Thursday 28 January 2021

Working with schizophrenia: a balancing act

Hi to all. It’s a new year’s resolution to write blog posts! I hadn’t quite stuck to the schedule. Hadn't yet found a topic for inspiration. Then a client walked in and, with her, inspiration arrived. 

Toni (not her real name) has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. 

Toni has undergone shock treatment, and has been prescribed high doses of medications, including those commonly prescribed for bipolar disorder. I understand that these medications can be helpful, and they can tip you over into being so subdued, you lose your lust for life.

Our interaction went like this, and this story is told with consent:

Toni arrives. We take a seat in my loungeroom, and we have a discussion about paranoid schitzophrenia. Toni jokes about how the voices have come back, moderately, due to a slight reduction in her medication, and she is happy with that. 

She is also happy to be on a reduced dose of medication, so that she doesn't experience the full extent of the medication's side-effects. For her, this means being able to go out of her apartment more, engage with the world more, and this helps with her anxiety, and with the voices! The whole thing is a balancing act.

A practitioner can create the ideal learning environment, a place where a person can feel safe. To me, that means Toni's long-held knowledge of herself and of her condition needs to be heard, acknowledged and understood. We pause in the conversation, upon the treating psychiatrist’s "zero tolerance" for voices of any kind, and have a giggle.

Toni is sore. She has arthritis. Her knees are sore. I find much nervous system activity in the head (indicating activity including thinking). There is little weight in the feet. We bring Toni's attention from the activity of her head though movement, to throughout her body and all the way to her feet. 

We get there via the movement of her diaphragm and breathing, which are given the opportunity to just be, cease their habituated holding. For a while she feels far less anxiety, and her mind is quietened.

During the session, I ask Toni if she has a busy mind, something I encounter with most everyone who comes to my practice (me included, except when doing Feldenkrais 😉). She says she does. 

I believe there doesn’t have to be a wide schism between the way we think about paranoid schizophrenia, and the way we think about the whole spectrum of voices, self-talk, attitude, beliefs.

For Toni, in this session, normalising her experience of herself is part of the process, a way of understanding herself without the obstacles of shame and judgement. 

In short, we succeed in increasing Toni's base of support through gravity, bringing weight and holding from the head and shoulders down to the feet, reducing musculoskeletal tension, hence reducing her chronic pain, and ultimately, expanding her ability to sense her whole self - sensations, movement, feelings and thoughts. Expanding her capacity to shift herself in various directions, to have a sense of options. 

Sunday 26 May 2019

Where activism meets embodied learning

A new day dawning in the Simpson Desert, 2011
From around the start of this decade, two things really arrived in my life and sent me on an enormous learning curve. One was political activism. The other was the Feldenkrais Method of embodied learning. Activism and Feldenkrais have created that learning curve, which has been a process of loosening shackles that once killed confidence, clashed with identity, and eradicated personal sovereignty.

Like many of us, I spent a long time being obedient, doing study, working towards a full-time job, a family, following a path that seemed to be “what you are supposed to do”. That led me to spending my 20s in impressive-looking positions at major media organisations, then into being a spin doctor for the Queensland Government, then to complete burn-out.

The burn-out was labelled a major depressive episode – falling into the category of mental health. But I was to discover that health doesn’t need categories, and of course, the burnout was about more than my mood. My body was breaking – it could not stand the strain of sitting, stressed and deeply unhappy, in a job that felt completely disparate to the faint sense of who I actually was, or was meant to be.

My government work involved researching and writing about policies and procedures around the lives of First Nations people, and then around the protection of the environment. I could see how both were being treated within the context of colonisation – controlled at the whim of government, and placed at enormous risk. The fact that I was so obviously a part of that colonial project meant that I didn’t go out and meet people who I would want to socialise with – I felt like I couldn’t justify who I was and what I was doing.

Thanks to my mental, physical and emotional health screaming at me, I was forced to stop.

I spent two years obeying various doctors’ orders not to engage in that work. I spent that time recovering (recovery from burnout can take years), and gingerly venturing into the world in new ways. I began trying to activate some dormant part of myself, the part that knows who I am and what I want to do. It still struggles to be heard, from years of obedience training, but it gathered enough confidence (or desperation) to begin some ventures.

