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Déjà Vu

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At the end of 2013, my youngest brother R. stopped taking his antidepressants. My mom, who is a doctor, was giving him samples, and she told him that he needed to find a doctor to prescribe them. Because it’s the legal thing to do. Not wanting to have depression on his record, and coming off 5 years of steady employment, he decided to go off of them instead. I begged him not to, but he was afraid to be dependent on them in the advent of an apocalypse and wanted to prepare himself.

Three months later he was depressed. And, as I’ve mentioned based on my own folly, every time you have another depressive episode, it’s harder to recover. My psychiatrist described it as breaking your leg in the same place over and over. Still, he did not go to the doctor until his depression and anxiety were so bad that he could not make it to work. His job was very generous, allowing him to cut back his hours to as little as he needed and keep his job. But ultimately the shame and guilt of not being able to go overwhelmed him and he quit.

After a few months of unemployment, my brother moved back home with my parents. My dad, who had been depressed for 4 years, went straight to a manic episode and was blowing through his retirement money. And my mom’s retirement money. And she could do nothing to stop him. So he took on the impossible job of trying to figure out how we could stop them. But the situation was so bad that, instead of helping them, he had a heart attack. At the age of 40. And since they were in no mental state to care for him, he moved in with me. And still lives with me.

It has been a rough 3 and a half years, but in the past year R. has been feeling much better. He is able to go to make it in work, has friends, a church community, extracurricular activities. He’s the happiest he’s been in a long time. But it was a 6 year journey–a high price to pay for going off his meds.

Last winter my other brother M., who also struggles with depression, stopped taking his medication. Because he didn’t want to have to see his doctor for his yearly follow up. And he didn’t want to be dependent on the meds. In case there was an apocalypse. And he got depressed right a way.

A few days ago in our sibling Zoom meeting, M, confessed that he had stopped taking his meds and recently restarted them. He was feeling anxious, having chest pains, shortness of breath. He couldn’t eat, couldn’t think clearly. He was afraid of losing his job. He was a loser, a failure. He worried about homelessness.

It was déjà vu.

We did everything we could to talk him into going to his doctor to discuss getting back on meds. And to rule out the possibility of a heart attack. Like R. did when he was depressed and anxious, M. makes excuses because he doesn’t see how dire his situation is. Doesn’t seem to remember anything that happened to R. Doesn’t recognize that history is repeating itself.

I’ve been trying to convince him to come stay with me until he gets better. Yes, there is a travel ban, but I consider the possibility of him committing suicide or having a heart attack essential travel. I feel as anxious as I did when my younger brother was about to be released from the hospital and would be in may parents’ care for recovery. Which meant certain death.

It’s strange to be in this catch-22: trying to convince my brother of something that will save his life, knowing that it will once again probably cause me to become anxious and depressed. This is the first time in a very long that I feel mostly relaxed. I’d like to enjoy it for as long as I can. But I don’t think he can get better in isolation. And he is also at risk for a heart attack. And he’s bipolar and could become manic.

Is every family like this? One mental health crisis after another? Will there ever be a time when things can be “normal”? Just for a little while? Just so I can catch my breath?

R. thinks it could be a good thing for all of us if M. comes. He will have someone to talk to. They can exercise together. R. can take him to church, introduce him to his friends. Maybe one day he and M. can get a place of their own, which is their dream. M. would be closer to his kids. I could have my space again but have them close by.

I hope he’s right.

Stargazing

Sometimes the best things in life emerge from our biggest disappointments. Last month I took my nieces on our 1st annual vacation, which we decided to call The Barongan Girls Take D.C. This trip would not have been possible if the trip to Germany that my niece Paloma and I were supposed to go on hadn’t been canceled due to the craziness in Europe. A friend suggested that I take a trip with her and go somewhere else, but I wasn’t sure a trip with me would be as appealing as a trip to Germany. Fortunately for me, it was, and since my other niece Sadie was there when I brought it up, I figured I’d invite her, too.

