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Switched On

As human beings, we are wired to need human connections to feel well, alive, have a sense of joy and be curious in the world we live in. 

Fulfilling human connections help us feel loved, wanted, cared for, that we belong and are supported when in need. As adults, if we are well adjusted, we will often know when we need help, and how to reach out to enable ourselves to feel better. This may be as simple as noticing I feel tired, and being able to take a moment to rest. 

Sometimes, we aren’t able to reach out for this help. Maybe, not even know that we need help at all. Not even know that I feel afraid, or deeply exhausted, or that I’m immensely angry. 

Instead of feeling what I’m feeling, I translate my feeling into something else, and get into a place where I’m deeply upset with someone close to me for what (to them) would be a minor event, or having a confrontation with a stranger on the tube for not getting out of my way. Namely, I’m triggered into an emotional response that relates more to something that might have happened to me in the past, or more correctly, to a need that was left unmet when I was a baby or child, that as an adult, I am no longer even aware of. It’s out of my conscious awareness. 

Babies, unlike adults, are completely helpless and vulnerable to the world around them. If hungry or scared, they rely 100% on their carer to attend to them, to feed them, to cuddle them and help them feel secure. This applies to young children, and even, into young adulthood. How responsive is my environment to meeting my need, determines how secure I feel in my world. 

This may be sounding a little cryptic. Or maybe an oversimplification of an immensely complex subject. 

What I’m struck by, is how research, particularly neuroscience, has allowed us to have empirical evidence into the impact of healthy human connections, ie, relationships that enable us into being our best selves, to heal and repair, and relationships that leave us switched off. Not just metaphorically switched off from feeling something nourishing, even something painful, but literally, our genes switch off the parts of our brain that feels joy and love. 

In epigenetics, methylation is the process whereby gene function and expression is modified, and this is not exclusive to you, but can be something you inherited. So we don’t just inherit a set of genes, but we can end up with sleeping genes that then impact how we function in the world. 

An example, let’s say my mother as an infant did not have a loving, responsive mother, who worked to meet her baby’s needs, or as a child, she was reprimanded for crying, repeatedly punished if she expressed her anger. To survive, she adjusts her behaviour to meet her environment, and her brain helps her by forgetting her unmet need. Now, if she’s scared, she might frantically tidy to calm herself down. She might eat to swallow down her rage. This is an adult just getting on with life’s challenges as best as she can. These are her coping strategies, left unchecked since she’s been a child, unable to do much else. 

This isn’t just a behavioural response. Her nervous system has also learned to cope, to translate her needs and her world in this unique way. Her genes have also taken note, and politely switched off the parts of her brain that is nourished with playful curiosity, true intimacy, with enabling human connections. 

As an adult, as a mother herself, she projects her fear onto her baby. She may become overly anxious in her responses. If baby cries, she panics. If her young child is angry, she panics. Maybe, in time, she snaps and punishes them like she was punished. Or maybe she is scared, and finds other ways to quell her angry toddler with sweets, presents, and other momentary distractions. 

Her baby, toddler, young child grow up in their mother’s world. The old wives tale of a nervous mother raising a nervous baby, according to epigenetic, rings true. 

It’s not all doom and gloom.

The research also shows how intervention, say psychotherapy, can rewire us, not just to feel and behave differently, but to actually wake those dormant genes that switched off with developmental trauma (the baby not attended to, or child growing up tiptoeing around her father’s anger). I’m purposely not tackling examples of physical abuse or physical abandonment, and focus on emotional abuse and the impact of an emotionally unavailable primary carer, because again, research has shown the impact of the latter is as damaging as the former. 

Back to the good news. 

Research shows that being able to access our needs, maybe even gain emotional awareness so we know what we are really feeling, then to be able to put words to our true feelings, calms us. Calms our nervous system, the part of our brain that might have been triggered because it has a sense memory of our deep anger, fear and the sadness of not having been taken care of as as a child. 

As an adult, when we are able to recognise,be with, hold and care for our younger, wounded child, then we can begin to repair. 

The therapist, in these cases, may be the first person who is allowed a glimpse into my deepest fears, to meet my raging toddler self, to help me learn that expressing my need does not make me a ‘cry baby’, or if I’m a man, does not mean that I’m weak and needy. 

