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.

 

 

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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.

 

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.

Mental Health Lessons learned from the Grand Canyon

SAM_0343At dinner a couple of weeks ago my friends and I were reminiscing about our fantastic trip to the grand canyon in 2011.  We had such fun recalling the trip that I decided to re-post what I wrote shortly after our return.   Not only did I have a great time while there, but I learned some valuable lessons as well.

I recently returned from an awe-inspiring 3-day backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon. For those of you who have known my struggles with anxiety in the past, you know that it was nothing less than a triumphant experience for me.   The gradual recovery from my fear of flying, heights, and dying (to name a few) over the years has turned this trip into a symbol of hope and gratitude for me.   I’ve always been one to push through my fears, and worked hard at not allowing them to keep me from doing things.  I’ve flown on a regular basis for work, vacations, and to see my daughters, and even gone to Africa on a medical mission trip.  What makes this trip different is that it represents a return to the girl I used to be – the one that didn’t think twice before undertaking an adventure.   It was my dear friend who suggested the trip, and we joked that as soon as she brought it up I said “yes”!   How wonderful it feels to be in a place where I am saying “yes” to things I’ve always wanted to do without the hesitation that anxiety brings.  I’m not saying that I never have moments of anxiety.  Sometimes simple, every day experiences can induce more panic than the big challenges.   That’s why I have learned to fully appreciate and enjoy any moment where fear is no longer an obstacle.

In the first few days after returning from my trip, I realized that this experience illustrated many lessons about how to handle the challenges of a mental health issue, which I would like to share.  Although some of them may seem cliché or obvious, anyone who has struggled with a mental illness knows how important it is to be reminded of them when things get tough.

Lesson #1 – Be Prepared and Seek Help from the Experts:  This one seems obvious but can be difficult when one’s judgment is clouded by a mental illness.  We were going to take the trip by ourselves but my friend made the brilliant suggestion of going with an experienced tour group.  This was an excellent suggestion, as they brought the expertise that we lacked and provided the necessities that we would have overlooked.  Being prepared for our trip also included physical conditioning and nutrition, learning about the terrain, weather, camping, backpacking, and asking any questions that came to mind ahead of time.  This seems to be a weakness of mine, as I tend to go into things blindly.  I am so thankful my friends were on top of this and kept me well-informed.

When it comes to one’s mental health, the first step is finding and relying on a good professional to be your ‘tour guide” and provide you with the answers and tools you need to effectively deal with your issues.

Lesson #2 – Sometimes the Downhill is Harder than the Uphill:  This seems counterintuitive.  Prior to the trip, I had an argument with my husband, who had done the same hiking trip years earlier.  He insisted that the downhill would be harder than going uphill and I insisted that couldn’t be right.  I don’t often like to admit he is right, but was he ever!  After 7-1/2 miles of downhill, my legs and body were weary from using my muscles to balance myself with each step, and pacing became difficult as I felt I was being propelled forward.  Each step downward became harder, as I tried to lessen the impact and maintain my footing.  The uphill seemed much easier, as I could take my time getting my footing, without the strain of trying to keep my balance.

This is often true for those with mental health issues.  Once over a big uphill hurdle, it seems like the return to everyday activities would be all downhill.   That is when it becomes evident that sometimes daily life requires more effort, as we strive to maintain our balance and prevent being propelled back into the stressors that can wear us down.

Lesson #3 – Take Care of Little Problems Before they Become Big:  Our wonderful tour guide’s wisdom came in handy with this one.   At the first indication of a blister, she had us stop hiking and tape the vulnerable areas to prevent further breakdown and discomfort.  This was true for any other aches and pains as well.  Resting, rehydrating, wrapping our muscles were all key to making the trip more pleasant.

This is a tough lesson for those with mental health issues who often believe they should tough it out when symptoms begin to resurface, erroneously thinking it is a sign of weakness to ask for additional help.  Catching problems early and being willing to take medication, seek counseling, and support from others is key to preventing a painful crisis later on.

Lesson #4 – Don’t Carry Too Much Baggage:  I talked earlier about being prepared, and the three of us had a hard time figuring out the difference between bringing too much and too little.  Our tour guide assisted us with this, as we sat in the parking lot deciding what to put in our packs.  She gently but firmly coaxed us into leaving certain items behind, while affirming that other items would be of good use.  It was difficult for the three of us, who are known to over pack, but we were thankful not to have the extra 5 pounds after three days of hiking with the 30 lb.+ packs.  I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t wish I had some of those items at certain times during the trip, but I got by without them and the lighter load made it worth it.

