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Author Archives: Christy Barongan

Hanging in the Balance

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You know what it’s like having a mental illness? It’s like being Homer Simpson in that episode where he ate that Fugu puffer fish prepared by a rookie chef. That’s the fish that, if not prepared correctly, can kill you. He had to wait 24 hours to find out. Great episode, if you haven’t seen it.

Or it’s like hydroplaning on the highway, trying to figure out which way you need to turn the wheel so you don’t crash. That actually happened to me. I don’t think I turned the wheel the right way. I ended up going backwards in the median, wondering what was going to happen to me when the car finally stopped. Thankfully, miraculously, nothing happened. Except to my car. Which I got rid of.

I found out in the book “The Art of Racing in the Rain”–which is a fantastic book, if you’re looking for something to read–that when you’re hydroplaning, you actually need to accelerate to engage the wheels. It’s a fictional account, but that makes sense to me. So now I drive really slowly in the rain so that I can speed up if I start to skid.

But I digress. The reason why having a mental illness is like the Fugu puffer fish and racing in the rain is that there are so many things you have to do to maintain your balance, and it takes so little to throw it off.

Take sleep, for example. I am a night owl, but I’m not supposed to stay up late, because reversing my sleep cycle triggers a depressive episode. But when I try to go to bed earlier, I can’t fall asleep because my obsessive brain is wide awake, chatting up a storm. I am also supposed to wake up early, but I’m usually too freaking tired. And because I need more sleep than the average person, I still have to take a 3 hour nap.

I have similar difficulties regarding eating that is equally complicated because of my inability to wake up early, restrictions in what and when to eat because of my GERD, my tennis schedule, my inability to tell whether or not I’m hungry, and that I hate planning meals, grocery shopping, and cooking.

I also have to manage my anxiety by avoiding almost everything, lately–Facebook, the news, conversations about Trump, certain family members, relationships, looking at my schedule for the week so that I don’t get overwhelmed (which has gotten me into trouble with my colleagues).

Despite all of this effort I put into maintaining my mental health, I frequently wake up feeling anxious or depressed or both. Because it’s impossible to keep all of this stuff in balance. Which really frustrates me. Sometimes I’m mad at God. Sometimes I wonder if it’s all worth it, all this work to be mentally stable given that I am inherently unstable. Sometimes I feel alone in it, because despite having my brother and friends to talk to, in those moments when you’re lying in bed trying to find a reason to face the day, there’s no one who can really be there for you.

Thankfully, those moments usually pass, often some time later that day. Or at least they fluctuate throughout the day. Or I’ll go play tennis.

On a moment to moment basis, practicing mindfulness and self-compassion are the most helpful tools to make the pain bearable, but it still hurts like hell. I remind myself that it’s OK to be in pain. That this moment will pass. That although my thinking may be irrational but convincing right now, at some point I will be able to see things more clearly. That it’s not my fault. I’m doing the best that I can. And then I try to think of things I can do to make myself feel better. Like watching “Trolls.” Really cute movie, if you haven’t seen it.

The other thing that has helped is reading Richard Rohr’s books. The one I’m reading currently, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi, is a much tougher read, but he says some thought-provoking things. Like, he says that the best healers are people who have suffered greatly themselves. I know for sure that my own experiences have made me better able to sit with and relate to other people’s pain, and I know how much better it feels to talk to someone who really gets it because they, too, have suffered greatly.

We all have roles that we have to take on that will involve pain and suffering–being a parent, a firefighter, a soldier, Wonder Woman (I loved that movie, too), just to name a few. Any role entails pain and suffering, really. I guess the difference is whether you’re going to rail against it or accept it–choose it, even–because there’s something that you care about that makes it worthwhile. And because not choosing it just magnifies your suffering.

I know for sure that I was meant to be a healer. Sometimes I wish I could say no thank you, God, but I appreciate your confidence in me. But I can’t, because I really don’t know what else I would do. So if trying to find that balance moment to moment, day after day, helps me to be a better therapist, then so be it. I will choose it.

Beginnings and Endings, Part 4

beginnings and endings part 4

Yesterday was graduation day for the college where I work. As I’ve mentioned in several posts, I’m not good with beginnings and endings. I don’t like good-byes, and I dread starting new things. Maybe it’s that whole transition thing: change has always been difficult for me.

I don’t usually cry during beginnings and endings. My parents said I didn’t cry on my first day of Kindergarten. I wasn’t even sad when I graduated from high school. I think I was too scared to cry when my parents dropped me off for college.

Nevertheless, I have no problem crying when my clients cry, even though there’s some unspoken rule about therapists not crying. I once had a client tell me that she was going to get a t-shirt that said “I made my therapist cry.” I’m not sure that’s great advertising for me, but I think it was meant to be positive.

