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Category Archives: Mental Health

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

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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.

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.

Satisfaction Guraranteed

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I’ve read a lot of books on happiness. I’m practically an expert on the subject, as far as my library is concerned. The book that has been on my mind recently is by Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ. Which doesn’t sound like a book on happiness, but of all the books I’ve read so far, I think he gives the best advice on how to be happy.

This will probably not come as a surprise to you if you read my blog, but the key to happiness is to practice mindfulness. Well, actually, it was still surprising to me, because even though I do practice mindfulness, I’m not sure I am necessarily any happier than I was before I started doing so. So I was anxious to find out what I needed to be doing differently.

Here’s how it works: in any given moment, there will be good things and bad things. (Although I think he refrains from using the words good and bad, because Buddhism tries to avoid judgment and criticism. But I can’t remember what phrase he used.). We often imagine that if some aspect of our lives were different, we would be happier. If only we had a better job. More hours in the day. Eternal summer. In reality, even if we could get everything we wanted, it would just change the content of the good and bad things in our lives at that moment.

For example, lately I’ve been feeling increasingly dissatisfied with my single status. I tried to have a positive attitude on Valentine’s Day, but it would have been nice to have some guy other than my allergist wish me Happy Valentine’s Day. And he probably only said that because he kept me waiting for an hour before he finally saw me.

But when I really think about it, I thought it was sucky to be in a relationship, too. I don’t miss arguing about stupid stuff like where to put the plants. I don’t miss those periods of feeling disconnected during arguments. Being in a relationship didn’t even make me feel any more secure. The fear of rejection and abandonment was always looming. Every day my clients remind me of all of the pain and heartache that come with love, and I don’t miss that pain at all.

In many ways, my current life has been an exercise in learning how to be happy with what I have. When I got divorced I lost more than half my income and constantly stressed about the safety that comes with having money. Now I’m also supporting my brother and have even less than I did before. But I worried about money when I had more of it, too. So I really can’t say that money has made me happy, because my fear about not having enough of it has always kept me unhappy, no matter how much I had in my bank account.

Even though I still find myself wishing my life were different every day, multiple times a day, I do believe that happiness comes from accepting whatever life is in this moment. This mixture of joy and pain, good and bad. My relationship status. My income. Even my ability to access happiness.

When I teach clients how to practice mindfulness, I tell them that the goal is not to be successful at staying in the moment, but rather to become aware of when they are not and to bring their focus back to the present. So that’s what I do. A thought about how my life sucks pops into my head, and I remind myself that it is possible even in the midst of my pain to access happiness. Over and over again, until I get to that moment.

In Transition

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If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, perhaps you remember my inner infant–that part of me that gets anxious for apparently no reason but has no words to tell me what she’s upset about. I am still like a new parent who is getting to know their child for the first time. It is a very slow, painstaking process. But I came to a realization last week that has been helpful in being more compassionate towards this anxious baby, who I will call Amygdala for scientific reasons that are too technical to get into, but if you’re interested, you can check out this article.

Every morning when I’m getting ready to leave for work, Amygdala gets anxious and I have to say my standard mantra to her: It’s OK. Everything’s going to be OK. You’re fine. Everything’s going to be fine. And when I’m frustrated, I add although I have no idea what you’re anxious about!  Which is not very compassionate, and therefore not very effective in soothing her.

For some reason, last week I realized that Amygdala gets anxious when I am in transition–from sleep to wakefulness, getting dressed, getting into the car, getting out of the car, leaving work, going to play tennis. I imagined what it would be like for a baby during these times, and I could see why Amygdala would be anxious.

For example, when I am spending the night in a different place for the first time, I will often wake up and have a split second where I don’t recognize my surroundings and not remember where I am. Then I’ll be like, oh yeah. I’m at districts. But babies don’t have very good memories, because their brains aren’t fully formed. So for them, every time they wake up, they probably don’t recognize their room. Or they could have been moved to a different room while they were sleeping. And they’re probably like, where the hell am I?! (If it were a baby that cursed, that is.) What am I doing here? Where is that person who is supposed to be taking care of me?!

Or like how when my niece was younger she never wanted to go to dance class, even though she loves dancing and always enjoys it once she’s there. I never understood why kids do that, since I’m not a parent. But I do know what it feels like to be all content doing whatever you’re doing and then having to get up, change clothes, drive somewhere, and see people, even if it’s to do something I love, like play tennis. It’s hard to overcome the inertia of doing nothing. So I can see why that might be upsetting.

But since I’ve realized this, I’ve figured out something more compassionate to say. Whenever Amygdala cries because I am in transition, I tell her that it’s OK, she’s just anxious because we’re doing something different, but once we get there, everything will be fine. And it usually is.

So maybe I’m becoming a better parent after all.

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I found this while I was looking for quotes on transitions. My inner infant has no idea what it means but she thinks it’s funny.

Control What You Can Control

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My friends on my tennis teams and in my groups often tell me, in a teasing way, that I am bossy. And I have to admit, it’s true. But it’s sort of necessary if you want to make sure that people show up to matches and for court times, because it’s very bad when people don’t. Which is exactly why people don’t like to captain and be in charge of groups. Who wants all that responsibility? No normal person, that’s for sure. So really, I’m doing everyone a favor.

One of the things that all of the books on compassion emphasize is how little control we actually have over our thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Our genetic makeup, our upbringing, our circumstances in life are not in our control. In some ways, it’s a little disconcerting, given that so much of our culture is focused on the idea that we control our own destiny. This is why people don’t want to take meds (they’re for the weak-minded). Why we blame people who find themselves in less fortunate circumstances than our own (they’re just lazy). Why our failures are our fault.

When I tell people about this aspect of practicing compassion, skeptics are quick to respond with, you’re just letting people off the hook. You’re just giving people excuses for not taking responsibility. Which is not the case at all. Because the one thing that we are in control of is our intentions. To be loving or hateful. Forgiving or vengeful. Accepting or judgmental. And our instinctive response with ourselves and others is to be critical and judgmental. It takes a considerable amount of discipline and practice to counteract these negative responses. It is far more work than controlling, blaming, and shaming ourselves and other people.

I know it’s negative, but as I reflect on this past year, the first thought that comes to mind is that it really sucked. I know people have it worse, that people have harder lives than me, but a lot of it was still sucky. It would be unrealistic to aspire to a normal life, given how predominantly mental illness factors into every aspect of my life, but sometimes I wish it could be a tad easier. Just a little less painful.

I tell myself all kinds of things to try to keep from falling into a pit of despair. The most helpful strategy is a compassionate one. I cannot entertain these thoughts because they cause me suffering, and I don’t have enough energy to spare on unnecessary suffering. I must take care of myself or I won’t be able to function. I remind myself that I’m doing the best that I can. That all I can do is focus on getting through this moment. I need to take advantage of whatever small thing I can do to make myself feel even the tiniest bit better.

So this year my New Year’s resolution is to exercise more control over my intentions, which are to be mindful, compassionate, and accepting. Which means that I need to write more blog posts.