I began engaging in community projects. Unfortunately, I felt compelled to give too much, in order to make myself worthwhile. In any case, I leapt in, and kept meeting people, forming connections, learning my limits.

I recalled that I'd been obsessed with plants as a child. I considered studying some kind of ecology course, and volunteered with ecologists in the Simpson Desert. 

On returning, I heard about plans for a mega coal mine (Clive Palmer’s) to destroy a remnant Nature Refuge in the Queensland Desert Uplands. I got to work, got involved, but my burnout kept me in check and told me when I had to step back. I had to learn a way not to beat myself up for it.

At the time, I knew there was something about the pairing of these two worlds. I knew that activism seemed to be the only thing that could save many species, including humans, from the forces I had previously worked for. At the same time, I could see that activism was populated by people constantly on the brink of burnout. I knew burnout, and I knew it was something best not to toy with.

But what is the alternative, when you’re fighting power structures based on greed and competition?
As I continued to explore change theory, I met a couple from South Africa who had long worked in community development, who seemed to be working on wellness and wholeness in activism. I had a redundancy payout from the government job, and travelled to South Africa to find out more.

This idea of wellness in activism seemed to be my place in the world. At the time I was criticised for it. I recall a conversation about the South Africa trip, with a very committed activist in Brisbane, who said something to the effect: it's all very well to sit on a mountain and meditate your whole life, but how will anything get done? In hindsight, the answer is that there's no point getting stuff done, if you're doing it the same way that things have always been done, if you're replicating greed and competition, if you're living out self-flagellation.

As all of this was going on, I was trying to reinhabit my body, which I knew had taken a toll. Joints hurt, my back would snap into painful configurations. I was bound up in anxiety and flattened by depressive thoughts. So I overcame anxiety to attend courses at a yoga studio I’d been to years before, and there I happened upon the Feldenkrais Method.

I was wondering what to do with myself. The idea of further academic learning terrified me. I was looking around at yoga teacher trainings, not feeling right about following that path.

It only took my attendance at about two Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement classes for me to become very curious. There was a state that I entered every time I did one of these lessons – a state of coming back to myself, despite my runaway thoughts, despite my physical pain, emotional distractions. It seemed this method offered the red herring of movement, and led you to a place of personal self-knowledge. Feldenkrais held the promise of something that I was later to understand as self-compassion. How to be gentle with yourself, how to find the ease to keep going, even when things seem too difficult.

At the time, it so happened that the Feldenkrais Institute of Australia was bringing a 4-year training to Brisbane for the first time in many years. So I used the rest of my payout and signed up for the first year of the four-year training. I was extremely fortunate and privileged, and I knew it.

However, this course of study was the only thing I had ever done (in terms of a life path) that I actually wanted to do. So I kept doing it, even though at times it didn’t make sense. The mind and the body are the same thing?? WHAT?! But then the course gave me a concrete experience of this concept. It’s the nature of the human nervous system, the sensory-motor cortex, the brain.

The rest of the story is not written here, and it continues. The burnout, the depression, the ways of growing, the learning – these are ongoing and challenging. Suffice to say, I have spent the ensuing years immersed in communities of people fighting for change, working to become autonomous from the power structures that surround us, always causing me to question how I understand the world. For that, I’m grateful.

Within these enormous learnings about the world, power structures, privilege, my own privilege, blind spots, weaknesses, I change. I rarely remember what it feels like to be the person I used to be, because my sense of self has changed at a neurological level – how I sense myself, hold myself up, move, propel. How I act in the world. How I act on the world.

And so I continue to attempt to bring these threads together into something cohesive: embodied learning, embodied knowing, activism, how to make change sustainable, how to dodge and weave opportunities for burnout.

I’ve had the opportunity to facilitate embodied learning classes for people in activist contexts, people re-traumatised in conflict, and some with complex PTSD that they were never afforded the capability to work through.

How to bring people back to themselves, to the ground, to reality. 

Wednesday 17 May 2017

Making sense of learning

The zone of proximal development: The gap between what the learner has already mastered (the actual level of development) and what they can achieve when provided with educational support (potential development).

Working with the zone of proximal development, working with what you know, and expanding from there. 

With my client today, my intention is to work with what she knows, and to build from that. And to work with what I know and build from that.

What I know is that life begins in each moment, and life ends in each moment; that some of us want to dive into that mystery, while some of us linger cautiously on the edge.