I’m beginning to understand why it’s easier to cry because my client is sad that she’s losing me than it is for me to cry because I’m losing someone important. When you feel other people’s feelings, their sadness is your sadness. That’s why I feel like I have to help anyone who is in pain: I’m really just trying to alleviate my own pain.

The problem is that I’m so focused on the other person’s pain that I’m never quite sure what I’m feeling. Which is why I don’t know if I’m tired, hungry, or have to pee. Why I’m not sure if I meant it when I said I love you. And why, when faced with a beginning or an ending, the only thing I register is anxiety.

Perhaps beginnings and endings are an illusion. Perhaps they are more like a rest area along the highway–a place where we are meant to pause and take a moment to reflect on where we have been so that we can be more fully present on our journey. And go to the bathroom and walk the dog.

Since my year coincides with the academic calendar, this year was particularly challenging, since it began with my brother’s heart attack in September. It has been quite an adjustment. My energy reserves are slightly lower so I don’t journal as much, I have more trouble captaining multiple teams, I go to bed earlier.

A lot of the changes has been positive. He has been the best motivation yet to make self-care a priority, to say no, to maintain boundaries. Plus he does a lot of the stuff that I hate, like take out the trash, go to the grocery store, and cook. And it looks like he will be starting a part-time job at a place he is looking forward to working, so June will mark a new beginning for him.

The entire year has been an opportunity to practice gratitude. Admittedly, some days the only positive things I could come up with is that my brother is still alive and I didn’t kill a pedestrian (because one day I almost did). But I am truly thankful for the way my year has ended and that I have the summer to look forward to.

Optimism, Part 2

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As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I am a captain who is known for trying to be encouraging and positive, even if our team isn’t that good. Sometimes I make stuff up on the spot to say to my partner to get them to laugh, be relaxed, and fight for the win–even if I think we’re going to lose.

I admit that thinking that we’re going to lose runs counter to the argument that I am inherently an optimistic person, but since I’m at war with myself most of the time, it just makes me want to prove that negative part of myself wrong and win, gosh darn it! So take that, Inner Critic! You don’t know me! I will beat you and your negative thinking!

But I digress. Back to the stuff I make up on the court to encourage my partner. I had a partner last year who kept getting distracted in the match because the pace was really slow. So I told her that she only had to concentrate for 15 seconds at a time, because that’s about how long a doubles point is. Or if my partner has to hold serve to stay in the match but she hasn’t held serve yet, I’ll say, that’s OK. That’s what winners do. They hold serve when it counts. Or I’ll tell my partner that we are capable of getting every ball back. They will not be able to hit a winner against us. I mean, they’re not that good. Or if we’re down 1-6, 0-5, I’ll tell them that I’ve come back from a match being that far behind before. Which is true.

I really believe these things, by the way. I say them to myself all the time. And they do often help me get the win. And even when they don’t, they help me fight until the end and make my opponents work harder than they expected to for their victory. So if I can’t win, I can at least make my opponents suffer, which is a victory in itself.

My latest strategy to keep morale up in the face of defeat is a more extreme form of what I’ll call alternative scoring. Kind of like alternative facts, but without the political controversy. I have always counted tiebreak losses as wins, but I’ve taken this definition of winning a step further. In my summary of the match, I will give the real score (we lost 2-3) and the alternative score (but since I count tiebreak losses as wins, we actually won 5-0). I will point out all of the players who have an “undefeated streak”, which may be defined as 6 straight tiebreak losses. And at the end of the season, I will point out that, rather than coming in last place with an an overall record of 3-6, we actually won 7-2 unofficially and should be going to districts, if USTA were keeping score by my rules.

And the funny thing is, sometimes it works. Last year I had a team advance to districts even though we came in 3rd place, just because we had enough people to go. Just because I tell players to make sure that they are available the weekend of districts. Because you never know….

Actually, I don’t think my positive attitude made that happen, but it was fun to go with the goal of making our opponents lose to a team that came in last place. Because of the whole causing suffering thing as a victory in itself. Which is perhaps a little bit uncompassionate (non-compassionate?), but still positive and encouraging. I think.

What Makes for a Meaningful Life?

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Last night we had our April Remedial Book Club meeting. The book was When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi. Ordinarily I avoid reading any first person account of someone who dies of cancer, but since I run the book club, I felt obligated to read it.

I was surprised that some people didn’t think it was sad. I was practically crying during the Forward. But it was so well-written, and he was so brilliant. And he had spent his life trying to understand the meaning of life, so it seemed fitting that he had to wrestle with his own death in order to find an answer. Although I’m not sure what his answer ultimately was.

