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Monthly Archives: January 2015

It’s a Crying Shame

You know how therapists aren’t supposed to cry in sessions? Well, I do all the time. Not in defiance of this rule or anything. I just can’t help it. And it’s not like I’m sobbing uncontrollably–just a couple of tears that escape, despite my best efforts.

Like, if a client cries because they’ve told me something they’ve never admitted to anyone before, I cry, too. Or if they’re proud of themselves for taking some risk that they didn’t think was possible. I try to hide it, but not very effectively. I once had a client who said she was going to get a t-shirt that says “I made my therapist cry.” I think she thought this was a good thing, although I have no idea why.

And you know the other crying rule about how you’re supposed to be strong when you’re talking to someone who is sick? Can’t do that one, either. When my dad was depressed, I cried in front of him all the time. And while I was on the phone with him. And when we went shopping, because he was so indecisive, it would take him forever to pick anything out–which broke my heart. Sometimes it would be so bad I had to leave the room and sob and then come back.

He always knew, of course. Apparently he told my brother that he needed to get better because he was making me cry all the time. Which makes me cry right now, just thinking about it. But it worked; he got better. So maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing in that case, either.

Clients often come to session trying not to cry. I tell them it’s OK–that’s what the Kleenex are for. Then we talk about why it’s not a bad thing.

Who came up with all these rules, anyway? Crying makes you weak. You need to have a good reason to cry–like death. Maybe losing a big game like the Super Bowl. Boys don’t cry.

It was probably the same person who said that stoicism is the best remedy for pain. Probably some guy.

Why have tears if we’re not supposed to use them? Why not do something that is free, readily available, nonhabitforming, and makes us feel better?

I’m not saying there isn’t a place for stoicism. I saw “American Sniper” this past weekend, and it was absolutely necessary for Chris Kyle not to cry in order to do his job. He was supposed to be a machine. But if he had been able to cry when he was home and no longer on duty, I think his wife wouldn’t have been as worried about him.

But who am I to judge someone for what they do or don’t do when they’re in pain? I’m biased, too. So I don’t tell people that they should cry. And I try not to think less of them if they don’t.

All I ask is for other people to do the same for me. Just don’t try to shame me out of crying.

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200 Posts!

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You know what I love about blogging? Unlike birthdays and New Years, I feel different as I reach each landmark. In honor of my 200th post, I thought I would take this opportunity to reflect on what I’ve learned up to this point. Here are the highlights:

1. Vulnerability works. I started this blog in part as an experiment to see if sharing our vulnerabilities really makes people feel more connected to one another. The answer is an emphatic yes. Every time I read posts warning of trollers whose purpose is to write mean comments on your blog, I brace myself for the cruelty. But perhaps it’s harder to be cruel to someone who has already shared their weaknesses with you.

Perhaps there is less of a need to tear someone down when you know they feel just as flawed as you do.

2. Compassion works. You’re not supposed to judge how well you are practicing compassion, so I will just say that at this point, criticism is still my default. However, the more I practice, the more amazed I am at how powerful it is. MLK day was last Monday, and I think about how someone tried to strike down the message of peace and love. But that has only multiplied exponentially the power of Martin Luther King’s message.

Hate might be easier, but love is stronger than hate, so it is well worth the practice.

3. Prayer works. Every time I pray, I throw in a caveat that I totally understand if my prayer isn’t answered, given how trivial my concerns are in the grand scheme of things. And every time, I am surprised that God cares about my problems, big and small. I hate to admit it, but when I’ve heard people say that in the past, I looked down on them. But now I know it’s true. I guess if my parents care about my problems, why wouldn’t God?

It’s good to be reminded that my suffering is never trivial.

4. I love being alone. I have always been one of those people who had to be in a relationship, even if it was a crappy one. Of all my faults and failings, this is the one I have been the most ashamed of. But it turns out that I am happier when I am not in one. I admit, the first year was hard. I imagine it’s sort of how it feels to go through detox. Which gives me a better appreciation of how hard it is to overcome an addiction.