When you're in a state of massive learning, immersed in it, all you can do is sink or swim. The first thing you need to understand in order to swim is how to float.

To float is to trust, to trust that that which is below you will hold you. To trust that you can let go of the fears that get in your way, and prevent you from finding the simplicity of floating. And to acknowledge the fears are doing their best to serve you, and to be gracious and respectful towards them.

Perhaps grace is similar to the attitude of floating. It brings awareness to that which supports us, that which has brought us to the point where we are now, which is alive, miraculously and through the slimmest of chances, alive.

Alive, thanks to the things that feel good, like eating a big delicious breakfast with fine coffee, or sex, or a friend's listening ear, or a hug, or the sound of music, or the act of lying under a tree. Alive, also thanks to those fears that hold us back, make us hesitate, stop us from crossing the road when a bus is coming, stop us from swimming in the aftermath of a cyclone. Alive, thanks to the joys, fears and traumas of our own lived experience, and the lived experience of our ancestors, collected in our DNA.

Sometimes, the fears get in our way, doing their best to protect us from harm, pain, damage. Acknowledging your fears, is perhaps a pathway to calming your fears, letting them rest.

To get to know your fears takes patience, quietude. For me, getting to know my fears, diving into that mystery, raises the head of an inner critic who says I'm too emotional for having fears, or too feminine, or too complicated. But really, I'm just curious, about life, how it works, how I work, how people work.

And curious about how we give up our unnecessary work, our unnecessary holding. How we come into a state of alignment of body, action and words with mind, intention and feelings; superfluous holding patterns gradually fall to the ground. And our gratitude, falls to the ground.

Thursday 1 December 2016

Anxiety and depression: the body's barometers

Today, the stasis returns to tell me all of the stories of disempowerment. How do we become so infused with disempowerment? Perhaps we learn it’s safer to sit still, because otherwise you might fall. Pride comes before a fall. Defiance loses her grip and gets thrown around by forces greater than herself. Anger screams and isn’t heard. She rises up and isn’t seen.

“I know better” is an affliction. Whichever way you apply it, you’re equally culpable. I look at social media sometimes and find an enlightened being telling me how to live my life. This reminds me of disempowerment.

It’s important to me that a person with knowledge does not assume to be more knowledgeable than anyone else. That’s because a fundamental core of my beliefs and my practice – ideally – is to honour that every being has lived experiences. None of those experiences are more valuable or more important than others. 

The person who can best judge the importance of an experience, is a person who has lived that experience. 

It's frustrating that there is an archetypal force that lives in me (along with a trillion others): the archetype of the guru. When someone calls me a wise woman, it is meant as a compliment, but it sits uncomfortably, because who is to say I’m comparably wise, compared to what, compared to whom? I have habits of thought, action and emotion that are so limiting, and no matter how much I reflect on them, and pinpoint and bookmark and try to work them out, they arise again.

So, as a practitioner, all I can do is offer you my expertise, which is simply my lived experience. I undertake to make no judgement on yours. 

For years, I worked in office blocks and towers, in a very superficial world known as “communications”. It was a world in which I didn’t move, creativity was worn down and the “security” of the gilded cage was enough of a carrot (apologies for mixing metaphors) to keep me from noticing the stick: the anxiety, the depression; in other words, the suppression of spirit, of self.


Yesterday, a former colleague and old friend of mine, another who went through burn-out in the same industry, interviewed me for academic research. She is investigating the phenomenon of burn-out in communications and PR (I guess we are carrying out the wounded healer responsibility in our various ways). It was a MASSIVE conversation.

When my friend asked what might be needed – in organisations and in individual situations – to transform the culture that leads to this phenomenon, I had a lot to say (it seemed to bubble up from some very deep, swampy place). In a nutshell, the solution I see is for people to get real, to stop living in constant denial, to embrace anxiety and depression as the body’s barometer that something isn’t right.

In the conversation, I had the opportunity to talk about the places where I used to work until about six years ago – the cubicles in high-rises in Brisbane city / Meanjin, where people in positions of colonial power made arbitrary and uninformed decisions about Indigenous communities, about what pieces of our environment were to be saved, and what pieces destroyed. I witnessed how even the advice of experts with university training was ignored, and this was acceptable, for example, when coal seam gas exploration was first allowed in Queensland.

