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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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

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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.

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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.

The Loss of Relationships

st john beach

It is a sad truth that sometimes relationships are lost either because of someone’s struggles with a mental illness, or sometimes as  the result of becoming healthy again.  I like this poem by Elizabeth Bishop, which at first glance seems to describe such losses in casual  terms, as if they are of little consequence.  It is only when taking a deeper look that one is able to recognize the true impact of these moments of loss.

One Art

By Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day.  Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel.   None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch.   And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones.  And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster. 
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied.   It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
 
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I first came across this poem in the movie, In Her Shoes.   The movie is about the impact of a mother’s mental illness on her children, her spouse, and her mother.  I cry whenever I watch the scene where the sisters are talking about their memories of their mom’s manic episodes.  Here is a clip from that movie:
 

Why Do I Blog About Mental Health? – A 2-part Question

Blog for Mental Health

Part A – I love to write

child-writing-credit-istock-91513956-630x420I am obsessed with writing I still remember my first diary that I kept tucked under my pillow.  I remember how it smelled, how it felt to put the tiny key into the shiny gold key hole, unlocking a space where I could write down all of the things that were swirling around in my head.  I remember thinking that my brain was like an attic, and every time I wrote it felt like I was sweeping up its dusty corners.  I felt like the little mermaid swimming into her secret world under water, safe from everything above the ocean’s surface.

sisters at beach

Writing gives me something to do with all the memories that pop up unexpectedly at inappropriate timesI have learned from experience it doesn’t pay to impulsively spout off a random story about my mom’s propensity to hear voices at the dinner table, when others are sharing their stories about family mealtime.  The awkward silence and puzzled looks on people’s faces quickly taught me to refrain from this type of sharing.

Writing is an acceptable way to deal with my obsessive thinkingMost days I wake up with a bunch of thoughts coming down the shoot, like chocolates on a conveyor belt.  I have found that it is easier to write them down than to engage in the many other unhealthy outlets that I have experimented with over the years.  There are the words I share here in my blog, and the ones I reserve for my journal.   Both venues provide an outlet to release the thoughts and feelings that visit themselves upon me every day.

Part B – Mental Health is Important

Mental illness impacts all of our lives – Since I have opened up and shared with people about the mental health issues in my family, many people have begun to share their experiences with me.  It turns out that at one time or another most people have experienced a mental health issue or have had a family member or close friend who has grappled with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, bipolar, alcohol or substance abuse, or any of the many other neurological imbalances that can affect the human brain.

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Relief from symptoms and recovery are possible – We can’t give up on searching for the best treatment options. These things are within our reach if we support organizations, legislation, research, and individuals’ efforts to seek optimal mental health.

em skatingBlogging provides a positive outlet to cope with my own personal experiences –  Although it has been many years since I had an eating disorder, the underlying issues of anxiety and depression must always be managed.  I still live with the scars left from living with my mom’s mental illness (schizophrenia), and still strive to learn from my daughter’s struggles with depression, a suicide attempt, and an eating disorder.  For some reason, my life has been defined in part by these experiences, and I want to maintain a positive outlook.

Blogging is a great way to connect with other people who feel passionate about mental healthI appreciate and celebrate all of the many wonderful mental health bloggers who open up their lives, hearts, and souls, giving a glimpse into the many facets of living with mental illness.

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CHEERS TO ALL OF THE MENTAL HEALTH BLOGGERS

“I pledge my commitment to the Blog for Mental Health 2014 Project.  I will blog about mental health topics not only for myself, but for others.  By displaying this badge, I show my pride, dedication, and acceptance for mental health.  I use this to promote mental health education in the struggle to erase stigma.”

 

Its Not Just A Cold…or (Fill in the Blank)

coldThis week I have attempted to write a post on a few occasions but couldn’t quite motivate myself to follow through with the ideas that now lie dormant in my draft box.  I am suffering from Adenovirus aka, the virus responsible for the common cold.  In my case, it is a mild cold, even though I still feel like someone has shoved a bucket of slime up my nose and down my throat.  At its worst, Adenovirus can cause more serious issues such as croup, bronchitis, and pneumonia.  So I suppose I am lucky that my 5-day cold has resulted in a minor inconvenience this week and will pass quickly.  And while I was still able to experience some pleasure during my week, I can look back now and see how many ways in which it has slowed me down and caused me angst.  Here are a few of the more irritating symptoms:

large_insomniaInterruption of my sleep – Several times a night I awakened myself with snoring, coughing, sputtering, and just plain not being able to find a comfortable position.

Feelings of achiness and malaise – This made it very difficult to sit through the multitude of meetings without intermittently dozing off to sleep or shaking my leg uncontrollably from all of the Sudafed and caffeine I was hopped up on.