Sometimes those with mental health issues need assistance in figuring out the things that are complicating their lives and contributing to the unnecessary baggage that weighs them down emotionally and/or physically.  Being able to leave some baggage behind in order to move forward is essential to the recovery process.

Lesson #5 – Stop to Enjoy the View:  When the hike became particularly grueling it was easy to lose sight of the magnitude of the scenes surrounding us.  Inevitably one of us would finally realize this and stop to take a look, prompting the rest of us to do so as well.   I didn’t have a camera with me and it became a joke about how I impatiently chided my friend about slowing things down to take pictures.   Now I am more than grateful to have those memories captured – not only because it made me stop to take in all of the smells, sounds, and views, but to see it through her eyes, when looking at the beautiful pictures.

When one is in recovery from a mental illness, it is easy to have tunnel vision and not want to stop and see the beauty of a blue sky, flower garden, or the friend in front of you.  Sometimes it takes a good friend to remind you to slow down.  Being able to do this enhances one’s recovery and is what makes it worth pursuing.

Lesson #6 – There is Something Bigger Than Me:   Some call it God, a higher power, mother nature, the great spirit, and/or many other terms over the years.  In those three days I came to realize that we are a small part of the vast beauty that exists in our world.  I’m glad to know that I am not the center of the universe, and that its existence is not dependent upon me.   One can allow little problems to seem so overwhelming that we become paralyzed and afraid to move forward.

It is nice to regain perspective and have the freedom to make choices and mistakes, knowing that life’s “imperfections” are what ultimately shape our world and make it more interesting.  Just as the Grand Canyon was carved over millions of years by the Colorado river, one never knows what beauty may later come from what was once perceived as a mistake.

Lesson #7 – Circumstances Can Make Friends of Strangers:  We had the pleasure of meeting a couple who was part of our tour group.  Prior to our trip, we checked them out using the latest social media tools, and assumed that we had nothing in common with them based on their profiles.  This theory was immediately proven wrong within the first few hours of meeting, when were all riding together in the tour guide’s SUV.   The woman and I started having a discussion about hormones and figured out we had both recently been diagnosed with under active thyroid.  Soon we were all laughing and sharing stories.  Her husband, who was quiet in the presence of five women, handled us with a dry sense of humor, piping in with comments along the way.  We came to know and love our young, 24-year old free-spirited tour guide as well.  Since we’ve returned, we have exchanged e-mails and kept in touch, all drawn together by this incredible experience.

I love that about life.   Whether it is on a quiet subway ride to work or during the most grim moment of dealing with a mental illness in the hospital or a support group, with an open mind, one may meet someone who offers friendship and encouragement when it is needed the most.

Lesson #8 – One Person’s Failure is Another Person’s Victory:  There are many options to seeing the Grand Canyon.  Day trips, lookout points, challenging backpacking trips, alone or with tour groups.  It was amazing to see the variety of people who were there – old, young, disabled, different sizes and shapes; all there to challenge and enhance their lives with this incredible experience; all moving at their own paces.  I can’t imagine doing what some spoke of doing, going rim to rim to rim in one day, or being part of the long-distance running groups that skirted by us on the narrow paths, with sweat dripping down them.  Other’s couldn’t imagine doing what we did, preferring to go instead to an overlook to see the views.

For those who have mental health issues, it is easy to allow comparisons to others make us feel like a failure.  “Why can’t I do what they did?”  “Why is this so hard for me?”  The only person I can compare to is myself.  Accepting setbacks as a part of recovery and moving forward from there is the key to recovery.  One day we may be able to do things with ease that another day may seem impossible, and sometimes it is necessary to reset our goals, settling for the day trip in order to see the view, rather than the 3 day trip.  It is easier to move forward when we accept this rather than comparing to those around us, who have their own set of circumstances and challenges that may be completely different.

