Thursday, 30 January 2014

toxic trees

Back when I first set up the page for this blog, about a year ago, I was thinking of trees. About how, if our roots are broad and deep, we can grow strong and tall, flexing but not breaking in the storms life inevitably throws at us.

Then at a conference in mid-2013 I heard about Dr. Caroline Leaf, a specialist in the study of the human brain. Dr Leaf's key discovery is that we - weak feeble humans that we are - can literally, physically, change the structure of our brains depending on the thoughts we think. (Image below borrowed from the University of Minnesota Psychology Blog)

"As a man thinks ... so is he."

As our brain accepts the seed of a thought, brain chemicals lay down a protein pathway with multiple branches, creating an actual, physical tree in our brain. If we think positively the 'good' trees flourish, leading to overall health and wellbeing. But if we dwell on the negative, toxic trees take over - leading to mental, emotional and physical distress and disease.

toxic trees vs. trees of life (source: Dr Leaf)

Incredibly, the process - either positive or negative - can be reversed! Damage can be undone folks! This is a message of hope that so many of us need to hear. You were damaged by abuse or rejection in your childhood? You can change that! Sure, the neural pathways for rejection or depression have been reinforced year after year and the roots of those trees in your brain ARE strong and deep, but you can pull them out by the roots ... if you deliberately choose to think more positively about yourself and your future.

In her book, 'Switch on Your Brain,' Dr Leaf describes how we begin this process of undoing lifelong patterns of toxic thought and re-training our minds.

Some key facts (based on actual scientific observations of the human brain):
- your mind is in control of your body and your mind is stronger than your body
- you are not a victim of your biology
- you can't control the events and circumstances of life but you can control your reaction to them
- you are designed to stand outside yourself, observe your own thinking and change it
- you are wired for love, and fear is a learned, unnatural response
- you are not a victim of the things you shouldn't be doing (bad habits, addictions, self-harm ...)
- you can overcome and control depression and anxiety
- 75-98% of mental, physical and behavioral illnesses come from toxic thinking
- each choice you make - and we make thousands every day - results in proteins forming in the brain to capture the thought as a physical reality. Make your choices count!

Dr. Leaf's book 'Switch on Your Brain' is now available on Amazon. But if you prefer something visual, TBN began airing a new 'Switch On Your Brain' series in January. Below are the links to the first 4 episodes:

Episode 1: Thoughts are Real
(To be honest I wasn't all that fussed on Episode 1. The producer has stitched as many talking heads together as possible, maybe to avoid boring us, but I would have preferred watching one head giving what amounts to a short and simple intro.)

Episode 2: Wired for Love

Episode 3: Stress

Episode 4: Bad Choices Lead to Toxic Thinking

One thing that strikes me about Dr. Leaf - it's amazing how one person who has new information, insights or skills to offer the world can change the lives of millions of people, given the right door of opportunity. That thought alone is mind-blowing.

Monday, 27 January 2014

a different kind of remedy

(Not the post I'd planned for tonight, but it seems this is the one that wants to be written!)

We had the fire banked up in our stove tonight, warm coal beating back the wind and rain. Our two older kids were in the kitchen but I sat near the flames with Thea curled in my lap, her eyes limp and heavy. She's been like this for the past three days, coughing, spluttering, temperature spiking and wanting nothing but me.

As I leaned in close, hubby and I both caught a whiff of something strange - like burning plastic - in the fire. The flames roared suddenly upwards, perhaps sucked up by a gust outside, and a wave of heat burst out through the cast-iron doors. Charles looked at me and we both had the same thought - was the house on fire? I found myself planning, quickly - we'd grab the kids and run out into the wet dark. No time to save anything, not with a sick baby to care for. As for clothes, papers, somewhere to stay if the house was gone - we'd figure that out when we got there. Once the lives under this roof were spared, nothing else mattered.

picnic by the fire - a favorite winter pastime for our kids!

I watched a house burn down several months ago. We were passing by just after it caught alight and stopped to offer any help we could, shocked at how quickly the flames licked through the roof and bit great chunks out of the walls.

But as Charles went out to check the chimney tonight, the flames died down. I could still smell something acrid and foreign but the adrenaline died down too. Relief. Back to cuddling my baby.

It's unlike Thea to stay still in my arms for so long. Usually a hug lasts for a few seconds before she's up on her feet, emptying pot drawers and leaving a trail of destruction. It's only when she's really sick like this that I get uninterrupted affection.

