Sanctuary aims to improve mental wellbeing

Bernie Petrie at The Barefoot Sanctuary in North Berwick. Picture: Gordon Fraser
Bernie Petrie at The Barefoot Sanctuary in North Berwick. Picture: Gordon Fraser
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AS her bare feet sank into the sand, the soft grains sticking between her wriggling toes, Bernie Petrie felt a memory struggling to come to the front of her mind.

Standing on the beach on the Isle of Wight she tried to force it, what was it about being a little girl, about the sand and sea? But it eluded her.

A week later she was in the Glasgow Priory being treated for depression. Something had snapped.

Yet it was on another beach, this time in her hometown of North Berwick, when that memory came flooding back. Maybe prompted by the endorphin rush of her run, she realised it was simple. “It was joy,” she laughs. “The joy you feel as a child on the beach, in the sun, feeling the ­elements and not having a care in the world.

“I felt that’s what I needed in my life again. And from there the whole thing spiralled.”

The whole “thing” is The Barefoot Sanctuary, which she opened in the East Lothian town last year, offering what she calls “intuition coaching” as well as a host of classes from yoga to massage and workshops on how to make the mind feel as good as the body. If that all sounds a bit 1990s when so-called “new age” health treatments first came to the fore, that’s because it is. New Age was a reaction against the loadsamoney greed-fuelled 1980s; people were searching for something more than sheer ­materialism and wanted their chakras aligned, their ears cleansed with candles, their bodies immersed in seaweed, anything to feel better about themselves.

People were detoxing and cleansing and juicing – but what appeared to be a flash in the pan health fad is still here, because, says Bernie, the problems are the same. People’s stress levels continue to rise in the face of austerity and inequality and social media, where everyone seems to be living a better, happier life than the next person.

In fact, the issues are probably worse. Mental health has become one of the biggest problems facing people today. Around one in four people ­experience some kind of mental health issue a year, with anxiety and depression the most common.

Bernie, 46, and a mum of two, knows that only too well. Her life as a high-flying businesswoman in sales then a stay-at-homemaker mum have both been blighted by stress and ­depression – so much so, she ended up in the Priory for six weeks.

“My life had run along very straight lines,” she says.

“I grew up in County Derry, came to Nottingham to study, met my husband, graduated and married at 25, moved to Scotland, had a very successful career, becoming director of the company I worked for, had two children, moved to a big house in North Berwick.

“From the outside you might have thought I had it all. Inside my mind was crumbling and I was enveloped by feelings of panic as I worried about what other people thought of me.” Her job on graduating involved selling wallpaper and fabrics to housing developers, architects, designers and “was hugely pressured”.

“I loved it because it involved colour and I’d always wanted to study art, but didn’t have the confidence in my ability. I was sales manager for the whole of Scotland and Northern Ireland and ultimately became a ­director when I was 28.

“But I went to my doctor saying I wasn’t feeling right and it was diagnosed as stress. I knew I wanted to have kids before I was 30, but I was so focused on my job and I felt guilty about wanting a family life.

“It was like I’d built a career chain around my neck. But I fell pregnant in 2000 and had Jessica. Then I knew I couldn’t go back to the job. But I was trying to people please – to please everyone except myself. I’ve realised approval is something that has to come from inside, that you have to be much more mindful of yourself.”

After her daughter arrived, she went back to work on a consultancy basis, but soon found the panic ­attacks returning. And then her son Flynn was born and the family moved to North Berwick. “I didn’t know what I would do. I had young children and wanted to spend time with them and my husband was then working away a lot, but moving brought up a load of issues. I struggled to meet people, I went right into myself, and that same stressed feeling returned. I thought ‘we have money, we have the kids, I’m happy, what’s going on?’”

The problem, she found was depression triggered by low self-esteem. She realised she needed something else and began to consume books on spiritualism. “I discovered lots of amazing spiritual people – it was a road to Damascus feeling – and people do look at you as if you’re mad. I went on a journey of questioning what was real for myself.”

Then came the snap in 2010. “I’d been to my husband’s cousin’s wedding on the Isle of Wight and spent a lot of time barefoot on the beach. Then seven days later I was in The Priory. I had totally lost it at home and my husband took me to Glasgow. I thought I’d be there for a few days and all I really wanted to do was sleep. In my mind I’d figured out the meaning of life,” she laughs.

“I ended up in a suicide room ­because I had to admit that I’d had those sorts of thoughts, though it had passed. I was given anti-depressants and I was on them for two years. I was there for six weeks and I’m still getting the benefits of that time.”

She was in recovery for a year, reading many books about depression, as well as expanding her spiritual knowledge. Running helped to an extent “though you can’t run away from your problems”, and it was in doing so that the idea for the Barefoot Sanctuary came to her.

“I wanted to create a space where people could dance, do yoga, meditate – whatever form of holistic ­exercise floats their boat. A place which could offer therapies and coaching, a place to laugh and even to cry, to help people remember who they truly are – that little girl on the beach.”

• The Barefoot Sanctuary is at 45 Melbourne Place, North Berwick. Visit www.barefootambition.co.uk for more information.

Mindfulness is a way of thinking

MINDFULNESS has gone from ­being a vague concept to one of the biggest mental health solutions around.

Good mental wellbeing is as important as physical health and while many believe that means being happy in terms of what you have – income, home, car –

medical evidence has shown that what we do and the way we think has the biggest impact on our wellbeing.

Becoming more aware of living in the present moment – noticing sights, smells, sounds and tastes – as well as the thoughts and feelings which occur from one ­moment to the next, is mindfulness. Mark Williams, professor of clinical psychology at the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, says that mindfulness can be an antidote to the “tunnel vision” of daily life, when people are stressed.

“It’s easy to lose touch with the way our bodies are feeling and to end up living in our heads – caught up in our thoughts without stopping to notice how they are driving our emotions and

behaviour.

“Mindfulness doesn’t start by trying to change or fix anything. It’s about allowing ourselves to see the present moment clearly. When we do that, it can positively change the way we see ourselves and our lives.”

He adds: “Mindfulness allows us to see how we can become entangled in a stream of thoughts in ways that are not helpful.

“Gradually we can stand back from them, to notice when our thoughts are taking over and

realise they don’t have to control our behaviour.

“Most of us have issues we find hard to let go and mindfulness can help us deal with them more productively. We can ask ‘is trying to solve this by brooding about it helpful or am I just getting caught up in my thoughts?’

“Awareness of this kind also helps us notice signs of stress or anxiety earlier and helps us deal with them better.”