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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.

Depression vs. Sadness

Motivation 2

‘Tis the season to be jolly. Unless you are prone to Seasonal Affective Disorder like me. Don’t get me wrong–I still love the holidays. But there’s a better than average chance that I’ll be depressed in the midst of them.

Sometimes people ask me what the difference is between sadness and depression–especially if you have been depressed and are worried that you might be getting depressed again. In a previous post, I admitted that I don’t always know. It’s not like a pregnancy test that you can take and find out that you’re either depressed or “normal.” There are degrees of depression, and I have experienced almost every point on the continuum.

Last year after my breakup, I was alone for the first time since I was 14, and it was tough. I was sad that my phone rarely rang. That I did not automatically have plans for the weekend. That I was helpless when it came to things like changing my air filter.

My sadness turned into depression over the holidays because in addition to being alone, I had to be around my family, which stresses me out, tennis season was over so I wasn’t exercising and didn’t see friends, and my sleep was out of whack because I was off for 2 weeks. Still, it was nothing like the full-blown major depressive episode I had several years ago.

If sadness vs. depression were an SAT question, then sadness is to a cold as depression is to the flu. You can barely get out of bed. You do not have the energy to do simple tasks. You are in pain. You feel like you may die. But the difference is, when you have the flu, you may blame yourself somewhat for not getting your flu shot or for kissing a sick person, but you don’t hate yourself for being sick.

One of the ways I distinguish between depression and sadness is in how I respond to the “think of people who are worse off than you” strategy. When I was too exhausted to do anything the past few weekends, I would think about all of those people who are bedridden and how awful that must feel. And then I wanted to do something about it. So I said one of my neurotic prayers: God, if there’s any way that my praying for these people who are sick and bedridden can help them feel better, then please let that happen.

When I’m depressed, I think about people who live in war-torn countries, and how that’s far worse than being depressed. So who am I to complain? This is nothing. I don’t even have a good reason for being depressed. I’m just lazy and irresponsible. So get off the couch and do something, damn it!

Since this is the time of year when I am vulnerable to depression, I am hypervigilant of possible signs. So far I’m tired and stressed, but no self-loathing. And I haven’t missed any work (knock on wood). Maybe I’ll make it through this year unscathed.

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.

Love is

The Dilemma of Being Human

I am currently reading The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, which is awesome! It’s about this guy who decides to walk several hundred miles to visit an old friend who is dying of cancer because he believes that it will keep her alive. His walk is a form of penance for all of the people he has failed, including himself. To make up for his passivity, he decides to take a leap of faith that he can walk 600 miles in yachting shoes without a cell phone, a map, or a plan, and be redeemed.

I like this book because it explores how loss and grief can change us and our relationships with the people we love. It has always bothered me that someone who had once been so important to us can become someone who we can’t stand the sight of. Even though it’s less romantic, I would prefer to think of love as a weed that sticks around no matter how hard you try to get rid of it rather than some high maintenance flower like a rose that is easy to kill.

I also like the book because I’ve had this fantasy of walking the Camino de Santiago because some Catholics believe it will halve their stay in purgatory. I don’t know if I believe in purgatory, but if it does exist, I would definitely like to shorten my stay there. I can see why a pilgrimage would be therapeutic. It’s like self-therapy with a rigorous physical activity component.

Along the way, Harold meets people who share their own sorrows, which he feels both comforted and burdened by. The other night I read a line in the book that gave me pause: “Harold cold no longer pass a stranger without acknowledging the truth that everyone was the same, and also unique; and this was the dilemma of being human.”

This statement is at the heart of what my blog is about. I have always felt different from others in a way that makes me feel alone in the world. For being Filipino and for not being Filipino enough. For thinking too much and for being too shallow. For not being married, for being divorced, for not having children. For having depression and anxiety. Even without these specific differences to point to, I have felt fundamentally flawed in a way that I can’t quite put into words.

But as I blog about my flaws, I realize that other people feel just like I do–alone in their craziness. The details make us unique, but the pain of feeling separate from others is universal.

So in a way I feel like I am Harold Fry, on my journey to self-acceptance, but with a much less rigorous physical activity component. And as I tell my story, I give others the opportunity to reflect on their own story so that we can share the joy and pain of being human together.

The Dilemma of Being Human

Photo: Maria Roman

Choices

When it comes to money, my mom and dad are on the opposite ends of the spectrum. My dad loves to buy things and does so often and freely with no regard for cost. My mom, on the other hand, doesn’t buy something unless it’s “half of half of half” off. Depending on the day, I can be on either end of the spectrum, but most of the time I am more like my mom. As a result, my relationship with money is plagued with anxiety and guilt.

For example, when my ex and I were at the airport on the way to our honeymoon, I bought a neck pillow because we had a long flight ahead of us. It had one of those tags that they have on mattresses that you aren’t supposed to remove under penalty of law, but it was annoying me, so I ripped it off, anyway.

Apparently this law exists for a reason, because after I ripped it off, all of those little white things started coming out of the gigantic hole I had created and were spilling all over the place. I had to throw the darn thing away. I was distraught about destroying my pillow less than 5 minutes after purchasing it and wasting $15. It was only fitting that I should have to spend the next 10 hours on the plane with an unsupported neck.

