I think my lessons in gratitude started early in life compliments of my Mum. In my angsty teenage years whenever I complained about the 'outrageous unfairness' of my life because I didn't have a certain label of clothing, or my hair didn't turn out like the girl on the cover of Dolly magazine or lamented at the comparably tardy rate at which my bosoms were growing (so not growing!), Mum's response was generally to just be 'thankful that you have arms and legs that work, and that you can see and hear' and get on with it. A perspective that no doubt grew out of her work assisting children with severe disabilities. But oh how I hated that response at the time.
And yet it stuck with me. Innumerable times in my life when things have felt tough and overwhelming, or I was consumed with how I'd meet the next mortgage payment, or I caught my inner critic as I walked past a shopfront and noted my reflection, Mum's words were the fall back perspective. At least I still had all this. I was lucky. Those words laid the foundational bricks of thankfulness upon which I built my life.
Aware of the stupendous good fortune that my children were born into, I started them early with a family gratitude journal every other day. My youngest was three at the date of her first entry. I still recall her angry little face, arms folded at her front declaring she was 'grateful for nuffin' '. Initially, the pages are filled with the glorious joys of life through the eyes of young children - grateful for their toys, their books, their pets, but in a relatively short space of time it started to click and they began to widen their lens of appreciation. They were grateful to live in Australia, to have access to computers, to have a Dad that created such a wonderful garden and a Mum that was kind and caring. A decade letter and we still pull out the gratitude journal, sometimes to add to it, sometimes to read through grateful times gone by.
Several years ago, I upped the ante on my gratitude practice by participating in an Instagram challenge to take a picture of something that I was grateful for and post it for an entire year. I didn't make it all the way (mostly because friends started unfollowing me!) but it was a great challenge, particularly as it couldn't be conceptual, and it was daily. Once I'd run out of the big ticket items at the start of the year, I had to look harder and more closely. It also instilled it as a daily practice.
Then in a time of personal hardship a few years ago, I was following the blog of a lady I knew who was dying of cancer. When she knew her time was nearly up, she wrote about how grateful and joyous she was every time she woke to a new day. A whole new day. She wrote that to wake and open her eyes and still be alive was just the most magical feeling. I remember bawling reading it - partly for the sadness of her imminent death but also because THAT IS HOW WE SHOULD GREET EACH DAY. Who know's if we'll get another? And what a miracle it is to wake, particularly with full health, and be given a whole new one where ANYTHING might happen. That flicked a switch in me, and every day since then, I have tried to wake and take in the gift that is a fresh day rather than wake full of burden and despondency. Too often we awake with an almost palpable contempt at the day that lies ahead of us. Yet there is never a guarantee that we'll be granted another day. Imagine if we knew this was our last day on this earth? Because the reality is, it might be. We rarely know in advance. How differently might we spend it if we knew this was it? As the sun rises each day, I take a moment to be grateful to be handed another one.
Being grateful has really become part of our everyday language in the last few years, due to its integral role in the positive psychology movement but appears to receive a disproportionate amount of eye rolling from some quarters. Perhaps, because it's confused as having a Pollyannaish approach to life where one skips through a deluded daffodil field not noticing the large boulder of poo chasing them down. Perhaps for some it conjures up people hand-in-hand around a campfire singing 'kumbaya' or it's just considered too hippie, too woo woo, too simple an approach for today's complex, hard-nosed world. The reality is that there is loads of evidence to support the practice of gratitude as a key ingredient in the recipe for happiness. It's actively looking for some good to rally a case against our reptilian brains preference for bad. It's choosing to find something positive to help us through challenging times. As Brendon Burchard says "Gratitude is the golden frame through which we see the meaning of life."
People who practice gratitude regularly have been shown to experience more positive emotions, feel more alive, sleep better, express more compassion and kindness, and even have stronger immune systems. It also works as powerfully as any known anti-depressant to increase happiness - and if you're struggling to find something to be grateful for, even just asking yourself 'what could I be grateful for right now?' shifts the chemistry of your brain. I've come to see practicing gratitude for the simple things in life as a powerful antidote to the pressures and busyness of modern times. To notice the softness in your child's hand, the blueness of the sky, the song of the morning birds, the softness of a pillow, the sturdiness of our legs, the smell of toast, the hug of a love one. Little moments throughout our day and weeks and years that could easily go unnoticed amongst the rushing, the pushing, the trying and the ruminating.