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A Monumentous occasion

I have found that in life it is rare for things to turn out exactly as you expect them to. When I imagine the worst, things often turn out better than I expected. And when I think something is going to be great, I often end up feeling disappointed. But this was one of those rare times when everything was as perfect as I imagined it would be. We enjoyed some great meals…

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Sadie and Paloma enjoying a light dinner

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Anxiously awaiting our cheesecake at The Cheesecake Factory

and took in the sights of the city….

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Sadie enjoying some high end window shopping

But surprisingly, the best moments were the ones between the museums, the monuments, and the meals. They were the times when we were hanging out in the room, and Sadie and Paloma were building a fortress with the couch cushions. (Remember how fun that used to be?) The times when they sang, danced, talked about friends and boys, and discussed how many children they wanted. They were the unspoken ways they expressed their desire to be together all the time–like the fact that they wouldn’t put their luggage in their bedroom, preferring that we all get dressed in the living room instead.

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Sadie’s fortress of solitude. And my bed.

As a fitting end to a perfect trip, on the drive home I saw a falling star. And then a few hours later I saw a shooting star. In my entire life, I’ve seen one other falling star and shooting star, so this seemed significant to me. My nieces were asleep at the time but when I told them about it later, they assured me it was lucky.

And truthfully, I was going to need some luck. All of the problems and decisions I had left behind were awaiting me. Frantic phone calls and intense email discussions were about to ensue. I was going to be expected to perform miracles. The magic of the trip was fading, and feelings of helplessness and hopeless were returning.

I was telling a friend about the shooting star and falling star, and he asked if I had made a wish. Which I totally forgot to do. He thought it still counted if I made the wish a week later. I’m not sure what the rules are on wishing upon stars, but I didn’t want to miss this opportunity to capitalize on the possibility of miraculous solutions.

But then the scientist in me wanted to know what the difference was between shooting stars and falling stars, so I looked it up and found out that they weren’t stars at all. They’re meteors! And even though it’s all make-believe anyway, I was disappointed, because I was pretty sure that wishing on meteors didn’t count.

But then I saw my niece Sadie last weekend for my dad’s birthday and broke the bad news about how I saw 2 meteors instead of stars and now my wishes weren’t going to come true. She assured me that my wishes still counted. And then she asked me if I had wished I could meet Federer. Damn! I can’t believe I didn’t think of that myself!

But perhaps the point of seeing the shooting star and falling star at the end of our trip wasn’t about meteors and wishes and luck. Perhaps it was meant to be appreciated as is, in the moment, as something rare and wondrous. Which still made it a perfect end to a perfect trip. Because my nieces are like stars to me–beautiful, brilliant, and awe-inspiring. Whatever the next moment may bring, in this moment, I am thankful for my time with them.

But I still hope my wishes come true.

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Joy and Pain, Part 2

So it’s the end of the semester and guess what? I’m feeling exhausted. Depressed. Overwhelmed at the prospect of having to be there for one more person. Even if it’s my family. Especially if it’s my family, actually. It makes me feel guilty, but it’s much more incapacitating to deal with my family’s problems than it is to deal with my clients. I guess because I am much more invested in things getting better with my family. It has much more of an impact on my own well-being. Plus my clients listen to me more.

It’s not that I don’t love them. I mean, look at this picture of my brothers and me.

Jumping for joy

I think it’s awesome! Admittedly, we are not as joyful as we may seem in the photo. One of my brothers bemoaned the fact that I was making him jump, given that he had bad knees and a bad internal organ–a kidney, maybe? Although I’m not sure why that would be impacted by jumping. Yet in the picture, he looks quite athletic (he’s the one on the far right). And they all love the picture. An example of how it’s probably a good idea to do whatever I suggest.

There were actually an unusually high number of joyous events. We test-drove each other’s new cars,

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toured the downtown where the movie Big Stone Gap was filmed,

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and hung out with Big Foot at Flag Rock.

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But being with my family is often a source of pain, as well. There is a plethora of mental illness to deal with. More severe than what I see in my job. At some level I think I became a psychologist in an attempt to heal my family, yet I have probably been the least helpful to them as a professional. I guess that’s why it’s better to see someone who can be objective.

