PAWS. Rest. Repeat.

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Tackling any sort of long term problem or issue can often feel like a lonely business, especially if it involves making a decision that sets you apart from the pack. There are a huge number of online forums and places of support that can help, one of them, Hello Sunday Morning, has been a constant in my ups and downs for years, as I clambered onto the wagon, lay down, exhausted, got my breath back then promptly (and sometimes after a while longer) fell off again.

I posted recently about the fact my depression has been rearing its head and my disappointment that my abstinence hadn’t ‘fixed’ or at least lightened this a lot; I was convinced that the two were intertwined almost to the point of being one and the same. Not the case. I described in my post how I’d been feeling, my frustration at feeling frustrated and anxious. My inability to see things logically, my snappiness with the boys and crippling guilt afterwards.

A long-term connection on HSM asked if I had heard of PAWS, or Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome. When I looked into it I was incredulous. It described exactly how I’d been feeling and explained why. It makes so much sense to me. Reading about other people’s experiences, just knowing it is NORMAL makes the most massive difference. An extract:

‘It is important to remember that symptoms of PAWS come and go. The vast majority of people do not experience excessive fatigue or anxiety for months or years on end, without a break. Instead, these symptoms fluctuate, lasting days or weeks, and are separated by periods that are symptom-free.’

PAWS is a normal part of the recovery process from unhealthy dependence and addiction.’

So I am not doomed to a life feeling miserable, angry and incapable of change, I am just riding the wave, an unexpected part but one I’m coming to know better now. To know your enemy is to be able to work out strategies to defeat her. I am re-visiting strategies I’ve worked on in therapy and am reminding myself to live with ahimsa, or compassion, towards others and myself.

Just after I had discovered PAWS I did an incredible workshop with Cora from Slow Yoga. I had signed up for this because I love Cora as a teacher and it seemed like a nice place to be on a Sunday afternoon so it was spooky how well it fitted in with my decision to accept this part of the journey and look after myself.

If you ever want to see just how quickly two hours can open your heart and help you find peace, do this! The combination of delicious yin poses to iron out the body’s kinks and deep yoga Nidra leaves you feeling clean, rested, refreshed and at peace – yes, all at the same time! I also felt a determination to try and carry this into the everyday, this slowing down, taking everything one step at a time.

Another thing that popped into my inbox just at the right moment it seemed was an email from Holly Whittaker at Hip Sobriety. She is one of my gurus in sobriety, her words reach me, describe me, inspire me. She is running an initiative called The Mantra Project and as soon as I read about it I knew I needed and desperately wanted to do it.

Meditation is something that helps me immensely but something I sometimes struggle to fit into my day. To have a reason to get up, to read what the mantra is for today, then to light candles, sit with the words for a while, give myself peace and time for myself before the inevitable craziness of the day begins feels like absolutely the best kind of treat. One I love and one that is enriching me, helping me heal and grow. I feel stronger, more capable of tackling the demons, keeping them at bay and becoming the me I want to be.

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Love ❤️

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Many of us feel as though we are living in some sort of awful dream-state, when in fact we are learning the hard way that truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.

I have indulged in my fair share of Trump memes, hilarious while I believed that his election would be an aberration. And now it’s happened. There is such strength of feeling on show, people have shouted, and continue to shout, their fears, masquerading as beliefs. For it is fear that drove the result. Fear of change, fear of the unknown, fear of the unfamiliar. Haven’t we all known that feeling at some point in our lives? My six year old felt it yesterday doing something for the first time; my eight year old every time there is a storm; my ten year old has to work hard not to shut down at the prospect of change. We all, to a greater or lesser extent, know that feeling, that fear.

But to play on those fears, to use them for political gain is, to me, despicable. It is politics. Admitting your fears out loud is the ultimate act of vulnerability. As adults, it is too much for many, for most. The election gave a voice, and an action, to those deeply-rooted fears.