The depth with which I'm now woven together in gratitude occurred to me the other day when I was chatting to a friend about how I had such a 'lucky' life. She glanced at me, and muttered something about my definition of the word 'lucky'. Wow, yes, I thought as I quickly remembered the events of the last few years - a melanoma, an episode of severe depression, a child hospitalised with a very serious illness, a fractured spine, all while setting up a new business, assisting my husband with his and running a busy and demanding household. I suddenly realised with fully fledged urban-hippie-ness that gratitude had really become my attitude. Kumbaya!
I thought about those times - when the melanoma was found it was 'thank goodness they found it early'. When my child was hospitalised I thought 'we are so lucky to have access to such an amazing public hospital'. When I broke my back and spent 11 weeks on crutches, 6 of which were non-weight bearing, still having to run a business and be a parent, I thought 'at least it's only temporary' and vowed to never take walking for granted again. As my body slowly repaired, I marvelled at the awesomeness of my body. I also now reflect on my period of depression as such an incredible catalyst for me to make changes in my life that were very overdue. I have NEVER felt better than the last six months or so, and it is all due to what I learnt while recovering from depression. In fact, I would change none of what happened, because it all lead to where I am now. Some may say I am a fool. A great fool even. I say I am just grateful.
Here's an article on the neuroscience of gratitude - click here
How gratitude can change your life from Happify - click here
And my gratitude guru, Brendon Burchard shares six uncommon strategies for developing gratitude - click here.
Photo by Nicolas Postiglioni from Pexels https://www.pexels.com/photo/woman-standing-on-rooftop-putting-hands-in-the-air-under-clear-sky-816233/
Photo by Thomas Martinsen on Unsplash
Do you ever think 'Who Even Am I?' Those odd moments when you catch yourself saying or doing something that just well isn't 'you' ? Or perhaps as in my case, 'not' doing something.
Here I sit on a glorious sunny Sunday afternoon with a few hours to enjoy before the new work week starts to loom down. This is definitely wine-worthy. In fact, I have formed my own Life Degustation - certain occasions, times and people that are perfectly complemented with wine. Except, today, held in my hand is a sparkling water. Because somehow I have accidentally (almost) completely given up alcohol. I'm slightly aghast to even write that. Am I destined to the life of a teetotaller? A weird word that never made sense, and felt more apt as a descriptor for a drunk person (what are they totalling anyway?) or at least created by someone with a few beers in their belly. It's kinda hard to write because there is part of me that feels disappointed that I am becoming so, well, downright sensible.
Now believe me when I say I am not here to ride my righteous high-horse through your field of frivolity! My intent was never to head down Abstinence Avenue. But I can't help but notice all the ways that my life has become better, the less I have drunk - more clarity, better sleep, higher levels of natural joy, increased productivity and a depth of resilience I never knew I had. So I am going to 'fess up - here's how it went down....
When one of my children became very unwell just over twelve months ago, I had the foresight to know that my default coping mechanism, as it had often been throughout my life at stressful times, was going to be reaching for a few glasses of wine at the end of the day. And that with a a long journey ahead, this strategy that had thus far served me ok-ish, was probably less than ideal in the long run. So I engaged a psychologist that used mindfulness techniques. (click here for more info)
Don't get me wrong. No-one would refer to me as Gab The Drunk (well, rarely). I didn't drink til I passed out. I could always stop drinking after a few wines, though not as easily on a night out as I could on a Wednesday. I did have alcohol free days. It was just more nights than not, I relied on that glass or three of chardonnay as a symbolic gesture that the day was completed and I was now in switch off mode. With a few sips I was taken away from the stress of work or parenthood or life. The edges blurred a little. The intensity of whatever was going on that had my heart-racing and stomach churned, lessened. It all didn't matter as much. I numbed down a little. It was a fast-track to a nicer place. For sure I was drinking above the recommended safe levels I'd seen but geez who wasn't? I mean it allows a thimble-full per day or something? Of course there was also the comfort in knowing many people who drank at higher levels than me.
