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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Learning not to Fear Failure

“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?

Identity: Peeling Away the Layers

“I am a citizen of the world.” 
― Sylvia Beach

Question for my readers: What are your layers of identity?

There has been much debate in the Democratic party regarding whether identity politics is what caused the party to lose the presidential election. I have my own perspective on the topic which I will not go into here, except to say that each of the identity groups have real issues and concerns that need to be heard. I hope that eventually we find a way to unite as one collective voice to support each other’s causes.

My real topic for this post is musing on what happened when I started thinking about my own identity. I discovered during this thought experiment that on any given day I may identify as something entirely different, and sometimes conflicting with other parts of my identity. Here are a few of the identities I discovered:

  • Daughter of parent with schizophrenia
  • Survivor of abuse
  • Female (feminist)
  • Short person
  • left-handed
  • Nurse
  • White person
  • Middle class
  • College educated
  • Previously lower socioeconomic with no college degree
  • Mental Health Advocate
  • Environmental advocate
  • Human rights advocate
  • Research professional
  • Mother
  • Person who has anxiety/depression
  • Person who recovered from eating disorder
  • Aunt
  • Sister
  • divorced
  • Friend
  • Fiance
  • US citizen
  • Blogger
  • Writer (wannabe)
  • Caretaker
  • Griever of brother who passed away
  • Parent of child with mental health issues
  • Spiritual person
  • Runner

Granted, many of these “Identities” are self-made and not what I was born into. Nonetheless, each one represents a part of myself that relates to a larger group of like-minded individuals.

World Trade Center Memorial wall

What would it take for all of us to peel away all of the layers of identity to see each other’s true essence? We are all here right now, on this earth, at the same time. This convergence of time and space that provides us all with this home on earth gives us all at least one thing in common to build upon.

What condition will we leave this world in when our short lives end?

Coping with College Stress

I am enjoying my classes this semester and managing pretty well despite the increased workload on top of working full-time. I am excited that there is an end in sight, and I should be able to finish my master’s program by mid-August.

As hard as it has been, in some ways being an adult learner has its advantages, because I have a different perspective from this vantage point. I have made it through enough of life’s challenges such as balancing family and work, as well as some significant losses, to be able to fully appreciate this opportunity to continue to learn and grow.

Unlike my younger counterparts in college, I don’t have to deal with the same kinds of pressures they face.  Being away from home for the first time, navigating relationships, trying to live up to academic and athletic expectations, and making decisions about alcohol, drugs, and sexual activities can be quite daunting for these young adults at times.

Being a  young student can be an exciting and wonderful experience, and it can also be the source of a lot of additional stress, leading to depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. It is so important for young people to know they have a place to turn when they experience emotional difficulties.

Finding the path – Where can college students go for help?

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Active Minds is a wonderful organization that is making its presence known on college campuses in order to provide support to students who are struggling with a mental health issue. They are working hard to diminish the stigma associated with mental health issues by hosting campus-wide mental health awareness events and helping students to navigate where to find help when they need it.

I applaude their efforts and wish there would have been something like that when I was an 18-year-old attempting to go to college for the first time. I could have used someone to help me find resources to deal with my anxiety and eating disorder during their early phases.

I don’t have any regrets now but I am a firm believer that the earlier one receives help for any type of mental illness, the better the outcome and less negative impact it will have on that person’s life.

Active Minds supports the goal to make it as easy to access mental health care as it is to access care for physical illnesses, by eliminating the obstacles like stigma and lack of resources that prevent people from seeking help.

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.

 

 

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


Suicide Prevention

tide pool photoBecause of all of the media attention Robin William’s and other recent celebrity suicides have attracted, it is an excellent time to focus on sharing as many resources as possible about how to address these issues and save lives.  The National  Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention is a public-private partnership advancing the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention. According to their annual report, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death for all Americans, the 2nd leading cause of death for adults ages 25-34, and the 3rd leading cause of death for youth ages 15-24. I am fortunate that my daughter survived her suicide attempt and hope that through education and awareness, these statistics can be greatly reduced so that nobody has to endure such a loss.