But now that I am “clean,” I have never felt better.

5. I am a writer! Perhaps the biggest philosophical question in the blogosphere is when you can call yourself writer. When you are published? When you receive your first paycheck? When you have declared yourself a writer? For me, it was when I discovered that many writers are night owls. They are always in their heads. They are plagued by demons that tell them that their writing sucks. They write even when they don’t get paid or published. Even when they find out that fame and fortune are unlikely.

I’m not even sure if I care about publishing a book anymore. Or about trying to make my blog popular. I like the freedom of writing about what I want when I want. I write because the joy is in the act of writing itself.

1000 Voices for Compassion

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Last night, instead of going to bed, I decided to read through my old posts to make sure I was thoroughly sleep-deprived today. I noticed that most of my posts of late were about my attempts to practice self-compassion. And I noticed that it’s working.

I know this because I haven’t had anyone tell me that I’m being too hard on myself. I made it through last semester without crashing and burning. I didn’t get depressed. I enjoyed the holidays. I enjoyed being around my family. I didn’t spend my break obsessing about my inability to go to bed early. I spent a week at home alone while I was sick and focused on taking care of myself rather than trying to be productive.

And I noticed that compassion is contagious. My last post, in which I gave myself permission to be angry after a friend attacked me for teaching compassion, elicited the most comments ever. Readers validated my anger. They shared their own difficulties in talking to others about their suffering. They thanked me for writing this post and for the work that I do. It helped to alleviate some of the pain. It was proof that compassion really is the best remedy for unkindness.

Practicing compassion has changed my interactions with others, too. On Monday, MLK Day, I went to the bank at the local grocery store and was surprised to see that it was open on a federal holiday. I asked the teller if this was a new thing, and he said that only in-store banks were open. I felt bad for him that he had to work on a holiday–even though it’s not a holiday where I work, either. I don’t know what possessed me to do it, but for some reason I said, ” Wow. That sucks, huh?”

He burst out laughing. Even though I wasn’t trying to be funny. (Even though ordinarily I think I’m hilarious.) And it changed our interaction. Before it was a typical business transaction. Afterwards it was something that made us both feel better. I thought about it for the rest of the day, and it made me feel good to know that I made him laugh. It still makes me happy to think about it.

What if people made a point of being compassionate, even when they are angry at themselves or someone else? What if, instead of spreading negativity, we validated how hard it is to be human, with all our faults and feelings and pain and suffering? Wouldn’t that be a great experiment? Just to see if it makes a difference?

On February 20, you can find out. Bloggers are invited to publish a post about compassion on that day to flood the blogosphere with kindness. If you’re interested in learning more about this event, check out this post. You can “like” 1000 Voices of Compassion on Facebook here. If you’re interested in posting something on compassion that day, use the hashtag #1000speak to promote this event.

Hope to see you there!

Mental Illness Does Not Discriminate

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I don’t like to use my blog for rants, but I am angry. And if I’m being compassionate with myself, then my anger is just as valid as any other feeling. So I’m going to give myself permission to write about my anger.

I was telling a friend recently about the presentation I gave at work on self-compassion, and he responded with hostility and disdain. I was not prepared for the attack. I understand that some people prefer the “suck it up” approach to pain and suffering, but why would it make him angry that I teach people how to be kind to themselves instead?

I also had a conversation with another friend who reminded me that many people don’t think the students I work with have real problems. I work at a counseling center of a college that is made up of predominantly wealthy students. Many of the students who come to counseling are the ones who don’t fit in because they are not white, not rich, not Greek, etc. Other students fit in just fine. Other than their mental illness, that is.

Either way, as far as I’m concerned, their suffering is equally valid.

But I seem to be in the minority. Because when I tell people where I work, they question how these students could possibly be suffering. What do they have to be unhappy about? Their lives are great. They don’t have real problems.

