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Category Archives: Mental Health

Why Try?

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So I read that doom and gloom article on the state of the world because of global warming. Since the changes that must occur to save the earth need to happen on a level that I cannot participate in–things at the policymaker level–I wondered whether my obsessive recycling makes a difference. Whether it matters if I recycle the rolls for toilet paper and paper towels. And every receipt and scrap of paper that my to do list is on. One could easily conclude that it’s all pretty hopeless. Or not true. Or irrelevant, since I’ll be dead by then. I don’t even have kids who will have kids who will be affected.

But I believe it’s true. And relevant.

Often people ask me a similar question about therapy. Doesn’t it depress me, working with all these unhappy people? And in my darkest moments, I wonder how much change people are capable of. Not so much my clients. I am narcissistic enough and they are young enough that I feel confident that they can change. But I wonder how much change is possible once you’re middle-aged like me, or older. Is it hopeless at this point? Have all the traumas, the mistakes, and the accumulated stress caused irreparable damage? Like slathering yourself with baby oil all your life rather than sunscreen?

In an article in Men’s Health they say that 50 is the new 20. But maybe they’re just saying that so you’ll keep buying the stuff in their ads.

I go through this cycle of thought many times. What am I doing? Is it worth it? Does it even make a difference to try so hard? It’s like having the goal of being good. Even if you’re earnest about it, it’s hard to feel good enough. Especially if you’re earnest about it, in fact.

So I went on a quest to find out what would be a better goal than trying to be good, and the answers were 1) to be self-aware and 2) to be loving. It’s like that quote about how if you have to choose between being right and being kind, choose kindness. Being good feels like choosing to be right. Being self-aware and loving feels like choosing to be kind.

But I digress. What does this have to do with wondering what good it will do to recycle? Or how much I can really help my loved ones and myself so late in the game?

I guess I treat every decision the same way. I try to choose what makes me feel like a better person, regardless of the result. Regardless of whether it is going to lead to success. Trying to save the earth, myself, and the people I love is choosing to be kind.

Sometimes it feels like trying to empty the ocean one bucket at a time. But I guess being in the water, trying to do something, feels better than standing there on the shore, feeling overwhelmed by the vastness of the problem. If it’s a choice between doing something and doing nothing, I choose to do something.

So I keep recycling. I try to stay hopeful about myself, my brother, and my life in general. Because what is the purpose of life, if it isn’t to try?

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.

Falling Apart

I learned something about myself in 2018. I learned that I am not a superhero. I can’t do it all.

I mean, I knew that. I knew that I had reached my limit and I was going to fall apart, but I had kept it all together for so long, you know? I figured it was like knitting some complicated dress pattern. Or winning a tennis match after driving 10 hours and being injured. Just another crazy challenge that I could push myself through. But this time I met my match.

The past two and a half years have been tough for my brother and me. This was not intended to be a long-term living arrangement. I decided to get a new place at my therapist’s suggestion. It would at least give us more personal space–literally a wall between us–which was one small thing I could control.

And it is nice, the new place. But it caused 6 months of additional stress before I could benefit from it. Selling my old place. Moving out and running out of storage space. (How could I get so much stuff into 1000 sq feet?) Staying in a really expensive apartment for several weeks. Not knowing when I was going to have my new place. Changing my address multiple times. Trying to fit all my stuff in my new place. Which should have been easier with double the square footage, but for some reason it wasn’t.

The other thing I took on this year is that online therapy job, in anticipation of the added expense of buying a new place. Even though I can barely see all the clients in my primary job. Plus, it’s really hard to make a connection with someone who you don’t get to interact with face to face. So much of what heals in therapy is what happens when you literally sit with someone, being fully present to their pain, rather than the words themselves. In online therapy, all you have is words.

Plus, you know when someone doesn’t like you, because you get multiple emails telling you the person is transferring. They can even write a terrible review about you. Or file a complaint. And then you have to have a video conference with an expert who specializes in helping you be a less sucky online therapist. Fortunately, the last 2 things didn’t happen. But I did have people transfer. And thank goodness, because what was I thinking, taking all those new people?

Last semester had been particularly stressful at my primary job because one of my colleagues had to be out for the beginning of the term, so things filled up a few weeks earlier than usual. I usually fall apart some time around Thanksgiving, no matter how hard I try to practice self-care, but usually I can bounce back after a mental health day. So when I first fell apart, not surprising. After the second day, I started panicking a little. After the 3rd day, I knew I was in trouble.

