I asked myself “what would happen if I just stopped”? I didnt want to let go of any of my activities. They all mattered to me but I was spread too thinly. So I challenged my need to be attached to any of them. The world would keep spinning, people will start & finish PhDs, my supervisors will keep supervising and publishing great research. Samaritans recruitment won’t stop. They always manage to find some awesome people who make it all the way through the training and take on the different roles.
I did need a break. At least a week maybe before I looked for a new job. I was aware I had some issues to work on. I had lost my way and needed to re-jig some things (maybe everything) in my life. My approach to staying well had become excessive and I was feeling far from well. Pulling through required a full evaluation of who I am, what matters to me, what I really want and how I measure success. If you think removing a plaster hurts, try ripping off a lifetimes armour of fear-based measures and behaviours.
I did the paperwork and made it official – suspended my studies for up to a year. I agreed to return in nine months when my daughter started school. For the first time in forever I tried to rest and catch up on sleep. I couldnt. I had no relaxation skills. It still felt like being bored and stuck at home with a frantic mind! I didnt know how to JUST BE. I needed to try new ways to relax, wind down and get more sleep. It was messy again but not quite depression. Some fire was returning. A burning mix of uncertainty about my employability, annoyance about childcare funding and dissapointment and anger about the mountains of energy I had put into an unstoppable train that just stopped against my will.
It was all me. It wasnt the PhD topic, the workplace, the workload or some cruel lack of support. I loved UH, my supervisors and my colleagues. It was me and my own choices: my twisted beliefs about achievement and health; valuing activity and action with no value for retreat or resting; swapping fun for seriousness and meaningful work; taking on too many roles; being way too busy; rushing between things; trying too hard; spending minimal time at home; getting minimal and poor quality sleep; excessive empathy but awful or absent self-care. I wasnt following my joy or wellbeing. I was driven by fears about status, job security and pension which were built upon a foundation of terror about my future mental health.
I had lost connection with everything that mattered to me: my children, my original intention (to be a good, well and happy mum), my hero, mother nature, food and my true self. I had suffered many consequences including accidental injury and burnout. I’m fairly certain I wouldnt have lasted much longer on that path.
Ok it wasnt entirely me. I wasnt taught why or how to chose calmness. I had to chose to be taught and invest my own money and time into learning about how to relax. I had to journey through different calming practises before I found the one that best fits me.
I had seen pole fitness as the one thing I did for myself. Just one hour, one night a week. It is physically hard so I was proud of what I achieved there (Ayesha, butterfly, Iguana, shoulder mounts, superman etc). I was the strongest id ever been by far yet at the same time the weakest. I was seriously under-nourished, under-rested and losing bone density. I got injured many times. I wasn’t looking after myself and I was always too tired to go but I forced myself to go. It was after all, my one activity that was for purely for me. It’s no wonder I was devastated to even take a break from pole classes when I broke my wrist. Without that initial letting go, I might still be hurting myself to continue the classes. As one of my efforts to reduce life for the final PhD year I had said goodbye to my pole teacher Caroline Rees and took up Pilate’s and yoga instead. They both somehow translated into daily practice at home when I bought my thick yoga matt. I believe this was a key turning point in my journey of self-love and self-discovery. Pilates in particular, allowed me to gently maintain my core strength without breaking a sweat. My back pain decreased and I felt so good after classes. Perhaps this was the first time I ever got results without trying HARD!
I thought about Laura J my Pilate’s teacher and how highly I had rated her for choosing work that was so evidently good for her. The satisfaction in her smile during and after stretches. I too have always loved a good stretch. Laura resonated with me and my friend Megan massively but I wasnt fully sure why at the time. She is a huge inspiration. Her body must be her temple. I was more than happy to sacrifice some lunch breaks to do her classes. They were undeniably good for me. I also thought about Hilda Barrett who had delivered a fantastic two day resilience workshop at UH, during the time I couldnt write from wrist pain. I remembered our conversation afterward when I asked about her leap from corporate work to positive psychology. I thought it was a clever move! I remembered the baroness Claire had mentioned and looked her up. I asked myself what work would I try just for fun? BOOM!!! That was a huge break-through. I opened up to new possibilities.
I tried part-time barista work, gardening and market stall work and loved them all in different ways. The cafe owner probably questioned my sanity when he asked if I minded sweeping the floor and I said “I’d love to” with such authenticity and then went about sweeping like it was the best thing ever. I was revelling in the fact that my responsibility was near to none. That was my real break: “What size coffee?” and “Do you want any sugar or milk with that?” was a grand holiday from the previous 20 years of work. Thank you Gels Picciuto, of the Smokehouse Deli!
Switching to fun work and gentle exercise must have contributed to the new motivation I found to invest in myself first because I decided to fully remove myself from support work, at least until I finished the PhD. I let Samaritans know I wouldnt be returning and I left the social prescribing service. Those two decisions I had avoided at all costs surprisingly felt like huge weights lifted from my shoulders. Here comes the next BOOM… I asked myself what I would prescribe myself?