People have lots of misconceptions about how feelings work. One of them is that positive and negative feelings are mutually exclusive. But that’s not true; joy and pain sit side by side. When your daughter or son walks down the isle, you may be crying both tears of joy and sadness. And when you visit your family, you may be jumping for joy and feeling dread and helplessness at the same time.

I often tell clients that being human requires us to experience the full range of emotions, and loving someone is a good example of this. Sometimes I find it overwhelming. When you feel other people’s feelings to the extent that I do, feeling twice as much joy and pain can be too much, even if they are people that you love. And when your job requires that you sit with pain every day, it can be hard to make it to the end of every term without crashing and burning.

But quitting my job and giving up my family are not an option. So I guess I will have to continue to wrestle with how to find the middle ground between joy and pain, closeness and distance, self-care and self-sacrifice.

Fortunately, blogging really helps.

Happiness vs. Mania

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In my family, sometimes mania can look like anger, irritability, and paranoia, but most of the time it looks like happiness. It looks like the life of the party. The person who lights up the room. The person who leaves a lasting impression because his energy is so infectious.

I admit, I’ve had hypomanic episodes, and they did feel good. I become a more extreme version of the way people already see me: happy, loud, and energetic. But there are things that I do that are uncharacteristic. I will compulsively shop rather than obsess about money. I don’t need much sleep. I attract a lot of attention from guys.

Often mania is followed by depression, but that isn’t the case for me. In fact, sometimes I would intentionally will on a hypomanic episode to pull me out of a depressive episode–to get me out of bed, make me be productive. And it worked, too. Often it was the first step toward getting out of that dark hole. Still, with my family history, I am hypervigilant of any signs that I may be heading in that direction.

That is definitely one of the things that distinguishes me from the rest of my bipolar family. Because they never think they are manic. Once my brother wanted to scale the wall outside of a restaurant, but he knew this seemed crazy. So he preemptively reassured us that he was not manic; he just really wanted to climb that wall.

One of my family members is manic right now. This summer I finally worked up the courage to tell him this, and of course he disagreed. But it wasn’t completely pointless, because he did agree to see a psychiatrist. But since you can’t force someone to take meds, he assumed that the psychiatrist confirmed that he wasn’t manic, since he didn’t prescribe lithium or an antipsychotic. At least he started taking the meds that prevent bipolar depression, which is what I was the most concerned about. But then again, I don’t have to live with him.

And thank God for that. Because it’s unbearable to be around him for more than a few minutes at a time. What may seem entertaining to other people is absolute torture for me. It’s a terrible feeling to love someone but to not want to be in their presence. It fills me with guilt and makes me feel like a bad person. But I have my own sanity to protect, so I do my best to keep my distance.

I wish I could end this post on a positive note and say that things are looking up. But that would be lying, and this blog is about honesty. He’s still manic. Things are getting worse. And I am powerless to do anything about it.

So I just pray and hope for divine intervention. And if you believe in the power of prayer, then perhaps you can say one for my family, too.

What Love is

You know that famous quote on love that they always recite at weddings? The one that starts with “love is patient, love is kind…?” I wrote a post about this Bible verse, but in my quest to discover whether I’ve ever known love, I thought I would revisit it.

Let me preface this exploration by saying that I am not usually the type who interprets the Bible literally, but since a lot of people agree on this definition of love, I figured it’s as good of a place as any to start.

So there are 15 things that love is supposed to be, and I would say that I exhibit 11 out of 15 of them on a good day. Which would be a 73. Which is a C. And as you know, a C is failing in my book.

I have problems with envy, anger, keeping record of wrongs, and selfishness. Selfishness, in particular, is the hardest one for me to improve upon. I try to be reasonable, but the truth is, I don’t want anyone to get over me. I don’t want anyone to be happier without me, even if I am happier without them. Even if I never hope to be with them again. And even though they want me to be happy.

