I’m Back

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.

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Simple Intentions

Walk along Coronado Island, California

Walk along Coronado Island, California, 2013

This week turned out to be pretty good, once I submitted my final project for summer semester and could relax a bit. Since I will have more free time for a couple of months, I am looking forward to taking better care of myself.  When I get busy, I tend to stop doing the little things that keep me emotionally and physically feeling healthy. It is time for me to get back to the basics.

As I sat at my desk at work earlier in the week, feeling overwhelmed by my increasing workload, I decided to take a one minute break to write down some simple intentions for the day.

The list looked something like this:

  • Limit time spent on internet (e.g., checking e-mail, FB, WP, searches, etc.) to 4 times/day rather than randomly throughout the day
  • Practice mindfulness at mealtimes
  • Find ways to make difficult chores/work more pleasant
  • Get up from desk and walk or do some gentle exercise in between projects
  • Take time to notice and gently question the origins and validity of thoughts that cause emotional distress

My day went well. I was more focused, productive, and relaxed. There were many times when I felt an overwhelming urge to get online or to reach for a snack when I was feeling stressed, but paying attention to my emotions and sitting with them for a minute helped curb those impulses. In fact, it went so well, I decided to keep my intention list on my desk all week and practice each day. I noticed by the end of the week I was feeling more like myself again, and I was pleasantly surprised that I had enough energy to tackle some of the things I had been procrastinating doing. 

I try not to make too many rules for myself, as this practice can sometimes feed my perfectionism and cause more stress. I didn’t follow my intentions perfectly, but just becoming more aware of my thoughts and actions led to a noticeable boost in my mood.

I included the photo of my walk in Coronado as a reminder to find beauty in my life. Even when I can’t make it to the beach or a beautiful spot, a simple song or photo can lift my spirits.

Suffering is not enough

“Suffering is not enough. Life is both dreadful and wonderful…How can I smile when I am filled with so much sorrow? It is natural–you need to smile to your sorrow because you are more than your sorrow.” 

Thích Nhất Hạnh

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During our holiday festivities yesterday we got started on the topic of the “resting bitch face” and how at some point in our lives, we’ve all had that moment of being told to smile when we didn’t feel like it.  The women at the table were especially sensitive to these encounters, believing them to be somewhat sexist in nature.  My son-in-law quickly pointed out that it happens to men as well, and  he was tired of people asking him “what’s wrong” because he usually has a serious look on his face.

So how do we “smile” during those tough moments.  Do we pretend to be happy when we are not?  I do not believe that is what he is suggesting in his quote above.  Rather, I believe he is reminding us that we are not defined by the circumstances that happen in our lives.  At the core of our beings, we are radiant and beautiful, and peace can always be found within us.

I chose to post this picture of myself because I was going through a really tough time when it was taken, having experienced the recent death of my brother, my daughter’s illness, and the deterioration of my marriage. I smiled not because I was happy about those circumstances, but because I was able to find a glimpse of peace in that particular moment.

 

 

Becoming Real

When I was in 7th grade, I remember hearing the song, The Tears of a Clown, by Smokey Robinson, and thinking wow, that sounds familiar. Over all of the years of dealing with my mom’s erratic behaviors caused by her mental illness, I became quite proficient at hiding my sadness by being the jovial, adaptable girl next door type. I internalized all of the chaos around me by focusing on trying to make sure my outward appearance did not betray my deepest emotions. This led to my battle with an eating disorder and a great deal of anxiety that spanned my teen years through my mid-20’s.

My recovery process was not easy because I had to reach out to others and be willing to recognize and accept those parts of myself that did not live up the image I was trying to achieve. Like the story of the Velveteen Rabbit, I have learned to become “real”, and though it isn’t always easy, ultimately it is a much more rewarding way to live my life.

“Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’

‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.

‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’

‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’

‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit

Practice self-compassion this holiday season

“Self-compassion is approaching ourselves, our inner experience with spaciousness, with the quality of allowing which has a quality of gentleness. Instead of our usual tendency to want to get over something, to fix it, to make it go away, the path of compassion is totally different. Compassion allows.”  – Robert Gonzales
 

How to stop wishing your life away

“Everything has its wonders, even darkness and silence, and I learn, whatever state I may be in, therein to be content.”

Helen Keller

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I can’t wait until the holidays are over…

I can’t wait until it is warm outside

I wish I were thinner

I wish I didn’t have to work every day

I wish I looked like Jennifer Lawrence

I can’t wait to get out of this meeting

I wish I were “normal”

I can’t wait until this class is over

I can’t wait until I see my family

I can’t wait until I retire….

How often do I say these things to myself, essentially wishing for things to be different from how they are in this moment.  The truth is, this moment may be the only one I have so how can I make it count?

I was in a staff meeting the other day and someone said something that really hurt my feelings.

staff meeting

At first I drifted off into a litany of thoughts about how bad that person made me feel and how bleak my future was going to be at work now.   I then realized that I had the power to change the dialogue in my head to something more compassionate.  I am not a victim of the world I see. I don’t need to give anyone permission to rob my peace in this moment. I was able to acknowledge the way I was feeling and give myself the choice about how I would frame that thought and how I would deal with it.  Staying present in the moment was empowering and enabled me to address the person in such a way that acknowledged both of our feelings.  I utilized the tools in my toolbox that I have learned over the years of therapy, support groups, etc to reframe my anxious thoughts.

As a young girl growing up, I drew much strength from reading about Helen Keller.  When it comes to living in the moment, I can’t think of anyone who illustrates an example of accepting one’s state of being more than her.  Before she was given the tools to accept her conditions of blindness and deafness, she was wild and unruly.  Once Ann Sullivan taught her how to reach out to the world around her, Helen was able to bridge those gaps and “see” the world in a different way.  It took a long time for her to learn how to cope and compensate for her disabilities, but she went on to accomplish many great things.

Dealing with mental and emotional illness is no less daunting at times and it would be easy to give up hope.  Don’t be afraid to reach out for help and seek the tools and answers that will allow you to make peace with what is in the present moment.  It will take practice, perseverance, and patience, but it will be worth it.

 

Notice How You Judge Yourself and Others

You suppose you are the trouble
But you are the cure
You suppose that you are the lock on the door
But you are the key that opens it
It’s too bad that you want to be someone else
You don’t see your own face, your own beauty
Yet, no face is more beautiful than yours.
Rumi

Notice each day how often judgments about other people are in your  thoughts.  What are these judgments about?  I have found that many times the judgmental thoughts I have about someone else are the very things I am struggling with about myself.   When I learn to approach myself with more compassion, then I am more likely to let my negative feelings about others pass through me without needing to react in a hurtful manner.

alone in the dark a little girl sits up in her bed in the dark in the ...Each time I have a thought about myself that I am not good enough, thin enough, pretty enough, smart enough, clever enough, young enough, thoughtful enough, or creative enough, I am casting a shadow on my  true self.   I am learning that I can question these intrusive thoughts and find another possibility that is more loving.  Often they are rooted in an all-or-nothing mentality, overlooking all of the options in between.

These concepts are extremely difficult for me and I struggle with them every day.  I try to remember (many times forgetting) to set my intentions each morning, and the moment I walk out the door, with each encounter, the critic in my head gets louder and louder.  I am learning to take a few deep breaths during the day when it gets too overwhelming and that seems to help.   It is hard to retrain one’s brain and the first step is to simply notice.  I worked hard at these concepts when I was recovering from my eating disorder and the underlying anxiety, many years ago.   While it has been over 26 years since I have engaged in the self-destructive behaviors, I’ve come to realize that raising my awareness of how my thoughts impact my overall well-being is an ongoing process that I must embrace, as a mother embraces her child.

