There’s this moment when I’m flying down the hill, wind in my face, blue sky above me, and I notice this thought passing by – that this is it, THIS is tasting freedom. It’s exhilarating, and not just because I’ve got all that lovely exercise endorphin flowing through me. In fact, this freedom has nothing to do with the bike.
Nine-ish years ago, a close relative was having a hard time. I rang one of my senior colleagues and asked if he would help. I told him my loved one probably just needed some really good Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. My colleague respectfully replied, “Sure, but I think I’ll try ACT first.” Okay, whatever, if you say so… I have heard of this Acceptance & Commitment Therapy stuff. And then as I watched the most beautiful transformation occur in the life of someone I loved so dearly, I realised my colleague had something in his toolkit that was far more powerful than anything I knew I had in mine. I needed to get me some of this ACT (said as one word).
Though when I went to my first ACT workshop eight-ish years ago, it wasn’t my professional toolkit I was thinking about. I was busy raising our first precious son, recovering from my unrecognised and undiagnosed post-natal OCD , and all I knew was I was seriously missing out. This beautiful, precious child was growing up before me, and I could barely get out of my head long enough to be there with him while he did it. My mind was holding me prisoner, and it was time for me to find my way free.
What’s that freedom all about? Oh gosh, the words sound so simple, and yet it reflects years of practice, stumbling, and many, many more of those still to come. I’ve learned and I’m learning to take my mind less seriously. Like all of us, my Beautiful Mind is hell-bent on protecting me and keeping me alive. She just doesn’t care too much whether I’m having a fun time – so long as I’m not dead, her evolutionary purpose has been achieved. She’s a bit like that gloomy friend who sees the downside of everything. She loves to tell me who I AM, to define ME, give me my box DO NOT GET OUT OF THE BOX IT’S NOT SAFE AND YOU WILL DIE OUT THERE AND PEOPLE WILL LAUGH AT YOU WHICH MAY, IN FACT, BE WORSE.
My Beautiful Mind tells me I never finish anything. She tells me this the whole time I’m methodically stepping through each step in any given project.
For many years she wanted me to know I wasn’t athletic, and because of my eyesight deficits and lack of coordination that I would never ride a bike. Besides, everyone knows you can only learn that in childhood. She often tells me it’s better to sit on the couch or drive the car than be physically active.
She thinks it’s terribly important that I check my phone for news updates rather than connect with my children.
Then she berates me for not being a good enough mum.
She tells me I have nothing of value to say, and even if I did, others say it far better than me, so this (and every preceding post) will be my last blog post EVER. For real this time. Totally. She thinks it would be safest if I stopped writing this one now (and she can be pretty convincing, it has been three months since my last post).
She tells me that it’s pretty bad news that I’ve taken on a research project with Telethon Kids Institute because I’m dreadful at statistics and this time FOR SURE everyone will discover how rubbish I am. The results won’t be significant because I will mess up by not being a good enough therapist while presenting the two treatment conditions. This means I will let down the whole Contextual Behavioural Science community AND Telethon Kids Institute all in one swoop. I will probably have to wear a dunce hat.
She tells me these things, and I love her so much for the way she looks out for me. And I love that whilst she tells me all of those things, she and I can walk hand-in-hand and choose actions that reflect who I- we – WANT to be. I don’t need to argue with her (okay, sometimes I try anyway) – she can just chatter on while together we go ahead and do the things that actually matter.
This morning she was so convincing – the clouds were threatening, the weather was cold, my muscles were aching, surely today, TODAY, it would be better if Hiccup and I just stayed home?? She natters away to me while I put on my cycling gear; and I notice a similar voice is chatting away to Hiccup while he puts on his. We are 30seconds into the ride – 30 seconds, and already pumping our quads to make it up our first hill – and my boy calls out behind me
“I love this, mummy! I am with one of my favourite people in the world, doing one of my favourite things in the world!!”
OH GOSH, FOR THIS. I will carry my nay-saying negative know-all a thousand miles and more for THIS moment, right here.
So I ride my bike. I start a research project. I learned to quilt (you can’t sew, don’t you remember the leggings from Year 9?). I started singing lessons. I post another blog entry. I wonder in amazement at this life I’m building that looks nothing like the future my Beautiful Mind had mapped for me.
I’m not alone in this. I watch my inspiring mother as she uses her retirement to commit to volunteering work; to take assertive action in standing up for our refugees; and lobbying Australian politicians to support evidenced-based programs to foster nurturing communities. I follow my little sister’s adventures as she gets described on the radio as a “Fitness Guru” (A WTF?? We’re the family that were relieved if we managed a “C” in sport). She runs events at Fringe, champions to reduce mental health stigma… the list goes on. My father, who in his retirement started a whole new career in Mental Health advocacy; and warmly, lovingly, passes his musical legacy to his grandsons in teaching them piano. My older sister and brother-in-law, who bravely retrained to follow their calling in teaching. Stoick, who never lets anything block him from reaching his dreams, who I think lives by the motto ‘If anyone can do it, so can I.” Professionally, I am inspired by personal stories such as the one Steven Hayes tells in this TED talk, or this blog by Kelly Wilson, two of the co-creators of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and it’s wider family of Contextual Behavioural Science.
It’s not like we weren’t already each challenging the limits our minds set for us. The skills in the ACT process are not a silver bullet. However, they’ve given me ways to attend to the things that matter in my deepest heart on purpose, and with greater consistency, building skills over time with repeated practice.
Also, just word up to my Beautiful Mind – she’s not just full of useless hurdles and insults. She was the one who pointed out to me that the recent difficult time I was having with my son was probably related to how short and impatient I was being with him – and that maybe if I did something about THAT, things would improve for us. She was right. I could’ve done with less of the “bad, bad, bad mum story,” but I’m getting more compassionate with her and my greater self, looking for the useful information she has for me, unhooking it from her criticisms, and connecting back to the actions that matter.
Kelly Wilson has a powerful Yoga metaphor he uses, and it sits with me every day. He says, “What if we consider falling as part of the pose?” What if every time we stumble, we consider it as part of – not a failure in – the process; a wonderful opportunity to come back to the practice again. Sometimes my mind convinces me to move away from my values – to shout at my children when I care to give them patience and nurture; to sit on the couch; to put foods that are not good for me into this body that I would rather treat healthily and respectfully. But I love that this is a choice now. I love that there’s this moment, every time, where I can choose to come back to the pose. Where I can choose to unfold my life with my values, not with my Beautiful Mind’s concept of who I should be.
That’s my freedom.
The book and workshop that got me started on this (very much unfinished) journey are here. There’s a bunch of other resources I think are really useful here. You can find me and other ACT therapists at The Charles Street Clinic, or find an ACT therapist in your local area by searching here.
See you next time.