I found myself thinking, then. Perhaps it's only when I'm really soul-sick and tired of trying to fix everything myself that I stop running. There's a time to search and grow and work towards healing, but I think there's also a time to rest and be still, and trust that God will take care of it all.


We held off taking Thea to the doctor this time. She's too miserable to be out in the cold, and she's already had two runs of antibiotics since Christmas. Instead I'm trying a home remedy I found on the internet - a natural vapor rub made in just ten minutes using coconut, peppermint and rosemary oils. She's upstairs in bed now, fast asleep and smelling like a herb garden. Hopefully this will do the trick ... but I'm kinda hoping I'll get cuddles for at least one more day!

Rosemary & Peppermint Vapor Rub

- 1/4 cup pure coconut or olive oil
- 1 level tablespoon of beeswax
- 10 drops of eucalyptus or olbas oil
- 10 drops of peppermint oil
- 5 drops of rosemary oil

- melt beeswax and oil in a double boiler until just melted
- add the essential oils
- stir until well mixed and pour into a small container with a lid
- leave to set for 30 minutes
- use as needed to help sooth coughs and congestion.

Note - You'll find all the ingredients at a health shop. Pricey to buy everything but even this small amount will keep you going for a loooong time!

Friday, 24 January 2014

mind the gap!

If you’ve ever used the underground tube stations in London, you’re familiar with the phrase “mind the gap!” These words are painted all down the platforms and announced repeatedly on loudspeakers both in and outside the trains. The gap is the space between the curving platform and the straight-edged train, where a person could easily get trapped if they don't pay attention.

Photo courtesy of the London Telegraph

I’ve been thinking a lot about the gap lately - not the one on the underground but the gap we often have between the “me” we want to be, and the me we actually are. The two can be miles apart, and the bigger the gap is, the harder it seems to close it.

When you were small and people asked “What do you want to be?” what was your answer? An astronaut? Engineer? Farmer? My kids’ answers range from artist and dancer to mother and clown. Right now there are no limits and no judgments; they can be anything they want to be.

But as we "grow up" we often let go of our dreams. The smallest disappointment or cutting remark can start us on a downhill slide towards existing rather than flourishing. We make one choice, then another, then hundreds more everyday choices that lead us further and further away from the person we were designed to be.

In psychology, this gap is called ‘cognitive dissonance’ - the mental stress created when the beliefs we have about ourselves (or about anything else) don’t match up with reality.

Sometimes we’re so resigned to the gap that we don’t see it anymore. A recent anti-smoking video on the net shows this perfectly. In the clip a group of young kids ask smokers on the street to help them light up. The adults immediately tell the kids why they shouldn’t smoke - they’ll mess up their lungs, get cancer etc. When the kids reply, “Then why are you smoking?" their reactions are priceless - watch it here:

I’m feeling intensely challenged by the gap. I can see things in my own behavior that are self-sabotage, pure and simple. I watch TV when I want to be fit; eat chocolate when I want to lose the spare tyre round my middle; stay up late when I need more sleep.

So a few weeks ago I sat down and wrote a description of the person I want to be - focusing on character, lifestyle and achievements. Then I wrote a similar list for the person I actually am, right now. (After that I really needed chocolate!)

The next step was a “stop - start” list of all the things I need to STOP and START doing to bridge the gap.

Here’s part of that list ...

- chain-drinking coffee (to stay awake)
- snacking on carbs - and chocolate! (because I need energy to keep up with my kids)
- avoiding all forms of exercise (because I’m too wrecked - I’ll do it tomorrow)
- wasting time on the internet (because I need the time out)
- staying up late (which is turning me into a grumpy, short-on-energy mama)
- snapping at my kids (because I stayed up so late the night before)
- feeling sorry for myself (because my bad habits mean I’m not achieving anything!)

(Hmm ... these things are ... kinda connected!!)

- drinking more water
- eating more fruit
- 20 mins on the exercise bike every day
- limiting facebook time to 30 mins a day
- get to bed by midnight, weeknights
- spending 30 mins quality time with each of my kids at least twice a week
  (if I can do facebook time, I can do one-on-one time with my kids!)
- sign up for a language course
- start a blog (hey!)

It’s working already. Having a clear, simple list helps. And I really am fed up with the spare tyre round my middle. It was either get on the bike or buy new jeans, and I can't do the second because it soooo doesn’t fit with the image of me in my head!

As a wise man once said, if you have no clear goals, there's no need for restraint! (my take on Proverbs 29:18, the Bible)

So what’s on your stop-start list?

