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Living With It

Bob

I am excited to start the year with a guest post from a friend I have known for 29 years. We met during our second year of college in a philosophy course and, though we probably didn’t know it at the time, connected in part because of our struggles with depression. It’s a rare gift to be able to see what the journey to self-acceptance looks like over the life span. For me, reading it was a reminder that wisdom is born out of suffering and self-compassion.

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I remember wandering around my neighborhood with tears streaming down my face. It was a sunny day in Austin, Texas, but to me everything was hopeless, sadness was all around, and the future promised only pain. My Dad picked me up in his car, clearly worried, and not long afterwards I was hospitalized with depression.

That hospitalization when I was fifteen was a long time coming. When I was seven years old and my parents were getting divorced, I pulled so much of my hair out that I had to wear a hat to cover up the bald spot. When I was eleven, I starved myself for months and had to be hospitalized and treated for anorexia.

I’m nearly fifty years old now, and for most of my life I’ve lived with depression and anxiety. It comes and goes. I’ve contemplated suicide too many times to count. I’ve spent days, weeks and months wishing I were not alive, crying when I thought no one would notice, and feeling like I was crazy.  

I’ve tried various strategies – ignore it, fight it, drink or smoke it away. I’ve taken all kinds of pills, and I’ve seen psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, and counselors.

I’ve read books about depression, spirituality, self-help, mindfulness and positive psychology. I’ve quit some jobs, taken other jobs, and moved several times, at least partly influenced by depressive feelings.

Through all of this suffering, I like to believe I’ve learned a few things worth sharing. Here are my “Top 3” insights regarding living with depression – because everyone loves lists right?   

  1. Depression makes you believe a lot of things that aren’t true. A psychiatrist told me this, after I complained to him that I was a lazy, worthless bastard, and a burden to everyone I knew. He was right and I was wrong. Don’t believe the things depression tells you about yourself. No matter what you may have done or what you think your faults are, you deserve love from both yourself and others..
  2. Don’t give up. Even if the future seems bleak and promises nothing but pain, hang in there because things will get better. Even if you don’t think it will help, see that new doc or try that new technique, whether it’s yoga, exercise, diet, meditation or medication. Your depression may not completely go away, but finding a way to manage it is essential. And it’s a lifelong process. You never know where that breakthrough might come from – and sometimes a smile from a stranger is enough to get through the day.
  3. You’re not alone. The hardest part of depression for me has always been the loneliness. I feel like no one loves me or cares about me, and connection with other people is impossible. Now I know that is the depression talking, because it’s an illness that robs us of joy and love. We are never alone, no matter how lonely we may feel. Chances are at least one person in your life truly loves you, and even in the rare case where you are truly isolated, please know that many of us have been where you are, and have felt what you feel.  

None of these 3 insights are especially original, but that’s okay. I actually find it comforting that what I’ve learned from my experience of depression reflects what others have learned as well.

Maybe this is a fourth insight, or a corollary to #3 above, but it’s love that’s gotten me through. Love from family and friends who cared enough to help me when I’ve been down. Sometimes I’ve needed a lot of love, patience and support, when I wasn’t in a position to provide anything in return.

Your depressed mind may tell you that you don’t deserve love or help, that people don’t want to be bothered, and you’re not worth it. That’s not true. Reach out, ask for help. Tell someone how you feel.  

Your closest and most trusted friends are the ones who will hold you when you’re a basket case, tell you they love you, and never judge you. Those friends are keepers. Not everyone is equipped to provide this kind of support, but you might be surprised what other people have gone through, and how willing they are to help.

Sometimes I still feel like that teenager wandering around in the middle of the day and crying his eyes out. I feel fear and dread and sadness, without any apparent reason.  

But I know now this pain is universal, a drop in the enormous bucket of pain that the universe dishes up every day. It’s the pain that we have in common, and seeing that is what can unite us, and make love and joy possible.

Charles G. lives in the Upper Midwest with his family. He works in marketing, likes to travel, and gets by with a little help from his friends.

Starting Over

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I’m always a little disappointed when people say they don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions. Call me Pollyannaish, but I believe in starting the new year with the intention to improve on the person I was before. Even if it means renewing my commitment to the same resolution, year after year.

