Know Thyself

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“Love the world as your self; then you can care for all things.” ― Byron Katie

It is easy to love the world when surrounded by the beautiful parts, and not so easy when we are faced with the darker side of humanity.

When I was in Greece, it struck me how long human’s have been searching for the answers to the same questions.

Humankind’s greatest struggles start within each individual and are reflected into our outer world. Insecurity, fear, and hatred are the root cause of the many ways in which we seek to destroy each other.

Ultimately there is only one road to peace, and it begins with one’s self.

“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” ― Aristotle

Singing the Blues

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It used to make me unhappy, all that feeling. I just didn’t know what to do with it. But now I’ve learned how to make feeling work for me… I don’t know, I just want to feel as much as I can, it’s what ‘soul’ is all about.”  — Janis Joplin

I watched a documentary about Janis Joplin last evening, called Little Girl Blue.  It ripped my heart out in many ways. Hers is a story of that combination of spirit, guts, insecurity, and an insatiable quest to be loved by everyone that can be so difficult to manage in the face of mental illness. Her voice is recognizable by anyone who ever lived during the 60s and 70s, and the years that followed that era. Who hasn’t heard Take Another Piece of My Heart?

Love or hate Joplin’s music, one can’t help but be saddened by the story of her life. It seems she was picked on a great deal during her school years growing up in Texas, mostly for her appearance, but also because she was different from the other kids. The angst of not fitting in and searching for a place to belong is what ultimately drove her to head to California and propelled her into what would become a brilliant but short-lived career.  She found her voice singing the blues, letting out all of her emotions. Indeed, she was bursting at the seams with a multitude of pent-up emotions. Her music tells the story well.

I could relate to Joplin’s quote about emotions, “It used to make me unhappy, all that feeling. I just didn’t know what to do with it. But now I’ve learned how to make feeling work for me… I don’t know, I just want to feel as much as I can, it’s what ‘soul’ is all about.”  — Janis Joplin

Dealing with intense feelings is a hallmark struggle that many people with mental illness face on a daily basis, and we often fall into the trap of seeking any way possible to express or suppress emotions that can be quite overwhelming. Even when we find a way to channel our feelings through art, music, sports, writing, career, or religion, if we are not careful, positive things in our lives can quickly shift to obsessions that rob us of our ability to feel or notice anything. Drugs, food, alcohol, compulsive behaviors are other ways to cope with what we don’t understand about ourselves, and they can quickly lead our vulnerable psyches down the path of self-destruction.

Janis, like my daughter, left home at an early age and discovered she had wonderful talent. She, like my daughter, lacked the maturity and tools to adequately deal with the stress that came with a life so quickly propelled into success. By 27 Janis had died of a heroin overdose after months of being sober. I can understand how this happened, having struggled with an eating disorder until I was about that age. I watched my daughter struggle with the same thing while she was away from home excelling and failing at the same time.

Both my daughter and I were fortunate to be able to slow down enough to get the help we needed and jump onto the path of recovery sooner rather than too late. I managed to make it through those tough years by pouring all of myself wholeheartedly into activities that would support my recovery. My motivation was becoming a mother and knowing the devastation that untreated mental illness can cause. I witnessed it first-hand as my mother spent decades refusing help for her paranoid schizophrenia. My daughter who is 30 now, also accepted the help she needed and worked at it. She is 30 now, living away from home doing what she loves, and while she has good days and bad days, I know she has the tools and resources to get through the tough times.

How sad that Janis ran out of time before she was able to find the tools and support that could have helped her stay afloat and deal with all those strong emotions that she so desperately tried to embrace and understand. How sad that treatment options were so limited at that time.

Now we have many  more resources at our fingertips, and yet our mental healthcare system cannot adequately deal with the needs of so many who need it. Millions of people have trouble gaining access to mental healthcare because of financial or accessibility barriers. Many others are being placed on long waiting lists and/or going weeks and months before being able to receive treatment and medications that could help. Many others refuse to admit their struggles for fear of the stigma that is still attached to mental illness. Much more research needs to be conducted to find answers that will lead to better treatment options.

Let no life lost to mental illness be in vain. Let’s keep pushing for better and more treatment options!

 

I’m Back

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Santorini, April 2018; honeymoon

I’m back. In the five months I’ve been off work, I had aspirations to write a book, blog more, figure out my true calling in life, go on some wonderful adventures, get involved and volunteer more in the community, and most importantly find my voice. I had some great starts, but a small inner voice of self-doubt kept nibbling away at my resolve, and a bigger voice called “life” kept me grounded in the real issues of the day.

No matter how much I try to reinvent myself, those cleverly disguised doors that appear to be opening to new vistas bring me right back to where I started. As much as I want to deny it or fight it, or run from it, I am forever a mental health advocate.

Since December, I have been trying to lend support to loved ones as they struggle with serious mental health crises. It is heartbreaking and yanks at my soul in a way that is hard to describe. It brings me back to the days of feeling helpless as I witnessed my mom’s descent into paranoid schizophrenia. In the years since then, I have learned that mental illness comes in many forms, major depression, suicide, mood disorders, obsessive compulsive disorders, eating disorders, panic attacks and anxiety, none of them less terrifying or heart breaking than the other. The people I know who have struggled with one of these are too many to count, and I know that each person is doing the best he/she can with limited resources.