In my defense, this verse doesn’t explicitly say that love is not selfish. It says that love is not self-seeking. This may be splitting hairs, but that’s what obsessive people do. Wanting to be loved the most is clearly selfish, but is it self-seeking? And if so, what is it that I am seeking?

I guess I want to be the most special person they’ve ever known. I want to be able to hold up that gigantic foam finger that says “We’re #1!” that sports fans wear, even when their team sucks. Except it would say “I’m #1!” So, even if it is narcissistic, our culture clearly condones the desire to be the best as socially acceptable, even when it’s delusional.

But that just sounds like a rationalization for my selfishness, so it doesn’t really alleviate my guilt. Plus maybe we, as a culture, shouldn’t be so focused on being the best, either.

But that is for another blog post.

Oh! I just thought of something that helps me to redeem myself!

So you know how I want to be a famous writer and have a best seller and make a lot of money some day? Well despite my desire for fame and fortune, I often pray that my brother’s blog on “The Walking Dead” will be more successful than mine. That he will be the one who knows fame and fortune. Because I will be happy regardless of what happens with my blog, but it would make him really, really happy to have some external validation of his talent. And I want him to be happy.

See? I am capable of putting someone else’s happiness before my own. I do know what love is after all. Because this is how much I love my family.

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Some Things Never Get Old

A few months ago my brother called to tell me about a baby bear spotted in the parking lot where he lives, which is quite an anomaly because he lives in the city. He also sent me pictures and video clips. And he cracked himself up making up additional fake bear sightings: the bear was also seen going to Starbucks buying a coffee, having a beer at the local bar, etc.

He had the same obsession with bears as a kid and made similar jokes that were primarily funny because they made him laugh. Even though he is 38, he is still a kid in many ways. He continues to see the world as though he is experiencing it for the first time.

I was not able to share his excitement about the bear sighting, but there are things that I never get tired of. This weekend I went to districts with one of my teams, and even though I didn’t win and my team didn’t win, I am happy. I feel blessed because I had the good fortune to experience some of those things that never get old. My list includes, but is not limited to:

1. Winning. I know winning isn’t everything, but it sure feels good when you do. Even though my team didn’t win, one of the local teams did, and we got to share in their victory celebration, which is almost as good. Especially when the celebration involves food. Plus UVA won, which means we have already tied our 2 wins from last season. And it was an upset against a top 25 team, which makes it even sweeter. Plus Switzerland advanced in Davis Cup this weekend, so I’m happy for Federer, too.

2. Tennis. When I started playing tennis again 14 years ago, I was obsessed with it. I played at least 4-5 times a week–sometimes 2-3 times a day–and would drive to different cities to play. I played in every league and tournament. I feared that at some point I would grow tired of it, but I think I’m even more obsessed with it now than I was back then. One of the members of the winning team is in his late 70’s, and he still loves tennis. He is still competing, still winning, still talking trash on the court. I hope I am fortunate enough to be just like him when I grow up.

3. Shopping. Ok, I know this one is superficial, but it’s true. I love shopping. I got to buy cute tennis clothes, which is something I don’t have access to ordinarily. And they were on sale. Not half of half of half, as my mom prefers, but still a pretty good deal. And I’m going to wear my new outfit to my singles match tonight. I will probably lose, but I will look good doing it.

4. The Beauty of Nature. On the way to the tournament I drove through the Rockfish Valley. Initially I was so anxious about getting lost that I didn’t pay attention to my surroundings. But when I entered the valley I was in awe of how beautiful it was. It was absolutely breathtaking. I never get tired of the beauty of nature. I never tire of looking at the sky at sunset. Of the changing of the seasons. These are the times that I have those moments of clarity. These are the moments that bring me closer to God.

5. Friendship. One of the things I love the most about tennis is the friends I have made and continue to make. This weekend I got to spend time with some of my closest friends and reconnect with old ones. As I got to know some of my teammates off the court, I felt like I was meeting them for the first time. Spending time with friends, getting to know people better, and adding to my tennis family never gets old.

It really is true that some of the best things in life are free. Except for shopping. Shopping is never free. But a 30% discount on everything in the pro shop is pretty nice, too.

