There has been a definite shift in the last few years of raising awareness around mental health. People are starting to share their stories, and consequently, their strategies for making it through their darkness. We see this coming through social media, television, newspapers, magazines and, thankfully, now into our school’s curriculums. It is gradually coming onto people’s radars, and we are starting the conversation about our mental health and how to look after it.
I am in no way qualified to give advice but I can start this conversation. I can offer suggestions for how I am navigating my way through a very dark period in my life. I’m still in the early days of this journey but I already feel I have learnt so much. If this helps even just one person then that is better than no one. I am a work in progress, so bear with me.
My best friend Emma was diagnosed with lung cancer in February 2016. After a terrifying journey battling with all her strength, Emma died in April 2017. I met Emma at primary school, we lived together in Brighton, travelled together in New Zealand, and we spent many Summer holidays camping with our children and families. For the last 6 years we spent every Christmas Day together and I am godmother to her 13 year old daughter. Together we shared her cancer journey literally from start to finish. We held each other and sobbed after hearing of her diagnosis. I sat with her at chemo sessions, took her to have her hair cut off as it started to fall out. We laughed and cried over her new wig, and we shared our fears for an unknown future. We chose her wedding dress after she and her partner decided to marry. Her wedding day was one of the happiest and saddest days of my life. So Emma’s death, a few months after her wedding, hit hard. Everyone was struggling to process that she had really gone. I had lost my best friend aged just 44.
Her funeral was, as you would imagine, a difficult day. I remember kissing my mum in the car park of the crematorium as we all arrived. The service was a blur. As I left the crematorium I saw an ambulance was parked outside. Unbeknown to me, whilst I was inside my mum had collapsed outside the doors, suffering a massive aneurism on her brain. She was rushed to Southampton intensive care. I spent 3 days by her bedside. I told her I loved her a hundred times- she could reply “I love you too, Han, very much,” but she was very sleepy. I brushed her hair, kissed her warm skin and just sat looking at her, absorbing her. My brother Ben and I never left her side. She suffered a second fatal bleed on the 8th May which, painfully, was also my son Eli’s 4th birthday. We held her as she took her last breaths on the 9th May after her ventilator was removed.
To process these events has been quite a difficult journey. The two amazing women that I spent the most time with, my confidantes, my rocks… were gone. In the space of 3 weeks my world had changed forever. After mum’s funeral the realisation that life goes on hit me. I took 6 weeks off my teaching job straight after her death. The school I work in has been incredibly supportive during this time and for that I am very grateful. My mum had looked after our 2 children on the days I worked so life became a logistical and emotional challenge on many levels.
But somehow we have muddled through. Here I am, functioning and living. Emma and my mum would be very cross if I wasn’t at least trying. I’m working hard to stay strong. So what is helping me? In a nutshell- talking, crying, fresh air, yoga and sleep.
I started counselling 12 weeks after mum’s death with Time To Talk, free through the NHS. This has been a life line for me to talk and process and cry in a safe space. Talking with my partner, Justin, has been vital. He is my super hero, juggling his job as Assistant Head Teacher, a very weepy partner, complex child care logistics, dealing with his loss (he loved Emma and my mum very much) whilst still being a fantastic father. Talking with my friends and people I meet out and about has also been so valuable; knowing my mum touched so many lives has been a huge comfort.
Early nights have helped me stay more grounded. I have noticed if I’m tired I tend to cry more or feel anxious the next day. Getting out of the house into the fresh air for a walk, run or bike ride have also helped when things feel dark. As has just letting the tears flow, riding each painful wave until it passes. When the tears need to come I just let them. Most people don’t seem to mind when I’m in a snivelling heap as it soon passes!
I have also kept a journal of my feelings when there is no one to talk to or I don’t want to talk. I started this whilst spending nights at Southampton hospital when I was very scared and anxious. Reading back on the journal has been incredibly painful but cathartic. I’ve come a long way already.
LANO Yoga is also an important place where I shared my journey with teachers and fellow yogis. It felt natural to talk about the huge life changing events I had experienced. I often have tears during and after a class but yoga has always felt like a beautiful release. It has been a constant in my life since I discovered it at University in Bristol many years ago. Yoga is like a companion that has seen me through the best and worst of times. It keeps me in the now, the present moment on my mat, and the darkness disappears.
But out of this darkness there has come so much light. My relationships have become closer, more authentic. I “feel” more, and the love for my family and friends has just skyrocketed. I also feel so strongly that I have an amazing, wild, unique, wise and creative woman as my mother, and she still guides me even though I can’t touch her anymore. Some people never experience that in their lifetime. I am so fortunate.
I am listening to my intuition so much more, and really focusing on what I need, and what my family needs too. I know we need to heal and that it will take time. I am learning to be gentle with myself. I smile at strangers, make connections with people I don’t know, and feel a general positivity towards mankind.
Ben and I also finally put a pipe dream into action. After years of talking about getting people out dancing in sleepy Chichester, we have set up the first “Come Dancing” night at the end of this month. The night will be mostly over 30 year olds just wanting to dance to great funky music and meet up with friends. Good vibes only. The response from everyone has been totally overwhelming and, thankfully, it seems lots of people feel the same way: life is beautiful and precious and short. Both Emma and mum loved dancing, and were always up for a party. As Ben and I organised the event, both their spirits and energy (and music choices!) have guided us throughout the whole process. I just know mum and Emma would have thoroughly approved, and they will both be dancing with me that night.
Hannah Pleasance, LANO Yoga Club Member.