And yet, at every visit to the psychologist, where my goal had been recorded as ' to lessen the dependency on alcohol to cope with stress' I squirmed as I listed off how many glasses I had consumed since the previous fortnight. Sometimes it was ten, sometimes it was fourteen, sometimes it went above twenty - which , if I'd had a luncheon or a night out plus 3 glasses say four or five times times per week was not that difficult to get to. Perhaps there were times it was above 30, but I couldn't bring myself to count that far or admit it. Oh the times I sat in his room and rued this stupid goal. Yet the worst part was at home trying to put into practice and clearly seeing HOW MUCH I was depending on those few wines and how incredibly difficult this half a lifetime habit was to shift. Still, I was never trying to give it up. I just wanted to loosen the grip a little. Have some space around it.
Here's the five things that have helped me accidentally (almost) completely give up alcohol.
1. Realising a thought is just a thought.
Through my mindfulness meditation practice observing thoughts and body sensations without acting on them, I began to clearly get that the the thought "I really need a wine" was truly just another thought that actually had no inherent power over me. This was a habit - readily rewarded by my brain with a good ol' dose of dopamine when I followed through but there was space to make choices around it. At the same time, through meditation practice I was beginning to get moments of peace and calmness that were similar to a wine or two but without the the fogginess. This new way of dealing with life intrigued me.
2. Utilising technology for feedback.
I discovered that I thrive with feedback and data. Because I was simultaneously trying to get fitter, I had bought a sports watch and I quickly realised that getting feedback not only encouraged me, but could also discourage me. For example, when I did drink alcohol, my heart rate increased by over 10 beats per minute and stayed that way through the night and well into the next day. That was a clear sign to me that something about the alcohol was stressing my body. No more out of mind, out of sight - or abstract warning from the World Health Organisation - I could see with my own eyes the negative impact on my body.
3. Alcohol made me anxious.
Twelve months ago I would have thought that statement was all kinds of messed up. No, I would have assured you, life made me anxious, a lovely yellow viscous chardonnay was just a big glass of calm. The solution. The antidote to this crazy little thing called life. I sensed the way it wonderfully wormed its way through my body as my shoulders dropped from my ears. Now I know that while perhaps in the moment, there is a little and temporary dip in my anxiety, (though I suspect it's more of a masking of the anxiety sensation) - absolutely, undoubtedly, undeniably that night, when I inexplicably wake up with a pounding heart at 3am and well into the next day, the anxiety o-metre is cranked to high. It's hard to explain, but I feel it now clear as can be if I do have even one wine. A background shakiness, skirting at the edge of fight or flight. Perked up and ready, deer in the headlights style. And that's without taking into account the accompanying foggy head, dry mouth and dull headache. To now wake with a sense of calm and capableness is the best feeling in the world.
4. It was a major contributor to my IBS.
After the diagnosis of IBS five years ago, I was told wine should be fine in small amounts. No doubt I took more note of the 'should be fine' than the 'small amounts' bit, but after many years of a low FODMAP diet, cutting out this and that, swilling Apple Cider Vinegar (with Mother of course...whatever that means but I love the oddity of it), wheat packs on belly etc the BIGGEST difference has been almost (accidentally) completely giving up alcohol. If I do indulge, I wake to a familiar feeling of an irritated and angry gut. A feeling that I had become so accustomed to over the years that I thought it as normal. My gut does not like alcohol. Without alcohol, my gut is the best its been for many, many years.
5. The less I drank, the less I enjoyed it when I did.
Now, this - THIS is the biggie. It's been a slow burn. At first all my energy was in resisting and trying not to. Then I had a night out where I did the classic 'how can I still manage to do this, after all these years?!!' trick of not eating before I started drinking. Although not a big night by old measures, I woke with a thumping headache, raw stomach and both a familiar and foul feeling - a hangover. Of course it wasn't the first time I thought 'never again' but this time with the benefit of repeated weekends without one, it suddenly seemed like an obvious choice. Feel like this, or feel how I've been feeling. No brainer.
I also noticed when I drank how tired it made me feel. I'd look forward to a wine at lunch with friends but afterwards it left me looking for a corner to grab some zzzz's. And the woozy feeling I so craved once upon a time, now felt odd. A little uncomfortable. A little detached from everything. Rather than waking feeling rested, it only takes a wine or two for me to wake with an underlying dread and be slow out of the blocks.