I set about prescribing myself things that changed everything:
♥ I signed up to the waiting list for an allotment because I LOVE nature and had starved myself from it. I was running out of space on my window sills, growing things that prefer to be in the ground. The gardening shifts were the most physically challenging work I have done but confirmed I had re-ignited a deep source of resonance. Thank you Paul Lilly!
♥ I began walking again after many years. The very first walk noticeably calmed me right down, “clearing my head” as they say. I had forgotten how much I used to walk and how much I love to. I prescribed myself daily walks, sometimes a walk at night or a walk in the rain (when most humans go indoors and more birds seem to come out). Walking ticks too many boxes: its human speed, closer to nature, a way to see whats happening locally and meet more neighbours, plus it is free exercise and eco-friendly.
♥ Not too long after I got back into walking, I found out my sisters partner Paul was doing the lost hours walk, with C.A.L.M., in memory of his step dad. I looked into it and was stunned when I saw it was happening exactly 20 years to the date after my mums suicide. I signed up, prescribing myself a 20-mile walk across London to mark the end of being driven by my pain. I hadnt told any of my colleagues about my loss so I felt very nervous about sharing this with them https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/anna-maria-sharpe but it was one of the best decisions of my life, a massive purge and I felt more supported than I could have imagined. I’m forever grateful for all the loving messages.
♥ Two months later, I paid the council to plant a white blossom tree in Clarence park for mum. So I have somewhere to go and sit “with her” in my community. I have never been able to afford enough flights to visit her grave in Ireland when I feel like visiting so this really has made a huge difference to me. I need it for my children here who never met their nanny.
♥ I found this video of Jake Mace standing in a river doing tai chi breathing exercises
Something about it had me playing it and copying him daily. I had dabbled with breathwork, meditation and mindfulness classes over the years in different work settings and believed in its usefulness. I had even studied the 8-week Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy course with Hilary Roberts who taught me many beneficial meditations but none of them had translated into daily practice. Tai Chi had always resonated but I had hardly seen any and didnt know what it was. I thought it might be able to protect me from falling again so I looked up local classes and signed up to a free trial class.
At first, the teachers demonstrated the form while we sat in silence. I wasnt sure how I felt about it other than it seemed very calming. Then the teachers began to speak and ask questions and BOOM! A very old wish came true. I remembered Sharn Tomlinson my first counselling teacher. It was the person-centred approach and Sharn was passionate about “Systemic Family Therapy”. She LOVED it and believed in it and was a fantastic teacher. I remembered asking her how and when she knew it was this type of counselling in particular. I was always fascinated by too many things to commit to just one thing. I never forgot her story about her resonance and all the things she had tried in life, never knowing she would feel like this about one thing. She told me she went to a conference one day and everyone there “spoke her language” and she knew she was home. She said if it happens to me it will be so obvious I will know it happened. I remembered her in that trial class because it happened to me there. My teachers speak my language. On top of that they say things I need to hear that drive directly into my being…”ARRIVE… RETREAT… LET GO… LESS… BALANCE… ROOTS!” or “WHERE ARE YOUR SHOULDERS NOW?” 🙂 I am finally being taught something that I want to teach because the more I learn and practice tai chi, the more I believe in its usefulness and want to share the benefits. I like to call tai chi “magic” no less! I invested in the beginners 10-week course and learned how to breathe even deeper, into my “tantien” – my quiet place within. I had only scratched the surface.
Now, in my third year of study and daily practice, it is my absolute honour to be an apprentice teacher of the St. Albans School of Tai Chi Chuan. The TAI CHI FOUNDATION’s mission is to “Improve health, well-being and awareness” by promoting and delivering Cheng Man Ching’s style of tai chi across the globe. I have much more to share with you about tai chi and other tools for calmness. Here is my article about the teacher who has taken me under his wing.
♥ I began drawing again, invested in some adult colouring books, visited local art galleries and started crafting and creating things with my daughter.
♥ My sister took me for a SPA day at the stunningly refurbished Cottonmill Club Spa, Sopwell House. The outdoor hydro-pool was everything! What a way to chill out.
♥ I tried acupuncture, massage and herbal medicine for my period pains after burning the veins on my lower tummy with a hot-water-bottle. They healed quickly and I didnt expect so many other healing benefits. I learned so much about myself, even just from the time I was allowing myself to lie still under a heat lamp. Even more from my “Conversations with Dr. Wang“. I considered this as a title for an article, then as a title for a whole blog because I felt compelled to write about him. Chinese Medicine is deeply fascinating to me and works on the same meridians of chi as tai chi. Dr. Roger Wang changed the way I treat myself (when I bleed), with his kind and wise words. His massages, herbs and needles reduced the pain. He also validated very quickly that some people wake up groggy and take time to adjust. Others go ‘PING’ like a “Duracell bunny”, (me) and people like me MUST take winding down before bed very seriously or we wont get enough sleep! Years of my own BS summarised like that motivated some change. I always aim for nine hours now but I mostly fail and pat myself on the back for getting seven to eight hours. Averaging five hours of unrestful sleep is a lesson of the past!