Lesson #9 – Remember the Joy, Forget the Agony:  By the end of our trip, we were exhausted and sore.  The last mile was bittersweet, as we took more frequent breaks to ease our muscle pain and take in our last breaths of the Canyon air and the panoramic view.  My recovery period seemed to be longer than my younger counterparts, and it took me a week to shake off the fatigue and muscle aches that now seemed like the only reminder of my trip.  In those first few days I couldn’t imagine how I had done it or that I would ever want to do it again.  Yet one week later we found ourselves missing it terribly and wanting to go back for another trip.  I’m sure I will one day, based solely on the joy I experienced, pushing the aches, pains, and fatigue far to the back of my mind.

Remembering the happy times is vital to one’s recovery.  Focusing on the joys experienced in life may seem bittersweet when one doesn’t feel like getting out of bed, pushed down by the pain of a mental illness.  Remembering these moments of joy when faced with doubt about the possibility of ever experiencing peace of mind again can be enough to motivate us to do what is necessary to get back on the path to recovery.

Lesson #10 – Hold on When the Wind Blows too Hard:  The most terrifying, yet exhilarating part of my trip was when we hiked out to Plateau Point to see the sunset.  This was to be the highlight of our trip, with promises of a pink and golden sky as the sun set over the huge rocks around us.  As we hiked the mile and a half to get there, it became apparent by the cloudy, overcast sky, that we were not even going to be able to see the sun.  The disappointment was palpable, yet we continued on, with the slightest hope that the clouds would dissipate into a miraculous shimmering, crimson sunset.  Instead, just as we got to the big lookout rock, there was a huge gust of wind, making it almost impossible to walk across it without bracing oneself.  Still, I was compelled to make it to the overlook railing.  I grabbed onto the railing just in time for another gust of wind that didn’t seem to let up.  I found myself grasping onto the railing, standing next to another young woman, and we instantly bonded over laughs of sheer joy and terror, as it became apparent we would not be able to let go until the wind subsided.

This experience became the defining moment of my trip.  Nature was in charge, not me, and all I could do was hold on and enjoy the moment.  My friends were not able to make it to the rail, and sat instead on the rock until they felt safe enough to move.  Their moment of terror was my moment of freedom.

It is good to be reminded that we are not always in control of the agenda.  Life has its own, and when it sweeps one up in a gust of wind, all one can do is hold on and enjoy the moment.

Lesson #11 – The Transition Back is Hard:  This is my least favorite lesson.  I wanted to believe my life had been transformed by this exhilerating experience, and that I would be able to conquer anything now that I had tapped into my previously unknown reserves of courage.  Going back to work and facing personal stressors would be a breeze now – right?  Wrong!  This week seemed even harder, like jumping into an ice-cold swimming pool.  Going back to all of the stress and mundane tasks of life was no fun compared to such an incredible experience.  Rather than being renewed, I felt unmotivated.  It has been a week since we completed our hike, and I am just now getting my equilibrium.

Transitioning from various situations can be particularly challenging to those with mental health issues.  Incorporating some basic coping skills into one’s life as well as patience and understanding can help to make these transitions go a bit more smoothly.

The final Lesson

This sentiment is never more true than when one commits to maintaining his/her mental health.  There are times when one may forget or decide to stop doing what is necessary to maintain mental and emotional stability, ultimately finding themselves hitting bottom once again.   Surviving these setbacks is dependent upon one’s willingness to take the necessary steps to climb back out of the hole.  Going back to the basics such as seeking professional help, attending doctor’s appointments, utilizing medication if necessary, and taking care of one’s self are mandatory elements of this process and will lead to a more successful recovery.

I look forward to my next adventure.  Until then, I will make an effort to apply the lessons learned in the Grand Canyon to my every day life.

Stop Minimizing Mental Illness: Worst Things to Say | Breaking Bipolar

Stop Minimizing Mental Illness: Worst Things to Say | Breaking Bipolar

I read this on the HealthyPlace.com website and thought it made some excellent points about the importance of providing support to those with mental illness in a non-judgmental way.

