The 21-day Mental Health Challenge, Day 2: Is being stressed part of mental health?

Yesterday I woke up at 5.30am ready to tackle the day, my mental health checklist in hand. As per the pre-scheduled arrangement, I did yoga, read the Quran, read and had a cup of tea. All was good and zen until the children opened their eyes at 7am.

After that, everything went zig zag. By 8am, I had already refereed a verbal argument between two little humans and shouted after them to pick up their toys. By 9am, I was deep in an internal argument with myself while washing dishes (what will give me greater peace: a clean cups and plates or a lie down on the sofa?) By 11am, I closed my eyes for a quick second only to wake up half an hour later in a panic over being late to a party that we were due to attend.

My husband-ever the zen-master-looked over at me as I was getting dressed and casually remarked that I looked stressed.

It wasn’t even midday but Day 2 was already a failure, or so I thought.

While talking to a good friend of mine (a medical doctor) about yesterday’s ‘failure’, she reminded me that being aware of  these stressful feelings is half the battle against mental illness. Self-awareness is important because it helps us understand who were are and why we behave the way we do. The more self-aware we are, the better masters of our emotions we become. Instead of feeling helpless in the face of stress, we can take control and respond to it in a healthy and productive way.

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The 21 Day Mental Health Challenge, Day 1: Children and Grandmothers

Reflections:

I wanted to start my first challenge day with some research on positive psychology-the field of psychology involved in studying happiness-so I went straight to the experts on this subject: my own children. Below is an excerpt of my interview with them.

What makes you happy?

Sakina: Movie night, ice-cream, crisps, and chocolate.

Muhammad: Chocolate, ice-cream, a rainbow, the Queen, and castles.

What are some of the things that you do that make you happy?

Sakina: Hugging, and kissing you.

Muhammad: Squishing your tummy.

What things make you sad?

Sakina: Time-outs.

Muhammad: Time-outs.

How do you cheer yourself up?

Sakina: I play on your bed.

Muhammad: I give hugs, I wipe my tears.

What can people say to you to make you stop crying?

Muhammad: ‘I love you.’

Earlier today while walking, I listened to a fascinating TED talk on how grandmothers are at the frontlines on the fight against depression in Africa. Dixon Chibanda- a psychiatrist based in Zimbabwe-created a program called the Friendship Bench after finding that a large population of the country did not have access to mental health services. Because there are very few psychiatrists in the country, he decided to train grandmothers as informal mental health workers in their communities. The grandmothers did not provide formal psychiatric diagnosis but rather, they provided emotional support through evidence-based interventions and guidance. They use indigenous terms to identify mental health problems and provide culturally-relevant solutions that focus on eliminating shame and stigma and thus empowering patients with hope.

Have a listen to the full TED talk here: here

Activities:

I did some exercises while watching two World Cup matches, each lasting about 10 minutes. They weren’t intense but they did raise my heart rate. I also drank my quote of water, wrote my in my gratitude journal and wrote tomorrow’s top 3 goals in my bullet journal. Now I’m off to bed with a book. I’m reading Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’.

I feel pretty good about today.

 

 

Sometimes hope is a little old lady with a big load of wood on her back

A few years ago, I was sitting on a big rock a few meters outside of my parents’ home, crying.

I was well into a messy divorce and far away from a place I had called home for almost ten years. I had no idea where I would end up living next, or if I would still have my children by the time the divorce was finalised. I missed my circle of wise and caring friends who always offered empathy and a cup of tea when I most needed it. I was in a mountain of debt. My career-one that I had worked so hard for years in university-was in shambles before it even had a chance to take its first baby steps into ‘the real world’.

The earth beneath my feet was dark and loose, coating my open toes in a film of dust. I can’t remember what I was wearing but I’m pretty sure I had walked out with a huge, red Maasai blanket wrapped around my shoulders. My face, buried deep into my dusty palms, was wet with tears.

Tiga kurera, mama” I heard a gentle voice implore over my hunched back.

I looked up and rested my blood-shot eyes on a shriveled old lady dressed in a dirt-caked dress and tattered shoes. She was bent over from the enormous load of wood that she was carrying on her back, presumably freshly cut from the forest nearby.

Do not cry, my dear” she repeated gently in the native KiMeru language, “Whatever you are going through right now, you will overcome. You will be fine.

Her mouth curled upward to reveal a toothless smile and her eyes, twinkling with kindness, crinkled up. I smiled back and took a deep breathe. I wiped my tears and she looked at me deeply, as if to say that she understood. Almost instantly, I felt calmer and more hopeful; as if a ray of sunlight had suddenly escaped past a mass of dark, grey clouds.pexels-photo-67101.jpeg Then she turned around and walked off.

I got up and stared at the old lady hunched over that heavy load on her back, her figure getting smaller and smaller as she made her way up the dusty road.

Years later, I am fine. In fact, I am the happiest I have been all my life. Yet, I wonder what happened to that old lady: Is she still alive? What is her story? Did she ever wonder about my story?

I will always be grateful for that moment: the gift of unquestioning grace during one of my darkest days; a reaffirmation of hope from a random stranger, who no doubt, had a much more difficult life than mine. Whenever I remember to, I ask God to bless her wherever she may be.