Now, I look at those places from across the river, I look at those older towers, and the airconditioned hollow blocks of former rock that keep sprouting among them on this subtropical country. And from that view, again, I get the sense that the people filling those buildings are not given the opportunity to be in the full reality of this country. In those towers, they don’t have the opportunity to be directly on the earth, they don’t have the opportunity to experience the heat of the atmosphere, they don’t have the opportunity to experience the reality of living below the poverty line. Those realities happen somewhere else.

So it’s easy to become divorced from those realities. And it’s easy to become divorced from the people whose lives your decisions directly affect. And it’s easy to become divorced from yourself. 

I did the latter – divorced myself – because I watched people making policy decisions on whims, treating scores of talented people (included myself) as dehumanised foot soldiers, treating those affected by the decisions as existing in a faraway and unimaginable universe. I felt complicit, because my role was to sell the spin. I couldn’t bear the pain of that, so I squashed it for as long as I could ... until it sprang into action and chased me.

The healing included acute treatment with antidepressants, naturopathic remedies and talk therapy, through journeys into nature and into the physical reality of my body and my mind, to a growing sense of self and a growing confidence in my ability to get back up.

Ultimately, these things known as anxiety and depression woke me up, and helped me return to myself, to a clearer sense of reality without the spin! That is what I wish to share.

Thursday 13 October 2016

Seasonal ingredients

This isn't a recipe blog. It's a place where I put words when I need to express or process something about my deepening understanding of the body-mind, otherwise known as somatics, otherwise known as the process of experiencing life.

So, why the reference to seasonal ingredients? Well, my favourite way to cook is to pull together whatever is fresh and at hand, thus inspiring me to create some kind of alchemical flavour bomb that feeds and nourishes.

This evening, while making one such bomb, I listened to a talk that alerted me to some fresh ingredients which I will soon bring to my public practice.

The talk was a conversation with Hakomi teacher Manuela Mischke-Reeds on "How Kindness and Body Wisdom Unravel Trauma Stories". Hakomi is a method that keeps making itself known to me. It originated with Ron Kurtz, who - among many other things - studied with Moshe Feldenkrais. It seems to me Ron Kurtz gathered some very potent ingredients.

I had my first Hakomi session with a friend the other day. He's training in the method; we've agreed to do swaps. As far as words go in describing it, Hakomi is an experiential form of psychotherapy - a form of psychotherapy that has every intention of inviting one's entire, embodied experience into the picture. And the magic ingredient is kindness.

This looks like one of the next places for my learning to go.

There were several things that really struck me about Manuela Mischke-Reeds' approach to trauma. Firstly, she described trauma as complete overwhelm which could result from a major event AND something that could accumulate over time.

In her words: "too much, too fast and no metabolising. The experience is too much for me to handle, it’s coming too fast and I have no way of metabolising - literally - physically, somatically, emotionally, spiritually. I cannot digest the experience." It broadens the way we think about trauma.

Metabolising. What an interesting word. Metabolising emotion. Metabolising spiritual experiences. Metabolising shock. Yes, how does one do that when the pace of life won't allow a moment's reflection?

Manuela brought into the discussion the experience through the media of being alerted to tragedy over and over, how this can be one such accumulation. Work is stressful. Someone is mean etc etc.

I began to see some of the unlikely (but, on reflection, obvious) ingredients that have informed me, and will inform my practice.

I worked in the media. I operated at the pace of the daily news cycle. My brain trawled for throwaway stories. My bosses pushed me to get the stories that would disturb people - both the readers and the players in the stories - which I found both impossible and futile.

It wasn't until I was in the real ratrace - living alone, catching a train to the city every day, working on a computer, communicating with people soaked in stress, firing off cortisol, pushing myself to meet deadlines, creating content that often was - again - futile, useless, unused. Serving egos that had no vision of where they were going, except up the career ladder - that ...

I burnt out.

Just before I stopped working, I asked my boss for emergency time off. It felt as though something was gaining on me and I could no longer outrun it.

Manuela described trauma as a "perceived threat to survival". That's what I was experiencing in many ways (I haven't fully described all of the ways, and all of the experiences that had accumulated, some more shocking and life-threatening than others). But just that daily grind was life-threatening. The attitudes I faced daily and the attitude I felt compelled to perpetuate to be in that environment were life-threatening.