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Recognizing Depression


It is not always easy to recognize the broad array of symptoms associated with depression. The following article provides a basic overview of the different types of depressive illness.   As with any illness, early recognition and intervention is critical to ensuring the best possible outcome.  No one should suffer unnecessarily when there are many options available to help alleviate the symptoms of depression.

http://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/the-many-faces-of-depression

Strapped to the Struggle Bus

Lately I have felt like I’ve been “strapped to the struggle bus” as my daughter would say. I blame it on the stresses of this time of year – post-holiday letdown, cold days and lack of sunlight, recent back-to-back road trips to visit my daughters, upheavals at work and less free-time because I am working towards my master’s degree. I started feeling down on myself about not doing a better job of managing my anxiety levels, thinking I should be beyond all that by now. My inner dialogue can really do a number on me, telling me that I wish things came easier to me, like it does for everyone else. It is funny how I can talk myself into believing this is true. I actually have no idea how hard or easy it is for anyone else. Fortunately I have lots of loving supportive people in my life to remind me of this and to help me get through these times. As a few of my friends have told me, “you should go back and read some of your own posts…..”

I am thankful for these reminders of how far I’ve come and what helps me get through these occasional bumps in the road.  I know I have re-posted the following post before, but it is my own personal favorite and a great reminder of the basic elements of maintaining my own mental health:

Mental Health Lessons learned from the Grand Canyon

I recently returned from an awe-inspiring 3-day backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon.  For those of you who have known my struggles with anxiety in the past, you know that it was nothing less than a triumphant experience for me.   The gradual recovery from my fear of flying, heights, and dying (to name a few) over the years has turned this trip into a symbol of hope and gratitude for me.   I’ve always been one to push through my fears, and worked hard at not allowing them to keep me from doing things.  I’ve flown on a regular basis for work, vacations, and to see my daughters, and even gone to Africa on a medical mission trip.  What makes this trip different is that it represents a return to the girl I used to be – the one that didn’t think twice before undertaking an adventure.   It was my dear friend who suggested the trip, and we joked that as soon as she brought it up I said “yes”!   How wonderful it feels to be in a place where I am saying “yes” to things I’ve always wanted to do without the hesitation that anxiety brings.  I’m not saying that I never have moments of anxiety.  Sometimes simple, every day experiences can induce more panic than the big challenges.   That’s why I have learned to fully appreciate and enjoy any moment where fear is no longer an obstacle.

In the first few days after returning from my trip, I realized that this experience illustrated many lessons about how to handle the challenges of a mental health issue, which I would like to share.  Although some of them may seem cliche or obvious, anyone who has struggled with a mental illness knows how important it is to be reminded of them when things get tough.

Lesson #1 – Be Prepared and Seek Help from the Experts:  This one seems obvious but can be difficult when one’s judgment is clouded by a mental illness.  We were going to take the trip by ourselves but my other dear friend made the brilliant suggestion of going with an experienced tour group.  This was an excellent suggestion, as they brought the expertise that we lacked and provided the necessities that we would have overlooked.  Being prepared for our trip also included physical conditioning and nutrition, learning about the terrain, weather, camping, backpacking, and asking any questions that came to mind ahead of time.  This seems to be a weakness of mine, as I tend to go into things blindly.  I am so thankful my friends were on top of this and kept me well-informed.

When it comes to one’s mental health, the first step is finding and relying on a good professional to be your ‘tour guide” and provide you with the answers and tools you need to effectively deal with your issues.

Lesson #2 – Sometimes the Downhill is Harder than the Uphill:  This seems counterintuitive.  Prior to the trip, I had an argument with my husband, who had done the same hiking trip years earlier.  He insisted that the downhill would be harder than going uphill and I insisted that couldn’t be right.  I don’t often like to admit he is right, but was he ever!  After 7-1/2 miles of downhill, my legs and body were weary from using my muscles to balance myself with each step, and pacing became difficult as I felt I was being propelled forward.  Each step downward became harder, as I tried to lessen the impact and maintain my footing.  The uphill seemed much easier, as I could take my time getting my footing, without the strain of trying to keep my balance.

This is often true for those with mental health issues.  Once over a big uphill hurdle, it seems like the return to every day activities would be all downhill.   That is when it becomes evident that sometimes daily life requires more effort, as we strive to maintain our balance and prevent being propelled back into the stressors that can wear us down.

Lesson #3 – Take Care of Little Problems Before they Become Big:  Our wonderful tour guide’s wisdom came in handy with this one.   At the first indication of a blister, she had us stop hiking and tape the vulnerable areas to prevent further breakdown and discomfort.  This was true for any other aches and pains as well.  Resting, hydrating, wrapping our muscles were all key to making the trip more pleasant.