Some things never get old

Sensitivity

I am reading The Secret Life of Bees for book club, and I love it! I know it’s old, but in our last meeting we discussed which books made us wish we could spend more time with the characters, and one of the members mentioned this one. I can see why. I love all of the characters, too. Well, maybe not June so much. She’s a little too guarded for me. Although I wish I could be more like August, the matriarch of the sisters, I am actually more like May–the fragile one who feels other people’s pain too deeply. Not as deeply as she did, thank goodness. But more so than I would like sometimes.

On the one hand, I recognize that it is a gift to have such a keen sense of empathy. I know I have helped a lot of people because of it. But I am also easily thrown off balance when the people I care about are in pain–especially since I am also prone to depression and anxiety. I have always assumed this meant that I was weak. Fragile. Too sensitive.

I spent time with my brother this weekend–the only one of the four siblings who does not have a mood disorder. In talking to him, it was clear that he does not experience his feelings as intensely as I do. He does not get his feelings hurt very often. He is better able to maintain distance from family drama, and his advice really is to tell them to suck it up.

I envy him for this, but I cannot be him. I can only be me. I feel things intensely. My feelings get hurt easily. And when someone is in pain, I feel what they feel and try to help them, even if it hurts me.

But rather than berate myself for it, I am learning to accept that this is who I am. We all have different vulnerabilities. Some people may be prone to heart disease. Other people have diabetes. I am a hyperempath with depression and anxiety. Therefore, I have to be sure to take care of myself in certain ways: make alone time a priority, set boundaries, and be more selective about who I spend time with.

I used to joke that I’m not trying to save the world–just the people that I meet. But perhaps I will have to narrow down my scope in my life-saving efforts, too.

Positively Selfish

One of the hazards of working in the helping professions is burnout. People who are drawn to helping others run the risk of giving too much of themselves. In my case, however, I run the risk of burnout in my personal relationships more so than I do at work.

There are a lot of advantages to working in a counseling center. Even though you don’t make as much money, you have access to a lot of resources that you don’t have in private practice. I have colleagues, the student health center, deans, RA’s, and peer counselors who share the load. The most stressful periods of my job are predictable and time-limited: they occur around the middle of the semester and end around finals week. There are boundaries that are built into our schedule, as well. Appointments are 50 minutes long at the most. We don’t schedule clients past 5 pm or on the weekends. Students go home for breaks. We don’t see students after they graduate.

My personal life is a different story. Many of the people I love have emotional needs that they expect me to fulfill. Appointments are not time-limited. I am on call 24-7. I usually cannot terminate these relationships, nor do I want to. I have a hard time saying no to whatever they ask of me. And in many cases, I do not feel I am getting back as much as I am putting into the relationship because their emotional resources are more limited than my own. Which is not their fault. It’s just unfortunate for me.

That is part of the reason why I want a hiatus from loving and caring for anyone or anything new. No dating. No pets. Just me and my plants. I’m burned out; I want a more solitary job in my personal life.

I was telling my therapist the other day how this makes me feel selfish. She told me that I’m being honest with myself–more authentic. That we need another word that conveys positive selfishness. Which is kind of sad, really. What does it say about our culture that there would be no word for a healthy focus on oneself?

She nominated the word selful. Full of oneself, but in a good way. More like being whole. But it doesn’t roll off the tongue the way selfish and selfless do. Plus it looks weird. So I am open to suggestions.

Beginnings and Endings, Part 2

My job follows the academic calendar, so today is my first day back at work. I was never one of those kids who looked forward to the beginning of school. I didn’t care about seeing my friends; I didn’t want to have to do homework. I didn’t want to have to go to bed and wake up early. I pretty much have the same mentality now that I did when I was in elementary school. Some things never change, I guess.

My summers follow a distinct pattern: I have a hard time transitioning from being stressed and having to be super-productive to not having a whole lot that needs to get done. Boredom doesn’t do justice to the intensity of how badly I feel during that adjustment period. It’s more like, my existence is a complete waste of time. I have nothing of value to offer to the world. I know it’s is my inner critic talking, but it still makes me question my worth. I think that’s why most people would rather be stressed than bored: it makes you feel more useful.