It was lifeless.

Gradually I have come back to life. And, as a wise and unconventional psychologist once said to me, the way to do that was through my body.

I spent four years training in a professional Feldenkrais program, going through intensive periods in which I would go deep inside my experience of myself, my body, my feelings, thoughts, images, ideas, stories, attitudes. I've come out feeling as though I've been through a tumble dryer, wondering, WTF is the Feldenkrais Method? How am I going to practise it?

Well, that's the thing. I don't have to practise "IT". I will practise with all of the ingredients.

Through some guidance from a knowledgeable coach of healers and the like, I realised that the Feldenkrais Method is an ingredient. Just as my experience of jumping from the corporate ladder and running for my life is an ingredient. Just as my keen consumption of that talk tonight is an ingredient.

These are just several of countless ingredients that will come together in any given combination at any given time in service of healing and wholing whomever happens to be in the mix. And whatever is at hand, whatever is fresh, will inspire me to create some kind of alchemical flavour bomb that feeds and nourishes.

Please stay tuned - my practice will have a home very soon.

Tuesday 9 February 2016

Into the unknown

Today, I invited a workmate around for some one-on-one Feldenkrais practice on the table. She is a personal trainer, working with strength and fitness. She is aware of her body, but somehow she knew I was offering a different kind of awareness.

As we were entering a process of movement exploration, my friend made some very interesting observations. She noticed that the movements made her aware of loads of things she hadn't been aware of before - things going on in her. Because the touch was so unobtrusive and the movements so gentle, she was able to feel much more than she does in say, a massage. It seemed there was so much to notice, her mind could barely keep up.

That is what it's like to enter this kind of learning for the first time. It's discovering the tiniest tip of the biggest iceberg.

And I commented that she had hit upon one of the principles of this method, which draws on the Weber-Fechner law (aka the field of psychophysics, aka sense physiology). So basically, the quieter the room, the more you can hear in that room. If drums are being played loudly in the room, you won't hear a pin drop. However, if the room is completely silent, you will hear the same pin drop. (It gets more complicated if I try to explain it fully, but that is the gist.)

When you reduce the stimulus, when you calm the nervous system and quieten the mind, the doors of perception have the opportunity to open, expanding the options for how you experience the world.

Another very interesting thing my friend / colleague / guinea pig said was a question: she asked me about how I work. If I were to see a client like her, she asked, with all of this stuff going on, and the first visit was just about getting to know her - how she moves, what movement patterns are happening - would I then have something to work with on the second visit? Would I know what to work with?

The answer was an honest: "I don't know."

And then it hit me. I'm right at the beginning of my education in this field. I have been to multiple training segments (and, granted, haven't quite finished the training course), where I'm immersed in the method, travelling through states approximating confusion, euphoria, frustration and Eureka moments. Learning. But when I meet an individual, who has this pain, that constraint, this difficulty, I sometimes don't know where to begin.

Actually, that should be, I almost always know where to begin but sometimes don't know where to go.

So I'm going into the unknown. And that is the practice. Learning to go into the unknown. The only way I'm going to learn it is by bringing more and more curious souls to the table, to discover themselves in a new way for the first time, and - if they like it - maybe the second time and maybe the third time.

So today, although we took a few twists and turns in our exploration, and I wouldn't call the practice a "Functional Integration" (which is what a one-on-one Feldenkrais lesson is called), my guinea pig totally got what the practice was about, she found movement options she hadn't had at the start of the lesson (which completely surprised her) and she was keen for more. I guess you can call that success.

Note to self: it's like ATM. Start with the classics, learn your scales, ie. have a couple of solid FI lesson structures to refer to as a starting point.

Friday 25 October 2013


Being calm, peaceful, relaxed, isn't a show. It's not just something there for a purpose, of making the way easier for others, of making yourself more acceptable to others.

Being calm is a gift to the self. It is a state of being aware of the self at any given time. It is being aware that I have boundaries, that I have the means to stop others from overstepping those boundaries, and that doesn't necessarily mean they'll like me, or that their way will immediately seem easier.

Remember your self. Remember your nervous system, your breathing. Remember that your environment affects you, and you are allowed to determine what effect it has. You can do this by changing where you are in that environment, or by finding out whether that environment can change, or both. If that environment cannot change, you are allowed to remove yourself from it.