Could I put aside my scepticism and actually learn something helpful?

by 18-year-old Gracie

The illusion could not be more prevalent. It is in our love poetry, on our football pitches, it’s in the teddy-bear we’ve had since before we could walk. It’s under the bed at night, in every embarrassing memory, every worst-case scenario, the run you cannot go without, the dress you have to buy. It’s in our fear of lateness, of ill health, of disaster, decimation, spiders, responsibility, you name it. It’s in the excitement for your birthday gifts, dependence on your partner, relief at the good weather. It’s in our quest for “positive thinking” and deep-seated fear of being unhappy. It’s in the self-help books, on the radio, it’s coming from our teachers, parents, friends, partners, enemies, neighbours, idols, colleagues, team-mates.

And most of all? The illusion is coming from within.

Now, you may be wondering what this illusion is, and how a measly eighteen-year-old girl is even remotely qualified to write about it. My answer to you is simple: I’m not. I do not have all of the answers (although, in fairness, “all of the answers” is a pretty big ask from anyone). In fact, my first experience of the iheart programme (and introduction to said “illusion”) came only a year ago. And I was bribed with marshmallows. My mum had just become a facilitator and was keen to test out her training and I – as her resident young person – was the perfect lab rat (well, me and a few other stray “young people”, kindly donated by family friends).

And so my mother – passionate, inspired, having found her life’s work – delivered the programme; asking us to delve into the depths of our own psychological system. Using the power and beauty of nature, she explained to us how we all have the means to live peacefully and well within us. She told us that our minds were a clear blue sky and that our every care and worry is simply an ambling cloud – not only temporary but completely incapable of erasing the sky. We have resilience within us, and though it is often covered up it will never be taken away. “You can never be broken”, she told us, “You are perfectly logical human beings, always.”

And I thought: “This is a load of …”

The course made me angry. It left too many questions unanswered, too many holes to be poked, too little evidence. How dare they suggest that human beings have any control of their own wellbeing? What’s wrong with being sad if a relative dies? What’s wrong with seeking happiness? Where is the method? Where is the happiness that they’re promising?

I was left with a smug sense of intellectual superiority, glad to be able to prove yet another group of – albeit well-meaning – numpties completely wrong. But I had no ejection button, no option to turn my back, no corner to hide in.

Because my mother was, shall we say, quietly persistent. I would describe the osmosis of iheart into my life as a trickle rather than a gush. There was no big eureka moment where I suddenly became Gandhi. My understanding came in stages (and no, I’m still not Gandhi!). First, I noticed, that life had become a lot curvier. You know when you’re on a rollercoaster and it’s doing loop de loops and plunging into the abyss every two seconds? You know the way one’s head rattles between the two sides of the headrest with utter helplessness? That is what my life had felt like up until my sixth year at school. When I was out, I would be phoning mum for reassurance all the time (“Mum there’s this door and it says it’s the way in but I’m not entirely sure. Do you think I should just come home?”) I couldn’t attend an event without checking the time and place at least eight times over the course of my journey. I was susceptible to the occasional panic attack, felt rushes of ice-bathesque anxiety at school all the time, and sometimes struggled to even get myself out the house thanks to my fears. My stresses were manageable, but when I look back on them, I realise that I had to be brave every single day, doing the tiniest tasks. So, although it was manageable, it was difficult. And I’m grateful to have moved past those kinds of nerves.

Moment 1 of iheart potentially not being the worst thing ever invented: “Wow, I’m managing things so much better than I used to … I wonder what that is?” Spoiler alert, not a change in diet. It turns out that somewhere in the deepest crevice of my back-brain, iheart had sunk in. My understanding was still super ropey, but occasionally I would take a step back and realise that my experience was completely internal, and things would be okay for a millisecond. And because they were okay for a millisecond, I saw that they could be okay for two milliseconds, and then three, and then a whole second, or even a minute!

Over the course of the past year, I have very slowly gotten to grips with the principles of iheart. What I have learned is this: some part of me, in the core of my brain (metaphorical core), there are all these cowering fears that do not appreciate being looked upon. They do not appreciate being investigated. Like a computer virus, they want to survive and multiply. And so, when I am presented with signposts – when I feel jealous or anxious or angry – there is a very real part of me that wants to cower away from the fear itself. I do not want to touch it because a very logical part of my brain believes that it will burn me. Getting curious is not just an opportunity. It is also a risk. What I have realised is that to “buy into” iheart is to be a little bit brave. Fundamentally, I do not think that my reasons for doubting the programme were based on anything but fear. No part of me wanted to go near my scalding false beliefs because I believed that they had the power to take away my wellbeing. And, like every brain, mine wanted very much to defend every scrap of wellness it could. Only through continual reminders and a process of osmosis, was I able to gather a better understanding of the psychological system. But when I found this understanding it changed the course of my entire life.

I think that my experience of iheart highlights two things. First of all, the importance of integrating the programme in schools. This is part of iheart’s vision and my journey into the understanding serves as anecdotal proof of why. Had I been allowed to march back into my life, discarding iheart as I went, then I know without question that I would still be plunging in and out of real anxiety every day. And so, it’s important that we give all young people the time and space required to develop a solid base understanding of their psychological system. This is no easy task.

Which leads me to the second highlight – much less revolutionary, much more personal: this understanding can be life-changing, if one is only willing to be curious, brave and patient.

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