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A Compassionate Take on Why Misery Loves Company

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A few years ago I had the pleasure of listening to the the President of Washington and Lee University speak to the parents of the freshman class that year, appraising them of some of the things they could expect to encounter in their child’s first year of college. A frantic call in the middle of the night about something. The transition to being a little fish in a big pond. The Turkey Drop–which happens over this very break, when some poor girlfriend or boyfriend is informed that this long-distance relationship thing just isn’t working out. Hope we can still be friends.

Students in counseling often talk about “losing the breakup.” I like that term, because it so accurately captures that feeling of being left behind with your heart broken, stalking your ex on social media as they post pictures with their new significant other. If I have to suffer, they should have to suffer, gosh darn it! I hope they get what’s coming to them.

It’s true; misery loves company. And sometimes it’s because people who are miserable want other people to be miserable so that we can all feel sucky together. But sometimes it’s not because people are mean and hateful. Sometimes it’s because we don’t want to be left alone in our pain and suffering.

In self-compassion speak, this is called common humanity. It’s one of the things that comforts us in the midst of our pain in suffering. To know that getting your heart broken is an inevitable part of experiencing love. It sucks for everyone. It did not happen to you because you are uniquely unlovable. And it’s not your fault that it hurts so much that your friends are tired of listening to you talk about your ex.

As I mentioned in my last post, it’s that time of year when my inner demon of depression rears its ugly head. It’s better this year. I’ve made it to work every day so far. I have not fallen into a pit of despair. But it’s still painful.

One of the best and most unexpected benefits of having a mental health blog is that, in the midst of my lows, some reader will reach out to me and thank me for sharing my pain because they have known that pain, too, and it’s comforting to know that they are not alone. It is as therapeutic to me as it is to them to know that there are people in the darkness with me, reaching out to me so that I know that they’re there.

Last week, as I was describing to one of my clients the types of obsessive thoughts that often go through people’s heads, she asked me if I knew what this inner dialogue was like because I studied it or from first-hand experience. I was a little taken aback. I’d never had a client ask me directly if I had an anxiety disorder. But I told her the truth. It’s both. I know her pain because I studied it, and I feel her pain because I, too, struggle with it.

I know what it’s like to suffer alone. So I became a therapist. Because misery loves company.

If Only…

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It’s that time of year again–after Daylight Savings Time, shortly before Thanksgiving–when I am the most at risk for a depressive episode. But this year I am determined not to have one. Or at least to control whatever is in my control to prevent one. I mean, that is always my goal, but I do have an added incentive this year: I have to be able to take care of my brother, which means I have to take care of myself.

I am happy to say that I have been much better about setting boundaries as a result of this added motivation. I can only help so many people. I can only worry about so many things at once. I can only take on so many responsibilities.

The biggest problem is that, despite all of the blog posts I’ve written about letting go of those illusions of happiness that people cling to– money, beauty, the perfect relationship, extra hours in the day–I still cling to my illusions of happiness. I feel this restlessness that can’t be soothed. I long for something that will take the edge off. I turn to something that will only provide fleeting moments of relief, at best.

Lately I’ve been turning to shopping. I know it’s compulsive. I know that the relief will be temporary. I repeat this to myself as I fill my cart, put in my credit card information, and hover over the order button.

Sometimes I can talk myself out of it for a few days. But during those days I still obsess over it. Would it really be so bad if I bought another pair of boots? Don’t I deserve some indulgence, given the crappiness of my life?

So I give in and hit order. But a few days later, I have the itch to shop again. And then I have to take money out of savings to pay my credit card bill. And then I obsess about not having any money. And then I feel deprived, so I want to buy more stuff.

The problem is, I need something to think about. And if I’m not going to fill my head with all of these illusions of happiness, then what, exactly, am I supposed to think about?  So then I try to remember what all of those mindfulness books say about happiness.

I list all of the things that I can be thankful for. This is tricky, though, because if I see an accident on the side of the road, I think, I’m glad I haven’t gotten injured in a car accident. But then my obsessive brain will be like, oh my God! What if I get in a car accident?!

So then I have to switch to practicing self-compassion and tell myself that we’re not going to focus on car accidents because that stresses you out. We’re trying to focus on things that will make you feel more content. Like, how nice the weather is today, given that it’s the middle of November.

