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2015 Blog for Mental Health Project

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I pledge my commitment to 2015 Blog for Mental Health Project. I will blog about mental health topics not only for myself, but for others. By displaying this badge, I show my pride, dedication, and acceptance for mental health. I use this to promote mental health education in the struggle to erase stigma.

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For the second year in a row, I am participating in the Blog for Mental Health Project. Many of you already know my story, but if you don’t, check out my post on Why I Blog About Mental Illness. You can also check out my post for the 2014 Blog for Mental Health Project.

I wrote my story about depression last month because Sarah Fader from Stigma Fighters asked me to write a 1000 word essay on my experience with mental illness. Since it’s hard to cram 25 years of depression into 1000 words, I basically just stuck with the facts. And yet, it is the post that has resonated the most with people who have struggled with depression.

I guess that’s because when you say things like, I stopped taking my meds because I didn’t want to rely on them to be normal, and then I relapsed 3 months later, they know exactly what you mean. You don’t have to spell out the shame and self-loathing involved in that process.

When I first started my blog, my goal was to model how to practice self-acceptance, because I need all the practice I can get. I was especially proud of that post because it meant I have finally accepted what it means to be someone who has struggled and will continue to struggle with depression, which is the thing I have been the most ashamed of.

But after I wrote my story, I realized that self-acceptance is not enough. Accepting all of the things that I have to do to prevent a relapse is not the same thing as acknowledging how painful it has been to live with depression. How hard it was to feel like a failure. How isolating it was to hide my depression because I knew that some people would minimize my suffering and make me feel worse about myself.

Until I wrote that post, I had never had compassion for my suffering because I didn’t think I deserved it. So now I’ve upped the ante, so to speak. Now I am modeling how to practice self-compassion. Which is why I’m also participating in 1000 Voices of Compassion, in which 1000+ bloggers will publish posts on compassion on February 20.

I will continue to educate people about mental health and do my part to erase stigma, but ultimately I cannot change what people think about me or anyone else with a mental illness. So I will make sure that I treat myself with the love and kindness that I deserve, and I will encourage other people to do the same.

On a final note, if you read my blog, then you know that I am obsessed with being a warrior. So I thought I would leave you with this article on Mental Illness Warriors, some of whom you may recognize.

2014 Blog for Mental Health Project

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

Sometimes we make the most important decisions in our lives without consciously knowing why we made them at the time.I knew that I wanted to become a psychologist since I was in high school. At the time I wasn’t fully aware of being depressed in the clinical sense. Being anxious was so much a part of my personality that I didn’t think I had an anxiety disorder. And I definitely wasn’t aware of any mental illness in my family. I had no idea at the time that depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety would impact every aspect of my life–in both positive and negative ways.

It’s probably not surprising that I have been negatively affected by mental illness. But as I write this post, I realize that there have been positive things about it, too. I have learned the most important lessons in life through suffering and loss.

Even as a therapist, when I heard clients make comments about how they had a bad week, it didn’t fully register how horrible that week was for them. In part because clients don’t elaborate unless you ask them to. Unless they are certain that you really want to know. And because they are embarrassed about it. Ashamed, even. But after going through my worst depression 5 years ago, I have much more compassion when clients make these offhanded comments.

I admit, during that period there were times when suicide would cross my mind. But there were two things that kept me from seriously entertaining it. One is that my dad would be devastated, and I feared he would never recover if I went through with it.

The other reason is that if I took my own life, it would undermine everything I ever said to my clients about how pain passes. That one day when they look back they will realize how strong they were at the time. That they will learn lessons from their suffering that it takes some people a lifetime to learn. How can you believe anything your therapist said if she committed suicide? That would be the ultimate betrayal.

So I spent months willing myself to get better. I went back to therapy, started meds again, meditated and prayed, and forced myself to play tennis and spend time with friends. And I did get better. And everything I said about realizing my strength, becoming more compassionate, and acquiring wisdom were all true. I would have never chosen depression, but we usually don’t choose the experiences that teach us the most about life.

