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'Breaking Free' Book Review: beliefs, empowerment and the journey from surviving to thriving

At the heart of Mental Health Awareness Week, I have been delighted to get the chance to read and review a book that captures the intricate links between brain and body, highlighting how compassionate support can make a life-changing difference to people experiencing Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Long Covid and other challenging conditions.

Arkbound is a charity publisher and social enterprise that aims to promote social inclusion, community development and artistic talent, and you can find my reviews of two other Arkbound books here: Writing Our Space and Climate Adaptation. This time around, Breaking Free by Jan Rothney is the author's debut publication, drawing on her professional background in Health and Social Care as well as her personal experiences of debilitating CFS. Her outrage simply pulses off the page as she recollects receiving the medical advice that she must learn to live within limitations, noting the gulf that lies between surviving and thriving (and which later proves integral to Jan's innovative approach to recovery).

In the spirit of total honesty, I have to confess that I approached the opening chapters of Breaking Free with a little trepidation. The stories of incredible recovery that Jan shares from people she has worked with are undoubtedly inspiring, but could there be an accidental shadow side to the message that 'the answer lies within ourselves'? As the book readily acknowledges, the pressures of our fast, furious and often far-from-friendly modern world can exacerbate and even trigger chronic conditions. Is there a risk that placing emphasis on the power of people's own beliefs could inadvertently add to the pressure we want to free them from?

Fortunately, it is clear that in Breaking Free Jan is committed to being a compassionate ally for all those living with CFS, Long Covid and similar conditions: taking it step-by-step as she shares what worked for her and her diverse list of clients physically and mentally. One of my favourite parts of the book is its structure, with summary points at the beginning of each chapter to support people who may be feeling too unwell to tackle the entire thing right now. More books should offer options for readers of different styles, circumstances and levels of confidence to customize (and better enjoy) their experience!

In fact, Jan's entire approach opens up space to develop a more thoughtful, holistic approach to conditions for which conventional medical models have proved lacking. By harnessing the untapped potential of evolutionary psychology, she helps readers to make sense of why our brains and bodies have (with good reason) judged the world to be unsafe and responded accordingly, and even more importantly what we can do to reinforce the new belief that we and those around us are actually safe to thrive. This year, after a protracted and often demoralizing struggle to recover from shingles, I can personally attest to the significant difference that comes from substituting self-criticism with compassionate thinking. Other texts in this area that I'd recommend for readers inspired by Breaking Free include Fierce Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff, The Way Out by Alan Gordon and Alon Ziv (especially for people living with chronic pain) and the range of meditations offered online for free by the Mindfulness Association.

In Breaking Free, Jan and Arkbound have identified a promising new area of health literature that feels ripe for future reflections: revealing opportunities to understand ourselves and our wellbeing in deeper ways than ever before. I especially appreciate Jan's recognition of the impact that living with environmental stressors like coercive control, being compelled to repress who we really are and more general emotional overload can have on physical as well as mental health, and one theme I'd love to see explored in subsequent publications is how this approach fits into a feminist framework. So many of the poorly-understood chronic conditions discussed in Breaking Free, like CFS and Fibromyalgia, are those that disproportionately affect women. Can we evidence the fact that the sense of powerlessness felt while living under patriarchy has devastating consequences for our health, as well as our happiness and quality of life?

Above all, I believe Breaking Free embodies the principle that no one struggling with physical or mental illness is alone. From Jan herself to all at Arkbound (and even me), a community is out there intent upon creating safe spaces for everyone to thrive, whatever that means to you and your loved ones. Happy reading!


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