Singing the Blues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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?

Keeping our young girls safe

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Image retrieved from NPR.org

I heard a segment on NPR called Teen Girls and Social Media: A story of Secret Lives and Misogyny,  about some very disturbing activities that young girls are engaging in on  social media in an attempt to gain attention and fit in.  If you didn’t hear it, I would highly recommend clicking on the link, especially if you are raising a young daughter or son. If you think they aren’t being impacted by this new trend, I would encourage you to take the extra steps to find out. As parents, we have the right to know about and intervene in activities that may be jeopardizing our children’s safety and well-being.

I am somewhat fascinated lately to hear young women’s take on feminism and how they believe they are no longer faced with the same struggles as the females in my generation. When I was young, sexual harassment was a part of life that we were taught to live with. Even though our society supposedly now denounces these activities, I am not so sure it hasn’t come back with a vengeance, albeit packaged differently now.

It seems like the more powerful women become in our society, the more backlash there is to attempt to undermine that power.  The message that women are now free to express rather suppress their sexuality can be a positive thing, yet now more than ever, there is a tremendous backlash that is fooling our girls into believing certain types of misogyny are okay.

The types of misogyny that are being encouraged by the thousands of over-sexualized portrayals of women our young girls are exposed to each day can have a cumulative effect on their psyche.  Having to deal with too much too early can ultimately lead to feelings of insecurity, self-loathing, and low self-esteem in our young women. These feelings can follow them into adulthood and undermine their attempts to be taken seriously.

As I contemplate the world my 2-year-old granddaughter is being raised in, I am both excited at the prospect of so many more opportunities she will have and fearful of this new brand of hyper-sexuality that threatens to stand in the way of everything women have worked so hard to achieve.

I would like to see more focus on the women who are achieving positions of power through their accomplishments in science, public service, athletics, and academia, and less focus on the one-dimensional hyper-sexualized version of women that we are subjected to each day.

 

Thawing Out and Letting my Feelings In

IMG_1661I’m sitting on the couch in my pajamas this morning. The sun is shining through the shades next to me, reminding me of a warm summer day, while a cold draft from the large picture window behind me lets me know it is a mere six degrees outside.  This mixture of cold and warmth reminds me of how life can be  good and bad, sweet and salty, all at the same time.

Growing up in a household where uncertainty was the norm, I developed this interesting ability to wall myself off from the painful moments when my mom was having a psychotic episode. I taught myself how to go numb, like a body does when its been in the cold too long, in order to freeze out the terror that was a part of living with a parent who struggled to cope with a difficult to treat,  sometimes debilitating illness  called paranoid schizophrenia. It wasn’t so much her accusations that I was the devil, the shouting at me, or the pushing me out the door that hurt so bad. It was the pain of watching someone I loved descending into a living hell and not being able to do anything about it.

So I learned how to protect myself, first by living in a day-dream world, hidden in my room surrounded by books, colored pencils for sketching my dreams, and  a desk full of pens for writing stories about a better life. Later my body became the subject of my obsessions; restricting, bingeing, purging, all to numb myself from the world around me.

In parallel to this numbing, was the ever-present sunshine in my life, even when hidden behind thick misty clouds or blizzard conditions, it was always there. The people who loved me unconditionally, the music that kept me in touch with my soul, and the tiny glimpses of a peaceful being that I couldn’t quite understand. Most call this presence God. I have found no words yet to describe this divine source of tranquility.

As life went on, winters came and went, and so did warm summers. I learned how to navigate life without some of the vices that had become my shield. Yet, whenever something unthinkable would happen, the near loss of a child, divorce, or the death of someone I cherished, I would find myself going back to my old way of coping, this time without the help of an eating disorder. I found that I had mastered the ability to quickly go numb once the initial tears were shed.

I am certainly not the only one who anesthetizes their feelings in order to cope. I am finding that most adults do to a greater or lesser degree all of the time. It turns out, our emotions seem to be our greatest foe at times, and we will go to great lengths to drown out our inner voices. We use drugs, alcohol, work, relationships, avoidance, sex, religion, gambling, violence, and many other behavioral tactics to keep us from facing our true selves.

The problem with having this ability to numb oneself is that it is hard to go back to feeling anything once the cold has passed. I am working on being able to show up in the moment and open up my heart to whatever feelings come to me, no matter how scary, as that is my only hope of ever being fully alive.  It may take me the rest of my life to figure out how to live in a world that is bittersweet, but slowly I am thawing out and warming up enough to experience the beauty of life as well as the pain.

Freeing Ourselves from Other People’s Minds

“What if I did the most liberating thing there is, and freed myself from other people’s minds?” Brianna Wiest

I highly recommend reading Brianna’s article on how to stop wanting to be thin for anyone who struggles with this issue. We need to resist what we think society is telling us and find our own truth about our bodies.

Thought Catalog

People Magazine People Magazine

A few years agoduring some holiday gathering or another, I sat with my family and we played one of those charade games where you ask questions to get people to say words and those words combine into a phrase and your team only has a fixed amount of time to get it right. One of the questions someone used to get us to say the word “weight,” was: “What’s something that everybody wants to lose?” Every person in the room answered simultaneously, without missing a beat. Weight.

The thing about the wars against ourselves is that winning isn’t succeeding, but surrendering. The paradox is that what life is really about is un-growth. It’s about un-learning to do, and re-learning to be.

As much as it is about becoming who you are, its about peeling off the layers that you’re not. Pain is just resistance, and it’s born of…

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Nothing can vanquish me

“I knew that if I allowed fear to overtake me, my journey was doomed. Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me.”
Cheryl Strayed (Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail)

When I read this line in the book Wild, it took my breath away, and I felt a deep sense of peace. After all I’ve been through and the challenges I’ve faced, the anxiety, fear, regrets, and doubts; my strength came when I told myself a different story than the one that had been holding me back.

First, I realized that I could work towards my goals despite feelings of anxiety. That was a big one for me. If I waited until I no longer felt afraid, I would still be waiting. I had to make the decision to work with the fear rather than resisting it. To let it be my friend and not my enemy. If I was going to feel anxious any way, I might as well be doing something worthwhile while I was feeling anxious.

The second realization was that I don’t need anyone else’s approval, and I don’t need to have all of those regrets. I am who I am today just as much because of the mistakes I’ve made as I am because of my successes.

amy bridge

I am safe, strong, and brave today.

 

Get Real

“I’m trying really hard to take the veil off the fraud,

to be real, to start with me.”

Jamie Lee Curtis

Here is an example of Jamie’s pictrue* next to another picture of her that was touched up.

 *Pictrue – A word I invented to describe a picture that hasn’t been airbrushed, photoshopped, or altered to create the illusion of perfection.


Thank you Jamie Lee Curtis for being brave enough to show your real self on the cover of More magazine in 2002. It seems like we should have learned something from all this by now, but instead people are using the many digital tools available to perpetuate even more myths of perfection.

Here is a short video clip I found on Youtube that shows what four women thought of pictures of themselves after they were touched up to look like models.