It is easy for us with the skills, the comfort, the knowledge to dismiss the vulnerability. Far easier to be incensed, shocked and angry. But to react with anger and hatred will play into the hands of those keen to maintain the divide.

Far better to try and react with love, with understanding, with an effort to share these qualities, hope the light wins over the darkness.

I spent yesterday morning at Yoga Sivana surrounded by beautiful souls whose hearts collectively expanded as we listened to the Venerable Lama Tendar telling us his story; it is one of exile, uncertainty, imprisonment. And yet.

And yet he teaches compassion. Compassion to all living beings, even, perhaps especially, towards those we don’t immediately connect with or understand. We looked to him for healing, for guidance. Tolerance, understanding, compassion, love.

It is up to us to be brave, to have the courage to go forward with our hearts and minds open, to love freely and without judgement. 

Namaste ❤️

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Shame

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Yesterday I read the report of an inquest into the death of Karanne Hollow, a British solicitor who chose to end her life six weeks after being arrested for drink driving. It stated that, following an argument with her boyfriend she ‘downed’ two bottles of wine and later crashed her car into a hedge at 3am without injury to herself or anyone else.

The coroner’s statement goes on to say she was embarrassed by her consequent arrest and questioning by police a week later. One newspaper report suggested she had previously been treated for depression.

The thing that leaps out at me is that this was a young woman who was clearly struggling with life and who must have felt she had no other choice but to escape the pain permanently. Perhaps she had exhausted all avenues. She must have felt as though there was no one who could help.The last thing she did though was to send a message to her sister; she had people who cared, who would almost certainly have done anything they could to help.

As is tragically borne out by statistics, far too many people find it impossible to reach out; to admit to their struggle, to ask for help. There has to be some onus on friends and family to stay vigilant when someone is not coping; desperation can turn into decision all too quickly.

There should be no more shame in talking about mental health than physical. And yet digestive health, sports injuries, allergies, you name it, all seem to be acceptable conversation material whereas depression and anxiety are hidden away, couched in shameful language and feelings of inadequacy. In this day and age of oversharing (and I put my hand up as a guilty party), that people feel there is still a stigma is unacceptable.

The days of being expected to pull ourselves together should be long past. There are so many wonderful organisations out there, so many souls willing to help; it should never come to it that people feel they have no alternative but to end their life.

Shame around drinking is real, we all know ‘the guilts’ but, gut-wrenching as they are, they do pass, until there is a habitual problem. Then come admissions, bigger decisions that have to be made, ones that will have a lasting impact. Those decisions need bolstering, shoring up with love and with kindness from within and without.

If it all sounds somehow obvious, or easy, I apologise. We all know it is anything but. The tricks the mind can play are infinite in scope, whether it is well or not. It is only by exploring with honesty, by sharing, by talking that the maze can be navigated.

Lifelife Australia – Crisis Support and Suicide Prevention 13 11 14

Samaritans UK – 116 123

Beyond Blue Australia – 1300 22 4636

AA Australia – http://www.aa.org.au/

AA UK – http://www.alcoholics-anonymous.org.uk/

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Memory Lane

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The thing about memory lane is that if ever you have a chance to go back there in person, you’ll find that planning permission has been granted without your knowledge or say so. Buildings, places, monuments (in your head at least), that meant so much will have been radically altered at the very least, if indeed they are there at all.

They might be smaller, dingier, tarted-up beyond recognition, quieter or they may have been bought by a chain and what atmosphere they possessed pummelled out of them so they now fit inside a box. Whatever, there is little chance you will go back and find yourself able to slot back in.

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Try slotting in here…

We all have our own version of memory lane. For most of us it’s probably more like a half-finished spaghetti junction; roads and pathways criss-crossing, sudden dead ends where the way seemed clear. You can think of it like an ever changing map or blueprint, written on sheets of thin paper, each laid down over the one before, so that ideas, even those dismissed, are there, just not at the surface. Visible, memorable just not accessible.

