My Second Life

On this day 19 years ago I went to the operating theatre to have my left breast removed, it had developed a significant invasive cancerous tumour and it had to go! I am, as far as I know, in remission. I celebrate this day as my second birthday, the last 19 years as the second life I was given; and I try to use it well. So here are 19 of the things I have learned:

  1. There’s really no such thing as the “all clear”, I have given up explaining this but really no-one can be guaranteed “cancer free”, the correct term is “no evidence of disease”.
  2. I am still me, a work in progress but always me. Cancer didn’t take anything from me, I am not my disease. I am not “the one who had breast cancer” because I am so much more than that.
  3. Who I am is far more important than how I look.
  4. Who I am is a gazillion times more important that what anyone else thinks of me. Their judgement is about them, not me.
  5. Life is not fair. Bad things happen to good people. Lightning does strike twice or even more times. Heartbreak is a part of life, as long as you have love and joy, you will have grief and sorrow; but the love and joy will prevail and it is worth it. Oh, and cancer is a lottery – I didn’t `deserve’ it, no one deserves it. We constantly look for explanations but sometimes there just is no explanation. If you have been diagnosed, please, please know that it isn’t what you did or said or took or didn’t take. Yes, there are health risks and if you want to reduce yours and live a healthier life, please do – you will no doubt benefit but as the bible says “Todays burdens are enough for one day”, don’t add to your load with blame or shame.
  6. Everything changes, all the time, regardless of whether you want it to or don’t want it to. You are not in control, you cannot change it – accept it, go with it.
  7. Anything is possible, good and bad, so stay open that possibility.
  8. Perfection does not exist, you aren’t perfect and nor is anyone else. Your parents aren’t perfect, they are just doing the best they can and they know you aren’t perfect – they just want the very best for you and sometimes it comes out a bit twisted. But really, they love you just exactly as you are.
  9. As Maja Angelou says “People will forget what you said, they will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”.
  10. There are no bad feelings, just your feelings. Listen to them, let them tell you what they mean. You are not your feelings, but they are important.
  11. I tried to say this better but couldn’t, so take it away Emily Dickinson
    Hope is the thing with feathers
    That perches in the soul
    And sings the tune without the words
    And never stops at all,

    And sweetest in the gale is heard;
    And sore must be the storm
    That could abash the little bird
    That kept so many warm.

    I’ve heard it in the chillest land.
    And on the strangest sea,
    Yet never in extremity,
    It asked a crumb of me.
  12. Count your blessings, gratitude has been proven to improve well being and it’s a great practice to get into.
  13. Forgive and send love to everyone, especially those who don’t seem to deserve it – they are usually the ones who need it the most.
  14. You can do it, even in the fiercest storms of your darkest days – you are stronger than you know.
  15. Breathe deeply, practice slowing and deepening your breathing as a means to steadying yourself when life churns you up a bit.
  16. As the wonderful Matt Haig says “notice the beauty”, look around you, there is always something to appreciate.
  17. Everyone has something to teach you.
  18. Learning is a wonderful gift, stay curious, ask questions and listen.
  19. Love is everything – to love and be loved.

What would you say to your younger self?

I regularly see this same post pop up on social media platforms, I’m not sure how much younger we are aiming for but here is mine.