People often ask me how I can listen to client’s problems all day long. In all honesty, I can’t imagine what else I would do for a living. It feels more like psychology chose me. And when I hear a client’s story, I always have hope that together we can change the plot for the better. After all, I always root for the underdog. I am the eternal optimist. And I never back down from a challenge.

There was a time when I would never have told this story about my struggles with depression and anxiety to my students or clients. Or even friends and family. But now I want to share it with the world, because every act of courage benefits someone else. My blog is proof of that.

Why I Blog About Mental Illness

Yesterday someone asked me to write a 1,000 word essay on my personal experience with mental illness. After I wrote it, I realized that I have never told my story to anyone. I have now added it to the menu on my blog, but I thought I’d include it in a post, too. Here it is:

I come from a family with a history of depression and anxiety. My dad and two of my brothers have bipolar disorder. My mom has an undiagnosed anxiety disorder. And I struggle with both mood and anxiety disorders. Because of this familiarity with mental illness, I played the helping role in my family for many years before I chose my profession. So becoming a clinical psychologist almost felt like a calling rather than a choice.

I first became depressed in high school. It’s hard to separate the angst of adolescence from clinical depression, but I had thoughts of suicide by the age of 15, so I’ll say that it started then. At that time, my diagnosis would have been dysthymic disorder—a more chronic, lower grade version of depression.

When I left for college at 18, I crossed over to major depression. However, I didn’t do anything about it for a year. At 19, I had my first therapy session with a psychiatrist who confirmed my diagnosis of depression. At the time, that was enough to make me feel better—to have someone tell me that what I was going through was real.

So I didn’t follow up with therapy until after I graduated from college, when I was 22. I can’t say I thought that therapist was particularly helpful. He never told me his opinion on anything, never gave me homework, never offered me another way to look at things.

The 3rd time I went to therapy was with my boyfriend right before we got engaged. I was 25 at the time. It was clear that she thought that our relationship problems were because of my depression and suggested that I go on meds, which really pissed me off. We didn’t see her for very long.

Still, she planted the seed of meds in my mind, and I started a trial of antidepressants about 6 years after she suggested it. And it did help. But after a year and half, I stopped taking them because I didn’t want to have to rely on meds to feel “normal.” Then I started them again a few years later when my husband and I started talking about separation.

I also went back to therapy. And she is the therapist who I have seen on and off for 13 years now. Her unconditional acceptance and belief in me, over time, has allowed me to accept and believe in myself. Still, I would see her for as little as I could get away with until I became functional, because I didn’t think I deserved to take up more of her time.

My 2nd major depressive episode happened almost 6 years ago when I was 40. I had stopped taking my meds again, and about 3 months later, I got depressed again. And it was even worse than the first time. It probably took me about 9 months to recover completely.

This time I was not able to just restart my meds and return to normal, so I saw a psychiatrist for the second time. Surprisingly, he was more concerned about things like light therapy, sleep hygiene, and supplements (Omega-3, NAC, Folic Acid) than he was about antidepressants. But I had to take those, too. He also added Ativan, because my anxiety had worsened, and lamotrigine for bipolar depression, because of my family history and my hypomanic episodes.

It was difficult to accept that for the rest of my life I would be on a regimen that requires an AM and PM pill box. But I had suffered so much through this last depressive episode that I got over it and was thankful to pharmaceutical companies for coming up with drugs that could make me feel like myself again.

Since that last depressive episode, I have gotten much better at taking care of myself. Mental health professionals have a tendency to put other people’s needs first, usually to their own detriment. I guess it’s sort of like how physicians make terrible patients. However, my determination to avoid a 3rd major depressive episode has motivated me to make my well-being a priority.

I have never shared this detailed of an account of my mental health history with anyone because I was ashamed of my depression. I felt like a failure. I was supposed to have everything under control, but sometimes I was struggling more than my clients were. But then a few years ago I decided to write a book about self-acceptance where I make use of both my personal and professional experience.