This is a tough lesson for those with mental health issues who often believe they should tough it out when symptoms begin to resurface, erroneously thinking it is a sign of weakness to ask for additional help.  Catching problems early and being willing to take medication, seek counseling, and support from others is key to preventing a painful crisis later on.

Lesson #4 – Don’t Carry Too Much Baggage:  I talked earlier about being prepared, and the three of us had a hard time figuring out the difference between bringing too much and too little.  Our tour guide assisted us with this, as we sat in the parking lot deciding what to put in our packs.  She gently but firmly coaxed us into leaving certain items behind, while affirming that other items would be of good use.  It was difficult for the three of us, who are known to over pack, but we were thankful not to have the extra 5 pounds after three days of hiking with the 30 lb.+ packs.  I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t wish I had some of those items at certain times during the trip, but I got by without them and the lighter load made it worth it.

Sometimes those with mental health issues need assistance in figuring out the things that are complicating their lives and contributing to the unnecessary baggage that weighs them down emotionally and/or physically.  Being able to leave some baggage behind in order to move forward is essential to the recovery process.

Lesson #5 – Stop to Enjoy the View:  When the hike became particularly grueling it was easy to lose sight of the magnitude of the scenes surrounding us.  Inevitably one of us would finally realize this and stop to take a look, prompting the rest of us to do so as well.   I didn’t have a camera with me and it became a joke about how I impatiently chided my friend about slowing things down to take pictures.   Now I am more than grateful to have those memories captured – not only because it made me stop to take in all of the smells, sounds, and views, but to see it through her eyes, when looking at the beautiful pictures.

When one is in recovery from a mental illness, it is easy to have tunnel vision and not want to stop and see the beauty of a blue sky, flower garden, or the friend in front of you.  Sometimes it takes a good friend to remind you to slow down.  Being able to do this enhances one’s recovery and is what makes it worth pursuing.

Lesson #6 – There is Something Bigger Than Me:   Some call it God, a higher power, mother nature, the great spirit, and/or many other terms over the years.  In those three days I came to realize that we are a small part of the vast beauty that exists in our world.  I’m glad to know that I am not the center of the universe, and that its existence is not dependent upon me.   One can allow little problems to seem so overwhelming that we become paralyzed and afraid to move forward.

It is nice to regain perspective and have the freedom to make choices and mistakes, knowing that life’s “imperfections” are what ultimately shape our world and make it more interesting.  Just as the Grand Canyon was carved over millions of years by the Colorado river, one never knows what beauty may later come from what was once perceived as a mistake.

Lesson #7 – Circumstances Can Make Friends of Strangers:  We had the pleasure of meeting a couple who was part of our tour group.  Prior to our trip, we checked them out using the latest social media tools, and assumed that we had nothing in common with them based on their profiles.  This theory was immediately proven wrong within the first few hours of meeting, when were all riding together in the tour guide’s SUV.   The woman and I started having a discussion about hormones and figured out we had both recently been diagnosed with underactive thyroid.  Soon we were all laughing and sharing stories.  Her husband, who was quiet in the presence of five women, handled us with a dry sense of humor, piping in with comments along the way.  We came to know and love our young, 24-year old free-spirited tour guide as well.  Since we’ve returned, we have exchanged e-mails and kept in touch, all drawn together by this incredible experience.

I love that about life.   Whether it is on a quiet subway ride to work or during the most grim moment of dealing with a mental illness in the hospital or a support group, with an open mind, one may meet someone who offers friendship and encouragement when it is needed the most.

Lesson #8 – One Person’s Failure is Another Person’s Victory:  There are many options to seeing the Grand Canyon.  Day trips, lookout points, challenging backpacking trips, alone or with tour groups.  It was amazing to see the variety of people who were there – old, young, disabled, different sizes and shapes; all there to challenge and enhance their lives with this incredible experience; all moving at their own paces.  I can’t imagine doing what some spoke of doing, going rim to rim to rim in one day, or being part of the long-distance running groups that skirted by us on the narrow paths, with sweat dripping down them.  Other’s couldn’t imagine doing what we did, preferring to go instead to an overlook to see the views.