I doubt I've had my last hang-over and who knows, I may finish this post and decide I will pour a wine while there is still warmth in the air and a little bit of sun left in the sky after all. But I will do it with more mindfulness about why. I will think of tonight's sleep and how I'll wake tomorrow morning. What I do know for sure is that in exploring my relationship with alcohol, I uncovered more than I expected, saw all the ways it impacted on me and my life and despite just wanting a modification accidentally (almost) completely gave it up.
Cheers to that! Gabrielle
A beautifully oxymoronic question was posed at a talk I recently attended by the wonderful Jess Huon (click here for more).
"Is busyness actually laziness?"
Well that caught my attention. In a continuously connected, hugely demanding world it's easy to be busy. Ask anyone how they are they'll be sure to slip the B word in somewhere. Busy on the weekend, busy looking after the children, busy at work, busy renovating their house, just busy, busy, busy. The sense of being busy is not unfounded, according to an article in the Economist (click here to read) it is the first time in history that white collar professionals work longer hours than blue collar. In fact professionals everywhere are twice as likely to work long hours as their blue collar peers. And, wowsers, look at this excerpt from a recent Guardian article (click for full article),
"Today’s top executives are devoted work-worshippers, nearly to the point of perversity. Apple CEO Tim Cook told Time that he begins his day at 3.45am. General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt told Fortune that he has worked 100-hour workweeks for 24 years. Not to be outdone, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer told Bloomberg News that she used to work 130-hour workweeks."
The same Guardian article declares that a public display of productivity is the new symbol of class power. Fascinating. Of course, like all ostentatious class displays there there has been an uprising in the last few years urging us to stop with the busyness game. Easy in theory but harder to implement - a kind of 'don't buy into it' philosophy which feels a little over-simplified against the societal tsunami of expectation and demands. Don't dare say you're busy they say (feels akin to the poor naked and deluded Emporer for me!).
So is being busy, lazy? Well, yes according to Tim Ferriss, author of the 4- Hour Work Week, "indiscriminate activity is a form of laziness.It's very easy to confuse activity with productivity."
I've considered this over the last few days and I'm starting to get my head around it. It takes effort to work through and schedule your priorities and even more tenacity to maintain them. It takes courage to say no to the relentless demands that aren't your focus right now. It takes discipline not to waste hours on social media numbing out. It takes self-love to decide that down-time is crucial. And it most certainly takes a form of modern radicalness to not be generally just sucked up into and whirled around aimlessly in the modern, exhausting world.
Perhaps it is easier just to wake up and get yanked around by the priorities of others as each new email hits your inbox, or with each client's call and their next emergency, or each Facebook notification that grabs your attention. To essentially rescind all responsibility of achieving what moves you forward, grows your business, increases your skillset, maintains your health and contributes to your wellness because there never was a plan to focus on. To have priorities and a plan implies accountability and this is a hard time to be accountable.
I'm still not sure 'lazy' is the right word. Unskilled, unwise or naive might be better, less loaded words in this new frenetic frontier (we're dealing with enough already, right?!), but I understand the sentiment. We do need to be equipped to navigate the hurly-burly of modern life and there's no doubt relentless busyness is a sure-fire recipe for burnout in the long run. I think it's worth some contemplation. So maybe it's time to pull on your runners, lace up and work on your un-busyness.
Last year was my Annus Horribilis. To be clear, that's not a rash that I shouldn't be sharing with you, it's basically Latin for Shitty Year. (You can read more about Shitty Year here).
Living through the ordeal that was Annus Horribilis, like all hard times, has a tendency to force a little convo with yourself that you may otherwise have not had. I was thrust into the room of mirrors for a good hard look at myself (minus a selfie-stick), which has been both an intriguing and humbling experience to say the least.
Amongst a few interesting insights was seeing my constant drive to do well in everything. I guess of itself that seems not a bad thing - in school, work and life in general we seek to do our best and it's rewarded. But it was uncovering the driving force behind this desire that was a little less than sweet. A fear of being Ordinary. That somewhere underneath any accolades and successes I was just a stock standard, run of the mill, everyday, ordinary person. OMG the horror. A brutal entanglement of self-worth with worldly achievements that was ultimately strangling my capacity for ease and joy.
