Imagination – Part 2 – Escapism

Hiding from reality in books, tv shows and other alternative worlds is a common tactic people use to unwind. It’s so common, we gave it a name – escapism. We disappear from view, from ‘the real world’ for a few hours, to live through characters with more interesting lives, or worlds with more exciting adventures. We lose ourselves in the make believe. We escape.

Why do we like escapism? Wherever it is that we prefer to escape to, there’s a pull towards leaving our own world and problems to dwell in another world. We are attracted to worlds where the problems are usually easier to solve, or at least, there’s different problems to solve. There’s a clear issue or tangle to sort out. There’s a more obvious divide between right and wrong, good and bad, truth and lies.

The good guys are good and motivated by honor and charity and justice, and the bad guys are bad and motivated by greed and hate. Even when the good guys mess up, it just makes them more relate-able, more like us – and in the end, they still sort it all out anyway.

That last part is the key – the thing that draws us towards these stories is that we know there will always be a resolution. The story line finish, the plot points will resolve and there will be a clear solution to the problem. Most of us will be dealing with the same stressful things next week, or even next month, as we are today. Our problems are generally ongoing and exhausting, without a clear end or fix in sight. Not so in the fantasy lands we escape to.

Of course it’s not just fiction that we can use as an escape. Some people use work or their area of expertise or a hobby or interest area. They spend all their time reading about it, or only interacting with others who share this niche interest. Of course, when you only spend time with people who share this hobby, and never talk about things other than the hobby, there’s no risk of deep friendships developing. It’s emotionally safe – and it’s escaping true emotional connection and accountability.

So there are many forms of escapism that different people use in different ways to cope. Is that so bad? Well, like most coping mechanisms, what is helpful in small doses becomes unhelpful when we rely on it and use it constantly. Finding the balance between disappearing to other places to recharge, and living more in fake worlds than in the real world is a tricky tightrope to walk. Generally, when you’re consistently avoiding your real life problems by investing emotionally in fantasy worlds, storylines and characters, there starts to be a problem.

I have certainly spent times in my life on the wrong side of that balance – where the stories I am viewing and reading seem more real and important and interesting than the real people I see day to day. When life is hard, it feels like, well, why not? Why not escape for a while and check out emotionally until things are better? But of course, the difficult things don’t just go away. They will still be waiting when I get back. They still require my time and energy to tackle and solve.

So I’m trying to be more aware of my flights of imagination and the joy of escapism as a useful coping strategy, without relying on it to avoid the difficult things in my life all the time. I am trying to find that delicate balance between enjoying something and being consumed by it.

There are times when it’s okay to use escapism as a temporary form of coping. Sometimes, you can’t deal with the difficult thing or react to the hard conversation straight away. Sometimes you need to pull yourself together for a few more hours of class or work or social interaction. Sometimes, if ten minutes of escape into a book or to your Instagram feed is what you need, it’s okay to do that. Sometimes that is what will help you keep it together until it’s an appropriate time to process what has happened emotionally.

However, spending hours in these escapes, constantly checking out from real life and avoiding work and responsibilities in favor of an alternative reality is where you run into a problem. It’s where I can see I am struggling, if I’m spending all my time in the fantasy world of a book or tv show rather than staying on top of my uni work and talking to my family.

There’s a big difference, at least for me, between watching the new episode of a tv show I am watching and then talking to someone about it, than spending hours scrolling through the internet for more gifs and reviews of the latest thing I’ve watched. This is when I need to stop, take a break and start focusing where I am right in the moment, and what demands are making me want to run.

Everyone deals with these things differently. Maybe escapism isn’t the temptation you face or maybe you find it easier to visit these make believe worlds without neglecting real life. But i think a lot of us still have work to do in finding that balance between a healthy coping mechanism and an unhealthy avoidance strategy. I know I do. I’m going to keep working on it.