Or I’ll try to be fully present by focusing on whatever it is I’m supposed to be doing in that moment. Like driving. Or listening to my client. Or watching UVA get killed in football. Or I’ll do something that I enjoy, like knit, or read, or write.

But eventually I give in and shop some more. So then I have to switch to practicing self-compassion again and remind myself that I’m doing the best that I can.

It’s a lot of work, quite honestly. But it does occupy my mind with something other than illusions of happiness. So I’ll keep practicing and see if it keeps me from getting depressed.

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Do you think I bought too many shoes?

Why the Incredible Hulk is a Poor Role Model for Stress Management

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In a previous post, I made the argument that post-apocalyptic strategies for motivation like inducing the fight-or-flight response, our bodies’ emergency system reserved for life-or-death situations, is not the most efficient use of our psychological energy. It is akin to setting off the fire alarm in your house to wake up in the morning.

Despite its inefficiency, it is still our go-to response. Perhaps it’s a product of our culture, where being stressed and overworked is a sign of being important. We’re always rushing to meetings, trying to make deadlines, eating lunch while we work.

Perhaps it’s because we value the warrior mentality. We like the idea that we can push ourselves to the limit, overcoming Mother Nature, physical exhaustion, and psychological duress. This is the premise behind many reality TV shows. It’s what makes sports and war movies entertaining.

I, too, like the thrill of pushing myself to the limit. I take great pride in channeling my inner warrior on the court. Which I did last night in the deciding game in our tennis match. And it was worth it, because now my team advances to districts.

Even the role models for our children idealize using extreme psychological states for motivation. Take, for example, the Incredible Hulk. In the TV series (my favorite version), the Incredible Hulk got his powers from a Jekyll and Hyde-type experiment in which Dr. David Banner was trying to figure out how to summon superhuman strength after his wife died in a car accident. However, his attempt to capitalize on the fight-or-flight response lead to an accidental overexposure to gamma radiation. Afterwards, whenever he became angry, the ordinarily mild-mannered Banner turned into the gigantic green creature with superhuman strength that we know and love.

In addition to his less than desirable appearance, the other drawback to the radiation overdose is that his rage is uncontrollable and usually leads to random mass destruction. Luckily, most of the time his rage hits the target and the bad guys pay the price. But it is far from an effective strategy for what Banner had originally sought, which was the power to save lives.

Don’t get me wrong; I like the Incredible Hulk. I loved the TV show. I’ve even seen several of the movies. And, admittedly, a mentally stable person who is committed to self-care and psychological energy conservation probably wouldn’t make for a very interesting Marvel comic book hero. Certainly not someone you would put on a t-shirt.

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But in real life, having a superhero complex is detrimental to your well-being. I’ve spent my life trying to save my family, friends, romantic partners, and clients. Sometimes even random strangers who happen to attend a presentation. It’s pretty taxing. It has lead to numerous depressive and anxiety episodes. I don’t recommend it.

Despite my commitment to non-catostrophic motivational strategies, I’m still prone to pushing myself to the limit over things that are not life-or-death. Like playing tennis 7 days in a row in 100 degree weather for no good reason. Still, I am more selective about who I try to save, what fires I choose to put out, and what challenges are worth taking on. And it has really helped with my depression and anxiety.

So it turns out that giving up post-apocalyptic strategies has been a life-saver.

Being Present, Part 2

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Yesterday I met with a client whose grandmother is coming to the end of her battle with cancer and Alzheimer’s. Of all of the scenarios I can imagine, practicing mindfulness when your loved one has a degenerative disease seems the most challenging. Every day you try to be in the moment, grateful for good days, for what they are still able to do, knowing that eventually they will have fewer good days, fewer things they are able to do. But I guess there is always something to be thankful for–that their suffering is over, the pleasure of having known them, memories that you treasure.

This past month and a half has been tough. Practicing mindfulness and gratitude have become survival mechanisms rather than a choice. Sometimes I think about what my life was like in August, when my primary stressor was going back to work after being off for the summer, and it seems like a luxury. Now, in addition to the usual stressors of work and family crises, I have become a parent.

Ironically, the hardest part is the stuff that “normal” people do every day–meal planning, cooking, grocery shopping. Domestic tasks in general. I hate all of them. Even if I were married, I wouldn’t be as domestic as I am now. But I have no choice while my brother recovers from heart surgery.