Here’s why. After years of practicing and teaching mindfulness and self-compassion, and helping people choose goals that are actually in their control, I’ve come to realize that we don’t have control over a lot of things. Our genes. Our upbringing. The circumstances we find ourselves in. The behavior of others. None of this is in our control.

In fact, we can have the goal of being mindful and do something mindless a few minutes later. We can say I’m giving up chocolate and then eat some right before working out and get sick. (Which I did last night.) We can have the goal of working out but then decide to start tomorrow. (Which I didn’t do. I talked myself into working out. Yay!)

As intentional as I try to be, I make the same mistakes over and over. Pick ill-advised shots in tennis. Weigh myself three times in a row. Screw my sleep cycle up. Say yes instead of no.

But I don’t beat myself up over it…as much. I am more self-forgiving. Recently on my blog FB page I posted quotes from Mother Teresa, one of which says “God doesn’t require us to succeed, he only requires that you try.” I have always believed this to be true. This is how I reconcile the goal of being good with the inevitability of failure, given that we’re human. Knowing that we’re going to fail isn’t a reason not to try. It’s not about the end goal; it’s about how you choose to live your life.

I think of New Year’s resolutions as a way to embrace this philosophy, whether or not you believe in God. It’s a chance for us to decide what intention we want to begin the year with. How do we want to try to live our lives? If it happens to be the same resolution that you had last year, then that just means that your values haven’t changed.

This year my goal is to be more disciplined. Which seems simple but it applies to every aspect of my life. Disciplined in my sleep routine. In watching the ball. In practicing mindfulness. But mainly the 2 things I’m working on are strength training, because you don’t have to be athletic or talented to get in shape, and cooking, because I struggle with feeding myself.

I actually started working on these goals a few months ago. I joined the gym where Romeo works and work out at home when I can’t make it. And we started doing the Hello Fresh meals, which are expensive and a chore to cook and we’re both still hungry afterwards. But we don’t have to come up with meals on our own or grocery shop as much, and we’re becoming better cooks. And it’s harder to blow off cooking if you know you spent 20 freaking dollars on that meal.

Before I wrote this post I looked up my New Year’s resolutions for last year, and they were to focus on being mindful, compassionate, and accepting. And to write more blog posts. Being mindful, compassionate, and accepting have become a way of life for me, so I would say that I “succeeded” in those goals. But I only wrote half as many blog posts as I did in 2016. So I guess I’ll renew my commitment to blogging and see if I can improve in 2018.

Accepting Love

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I always find reading previous journal entries enlightening. Here’s an excerpt from 7 years ago about my struggle to be “normal”:

There’s always this doubt that I’m doing things right. Like if I’m passing for a normal human being. I have to learn what normal people do from observation and piece it all together. Like maybe the way someone feels when they have a learning disability in a non-disabled world. You kind of don’t want to have to point out to people that you don’t get it so you pretend that you do.

A clear precursor to Normal in Training.

I mentioned in my last post that I’ve been reading journals from way back. Once I got past the entries about Rick Springfield and started having real relationships, it was difficult to read some of them with compassion because I was so frickin’ crazy. I know I still struggle with accepting love, but back then I was downright out of touch with reality.

In one entry, a friend of mine would repeatedly call me in the middle of the night to tell me that he loved me. Granted, he was drunk every time, but based on my experience in working with college students, it is when a person is drunk that they often reveal their deep, dark secrets. I have an eating disorder. I think about suicide. I’m in love with you.

My response in my journal was, I wonder what he means by that? I’m going to have to ask him next time. As I read this, I was like, what the hell is wrong with you? Are you delusional?! Is it not obvious what someone means when they tell you they love you? And then the next line was, why doesn’t anyone like me? Which was even more maddening to read. No wonder my ex boyfriends would tell me that nothing was ever enough.

I get it now, though. I couldn’t take in anything good. I didn’t believe I was lovable, and there was nothing that anyone could say to convince me otherwise.

I have been depressed for the past few weeks because, even though I did a much better job of saying no and conserving my psychological energy, eventually my work load was beyond what I am capable of carrying. Because I have such good friends, many of them recognized the signs (not being social, turning down tennis) and checked on me, invited me to dinner, sent me food. Because they know me well enough to know that I never have food.