The muddle this can create while being lived, sheet upon sheet laid down as revisions are made, is immersive, the cliched invisible wood thanks to the endless trees blocking the view. The harder you search for a unobstructed path, the ‘right’ way, an escape, the more overgrown every direction can appear.

Time and distance can bring perspective, I discovered recently that it is possible to return to places that hold difficult memories without becoming entangled again. Just because you are there doesn’t mean you are who you used to be. That in itself is incredibly liberating – and sometimes tragic, such as when you find that a much-loved grocer has been replaced by a very up itself yoga studio complete with list of rules on the door. Much as I love yoga, I pity the New Town residents who won’t know the hot, comforting nourishment of a Margiotta’s homemade pizza.

One of the greatest gifts must be having friends who stay put as you tumble through life, providing an anchor through time and over vast distances. I used the phrase ‘good times’ to one of my dearest friends about our flat sharing days in Edinburgh. She wasn’t sure at first that for me they were. She probably has a point, I was certainly a little nuts, but from where I am now I am focusing on the gratitude I have for our friendship and letting the other bits go.

There are lots of friends – not to mention my family – who have borne witness to some crazy shit I’ve got up to or into. Some were made in the midst of my realisation that things had to change so saw me lurching from one extreme to another. I wouldn’t have blamed people for walking away.

Relationships that endure the hills and troughs of life are one sure measure of fulfilment. I cannot again imagine becoming so unhappy as to be hopeless now that I have cemented friendships and relationships in this new stage of life. I didn’t have any doubt, it’s just lovely to have confirmation. To my amazing group of friends tumbling alongside, thank you.

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Predisposition

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Today in the Sydney Morning Herald, Sarah Berry wrote a piece about a guy with a famous name and his story of recovery.

http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/health-and-wellbeing/wellbeing/life-lessons-from-recovering-addict-christopher-kennedy-lawford-20160926-grojfn.html

Seeing the subject matter of course made me want to read it. Seeing the Kennedy name can prompt different reactions though; sometimes it makes the article or piece more appealing, such as when talking about Jackie’s fabulous hats (I think!). Other times, such as when hearing what has gone wrong with another one’s life, can initially be a turn-off. It is easy to dismiss ‘celebrity’ experience, advice and opinion. We put it down to availability and affordability. But, as this article points out, addition absolutely crosses socio-economic divides.

It is about self-esteem, confidence and the ability to ask for help. Apologies if this is repetitive. I don’t think it can be emphasised enough how important it is to build bonds, strong ones that say to both the addict and the support person, you are worth this, I am with you, I will stay here for as long as I need to.

The genetic piece is interesting I think. At one point, desperate to try a ‘soft’ approach to recovery, I consulted a team of health advisors who consist of a geneticist and a nutritionist. The idea is that you part with an awful lot of blood (not all at once), accompanied by vast sums of money (immediately) and they go away and test it for all sorts of things you didn’t know were possible then reward you with a folder of unintelligible reports and lots and lots of vitamins. The dosage on the vitamins was handwritten and as unintelligible as the science they went with so I admired the pretty graphs in the folder and for the next few weeks took as many pills as I could stomach with my orange juice on the days I that I remembered.

Not exactly a solution. (I kept drinking.) But I did clock one thing as the science man (dry as a biscuit ) flew through the results; the tests had shown that I am NOT genetically predisposed to addiction. If you click through to the link in Sarah Berry’s article you will get to a page of info on this which, to my admittedly totally unscientific mind, seems all to be rather desperate when citing a definite genetic link. The reasons people, we, I, drink are many and complex. I think the management side is so much more important.

If you don’t have the time or inclination to read the science stuff, do try to make time to watch this Ted talk by Johann Hari.

Though he is talking primarily about drugs, the concept can be applied to all addicts and actually I think, to anyone who is suffering from a mental illness too.

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Connection

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I am loving feeling ultra connected at the moment. Connected to life without a filter warping the view. Connected to people without the burden of expectations. Connected to myself without the pain of guilt and regret.