  1. There is no such thing as perfection – please stop reaching for it, you are human, you are supposed to make mistakes and be imperfect. There are wonderful people in your life who want you to be safe and happy; and to be the best you can – and it might seem like they want you to be perfect, but they don’t! They love you for who you are; they may not be able to tell you that, so I am here to tell you that. Always, always know that you are loved and you are loveable.
  2. Stop rushing around, the most beautiful things in life are there with you now, all you need to do is notice them. Life is wonderful – nature, people, books are just amazing and you can enjoy them. Just breathe and live in the moment.
  3. You don’t need to change who you are and whilst this is third on the list it’s probably the most important thing I want to tell you Jean. You are lovely, you have such a kind and beautiful heart and an amazing skill for empathy. Stay true to that, it will get you hurt but that is fine, because it will also bring you such unbridled joy and it will save lives. You are a kind and beautiful person Jean, always; and you are loved, respected and admired for that.
  4. At times your life will be touched by such sorrow, you will be brought to your knees and you will suffer tremendous pain. In that hurt lies your strength, your courage to move forwards, the humility and spirituality that will help you to grow and to use that growth to help others. You are a helper Jean and it is beautiful; you are loved and you make a difference. Also give yourself time to grieve the losses and the trials; know that you are strong and full of courage.
  5. Every emotion is valid, you are allowed to feel sad, to feel hurt, to feel pain, to feel depressed, to feel angry and frustrated; and to feel joy, to feel loved, to feel happy. Don’t turn away from any of those emotions, others might try to tell you that it is right to ignore the bad emotions, but it isn’t. Those emotions are part of being human and they are helpful to allow you to understand what is happening and to process the pain and sadness. But you are not your emotions, they are just passing by, like the weather. You are kind and you are loved. Allow all your emotions to pass by, notice them but don’t become them.
  6. Hopefully by this point you understand that it is what is inside you, your character, that matters the most. This is beauty. If you can learn this and believe it, my hope is that you will not waste years worrying about how you look. But if I cannot save you from that, please know that for all the years you worry about being too thin, you will spend years worrying about being too fat! You are beautiful.
  7. Love yourself my darling. No-one else’s love will be with you all the time; the way you need and deserve to be loved. They are all human like you; their love is fallible. Lots of people will love you and you will also find that one special love; you managed that even here because the universe brings together those who are meant to be together. Know that your one true love is out there but, before you meet them – learn to love yourself.
  8. Be creative, don’t believe what they tell you, just because you have a gift for business and organisation it doesn’t mean you cannot be other things. You are an artist, and you have creative capabilities that potentially will lie untouched for too many years while you believe the narrative others provide. You are creative.
  9. If you haven’t already found it, you have a love for stories, particularly in books and poetry, but also in theatre and film. Keep those passions alive, stories will be your escape, they will allow you to rest and they will feed your soul and broaden your horizons. Listen to others’ stories.
  10. Travel, as much as you can. Perhaps start with university – if you think it is right for you. But travel to the places of your dreams, the places you see in those stories. This is the way to live a rich life, always travel and notice the beauty in other places.


“Selfcare isn’t selfish” is often quoted these days and I truly agree. The equally popular adages “You cannot pour from an empty cup” or “Put your own oxygen mask on first” are helpful to those who perhaps have been raised, as I was, to believe that everyone else comes first and your purpose is to serve. I don’t think these were messages meant to harm us, they were meant to create “good” human beings; I guess our caregivers believed that inherent instincts would stop us taking the messages to the extreme where we would put our own survival in jeopardy.

This summer I have battled with the self-care message. I wrote my self-care charter and broke it – still a work in progress! But then I read a couple of books that (I hope) are life changing. The first, thanks to a dear friend, was “The Choice” by Edith Egar and, from a reference in that, I read Victor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning”; and then I got confused. Clear messages from both were that how you perceive something is critical and that only you have control of that perception inside your mind; I was fine with that. The harder message is that you shouldn’t seek happiness, that happiness is a biproduct of service to a larger aim; in service of something or someone else. That shattered my little self-care campaign until I decided to order things (here I go again, there’s a theme already from my blogs)!

So, I see it as a spectrum from Selfish to Selfless; at one end I’m “all about me” and at the other end I am exhausting myself in service of others or some form of work (not necessarily paid work). But there is a happy medium. What to call this? I have seen it referred to as “Self-full”, so a place where you take care of your own needs first and from that position of strength serve others. It’s maybe my conditioning but that terminology doesn’t really appeal – to me it suggests I cannot serve others until I have done everything I need; which sounds a little bit selfish. Perhaps a more appealing term would be “Unselfish”? In my mind this suggests a sensible balance of self-care and purpose. It might also be seen as equal measures of hedonic and eudemonic wellbeing – hedonic being pure pleasure/ enjoyment and eudemonic being more about feeling worthwhile.

We need both and, I believe, our self-care charter needs both.


Mental Health is for life .. not just an awareness week

61024946-4FC0-4A6A-8330-9A8955EE2AF4.jpegLast week was mental health awareness week, a great opportunity to raise the profile of mental health and mental illness. After a difficult week this week, it struck me this morning that mental health isn’t just for mental health awareness week. I was drawn here to share how I am taking care of my own mental health, I hope this will encourage whoever is reading this to consider their own actions to promote their wellbeing.