I ended up taking an extended leave, and it’s the best thing I’ve done for myself in a long time. I probably should have done it 10 years ago but didn’t because it felt like admitting defeat. An extreme version of retiring from a match. So I just sucked it up, even though I knew I wasn’t doing a great job.

This time I had no choice, because unlike in previous depressive episodes, I couldn’t think. I felt like I had a concussion. I couldn’t remember words, and had a hard time even having a conversation. If I had to make a decision, I would get overwhelmed. Even reading made me anxious, because it activated my brain. I knew there was no way I was going to be able to handle my job, so I accepted defeat.

Having this time to focus solely on self-care (and moving) made me realize how long I had been operating under duress. Some of it was beyond my control, but some of it I put on myself. I push myself relentlessly. I’ve gotten a lot better since practicing self-compassion, but my Drill Sergeant is still active, bossing me around every chance it gets. I was only able to stand up to it because it felt like life or death.

Today is my first day back, and I’m glad I’m the only person here so that I can just catch up on the things I have put on the back burner for the past 6 weeks. I’m feeling pretty good but I still don’t know how much stress I can tolerate, so I’m hoping I can slowly ease my way into the crazy schedule that awaits me.

But I have to do things differently. So this year, my New Year’s Resolution is to let go of as much as possible. Moving has taught me that. A lot of what I had been holding onto went into the trash or to Goodwill. I even gave up plants that I’ve had for over 20 years, because the idea of carrying them up 3 flights of stairs to the one bedroom apartment that my brother and I were going to share didn’t seem worth the effort. When you have to carry all of your belongings around with you, you to learn to let go of material possessions pretty quickly.

I’m going to let go in other ways, too. No more captaining multiple teams because they desperately need another captain. I’m cutting back on the number of people I try to save that are not a part of my job. I’m going to stop beating myself up about working out, sleeping abnormally, and being unlike other people in general. Any thought that causes me distress I will put aside. I will only do what I have to do, because that will still be plenty.

This year, rather than choosing some challenge that pushes me to the limit, I’m going to choose me.

Wholeheartedly

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I’m reading this book by Pema Chodron Called When Things Fall Apart.” She’s pretty funny for a Tibetan Buddhist. She talks about how she threw a rock at her husband when he said he was leaving her. She’s a nun now. Maybe that’s why.

But I digress. In one chapter she says

if we really knew how unhappy it was making this whole planet that we all try to avoid pain and seek pleasure–how that was making us so miserable and cutting us off from our basic heart and our basic intelligence–then we would practice mediation as if our hair were on fire.

I thought that was hilarious! I mean, I meditate every day, but if my hair were on fire, that is not the first thing that would come to mind as to what I should do. But apparently that’s a popular phrase, because in this meditation conference I just went to, Bill Morgan talked about people’s hair being on fire all the time. Maybe that happened a lot in Asian countries.

The focus of this conference was on how to make meditation practice work for Westerners. He thinks that most people in the West can’t get into meditating because sitting quietly just feels like an opportunity to let demons and thoughts of unworthiness run amok. And our attention span is so short that it feels torturous to sit still for even a few minutes. Plus, because we are so goal-oriented that we spend too much time striving, trying to make something happen.

So we spent the weekend learning ways to start meditating in a gentler, kinder way. Morgan suggested that when we begin a meditation practice, we start by creating an experience of comfort. This is a way we can learn to soothe ourselves. Often we would begin by standing up to stretch, shaking out any discomfort. Then when we sat to meditate we would begin with a memory, sound, or image that we find soothing. The face of your grandmother, perhaps. The sound of the ocean. Thinking about your pet. Playing with your niece.

This was revolutionary for me because, as you know, I really struggle with self-soothing. For the longest time I really had no idea how to comfort myself. I’m still not great at it. I realized during this conference that I primarily try to comfort myself by creating chaos–a common strategy for people with histories of trauma. Peace and quiet feel strange, foreign, so we recreate the experience of the chaos we grew up with, because it at least feels familiar.

My version of creating chaos involves taking on too much–signing up for Talkspace, moving, volunteering to captain a team that I don’t even have time to play on because they need another captain. Or by obsessively trying to practice self-care, which ends up stressing me out more than it reduces my stress. I just did my health assessment for my job and all of my health markers were worse than they were last year. So apparently I’m getting an F in self-care. Sort of like when you study really hard for you Calculus but still end up failing all the tests.