For those who have mental health issues, it is easy to allow comparisons to others make one feel like a failure.  “Why can’t I do what they did?”  “Why is this so hard for me?”  The only person one can compare to is oneself.  Accepting setbacks as a part of recovery and moving forward from there is the key to recovery.  One day we may be able to do things with ease that another day may seem impossible, and sometimes it is necessary to reset our goals, settling for the day trip in order to see the view, rather than the 3 day trip.  It is easier to move forward when one accepts this rather than comparing to those around us, who have their own set of circumstances and challenges that may be completely different.

Lesson #9 – Remember the Joy, Forget the Agony:  By the end of our trip, we were exhausted and sore.  The last mile was bittersweet, as we took more frequent breaks to ease our muscle pain and take in our last breaths of the Canyon air and the panoramic view.  My recovery period seemed to be longer than my younger counterparts, and it took me a week to shake off the fatigue and muscle aches that now seemed like the only reminder of my trip.  In those first few days I couldn’t imagine how I had done it  or that I would ever want to do it again.  Yet one week later we found ourselves missing it terribly and wanting to go back for another trip.  I’m sure I will one day, based solely on the joy I experienced, pushing the aches, pains, and fatigue far to the back of my mind.

This is vital to one’s recovery as well.  Focusing on the joys experienced in life may seem bittersweet when one doesn’t feel like getting out of bed, pushed down by the pain of a mental illness.  Remembering these moments of joy when one is faced with doubt about the possibility of ever experiencing that again can be enough to motivate us to do what is necessary to get back on the path to recovery.

Lesson #10 – Hold on When the Wind Blows too Hard:  The most terrifying, yet exhilarating part of my trip was when we hiked out to Plateau Point to see the sunset.  This was to be the highlight of our trip, with promises of a pink and golden sky as the sun set over the huge rocks around us.  As we hiked the mile and a half to get there, it became apparent by the cloudy, overcast sky, that we were not even going to be able to see the sun.  The disappointment was palpable, yet we continued on, with the slightest hope that the clouds would dissipate into a miraculous shimmering, crimson sunset.  Instead, just as we got to the big lookout rock, there was a huge gust of wind, making it almost impossible to walk across it without bracing oneself.  Still, I was compelled to make it to the overlook railing.  I grabbed onto the railing just in time for another gust of wind that didn’t seem to let up.  I found myself grasping onto the railing, standing next to another young woman, and we instantly bonded over laughs of sheer joy and terror, as it became apparent we would not be able to let go until the wind subsided.

This became the defining moment of my trip.  Nature was in charge, not me, and all I could do was hold on and enjoy the moment.  My friends were not able to make it to the rail, and sat instead on the rock until they felt safe enough to move.  Their moment of terror was my moment of freedom.

It is good to be reminded that we are not always in control of the agenda.  Life has its own, and when it sweeps one up in a gust of wind, all one can do is hold on and enjoy the moment.

Lesson #11 – The Transition Back is Hard:  This is my least favorite lesson.  I wanted to believe my life had been transformed by this experience, and that I would be able to conquer anything now that I had tapped into my previously unknown reserves of courage.  Going back to work and facing personal stressors would be a breeze now – right?  Wrong!  This week seemed even harder, like jumping into an ice-cold swimming pool.  Going back to all of the stress and mundane tasks of life was no fun compared to such an incredible experience.  Rather than being renewed, I felt unmotivated.  It has been a week since we completed our hike, and I am just now getting my equalibrium.

Transitioning from various situations can be particularly challenging to those with mental health issues.  Incorporating some basic coping skills into one’s life as well as patience and understanding can help to make these transitions go a bit more smoothly.

The final Lesson

This is never more true than when one commits to maintaining his/her mental health.  There are times when one may forget or decide to stop doing what is necessary to maintain mental and emotional stability, ultimately finding themselves hitting bottom once again.   Surviving these setbacks is dependent upon one’s willingness to take the necessary steps to climb back out of the hole.  Going back to the basics such as seeking professional help, attending doctor’s appointments, utilizing medication if necessary, and taking care of one’s self are mandatory elements of this process and will lead to a more successful recovery.

I look forward to my next adventure.  Until then, I will make an effort to apply the lessons learned in the Grand Canyon to my every day life.