The stigma surrounding mental health and mental illness, in my opinion, is a major barrier. The idea of getting help when we are not diagnose with a mental illness still seems strange to the majority. In my culture, as in the family and environment I was raised in, those who are mentally ill need to get treated, otherwise, you’re OK and you just get on with life. Maybe why, I met many clinical psychologists and psychiatrists, in Middle Eastern circles, but not so much psychotherapists and art therapists. It’s clearer, cleaner and easier to Other those with mental illness, than to accept most of us can do with attending to unmet needs. 

Truth is, the majority of us have our unique ways of dealing with our world, which would fall under some neurotic pattern of being. We can still function as ‘normal’ individuals in society. I can eat whenever I am distressed, or stonewall my wife when I’m angry with her, which she in turn can manage by avoiding conflict… 

And yet, if you’re in a position to invest in yourself, to do the work in a therapeutic space- not just self help books!- to heal yourself, then it wouldn’t be just you potentially living in a brighter world with those around you, but you’d also pave a path for future generations, to help those you love to switch on and into a better world.

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I’m clearly not a scientist, but am sharing the above as new learning, four weeks into a therapy training course. I’m struck by the evidence that shows how effective therapy, and some other mindfulness type work, not just in profound individual change, but beyond ourselves. How our parents’ life experience impacts us, and more, how we are able to repair not just ourselves but generations to come. 

Caged Kings

‘As an Iraqi, I’m grateful that part of our archaeological heritage is kept safe at the British Museum, as opposed to looted/ wilfully destroyed by religious extremists/ vandalised on site/ ineffectively conserved.’

The above is a longer version of a tweet I drafted, then discarded.

It was a response to this thread, condemning The British Museum for looting archaeological artefacts. This was/ is the case of the Parthenon, or Elgin Marbles as they are politically incorrectly named, or Assyrian reliefs, part of The Museum’s current exhibition I am Ashurbanipal: King of the World, King of Assyria.

I discarded my tweet because it didn’t feel right, as if I’m somehow betraying my country folk with an accusation of distrust. Or that I was condoning Colonial dominance, maybe even diminishing its devastating impact on the world, not least the Middle East.

At the same time, I feel oddly positioned in terms of the morality concerning this topic. I have a BSc in Archaeological Science, and my final year dissertation looked at the history of archeology as a discipline. More, I worked at The British Museum’s Coins & Medals Department on their Islamic coin collection, so I got a taste of the day-in-day-out workings of this institution. This included many discussions on how to make collections relevant and accessible to the public, as well, almost always, the lack of funding.

I heard of the BP protests before the exhibition itself, through a group I am part of (be it inactively) The Iraqi Transnational Collective (ITnC). A few ITnC individuals were involved, with other community groups like BP or not BP!, in organising the protest inside The Museum.

Too entangled in my family life to pay much attention, I did not fully register news of the exhibition. It was only until after I tweeted to say how much I enjoyed the Ashurbanipal exhibit, I received a private message with this video outlining the story behind the BP protests.

My sleep deprived mummy brain connected the dots.

In short, the objection is in the contradiction between BP sponsoring an exhibition on Assyria, and its role in modern day Iraq, namely its implicit role in the ongoing destruction of Iraq post-2003 when it gained access to Iraq’s oil fields.

This also stands beside BP’s destructive forces, not only in Iraq, but environmentally on a global scale

BP and corporate sponsorship aside for a moment, and back my erased tweet and moral conundrum.

Provenance is one issue often linked to discussions on The British Museum holding world heritage artefacts. I’d personally choose to separate these two.

Regardless how the Assyrian palace gates made their way to their current location, they have arguably been in better hands than their place of origin. I wouldn’t go into spine curdling examples of various destructive forces that prevailed over Iraq’s fragile remnants of the past; from collateral damage to ISIS.

I know, from my time working there, objects are no longer acquired without rigorous inquiries into their provenance This does not make-up from past objects being, for lack of a more suitable word, looted from their original homes. Still, I choose to focus on a more recent past, where these objects have, for better and for worse, been kept safe, taken care of, exhibited to the public for free, studied by experts from across the world…

If Iraq was a peaceful country, with a thriving national museum, world renowned experts in their field, a budding tourist industry, where many from across the globe trotter over to marvel at these ancient wonders, then I would reconsider my current position. Sadly, this isn’t the case. For now, some of our most precious artefacts are kept safe inside foreign cages.