I decided to start with a mental health blog where I would be open and honest about all of the things that I ordinarily try to hide as a way to demonstrate how to practice self-acceptance. Because it’s that hard to do. Even when you know what you’re supposed to do.

Surprisingly, readers are more interested in my personal experience than my expertise. Although I think it helps them to know that I am a psychologist, because it’s further proof that everyone struggles. Being an expert doesn’t make you exempt from suffering. From avoiding help. From resisting treatment. It is all a process that slowly improves with time. And as I blog and get feedback from readers, I become increasingly more comfortable with being me.

So even though I started this blog to help other people, it has turned out to be the best gift I have ever given to myself.

Mental Hygiene

Negativity is like a virus. Even if you are vigilant about taking your meds, challenging irrational thoughts, praying, meditating, and practicing self-acceptance, forgiveness, and compassion, it just takes one negative comment–one careless psychological sneeze–and you’re contaminated.

I’ve had 3 people sneeze on me today. In an effort to avoid contaminating you with too much negativity, I’ll just tell you about the most egregious of the 3 incidents.

I had my follow up appointment with my psychiatrist today. Thank goodness I only have to go twice a year. It’s a 3 and 1/2 hour drive round trip for a 30 minute appointment, and there’s very little about that 30 minutes that is therapeutic. While my psychiatrist knows his drugs, he’s not a particularly good therapist, to put it mildly. Which is OK, I guess, because I have a therapist. But I have to talk about something.

Because I have chronic sleep issues due to my night-owlness, I confessed that I’ve been struggling with regulating my sleep cycle now that I’m not working. Every time I tell him what time I go to sleep and wake up, he makes this judgmental face that looks like he just sucked on a lemon. Then he proceeds to tell me what the research says about the importance of waking up at the same time every day, especially when you have a history of depression. How I need to get morning sunlight, I shouldn’t take naps, I need to be more disciplined, blah blah blah.

I am not good at constructive criticism, but I did manage to say that I’m trying. That I spend an inordinate amount of time obsessing about sleep. So much so that it probably interferes with my sleep. He can read my blog if he wants proof.

But I wish I could say something more honest. Something like, you make me feel like crap when you make that stupid face and give me a lecture on sleep hygiene that I already know by heart because I am a clinical psychologist, in case you’ve forgotten. Every time I see you, you just give my inner critic ammunition to tell me how I’m failing at sleep hygiene and that I suck. You are supposed to be helping me with my mental health–not making it worse. Oh, and by the way, your waiting room smells like mold and you need to clean your freaking office and water your damn plants. It doesn’t reflect well on you that your plants are dying! 

But I don’t want to come across as being too negative.

Does anyone ever give their doctor honest feedback when they do something unhelpful? I try to imagine what my reaction would be if a client brought to my attention that my facial expression conveyed blatant disapproval of what a terrible job they’re doing of trying to get better. It would be a shock, no question. But I don’t want to convey disapproval and judgment, so I think I would want to know. I think I would try to be more aware of my facial expressions. But as I mentioned in a previous post, we are terrible predictors of how we will act in the future. So maybe I would just be pissed off.

Maybe I can think of this as an opportunity to practice constructive criticism. Maybe I’ll talk to my therapist about it and see if she thinks it’s worth it to say something. Not what I wrote above, of course. But something.

Or maybe I could just tell him that my latest blog post is dedicated to him so he should read it. That would be hilarious!

I’ll let you know what I do. In the meantime, I encourage all of you to do your part in preventing the spread of negativity. Please remember to cover your mouth before your criticize. (And not in that passive-aggressive way where you cover your mouth while you fake cough and mumble something critical under your breath, either. You know what I’m taking about.)

I think this doodle looks like germs.

