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Strength and Weakness

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In a previous post, I wrote about how using post-apocalyptic strategies to motivate yourself by turning everything into a crisis is not an effective way to manage your psychological resources. If you use shame and fear to motivate yourself–Get up and go to work, you loser! You’re just being weak and lazy!–it may work, but there’s a high price to pay.

Last week my 40 year old brother, the one who struggles with depression and anxiety, had a mild heart attack and had to undergo quadruple bypass heart surgery. They said it was amazing he was walking around at all, given that his arteries were 99% clogged. The only reason he saw a doctor is because he felt guilty for being too weak to go to work and wanted medical evidence to verify that he wasn’t just being lazy.

In fact, because he thought he was just being weak, he tried to overcome his fatigue by drinking Red Bull and forcing himself to do rigorous cardio workouts.Willing himself to commute 2 hours to and from work, to override his anxiety about his job with drill sergeant self-talk. And it almost killed him.

I’m beginning to think that reincarnation isn’t just about life after death. It’s about the opportunities for rebirth, here on earth. That’s why we celebrate the new year. Birthdays and anniversaries. That’s why people who go through personal tragedies often say that the experience saved their life.

Before the surgery my brother felt like his life wasn’t valuable because his depression and anxiety made it hard for him to hold a job. He’s not married and doesn’t have kids. He hasn’t done anything heroic. The thing that he was the most proud of was his physical strength. But right now plugging in the charger to his phone is challenging and leaves him out of breath.

Apparently it’s common to feel depressed after heart surgery, and given that he’s already prone to depression, I was worried about what his mental state would be. Surprisingly, this is the most at peace I’ve seen him. His goals are different now–to give up stressing about the little things, drill sergeant strategies, and other people’s definitions of success. He is more appreciative of the small things, like being able to sit without being in pain. And, perhaps most importantly, he finally understands how strong he is.

This ordeal has been helpful to me, as well. I still struggle with feeling weak and pathetic because I can’t do the things that other people do. My colleagues are able to handle their case load and responsibilities without becoming depressed and suicidal at the end of the term. Our services are in high demand, which is good for job security but not good for setting limits. I feel pressure to push myself beyond what I know I can handle, and I berate myself when I crash and burn.

But to see the undeniable evidence that my brother was insanely mentally and physically tough when he felt weak and irresponsible reminds me that I am strong, too. I don’t need to prove it by pushing myself to my breaking point. Trying to live up to other people’s expectations isn’t worth dying over. I’m going to accept my limits without being ashamed. I’m going to start standing up for myself. I’m going to say no when I know it’s too much.

One of the most valuable lessons that my brother learned from this experience is that you don’t have to train yourself for every possible crisis to prove that you’re strong. You can just have faith that when you need it, you will have the strength to face whatever comes your way. That you already have everything you need to survive.

The Cost-Benefit Analysis of Pain and Suffering

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It was 7 years ago that I had my most severe depressive episode. It began because I decided to try to wean myself off my meds. It was a reasonable thing to try; I had been stable for a while. I got off them very gradually. By the time I was completely off them in January, I could feel the difference immediately. I was a little more easily irritated without them. Things were a little more painful. But I was willing to live with the pain if it meant that I didn’t have to be on meds.

But then things got worse. I remember being on vacation in February and screaming at my husband over fairly insignificant things. I don’t even know how he put up with it. And the last straw was some tennis drama thing in March that would not seem serious enough to make my mind unravel, but that’s how depression is; sometimes it doesn’t make any sense.

It took a long time to get back to “normal,” and I often berated myself for this costly mistake. For sacrificing my mental health so that I didn’t have to take that little pill every day. Now I have to take a bunch of them every day, twice a day, but I do so religiously, because I will do whatever it takes not to feel that way again.

Lately, since I’ve been practicing self-compassion, it strikes me how the road to recovery is complicated by our unwillingness to give up our suffering. Who knows why. Because we don’t believe we are really suffering. Don’t believe we deserve to be free of our suffering. Think we should be able to free ourselves on our own, without help, without drugs.

So taking each of those steps is a long and arduous process. I was depressed in high school but didn’t go to my first therapist until I was 25. The first time I went on antidepressants I was 30. I went back on them when I was 35 and went off them again when I was 39. By the time I was 40, a good 25 years after I first experienced depression, I accepted that I needed to be on meds for good.