My father has been a dedicated collector of a particular type and period of coinage. When I worked at The British Museum, he used to tell me that one day, he will leave his beloved coin collection to me. Once, he asked what I’d do with them, and without a moment’s hesitation, I happily declared I’d donate them all to the British Museum. ‘Why?!’, he gasped, ‘these would be yours, why would you donate them?’ My reply, of course, is that I believe in open public access, not private collections. He wasn’t convinced, but accepted the argument. He then asked, ‘why the British Museum? Why not a museum in Iraq?’ I gave reasons equivalent to the above. He just looked sad. Not for me or him, but I imagined, for the state of our beautiful Iraq.

He also never mentioned bequeathing his collection to me after that.

Back to BP.

Well, I don’t know. BP has been a relatively longstanding corporate sponsor of major art and historic houses in the UK. The protests have played an important role in inviting us, the public, to question how these national institutions receive funding. And I felt pride at the scale of the protests, and that Iraqis were in the news standing together (literally) with a united cause..

The hypocrisy from BP does not surprise me.

The British Museum played a significant role in publicising and helping document the many looted objects post-2003 (led by Dr John Curtis), and continues to support Iraqi experts inside Iraq. Both the latter began during my time there.

There isn’t, for me, a clear moral position here.

As an ignorant punter, I loved the exhibition. The digital features brought life and colour, literally, to these ancient reliefs. The outreach activities, packed with families during this half term week, inspired me and my toddler with its invitation to look at Assyrian cities and motifs. Again, I felt inklings of pride as my dear Iraq was being seen and discussed outside the usual contexts of war, casualties and destruction.

BP was not on my radar until my visit to Twitter.

I once refused to take a (very well paid) voiceover job promoting Nestle, because, well, it was for Nestle.

Has my moral compass become slack?

Or maybe, I’ve come to accept that you take what you can get, even when an evil giant offers you a golden egg…

***

There’s now a parallel exhibition on until early next month, at the lovely P2 Gallery space, with a familiar sounding title: I am British Petroleum, King of Exploitation, King of Injustice.

I plan to visit the exhibit, to refresh my moral compass…

Bearing Witness


Bearing witness is a term commonly used in therapeutic circles to mean the sharing of life experiences with others, whether talking or via various art forms. In telling our story, we are better able to process our experiences and to integrate these into our whole self. This ultimately can lead to healing of trauma, and an overall sense of wellbeing.


I’ve been aware of how witnessing our children can help validate their experience, to develop and strengthen their sense of self. This practically can be as simple as being present with your child as she plays, maybe show you part of his pretend game, maybe invite you into her imaginary world for a moment. Putting mobiles away to simply be.


What I’ve been with recently, is the power of the witness, and specifically: the importance a child bearing witness.

Previously, I’ve only thought of this in terms of negative experiences, like a child witnessing domestic abuse, perhaps as simple as father ignoring mother or putting her down, and the messages this ultimately penetrates baby.


However, in the last few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to share parts of my non-mothering self with my children, which felt significant to both child and me. As someone who only takes on limited freelance work, largely due to childcare issues, I am limited in having much of a life outside of the domestic sphere. So opportunities to share such parts of myself feels particularly important to me. 


One example has been attending last Friday’s Central London meeting of Mothers Who Make, a support network for professional/ passionate artists who are also mothers. I’d been interested in the group for practical networking reasons, to try to get back into my creative practice, but last Friday, with both my kids near, I felt how important their presence can be as I share my artist self with others. I write and sometimes paint, but do both when the babies are asleep or in their part-time nursery. I have shared work in 2017 and taken on short freelance jobs, but again, the babies are tucked away. So here, they were very much part of my dreams and ambitions, and integrated into a community that I belong to (be it in a limited sense for the time being).


Another opportunity has been including my babies in my helping out at their nursery’s summer fair next Friday. I’m part of a parent choir, put together over 5 weeks, to sing at the fair. I couldn’t secure childcare, so brought my kids along to their nursery after hours, where they snacked and played with a few other children, and listened to us rehearsing. Simple, and somehow this felt important. Initially, the headmistress had intended to keep the kids in her office or the staff room, away from us, in order to avoid their disrupting the rehearsal process and for her to get on with the ever piling load of admin. However, with the long daylight hours and gorgeous weather, we managed to convince her to keep the kids in a contained outdoor area near us. Within ear’s shot, they wondered in and out of the musical action… excited, and visibly aware that they are part of something bigger than their usual time at this familiar space. 