“Look at the weaknesses of others with compassion, not accusation. It’s not what they’re not doing or should be doing that’s the issue. The issue is your own chosen response to the situation and what you should be doing. If you start to think the problem is “out there,” stop yourself. That thought is the problem.”  – Stephen Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Take Notice of Your Words

Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates.  At the first gate, ask yourself, ‘Is it true?’ At the second ask, ‘Is it necessary?’ At the third gate ask ‘Is it kind?’ Rumi

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Yesterday I discovered this quote posted on a wonderful blog called Source of Inspiration.

It inspired my next challenge: Take notice of the words you choose before you speak. 

I had the opportunity to practice letting my words pass through the three gates yesterday during a challenging situation, and it helped me immensely to refrain from saying something I would later regret.  In fact, my spirits were lifted and I went on to enjoy a beautiful fall day instead of going away from the interaction with feelings of animosity.  After my encounter, I took a long run in the park, enjoying the bright fall foliage, the sunlight sparkling on the lake water, and the smiles on the people’s faces as they passed me on the trail.

clifton gorge hikeDuring my hour-long run, I had time to think about the quote some more and noticed that there was another important step that has been helpful to me when deciding how to handle a situation.  Because of the difficult circumstances in which I grew up dealing with my mom’s mental illness, I learned to suppress most of my feelings and often felt at odds with my own thoughts.  This led to a lot of anxiety and depression.   It has become important for me to have a few special people in which I can confide and vent freely, in order to sort through what I am feeling or wish to communicate.  Writing in a journal is also an excellent tool, as is talking to a good therapist.  This process of allowing my emotions to surface without censorship helps me to identify what I am trying to express, and it is helpful at times to run it by a neutral party first, before taking it to the next level.

One final thought that has also been helpful is to remind myself that I am doing the best I can, and in turn so is everyone else.

 

The Take Notice Challenge

Partial Eclipse 4

Who am I? – I am the silent awareness standing behind all this. What am I doing here? – I am here to grow into full awareness of my true nature, which is peace, creativity and happiness.” – Yogani

Today is a special day – as we are able to witness the total eclipse of the moon casting its appearance as the blood moon in certain regions of the globe.  The internet will be blowing up with pictures of this magnificent sight.  Witnessing this event from my upstairs window at its first appearance this morning, I was tempted to run and get my camera.  Instead, I decided to stand there and watch in silence, allowing my senses to absorb this rare occurrence in the moment.  I sent a text to my friend to check it out and advised him to take a picture from the park where he hoped to have a special view.

As I drove to work, I thought about the feeling I had watching from my window in the early hours of this morning.  I thought about how I hadn’t followed my own advice to take a picture and made a mental note to remember that special moment using my senses, rather than my camera.   Fortunately there will be thousands of photos for me to enjoy at the tip of my fingers.

So my challenge during this mental health awareness week, is to set aside time each day to put down your phones, cameras, and electronic devices and just be in the moment, bringing into full awareness what is in front of you.  This simple exercise is a great tool for taking care of one’s mental health in this fast-paced world.

Each day for the rest of the month I will post a reminder to challenge oneself to take time to take notice.

st johns rocks


Learning to Let Go

photo(59)The big day that I have been simultaneously looking forward to and dreading has come to pass.  My daughter moved out this weekend, ending her 2-1/2 year journey since her return home from college.    During our time together we have been the accidental witnesses to each others’ attempts to reshape our separate lives.    Both of us have been in the process of starting over.  My gradual recovery from a painful divorce and her gradual recovery from the eating disorder and depression that so severely disrupted her final years of college have consumed us during the past two years.   Although extremely difficult at times, I may have finally reached the point of succumbing to the true meaning of letting go.   As I put the pieces of my own life back together, I have learned the importance of caring for oneself in order to be of use to others.   In the course of mending my own life, I have more easily begun to back off from trying to manage hers.