After spending time in meditation during the conference, I think I’ve figured out why practicing self-care hasn’t been helping. I’ve treated living with anxiety, depression, GERD, asthma, and allergies as a chore. I had been practicing self-compassion, but my attempts at self-care were driven by fear of crashing and burning. My routines were done resentfully, begrudgingly. As if I had a child who I thought was a pain in the ass but I have to take care of her because that’s my job.

In the meditations he taught us, he told us to pay attention to ourselves with the heart of a caregiver. I do that for my clients but not for myself. I do not listen to myself wholeheartedly. So that’s what I’m going to do. I’m not just going to go through the motions of checking in with myself. I’m going to try to listen with an open heart, as though I were someone who I cared for deeply. Because I want to be someone who I care for deeply.

Five Years Later

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I’ve been so busy with work that I forgot that the 24th was my blog’s 5th birthday. So happy belated birthday, Normal in Training!

My birthday blog feels more like the beginning of the new year for me than January 1 does. It gives me a chance to reflect on the important thoughts, feelings, and events that have taken place over the past blog year. And now that I post an old post every Thursday on my Facebook page, I read some of my old posts every week, which really helps to put my life in perspective since I started my blog.

I have to say, when I look back at some of the things I have shared, I am surprised at my own bravery. Because I have no desire to share those posts now! But they’re still there, if you want to go back that far and read them. Having a blog is like having a motivational poster in your mind that says, “Have you shared your soul today?” It’s helpful to have that invitation to be vulnerable, because my first instinct is to hide.

Having a blog also reminds me of how unpredictable life is. I remember 2 years ago, before my brother moved in with me, I was thinking about getting Lasik surgery because my eye doctor said it was life-changing. I thought, well my life can use some changing. So why not? Turns out I didn’t need the Lasik after all. Life-changing moments get thrown at you, whether you want them or not. While I would have preferred 20/20 vision, adjusting to my new life is probably making be a better person than Lasik would have.

Now I’m about go to through some major changes again, a few short months after my Feeling Fragile post. I sold my patio home, 3 months after I put it on the market. And the townhouse that I wasn’t going to be able to purchase unless everything fell into place perfectly? Well, everything fell into place perfectly. And if all goes as planned, I should be moving at the end of the year. It seems too good to be true, and things could still go wrong, so I tentatively share this good news with you. Because it affirms what I feel whenever things miraculously seem to work out: God cares.

Having a blog is also a reminder of how some things never change. My first post was about my problems sleeping, my stressful bedtime routine, my overactive brain. Nothing has changed. It’s just as hard to regulate my sleep cycle now as it was 5 years ago. My depression, my anxiety, my stress level, my inability to say no, my crash and burn tendencies–all exactly as they were, despite my devotion to self-care.

There are positive things that have stayed the same, too, though. I still care more about eating after tennis and friendship than winning. Although I still want to win. I’m still a warrior: I don’t stay down for long. I still try to remain positive, see the good in people and in life.

But I’ve also learned that change is possible. I have become a better person in many ways. I am in a relationship for the first time after almost 5 years, which is perhaps my biggest act of bravery this past blog year. It is wonderful and terrifying at the same time. It forces me to face my fears, to be vulnerable, to choose love every day. To let go of the anxiety of not knowing what will happen. To muster the courage to accept whatever does.

I am a better person to myself, too. In this moment, I am most thankful for my blog because it teaches me to practice mindfulness–to be fully present to the unfolding of my life exactly as it is happening. And to practice self-compassion–to be loving and kind to myself, despite all of those quirks and failings that make me feel like I’m not normal.

Everything Ebbs and Flows

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One of the many things that’s helpful about having a blog that I’ve kept up for almost 5 years is that I see how much repetition there is in my life. I guess that shouldn’t be surprising. That’s the reason why therapy doesn’t work in a day. Even if you can identify in that first session what the client needs to do, it takes a lot of repetition to change your mindset and your behavior. And yet, every time I reread an old blog post, I’m like, what the heck? I was doing the exact same thing 4 years ago?

Yesterday I published an old post I had written about my guilt over my sleep cycle on my FB page (which I encourage you to follow, if you aren’t already doing so). In this post my therapist had given me permission to stop obsessing about not being able to regulate my sleep cycle over the break and said that, when I needed to wake up early, I would be able to do it. Which was helpful in forgiving myself for what I perceived as my sleep sins.

And yet, guess what I did this summer? I obsessed about not being able to regulate my sleep cycle. I thought about it nonstop. Tried different strategies, all to no avail. No matter what I do, my sleep cycle naturally gravitates to its night owl pattern– falling asleep around 3-4 am, waking up in the afternoon. My brain is like a manic vampire–I cannot shut it up at night, and it cannot stand the light.