Sunday, 19 January 2014

the right touch

There are some seriously scary people in our world. A couple of months ago in Ireland, two drunk guys lured a couple of very young girls at a neighbour’s birthday party into their own house and raped them. The news sent shockwaves throughout Ireland; but for every story like this that hits headlines, I’m sure there are countless more that remain buried in the victims' hearts.

Last week my six-year-old daughter, Amber, was sick for a few days. One night she was so miserable that I promised her an extra story, so she pulled one of her favourites off the shelf.

‘The Right Touch’ is a gentle, non-explicit book that helps protect kids from sexual abuse. I bought it a few years ago because, as an adult survivor, I’m determined to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen to my kids!

Can you say, "Stop it, I don't like that!"?

The book opens with a bedtime conversation between a little boy and his mum. As kids follow along, they learn that some parts of our bodies are private; that some touch is okay and some touch isn’t; how to identify warning signs, and three simple ways to protect themselves from harm. The book also stresses that if bad touch happens, it’s never the kid’s fault.

We usually talk for a few minutes after reading the story, but this time Amber's question was different.

“Mummy, is that story true?”

I paused for a minute, let out a breath and gave an answer I hadn’t planned on giving until she was much older.

“No Amber, but it does happen to real people, and it happened to me when I was little,” I said. “That’s why I bought this book, because when I was little, I didn’t know what to do. Bad touching doesn’t happen to everyone, but at least if someone tries to hurt you, you’ll know what to do. And it probably won’t happen, because the world isn’t a bad place and God is looking after you.”

I didn’t want to explain any further. But I did want her to see how important the lesson was, so IF the time ever came, she’d remember. (And I pray she never does need to remember, because I think I’d explode with rage and grief!)

My memories of abuse start in a fog somewhere before the age of five, and come back into sharp focus at around 13 years old, when my dad - at home while my mum worked full-time - began stripping off and walking around the house completely naked in front of us kids. Pretty soon we weren’t safe in the house, but because of his threats we were afraid to tell anyone. As a 16-yr-old I took sleeping tablets some mornings to numb the emotional pain, then cut my hands with broken glass to let the pain out.

Finally I started seeing the school counselor and - thank God - she intervened. Long story short, my mum moved us to a safe house, my parents separated and eventually divorced. The fallout from the abuse and all the other craziness in our childhood still haunts my siblings and I in different ways. The pain goes so deep that it’s hard to break free.

Being an adult survivor of sexual abuse definitely adds another layer to parenting. You’re always that bit more aware of what’s going on around your kids, a little more careful about who they play with and whether they get to do sleepovers. I’m slowly learning to let go and trust that they’ll be okay e.g. I'm okay with posting a few of their photos online - I think if we can't even share innocent photos, the abusers have won. But I also think there’s nothing wrong with giving our kids some age-appropriate tips to stay safe!

staying safe ... better to be forewarned and forearmed!!

Being a survivor messes with other relationships too. For years I was determined not to get married - and certainly never thought I’d trust anyone enough to have kids. So the fact that I’m now married with three kids is a miracle - but I still struggle a bit with any kind of physical closeness. In fact that’s a huge part of my resolve this year, trying to break off those last claw-holds of abuse.

A few years ago I googled for help online and found a website for Adult Survivors of Child Abuse*. I read a few posts in the forum and bookmarked the page but didn’t go back. I guess it just felt way too heavy at the time. But last week after talking to Amber I clicked through and downloaded a new, free resource - the workbook used by ASCA in their support groups. ASCA deals with all forms of abuse (domestic violence, alcoholism, you name it!) and the workbook looks fabulous, so - if you’re also in recovery - it’s worth checking out. Perhaps not quite as good as a trained counselor, but if that option isn’t available this is a great second-best!

Another great resource is “Strong at the Broken Places: Overcoming the Trauma of Childhood Abuse’* by Linda Sanford, a psychologist who's worked for years with abuse victims. This isn’t a how-to book; it simply lets people who’ve lived through some of the worst abuse imaginable tell how their pain has - over time - turned to strength. Their message is clear - if we can do it, you can too!  Read this and then give it to your partner, if you have one - it’ll help them make sense of your hangups as well. Even if you haven’t personally suffered from abuse, this book is a great resource to pass on to friends and family who have - because it proves that the fallout doesn't have to last for a lifetime.

Phew - how was that for soul-baring? Next post not so heavy!

xx Laurel.