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Disruption of normal routine – I wanted to stay on my training schedule for the upcoming triathlon and started off great this week running and swimming like I’d never done before. By the end of the week, I opted for lying on the couch in a crumpled heap of sweat and exhaustion.

Labile mood – It has been a challenging week at work, with auditors here from two separate companies, each reminding me of the many ways in which I should be thinking about a career that requires less attention to detail.  My ability to remain assertive and composed vacillated greatly.  I have never been known for my ability to conceal my emotions, as my face involuntarily outs me whenever possible, and this week it betrayed me on several occasions.  I hate it when someone asks me if I am okay, and especially when it is an auditor!!

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Decline in appearance – This is the one that really gets to me – being told I look awful.  Yes, I heard that from a few people yesterday.  By the end of the week I lacked the energy and cosmetic skill to conceal the outward signs that my cold had inflicted upon me – the red nose, puffy eyes, flared up eczema, not to mention I didn’t have time to wash or blow dry my hair which wildly strayed from the pony tail I’d assembled earlier that morning.

Erratic eating habits – some people starve their cold, I prefer to continue shoving a variety of unhealthy foods into my mouth futily attempting to see if I can prompt my taste buds to wake up and start doing their job.

All of my symptoms elicited people’s empathetic responses – and I heard over and over, “why don’t you go home and rest”, “why are you here, you need to take care of yourself”, “what can I do for you?”

EmpathyI think you get the picture, but put that picture in a different frame and the reaction my be very different.  Let’s say instead of adenovirus, it is depression, an eating disorderbipolar, anxiety disorder or any other mental health issue that has caused this litany of symptoms.  Then how do we react to ourselves, and how do others react to us?  Let’s say instead of a few days of minor disruptions, it stretches into weeks, months, or years.  Society is much more tolerant of an illness it perceives to be out of our control than the ones that we are supposedly responsible for.  Perhaps I had some hand in getting a cold, a few too many late nights, a few too many sweaty jogs in the cold, and not taking care of myself.  Yet nobody told me I shouldn’t feel that way or that I should put mind over matter and cheer up.  In reality, we don’t have as much say in our health as we would like to, and we may have conditions that make us more susceptible to certain kinds of illnesses, such as asthma, diabetes, etc.  Does having a mental illness make us any less worthy of care?

Let’s stop blaming ourselves and others when faced with a mental illness.  Let’s offer the same support, encouragement, and love that would lead anyone with an illness to seek the help needed to begin the healing process.  Nobody wishes to feel bad whether it is because of a common cold or a mood disorder.heart-symbol-vector-315085

Can I Feel Your Pain?

girls in oceanWhen we see a loved one suffering from emotional or physical pain, it seems natural to want to ease his or her suffering.  Sometimes we can have such a strong reaction that it feels like we are actually experiencing his or her pain.  But can we really feel someone else’s pain?  More importantly, can we really help another person when we believe we must suffer with them?  If you have ever witnessed a woman in labor, you will know the answer to these questions.  The only one who really feels the excrutiating pain of the contractions, like waves battering the shoreline, is the one who is in labor.  Yet this knowledge does not discount the partner’s desire to be a part of the experience and provide assistance.  Couples invest hours of time preparing themselves for child-birth so that each will know what their roles will be in the process.   Unfortunately, we don’t always have the luxury of preparing for our role as “coach” when someone we love encounters a mental health crisis.

During the peak of my daughter’s struggles with her eating disorder and depression, I came to the realization that the only way to truly help was to find an outlet for my own reactions so that I could be fully present to her in a calm, rational manner.   In those moments of doubt and insecurity, my heart learned that as much as I wanted to, I could neither take on her pain nor make it go away.  The job of working through the pain was hers, and hers alone.   My only job was to show her love and acceptance regardless of how unworthy she felt.  Being there in the hospital with her, playing cards, sitting quietly holding her hand, helping her to take care of chores that had been neglected, and laughing with her when she needed a reprieve were the simple and important actions that I could take.

Eventually all of us will know what it is like to experience disappointment, loss, trauma, or illness.  In these times of pain and crisis, it is comforting to have the empathy and compassion of our loved ones.  Yet reaching out can be difficult when faced with the prospect of disappointing or causing them pain.  Often we do not ask for help because we are afraid of how our family and friends will react.   The fear of causing someone else sleepless nights and stress can win out over our need for support, deepening our suffering.  Sending someone who is suffering the message that we can be there for them without coming apart can impact their decision to ask for our help.

In the past, I found the Familie’s Anonymous website to have some helpful pointers.  Here is one piece of literature that I made sure to keep handy when I noticed I was trying to take away my daughter’s pain.