In moments of weakness, I think about what my life used to be like. I never thought I’d say this, but I miss my solitude. I miss boredom. I miss the freedom of not having to go to the grocery store and eating a bowl of cereal for dinner instead. Of spending hours reading and writing in my journal, even if it was because I had no one else to talk to.

Likewise, I feel even more saddened by my single state. Before, although I didn’t love it, being single felt more like a choice–even though that was an illusion, since I hadn’t met anyone. Now dating isn’t an option. I barely have time to get ready for bed.

I know that I am not clairvoyant. I don’t know what the future holds. Things won’t be like this forever. Still, my current situation is a loss of freedom similar to what I experienced when I got divorced. Although I would have never quit my job while I was married, we could survive if I lost my job. Knowing that I had to work after I was divorced made keeping my job a necessity that caused me anxiety.

But as soon as I become aware of these thoughts about my past and future, I have to focus on the present. Not because I am trying to push myself to a higher state of happiness or enlightenment, but because it’s all I can do to get through each day. I would not have chosen my current situation, but hardship is an inevitable part of life, and my life is no exception to the rule. I cannot think about what my future holds because there are so many things to come that are overwhelming. I can only focus on this thing, in this moment.

This week that thing is returning to work full time, in the midst of the period in the semester with the highest volume of clients. Which is often the beginning of my descent into depression. Except this time, I can’t get depressed, because I have to take care of my brother. But since I can’t control whether or not I get depressed, I’m scared.

But I can’t worry about that today. Today I am not depressed. Today I will focus on getting through the day, and that will have to be enough.

One could argue that my life is worse than it was before, but I cannot afford the luxury of entertaining that thought, either. Nor do I feel that way. I just focus on the things that I can be thankful for now. Although they are different things, they are as plentiful as they were before. My brother is alive. He is getting better every day. He is able to help with more domestic tasks as he gets stronger. He is happy and appreciative. He is a football expert.

In fact, he recently informed me that Aaron Rodgers is not a fake State Farm agent. He is actually a really good quarterback. It makes pro football more interesting because now when Green Bay is playing I can cheer for the State Farm guy.

See? I can still find happiness in the little things.

Perception is Reality

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In “A Beautiful Mind” John Nash, a Nobel Laureate in Economics, talks about how he learns to cope with his hallucinations by ignoring him. That is a pretty amazing thing to do for someone who has schizophrenia. There are several disorders in which the person’s thoughts are so convincing, despite being false, that it is difficult to cope with them by deciding that you’re not going to listen to them.

For example, someone with anorexia may truly see herself as being fat, even though intellectually she knows that she is not. But her inner critic is so persecutory in its insistence that she not eat, not take up space in the universe, that she ultimately gives in. People with eating disorders often conceptualize their inner critic as having a relationship with ED, and ED is the most abusive partner I have ever met in therapy.

Or someone who is psychotic might be convinced that he is going to win a million dollars because Publisher’s Clearing House has told him that he may have already done so. And despite the fact that the check has not arrived in the mail after several years, he makes outlandish purchases based on the prize money that he is convinced is on the way.

I do not have delusional thoughts, but sometimes my obsessive brain tries to convince me of things that are not as insidious but still cause me to suffer. No one gives a crap about me. I am incompetent. Sometimes I can convince myself otherwise with objective evidence, but sometimes my inner critic is relentless in trying to convince me of the veracity of these assertions. It will repeat them hundreds of times a day. The effort to refute them is exhausting.

My psychiatrist tells me that I should put myself out of my misery at the beginning of this barrage by taking an Ativan as soon as the thoughts begin. But often I don’t because, despite all I’ve said about the importance of taking meds, sometimes I still don’t want to. And because, unlike depression, anxiety feels so normal that sometimes I forget that it is not. The meds definitely help. Most of the time I know that when the thoughts come, they are not true. But sometimes it takes a lot of work to keep them at bay.

Practicing mindfulness helps, too. One of the benefits of practicing is that it helps you understand the nature of the mind. Even for “normal” people, this is how the brain works. Random thoughts will pop up. They may not be based in reality, may not reflect what you actually believe. And in the next moment, the thoughts may be completely different.

But it’s really hard. Maybe if I dedicated my life to meditation like Buddhist monks do, my inner critic would be less effective in undermining my self-worth. Or maybe Buddhist monks don’t suffer from mental illness.