Animals Abound – Part 5 – Animal Helpers

Today I’m talking about animals as trained helpers and assistants. I’ve already talked about why can be good for your mental health here, but now I’m covering more specific ways animals can be helpful to those who have barriers to overcome in participating in society or living independently. The range of ways animals can help are as varied as the animals themselves. I’ll quickly cover the main categories these helper animals fall into. Thanks to this site for their helpful information on this subject.

Guide dogs – Dogs who (usually) help the visually impaired, by identifying and avoiding potential obstacles as their owner moves around both the home and wider society. These dogs are trained to a high standard, and can often even navigate busy streets and shopping centres for their owner.

Hearing dogs – Dogs who alert their hearing impaired owner to events happening around them, such as a siren, a ringing phone or doorbell. Dogs are trained to then physically touch their owner in different ways to let them know the type of sound happening, often within seconds of the event happening.

Service dogs – This name is given to dogs that assist people with a physical disability, or a disability that doesn’t clearly fall under the visually impaired or hearing impaired category. As a result, this type of dog is the most common. They can pull wheelchairs, retrieved dropped objects, close and open doors and turn lights on and off. Skilled companion dogs are very similar, except that they worked under the supervision of a facilitator who is not their owner. This is usually a family member or caregiver.

Seizure response dogs – Some dogs can predict a seizure, but this is not the function of most seizure response dogs. These dogs can activate life-saving alert systems to summon medical help. The can also roll a person into a safe position or retrieve medication needed to halt a seizure.

Emotional Support/Therapy Animals – often, these animals aren’t dogs. They can be a cat, rabbit, horse etc. The main role of these animals is to assist people with mental health issues by providing a stable, comforting presence. A therapist may prescribe a therapy animal to help someone deal with panic attacks, PTSD, depression or a range of other issues.

Facility animals – are a type of therapy animal. Supervised by a facilitator, these animals (usually dogs or cats) work in healthcare or educational settings, to provide companionship, emotional connection and sometimes assistance during physical therapy sessions. These animals can be a coping mechanism for people facing serious medical challenges.

 

I also want to mention the use of animals in autism therapy, because I read some really interesting things about it here. Horses have been used to help non-verbal children contact to another living creature and begin communicating. The rhythm and balance needed to ride the horse can also help increase balance, which is a common issue for kids with ASD (autistic spectrum disorder). Dogs are also used with children with autism, as service dogs, by helping keep the child safe and alerting the parents of potential danger. Cats can also play this role, though this is less common.

The innovation used by people in training these animals impresses me. The dedication and emotional intelligence of these animals amazes me. As I talked about in this post, I think that including animals in more spheres of society will only make society richer and more empathetic, not only towards animals but also towards each other.

The doors, literal and figurative, that these animals can open from people who otherwise might be excluded from society, or have to live without independence and autonomy, is phenomenal. Can you imagine the freedom it must give a someone who is blind to know that they can get on a bus and do their grocery shopping independently like anyone else? Or the reassurance it gives a parent of a child with autism to know that they can leave their child playing in the next room, because their service dog will alert them if the child is in danger or needs help?

Just as I hope we will see more and more animals out and about in society just for the fun of it, I also hope it will become more and more normal to see students at university with their guide dogs, people in the workplace with their service animal and children at school with a therapy pet. I hope we can become more and more open to removing the barriers – whatever they are – to including people in all parts of society. I’m excited to see how animals can help us do that.

You can donate to Assistance Dogs Australia here or Guide Dogs Australia here. If you’ve heard other stories of animals helping people, please let me know – I’d be interested to hear about it.

Imagination – Part 1 – Anxiety

“The best use of imagination is creativity. The worst use of imagination is anxiety,” – Deepak Chopra.

