Jan Tchamani is the Project Director of The Red Tent (Heart of England), a women’s group in Birmingham.
The Red Tent is for all women, and provides creative and therapeutic events, support, advice and friendship. Jan recently left behind her career as a senior school teacher and is establishing herself as a journalist, life-coach and events organiser.
In this article Jan shares a week in her life and explains how she is developing her project at the same time as coping with a life-long mental health challenge…
Until December of last year, I was a senior secondary school teacher, wedded to my career. A good way up the middle management ladder, with a pleasing portfolio of whole school experience: Gifted and Talented, enterprise, Aim Higher; everything to do with encouraging young people to build a life based on their passions and talents, rather than just following the herd. But what I was doing for them, I was NOT doing for myself. I couldn’t escape an uneasy feeling that my time in education was coming to an end, and quickly – and when that shove into reality finally came, it didn’t just pull the rug out from under my feet. It felt as though my whole world was simultaneously exploding and collapsing. I had a breakdown that lasted the whole winter.
I was diagnosed with bipolar in June 2008. They used to call it manic depression. I have the ‘rapid cycling’ version they call ‘cyclothymia’.
Cyclothymia is a condition that causes such sudden and unpredictable changes in brain function, mood and physical state that constant self-management is necessary and is often exhausting. It’s not a matter of becoming ‘obsessed’ with my condition: I have a strong sense of wanting to be my best, so I have to check myself constantly to make sure I’m functioning as well as I’m able, that I’ve prepared carefully for activities to ensure I don’t become stressed, and that I’m aware of the people around me and how they’re reacting to me. If they’re reacting negatively, there may be something I can do to make things better, or it may be a matter of beating a retreat: some people can’t cope with disability.
Both the extreme highs and extreme lows involve danger, so learning to manage risk is vital. During extreme highs I often become idealistic and over-excited, thinking I can conquer the world by tea-time. I become workaholic, forget to eat and sleep, and have been known to go out for long walks at night just to work off the extra energy. Colours are vivid, music sounds amazing, I feel that everything will be OK because Nature is in control… During extreme lows, I neglect food, sleep and exercise, shut myself away, feel cold and ‘fluey, don’t believe I can achieve anything, and I feel a failure. Colours fade into monochrome, I’m very sensitive to noise, smells, other people’s rude behaviour, people bumping into me in a crowd, and there’s a sense of alienation and meaninglessness.
Any employed work where ‘consistency’ is required is stressful, yet self-employment, with its need for self-discipline in order, for example, to complete paperwork or meet deadlines, also has its challenges. Reactions from employers – not to mention family, friends and strangers – can be extreme, and one becomes accustomed to people backing off, cutting off communication, thinking one is lazy and self-indulgent – or that one is a danger to society! Often people react by trotting out a cliché such as, “I was depressed once”, “You look OK”, “Don’t you think that some people fake it”, “I saw a TV programme once…”, “What you need to do is think positive” etc. etc. The disorder is bad enough in itself, but I would say that the social stigma attached to mental illness makes it twice as hard.
Many bipolar people are highly intelligent, intuitive and humane people, keen to be creative and useful, and contribute to human progress. Often, because we don’t conform to a recognized type, we are side-lined, rejected and ignored. There is a place for us – we have a lot to offer – but the way things are set up in the world of work often doesn’t suit us.
So, where did the idea for The Red Tent come from? A couple of years ago I read the novel of the same name by Anita Diamant. It told, through imaginative reconstruction, the story of Dinah, the unsung sister of the sons of Jacob, from the Old Testament. The red tent was the ‘movable sanctuary’ for nomadic women – a tent where girls went to celebrate (yes – celebrate!) the onset of menstruation, to spend a few days every month with female relatives and visitors, to give birth, to be tended and comforted through sickness and bereavement, to settle disputes, to pass on wisdom.
As I turned the pages, something lit up inside me. What an amazing resource for women the red tent must have been! Next came a host of questions: why don’t women in my community have a place like this to go to? How many women in my city feel isolated and lonely? Could a red tent work in Birmingham? And if so, how could I make it happen? This was based on a precept taught to me by an elderly missionary lady many years ago: if you identify a need, perhaps it’s you who are meant to supply it!