It was difficult for me to accept their love. I have the same reaction to love as I do to pain. I can feel myself tightening up, trying to brace myself against it. It’s the craziest thing. But since I was practicing mindfulness, I did what I do when I realize I’m trying not to experience pain–I let myself feel it. Consent to it. I imagined giving the love space, letting it move within me and around me, and to express itself in whatever way it wanted to. I told myself that it was OK to let them love me.

I often tell clients that receiving love is not selfish. It is a gift, and refusing it hurts the person who is giving it. That it is more generous to accept it with gratitude than to tell the person that you don’t deserve it and list all of the reasons why. I actually told a client this yesterday.

I also told a friend that this is what I’ve been trying to do to make myself feel better, so now he reminds me that I have great friends who love me, and that I need to let them. Which pisses me off. Because even though it’s good advice–my advice–I still don’t like to be told what to do. He knows about this flaw, as well as all of my other flaws, but he loves me, anyway. I’m trying to let myself believe that, at least.

And you know what? It really did help. So I’m going to add it to my list of strategies of what to do when I’m depressed–to let people love me.

Like a Garden

Garden

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of old journals. I’ve been writing since I was in 7th grade, believe it or not. I haven’t found those particular journals, but based on the ones from 8th grade, I’m guessing they’re not very interesting. Because in the ones from 8th grade, 95% of the entries were about Rick Springfield. Stuff like, “Don’t Talk to Strangers” came on the radio 10 times! I can’t wait to see him perform on Solid Gold on Saturday! I just bought the latest Teen Beat magazine and he’s on the cover!

In my defense, back then you couldn’t hear or see whatever song or video you wanted instantaneously like you can now. If you were really determined, you could call the radio station and request the song. And if you wanted to record it, you had to sit in front of the speaker of your stereo with your finger on the record button, waiting for “Don’t Talk to Strangers” to come on because the DJ said he was playing it next, and hope that he doesn’t talk over it at the beginning or end. And hope that your brothers don’t come into the room fighting or playing or whatever. So it was a bigger deal to hear the song you wanted back then.

But still. It doesn’t make for very interesting reading.

But in between the Rick Springfield stuff, there were glimpses of deep and meaningful things. It has been enlightening to see how I dealt with relationships back then. How I could never be convinced that someone liked me, despite the copious amount of evidence that they did. How little it took for me to believe that someone hated me. How not having contact with a friend for a day would be enough to make me believe I had lost them. My sense of self was so fragile. It’s as though I believed I ceased to exist without constant affirmation.

The sad thing is, that’s still true. All of the things I’ve written about in my blog about how demons are always telling me that no one cares about me, that I’m not important–it’s the exact same thing. I can at least say that I am more self-aware. I understand, at least intellectually, that people’s love for me endures, even when I haven’t heard from them in a day. I understand why it’s hard for me to believe this. I am aware of the ways I have manipulated other people because of this fear. It is the reason why I’m afraid to be in a relationship now–I don’t trust that I have changed. I don’t know if I can be less controlling.

Seeing that I am still essentially my 13-year-old self with more introspection makes me have a better appreciation of the garden metaphor of life. The essence of who we are never changes. Whatever was planted is what will grow there, no matter what I do. But I can do nothing, and nothing will grow at all but weeds. Or I can water, fertilize, prune, and protect, and the best version of what I am can grow. But at any point I can stop caring for myself, and all the work that I’ve done can be lost. Everything can die. Weeds can reappear. It’s a lifetime thing, tending to your garden.

I realize that gardening is how you cultivate wisdom. If you don’t garden, you can go through life and have no more understanding of yourself than you did at 13. You can cease to grow psychologically. You can be in a perpetual state of adolescent angst, wanting to be loved, but going about it in all the wrong ways. The extent of your internal world can be listing the number of times you heard “Don’t Talk to Strangers” on the radio, without ever going any deeper.

So even though I continue to battle the demons that tell me that I am not loved and am not worthwhile, just as I did back then, I am still a more cultivated version of myself. Always a work in progress, but also a beautiful landscape to behold in this moment.