All of this I put down to sobriety. It turns out that for me, the short term high of drinking gave way to a mighty long-lasting, almost constant, low. The trouble is, being in that time, in the cycle, it is incredibly difficult to imagine getting out of it, even when realise you want to.

So the challenge of the how comes to define the why – or rather why not –  to a degree. At least it did for me. The low is like a background hum that changes pitch only after a particularly extravagant bender, dropping you into a deep well, with slippery, vertical sides, the light such a long way up. The easiest option is to opt back in, quickly. Until the opting in stops being optional.

Understanding and admitting this, connecting honestly with myself is central to moving forward. But so too are connections with others. If felt as though the universe was colluding in this theory last week as every day saw another meaningful conversation.

Some could have been challenging; the first meeting with someone since I began ‘owning up’ always contains an element of anxiety for me. But the love, the warmth, the unequivocal support I’ve received is far and away the best silver lining of this decision.

I have enjoyed planned walks, impromptu phone calls, delicious coffees, unexpected live messaging on FB and snatched intense ten minute chats on the corner of the street. Without exception, my heart has felt gladdened each time, my soul uplifted, my determination strengthened.

These soul-nourishing interactions have reminded me that we are all capable of so much more than we give ourselves credit for, if only we have connections to anchor us, people to shore us up when we need it and, so importantly, the courage to reach out.

Now I have three weeks of reconnection in the UK. I have day trips and nights out planned, long overdue meetings with friends, our partners and offspring and of course family. I can’t wait. Without connection what is there?

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Standing vigil

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Standing vigil
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Where you are may be uncomfortable but sometimes there is simply no choice.

I am trying really really hard to make this time, this sobering, challenging time, as easy as I can for my family. In the early days of my decision, when I was inwardly crumbling, I was offered a spot in rehab. I declined not because I didn’t think I needed it, but because I didn’t want to feel any more of a failure than I already did.

In future years they may come to realise the magnitude, but at the moment my sons are deliciously naive of what I am going through thank god. It means the drama is all mine though.

Early on, sobriety for me meant that it felt somehow crucial to maintain mundanity. How could I have gone anywhere when so much needed done? Keeping up with the washing (which sat about in buckets, unsorted but clean at least), making sure bellies were full (so what if a few more meals were from the freezer section?) and children were present at school (skidding in as the bell rang) was achievement then.

In between the chores I tried to exude positivity, posting on Instagram with #gratitude, #sobriety, #livingwell. The only cringeworthy hashtag I have yet to employ is #carpediem. At the time of posting I do mean it, I am seizing the moment, shouting hooray for me, look at what I can do!

But there is the fall, the reversal. Recently I have just felt so bloody bored of being positive, of celebrating this thing I know and accept is necessary but sometimes is also just really fucking hard.

And then there is the weekend sigh. The collective exhale as time slows and Monday feels a long way off. From the promise of that Friday night deserved wine, to the friends coming over for Sunday lunch, the weekend is there for the drinking. Not be a part of that is sometimes more than I think I can bear.

Dialectical Behaviour Therapy has a much-used phrase called ‘distress tolerance’. Even the fact there is a name to describe how I’m feeling can sometimes be a comfort; so many people have been here, where I am, for them to have thought up a name for it, how brilliant!

I have been working through distress tolerance for months, long before I gave up drinking for good this time. (It is never wise, I realise now, to utter the words ‘for good’.) I need to understand that the risk will always be there, dimmed, more subtle, easier to navigate but present nonetheless.

There are three mindsets that come into discussions in distress tolerance. Addict mind, clean mind, and clear mind. This latter ‘mind’ is the aim. Fully committed to the cause but not so obsessed by  positivity as to be blind to danger lurking in the tiredness, the sadness, the celebration, the reward.

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I must then stand vigil for my values, my decision; I am the soldier on the gate. There must, by necessity, be a shift-change, new energy brought in, new tactics. The common goal holds firm though, batting away the temptations, the desires, the cunning, wheedling voices carried on the wind.