♥ I joined Freecycle and Trash Nothing. What a gift to the world they are! I have met so many generous people who gifted me things I needed for my allotment, plus many more who were grateful for things I gave them. I gave lots more attention to home maintenance and I set my first real house rule: No rushing at home, ever. Home is our safe haven for rest and replenishment. Decluttering and reducing my life is ongoing…
If I missed any other calming self-prescriptions I will pick them up in the blog… and much more about calmness.
No Going Back!
Nine months flew by and September came. My daughter started school but I felt reluctant to hand her over. Our bond was strengthening plus there was so much weirdness due to lockdown but we gave it a go. After only one week of reception I jumped at the chance to home-school. I taught the whole of the reception year and almost half of year one. It was a dream. She is a little curious “Matilda” sponge., but home-schooling meant no childcare to complete the PhD. My supervisors managed to extend my suspension for one more year maximum.
What if I didnt go back? I was no longer lost in other peoples pain. I decided to go with the flow and see what happened. I knew I didnt want to do too many things anymore. Maybe just gardening. I applied for an RHS course, but gardening five days a week and managing my allotment too? Zzzz I am not about taking the “hardest path” anymore. I would rather feel rested. I have found untold amounts of love and respect for rest and relaxation and the many ways we can declutter our minds. I am motivated to regain and always seek balance, for example between giving and taking, activity and rest.
My life motto now is something more like “BE THE TORTOISE”.
Its about making slow but consistent and sustainable progress towards the customized vision. In other words, staying calm and rested enough to follow joy.
The Benefits of Daily Quietude
My energy is returning. I feel lighter. I dance and giggle again.
My responses to external stressors are improving. Familiarizing with my quiet and content centre has changed the way I treat myself. I dont ever want to stray too far from it. I notice when I am and choose to retreat alone indoors to do tai chi and/or sit still to investigate my internal state. Once I feel calm again I try to decode the emotion for a helpful message to act on. I am human. Things can seem very annoying or upsetting and I sometimes catch myself shouting but it really is becoming more rare. I see my own state as the one thing I can and should control. I’m getting better at it as I now have the tools and connections that work for me.
Less really is more. I have tested it for myself and I am staying on this path. Decluttering my mind and home made the remaining pieces of the whirlwind seem to come into focus so I could deal with them more effectively, one thing at a time. The more I learn to let go the less I really need. Contentment over desire.
Clarity! I have clear and attainable answers to big questions like “What is enough?”. A three bedroom house with enough land around it to give up my allotment and create my dream garden. I am committed to learning more with each growing season, until I reach goals like plating up the whole Christmas dinner from my kitchen garden. Then I want to invest in as many of my best ideas (community interest companies, charities & services) as possible. I am going to create what matters to me in sustainable fun ways.
“There is no evidence that we’ve been placed on this planet to be especially happy or especially normal. And in fact our strangeness, our anxieties and compulsions, those least fashionable aspects of our personalities, are quite often what lead us to do rather interesting things” (Ronson, pg 286).
So I broke the news to my PhD supervisors, that I would not be returning. They seemed pleased which didn’t surprise me but after working with Claire for years she did surprise me by telling me she didn’t finish her first PhD either. “You are not your PhD” makes perfect sense now. Not that PhD anyway! Yet it must be said, I will never regret any of my journey. It was the path to where I am now…
I am living my best life right now! I start my day with at least ten minutes for me on my window seat. I love my allotment and my morning tai chi rounds in a field after the school run. my evening rounds indoors with the lights off.
I am and may always be a “yanged up”, curious, excitable Duracell bunny BUT I have made a full U-turn from filling up my life with more and more but arriving nowhere, to reducing wherever possible and arriving at me. Over many silent reflections I realised my passion, skills, resources and connections align to write about calmness from many different angles. I have found a focus I love, that is meaningful to me and hopefully others. I’m spending dedicated time interviewing interesting people, exploring calmness and writing articles I cannot wait to share with you.
It wasn’t one thing in my journey that made the difference. It was the whole journey to tai chi!
The “journey” to deeper expressions of self-love, daily practice and wellness seems to be mirrored in many people I have already spoken to. I’m fascinated by quietude and the ways and reasons people experience it or dont. I love learning and am invested in this topic and capturing peoples journeys towards calmness, the challenges and benefits. I have interviewed people on radio, in research and support work but this work is already deepening my best connections. With this new focus driving me, I keep meeting more like-minded people who value and practice calmness in different ways. It is good path for me and my family too as I am now immersed in topics that I can and do talk to my children about.
I came through darkness but I needed help. We all do sometimes. So I promise to stay curious, keep learning and sharing positive solutions to overthinking, over-wanting, over-reacting etc.
I have made a leap to join the light that shined for me when I needed it so much
My mission is to shine a light on calmness, starting with the wonderful people in my community that personally helped me to calm down and get to know my quiet centredness
Do calm minds hold great power?
Can they reflect more clearly?
Respond to external stressors more effectively?
Does calm contentment come from controlling endless desire?
Is calmness essential for identifying true desires?
Or tapping into “a source of creativity” and true purpose?
Lets find out more together…
The Quietude Community Blog is here to inspire you to harness your quiet place in ways that suit your individuality. You dont need to be a cool yoga mum or even sit still!
Ronson, J. (2011). The psychopath test: A journey through the madness industry