I have always been an imaginative person. I have also always been a person prone to anxiety. Do these two things go hand in hand? Is it possible to have one without the other? Or does my imagination mean that when my brain tends towards panic, it has more capacity to picture all the worst scenarios and disasters that could result? Does my anxiety force me to consider all the possibilities, and so, in the process, open up new worlds and outcomes?  Is it possible to separate the overthinking hyper-vigilant part of me from the opportunity-seeing, world-creating and story-telling parts?

When I was little, I had two imaginary friends. They lived in the linen cupboard in the hallway. They would sit there obligingly, until I wanted to get them out and use them in my imaginative games. Sometimes they would stay happily in their cupboard-home for months at a time. But inevitably, when times of stress or sadness in my childhood world came along, out would come my imaginary friends, and I would disappear into the make believe world and stories they came with.

From my teenage years, I have a small collection on a hard-drive of half finished creative projects and stories and worlds I would create in an attempt to escape the difficulties I faced in my ‘real life.’ Inspired in a burst of creativity when I was struggling, the motivation to create and imagine would always fade as my mental health stabilized or I made peace with whatever hardship I was facing at the time.

My blogging started in the midst of a season of doubt and questioning. From this season came the urge to write, to overthink, over-analyse and overshare. This blog was then born as a safe space to process and write out my thoughts. My blog’s tone is constantly changing and evolving, which reflects my constantly changing and evolving creative desires and needs – never able to settle to anything for long, always finding a new thing to think and write about.

Recently I also realized I was using social media to escape. That I was scrolling through my Instagram feed looking for distractions and browsing Facebook to avoid thinking about the difficult things happening in my life. This was leading to an addiction to my phone that was making me unfocused in situations where I wanted to be present. So I quit some social media sites and drastically changed how I used others. I took apps off my phone and gave myself boundaries and limits.

I needed to do this, because social media had become another shiny make believe world I could go to when I wanted to distract myself from reality. My imagination was making it easy to lose myself in the things I saw on my feed. I used the outrage cycle of the internet to inspire my own writings and creative outputs. But it came at a cost – I was anxious, distracted, constantly reloading and rechecking all the various apps. When there was nothing new to distract me, I would feel a sense of panic at being left alone with my thoughts.

This constant link between my anxiety and my creative abilities scares me at times. Does my anxiety open up these creative worlds and give me inspiration? Am I reliant on my anxiety to be passionate and excited about creating things? Or is my imagination a safe place to fall back on when the real world gets too scary? Do I escape into make believe worlds when I can’t handle reality? Obviously neither answer is particularly encouraging for me. Either I’m dependent on anxiety to propel me or I’m hiding from reality.

But despite the anxiety and catastrophe-creating abilities that come with an over-active imagination, I am thankful for the creative inspiration it gives me. It’s nice that there’s an upside to my brain being prone to stress and panic, considering all the other not fun side effects. I’m trying to be more aware of my imagination as a useful coping strategy, without relying on it to escape all the time. I’m trying to be more deliberate in my creativity, planning ahead for my writing projects. So I’m trying to blog regularly, rather than overflowing with constant ideas and new posts for two weeks and then writing nothing for a month.

It’s important to harness your imagination and use it, as the good gift it is, without letting it control you. So I am taking back control over my imagination. With that, comes a small measure of control over my anxiety as well. If I’m less in the habit of giving my brain free rein, even in the good things, then it’s easier to be disciplined when I want to spiral into panic.

I’ve been given both an imagination and anxiety. I’d like to have one without the other, but I’ve learnt that just not the way it works. So I’ll take the good I can get without letting the bad over run me.

Charities and Being Generous

One day, a few months ago, there was a knock on my door. Little did I know, when I opened that door, I got dragged into a vortex of emotional manipulation. I was charity mugged.

The girls at the door were lovely, charming. They chatted with me, fawned over my dog and were friendly in every way. They tried to make connections with me and compliment me. But it was all fake. They were doing it so I would give the charity they represented money.

The work done by this particular charity is good work, and ultimately they do just want to help people. But that costs money, and so soliciting donations by knocking door to door, running raffles and stopping people in the street or in shopping centers to ask for money ends up being the most visible face of charities that most of us see.