 

Gratitude

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I give gratitude to God, my Creator and Sustainer; He who has seen me through my worst and continues to inspire me to do and be my best. I know that this life is nothing but a swinging pendulum of trials and amusement, and that true peace comes from surrendering to a force much greater than myself.

I give gratitude for a restful night; for warm covers, for my family (some who are right next to me, some who are far way).

I give gratitude to love; for the opportunity to love and for the privilege of being loved.

I give gratitude to my beating heart, my curious mind, and my working body.

I give gratitude to YOU. Thank you for taking the time to read my little ramblings, and for encouraging me to continue writing through your comments and ‘likes’.

I realize that this moment-my fingers on the keyboard, my eyes on the screen, the ticking of the clock nearby, the honking of horns outside, MY STEADY BREATHING-this exact moment is nothing short of a miracle.

What are you grateful for today?

 

3 things I loved this week

1. On Friday night, my local library hosted an acoustic night featuring young, up and coming musicians from the area. The crowd of attendees- a mixture of people of different ages and cultural backgrounds- squeezed into the small area of children’s section. Books, twinkling fairy lights, happy company, and amazing music, ‘SR Library Acoustic Nights’ was the perfect recipe for a perfect evening.

One of the musicians summed up the event so well: “There are a lot of nasty things going on in the world, but there are a lot of lovely ones as well if you look in the right places. This night at the library is one of those lovely things.”

Check out the musician’s online accounts below and send a little love their way.

Tom Heath

Amy Victoria

Changing Colour

2. This vlog of Mombasa, Kenya by talented photographer/videographer, Haytham Bhalo. The aerial views starting from 3:48 are AMAZING. Check out his website for more remarkable shots (like the one below) of the Mombasa life at at www.haythambhalo.com

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3. Our non-profit, Donge La Mombasa Welfare Group, visited an orphanage this weekend. Our team of medical volunteers gave the resident orphans a check up and treated them for parasitic diseases and malnourishment, while our team of volunteer builders helped repair some structural damage on the grounds and built an extension for the kitchen. They also delivered new mattresses, toys, and books. Way to go, team!

Loving thyself and why this matters to your work

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I read an interesting blog post that argued that in order to be an artist- whether it be through visual arts, or writing, or music, etc- you need a healthy dose of narcissism.

This concept struck as curious because we often associate narcissism with ugliness: quite the opposite from the more socially acceptable character of self-doubt (which many confuse for humility). But as I thought deeper about this, the more I realized that we all have the ability to create, but we don’t, because we are often the victims of our own ideals of perfection. I can’t tell you how many times I have shamed myself into not writing because I think that I am not good enough, or that the sentences that I write are pathetic compared to others. I create excuses of not having enough time, or not being inspired, or being too tired to think when in reality, it’s nothing but my self doubt taking over the show.

When I first started living with my husband, Anwar, I was taken aback by how self-assured he was. A keen hobbyist in taarab music, he loves nothing better than to sing for an online audience through Facebook live and Youtube and then to re-watch his videos and smile with himself.  I often joke that he is his biggest fan-boy.   Anwar’s father-Juma Bhalo- a well known musician in Kenya,  was the epitome of musical excellence in the taarab genre. My husband was profoundly influenced by his father and although he emulates his music, he will be the first one to tell you that he will never be as good as his father.

Anwar makes beautiful music but sometimes he sings off key and sometimes he doesn’t get the notes right on the keyboard. Sometimes people tell him that “your father, Juma Bhalo is better”. And rarely does his daily work schedule allow for enough time to practice and perfect his technique.  Does this realization temper his enthusiasm for singing? No. If anything, it releases him from the angst of perfection that afflicts so many artists, thus allowing him to express himself with the joyful authenticity often associated with children at play.

There is a particular video on his Youtube channel that I used to find highly amusing in the beginning of our relationship. In it, he is smartly suited up, fingers resting lightly on the keyboard, hair gelled up, and his mega-watt smile ready to dazzle his audience. Before he starts singing, he says (in Kiswahili), with an cheeky expression on his face:

“Asalaam Aleikum. My name is Anwar Bhalo. I know that I am not really a singer but I sing to make myself happy. As long as singing makes me happy, why shouldn’t I sing? Maybe someone out there will feel as happy as I do listening to my singing. For me, this is enough.”

We will never be smart enough, skinny enough, good enough, …etc as long as we compare ourselves with others. In the race to out-do each other, especially in this Instagram world of perfection, we have lost our authentic voices.

In a frank article about originality vs. authenticity, Elizabeth Gilbert asserts that “whatever it is that you dream of doing (creating, traveling, loving, inventing, transforming) just do it. Don’t worry if you’re the 100th person to do it. Just do it, anyhow, and be sure that you bring the highest purity of intention to your pursuit. Act from a place of your deepest authenticity, and the rest of it will take care of itself.”

What are your fears when it comes to creating art? What’s holding you back back from authentic self-expression? What would you do if you believed that you are enough as you are?

Meditations on joy

“In my own worst seasons I’ve come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again. Like a stroke victim retraining new parts of the brain to grasp lost skills, I have taught myself joy, over and over again.”
—Barbara Kingsolver, High Tide in Tuscon

*I took this picture during one of my daily walks recently. I give gratitude to  nature for reminding me time and time again of the privilege of being alive.*