The Daily Grind

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Sometimes I wonder if other people have to will themselves to get through the day like I do. I know it’s not compassionate to compare myself to other people, but sometimes that’s what I do. Like, when my brother and I were living in a one bedroom apartment and we had even less personal space than we did before we moved out of my 1000 sq ft patio home, I told myself that it’s not as bad as being a refugee fleeing to another country from an oppressive government. They probably have to sleep outside somewhere with people all around them. So suck it up!

Or when I have to come home from work and go by the grocery store and cook dinner and do the dishes and do my light therapy and stretch and then start my nightly routine, I feel like a single parent. Because before my brother lived with me, I wouldn’t cook dinner because it requires meal planning, going to the grocery store, cooking, and dishes. I would just fall asleep from exhaustion when I got home and wake up at midnight and get ready for bed.

So then I’ll be like, well it’s not as bad as being a single parent. Think about what that would be like. You think this is bad? People struggle way more than you do!

Or when I have to wake up in the morning and have a full schedule of clients ahead of me today and every day, knowing that I have no vacation or sick days to take and I have to be perfect, I tell myself to think about that guy from the Coast soap commercial from the 70’s. He could barely get out of bed. It wasn’t until he showered with new deodorant Coast, which brings you back to life, that he was able to face his day with enthusiasm. Other people struggle to get out of bed. So get up!

And then at some point I catch myself and remind myself that these are not compassionate ways to motivate myself. My mental illness is real. There are people who have my conditions and can’t hold a job, don’t make it into work, and can’t perform adequately when they do. I read recently that, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) depression is the 2nd most common cause of disability in the world. (Heart disease is the first.)

So then I do my compassionate mantras. What you’re doing really is hard. You’re juggling a lot of things. You’re doing the best that you can. Am I really? Yes, of course you are. You always do.

This semester, instead of running scared at the thought of getting sick when I don’t have any days off, I’m trying to use my inner warrior approach. I checked my balance yesterday, thinking that I had at least 2 days of leave, but I have none. And I panicked.

But then I thought, you know what? I got the perfect attendance award once in 6th grade. I didn’t know until 15 years later after I had to go to my high school to get proof of my existence after my purse got stolen on the way to a UVA bowl game (which is a blog for another day). It was still in my file, unclaimed. Clearly I had missed the day they were giving out awards, but still. I didn’t think I had ever gotten perfect attendance.

So instead of running scared, I have decided to think of it as a challenge. Like the kinds of challenges I always do, but this time it’s not just for kicks. It’s for real. I have to make it in. So I’ve added the Perfect Attendance Award to my New Year’s Resolutions, in addition to letting go. At least for this semester. Enough time to build up some days. I can do it! Warrior! RAAH! (That’s my warrior cry.)

My boyfriend thinks that’s unrealistic. I’m working on some other ideas, but so far this is the best one I’ve come up with. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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.

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.

Darkness and Light, Part 3

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Now that I am at the end of my summer break, my sleep cycle is officially fully out of whack. I go to bed at 4 am and often wake up after noon. I’m getting better at not berating myself for this because this luxury is about to end in a few days. And because, since I’m a night owl, I feel the best in the wee hours in the morning. This is when I have my moments of clarity. When my demons lose their power to convince me that I suck. Ironically, for me, seeing the light happens in the darkness of night.

It got me thinking about all of the good/bad dichotomies. Darkness and light. Angels and demons. Joy and pain. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, I’ve been reading all these books about God, trying to understand what it means to be good, and the answer seems to be to accept everything about ourselves–even our sins and our vices. I write about acceptance all the time, but I guess in my mind self-acceptance was still something more along the lines of, don’t hate this thing about yourself because it’s a part of you. But it’s still bad. I mean, how can you think of something like depression as good? How can I embrace something that causes me so much suffering?

Although lately I have had a better appreciation of my depression. I pride myself on being mentally tough–on being a warrior. My greatest strength in tennis is not my athletic ability but rather my mind. My determination to not let my opponent get in my head. To fight, even when I’m down 0-6, 0-5. To be able to see what I’ve done well in a loss and to learn from my mistakes.