These tactics aren’t fair. They aren’t fair to the people trying to do shopping or walk around town or even just sit in their homes without interruption. These tactics are not fair to the people who are hired to try and coax money out of unwilling donors and who are probably being exploited. They’re not fair for the people who already donate to charities and are made to feel like unfeeling monsters because they can’t support every valuable organisation out there. These tactics are especially not fair to the face of the charity and their reputation for doing good work.

I want to be generous with my money, along with my time and all the other resources at my disposal. But I don’t want to encourage these shady tactics and I don’t want to feed the cycle of emotional manipulation as the only way charities get money out of people.

So I’ve decided to be deliberate about it. To plan out my generosity. To investigate charities and pick which ones I will support for the rest of the year. Then, when I get ambushed by those wanting my money, I can politely but firmly inform them that I’ve already decided where my charity donations will be going this year.

As well as giving to my church, I’ve chosen one local charity and one global charity to give money to for the rest of the year.

Locally, I chose Micah Projects because my church has partnered with them on a bunch of things, I think the things they do in the West End are valuable and worthwhile, I see the results of their work regularly when I visit their Hope Street Cafe and the ways they approach raising money for various projects fits with my ethics and doesn’t resort to guilt to pry money from people. Check out their current campaign for an example of how they raise funds.

Globally, I chose TEAR Australia, who describe themselves as a movement of Christians in Australia responding to the needs of poor communities around the world. I especially like that their work is centered on the belief that God loves all people, and so priority is given to those programs that strive to involve the most marginalized and exploited members of each community, regardless of their religious or political beliefs.

Charity is essential to functioning as a society that’s not only successful, but compassionate. But deliberate and thoughtful generosity will always be better than generosity instigated by guilt and emotional manipulation. How can you be deliberate and consider in your approach to generosity?

Animals Abound: Part 4 – Dogs in Austria

In Austria, dogs and children can ride the tram for half price. In Austria, dogs are welcome in cafes, restaurants and supermarkets. In Austria, people take their dogs along for all kinds of outings and activities.

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So obviously, I loved being in a society where it was acceptable to bring dogs everywhere. I am already glad that so much of Brisbane’s cafe etiquette permits pets. So many Australians have pets; I think it’s time we started broadening our horizons when it comes to where dogs are allowed. After all, we’re the ones that brought them into these urban environments; we’re the ones who should face the consequences and find a way for us to co-exist.

Pets can enrich our home lives, but sharing aspects of our live outside the home with our pets can also give us new perspectives and new joys. It means thinking less selfishly – about our pet and their needs as well as our own. It means being more aware of how some environments might be distressing, not just for pets but for other people as well. Involving animals in a wider range of our daily activities helps us be responsible, empathetic and caring.

16110321_170860923399309_1287128821606121472_nI saw this in Austria – restaurants were accommodating, bringing fresh water to their canine customers. Dog owners were thoughtful of their impact on their surroundings, keeping their dogs on a lead when appropriate, and cleaning up after their dog when needed. The dogs out in public were also well trained – and even if you disagree that dogs have a place in our public life, surely you can see that better trained dogs are safer dogs, for everyone involved? On that note, I saw children much more comfortable with dogs in Austria than in Australia, and with much better habits when approaching a dog – asking permission to pat it, not coming up from behind, and being gentle and kind with their new four legged friends.

Most of Europe have developed laws and guidelines to allow pets in public places and on public transport without harm to the animals or people involved. Yes, it would be a cultural shift for a lot of Australians, but I think we’re already starting to shift that way already. I think that including animals in more spheres of society will only make society richer and more empathetic, will make public spaces more appealing and dog ownership more attractive. It’s better for pets and people. So while I miss all the many dogs I patted in Austria, I’m hopeful that in the future I’ll see more dogs out and about in Brisbane as well.