When it comes to helping someone who is going through a mental health crisis, I feel rather inept, as I walk the finely dotted line between thinking I have the answers to knowing I don’t have any answers, unsure about whether to encourage or dispense advice, to show false optimism or tough love. Shoving my own personal feelings deep down so that my disappointment doesn’t show through when it seems like someone I love is slowly being ripped away from me by some mysterious illness.

I have been in a dark place before. I have worked my entire life to never go there again, knowing the fragility and resilience that exist within me. I have invested countless hours in counseling, reading self-help books, attending support groups and conferences, developing my spirituality, and conceding to taking a tiny pill to treat my anxiety disorder. I don’t understand why anyone wouldn’t work as hard when faced with their own mental illness, but then I grew up with the consequences of ignoring such illness first-hand, watching my mom go in and out of one crisis after another. Her choices were limited and there was no simple answer. Her only real choice was to be treated like a criminal, and who would want that?

I am hoping soon to become part of an organization that is working on a small piece of the puzzle to help correctly diagnose and treat mental illnesses. I wonder if I have the will to keep on immersing myself in mental healthcare, having spent a lifetime trying to figure it all out with some moments of real sadness. Yet, I don’t seem to be able to get away from it; therefore, I must find the strength to forge on, searching for better treatments and educating people to fight the stigma that works against finding answers.

So here I am, back again. A mental healthcare advocate, blogger, and warrior of sorts.

10 tips to Deal with the Walking Wounded

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Dealing with the Walking Wounded isn’t easy.

No, I’m not talking about Zombies. I’m talking about people with wounded hearts; the scars that impact our ability to give and receive love wholeheartedly. And when it comes down to it, all of us have been wounded to a certain extent.

So how do we transcend our wounds, and how do we deal with the people in our lives who have not yet been able to transcend their wounds?

True love, we are taught, is unconditional. It is the essence of life. It is the foundation of all connection; some would say it is our sole purpose in life. Love is the invisible force that can mend our wounds and disappointments and soothe our longings. It is innate and yet mysterious. It is infinite.

Love, like the sun, is a powerful force that exists even when covered in the dark, dreary clouds of a winter day; love exists even when we are submerged in the depths of despair.

So why do we put so many conditions on our love? After we are brought into the world, innocently invoking love in the eyes of our observers, when does our ability to express love change?

I’ve been contemplating what causes a shift in one’s ability to love , and I have noticed that some people have an easier time of tapping into their loving side than others.

There are people who seem to exude love and bring out the love in others. They are compassionate, genuine, encouraging, forgiving, accepting, comforting, honest, unpretentious and secure in themselves. They maintain a sense of humor.

There are people who seem to have a harder time expressing their love, often due to  past experiences of rejection, betrayal, or a myriad of other reasons that may be less obvious.

The walking wounded may be guarded, suspicious, pretentious, egotistical, manipulative, dishonest, fearful, destructive, or insecure.  In their most vulnerable state, they may have an insatiable appetite for approval.

Most of us have some combination of these traits which can vary depending on our mood and circumstances.

I have been told I have an extraordinary ability for forgiveness and a tolerance for moving past being slighted or mistreated. I probably developed this trait in childhood, when dealing with the ups and downs of my mom’s mental illness. Even when she lashed out harshly while delusional or paranoid, I still felt compassion and love towards her.

Several years ago when I was in counseling, I was told that I may not always recognize when I am in a harmful or negative relationship, perhaps due to my ability to overlook so much hurt in my childhood.  Now I am learning how to love but let go when I am putting myself in a bad position. Letting go can feel like giving up, and I don’t like that feeling.

Here are 10 tips for dealing with the walking wounded:

  1. Loving myself is as important as expecting someone else to love me. The more I nurture and take care of myself, the more I am able to recognize and maintain healthy relationships. The more I love myself, the less likely I am to seek approval in unhealthy ways.
  2. I can’t help or fix everyone, nor can I know what is best for anyone other than myself. Distancing myself from someone who is being hurtful can be better for both of us. Growth often happens when we stop enabling unhealthy interactions and patterns.
  3. Seeking guidance from someone who knows me and in whom I trust when I am unsure about a situation or relationship. I have learned who I can trust and when to seek the guidance of a friend or counselor. It isn’t easy to navigate the intricacies of relationships, and its okay to ask for help when we are so close to a situation that our perspective has become distorted.
  4. Walking away from a harmful relationship can be better for me in the long run. Taking the difficult first steps away from a bad relationship can often be a bridge to better things. There is no better example in my own life than in my first marriage. For many years we struggled so hard to make our marriage work that we imposed unrealistic and hurtful judgments on each other. When we finally decided to let go of our expectations and see each other for who we were, we experienced the kind of love that allowed us to accept our differences and walk away.  Six years after our divorce, our relationship has healed, and we have become better friends and people than we were in our struggles to be husband and wife. I believe that is what unconditional love looks like.
  5. Seeking and maintaining relationships with loving people can have wonderful benefits to my soul and ability to love.  I want to surround myself with people who can teach me by example. I also want to be open the possibility that love can be found in the most unexpected people and not allow my own biases get in the way of witnessing the beauty of love.
  6. Recognizing that my own wounds may be distorting my perspective. Working on healing my own wounds can lead to a better vantage point with which to determine whether I am allowing my own insecurities to jeopardize a loving relationship.
  7. Living in the present moment rather than dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. I can’t change what happened to me in the past or predict what hurt or danger the future may bring. I can only take it one moment at a time and love right now. 
  8. Striving to be genuine and focusing on giving rather than receiving love. Here is a quote from one of my favorite books on love.
  9. Taking time to meditate, read, and contemplate about love. There is no better way to feed one’s internal garden of love than to provide the best fertilizer possible for the seeds that are planted.
  10. Love can be expressed in different ways. I can achieve the greatest depth of love when I open my eyes and observe all of the ways in which its infinite power manifests itself in this world.