 

No Regrets, Part 2

Mistakes

Guess what? This is my 300th blog post! Woo hoo! I’ve been waiting for something really good to write about to commemorate this milestone, and I’ve finally come up with something that’s meaningful to me–learning how to live without regrets. To accept my life, exactly as it has unfolded, with all of the mistakes I’ve made along the way.

I remember the moment when the world was no longer my oyster–that I could no longer do whatever I wanted to do if I set my mind to it. After I got my Ph.D., certain doors had been closed to me because it took 6 freaking years to get it. And another year after that to get licensed. Starting all over again would be costly. Not that I could think of anything else I wanted to do. It was just the loss of having all those options that made me sad.

I felt the same way after I got divorced. Quitting my job and relying on my husband to support me was never an option, because I hated all domestic tasks, I didn’t want to have kids, and I always knew I was meant to be a psychologist. But when I realized that my income had been cut to less than half of what it was when I was married, I felt anxious. I feared getting fired, of being financially bereft, unable to support myself. Still, I chose freedom over financial security.

I’ve made some really costly mistakes. I waited forever before I was willing to try meds, and I kept going off of them even though I got depressed every time. The last time was so bad that I went to bed every night terrified that I would be too depressed to make it into work the next day. I would lie on the couch for hours, trying to endure the pain of existing. I was so indecisive that I would cry, trying to decide whether or not I should go play tennis. Tennis! I impatiently waited every day for the meds that I restarted to kick in and provide me a little bit of relief. I’ll never stop taking them again, because I don’t think I could survive another depressive episode.

I’ve stayed in really horrible relationships because I was afraid to be alone. I felt ashamed about this, and I knew people judged me for it, but being alone seemed like it would be worse than being miserable. Now I realize that the problem with not being alone isn’t that it made me a bad or weak person. The problem is that it has taken me a really long time to distinguish my feelings from someone else’s. To figure out how to care for myself, give myself what I need. To realize that I am enough, all by myself. I wish I had learned this sooner, but I was too afraid of rejection and abandonment to be able to envision personal growth.

I have been so bad at saying no to people that I crashed and burned all the time and then wondered why I was so depressed and tired. I thought my job was to give other people what they wanted, no matter what it cost me. Otherwise I was a bad person. Or people wouldn’t like me. Or they would change their minds, decide that I wasn’t worth having in their lives. I had to be indispensable to be worthwhile.

It’s not so much that I am glad that things turned out exactly as they did. It’s more that I can’t go back and change anything, even if it could have made my life better. I can’t beat myself up anymore over all those mistakes and add the pain of regret on top of the pain of life itself. That’s what practicing self-acceptance, mindfulness, and self-compassion have taught me.

I am where I am now in part because I started this blog. Because I’ve written 300 posts and shared all of these struggles with whoever was willing to listen. It has helped so much for people to respond and say, thank you for voicing my own experience. Thank you for being who you are, for making the same mistakes that I have made, for showing me that it’s OK to be who I am. Starting this blog has been one of the best decisions I have ever made, and it has given me back far more than I have given. So thanks for reading and inspiring me to keep at it.

What Winners Do

Winning

I have a running joke with one of my tennis partners where we make up all these statements about what winners do. It started when we played our first match of the season and we were on the verge of elimination. I told her that winners hold their serve and break serve when it counts. Which we did. And we won. But then we just started making up stuff that wasn’t particularly profound because it was funny and it helped us relax on the court. Winners win! Winners wear tennis shoes instead of sandals when they play!

I actually think a lot about what winners do. Often people think that they need to improve their skills to win–develop a topspin forehand, for example. The problem with this strategy is that it takes a long time to improve a skill, and working on a weakness will still not make it one of your strengths. I’ve been working on a topspin forehand for 15 years now, but it’s still not my go-to shot when the game is on the line.

It’s actually much better to focus on your mental game, and it doesn’t take years to get better at it. I don’t consider myself to be naturally gifted as an athlete, but I am a psychologist, so I make sure I capitalize on whatever mental strategy that allows me to have the advantage in a match. I am aware of when people are using head games and don’t let them get to me. I compliment my opponents to make them feel guilty about using head games. I frame my goals in terms of what I want to do instead of what I don’t want to do (e.g., reach up and follow through rather than don’t double fault). I give my partner positive feedback, pump them up by reminding them what winners do.