But my psychiatrist supports my mindfulness practice, in addition to my meds. He confirmed that it works, even for people with mental illness. But it takes a long time, and it happens very slowly. I know it works because I remember what I used to be like. And now when I go several days without meditating, in my moments of weakness the thoughts creep in and become more convincing.

So I continue to practice, and in the moment, I feel loved, competent, and worthwhile. So I’m writing this post to remind myself that this is true because, in the next moment, I may feel differently.

Three Years Later…

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Today is my blog’s 3rd birthday! Can you believe it? I’ve written 277 posts and still haven’t run out of things to say!

In those 3 books about God that I read this summer, they all said that we have many rebirths in the course of a lifetime, and the beginning of this blog year definitely feels that way. As you know if you’ve been reading my blog, my baby brother had quadruple bypass surgery less than a month ago. What I did not mention at the time is that I am taking care of him, so his heart attack has been a life-changing experience for both of us. While taking on this new role has presented many challenges, in some ways it has simplified my life. My behavior is more intentional; my motivation for everything I do is clear. Many of the things I have realized in this past month relate to themes I have written about over the past 3 years, so I thought I would share some of them.

1. Self-care. I often tell people to treat self-care as though your life depends on it, because it does. Nevertheless, I still struggle with it. It’s hard to go to bed on time, to cook, to go to the grocery store. I still have trouble saying no. Still push myself to the point of exhaustion. But now that I’m taking care of my brother, self-care really does feel like life or death. I have to go to the grocery store and cook healthy meals because if I don’t, he can’t eat. I have to get out of bed, even if I don’t feel like it, because I have to check on him. I have to set limits, or I won’t have the energy to care for him. Like Romeo said in his last post, sometimes it’s better when you don’t have a choice.

2. Mantras. There are so many new things to worry about now that I often feel overwhelmed. Sometimes I can’t fall asleep. I wake up to anxiety attacks. In rare moments of stillness, I cry, thinking about what he went through, wondering how we will make everything work. But in addition to my usual mantras (e.g., everything is going to be OK; I’m doing the best that I can), I have added 2 more: 1) anything is better than him being dead, and 2) if God saved his life, then he’ll help me find a way. And that helps to calm me down.

3. SolitudeI offered to take care of my brother without really thinking about it. At the time, I didn’t realize it meant that he was going to live with me indefinitely. Not that it would have changed my decision. But it’s sort of like suddenly having a child without the 9 months to mentally prepare for it. There was a moment where I mourned the loss of my space, my freedom, but that quickly faded. And surprisingly, I have gained far more than I have lost. I have someone to watch football with. Someone to talk to when I get home, to share my thoughts with. He cares about how my day went, whether I won my tennis match. I don’t dread days when I have nothing planned now, because they’re not as dreadful when you don’t have to spend them alone.

4. FriendshipsMy friends are so awesome. I am so thankful for them. Even though they don’t know my brother, they call and text to ask how we’re doing. They’ve made meals for us. They say prayers for us. They wished me luck on my first day back to work because I was stressed about it. They’ve listened to me cry. They’ve spent hours putting together shelves so that my brother could have space for his belongings. They are taking good care of me, so that I can take good care of Romeo.

5. GratitudeIn my prayers, when I give thanks for all of my blessings, I always do so with some anxiety, knowing that at some point I will lose the things that I am thankful for. What will I do then? Fortunately, hardship and loss have heightened my awareness of how plentiful my blessings are. I am even more aware of what a gift it is to be able to breathe, to feel your heart beat, to walk. (All mindfulness exercises, by the way.)  I’m thankful that I have a job that has vacation days. I’m thankful that every day my brother gets stronger. That he is happier now than he was before the surgery.

If this period of my life marks a rebirth, then my goal in this lifetime is to be more fully aware of what a gift it is to be alive.

No Way Out

Last week I gave you my reflections on my brother’s heart surgery. Today he’s feeling well enough to share what this ordeal was like for him in an effort to share his epiphany: regardless of what you may have to lose in the process, it’s always worth it to choose life.

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In “The Walking Dead” Season 6 debut, former allies Rick Grimes & Morgan Jones share an uneasy reunion. “I’m sorry for all this,” Rick says to Morgan, shyly apologizing for having to lock his old friend into a cell until he can get the man acclimated to the new community he has just joined. Holding no grudges, Morgan replies: “It’s okay. Sometimes it’s easier when you don’t have a choice.”