Step 1 is acknowledging that it’s been a tough week; and allowing myself to “sit with” and reflect on some of the challenges and my feelings and emotions. For me, I work best by journaling this or by drawing images that reflect my thoughts and feelings. I’ve always been a writer and a scribbler. Mindfulness always sounds so powerful but I am not sure I manage it very well; although I think it’s a bit like yoga – it’s not a competitive sport, you find your own level (and the more you practise the better you get). Allowing yourself this reflective space, exploring your feelings and understanding, as best you can, what those feelings are telling you, deepens your understanding. If you have a good friend, coach or therapist it is a step further to have them ask you about things and listen to your reply – they can often notice something that is just outside of your awareness; and this can be helpful to deepening your understanding. And the power of being listened to is often enough to help you heal.

Step 2 is being grateful, acknowledging all the positive aspects of life or even just one – as the amazing author Matt Haig says “look for the beauty”. This can also help to bring perspective, for many years after my cancer diagnosis I would look at all issues from the perspective “am I dying?”; sadly it’s not a perspective that sticks but occasionally life is kind enough to kick me in the rear and remind me that living to face another day is a privilege. I remember, many years ago, seeing the great Maya Angelou in an interview where she was asked how she maintains her positivity and she said that her mother would say “no matter how miserable you feel, whatever you are going through, you need to remember that everyone who died last night would give anything for five minutes of what you are going through”. I have always remembered that.

Step 3 taking care of me – rest, exercise, good food and for me a beautiful bunch of flowers, finishing the presentation I am delivering on 6th June, tidying up and doing my physio exercises for my impinged shoulder. I think self-care is a very personal thing, I’m aware the tidying wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Our personal tastes, preferences and abilities dictate our rest, exercise, food and treat choices. Sometimes the pressure for 15 minutes vigorous exercise, 5 a day of fruit and veg and 8 hours sleep can lead to inertia through our perception of “not good enough”. My philosophy is that 1 portion of fruit and veg, getting my backside out of the chair and allowing myself the opportunity for sleep is better than nothing. We are all climbing our own mountain.

So, I encourage you to consider your mental health today and do what you can to nurture it. I wish you success and peace.

Meet my Inner Critic, she’s lovely …

Meet my Inner Critic, she’s lovely ….
…don’t get me wrong, she can speak with a venom that belongs to the most powerful of reptiles but her heart’s in the right place. Let’s take a recent example. A couple of weeks ago I received an email from the British Psychological Society inviting me to speak at their Coaching Psychology Conference next month. Prior to the email I had attended a brilliant workshop from Creative Expansion on `The Inner Critic’, I had done the work and Inner Critic was quiet and peaceful; and I was moving forward to a deserved and joyful future. But the very moment I read that email she was back, laughing raucously, pointing her bony figure saying “You! You are going to tell a room full of psychologists that you don’t need to be a psychologist to give people help at a deeper level”? There is more, louder, raucous laughter, she’s holding her tummy now and can hardly spit her words out. “You, who didn’t even get a first degree, you – a northerner who mumbles rather than articulates, you’ll be lucky if they can understand what you’re saying” (this accompanied by a film reel replay of everyone I have ever met saying “pardon?”. Well I could go on, but you get the gist. So, why do I think she’s lovely? Well, what I learned on my workshop and what has worked well, and is working well here, is understanding where that response is coming from. The Inner Critic, as I understand it, is a version of all the sage parenting you received, given a personal twist (sometimes of the knife) to try to keep you safe. If you’re a fan of Brene Brown or Marianne Williamson, it’s what they refer to as “playing small”, keeping out of harm’s way. If I decline that amazing invitation, I will not be hurt – I don’t risk making a fool of myself, I don’t risk being heckled by those psychologists, I don’t risk seeing crumpled faces, whispering to each other “What’s she saying?”, I don’t risk the inevitable racing heart rate and anxiety of public performance. You see? My Inner Critic is trying to protect me, just in the same way she tells me to check for traffic before I cross a road. So, how to deal? Well I have to look her in the eye and thank her for her concern, I have to understand where she is coming from and, I have to acknowledge those risks but be brave and have the courage to do it anyway, in spite of all that . Theodore Roosevelt said it best and if you don’t know it, I recommend a read through his April 23rd, 1910 speech at the Sorbonne, the bit that starts “It is not the critic who counts ….”. Meanwhile, I have a presentation to write.