teeter-totterThis past spring my daughter took the brave step of writing about her suicide attempt.    It was hard for me to read her post, and I am just now realizing how much I have allowed one day of her life to define my idea of her as a person and to form assumptions about my role in her life.   Since she experienced her first bout of depression at age 14, I have been struggling with how to best help her, and as I look back I can see that there were many times when I enabled rather than helped her.   I often treated her like a fragile being and tried to shelter her from the consequences of her mistakes.  Learning how to best help someone with mental health problems can be challenging, and  I’ve tried to use the advice from this Familie’s Anonymous literature  as my guide:

Helping

My role as a helper is not to do things for the person I am trying to help, but to be things, not trying to control and change his/her actions, but through understanding and awareness to change my reactions.  I will change my negatives to positives; fear to faith; contempt for what he/she may do to respect for the potential within him/her; hostility to understanding; and manipulation or over-protectiveness to release with love, not trying to make him/her fit a standard or image, but giving him/her an opportunity to pursue his/her own destiny, regardless of what that choice may be.

I will change my dominance to encouragement; panic to serenity; the inertia of despair to the energy of my own personal growth; and self-justification to self-understanding.

Self-pity blocks effective action.

The more I indulge in it, the more I feel that the answer to my problems is a change in others and society, not in myself.  Thus, I become a hopeless case.

Exhaustion is the result when I use my energy in mulling over the past with regret, or in trying to figure ways to escape a future that has yet to arrive.  Projecting an image of the future, and anxiously hovering over it, for fear that it will or it won’t come true uses all of my energy and leaves me unable to live today.  Yet living today is the only way to have a life.

I will have no thought for the future actions of others,neither expecting them to be better or worse as time goes on, for in such expectations I  am really trying to create.  I will love and let be.

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 which are unknown to me.

I too am always changing,and I can make that change a constructive one, if I am willing.  I CAN CHANGE MYSELF, others I can only love

 photo(64)I am grateful that my daughter came home to help my father during the months he was being treated for lymphoma.  It was a blessing for all of us.  During this time I have had the security of seeing her in passing each day while creating more distance as I navigate through my own life as an independent woman.  I have been learning to let go and observe as she achieves the goals she sets forth.   Despite her ups and downs, I have watched her build and maintain relationships,  grow and learn in a nurturing work environment, finish her final classes, and ultimately land a wonderful opportunity to launch her dream job as a college coach.  Because of her life experiences she has and will continue to provide support to the kids she coaches who are experiencing anxiety and depression.

tambaAs the time approached for my daughter to finally leave the nest, the push and pull between us was palpable.  I have heard it said that one may actually create conflict with a loved one prior to parting in order to make the good-bye easier.   In this case this tension between us made it easier to step back and allow her to do things her way.   It was hard to watch what I classified as disorganization as she approached moving day.  It wasn’t easy but I  finally realized that I needed to back out and let her dad help her with the move rather than hovering over her in my usual fashion.   It felt good to finally be able to tell her I would help at her request but would otherwise back off.    I can’t tell you how difficult it was for me to watch her pull out of the driveway with no arrangements for a permanent place to stay on the other end.  It was a monumental step and a humbling experience for me to stay behind, allowing her father to be her primary source of support.

poolI hadn’t heard from my daughter for two days, and it came as a complete surprise when she called yesterday to tell me she had found a house and had already starting moving her things in.  What a great lesson for me.  Things happen even when I am not in control of them!   I am amazed at the sense of relief I am now experiencing, knowing that I can provide her unconditional love without trying to micromanage her life.   I am finally able to see that she has coping skills, tools, and many sources of support outside of me.  More importantly, I am finally able to see that our lives are fluid and ever-changing.   The key to emotional resilience is knowing that each moment is an opportunity to start anew, and our emotions and intellect are never in a permanent state of being, as this article about success from News.mic illustrates.