However, by the time I have about 2 weeks of vacation left, I start panicking about having to go back to work. I don’t want to feel stressed out again–to be on call, have back-to-back clients, rush to get my nightly routine completed. By the end of the summer, I feel like I could quit my job altogether. But I have no one to support me, so that’s not an option.

This summer I had the added adjustment of being alone for the first time. Braking down on the side of the freeway alone. Attending weddings alone. Spending holidays and weekends alone. At least when I was working, I was guaranteed to see people every day. Over the summer, I had to make plans to motivate myself to leave the house, and sometimes I couldn’t do it.

Plus, I was also going through the steps to finalize my divorce, so I no longer had the illusion that I could return to the more stable state of matrimony. I didn’t date anyone or even have someone I could fantasize about dating. Well, I guess there’s Federer, but even in his case, the most I could imagine was being one of the nannies for his new twin boys. Not terribly romantic.

Despite the struggles with boredom, reversed sleep cycles, and solitude, I think the highs and lows actually helped me tolerate my emotions better. I would remind myself that boredom and loneliness are painful sometimes, but I’ll be busy eventually. (Usually the next day, because I played in 7 tennis leagues and captained 5 of them over the summer.) And when school starts and I’m feeling overwhelmed, I’ll remind myself that I have a long break to look forward to at the end of the term.

I think it also helped that I spent the past 2 weeks on vacation with family and friends. It was the highlight of the summer, but it was also hard to be around people 24-7. Now that I am accustomed to extended periods of solitude, I realize how much I need down time to feel sane. So by the time my vacation ended on Friday, I was ready to go home. Ready to catch up on tennis, blogging, and even work.

This summer was a good reminder of how, even when something seems intolerable, that feeling will pass. And you might even find value in the experience that you hated so much at that time.

Good Fortune

Money can’t buy happiness. Beauty is only skin deep. Age is just a number. It may be an illusion that wealth, beauty, and youth bring happiness, but I have to admit, sometimes it’s still a convincing one.

Earlier this summer, when I was stranded in South Carolina waiting for my car to be fixed, I had the good fortune of staying with a friend from graduate school and her family. At the time, I had been on this kick about destiny, so her daughter recommended that I read Holes, by Louis Sachar. It’s about a boy who is sentenced to work at a camp for delinquent boys for a crime he didn’t commit. Although it didn’t seem like it at the time, he was exactly where he was supposed to be. I was working hard to stay positive about my situation, so I wondered if my reading “Holes” was meant to be, as well.

I asked my young friend what else I should read, and she recommended Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin. It’s about a Chinese girl named Minli who goes on a long journey to try to change her family’s fortune. In the end, she learns that family is the greatest fortune of all.

Every year my college friend and I have an Inner Child Reunion. During our first reunion a few years ago, I introduced her to Sophie and she realized that she had a part of herself that was not allowed to play. So we make it a priority to get together for a few days over the summer for an extended play date. This year we could not find a mutual time to meet, so she decided to bring her son and meet me at my brother’s house because I had to babysit my niece. So it was a double reunion since she, my brother, and I all went to UVA.

As usual, my friend and I lamented over the very adult burdens of money, weight gain, and aging, but without the same level of obsessiveness as before. Perhaps it was because spending several days with 4 adults and 2 actual children, in addition to our inner children, left us with less energy for lamentations. Or perhaps it was because being together helped us to be more grateful for what we have.

I’m not gonna lie. We did not become enlightened beings over the past few days. We would still like to make a little more money, lose a little weight, and slow down the aging process. But we were also reminded that we are blessed to have family and friends who enjoy singing and recording “Let It Go” for hours on end, several days in a row. How many other people can say that? (I would post one of the videos but it’s kind of embarrassing.)

Perhaps it is no coincidence that I finished “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon” last night, at the conclusion of our Inner Child/College Reunion. Grace Lin was right: gratitude brings good fortune.