I remember seeing a quote attributable to Jimmy Johnson, maybe mid 90's - "The Difference Between the Ordinary and the Extraordinary is that little extra" . It of course, resonated with me; do more, do it better, do it relentlessly, work while they play, learn while they rest and, of course, don't get it wrong. Exhausting. And once seen , hard to un- see its pervasiveness.
I am sure I am not alone. Nor is it new , we all know advertising has been preying on our sense of not wanting to feel ordinary and not being enough forever. It's foolproof.
But, now we have a much more pervasive and subversive force preying on our fear of being ordinary - social media. We are consumed ensuring we broadcast to the world at every opportunity our anything but Ordinary Life with a few quick clicks of a button (this includes re-sizing, cropping and filters of course!). Ah yes the absolutely extraordinary wonderful version of 'me' according to my Instagram feed. Look how not ordinary I am because; I am on holidays here, eating this food, NOT eating this food, at this uh-mazing gig (check my seats out! What? #VIP), reading this book (#muchcleverer), looking like this (#hawt) , surrounded by this many friends (#squad). Worse still if you're a young person finding your way in life and subject to torturous hashtags like #bikiniready.
We all gotta #hustle. We are all #gamechangers. We are all #extraordinary.
Please don't get me wrong, I am guilty as posted. I hashtag. I selfie. I've felt the disappointment when my Awesome Life photo has had only 5 likes. Social media is deeply entrenched in our lives and it has some amazing benefits - I love much about it, so I wont stop using it (otherwise a tad ironic that I'm even writing this!) but I do stop and think more about what I am posting and why. It's just now I am beginning to see the real toll a life of chasing the 'extra' can take. We are all so busy and stressed and anxious trying to being extraordinary that we've forgotten that it's actually ok to be Ordinary. That we're ok just as we are going about an Ordinary Life without expending so much energy on creating the fictionalised version of ourselves. We can't all be extraordinary at everything. If we are, then we're actually all ordinary by definition.
I am happy to report that, so far living the Ordinary Life feels quite spacious. Less urgent. Less panicked. Before Annus Horribilus, I have now come to see that I was scared to be Ordinary. Now I am slowly learning to see that loving your Ordinary Self and your Ordinary Life in these times is in fact a radical gift to oneself. Being Ordinary helps you step off the hamster wheel. Being Ordinary puts down an iPhone and is present. Of course, Ordinary isn't perfect nor immune from the infliction of being human. It isn't a life of sloth and gluttony. But it is a sense of deep worthiness from which we can go about our day being a good parent, kind neighbour, loving partner, fun friend and committed employee without angst. Feeling enough. Focused on what actually matters. Doing nothing that is particularly hashtag- worthy. Ordinary without the extra.
Disclaimer: There is one type of extra that I think is absolutely great - an extra chromosome.
Click here to follow Josee's Journey - Living an ordinary life with something extra!
I am the eternal optimist, I bring the fun, I'm quick to compliment, eager to engage, always up for a dance and oh so very easily excited. As a life long devotee of Reebokism - 'Life is short. Play hard', I just figure life is all a bit short to take too seriously. I can add determined, kind, serial over-sharer and hard-working. But one word, I've never used to describe myself until recently is 'depressed'.
I'm the type that gets a thrill leaving hidden notes on my colleague's desks saying 'You're awesome' knowing that it will bring a smile, the one that always awkwardly cuddles too early on in friendships because I love easily and I have been pumping out a daily gratitude journal years before it was cool. So to be sitting in a psychologist's room hearing the words,'You have severe depression' just felt weird. Wrong. Me? That can't be right. He doesn't even really know me that well, let alone my extensive back catalogue of fun and frivolity.
I've hesitated writing this many times. Then hesitated whether to post many more. Maybe, I thought, just write it and keep it somewhere to look back on. Otherwise you'll regret it, I told myself. People will never see you in the same way. Once it's 'out there' in forever-land, perhaps I will have to be known henceforth as Sad Face Gabrielle. It'll embarrass my family, scare away potential clients, freak out my children and alienate those I haven't shared my diagnosis with. But then I pondered what was really fuelling alot of the doubts and hesitations - shame. The very same debilitating emotion that stops people reaching out when they need to the most.
