to morphine based drugs. Think about it. Your child comes in screaming with blood running down their face because they fell off the climbing frame. Your stomach clenches, and your heart rate increases, after all, it’s your baby that’s hurting and that can be terrifying. Not only because of what happened, but you can’t help those thoughts that run riot, the thoughts that like to remind you of how much worse it could have been. You can’t show this, though. If you do, you only scare the child more. So you smile and joke about how they have a scar like their favourite superhero, and quite often, the child will mirror your reaction. I always believed this is because they look to us for how to act, but it is because of the smile. They are contagious, and when the child mirrors it, serotonin is released in their body, and the pain is reduced.

Smiling reduces our stress levels, and it isn’t merely because of the hormones released. Without us realising it, smiling can change the way we think. Keep a smile on your face, and try to think of, and feel  something negative. It’s difficult, suggesting that the facial movements have an effect on whether we think positively.  Think about it. Every situation has two aspects you can focus on, the bad or the good. Even when it’s impossible to see the silver lining in what has happened, we can laugh at the absurdity of the situation. On the occasions that things are ridiculously bad for me, I have a habit of turning my life into a cartoon strip. It is so much easier to cope with then, more like watching a comedy on television. So if you’re struggling, force a smile onto your face as it can encourage you to find the positive, and let go of what you can’t change, in turn, reducing your stress levels.

Smiling also makes us look younger, which let’s face it, is something that we all want. It lifts the muscles up and helps tighten them, stretching out all those frown lines that age us. This will have a knock on effect to our state of mind. We have most likely all had those days that we look in the mirror and think, ‘I look fabulous today’. When this happens, it makes us feel good, which in turn, helps us smile more, producing more serotonin…and so the cycle continues.

Laughing is a great form of exercise. How many times have you been with friends and laughed so hard, it hurts? It expands our lungs, allowing us to take in more oxygen, and gives our muscles a great workout. This also stimulates our body to achieve balance (homeostasis) with all those crazy hormones that run riot, making us unpredictable.

So far I have focused on how smiling can affect our emotional well-being, but it has other effects, too. Think of an occasion where you have needed to enter a room filled with people you don’t know. You stand in the doorway, your palms sweating, and your head buzzing. You don’t know anyone there, and they all seem to be friends already. How can you approach them? What if you say something stupid? You longingly look towards the exit, wishing that you were still at home, curled up with a cup of tea in front of the TV. You become paralysed, not able to make a move into the room. Does this sound familiar?

It is natural to feel apprehensive about this, maybe even a little paranoid. This can all be brushed aside by smiling when you walk into the room. People are naturally drawn to a smile. It is universally recognised as an open invitation to connect with someone, and automatically makes you seem more approachable. Also, a smile is contagious, and when a person responds, it will make them feel good. They are more likely to converse with you because you have given them an incentive, a small promise that you will give them a positive experience. Because  of the smile instead of the cautious, head hanging nerves, you now have a great evening, and are likely make some new friends.

Smiling can also help with your career. Studies have shown that if a person is quick to smile, they are more likely to be promoted. This is likely due to a smile making you more approachable, which helps build a rapport with those around you. Studies have also shown that people believe you to be more intelligent if you smile. Now, we know this isn’t the case, but as many of you know, life is made up with people’s preconceptions, and according to research, this is one of them.

I am the sort of person who always often smiles on the inside. I had heard the saying, ‘A smile a day keeps depression away’, but figured the inside smile was enough. After doing this research, I have decided to make more of an effort to project my positive feelings outwards. Who would have known that the way we move our face could have such an impact on us and those around us.

It can be difficult sometimes, when the last thing you feel like doing is smiling. Your life is hard, and you feel bogged down by it all. If you can’t quite bring yourself to do it in public yet, try the mirror. The first time I practised, I found the situation was absurd, I looked ridiculous, and because of this, I ended up laughing – a step up from smiling. In turn, serotonin was released, and believe it or not, I felt a little better.

So, next time you pass that person in the street, give them a smile, you might be surprised by the impact. In the words of Mother Teresa – We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do.

The Internal War

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This is not what I expected for my blog this week, and it has got a more serious note than I would normally write in, but with the death of Robin Williams, and the discussions about mental illness that have come from it, I thought it would tie in well.

Firstly, Bipolar Disorder, formerly known as manic depression, is a condition that affects your moods, which can swing from one extreme to another.  If you have Bipolar Disorder, you will have periods or episodes of depression – where you feel very low and lethargic, and mania – where you feel very high and overactive (less severe mania is known as hypomania) (cited from http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/Bipolar-disorder/Pages/Introduction.aspx  ).