Had he lived, he would have made huge contributions to the field of neuroscience, but instead, his legacy is this book. I don’t know if that’s better or worse, but I guess ultimately it doesn’t matter, since it wasn’t his choice. It just seems sad that he spent his entire life studying, only to die shortly after graduating from medicine. That he didn’t get to see his daughter’s first birthday and all the other firsts she will experience. That, although he was married for 12 years, the two of them hardly spent any quality time together, since she was in med school, too. It’s like everything was on hold–all of the rewards of his hard work were yet to come. Until the diagnosis.

But there are no guarantees in life, right? I expected to be married for the rest of my life rather than get my heart broken at 34. I figured I’d live with the same financial security that I grew up with. I would never have predicted that my brother would have open heart surgery at 40 and I would be taking care of him. I’m not trying to say my life is horrible. I’m just saying that you can’t take anything for granted–the things you have, the things you imagined you would have, the things you could lose. You just never know what life will throw your way.

As my friend and I were discussing the book on the way home, she said that she didn’t think the book was sad because some people never live as full and purposeful of a life as Kalanithi did in the 30 something years he was alive. Which is true. He crammed a lot of living into a short period of time.

Plus, he lived being true to the person he was in every aspect of his life. There was nothing to regret. None of that dissonance that you experience when your heart, mind, and actions aren’t in alignment. Every part of him was on the same page.

I was telling my brother about our discussion and said that when I die, I will at least feel as though my life benefited other people, which is something. He responded by saying that is everything. That is THE thing that makes life meaningful. But is it? I feel like I’ve helped people more because it was what I was meant to do. I don’t feel like I had a choice. It doesn’t always make me happy. In fact, it directly contributes to my depression, because I burn out at the end of every term, no matter how hard I try to take care of myself.

Still, it does make me feel like my heart, mind, and actions are in alignment. And it is the part of my life that feels the most meaningful. So if this is my gift, even though it sometimes feels like a curse, at least it is one that I am giving away.

Appearances Can Be Deceiving

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You know what’s hard about having depression and anxiety? Having to go about your day, looking like you feel fine when you’re not. I know everyone feels this way at times, but it’s something that I have to focus on a lot. Like, perhaps people have to prepare for the possibility of a thunderstorm every now and then, but it is a daily threat for me. So I always have to carry an umbrella and think about what shoes I want to wear. Whether my outfit is appropriate. Whether or not I’m at risk of getting struck by lightning.

But then again, perhaps I underestimate how bad the weather is for everyone. Because when I listen to my clients and read my friends’ Facebook status updates, I am reminded that there are all kinds of people walking around in pain, looking normal on the outside. We all feel broken in one way or another. It’s so convincing, though, when people look like they have it all, isn’t it? So easy to believe that you are alone in your pain.

When people tell me they read my blog, they always say something about how vulnerable I am in it. They mean it as a compliment, but even though I’ve been doing it for over 3 years now, it always makes me feel self-conscious. Have I said too much? Did they read something that makes me look bad? Do they think less of me as a person? As a psychologist?

Still, it has been worth the risk, both because of how much I have helped other people and because of how freeing it has been. Of all of the things that I have done to battle my demons, blogging has been one of my most powerful weapons. And if there are clients who choose not to see me after reading my blog, I am learning to accept that I can’t be all things to all people.

I realized recently that choosing vulnerability is like choosing love: it’s risky, and you’re bound to get hurt, but it’s better than spending a lifetime trying to play it safe. It’s still hard to put myself out there and risk judgment and criticism, but most of the time it results in a meaningful connection with someone–perhaps even a complete stranger. Because now they know they are not alone. And I am reminded that I’m not alone, either.

Wouldn’t it be nice if more people were willing to take the risk of being vulnerable? If instead of seeming like we had it all together, we could be honest about our pain? I know it would be unrealistic to go around telling everyone about the holes in our hearts all the time. Sometimes when someone asks how you are, you just have to say fine or you won’t have time to get a coffee before your first client. But if you want to know the truth about how I’m feeling, I’ll tell you. And if you read my blog, you will definitely find out.

Suffering and Compassion, Part 3

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This year I have decided to more fully participate in Lent by reading Wonderous Encounters: Scriptures for Lent, by Richard Rohr, since I got so much out of reading Breathing Under Water. In each chapter, Rohr provides his interpretation of the scriptures for that day, then quotes the scriptures, and then offers a “starter prayer” for contemplation. I have found praying in this way much more fruitful. Although I usually don’t get an answer right away, by the next day I often have some insight that deepens my understanding of God.

One of the more difficult messages to digest in Rohr’s books is that God wants us to choose love, knowing full well that we will suffer as a result. Knowing that it will break our hearts. Because it is only through experiencing love, and the suffering that results from loving, that we can truly understand how much God loves us.