Before this last depressive episode, I used to present a more neutral position on medication to my clients. But now I encourage them to give it a shot. I tell them that everyone is willing to tolerate a certain amount of pain in order to be able to say that they are not on meds, but I encourage them to ask themselves at what point this is no longer a good tradeoff.

Had someone phrased the question to me in that way, perhaps I would have taken them sooner. But I did not know how to practice self-compassion back then. I did not understand the concept of being kind to myself because I was in pain. I was not motivated to alleviate whatever suffering was under my control. Because so much of anxiety and depression are not in your control. But asking for help, going to therapy, taking your meds, and learning how to care for yourself are in your control.

I’m not going to lie–depression and anxiety still cause me quite a bit of suffering. Anxiety, in particular, has been kicking my ass today. And being diligent about all of the things that I have to do to strike that delicate balance of mental stability is effortful and time-consuming. But in a cost-benefit analysis, it’s still worth it.

Moving Beyond Post-Apocalyptic Strategies for Motivation

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When I’m teaching clients how to practice self-compassion, I tell them that they cannot rely on using fear and shame to motivate themselves. And I should know, because I do it all the time.

If you read my blog, then you know I often say things like, other people have spouses and children and are still able to go to the grocery store and make dinner. So what the hell is your problem? This has the effect of making me feel like crap, but it doesn’t do much to make me get off the couch, even if I am hungry.

With my clients, I’ll use examples like, why do you keep watching episodes of The Walking Dead? Get in there and work on that paper! Do you want to fail? Because that’s exactly what is going to happen!

The problem with fear-based motivation is that, even when it works, which is usually a few hours before the paper is due, you still won’t feel good about yourself. Because your inner critic will say, well, if you had started the paper earlier, you would have done a much better job. 

So my brother is still anxious and depressed. His primary motivational strategy to get himself to go to work is the zombie apocalypse. How do you think you’re going to save your family when the world is ending when you can’t even log in? It worked for a while, but you can only motivate yourself with fear for so long.

What people don’t realize when they create a crisis to motivate themselves is that we don’t always fight. Sometimes we take flight or freeze. And once we’ve shut down, no amount of fear can make us act. So we get stuck in this vicious cycle of shame in which we avoid everyone and everything.

Fortunately, a recent episode of The Walking Dead echoed these same sentiments, which added to my credibility. Since I don’t watch it, I’ll quote his epiphany:

Even Rick Grimes has had to take a break from berserk mode on the show. He became a man of peace for an entire season when he realized how misguided his young son had become; someone who was too quick to resort to violence & unwilling to give diplomacy a chance. It served a lesson relatable to life—if even our heroes during the zombie apocalypse cannot remain in crisis mode, then it certainly can’t be a winning formula for us during normal times. My problem is I’ve motivated myself through such extreme emotions—anger, resentment, fear—for so long, that I’m left with no clue as to how I can jump-start my resolve right now.

So what do we do if we’re not going to motivate ourselves with fear? We motivate ourselves with love. So obvious when we think about how we motivate the people we care about, but it rarely occurs to us to do so with ourselves.

Unless you’re some enlightened being like the Dalai Lama or Pope Francis. I’m sure they motivate themselves with love.

This morning was the first day that I did not want to get out of bed. It’s that time of year when it happens, shortly after daylight savings time ends. So I tried to practice what I preach and thought about how I could make it easier to get up and get ready. I played my favorite song. Turned up the heat. Talked to myself in a loving way. And today it worked.

Maybe it won’t always work. It’s a long time until spring, after all. But even when being loving doesn’t get me out of bed, it still uses up a lot less energy than berating myself.

Cultivating Hope

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Despite my struggles with anxiety and depression, I actually feel like I have been blessed with a good life. In fact, this is true for many people with anxiety and depression. Yet instead of feeling like a blessing, our demons use our good fortune against us. We don’t deserve to be depressed and anxious. We haven’t earned it.

I am often accused of trying to save the world, and I have to admit, I don’t see why that is such a terrible thing. Other than the fact that it’s impossible to achieve. But moving up to 4.0 in my tennis rating may also be impossible to achieve, and I still try to do that. And I will live if it never happens.

Sometimes I think I try to help other people because of something akin to survivor guilt. God has always answered my prayers. I know that many people don’t feel that way, and I am not going to dismiss their bad fortune by saying they deserve it or that they’re not trying hard enough or whatever. I don’t really know how to make sense of all the unfairness in the world.