I am a sufferer of Bipolar Disorder. It was somewhere in the early 2000’s that I was diagnosed, and the reason I left the British Army. My councillor had told me that my depression was due to hating my job. I believed her. Why wouldn’t I? The rest of the unit was in Bosnia and every day consisted of long tedious guard duties. Imagine my surprise when I left, only to discover that the depression was still a massive part of my life.

There are days that I can literally bounce off the walls. You may think I’m exaggerating, but I promise that I’m not. When on a manic phase, I want to do everything there and then, and I have no time to walk around such things as walls. Thanks to this habit, I have needed to replace several pairs of glasses over the years. I can’t control the urge to run, skip, do the Gangnam style (which makes me look like marionette puppet receiving an electric shock), and talk really loud- I could drown a screaming banshee out.  I suffer from a massive lack of self –awareness here. I think I look stunning – really I look like something the cat dragged in. I think I can sing like Celine Deon – really, the cat has better tunes than me. I think I’m cool, and at this point, nobody can convince me otherwise….Until I come back to the real world with a crash and hang my head in shame for the embarrassing situations I have created for myself.

Then there are the other days, the days in which the ‘Demon’ has full control. Let me tell you something about him – he is one mean S.O.B. His remarks are cutting and when he’s around, its as if I’m in a dark hole with no way out…hell, half the time, I cant tell if I’m even standing up the right way.

One comment I frequently hear is – ‘I don’t know what you have to be depressed about when things are good ‘.

Let’s put something straight:

Life can affect our moods, but it doesn’t control them.

Try and imagine how hard it is for us when things are good and we can’t enjoy them. It creates confusion, heartache, and loneliness. Do people really think that we don’t know that we should be happy, or content with what we have? Even when I’m depressed, I can still logically appreciate the good in life – I just can’t feel that appreciation. When something goes wrong and I’m on a manic phase, I know that I should be worried or stressed, but I just don’t feel it. We are all slaves to our emotions, but someone with mental health issues suffers with extreme emotions, usually at the most inconvenient times.

I have a certain amount of control over my mood swings now, but this has taken me many years to reach the point I am, and I’m still learning. How have I got to this point?

  • Be honest with yourself:- Part of depression is putting yourself down. For example: I’m a crap mum, I can’t do this job, I’m pathetic, I’m useless….the list could go on, and on, and on. Know your limitations. Know your strong points. Nobody is perfect, and everyone has faults, know yours. That way, when that voice in the head is berating you, you know what is lies and truth.
  • Deal with the truth:- If you don’t like something about yourself, change it. This isn’t always possible.

I was really blunt to the point I often hurt people’s feelings. I wanted to stop doing this, but found that it compromised my integrity as I value honestly. I got around this by making a compromise….diplomacy. Be honest, but not to the point it will hurt someone.

For example, I am in the house ready to go out and my friend says, ‘Do I look good in this?’ They don’t. Is it wise to tell them this straight out? Not really as it can lead to loads (and I mean bucket loads) of tears. I would now suggest something else they would look better in. If we are already out and they asked, I can’t tell them the full truth as they can’t do anything about it, if I do, we are back to tears.  Instead, I pick up on the good points, such as, ‘The colour really suits you.’

  • Paranoia is a massive part of Bipolar and other mental illnesses. It can disrupt relationships, whether they are romantic, work place, or friends. It can quite honestly drive you crazy. Either confront it, or let it go.

Everyone in my life is aware that I suffer with paranoia. If I start obsessing over something said or done, I have two choices: either let it go, or confront the person. There have been many times that I have approached a friend asking if I have done something to upset them. I inform them that this is their chance to tell me if I have. If they are upset, I go through what happened with them. If they aren’t (which is often the case), I LET IT GO.

I know this is easier said than done, but take some control. At the end of the day, you can’t stop the feelings, but with a bit of determination, you can stop certain thoughts from controlling you.

  • If you struggle to remember your good points, write them down. That way, every time that voice starts yammering away in the background, you can look at that list. Counteract every bad thing with two good things.
  • Know your triggers and be prepared. This can take time to work out as you need to honestly observe yourself.

Social interactions can initiate a low period with me, and I often  avoid them. However, this isn’t always possible, so to deal with it, I get prepared. I make sure that I have a few hours afterwards to run through everything that happened. I digest it, file it away, then have a few hours/days of peace to ride the low.