While I was berating myself for my obsessiveness, my ex bought another neck pillow and snuck behind me and put it around my neck. Unlike me, he did not obsess over buying stuff. This became a source of many arguments later, but at the time it was a sweet and loving gesture. He was not great with words, but this one action said everything I needed to know: it’s OK by me that you’re obsessive, and you still deserve a neck pillow.

When memories like these pop up, it activates the same cycle of thoughts. Am I doing the right thing? Is there anything more I could do to make things work? I go through the scenario of what it would be like if we got back together, and I always come to the same conclusion: things would be exactly as they were before.

I wish choices could be more clear-cut, like on a test. But life isn’t like school: answers are rarely 100% right or wrong. I have to remind myself that with any decision, there are things that I will lose. I can’t make the perfect choice. I cannot escape the sadness of having to give up the good parts of our relationship.

Memories like this one make me want to cry. But at the same time, I am also thankful. Even if things didn’t work out, he was a good guy. He was a good choice for many reasons. And even as we finalize our divorce, he continues to be kind and helpful. Not many people can say that at the end of a relationship.

Mistakes

You know how I hate making mistakes? Well I made a big one last week, and now my inner critic is in full force. I am having a hard time forgiving myself, so I thought I’d blog about it.

Intellectually, I know that everyone makes mistakes. But my inner critic tells me that everyone else is allowed to make mistakes. I, on the other hand, am on strict probation: one mistake will lead to dire consequences–failing, getting fired, going to hell, losing everyone’s respect, etc. I don’t know what I’ve done to warrant this zero tolerance for errors, but it must have been pretty bad.

I am trying to put things in perspective. I try to remind myself that, although some people could judge me harshly, God does not have a zero tolerance policy for errors. God knows that I am not perfect and does not hold me to the standards that my inner critic does.

I gave a sincere apology for my mistake. I didn’t lie, get defensive, or evade responsibility. I acknowledged what I did wrong and that I am aware of the consequences of my error. That I am committed to making amends. While this should move my transgression into the somewhat healthier guilt category, I am still feeling quite a bit of shame about it.

My inner critic wants to make sure that I am taking this seriously. That I am not one of those people who superficially apologizes without being genuinely sorry. That is one of my pet peeves, and I don’t want to be a hypocrite by doing the same thing. So I keep reminding myself that this is a big deal–which only serves to reactivate the cycle.

I am trying to call to mind all of the sage advice on forgiveness, perfectionism, and letting go. Advice that I, myself, have given to other people. It seems to help them. Why doesn’t it help me? Why am I not improving faster? I envy people who can read an inspirational quote on social media and feel better. People who are simply able to turn off the obsessive soundtrack of shame in their head. Or who listen to a different soundtrack altogether.

So I am also trying to remind myself to honor my own timetable. That self-improvement is not a race that I have to win. In fact, I’d settle for a participation award. I tell myself that at some point in the future, perhaps even later today, I will be able to put things in perspective. And if it takes longer than that, I’m talking to my therapist on Tuesday.

Luckily, tennis is on all day today, which I am hoping will be an effective distraction until I have my moment of clarity.

Guilt

I talked to my therapist last week. She gave me permission to stop feeling guilty about my sleep cycle. Told me that I have no reason to get up early, so I don’t need to worry about it. That when I have to wake up, I will do so.

It helped some. Today I woke up early for a tennis clinic. But then I took a nap afterwards, which was well-deserved but still somewhat guilt-laden. But I’m writing a blog post now, to prove to my inner critic that I am not completely worthless.

Those quotes about letting go kind of annoy me. If guilt were something I could just let go of, I would have done so long ago. It’s like telling someone who is anorexic to just eat. Put food in your mouth. Chew. Swallow. What’s so hard about that? I envy those people who find it so easy to be free of their demons.

Therapists often ask clients what it is that they fear will happen if they let go. I guess I fear that without guilt, I really will become a terrible person. Someone who doesn’t care if she hurts other people. Someone who is not living her life with integrity. Maybe I’ll go too far in the other direction. I’ve done it before.

In Shame and Guilt, Tangeny and Dearing argue that guilt is a healthy emotion. It let’s you know that you have done something wrong and motivates you to make amends, correct it. When you feel shame, however, you don’t just feel like you’ve done something wrong; you feel like there is something fundamentally wrong with you. You are broken beyond repair. Shame leads people to lash out and project their faults onto others, or to lie and hide.

I guess I am somewhere in-between, because I worry that there is something wrong with me, but I am motivated–determined, even–to become a better person.

My latest strategy for coping with guilt about the past is to tell myself that I don’t have to continue entertaining this memory. I can take it out of the rotation. Throw that record out. Or in more modern terms, remove it from the playlist. I have enough things to feel guilty about in the present without revisiting every mistake I’ve ever made in the past.

For whatever reason, it works. In part because I think it’s funny, imagining myself tossing all these record albums behind me. It doesn’t get rid of all of the guilt, but it creates some space in my head for more guilt-free thoughts. That’s something.