Helping

From Families Anonymous website

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.

NAMI | About Psychosocial Treatments

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The article below from the NAMI website contains some great tips about treatment options that can be used alone or in addition to medications, depending upon the nature of one’s mental illness.  Recovering from a mental illness takes time, effort, dedication, and as much support as possible to prevent one from becoming discouraged with the ups and downs of the process.  Don’t be afraid to try some of these suggestions, especially if you feel like you are stuck in a rut and unable to move forward.

NAMI | About Psychosocial Treatments.

Mastering Worry

frying pan1I can’t believe I have gotten this far along in my blogging career without writing about worry.  In fact, I didn’t even have a worry category or tag until today (well, I will, right after I complete this blog).  This revelation is so monumental that I didn’t even worry about the skillet I left on the burner so that I could come into the living room to write it down.  It wasn’t until I was alerted by the smell of burning oil that I realized I had actually left a burner on and smoke was billowing from the kitchen.  Not to mention the fact that I am now going to be late for work.  Progress or cause for more worry??

Could it be that I have actually learned enough techniques that this part of my psyche has somehow taken a back seat to other more pressing issues, such as living in the moment?  And what happens if I stop worrying?  Will I burn the house down?  This thought is cause for great alarm!

I am worried that my capacity for worry is actually diminishing lately, as the pendulum swings into the other direction of complacency.  While others at work fret about meeting their deadlines and turning in their monthly reports, I find myself waiting until the last-minute just because I can.  Perhaps the fact that I work with a bunch of professional worriers has put it into perspective for me.  There is an ongoing debate we have at work about whether we were attracted to our jobs as clinical research professionals because we were a bit obsessive compulsive, or whether the job made us this way.  I think I know the answer to this question, having seen a procession of regular, non-worrying people come and go in our department, while the die-hard worriers have hung in there for the past 15+ years, clinging to our desperate need to control something!    We torture ourselves pouring over documents, only to have some auditor come in and find the one “i” that wasn’t dotted and the one “t” left uncrossed.  Research is the perfect breeding ground for someone who can never be satisfied with a job well down.  There are plenty of enforcers coming along behind us to let us know we have not achieved anything close to perfection.  I was stricken when my co-worker and I asked our boss which of us was the most anal retentive, and she said that it was neither because there were others in the department that were much more neurotic.  I was highly insulted and can’t tell you how many days I spent worrying about that one!

I wish I could say that I am now the master of all of my worries, but not so.   I still grapple with what seems to be a family legacy (from my father – thanks dad, didn’t see that one coming) each and every waking moment of my day.  Fortunately, before you decide to stop reading and give up hope, I can tell you that it has actually gotten better.  Yes, there are ways to put worry in its place.  You don’t have to be a prisoner to your worries any more.

Phobia_1So first, here are the worries that I have mastered: fear of flying, public speaking, social situations, heights, elevators, crowds, dying, going “crazy” (as I used to refer to it before I realized how demeaning this term was), gaining weight, going to hell, the future, my health, and many more, mostly related to what people think about me.  

Here are the worries I still have issues with:  worrying about my children, my grandchild, family and friends, going to prison (not sure what this one is about), getting fired, and looking stupid and/or making an ass of myself; playing cornhole, softball, bowling, volleyball, or any other sport that involves tossing a ball under-handed. 

me worryFor expediency sake, I have oversimplified both the magnitude of my worries and the recovery process.  Chronic worrying can be debilitating and zap one’s energy and zest for life.  There were times (and still sometimes are) when I felt like there was a part of my brain that was data-mining for something to worry about, and this led to a lot of misery.  It is much better now, thanks to a huge amount of effort on my part.

Here are some things that worked for me over the years:

  • Listening to Lucinda Bassett’s tapes, over and over again
  • Going to a support group for anxiety
  • Taking medication
  • Doing the four questions from The Work developed by Byron Katie
  • Having great friends with whom I can share my worries and laugh about them
  • Medication
  • Relaxation techniques
  • Counseling with a good, understanding therapist
  • Cognitive Behavioral Techniques
  • Attending workshops and seminars
  • Regular exercise
  • Limiting time spent with people who are negative
  • Creative expression – The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron is a great method of tapping into one’s inner creativity
  • Developing a sense of humor -watching funny movies and reading books that make me laugh helps keep my mind occupied.  I enjoy reading/listening to books on tape by David SedarisHis lighthearted approach to the years he spent struggling with severe obsessive compulsive behaviors and tics brings a smile to my face every time I listen to him. 
  • Years of practicing all of the above

I will leave you with this MUST LISTEN TO song if you are like me and worry about being liked.  I’m still working on this one!