I have to admit, this really pissed me off. Like many people, I wrestle with the question of why God lets people suffer. I write about Easter every year in an attempt to understand the nature of suffering. The best I’ve been able to come up with so far is that God never promised that life would be free of suffering. The fact that Jesus died on the cross makes it explicit that no one is immune from suffering. But, on the bright side, God is with us in our suffering, even when we think he has abandoned us. Which is something, I guess.

But I still don’t want to suffer.

Now Rohr is trying to convince me that, not only must I endure suffering, which is hard enough, but that God wants me to actively and willingly choose suffering as a consequence of love. That this is how we fully understand what it means to be human. This is how we gain wisdom. This is how we can more fully experience God’s love. Those all sound like great things, but it wasn’t exactly making me want to sign up for more pain and suffering.

When I told my brother this, he pointed out how much suffering I was willing to endure for tennis. Which is true. I have written blog posts describing how I’ve had asthma attacks, thrown up on the court, played through depressive episodes and physical pain. I’ve been sick from hunger, dehydration, and heat exhaustion. I’ve experienced humiliating losses. I’ve had bad tennis breakups. But I would never give up tennis just so I could avoid the pain and suffering that are an inevitable part of playing this game that I love so much. Life would be much worse without tennis.

I’m pretty sure God loves us more than I love tennis. Which means he must really love us a lot. And, consequently, suffers a lot. All the time, billions of times over. Regardless of whether or not we choose to love him, or how many times we mess up. Willingly, repeatedly, from now until the end of time, God chooses to love us.

That’s pretty deep.

Who would have thought that tennis would teach me about the depths of God’s love? The benefits of tennis never cease to amaze me.

So I’m experimenting with focusing my intentions on being loving to myself and others whenever I’m in pain. Which is what the practice of compassion is about, after all. It’s going pretty well, I think. It doesn’t make the pain go away, but I guess it makes the pain more bearable. More meaningful. More worthwhile. I do feel happier, more peaceful of late. I don’t feel as anxious and depressed. Which could be because of Daylight Savings Time, in all honesty. But it could also be that the benefits of choosing love really do outweigh the costs.

I guess we’ll see.

Control What You Can Control, Part 2

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Living with my brother has been an enlightening experience in many ways. I never realized how different our experiences have been, given that I’m 7 years older than him and was not around for much of what happened to him. However, we have experienced enough similarities in our upbringing to struggle with the same problems with relationships–which is why neither of us is in one, we are not married, and we don’t have children.

So far I have dealt with my inability to have a healthy relationship by avoiding them altogether. But at the beginning of this year, I began to panic. Because I really would like to be in a relationship at some point, but I didn’t see how it was possible to change at this stage of my life.

So I have embarked on this self-created intensive relationship rehabilitation treatment program. I have regular phone sessions with my therapist now. I have a syllabus of books that I need to read. I’ve even embraced the term codependence, which I’ve always hated, because it best captures the problems I have with choosing people who have been traumatized, issues of control, and being able to read other people’s feelings but having no idea whether I need to eat, pee, or take an Ativan.

I just finished Breathing Under Water, by Richard Rohr, my spiritual guru. In it he demonstrates how 12 Step Programs are consistent with the teachings of Jesus. So I figured this was a good choice for curing my addiction to unhealthy relationships.

You know how sometimes you really like someone else’s opinion because it confirms your own beliefs? Well, that is not why I liked this book. Most of the stuff he said I would have never in a million years came up with myself. But he made me think, and I want what he says to be true, even though it seems too good to be true.

For example, in the step regarding character defects, he said that the goal is not to fix these defects but to turn them over to God. That’s what people mean when they say to let go and let God. I always wondered. We have to work to admit what our faults are, but once we do, it’s not on us to be able to correct them by ourselves. Which is a relief, because I’ve really, really been trying without much success.

Take jealousy, for example. I used to deal with it by trying to control other people. Don’t do or say anything to make me jealous! Which was not a great strategy. Then I accepted that it was on me and tried to be rational, to practice self-compassion, to distract myself, and every other technique I could think of. But experiencing jealousy hurts in a way that I cannot bear, for reasons that are not my fault. And it’s not my fault that I can’t fix this thing about myself.

So in my attempt to turn my character defects over to God, every time I encounter one, I say something like, OK God, here’s another one. I’ve really tried, but I can’t fix it by myself. I finally get it. I’m not in control. I need your help. I don’t want this thing to hurt me anymore, and I don’t want it to interfere with my ability to love others. So any time you feel like making me whole in this place of brokenness, I’m ready. I’ll just hang out here, waiting patiently. Or I’ll try to wait patiently. Impatience is also one of my character defects that I need help with.

And you know what? It helps. It gives me hope that change is possible, no matter how much trauma I’ve experienced, how old I am, how many times I’ve made the same mistakes, and how long it took me to realize that I can’t control everything.

Don’t get me wrong–I still have my reading list. Because you still have to do the work. You just don’t have to do it all alone.