(* More tools available soon on the resource tab.)

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

the heart and the bottle

On the journey towards healing, I’m constantly amazed at how much I learn from my kids.

A few weeks ago as I rocked Thea to sleep in the room she shares with Kayla, I looked across to see Kayla lying on her back, body loosely sprawled across the bed, hands thrown above her head. The ceiling shimmered with stars and moons from her night light and her rag doll Lucy lay upside-down beside her, scrunched between the bed and the wall. I marveled at the way Kayla slept, just like her doll, without a care in the world - trusting that morning would come as always, there’d be food on the table, clothes to wear, and mum and dad would take care of everything. I found myself suddenly deeply envious of that simple trust.

Along those lines, tonight I’m borrowing words and just a few visuals from one of my kids’ favourite books - ‘The Heart and the Bottle’ by Oliver Jeffers. This really is a parable for adults, thinly disguised as a children’s story ...

The Heart and the Bottle

Once there was a girl, much like any other, whose head was filled with all the curiosities of the world.

With thoughts of the stars. With wonder at the sea.

She took delight in finding new things ... until the day she found an empty chair.

Feeling unsure, the girl thought the best thing was to put her heart in a safe place.

Just for the time being.

So, she put it in a bottle and hung it around her neck, and that seemed to fix things ... at first.

Although in truth, nothing was the same. She forgot about the stars and stopped taking notice of the sea.

She was no longer filled with all the curiosities of the world and didn't take much notice of anything ... other than how heavy and awkward the bottle had become.

But at least her heart was safe.

It might never have occurred to the girl what to do had she not met someone smaller and still curious about the world.

There was a time when the girl would have known how to answer her.

But not now. Not without her heart.

And it was right at that moment she decided to get it back out of the bottle.

But she didn't know how. She couldn't remember. And nothing seemed to work. The bottle couldn't be broken. It just bounced and rolled right down to the sea.

But there, it occurred to someone smaller and still curious about the world that she might know a way.

And it just so happened that she did.

The heart was put back where it came from, and the chair wasn't so empty anymore.

But the bottle was!

This story so resonates with me! If you also locked up your heart at some point in your life, what was the key to opening up again? Anyone willing to share their insights? For me it was a long series of encounters with GOOD people who cared about me and gave me the courage to trust again. Faith was also a part of it, because I had to take the first leap and hope God didn't let me fall off a cliff! I'm still learning to open up as I watch my kids grow, explore and discover the world. I'm especially challenged by the way they love without reservation, because they don't yet know how it feels to be hurt by someone they love. Much food for thought there!

Wednesday, 8 January 2014


Mourning. I'm over it. Hitting January 2014 drove that home for me. I remember lying on my living room floor on Christmas night 2010 - hubby at work - sobbing my heart out for the two babies we lost that year. Yes, I have 3 living, beautiful kids, but part of me is still shocked that I couldn't physically hold on to those other tiny souls.

There were earlier losses too. Abuse in childhood. Being sent off to boarding school at the tender age of 7. Moving a few years later to a 'home country' I'd never seen. My mother going off to work full-time, freeing my dad to abuse even more. Bitterness and fear for me and my siblings, followed by all kinds of emotional fallout as we lived through and beyond separation and divorce.

Don't get me wrong, there have been plenty of good times, and I want to talk about those too. But I guess now, tonight, at the age of 42 (really?!), I'm aware that I'm not 100% over all that stuff, and I'm so tired of it.

Lately I've been troubled by anger, bubbling not so far beneath the surface, and it scares me. It seems stronger these days, as if frustration is building and won't be ignored anymore. I have this sudden strong desire to truly live - not in the shadows, not in regret, but in freedom, with a soul swept clean.

By sheer coincidence an old friend sent me a note the other day, along with a copy of a letter I wrote back when we were 13 or 14. I wrote the letter to explain why I couldn't have her over to my house - because with my dad there it just wasn't safe. I told her I couldn't sleep at night and I needed to get help. There was something very powerful about that call of distress from the teenage me - almost like a call to my adult self to get whole, let go and move on before any more time is lost.

That's where the resolve comes in. Not just another new year's resolution, but resolve. A determination to dig out and dust off the true self that's buried under so much junk.

This blog is part of that resolve - a blog about the process of becoming free. It feels a little strange and awkward to be writing here, so publicly, but hopefully that'll wear off soon!

So here we go, folks. Hang on tight, this could be a crazy ride!