The Shift in Privacy

 In my last post, I said I would soon be sharing more about myself.  But first, I thought I’d talk about my perspective on the topic of using this type of venue.   I’ve wrestled with this for a while – mainly because the idea of secrecy has been so engrained into my personality.  I don’t know if I can call it secrecy or just being a private person.   It is most likely a combination.  I’m still becoming accustomed to all of the different mediums that people are using to reveal intimate details of their lives, and a year ago it would have been unfathomable to contemplate launching my own personal stories into cyberspace.  I have trouble even responding to a friend’s Facebook post.  

For the most part I believe the shift in public sharing has been a good thing, especially considering how much covering up and pretending people used to do.  It isn’t as if they were always able to hide a family member’s or their own problems with alcoholism or mental illness.  When it became impossible to hide, they were often ostracized and left feeling ashamed and disgraced.   

I remember how strange it was the first time I heard about a celebrity with an addiction problem.  As a young girl I was amazed to hear about Johnny Cash and didn’t understand what it meant.  Was he sick?  Was he a criminal?  Was he a bad person?  Now we’ve gotten used to and often expect to hear similar stories about many of our beloved idols. 

Unfortunately, the downside of all this public sharing is that the pendulum has swung so far the other way that hearing about people’s personal struggles has become a form of entertainment.  There are numerous reality shows that are making celebrities out of people who are willing to reveal their struggles with addictions and mental health issues, not in the form of documentaries but in the form of hit television shows such as Hoarders and Intervention, where treatment methods are often questionable.  

I am conflicted about whether this type of media is helpful or hinders our ability to take these issues seriously.  The answer may lie in the eyes of the beholder.  For some, it can offer hope and inspiration.  For others, it can be another way to ridicule and judge.   I am definitely opposed to the most frequent trend of putting children and adolescents on reality shows, as I don’t believe they can fully comprehend the unintended and possibly negative consequences that come with all that publicity.   It would be easy to pass judgment on people who agree to that format, but perhaps it gives them a sense of control in presenting their side of the story. I suspect that more often they are enticed by the offer of treatment and recovery when they are desperate, but can this promise really be kept when the primary purpose is entertainment? 

It is easy to lose sight of our basic right to privacy in the current climate.  Still, I wouldn’t go back to the kind of repression that was part of the not so distant past.  It would be great to find a balance between protecting those rights and being able to connect and share our experiences in a respectful manner.  Ultimately it comes down to one’s own personal comfort zone, and that is different for each of us.   

I feel passionately about changing public perception about mental health issues, and by sharing bits and pieces of my own life, I want to offer hope and support to anyone who has gone through similar experiences.

So, stay tuned for my next post….

There Are No Casseroles

A phenomenon that is familiar amongst those who have experienced the psychiatric hospitalization of a family member or themselves, is what we’ve come to joke about as “there are no casseroles”.  Unlike with other serious illnesses that require hospitalization or an extended absence from one’s normal routine, there is a noticeable void when it comes to support.  The usual flowers, casserole dishes delivered to the house, cards, visits, and phone calls that are commonly extended to those in crisis are replaced by a tentative awkwardness.

This isn’t because people are uncaring or unsympathetic.  Often the illness is kept such a secret that only the closest of friends/relatives even know about it.   When people do find out, they may want to avoid bringing it up because they don’t want to say the wrong thing or cause anyone to feel uncomfortable.   This is reinforced when we are too afraid or embarrassed to talk about it.  We may also feel protective of our loved ones and want to shelter them from being stigmatized.

I look forward to the day when mental health issues are considered to be no different from any other type of illness.  As hard as it may be, this can only happen when we are willing to open up to those around us, even if we start with just a few trusted people.  I’ve been surprised to find that once that conversation has been initiated, there are many others who have experienced a mental health problem either in themselves or a loved one.

There are times when it may be more prudent to maintain one’s privacy, especially when experience has shown that certain individuals’ reactions may cause additional stress or result in negative repercussions.  In fact, we are entitled to privacy when it comes to our health care.

Nonetheless, we don’t need to go through this alone.  In addition to opening up to a few trusted friends, there are many support groups available where you can speak freely and listen to others facing similar issues.   Your mental health professional will be able to refer you to an appropriate group, and there are many online resources such as NAMI as well.

As fellow human beings, it seems natural to seek comfort in each other during difficult times, and ultimately that is what gives us the hope to continue on this journey.

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
and never stops at all.

Emily Dickenson