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Fast forward to August 30, 2016. I’ve missed a couple of days at a new job. Inexplicably, I can never feel fully rested & suffer from painful gas that seems to get stuck in my chest. After weeks of combating my symptoms with sleep, stubborn cardio workouts, & Gas-X—something told me I needed a different approach this time. So I call out sick & plan to see a doctor in order to get an excuse for a couple of days & a prescription for some real medicine. Because of my reference to “chest pains”, the walk-in clinic refused to see me & referred me to the ER instead. “This will be an expensive bottle of Tums,” I thought to myself, the seriousness of my situation not yet setting in. A day later, I’m in a hospital room in my region’s premiere facility for heart surgeries. I’m told I have severe blockage in the arteries feeding my heart. They need to operate on me—TOMORROW. Doctors, nurse practitioners, & everyone who has seen my test results regard me with such astonishment. They wonder aloud how I’d been walking around.

“Oh great,” I think to myself. I’m going to have to call work again. They’re going to think I’m playing hooky.” I must have still been in emotional shock. That night, my stunned older sister calls me & tells me to quit my job—to stop forcing myself through unduly stressful challenges. “They don’t care about you! They don’t appreciate you! They have no idea how valuable you are! You don’t owe them another minute of your time. You hear me? NOT A MINUTE!” She also brought up examples of other people who should have been more concerned with my current crisis than they appeared to be. She wondered why I wasn’t more disappointed.

In hindsight, it was probably because I knew I didn’t have time to be disappointed. It was all happening so fast. I came in for painful gas, maybe some acid reflux, & they offer me open heart surgery instead. My head must have been spinning. But on some level, I knew there was no time to be disappointed or sad—it was time to be strong. Resolved. Focused. That was it. “I’ll be fine,” I reassured the only member of my family who, at that point, seemed to acknowledge the gravity of my current crisis–including me. “I have to go. The nurses just told me I had to take 2 showers with surgical soap; the first one tonight before bed.” It was already past 11 pm. It had been a long day; & the next day would be worse. I rang the nurse to get me unhooked so that I could take this shower with “surgical soap” & about 5 different washcloths intended for different regions of my body.

“Did you sleep well?” The surgeon asked me around the crack of dawn. “Yes I did,” I replied. He was stunned & said so out loud. Truth be told, I didn’t know what I had gotten myself into. And it was probably better that way. Had the details of what was about to happen been revealed earlier, I probably would have escaped! The surgery was nerve-racking. I actually woke up a couple of times after the surgical team had injected me with anasthesia. I saw myself in that horrifying environment under the blue surgical shroud. I had seen things that I had never asked to see. But the aftermath was the worst. I wouldn’t wish my experience on a sworn enemy—not even the Devil himself! I’m sure the Devil deserves punishment; but what kind is not for me to decide. Holed up in bed over the next 3 days in a state of constant discomfort, I realized how the powers both to inflict pain & subdue it are both sacred & require severe checks & balances.

I’m 40. If you saw me on the street, you’d think I look closer to 20. Yet here I was. A “kid” facing “real man” problems. But I’m recovering quickly. My vitals are consistently good. Even in the hospital, the staff seemed surprised at how well I was handling recovery. “If this is what you call ‘good’ I’d hate to see what you call ‘bad.’ “ They’d laugh at me. It was just humbling for me to be so dependent on so many people for so many things.

I always thought of myself as “tough,” but I never really knew for sure. Even after what I went through, I don’t feel tough or brave or strong. In fact, when I think about how severe the pain was & how terrifying everything seemed & how long the discomfort lingered long after the the violent pain had dissipated, I marvel that I got through at all! It took a lot of intervention from my Creator, but also some personal resolve. This wasn’t a challenge that I chose for myself; but once recognized, I was seeing it through. I was strong & brave not because I am all the time, but because I had to be right then.

Like Morgan said, “Sometimes it’s easier when you don’t have a choice.” Yes, well said, Morgan. All life truly is precious. Given everything I’ve had to endure over the last 2 weeks, my life is not only precious, but sacred to me now. That was a choice that I did have to make for myself. But now that I have, I’m as happy on the inside as I’ve been in a long time–maybe ever.

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