Self-awareness is tough, confronting (and bloody boring often if it’s not your own, let’s be honest!), but somehow the mere act of removing the wine, the means of escape, that deceitful old ally, leaves no choice. I am by necessity present all the time.

Every conversation, interaction, raised voice, loving word, is authentic because there is no filter, no mediating substance to allow for future doubt. I will stand vigil, being watchful through the challenge, trusting others have done the same.

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Thanks Drew!

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Thanks Drew!

 

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I remember years ago when I first read the above quote by Drew Barrymore. I’m guessing it must have been the response to a question which inferred that she ought to;  that a history as colourful as hers could be a cause for shame. I decided on the spot that I too was going to live regret-free. Sod everyone, I thought, I will do what I like, be who I like and eschew apology.

It doesn’t quite work like that though. I think, unless you truly believe in yourself and the road you are travelling regret is impossible to shake off. Back then, I was still partying hard, as I believed all self-respecting twenty-somethings should (and of course did in the circles in which i found/put myself). I  was unhappy with my weight, figure, boyfriend, lack of boyfriend, job, state of unemployment etc. The world, life, was not working out as I thought it would or should.

A low point was my wonderful flatmate having to walk a disheveled and hungover me to the hairdressers to fix my self-shorn locks after a break-up. To this day I cannot listen to The Corrs without turning the colour of a beet (or type it!). Mega cringe worthy (and expensive). With binge drinking there will always be such stories. Sometimes they might even seem funny. For a while.

Fast forward a few years: family life is well and truly bedded in, pretty much every day begins and ends with the mayhem that is trying to get three brothers to do anything, be it getting to school or sports or bed. See Mummy (and Daddy) reward themselves for getting through another day of chaotic mundanity (yes it exists!) with some large glasses of wine. An acceptable two or even three is enough for one, for the other it flicks off the brakes, allows an escape, a quick volte face from responsibility to enjoyment: me time.

Living like this for years, day upon day takes its toll. Most of the time having no extreme hangover symptoms was a win. Showing up for my life was a win. To expect any kind of achievement on top of that felt greedy, I got used to enough, just enough.

I didn’t realise just how crap I felt all of the time until I felt better. I had become so used to operating and existing below par that it felt normal-ish. Then the guilts would come to call, that inexplicable morning-after anxiety would rush in and, POW!, I was felled. Those days spent ticking minutes off until I could drink the horrors away.

Through all of this I promised myself no regret, I would just start again and again and again. But I did regret. I hated it, hated the feeling of helplessness, the knowledge that I was unable to stop, to resist. For as long as I was drinking, I would regret because regret was happening, was future as well as past.

Eight weeks sober and my regrets are giving way to curiosity. Naval gazing I may be but the constellations I am finding keep surprising me, keep changing. Discovery about myself, genuine, authentic awareness without judgement means I think I finally get what Drew was getting at. Once you forgive yourself, accept yourself and are happy with the path in front, you really can let go of regret, and it’s the most liberating feeling in the world. Thanks Drew!

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This just made me laugh and laugh and laugh.

Enough.

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Enough.

Pretty much everyone who is getting sober or overcoming an addiction will talk of the battle waged over the long term before there is any sign of peace, of even a glimmer of success. Much like the Leunig cartoon, there are ups and downs as the journey progresses, such as in life.

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Imagine though the lows gradually deepening, the highs becoming less frequent and you have a picture of a descent into problematic, dispirited living. Combine this with everyday stresses and pressures nice brew for dependency on one or other of the many legal, acceptable substances conveniently awash in our society. Support for chemical support is constant, unwavering.

We have all known the day from hell when wine o’ clock cannot arrive fast enough; the weekend when it’s never too early; the party where it’s never enough. This is the normal face of booze, and it is, it can be, fun. Unless you are one of the unlucky ones who like it just a little sooner, a little more.