I’m not sure I can articulate the importance of the above. 


In a baby music class in San Francisco, back in 2017 when my youngest was a few months old, the group facilitator talked about the importance of baby hearing mum/ dad’s voice in the choral singing of the group. In doing so, baby can gain strength in developing their own voice and sense of self. Perhaps this is what I’m imagining, namely, my children witnessing their mother sharing her voice (literally and metaphorically) and being part of this process.


Such moments feel significant. Especially when the majority of my job as mum is left unwitnessed. There’s no-one to witness when I read, sing, take them on the underground, soothe upset, cook, book dentist appointments, book theatre tickets, clean, feed, play, break a fight, bathe, laugh at their shenanigans, put them to bed (with varying success)… the moments of a job well done, as well as the more challenging moments. I don’t have someone to share these moments with, even on a daily chit chat sort of way. This leads me to Maya Angelou’s often quoted:


There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”


So here I am, telling. I realise, now as I write this, how this blog site came into being and my need to share with whoever reads, parts of my story as it unfolds. 


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Anyone interested in joining Mothers Who Make, I’m now part of the North London Hub, with details here.

Including Otherness

After some three years of barely any activity outside of the mum sphere, I took on a week long acting job- workshopping a novel that’s being adapted into a play- and another, once monthly job, assisting on a psychotherapy course.

Six straight days of working, split into three full days and three half days, is the longest I’ve ever been away from my children. I managed to tuck both babies to bed every night, and prepped meals and such to the best of my ability, AND I had a heavenly week of being back in the world. At least that’s how this has felt.

Practically, my ‘workload’ doubled, as I came home to catch-up on all my homely duties. Though, I’ve been energised by using my body, my mind, expressing my emotions and ideas in a way I haven’t done in a long time. Also amazing to be with other adults, outside the context of motherhood, and of course, the luxury of solo trips to the loo!

I digress.

What I’m with right now, and eager to share, are some challenges that both the theatre workshop and psychotherapy course groups seem to grapple with at certain points:

How to include Otherness.

In the context of theatre, the challenge was to find ways to transpose a foreign novel onto the stage, without the cliches we might inadvertent impose.

The novel being workshopped was originally written in Arabic, set in Baghdad, so do we put on Arabic or vague Middle Eastern accents to convey a different language? Or do we stick to the (largely regional English) accents in the room? Can we avoid the fetishised, Orientalist flavours of Scheherazade as storyteller or a call to prayer as soundscape? Do we risk dehumanising characters by hiding behind accents and costumes? And if we distil the story, and keep much closer to home, do we risk missing the flavours of the original novel?

In the psychotherapy group, where the majority in this profession remain of a European white disposition, a question was raised on how to include the client’s cultural identity into the therapeutic space, when the therapist does not belong to that group. And in this particular case, most therapists on the course worked with children. A double whammy of a challenge!

During an art therapy exercise, called ‘house, tree, person’, I drew a palm tree. After the tutor demonstrated how a therapist might use the drawing relationally with a client, to initiate dialogue, the group was invited to make connections between the drawing and the drawer’s personality. Observations were formulated into questions, then checked-out with the client, as to avoid imposed assumptions. Seeing my palm tree, one of the participants, an experienced therapist, asked if I felt exotic. I said I didn’t feel ‘exotic’, and the word didn’t sit right with me. The palm was exotic to them, not me.

I was later struck by something the tutor said:

‘You need to stay with your whiteness to help the client be in contact with their own cultural identity.’

What he meant by that, I think, is being aware of who you are, of your position, to make space for difference. To make difference OK, safe, maybe even beautiful in its own way.

There’s no diversity without difference.

Privilege, in my opinion, is when a person is unaware of the power they have by virtue of who they are, whether that’s white, wealthy, socially connected, male etc.

In the theatre workshop context, I’m moved by the director and playwright’s fight to be authentic, and doing so in this refreshing way: refusing the easy representations of this part of the world.

Instead, finding their own truth, and evocative mediums to create a new piece, deeply rooted in the novel. Characters were drawn from the writer’s wife or an actor’s father, words were transcribed from an improvisation and directly from the novel alike, and the drafted script spoken with the actor’s Liverpudlian accent or natural Middle Eastern lilt.

