Years ago I had the honour to be a birth companion for a friend. She had never had a natural or normal delivery and as this was to be her last baby she really hoped to have a more positive birth experience this time. We were both very excited and had made plans, but as is usual with the best laid plans they all went a bit to pot when she went into labour in the middle of the morning school run chaos and I ended up arriving at the hospital breathless, late and clutching only a CD.
From the moment we arrived things started to go wrong. We met the midwife assigned to care for her and her baby and from her first comment we knew we were in trouble. It was apparent that this person had made a judgement call about my friend and had decided that she did not warrant good care. I won’t go into details for the sake of my friends and this midwives confidentiality, but I was appalled. It seemed that this midwife was not only determined to withhold good care, but also to make it clear that she had judged my friend and found her worthless. And my friends crime? Tattoos. She has many rather beautiful and creative tattoos. Now, if you have ever had the experience of giving birth you will know that though it can be a profoundly empowering experience, there are also times when you feel incredibly vulnerable, at times speechless with pain and very frightened. In order for labour to progress the woman must feel SAFE. Needless to say my friend did not feel safe, and I felt angry. We decided to keep schtum and wait for the shift to change, as we feared that confronting her could make her appalling behaviour escalate, and just hoped that the next midwives would be kinder and less judgmental. And we were in luck. The next team came in, full of positivity and laughter, encouragement and skill. They delivered the most exquisite care to my friend who gave birth to her last child naturally and without intervention.
Immediately we wrote a very strongly worded letter to this midwife, her boss and the Trust making it very clear how unhappy we were. I am not an angry person, but one thing that riles me up is injustice. If you believe in astrology it may interest (and not surprise you) to know that I am a Taurean woman, and we are known to be rather bull headed at the best of times. This is certainly true of me. I prefer to compare myself to a stubborn terrier, once I get my teeth into something I WILL NOT LET GO!
So though we had gone through the correct channels not only to report this individual but also to protect any future clients that may be subjected to her judgement, I could not let it go. A few days later my friend and her baby were still in hospital and low and behold who should come into the cubicle but THE MIDWIFE. All sweetness and light now, smiling at my friend and cooing over the baby. She said “I am sorry if you thought I did not give you the very best care as I can assure you that that was my intention but you must understand that we were very busy that day and I was under a lot of pressure.”
Any apology that starts with “I am sorry if…” does not wash with me. I think it is a cop out and no true apology. I beckoned her over so I could speak to her quietly and said in my calmest voice:
“When people are under pressure you find out what their true nature is like. And yours, is HORRIBLE.”
She then left the cubicle. I know that what I said was harsh. But I wanted to give her pause for thought in the hope that she would not bring her judgmental attitude to the next client she deemed unworthy.
So why am I relating this story now? Because most of us will have felt under pressure over the last few months. Maybe it has been the pressure of working from home isolated from your colleagues, or the pressure of trying to home educate your children, or both, and if you have been doing both, and managed to hold on to even a SHRED of sanity I salute you! Perhaps it has been the pressure of losing your jobs and facing financial problems. Maybe it has been the pressure of not being allowed to see family or friends, to hold a new grandchild for the first time, or be present at the funeral of a loved one. Although my harsh comment to the midwife was distilled through a wall of anger, I still think there is some truth in what I said. When we are under pressure our social veneers tend to fall away and what is revealed is often not the most pleasant aspects of our character.
So what have I discovered about MY true nature? I have learned that I need both face to face interaction with my loved ones as well as long periods of solitude to be functional and that without these I become quite withdrawn and sullen. I have learned that my perfectionism, O.C.D and depression are there, JUST beneath the surface and I must always be vigilant lest these lunatics take over the asylum (which they frequently try to do). You know when you look out into a lake and are told that there are fish in it, and you look and look but your eyes can’t seem to penetrate the surface of the water, and then suddenly you become aware of those sinuous shapes moving beneath the surface? That is what it has felt like for me. I have some awareness of my issues largely thanks to a very skilled therapist and have done a lot of work on accepting myself as I am whilst at the same time loosening the strangle-hold of my ugly sisters: perfectionism and O.C.D. But under the surface those issues are still there. I used to think that all my issues would disappear once they had been brought into the light of my awareness. What I am learning is, they will always be there but that I need not be defined nor derailed by them. There is still a part of me that believes that having those issues under the surface is a sign of failure. And that can lead me into the swamp of shame pretty easily, and when that happens I stop being able to recognise that anything good is happening.
I do make myself stop and see the good, it is how I put the brakes on those tendencies, but I usually only remember to do so when I feel that horrid swamp sucking at my feet. Once you are chest deep in the swamp it is very difficult to access the things that you know will get you out of it. I KNOW that going for a run or a walk, listening to music, doing some yoga or seeking out the company of a trusted friend will help. But it feels like I just don’t have the energy. Imagine swimming round and round in a deep muddy pool with steep slippery sides and no visible way of getting out. Once you have realised that there is no easy way out, your only option is to try to heave yourself up on to the side with your upper body strength but the longer you have spent swimming around looking for a way out the less strength you have to make your escape. That to me is how it feels to move through and emerge from an episode of depression. And if you tend to get stuck in the swamp, make sure a few close and trusted friends can spot the signs that you are slipping so they can throw you a rope and PULL you out if need be.
So what positives have come out of this weird situation for me?
I have my daughter back living with me and I recognise that this may be the last time this happens, as she is nearly 26 and embarking on a PhD very soon that will entail living first in London and then Columbia, and I know I will miss her when she goes. I have made a home for her and her partner to keep them safe and able to work throughout lock-down. I have worked hard in my garden and it looks amazing. I have reinvented my business online despite having the technical prowess of a zebra. I have been released from the tyranny of the clock, waking when I am done sleeping and sleeping when I am done being awake. And my son got his first job after graduating during lock-down, a real cause for celebration and an impressive feat!
So I guess my message to you all this week is whatever you are doing, however you are coping (or not coping) the way you are feeling is valid and normal. Lots and lots of people are struggling with this pandemic. And curiously, as we emerge tentatively from lock down, more and more people are telling me that they are starting to fall apart when they feel they had been coping quite well up until now. And I think that this is normal too. When we are operating under stress it starts to feel ‘normal’ and when the stress is released the relief often manifests as tears or tiredness or confusion. I understand that getting your mats out even to do a short practice will feel like a Herculean feat some days, which is why this week I have created some more short sequences, ‘Sparks’ for you to learn off by heart. There is something comforting in repetition, it gives rise to the feeling that your yoga is a meditation in motion, which is exactly what the physical practice of yoga is. And learning the sequences off by heart gives you autonomy. You won’t then need to get your computer or phone or headphones, or depend on me to make your practice happen. And it also means that you get a break from looking at screens, I don’t know about you but I am heartily sick of them. Another idea is to try to annotate the sessions either with stick figures or words so you begin to practice with a piece of paper beside you instead of a video to watch. In time you won’t need the piece of paper either. I know that many of you use only my voice to guide you through the sessions, but that still pulls your focus away from your inner state. The real potency of yoga is revealed when you practice alone with no-one else to guide you, and start to listen to your body mind and breath with complete attention. And the good news is, you do not have to rely solely on your memory. Your body develops its own memory of the practice, so even when you think you can’t ‘remember’ what move comes next, your body might well know, if you let it take the lead.
So I will leave you with this seminal track by the Queen and David Bowie and may your mantra for this week be:
“Let this pressure reveal my true nature and help me acknowledge those aspects of myself that I prefer to keep hidden. Let the light of my new awareness illuminate my mind”