This is a sore spot for me because I was one of those people who didn’t have a good reason for my depression. My parents are both doctors. I was able to go to good schools, get a Ph.D., obtain a good job. I haven’t been traumatized. All of my basic needs were provided for. How could I possibly be depressed?

I don’t deserve compassion. Don’t deserve meds or therapy or any kind of relief because I’m just being weak. Lazy. Selfish.

People don’t claim that someone isn’t really suffering from the flu or that they don’t really have cancer because they have a good life. But for some reason, we believe that the privileged are immune to mental illness. I believed this, too. Which is why I didn’t ask for help.

But mental illness does not care what your background is. It does not discriminate. It is an equal opportunity employer, distributing pain and suffering to the entire human race.

For whatever reason, the hostility of these attacks has hit me full force, and I am angry. I’m trying to figure out how to deal with these comments when they come up in causal conversation without attacking back. But I can’t keep people from judging me or my clients or my profession. Not even my family and friends.

In therapy I tell clients to control what they can control. I cannot make someone see the value of having compassion for themselves and for others, but I can have it for myself. I can remind myself that my pain is real and that I deserve to treat myself with kindness. And I can be a voice for those people who need to be reminded that their pain counts, too.

And I can blog about it, which always helps.

The Dating Interview

This weekend a friend of mine was joking about how she was going to interview any potential dating prospects from now on. Presumably because my judgment has been so poor in this department.

I thought that was hilarious. I asked her what kinds of questions she would ask. She said they would probably be scenarios like, if a terrorist had Christy in one arm and your mom in the other and had a gun to both of their heads, who would you save?

I personally don’t think this particular question should be included in the interview. Even if I were open to the possibility of dating, I do not want to be in a relationship that is so serious that the guy has to pick between me and his mother. But I did think it was funny.

And I like the idea of coming up with some test. I used to teach, so I haven’t made up an exam in a long time. So I’ve been thinking about some potential questions, and here’s what I’ve come up with so far.

First of all, there are 3 people who are automatically approved without an interview:

1. Roger Federer

2. Tony Bennett (UVA head coach–not the 80+ year old singer)

3. Grigor Dimitrov (up and coming tennis player who is really cute and plays just like Federer. His nick name used to be Baby Fed but his coach won’t let people call him that anymore.)

But the first 2 are married and the 3rd is dating Maria Sharapova, so the odds are not in my favor.

And there are some people who are automatically excluded from the dating pool:

1. smokers

2. anyone who roots for Va Tech over UVA

Beyond that, I’ve come up with a few multiple choice questions:

1. What are your views on mental illness?

     a.  I don’t think it exists.

     b. I think people just use it as an excuse to avoid responsibility.

     c. I think you just have to suck it up.

     d. None of the above.

2. How do you deal with conflict?

     a. I avoid the issue for as long as possible until it blows up in my face.

     b. I yell at the other person and make them think it’s their fault.

     c. I shut down and give them the silent treatment.

     d. I prefer to address problems head on.

3. How often do you communicate with your partner during the day?

     a. I don’t.

     b. I occasionally respond to texts.

     c. I will send a text asking how she’s doing and then ignore her response.

     d. I like to touch base throughout the day.

4. What is your philosophy on lying?

     a. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a little white lie.

     b. I am all for it.

     c. Does a lie of omission count?

     d. I think honesty in a relationship is necessary to build trust.

The correct answer is always D. Is that too obvious?

That’s all I’ve come up with so far, but I’m open to suggestions. In the mean time, I think I’ll just enjoy being single.

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The Gift of Compassion

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Last week I gave a presentation at work on self-compassion, which was perfect timing. I had just posted my story about depression a few days before and was still reeling from all the thoughts and feelings that had exploded inside me as a result.

Blogging is truly a pay it forward kind of gift. I blog to help other people, but as I said in that post, it has turned out to be the best gift I have given myself. I’ve never had so many people thank me for talking about me. It was as though I had expressed compassion for their suffering when all I did was tell my story. When people thank me and tell me their own stories, every comment is another gift to me. So I received a lot of gifts last week, and I thank you if you were one of the gift givers.