And finally, since I am the eternal optimist, I will leave you with this thought that gives me great hope, taken from the Helping guidelines on Familie’s Anonymous Website:

“All people are always changing. If I try to judge them, I do so only on what I
think I know of them, failing to realize that there is much I do not know. I will give others credit for attempts at progress and for having had many victories that are unknown.”

The Mountain’s Healing Powers

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“Some of us are drawn to mountains the way the moon draws the tide. Both the great forests and the mountains live in my bones. They have taught me, humbled me, purified me and changed me.”
― Joan Halifax

I find that when the soul needs healing, the mountains and forests are there to embrace me.

Unstoppable

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I used to think a photo of a cardinal in the winter was so cliché

Now I understand the symbolism in this breathtaking image

Resilience in the midst of the coldest days and nights

This brightly colored bird atop the barren branches

Screeches defiantly into the cold air

You cannot stop me, cold

Creating Inner Peace in a Troubled World

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“Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it toward others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will also be in our troubled world.”
― Etty Hillesum

Wouldn’t it be amazing if we were all able to work towards inner peace to such a degree that it resulted in global peace? It seems too far-fetched to imagine, yet still we must continue to strive to find that place within ourselves, as Etty Hillesum did in the midst of the holocaust. Etty was determined not to let hatred take over her soul, and to learn to see the beauty that remained.

I am learning to let go of hatred and to instead focus on love. I am learning that love is free, and hate always comes at a price. It takes precious energy to hate, investing in memories from the past in order to keep it going. In order to maintain the darkness of hatred, we must deny the cracks of light that penetrate that darkness. The small acts of love that surround us, even in the midst of this hatred, can sustain us if we allow ourselves to see and experience the true essence of our being. Indeed, I want to be the person who choses to take the path of love in each moment.

As Etty learned after being taken to a concentration camp, love requires a certain amount of discipline and practice when surrounded by hatred and savagery. We can always find a justifiable reason to hate, but don’t forget, we can just as easily look for a reason to love.

“I know and share the many sorrows a human being can experience, but I do not cling to them; they pass through me, like life itself, as a broad eternal stream…and life continues…” 
― Etty Hillesum

Learning not to Fear Failure

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“When we begin to take our failures non-seriously, it means we are ceasing to be afraid of them. It is of immense importance to learn to laugh at ourselves” — Katherine Mansfield

In any given day, we will succeed at some things and fail at others. Failure happens to some degree every day. Over time, If we lose our sense of humor, we can begin to feel badly about our failures, letting those feelings compound into a statement about our self-worth. After all, who wants to fail?

There are times when a failure seems too big to make us laugh, and indeed some mistakes aren’t that funny. In those cases, does it make sense to continue to wallow in self-loathing, or to earnestly move forward in a new direction. Every moment offers us a chance for a new direction, and if we are mired in self loathing about our failures, we lose the chance to see the new opportunities that are available to us in the present moment.

I am resisting the temptation to see my move into a job that didn’t suit me as a failure. It was a learning experience, and I do not regret making the decision to change directions after several attempts to make it work. Resilience is one of my strengths. Having gone through much harder times, bigger failures in my life, I remain an eternal optimist, with a healthy dose of sardonic cynicism to keep me from being too naive.

Early in my recovery from an eating disorder, I had a sponsor who gave me a stuffed, quilted pig she had lovingly made for me. It seemed rather ironic, given my condition, but the words she said when she presented it to me have always stayed with me, even 35 years later. Her words were simple “Don’t wallow in it!”

I don’t expect everything in life to work out, and I don’t expect myself to be perfect. I know I will make mistakes, fail, fall down, and do dumb things. Sometimes I will be able to laugh at these things, and sometimes I will need to take a moment to cry.

Life itself fails us at times, and all we can do is decide, and decide, and decide again. Where to next?

Remembering Nature

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I am remembering a time when

we didn’t need the internet

to tell us what to think

I am remembering a time when

nature provided everything

we would ever need

Now it seems we care

more about what is

on that little screen

than what is around

us and we can’t

separate truth

from fact

A Jones