One of the things I take the most pride in is that players on my team appreciate me as a captain, and continue to be on my team even if we lose every match, because they think I’m positive and encouraging. I mean, I award a Player of the Game and Honorable Mention in matches where we’ve lost 0-5. That is really looking on the bright side. But my bright side would not be possible without my dark side. My mental illness has strengthened my character. It has shaped the parts of me that people admire the most.

If boot camp prepares soldiers for war, then depression is the boot camp for hardship. When I look back on each depressive episode, I realize how strong I was, even though I thought I was weak at the time. How hard I was trying, even though I thought I was being lazy. How much hope I had that things would get better, even though a part of me was telling me to give up–that life was not worth living.

Having said all of this, I can’t say that I have fully embraced my depression. I’m not thrilled when it shows up. But I’m trying to accept it in the way people sign up for the military, knowing that it may cost them their life. Or the way that people choose to get married for richer or poorer, in sickness and health. The way parents choose to have children, knowing the heartache that comes from loving so deeply.

Joy and pain. Angels and demons. Darkness and light. I will choose all of these, because I believe our task in this life is to fully embrace what it means to be human.

Normal is Never Done

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I’ve been thinking about the question that people often ask me about therapy–about how I can listen to people’s problems all day. I realized just a moment ago that there is something about being in the presence of suffering that is transformative; therapy changes both the client and the therapist in the process. It is a gift to have so many opportunities to take part in their personal growth.

Today I have a guest post from one of my favorite clients. He is truly wise beyond his years, and he is perhaps the best example I have seen of how much growth can come from pain and suffering. I was honored to be able to witness part of his transformation while he was in college.

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Dr. Barongan, at the end of a few different sessions, asked me to write something for her blog. She said I could write on any subject of my choosing. I started several drafts, each with their own thesis, before realizing that the best topic comes from the title of this blog, “Normal-in-Training.” I like the title, because it’s aware of two related points essential to caring for oneself. The first comes from “Normal” – this suggests there is an expectation of what “normal” is and the second, the “in-Training,” denotes that the actualization of normalcy is always a work-in-progress.

Throughout my life, I have carried varying attitudes towards the state of my mental health. Sometimes, when I’m doing all the “right” things (eating healthily, exercising, etc.), it’s easy to feel good about myself. Other times, when I find myself slipping into “negative” behaviors (poor eating habits, not exercising, nicotine use, etc.) it’s easy to feel bad about myself. The obvious solution is to always be doing the right things. But, that’s easier said than done and unveils a harmful expectation of what one must be doing to feel good about oneself. I’m not suggesting one should not care about living a healthy life, but that creating a checklist of to-do’s in order to feel good isn’t healthy either. It’s sort of like creating a prison in one’s own mind or giving too much authority to the inner-critic we all know.

Part of caring for one’s mental health, I believe, is accepting one’s current situation. Right now, I’m in a situation where I am using lots of nicotine (not to mention caffeine) and not exercising, because my job leaves me little time and energy to workout which means I’ve turned to easier methods of perking myself up throughout the day (i.e. smoking, coffee). The critic in me sees this as a failure and commands me to wake up earlier, shortening my time for sleep, to workout. To quit tobacco cold turkey. To go on a strict diet and shed some of my chub. Only then, the critic says, will I deserve to feel good or “normal.”

The irony, however, is that even during the periods of life where I have done all the right things, I still haven’t totally achieved that normalcy I crave. Depressive thoughts still arise, suicidal ideation still becomes a problem. The point is that feeling good about oneself is always a work-in-progress, regardless of what type of lifestyle one has. Again, this does not mean one should just give up on living healthily, but rather that one must have a flexible spirit which allows happiness to not be tethered to an ascetic regimen of “you should do this” or “you need to do this” or “you ought to do this.” If I am feeling depressed, suicidal, I do need to reflect on my daily choices, but I also need to reflect on the external limitations my current situation (i.e. work) have on my freedom to do all those healthier things.