These techniques won’t get rid of it, but it will reduce the affects.  Whatever your triggers are, find a way to ease the impact.

  • Routine is important, especially with cleaning. A messy house makes for a messy mind, but when low, cleaning becomes an un- surmountable task; someone might have well have told you to climb Mount Everest. If you get into the habit of cleaning the toilet every morning, it will be easier to do when low. It becomes like flushing the chain – a natural habit you barely think of.

My level of cleaning still goes down when I’m  low, which in turn depresses me more. To overcome this, if I know a depressive bout is coming, I spring clean the house first. This way, it doesn’t reach such a devastating level before the low has run its course.

  • Learn what can help relieve the low. Some people talk, some go for a walk in nature. I listen to music.

But be aware, music can have a massive impact on us, so plan your track carefully.

First thing first, I need to acknowledge that the Demon is running riot again. I need to feel the pain, acknowledge it. So I listen to music that makes me cry, such as, ‘All by myself (Eric Carmen). This is devastating, and a problem if someone comes around when I’m doing it as I can’t talk to them, so make sure you have time to complete this process.

Next, I listen to music that makes me feel less alone and stronger. Pink is my favourite for this.  She is a Bipolar sufferer too, and it reflects in her songs.

Next I listen to motivational music. One of my favourites is Russel Watson – Faith of the heart.

Whatever you do, take yourself through a process from the bottom up. Reprogram yourself, find and flame the strength that is hidden inside.

  • Realise that, whether you like it or not, depression is part of your life. If you need medication, use it. It does not make you weak. In fact it makes you stronger as you have the guts to get help. However, this doesn’t mean that you can sit back and ignore the situation. Tablets give you a break, and are useful if the depression is situational such as grief, but for a long term sufferer, you have more work to do.
  • REMEMBER you are not perfect. That voice will go on and on about your shortcomings, but you are only human. You are unlikely to be super mum, or the perfect friend/colleague. Always treat people how you wish to be treated, but remember that you have needs, too. Your needs are no less important than theirs.
  • Cognitive behaviour therapy is extremely useful. However, the waiting lists to get into this are huge. By the time I got my appointment, I had taken myself through the process. There are loads of books out there, many of them no better than the other. Find one that suits you and work through it. It takes time, and you won’t see immediate results, but persevere – it’s worth it.
  • Warn people about how you are feeling, and how it might change your behaviour. Give them tips on how to deal with it. Remember, depression isn’t only hard for sufferers, but for those that love us too.
  • Remember, you might have a mental illness, but it doesn’t excuse bad behaviour. So many times I have heard people say, ‘I can’t help it, I have Bipolar’. Mental illness does not force you to be horrible to people, and you are accountable for your actions. If you are irritable, take yourself into another room, or go for a walk. Do your hardest not to take it out on those around you. It’s not their fault that you’re suffering, or that your tolerance levels are low. If you slip, apologise, and don’t follow it by a ‘but’. Allow them to be upset. Having said that, don’t beat yourself up with it.
  • And finally – Hope is paramount in surviving depression. Every cloud has a silver lining, even if you can’t see it right now. Keep searching for that cloud, and have faith that you will feel better soon. You may not feel it, but acknowledge that it is there and that feeling will come again.

Bipolar is about finding, and maintaining balance. I can only give you a few tips on how I cope, and everyone is different. Find your way. Learn to survive in a world that is slightly different to those around you. Don’t be afraid to try new things, and don’t be afraid to look into yourself, no matter what you might find. Nature only has so much say in who we are, the rest is up to you.

This is a fictional account that I wrote a few years back when trying to understand Bipolar Disorder. I hope it helps with your understanding of depression. J

Unlikely Killer

Trapped behind the glass, the despair runs through me. She is back. I watch as she slowly destroys the future I have been making for myself, ruining everything I have fought so hard to achieve.

I am dismayed as she trespasses on my life once more. How does she still have the power to take control? Have I not fought long and hard to banish her from existence? Each time I think I have destroyed her, she returns as if to discredit my pitiful struggle, reminding me that no matter what I do, she will always be there watching and waiting.

I despise everything she stands for. How can someone who is so weak and pathetic still manage to dominate me? She has no will to live her life, yet she still insists in controlling mine, only allowing me out when she hasn’t the strength to survive it alone.

As I catch a glimpse of her in the mirror, hate for her fuels my determination. She will not win. Although in captivity, I am and will always be the stronger of the two. Whereas fear dominates her life, hope and determination govern mine.