But I feel like the least I can do is to make good use of my good fortune. I can use my time on earth to alleviate other people’s suffering. Help them to believe they can make it to the other side of pain.

I’m not going to pretend that this is purely motived by altruism. At some level I’m saying, look God! I’m doing all these good things! Please let me continue to be blessed with good fortune. And a part of me feels like I have to pay God back for all that I have been given. Theoretically, I get the idea of grace; I’m just not sure I deserve it.

I think that’s why I have been drawn to practicing compassion. Surely a practice whose very name includes pain and suffering must teach you how to get rid of it. Which is why when I did the self-compassion retreat, I was disappointed to learn that practicing self-compassion does not actually get rid of pain. Damn!

I kind of already knew that. I tell clients this all the time. That our goal is to learn how to sit with our pain, be kind to it, wait patiently for it to pass. But obviously, at some level, I was still secretly hoping I could get rid of it.

I have gone through enough episodes of despair to know that, despite the fact that it may feel as though my pain will never end, it eventually does. That didn’t do much to make the pain go away in the moment. And sometimes the wait seemed endless. But I guess I must have always had hope. And practicing self-compassion seems to help me to cultivate hope, which has made pain and suffering a little easier to bear.

Maybe that’s why there was hope at the bottom of Pandora’s box. (Which was actually a jar.) Even if all of the evils of the world are unleashed upon us, having hope may be enough to survive them.

Weakness? I Don’t Think So

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I talk a lot about how I pride myself on being a warrior on the tennis court. Evidenced by the fact that, despite having several conditions that lead me to throw up on the court every now and then, I continue to play. Giving up tennis is not an option.

Admittedly, sometimes I take this to an extreme. It’s probably better to retire from a match when you’re having an asthma attack. But I didn’t say it’s always smart to be a warrior. Sometimes it’s smarter to know when to walk away.

But it’s hard to know when to fight and when to accept defeat. Especially when you struggle with a mental illness. It feels like you should be able to will yourself out of it. Even though no one would accuse someone with pneumonia of being weak when they can’t will themselves out of it. But we are not always fair in our judgment of other people. Or ourselves.

It wasn’t until I started my blog 2 years ago that my family and friends found out how debilitating my depression has been at times. So I was able to hide it somewhat. Still, there were days I would wake up and know I wasn’t going to be able to go to work. No amount of shaming and screaming at myself was going make me get out of bed. So I would stay home and spend the rest of the day feeling like a loser.

If you are an avid tennis fan, then you know that Mardy Fish played his last match as a professional tennis player yesterday. It was particularly meaningful because he has not played for the past 3 years after developing panic disorder. He was unable to leave his house for 3 months. And even though his disorder is better controlled, he still has difficulty traveling and sleeping alone. So being a professional tennis player has not been an option.

Despite how paralyzing his anxiety disorder has been, Fish decided he didn’t want it to dictate how his career ended. So he faced his fears and entered the U.S. Open for one last tournament.

And what a match it was. He was serving for the match at 5-4 in the 4th set but double-faulted 3 times because of nerves. He ended up losing in the 5th set because he started cramping. Not exactly a fairy tale ending.

Still, choking and losing leads are part of the game. It happens to the best of players. Being a warrior doesn’t guarantee that you’ll win–just that you’ll fight until the bitter end. And Mardy Fish did just that.

Fish demonstrated his strength of character when he decided to end his career on his own terms. But an even greater testament to his strength is that he shared his story with the world. Our demons grow in darkness and silence. Only the most courageous are willing to show people their vulnerabilities.

Which is why those who are open about their mental illness are among the strongest people I know.

Just An Ordinary Day

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Sometimes I think God tries to help me wake up with text messages. And by having to pee every hour after 6 a.m.

Even though I keep my phone on vibrate at night, I still wake up when I get a text. Am I that light of a sleeper that I can hear the buzz? Am I so happy to get a message that I can sense it in my sleep?

Whatever the reason, for me, the typical pattern in the morning is to wake up, check my phone, go to the bathroom, and go back to sleep. Repeat every hour until I finally get out of bed. Which is usually several hours later.