Pause, Breathe, Connect

One of my hobbies is photography; thinking about why I enjoy it always brings me to the same thing – that opportunity to slow down and do something “different” from my day to day. As a general rule I am busy, rushing around – if not in physical terms at least mentally. My thoughts race and I am always thinking about what’s next. Any photographer, at any level, will tell you that such frenetic energy is not generally conducive to good photography! The digital era has made it easier to be “snap happy” but the best photographs and the greatest enjoyment (to me at least) is in `stopping and taking notice’. So that’s my step one – pause, stop rushing, just “be”. Take notice of what’s around you, as Matt Haig says “Look for the beauty”. I believe this step incorporates several of the cornerstones of good mental health – mindfulness, taking notice and practising gratitude.

Step two, breathe, always a good idea, but actually a top tip for taking good photographs. The key to a sharp image is the steadiness of the photographer’s hand (unless you resort, as is necessary sometimes, to a tripod and remote shutter release); and the best way to get a steady hand is to steady the breath. Taking your shot at the point that you finish releasing a deep breath is usually the steadiest you can achieve (although it also depends on your stance – feet flat on the floor with a good centre of gravity is pretty important too).

image1Step three, the one that has achieved the most appreciation for my photography, connection. You might think this is just in people shots but it is possible to find a story and connection in any shot. This breathes passion into your art. My favourite photograph, of my own, is a shot of a fallen tree at the Johnston Observatory in Mount St Helens. I knew as soon as I saw the scene that, for me, there was an emotional connection to the blast of 1980, I could imagine the tree being blasted into its current position which connected me to the force of the blast and the emotion of the event. I have entered the print into competitions and no-one makes the same connection but they “get” the shot as a powerful image.


As a photographer and artist, I have much to learn but the joy is in the learning and the experience. I hope you have a hobby that brings you peace and happiness, even if it’s accompanied by a certain level of frustration!

Grief is three dimensional

All of us, at some point in life, will deal with grief. It can be the loss of a person, a pet or a part of ourselves (a relationship, a career, a job or a skill).

I am no expert, but I have lost people and a dear dog who were very precious to me. It is only with this most recent loss, my beautiful two-year-old female German Shepherd, that I have started to find some structure to my grief.

When my mum died four years ago, an extremely close and complex relationship for me, I was lost. I started on a course of study that would take me into the realms of psychology and help me to pick apart that relationship and who I was as a result of it. I sincerely hope it has led me to a better and happier place; but during the journey I struggled with my grief. One of the things I struggled with, was the perception I came across in the texts that anyone still grieving after a year was `stuck’ and probably `pathologically depressed’. Maybe I was? I was doing a bloody good job of living with clinical depression if this was it! More texts told me what I absolutely needed to hear, that there was no arbitrary cut off at 6, 12, 48 or even 360 months! My grief was my grief and it depended who I lost, how I lost them and what our relationship was.

Our dog taught me lots of things. She had character to spare and it took me a while to accept that this mischievous, funny, beautiful, stubborn and loving little character was okay to open my heart to. Looking back now it seems silly to have taken time, but I was still heart sore from mum, I had unrealistic expectations of that puppy and I was doing too much in general. After a year or so our relationship blossomed and became an unconditional love, an often-used phrase but one that I had never truly understood before. Then in, what seemed, an especially cruel twist of fate she became seriously unwell. A part of me wanted to lower my head again and see this as a slap in the face of happiness; to surrender myself to misery and depression, but I managed a balanced view that this was just a challenge, that our darling girl was just extra special, and we would love her even more for it. Then fate took her from us.

So here I am, determined not to bow my head and wanting (as I always do) to make some sense from this; so here is what I have learned. I see three dimensions to grief:

• How the loss occurs, in the loss of a person this includes how they die, how much time you have with them, whether this is an “out of time” death (such as the death of an infant or your child), whether you can be there, whether you can make any sense of the events that happen;

• The loss, having the person ripped from your life, what’s the timing, where are you at in your career, your relationships and what part does that person play, how is your relationship with them at that point in time, how much are they woven into your life and your story;

• Missing them, not having them in your life, not there to share things with, not there to give you advice or for you to help them. Not there to enjoy the activities you used to enjoy.

These three aspects are interwoven but my hypothesis is that the first two dimensions can be processed and progressed in some way. The third dimension will never go, the shape and presence of that person, pet, relationship, will always be in your life; a part of who you were; a part of who you are; and part of the memories that you see, feel and (hopefully) cherish.