I’ve been noticing lately that a lot of what winners do involves practicing mindfulness. Federer and Nadal, arguably the two greatest tennis players in the men’s game, illustrate this perfectly. Federer is known for how long he can keep his eye on the ball. How easily he shrugs off losses, puts things in perspective. He savors his victories because he is in his twilight years. Nadal often says that he knows that any win could be his last, so he doesn’t take playing for granted. He attributes his success to what he can control–his effort, his practice. All players talk about how they try to focus on this match rather than looking too far ahead. They give themselves time to enjoy their victory. They express gratitude for the people who put on the tournament, their team, their fans when they make their speech in the finals.

Sure, some of this stuff is probably scripted–things they know they should say, whether they mean it or not. But I believe that winners do mean it. They are focused. They take things one game at a time. They don’t fixate on mistakes. They are grateful. They savor the moment.

I know practicing mindfulness has made me a better player, if for no other reason than it helps me to watch the ball–which is often my only strategy when I’m playing. Practicing mindfulness doesn’t guarantee a win, but it makes every aspect of the game, on and off the court, more enjoyable. Which counts as a win in my book.

Four Years Later…

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My blog is 4 years old today! Can you believe it? That is a lot of writing. And a lot of self-disclosure. I’m relieved that you have to sort through almost 300 posts to get to some of the more personal ones. If you’re that dedicated to my blog, then you’re entitled to hear my deep, dark secrets. The ones I’ve written about, at least.

Like the title of my blog says, my goal has been to practice self-acceptance. To accept that I don’t have to try to fit myself into some narrow definition of what it means to be normal. And I think I’ve come a long way. I’m kinder to myself and others. I’m more accepting of the curve balls that life throws at me. I worry less about the future and other things I can’t control.

Patience is still not one of my strong points. It drives me crazy how slowly change occurs. I went to a meditation conference this summer and the presenter said some quote about how changing ourselves through mindfulness is like changing a mountain with a feather or something really soft. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but I remember thinking, seriously? It takes that long? Why not just blow the freaking thing up? I need progress and I need it now, gosh darn it!

But I guess we’ve seen what happens when our strategy is to blow up the things that we want to change. So I’m slowly learning what my mind and body need, how to soothe myself, to set boundaries, to say no. I try to pace myself, to be realistic about what I can accomplish, to accept all my feelings and flaws. But I make a lot of mistakes. So I also practice forgiveness, remind myself that I’m doing the best that I can.

I’m still not in a relationship, which sometimes feels like an accomplishment and sometimes a failure. But I guess it’s not something I’m graded on. I’m proud of myself for breaking the pattern of needing to be in a relationship, no matter how unhealthy it was, as though my life depended on it. I haven’t given up hope on the possibility of finding a healthy one. But it’s difficult to imagine how I can carve new neuronal pathways in the Grand Canyon of my mind. I don’t want to keep going down all of those well-traveled routes that have led to so much heartache. In the meantime, spending time with my friends and playing tennis will have to suffice.

Living with my brother has helped with practicing mindfulness and gratitude. I feel especially thankful that he has taken over most of the cooking responsibilities. It allowed me to come home last Monday night after a weekend of tennis at sectionals and a full day of clients and go to bed early without worrying about what and how I was going to eat. So even though I took him in a year ago to take care of him, he is taking care of me, as well. A good reminder that things really do turn out OK, no matter how dire they seem at the time.

A few weeks ago, in an effort to teach her how to practice self-compassion, I told one of my clients that everything about her is ok exactly as it is. Every thought. Every feeling. Even as they change from one extreme to the other, moment to moment, day after day. Even if they don’t make any sense, last longer than she wants them to. That she can accept every flaw, forgive every weakness, because all of this is what it looks like to be human.

This would actually be a good thing to repeat to myself. My personal affirmation. I am, and will always be, a work in progress. But the more I write, the more I believe that I am ok, exactly as I am.