Even in this state between sleep and wakefulness, my inner critic is hard at work. Right before I look at my phone, it says no one gives a crap about you. Which kind of hurts my feelings. I guess it’s trying to be helpful by mentally preparing me for the disappointment of not seeing a message. As I have mentioned in several blog posts, not having anyone to check in with in the morning is one of the hardest parts of being single.

Yesterday, however, I woke up to several texts. (Take that, inner critic!) One of them was from a friend who asked me if I had gotten the paper. For people who keep up with the news on a daily basis, their first association would probably be to the newspaper. But since I am not one of those people, I had no idea what she was talking about.

Like my inner critic, my anxiety was also wide awake and coming up with catastrophic situations that this mysterious paper might be referring to. Did I mess something up? Was there a 9/11 type attack going on? Was there some kind of tennis emergency?

Luckily, she was referring to an editorial about a former NFL player who struggled with bipolar disorder but did not know it until much later in life. Whew! I mean, I felt bad that the guy had to suffer, and I was glad that he was making the public aware of the importance of funding for mental health issues, but I was also glad that the world wasn’t coming to an end.

Even in this half-asleep/half-awake state, it made me think about how much we take for granted that ordinariness can be a good thing. When something bad happens, we are acutely aware of how in a moment’s notice, our lives can be turned upside down. An illness. An accident. An affair.

I’m not trying to be morbid or anything. In fact, I was genuinely happy that, in that moment, my life was exactly the same as it had been when I had gone to bed. Ordinarily I would have felt bad about waking up at noon, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s really not that big of a deal. It was par for the course. Just an ordinary day.

Thank God for ordinary days.

Live Like You Were Dying…Without Obsessing About Death

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I went on my second vacation for the summer–the one where I get to spend time with my niece, Sadie. For the most part, it was a nice break from the demons of depression, anxiety, boredom, and loneliness. But there were some moments of existential angst. And at the weirdest times, too.

Like on the water ride Escape from Pompeii at Busch Gardens. If you haven’t been to Busch Gardens, I’m sure you’ve been on a similar ride with perhaps a different name in some other amusement park. It’s the one that is really short and primarily focuses on one drop where you get drenched at the bottom. There’s even a viewing area where people can get soaked without actually having to get on the ride.

While there were many educational moments on the trip, this was not meant to be one of them. There was no history of Pompeii description anywhere that you could read as you stood in line or anything. And yet, while we were in the section of the ride where they make you feel like they’re going to set you on fire, I couldn’t help but imagine what it must have been like to be going about your day, buying groceries or whatever, completely unaware of the fact that you and your entire city were about to be destroyed.

Hopefully they didn’t suffer for very long. I imagine death must have come pretty quickly. And while people who prepare for the apocalypse hope to be one of the few survivors, I think I’d rather not be. Because there would be more suffering involved in surviving the annihilation of civilization than there would be in immediate death.

At one point in the ride this fake statue almost falls on your head. I thought how terrible it must be to have all of these buildings and statues that you spent years creating get destroyed in however long it takes a volcano to erupt and wipe out civilization. If you survived and had a chance to reflect on it, I’m sure that would be devastating. So maybe it’s good that they didn’t.

This section of the ride only took about a minute, by the way. Literally. You wouldn’t think that would be enough time to reflect on death and destruction and surviving the apocalypse, but it was for me.

And then we went down the drop and got soaked.

And then we got on the ride again.

I’m a big proponent of the idea that we should live like every day is our last. That we savor every moment, pursue every goal, and spend time with the people we love as often as we can. But since I have an anxiety disorder, I also obsess about death and bodily harm. And things that aren’t necessarily dangerous but terrify me nonetheless. Like closed spaces. I almost had an anxiety attack on a flight simulator on this same trip for that reason.

Incidentally, while we were on another water ride, these two girls who couldn’t be more than 12 casually related this story of how they were stuck in the part of the Pompeii ride where they make you feel like they’re going to set you on fire for 30 minutes. And they couldn’t turn off the fire for 15 minutes. No big deal! Totally freaked me out.

Anyway, like I was saying, I have a hard time finding a balance between living like I were dying without actually obsessing about the dying part. For now, my primary strategy is to do what I learned in the self-compassion retreat. I tell myself not to think about that right now, because it causes me suffering. And I don’t want to do anything that causes myself unnecessary suffering.

And in that moment, it worked.

Until we went to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and I found out that some fossils of two dinosaurs fighting were preserved because flash floods in the desert buried them on the spot.