The day comes, whether with a loudspeaker, billboard and fireworks, or simply with a shrug and a sigh, when the drawing of the line is no longer optional. This is the day where the presence – or not – of support will make the difference between stumbling and soaring.

Embarrassingly, I can think of at least two occasions in the past where I have proclaimed, even written down, “This is the first day of the rest of my life.” Thank god, the audience began and ended with myself (until now). I have shameful memories going back decades, times when I knew that for some reason, I was unable to join in like normal people. Oh how I wasted time longing to be one of them.

The difference this time is in the planning. Not the kind researched from books though, plotted methodically on a to-do list. Rather the organic, authentic, learn-the-hard-way kind. In between the extremes, and sometimes during them, I have gradually amassed a collection of resources I can tap into depending on mood or need.

I will share these soon in a new section on the blog in case the things that work for me might work for others. That however is the nub: what helps me will not help everyone. It is crucial to remember that it is a journey, a process and each is as uniquely different as we are. 

There are, frequently, still times where the only choice feels like opting out; climbing into bed on a mockingly sunny day and sleeping until the hard feelings pass. I am incredibly grateful to have a reason, three actually, who make this impossible. (They should have been a reason against dependency too, sadly it doesn’t work like that…)

Those days, conversation remains at a high level, the smile plastered on while I interact in shops, welcoming chores, revelling in the basic requirements of living. The need for food, for clean clothes, for bags packed and unpacked, somehow satisfies the huge part of me that needs to be needed. I have achieved, by simple means I have kept going. There need be no depth, no soul baring, no breaking down. On those days I fake it till I look like I’m making it and remind myself it is only one day. That is enough. I am enough.

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Faith and hope

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Faith and hope

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about hope. Having hope makes us human. Gives us reason to get up in the morning, hoping that the sun is shining and that today will be a good day.

We are encouraged to hope throughout life, hoping we get this teacher or that, that we get a spot on the team, a part in a play. We go on hoping for many things: a good job, nice friends, invitations to parties, pregnancy, promotion, recognition, fame, fortune, a luxury home, a safe home, the ability to make good choices, feel comfortable in our own skin, be appreciated, be loved.

It is perhaps central to life that we have hope.  But in order to have hope we need to have the belief that our hopes might come to pass. So we need to have faith. Faith gives substance to aspirations, allows us to believe in our dreams.

Faith isn’t always placed naturally or obviously. It is hard sometimes to know where to rest your soul. When it feels as though the world is demanding more than you can give it is especially so.

Some people, perhaps enviably, have an unshakable religious faith. This certain belief in someone being there through good and bad must bring strength. And comfort when that strength falters.

Some have faith in the universe; in forces beyond the realm of understanding but perhaps present nonetheless.

Faith in our family and friends, our practices, our ideas are paramount. The knowledge that people have our back, are in our corner, are rooting gives us confidence, gives us hope.

More than anything though we need to maintain faith in ourselves. We need to believe in our value, our worth. No-one else can give us the ability to say ‘I am great, just as I am.’ (Unless you are Bridget Jones in which case Mark Darcy seems to get close.) In this digital age, no number of likes or clicks or shares can equal the moment when we hold our head high with love.

This is so often what depression robs us of – remembering that. Faith and hope can get bound-up, buried so deeply beneath a blanket of fear, memories of past failures, guilt, remorse, indecision, self-consciousness, that it becomes an endless cycle of negativity from which emergence feels impossible.

But there are moments when the impossible recedes, the fog clears and our eyes are bright. These are the moments to hang on to, to file away and revisit. They form a kind of internal library and if we cherish them they can become building blocks, a staircase by which to haul ourselves out.

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Thank you to my wonderful friend Heidi for sending this picture featuring the amazing work of Nathan Sawaya. She knows me well. (I wish I’d been there to view it with you.) The caption reads:   ‘Sometimes when you’re looking for a step-up you don’t have to look any further than yourself. We’re all capable of more than we think.’