As a child I was unable to detect the destructiveness within her. Believing her cruel words, I allowed her to control the direction of my life. This is no more. I am now aware of whom she is and the damage she causes, and with each breath I fight to expel her from my life.

My increasing abhorrence for her and all she stands for only causes to fuel my desire to be free, helping me to break the bonds that she has secured me in. I will one day kill her, even if it’s with my last dying breath.

With relief I am finally free of the restrictions she has imposed on me. I approach her knowing that this battle will now be won. Even if I lack the strength to eradicate her for good, I can at least lock her away where she will be unable to harm me any longer.

***

As I hurry past I catch a glimpse of her in the mirror. I know she will be coming soon and my heart races in response. Even out of her sight I can feel her loathing for me. She is getting ready to try and kill me as she has many times before.

If she succeeds nobody will miss me as I am invisible to the world, or at best someone to be pitied. She is well liked as she is confident and sure of herself. There are no words that can hold her back, and she fights against the injustices of her life with a passion and determination that I cannot muster.

She is an unlikely killer, but one just the same as she would take my life without pity or guilt.

As I race down the dark endless corridor, her disgust follows me. She understands that she is strong and that I am weak.

I know I am pathetic and this knowledge keeps me from becoming like her. I trust in the condemning words of others and she hates me for this, believing that I am the element that has always held her back. She desires that the bond between us could be broken, but it is too strong. We are tied more closely than family or friend could ever be, ensuring that I will always be in her life.

She has fought against me since the moment we became aware of each other’s existence. Never once embracing me, but condemning my right to live.

As she draws closer I understand that she is right. I am weak. Unlike her I hang my head in defeat when faced with the trials of life, knowing that there is no way I can raise to the challenges that have been sent my way.

So many times she has been forced to come to my rescue, carry the burden as I am unable to shoulder it. She never cries whereas I always do. She never doubts herself as I always do. I understand why she hates me so much as I also despise myself.

She believes that I should be able to control the torment within while not understanding that the anguish defines who I am.

She is humiliated by me. I understand this as I too, am ashamed of who I am. But that does not mean I want to die. Even with the pain I feel, I want to survive and I will fight to have that right.

Has not her abhorrence of me been the reason she has fought so hard? Am I not responsible for the success she has achieved? Without the reminder of how feeble I am, how would she strive to be superior?

In my heart I know that she will never acknowledge this. For years she has tried to deny my existence, keeping me hidden from the world, trying desperately to find a way to kill me. As of yet she is not strong enough. She can only manage to hide me away in darkness, but I am aware that she is getting stronger.

Sometimes she forgets that I lurk in the background and this allows me the chance to come out into the light. When I do, I catch a glimpse of the panic surrounding her awareness that I am still there, before she fights to banish me once again. Although I am weak I can win my freedom, if only for a short time.

As she draws closer to me, my will to fight starts to dissolve. As usual, I will lose this battle and once again, I will be held in captivity. I fight as I believe that I too have a voice. She believes I have no right to speak, that there is not a place in this world for me.

She is forcing me into the darkness again and I push against her, saying such hurtful and condemning things as I try to break her resolve.

As always, she triumphs, and I am pushed into my cage where all I can do is wait patiently for an opportunity to escape once again.

I am weak and full of self-loathing, yet she lives in fear of me. Even when she is in control she avoids the mirror in the dread that one day I may be looking back at her with enough strength to break the restraints she has bound me in, knowing that she can never truly kill me.

For are we not two halves of the same person? Forever destined to fight the war for control.

7 Children and a Crazy Dog

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Whether you are a writer or not, all of us can sometimes struggle finding time to do the things we want. I am an author, but this is not my first priority, no matter how much there are times I would love it to be. I have a family, and a big one at that.

In 2012, I met my partner. Was it love at first sight? Not at all. What you need to understand is that like many of us out there, I have terrible taste when it comes to picking a partner. This led me to be adamant that I was in no way looking for romance. I had my family and my writing, and that was enough for me. To top it off, my three children and I were living in the homeless unit at the time. That was an experience and a half which I may discuss at a later date.

So when I got that text off my now partner of two years, I wasn’t in a position to embark on anything other than friendship.

Did I care for him then? I suppose I did, but in no other way than friendship (we had been spending time together for a few months now as he volunteered in the unit).

Suffice to say, I finally moved into a temporary house which was sparse, dirty, and damn cold, yet still, I could barely contain my excitement…after all, I would finally have my own room away from my eldest son’s snoring which was so loud I could almost see the room shaking, let alone the bed,  and the screams of other residents in the unit (I never believed that a human being could emit such a high pitched sound). Once free from that place, my partner and I took our relationship to the next level.