One reader in particular, Abby Gardiner (AKA Stress Bubbles) said that she was sorry that I had suffered so much. I was taken aback. Until then, I was happy with the post because I thought it was a thorough and honest account of my depression, which I had never shared. And I was happy that I was in a place where I could accept my depression rather than feel ashamed about it. But I had not thought of it as a story of someone who had struggled with depression most of her life and whose shame kept her from seeking help.

I felt like Neo at the end of the Matrix when he broke open the code and everything suddenly made sense. I saw how impossible it was not to get depressed given my genes. My family members who are always in crisis. My tendency to choose people who need help because I had always played the helping role in my family. How little help I was able to receive from my family and my partners because of their own problems. And from anyone else because I never said how badly I was hurting. How I had cared about functioning more than myself. I had to get good grades. Get a Ph.D. Teach classes and see clients and rescue everyone I met.

Because she expressed compassion for me, I was able to have compassion for myself. Now, when I think about my story, it feels as though something is pressing against my heart. Perhaps the way it feels to someone whose heart has been jump started with a defibrillator. A bit painful and disorienting, I imagine, but you’re alive. What a powerful gift it is, compassion.

Since then, I make a point of thanking anyone who has shown me compassion. And I make it a point to have compassion for myself–even for the small things. Like having to spend a thousand dollars on a water heater. Or having a cold. Or having to cancel tennis when I was looking forward to it all week.

Because, if I’m being compassionate, then all the small things really aren’t small at all.

I Prefer Moths to Zombies

I was having dinner with a friend last night, catching up on how the holidays went. I told her that this Christmas was not as stressful as it usually is. But as I related the details, I broke down crying. Because even when things are going pretty well, there are still always crises when you have this much mental illness in your family.

In a previous post I talked about the stress of dealing with a family member who is currently manic. But in all honesty, I prefer the mania to the depression. I’m sure I would feel differently if I had to live with someone who is manic, but luckily I don’t. And regardless of what pole they are in, I still have to keep a safe distance, lest I trigger my own depression and anxiety. Still, when I’m with my brothers or my dad when they are at one of the extremes, I prefer the over-the-top version of their best self than a shell of the person they normally are.

I understand why people with bipolar disorder don’t want to take their meds. I didn’t want to take my meds, even though they made me feel much better. People use drugs to create the feeling of mania. So it’s understandable why someone would not want to take a drug that keeps them from experiencing the highs.

I’ve had hypomanic episodes, and they were great. I had energy, despite my lack of sleep. I was productive and creative. And I didn’t do any of the destructive things that my family members do when they’re manic, like spend all their life’s savings. Or quit their job, move to another city, and become a dance instructor. Or get kicked out of a bar for starting a fight with someone because they’re certain that guy was making fun of him.

The most extreme thing I can recall is that I made mixed tapes for each of my brothers, and they all had different songs on them. That’s like, over 100 songs. For those of you who are too young to have made a mixed tape, it is way more time-consuming than burning a CD from iTunes.

Plus, there was no crashing and burning after my hypomanic episodes. If anything, the hypomania was a reprieve from the depression. Still, I have no problem giving them up in order to have stability in exchange.

I do have one brother who consistently takes his meds and has been stable for years now. He could be the poster child for bipolar disorder, illustrating how it’s possible to live a normal life if you’re compliant with treatment. The other two, however, live most of their lives at one extreme or the other.

I was looking for a picture of my niece the other day and ran across a picture of my dad while he was depressed. I had to turn away. Any of the pictures taken from that 4 year period make me want to cry, because he looked like someone who was barely alive. Ordinarily he is larger than life. Unforgettable. But when he’s manic, he is a moth to a flame and believes he’s fireproof. But when he’s depressed, he is a zombie, sleepwalking through life.

If stability is not an option, I prefer the moth.

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