The Arabic names often stood out, anglicised and out of context, but there’s time for more grappling, before any need to polish for production.

————–

Specifically:

Theatre director, Jack McNamara of New Perspectives, was workshopping Frankenstein in Baghdad, a novel written by Ahmed Saadawi.

Gestalt psychotherapist, Jon Blend, was running Gestalt Creative Arts Approach to Working with Children.

PlayArabic| Every Friday Morning for all of May!

On the cusp of giving-up on this little idea, due to lack of numbers and commitment, I decided to follow advice, which seems somewhat paradoxical, and run the group weekly every Friday morning for all of May.

I was at Mayfair Library last Friday morning, with both my toddlers and my enthusiastic mother-in-law, not expecting to see anyone… and alas, no one came. Well, one of my best friends managed to make it, but an hour late, and when my kids were running up the wall after being at the Library from 10:15am. However, even without any participants, we sang Arabic songs, went through some simple vocabulary books, played with my Sufi meditation veils, making Arabic letter shapes on the floor… so at best, we will share some of this with one or two others, and at worse, we will utilise the time to playing in Arabic ourselves.

Every Friday 10:30- 11:30am from 3rd to 31st May 2019!

Gatherers

He went to the mosque today, as he always does on Fridays. I often forget until we reconnect at the end of the day, when the babies are finally asleep.

‘What was the khutba about today?’, I often ask. I’ve joined him in the past, though not since our first was born. A clash of prayer and nap times.

I have not forgotten today.

The thought of him making his way to the mosque, preparing to pray and standing alongside strangers praying has haunted me all day.

Jaami3 is one word for ‘mosque’ in Arabic: the place that gathers. A place people come together to be together. Be present with one another, with themselves and with their Creator.

The thought that my man, the father of our children, may go to pray and not return has clung to me since 5:30 this morning.

That’s when I woke up. That’s when I heard the news, as I emptied the dishwasher, eagerly waiting for my morning coffee to brew.

All mundane, all seemingly meaningless aspects of life’s routine.

I’m haunted by the wives, the mothers, the sisters, the grandmothers, who have been denied their precious mundanity. Denied their loves. Their sons, fathers, brothers, husbands, wives, sisters, daughters…

Shootings in churches, in temples, in synagogues. Were these people at their most vulnerable, or at their strongest; present, open hearted, meeting with their Maker?

I will not linger on my anger at ‘murder’ instead of ‘terrorism’. Or the fear mongering, fostered by white supremacists/ nationalists groups and the media and all the other masks that cover the deep, deep sadness I feel right now.

Percolated Happiness

I heard of a study conducted with longterm couples, pairs of over 15,000 people who had been together for 40 years or more (yet to find its source). What the majority experienced was that after the initial years of being in love, in lust, in the process of infatuation that easily slips into conflict and toxicity- it’s a fine line between love and hate, excitement and anxiety etc- comes a mellowing, a balance that only time ultimately strikes, a sense of ease, peace that gentle humour and processes of validation help achieve. That’s perhaps not particularly surprising.

More interesting, the majority had also experienced 2-3 meaningful relationships, prior to settling down with their longterm pairing, where they fed-back: the experience of being with any one of their partners, longterm partner included, was essentially the same.

Once the initial excitement settles, and the steamy love goggles clear, you end up facing the same intrinsic conflicts with whoever you end up with.

Reflecting on my own experience, when in conflict with my longterm partner, I essentially face the parts of myself I struggle most to accept.

Imagine a mirror that magnifies all the little bits you usually are quite happy to skim over. The same mirror, when things are flowing and there’s laughter and play, reflect the parts that make you feel on top of the world.

With a personal example: I can struggle to think of myself as hard, insensitive, even potentially intimidating and exclusionary. I know I’m kind, empathic, patient, warm and loving. So to accept someone else’s experience of me, without defence and judgement, can be a very bitter pill to swallow. And when that someone is the one I hold dearest to me, it’s doubly painful.

To actively listen, accept the other person’s experience, to honestly look inwards, reflect on the situation, to accept whatever insights that might arise (no matter how ugly), and to be ready to experiment in order to engender some kind of change… ‘this is where the work is’, as my psychotherapy teacher used to say.

I draw comfort from other studies, which point towards a milder relationship, where much of the tempestuous excitements and toxicities percolate into a smoother, gentler flow.

Meanwhile, find joy in the ride, and happy St Valentine’s!