Lately, I’ve been feeling down. And, I get frustrated with myself for feeling down. My inner-critic says that all I need is a good kick in the ass to get me up and going. But, finding that sense of normalcy is about more than being hard on oneself. We do need that inner-critic, but we also need that inner-forgiver who is understanding and loving. Because there will always be circumstances where it’s too much to expect too much of ourselves. Normalcy can’t be limited to those expectations, because it’s unrealistic, abnormal to think the to-do’s will always be able to be checked off.

In a month, I will be in a very different situation than I am now. I will be home and have more time to do some of those healthy things. And even though I will do those healthy things, I’ll still have times when I’m feeling down like I am now. I’ll still have to care for myself, because that inner-critic can be a terrible master that is never satisfied. Normal can never be finished, completed. I’ll never reach a point where I say, “Ah, now I am normal, good.” It’s a constant work, (ironically) unique to each person.

“Love is patient, love is kind.” Note how patience comes first. We need to give ourselves time, all the time, a lifetime, to work towards normalcy and that’s love.

My advice for anyone who feels as though they aren’t doing all the things they are supposed to do, and feeling depressed about it, is to give themselves some slack and leniency. Normal looks different from one moment to the next. The “kick-in-the-ass” approach sounds good in theory, but not in practice. Because it assumes that normalcy is just a checklist of items away. And, that’s an assumption which deserves its own kick-in-the-ass.

Josh Gross is a graduate of Washington and Lee University, where he majored in philosophy and religion. He currently living in Black Mountain, NC. His plan is to become a writer and to help other people in difficult situations. 

 

 

Being Present

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Every year the student group that I advise, Active Minds, hosts a mental health panel in which students with a mental illness share their stories. A few years ago, during the Q and A portion of the program, I asked the students to say what other people can do to be helpful to someone who is in pain.

I have written often about how, in our attempts to be helpful, we say unhelpful things. We give unwanted advice. Tell people to push through. To look on the bright side. To count their blessings. Or perhaps we are so afraid that we will say the wrong thing that we say nothing at all. Pretend that we don’t see their suffering.

Occasionally students will make an appointment to ask for advice on how to help someone in pain. And the advice that I usually give is to ask the person what they can do to be helpful. But often we don’t know what will be helpful because we are so unaccustomed to caring for ourselves, to practicing self-compassion. So I was genuinely curious about what the students on the panel had to say about what they found most helpful.

All of the students essentially gave the same answer: the thing that they found the most helpful was to have someone be fully present. To listen. To let them be sad, anxious, angry, or whatever else they were feeling. So seemingly simple, yet difficult to do.

I teach clients how to practice mindfulness and self-compassion because we can’t control whether other people will be fully present, but we can always choose to be present with ourselves. And until we are able to sit with our own feelings, we cannot bear witness to other people’s pain.

Although it was not my conscious intent to use my blog for this purpose, often my posts are my attempts to practice being present with my pain. I keep a journal where I do the same thing. I read books on mindfulness and compassion. I meditate regularly. Nevertheless, when I wake up to another day of feeling anxious or depressed, or whatever crappy feeling I’m experiencing, I just want it to go away, just like everybody else.

I have started reading Wisdom and Compassion in Psychotherapy, and today’s chapter was on mindful presence. Tara Brach suggested that, whenever we are feeling something painful, we whisper to ourselves, “I consent.”

I have to admit, my first response when I read this was, what the? I consent? That’s a little more inviting than what I was going for in trying to be fully present. But it’s true that there’s this resistance that I feel in my mind and body when I don’t want to face something painful. This instinctive response to brace myself against it. And today while I was meditating I caught myself doing it and remembered to allow myself to feel the pain, and it did help.

So I’m going to try to give this strategy a shot. No matter what I’m feeling, I’m going to consent to it. Allow it to be heard and felt. I’ll let you know if anything interesting happens.