Surviving hardship and learning from it is a universal lesson. But what happens when your young child is gravely ill? How do you survive and learn from that? You could go on to set up a practice called Resilient Minds like Bethan O’Riordan did. Bethan is a counsellor and psychotherapist. Her philosophy is,“If we can teach ourselves, and our young members of society how to deal with the ups and downs of life, we are giving them the tools they need for a successful and manageable future. Resilient Minds accomplishes this by helping people understand what we have, and what to do with it.”
Bethan’s accent deviates from her soft Scottish lilt to a more musical intonation due to residing in Cork for several years. She has that quick Scottish wit that dances in black humour from time to time, it’s infectious. Her work in Ireland always revolved around addiction counseling, “I think it’s then that I really connected with my own pain as a human being, which sounds kind of mad, but I got to see people that lived in total pain. I could see that people’s problems from the past were really stopping them moving forward in the future.”
A sudden unexplained illness
There was always something gnawing at her to do more for peoples’ suffering and the answer came via parenthood. “The journey of becoming a mother was so huge. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy being a mum the first time, I just found it really hard, but I didn’t know I was finding it really hard. I thought it was normal. I couldn’t just totally be with them, I was really anxious and really preoccupied with my mind. Then I had my third child but he developed seizures when he was very young. We spent loads of time in the hospital with him. This idea of the pain of life came back to me then.”
Bethan and her husband spent several stressful weeks in Temple Street Hospital with their son. “I remember that we walked in at 9:00am, and by 9:05am the medical team said that our son has this terrible illness, and that they’re looking for the medical evidence for it. I thought, oh God this is really awful.”
During her time in Temple Street the theme of pain would arise again and again, “I would meet a lot of parents, and I’d see their pain, and I’d see different people cope in different ways. Then at the same time, my friend’s child died of cancer when he was 3 years and 11 months old. The child of someone close to our family developed a serious disability, and I thought, “Gosh, this is so strange, there’s all this pain in the world, what can I do about it?” Then, I realised a few years before all this sadness that I had studied compassion.”
Exploring the world of compassion
Reflecting on that time Bethan recognises that her concept of compassion was coming from an intellectual place. “I didn’t really understand what compassion was until I stood there in front of my sick child and my life was in my face. There was nothing I could do for my child. There was no money, we’re not rich, but you’d always just get the money.” She found herself leaning towards compassion based therapy which explains the science of being human, for example where anxiety comes from. “Anxiety is when you’re in the face of danger or threat, it’s your body’s way of telling you to get the hell out of there. But, when you’re sitting in a room that’s literally three meters by three meters with your child 24/7 for maybe a week, and you sleep on a chair, it’s like a prison… it’s so weird, you’re really put to the mark in terms of your mind and your mental strength.” She felt like she was in solitary confinement but at the same time she was pushing herself to be there for her son. “The meaning of compassion is just the ability to recognise that life’s really hard and having the action to do something about it. It’s almost learning to stand back from your problem and look in at it. You use it as your motivation. If you can understand that you’re in a really difficult situation, but committed to doing something about it. For me, it was like figuring out how can I be the best version of me when I was so tired, so worried, so anxious.”
“I was driving home from the hospital one day, I shared shifts with my husband, trying to figure it out. When I got home I decided to buy 20 cigarettes and a bottle of wine. I started smoking them and had a few drinks. I remember standing at the back of the house, it was a beautiful May evening, the cows were mooing! I thought, “Ah, this is wonderful… but I can’t drink my way through it, this is not me.” The next morning the answer came to me, I love smells! I put on this lovely body cream. I went into the hospital wearing really soft trousers and really soft socks and shoes. I was trying to trick my body and my brain into being calm, soothed and cared for because my training was always about our desire to be cared for. The hospital system makes your body react negatively. Every part of your body screams danger. So quite simply by putting on my moisturiser every day, and starting that little ritual of being committed to helping my pain, it started to ease. What you imagine in your mind has a huge impact on your body, and then if you think stressful thoughts, your body thinks stressfully. If you can think calm, soothing, relaxed, connected thoughts, your body reacts in a whole different way.” Her son was monitored 24/7 by video and the staff noted that he was very happy which Bethan attributes to her compassionate mindset. Thankfully over time her son’s condition improved.
Sceptical of the mindfulness movement
It was through tragedy that made Bethan really understand children’s behaviours, for example, “my angry self wants to scream and shout at my children. My compassionate self wants to say, “Hey, that’s really hard that you think your sister stole all the biscuits, let me help you understand that.” That’s a really different way of supporting children. She decided to set up Resilient Minds and teach compassion based training to teachers and parents as they spend the most time with children. She is sceptical of the benefit of teaching children mindfulness. “There’s a huge movement of mindfulness in children in schools, but there’s not much research to show if it’s going well or not. Children these days are stressed, and I don’t think there’s much value in asking kids to be more aware of how stressed they are.”
Bethan expresses her views of the education system which characteristic bluntness. “Teaching a child to learn, to read and write is wonderful and a very important skill, but it will not stop them wanting to kill themselves, and it will not stop them self-harming. Children and adults don’t do things unless they’re emotionally safe. Learning cannot take place unless that child feels okay.”
The training that Bethan provides has been warmly welcomed by several teachers and parents in her area, “the work that I do is compassion combined with psychotherapy, counseling, psychology, DBT, CBT. All of these things that you can measure.” For her it’s all about teaching a child about their mind and how to be their compassionate best. It’s a mission that was spurned out of terrible distress yet it drives her to help adults connect better with children.