The shame of being vulnerable and less than perfect in a world of social media photo shopped utopian lives - 'I see your flawless life and I raise you!'. The shame of not quite coping. For me, part of this shame lay in the confronting realisation that I judged people who had depression. It turns out I have been a lifelong 'depressionist'. I've spent all my days wrongly, but firmly stereo-typing people who have experienced depression. I guess I thought it happened to emo's, to forlorn poets, to songwriters who moped around writing sad ballads, to people who'd suffered through bad childhoods, to the types of people who always saw the glass as half-empty, to people who made bad decisions and steadily but surely stuffed up their lives, to drug addicts ....... I dunno, just not the likes of kind, happy, fun, hard-working me.
And it was that uncomfortable realisation that strengthened my resolve to share. To firstly, whole-heartedly apologise for my judgements and, secondly, to remind others, that it can happen to anyone. It is something that I NEVER, EVER imagined would happen to me. NEVER. Not me.
To be fair, this year, 2016, was pretty foul - a business in crazy growth that had me running around like a deer in headlights, the constant strains that a working mother juggles, some serious and heart-breaking illnesses amongst family and friends, and the shock of having a melanoma diagnsosis - but that wreaks of justification. And the reality is, I don't need to be able to explain how I've arrived at a diagnosis of depression. It doesn't matter. And I am sure it doesn't help.
The joy de vivre that has always pumped through my veins upon waking, ran very dry. Every new day landed like a heavy weight on my chest. Days were spent blinking back tears and swallowing red raw lumps. Uninspired. Small. Bitter. Numb. Lacking confidence in everything about myself. I avoided social activities because the energy required to make small talk was too much. Besides I didn't want friends and family, the very people I should seek out, seeing me like this.
It's seeing someone's success posted on Facebook and rather than congratulating them with a thumbs up, feeling a painful hot surge of inadequacy shoot through my stomach. Attempts to jot down bullet points on positive things about my life (cause that's my way) and the page sitting empty. The booty I shook late at night dancing with friends for many decades was achey and suddenly excruciatingly self-conscious. In fact, I couldn't even bring myself to listen to music, let alone dance.
After a few months of seeing a psychologist and using mindfulness and cognitive behavioural therapy techniques, I can sense 'old me' slowly stumbling along the long road home. The optimist is able to see this experience as a blessing. Humbling. An opportunity for increased empathy. Resolve to take better care of myself.
With New Year's eve upon us, I really want to share this for anyone who might not be feeling happy and joyous about it all. Finding nothing celebration-worthy, maybe you're sadly locked away too scared to tell the world how you are feeling. Previously, I may have thought that you should just embrace Tay Tay and shake it off. Surely? I mean it's New Years Eve FFS. Now I realise, you don't have that simple choice. It's not that simple. And it's yucky.
I want to reach out to anyone that, like me, never imagined that their rose-coloured lense on life, could tarnish to an opaque black. And, wow, also to those of you who know the feeling of life-long depression episodes like an irritating summertime blow-fly that hangs close-by no matter what you do - I can't begin to imagine. For those whose isolation intensifies as their social media feed fills with jubilant photo-shopped images of oh so perfect new year's eve fun. For those who want to tell their friends and family but even the thought adds to their sense of shame. Or those who have bravely tried but had it fall on deaf ears or unhelpful self-referential replies - 'well, I remember feeling like that once, but I just, you know, got on with it...'.
For those that can't look in a mirror because that sallow skinned, vacant eyed stranger looking back at them only confirms the feeling of hopelessness. Who hears the pop of a champagne cork from celebrations down the road, and feels a warm tear trickle down their cheek. This is for you.
This is a loving, simple hug (too soon?) from afar from me to you. That you do belong here as much as anyone else. That you count. That you're loved. That you've done your best, and it's ok to feel like this. That we all stumble along, fall and eventually find the strength to pull ourselves back up. And as you sit alone, as much as it might feel impossible right now, you will laugh and dance or golf or sing or write or look into the eyes of your children with love again sometime. We don't have to be shiny all the time - that is not reality, but we do need to remember that we still matter all of the time. That is the reality.
This is for you.
Where to go for more help:
Beyond Blue - https://www.beyondblue.org.au/
Black Dog Institute - http://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/
[photo credit: Getty Images istock]