But now I’ve started work and, although I’m not sleeping any earlier, I wake up when I’m supposed to. I’m sleep-deprived, but responsible. So I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s OK if I can’t change my sleep cycle. That when I have to wake up early, I will. The same conclusion I came to on July 27, 2014. The same conclusion that I’ve probably come to after every break.

Sometimes I still get caught up in thinking that if I were more disciplined, more of an adult, perhaps I could get this sleep thing under control. Perhaps I could be more like a normal person. But yesterday, in a presentation that I gave on resilience, I used the following quote from Paul Gilbert, author of “The Compassionate Mind:”

So much of what we are has, in a way, little to do with personal choice. Therefore it makes little sense to blame ourselves for some of our feelings, motives, desires or abilities or lack of them, or for how things turned out.

So I have stopped berating myself (in the moment) and repeat my self-compassion mantra. You’re doing the best that you can. Am I, though? Yes. You really are. You always do. (I have to go through the whole dialogue every time. Obsessive, I know, but I can’t help that, either.)

I also repeat my mindfulness mantra to remind myself that the cyclical nature of my sleep problems is just how it is. Everything ebbs and flows. Everything comes and goes. No matter how hard I try, how disciplined I am, it will always be like this–semesters filled with sleep-deprivation punctuated with periods of night owl syndrome over the breaks. This is the ebb and flow of my life.

So I’m trying to accept it, just as it is.

What I’ve Learned From Being Single

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About 4 and a half years ago, I wrote one of the most personal, painful posts about why I was choosing to be single called Solitude. I decided to be alone after dating almost non-stop since I was 15 because I was beginning to lose respect for myself. I knew I was running away from something that I needed to face, and it made me feel weak, pathetic. I had settled for unsatisfying and sometimes downright traumatic relationships because I thought anything was better than being alone. Four and a half years ago I finally decided that I would be alone or die trying, because the alternative was to hate myself. And it seemed hypocritical to write a blog about self-acceptance if you hated yourself.

And, as you know if you’ve been reading my blog since then, sometimes it’s been rough. I would often lie on the couch or in bed in a half-asleep, half-starved state because I was too tired to get food but too hungry to sleep. And when I did eat, it would be random stuff like peanut butter crackers because that’s all I had in the house.

I worried a lot about what would happen if I got hurt or died and no one found me for days. So I played tennis almost every day to make sure people saw me. And I told my friends to take it seriously if I posted something on FB that said I had fallen and I couldn’t get up.

I didn’t have anyone to talk to about my day, so I wrote in my journal a lot. But that ended up being a great thing. It really helped me to develop my writing. And I thought I was hilarious and loved re-reading old entries. And I was a much better listener than any of the people I had been with, so I allowed myself to go into as much obsessive detail as I wanted to, and to write about the same thing over and over again, without worrying about boring my future self.

Another reason why I stayed single was because I thought I was a terrible person in relationships. I was jealous and controlling. I was rigid, judgmental, and demanding. I was selfish, and nothing the other person did was ever enough. I figured those patterns were so deeply ingrained that there was no way I could forge new neuronal pathways in my brain. There wasn’t enough time. I was already in my mid 40’s.

Now I realize that a lot of those things that I thought were true about me were not me at all. They were thoughts, feelings, and fears that belonged to other people that I had assumed were my own. In psychodynamic theory, this is called projective identification. You unconsciously take on things the other person finds unacceptable to admit about themselves. Things like being jealous, or selfish, or demanding.

There was no way I could have known that these patterns were not as deeply ingrained as I had thought without being by myself. In fact, I am so different from the person I was before my solitude experiment that it’s a little shocking. People tell me that I’m unselfish. Not jealous at all. That I don’t ask for anything. Sometimes I look around and think, are you talking to me? Because that doesn’t sound like me at all.

I think my solitude has been something along the lines of a 4 year meditation retreat. (Not a silent one, obviously.) I’ve spent a lot of time practicing self-acceptance, mindfulness, and self-compassion as ways to face my fear of being alone. And just like everything else, the fear itself was far scarier than the actual experience of being alone.

I have found that the hardest thing to do is to be honest about the things we are ashamed of. We do all kinds of things to avoid really seeing ourselves. Drink. Shop. Binge watch shows on Netflix. Date. Blame other people. Whatever your go-to strategy is, my advice to you is to be still, let things settle, and see what’s there. It won’t be as scary as you think. And the benefits are far greater than you can imagine.