So where does this big family come from? My partner came with four wonderful children, two of who lived with him. After a time, we took the plunge and moved into his two and a half bedroom house. I call it a half bedroom as there genuinely isn’t space to swing a cat in there (not that I would ever attempt such a thing).

So life began, and to be fair, things were great for a while, until the day I was dreading and looking forward to came, the day my stuff came out of storage.

You should know, I moved into the unit from a large house, larger than I could afford right now. So up turns this huge truck and we all start unloading. The kitchen filled up with boxes, then the dining room, then the lounge….and the truck was still half full. I had never fully realised how much stuff I had, and have vowed to never collect so much again.

It took three days before we were able to sit on the sofa again, and a further three days before I could see the lounge carpet. The kids were happy, though. They had all their toys back. And the dog (a crazy springer spaniel who has an obsession with lights), he had great fun jumping all over the stuff, and much to my distaste and despair, urinating on a box of my clothes (he was still a pup at the time). I thank god that we had actually moved in together a few months before as the stress might have killed us. After 22 moves in my life, I finally understood why they were traumatic.

Thankfully, we managed to laugh about it, though this was pushed to the limit when the washing machine flooded the still full kitchen floor. This breakage was quickly followed by the carpet cleaner breaking down. A disaster, right? Not for us. Within minutes we had rigged up the broken carpet cleaner to the washing machine. We had to stay near ready to suck up the water from the bottom of the washing machine, but I worked. This is where my partner learnt a valuable lesson –

  • A problem is only a challenge to overcome –

This is a philosophy I live by, no matter how hard the problem is.

Hopefully you get the gist now, with seven kids (two of them we have part time),  the crazy springer spaniel, and a tiny house we can’t all fit in, writing is often a challenge.

So how do I overcome this?

First things first, I keep the children informed about where I am in the writing process. They all know (except the dog who doesn’t care as long as he has a light to chase), that they are less likely to annoy me if I am in the editing phase. Quite often, I can pick this up and put it down, which gives me the time to run off and get that drink needed, or deal with the latest argument.

I also explain to them my goals. I have found that this helps them as they share my dreams.

If I get a good day of writing in without too many interruptions, I remember to thank them, and let them know how much I got done because they left me alone.

I give them input on the book cover. The chances are, I will not use anything they put forth, but they still enjoy the process of being involved.

Bribery works, even if it is as simple as, ‘let me work for two hours and we will play a game after’. I need to be careful with the promises, though. There have been occasions that the time allocated reaches an end, but my mind still has loads to say. It makes for a very distracted mum.

Routine! This is probably the most important aspect. Children, like adults, like to know what is coming. I tell them how many hours I will be working for, and the times that they are allowed to approach me. Be warned, this doesn’t always work, but it helps most of the time.

It must be said that it doesn’t matter how many things I put in place in order to work, they are children, and as many parents know, they suddenly need you the moment you become busy. It’s like picking up the phone. The kids can be deathly quiet until that point, but the moment you press the call button, at least one of them come running into the room, usually screaming about something.

Then there are the problems that you can’t predict.

We were given a pillow filled with micro polystyrene balls. It was very popular in the house, and was fought over many times. My middle son was the most persistent, and finally he won custody of it.

Everything was great…until last week, when my son decided that he wanted to know what was in his fantastic pillow. So in all his wisdom, he created a small slit in the casing. Suffice to say, within one day the house was filled with tiny polystyrene balls. Writing for the day was cancelled, and I spent the next few hours with a hoover while chuntering loudly about what had possessed him to do such a thing. I didn’t just need to hoover the floor. There were also the skirting boards, the walls, the ceiling, the toilet (that was fun to hoover, especially as the boys seem incapable of aiming inside the toilet), the doors, the bath, and every toy he owned. The poor hoover eventually gave up the ghost as the filter was blocked.

As much as I encourage an inquisitive nature, this was a time I cursed it through clenched teeth. Three days later, the hoover fixed twice and the wheelie bin filled with balls that flew off when the lid was opened, I finally gave up on getting every tiny speck. We are still finding them now, and will most likely be doing it over the next few weeks, or months.

This leads me to wonder how many other people suffer from the curiosity of their children. Do you settle yourself down to work, whether it is writing or some other task you wish to get done, only to spend the day cleaning up after the children or pets…we can’t forget them as they are merely children which you can’t send to bed at night? If so, how do you overcome this?