So, about a year ago I called together a group of trusted friends. I ran the idea past them, and they thought it might bear a trial run. Thus, The Red Tent (Heart of England) came into being. We began with lunch, cinema, then a windy picnic in the park. In July 2009 we spent our first whole Saturday together. We took summer photos, played drums, enjoyed a ‘bring and share’ lunch and wrote haiku poetry. The sun shone on us and we knew we were on to a very good thing…
As I start the diary of my week I am sitting at my laptop putting the finishing touches to the programme for next Saturdays Red Tent Day.
Coffee at 11 am, followed a ‘Why are we here?’ That’s my bit: envisioning and enthusing. Session One is “How to find your personal style” by Louise Boss, an image specialist. She’s brilliant with shy women – I know because she’s helped me. Lunch next, time to mingle and enjoy the delicious food. Session Two (if I can get everyone to stop chatting!) is my dear friend Siobhan Harper Nunes, the leader of the Shakti Women’s Group for business and professional women. Her session on “Authoring your life” is to be followed by a free-for-all discussion and sharing of experiences. Most of the women who come are at a crossroads. We can help one another through transition. Together we’re strong.
By half-past two, everyone will be ready for a change of pace, hence Session Three, “Chilling in the Red Tent”. My friend Penny, (an expert at aloe vera facials and a true woman of courage) and my gorgeous, 19-year-old daughter, Julia, will be giving everyone a personal makeup session. We’re all going to be soooo beautiful that at tea-time we’ll whizz around with the camera and make sure we have a lasting visual record of our day!
I finish the draft programme at 3.45 am.
When I surface on Monday, early afternoon, I switch on my laptop to check that the programme for next Saturday has a good ‘flow’. Is there enough variety? Have I thought of everyone’s needs? I have guests coming from the mental health service: will they understand what we’re about? Will everyone find something to enjoy, whether they’re happy or sad? Have I allowed enough time for everyone to express themselves? Enough time for social networking and just plain relaxation?
I sit on the programme until Wednesday evening, take a deep breath, click and send. On Thursday morning, the phone rings. It’s Anthea, excited out of her socks. “Jan! You’ll never believe what’s happened!” As I listen, I catch her mood. A woman who is considering a career change has been looking at the materials I designed for Anthea’s business. She wants to join The Red Tent, and to talk to me about life-coaching. I thank the universe for remembering I have bills to pay.
My head begins to spin and there’s a suspicious tingling sensation in my arms and legs. I get out my Mood Diary and work out where I am on the 1-10 scale: definitely flying too high – danger zone. I make a few telephone calls, canceling lunch in town with a thankfully understanding friend (can’t risk being near any shops), schedule a trip to the gym with sensible friend Gill to burn my over-active brain cells into submission, and write in capitals GO TO BED EARLY on the kitchen calendar. Sit down with some toast and watch my idol, fellow-cyclothymic Stephen Fry, on his American tour. He knows how to lose himself in other people…
Hopefully between now and Saturday I’ll be able to sleep properly. It’s an effort to stop thinking and go to bed, even though the latest library book awaits. Sunday 20th September – 4.30 p.m.
It’s always a good thing to sit down after an event and review it: what worked and what didn’t, plus the lessons to be learnt for next time. It’s an effective way of chasing off that flat feeling that inevitably descends when something you’ve been planning and putting your energy into for weeks is over. Best of all is to write down a list of the top 5 ‘golden moments’ – those moments when you were reminded of why your work is so important. Here are my personal top 5 from yesterday’s Red Tent event.
1. Appreciating the skills and cheerful personality of my 19-year-old daughter Julia as she gave one of the women, who has suffered for years with health problems and is just recovering from a traffic accident, a glamorous makeover;
2. Basking in the garden, in the golden September sunshine, and enjoying the sense of freedom that came from sharing our experiences of life, work and relationships, honestly with one another;
3. Surprising a new member with a home-made chocolate birthday cake and a chorus of ‘Happy Birthday to You’ – and hearing her say it meant a lot to her because no-one had ever done that for her before;
4. Learning about personal styling from Louise Boss, an ever-rising star in the world of image consultancy – and realising that elegance is within our reach, regardless of budget!
5. Watching Red Tent members exchanging phone numbers, email addresses and hugs before leaving, and seeing the delight on everyone’s faces at a day well-spent making new friends and recharging their batteries.
We’re fortunate as women to be able to change our circumstances and to be able to help one another through times of challenge. So, as Anita Diamant writes, “In the red tent, where life passes like a gentle stream … women give thanks – for repose and restoration…” (1997, p.88) I hope one day to welcome you inside.
© Jan Tchamani 16/9/09