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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.

Mental Illness Does Not Discriminate

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I don’t like to use my blog for rants, but I am angry. And if I’m being compassionate with myself, then my anger is just as valid as any other feeling. So I’m going to give myself permission to write about my anger.

I was telling a friend recently about the presentation I gave at work on self-compassion, and he responded with hostility and disdain. I was not prepared for the attack. I understand that some people prefer the “suck it up” approach to pain and suffering, but why would it make him angry that I teach people how to be kind to themselves instead?

I also had a conversation with another friend who reminded me that many people don’t think the students I work with have real problems. I work at a counseling center of a college that is made up of predominantly wealthy students. Many of the students who come to counseling are the ones who don’t fit in because they are not white, not rich, not Greek, etc. Other students fit in just fine. Other than their mental illness, that is.

Either way, as far as I’m concerned, their suffering is equally valid.

But I seem to be in the minority. Because when I tell people where I work, they question how these students could possibly be suffering. What do they have to be unhappy about? Their lives are great. They don’t have real problems.

This is a sore spot for me because I was one of those people who didn’t have a good reason for my depression. My parents are both doctors. I was able to go to good schools, get a Ph.D., obtain a good job. I haven’t been traumatized. All of my basic needs were provided for. How could I possibly be depressed?

I don’t deserve compassion. Don’t deserve meds or therapy or any kind of relief because I’m just being weak. Lazy. Selfish.

People don’t claim that someone isn’t really suffering from the flu or that they don’t really have cancer because they have a good life. But for some reason, we believe that the privileged are immune to mental illness. I believed this, too. Which is why I didn’t ask for help.

But mental illness does not care what your background is. It does not discriminate. It is an equal opportunity employer, distributing pain and suffering to the entire human race.

For whatever reason, the hostility of these attacks has hit me full force, and I am angry. I’m trying to figure out how to deal with these comments when they come up in causal conversation without attacking back. But I can’t keep people from judging me or my clients or my profession. Not even my family and friends.

In therapy I tell clients to control what they can control. I cannot make someone see the value of having compassion for themselves and for others, but I can have it for myself. I can remind myself that my pain is real and that I deserve to treat myself with kindness. And I can be a voice for those people who need to be reminded that their pain counts, too.

And I can blog about it, which always helps.

Self-Disclosure, Part 2

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Therapists are in that category of people who aren’t supposed to be real–right along with teachers, priests, and parents. They shouldn’t be at UVA football games talking smack with Tech fans. They’re not supposed to have divorces. Plural. (Usually one is acceptable.)  And they certainly aren’t supposed to struggle with anxiety and depression. Even my niece was surprised to learn that psychologists who treat depression can be depressed, and she’s only 8.

Freud is mostly to blame for this. He thought psychoanalysts should be a blank screen onto which patients projected all of their repressed sexual and aggressive urges while he sat behind them smoking cigars and snorting cocaine. And even though I wasn’t trained as a psychoanalyst, in grad school they discouraged us from using self-disclosure and from crying in session. (I really have a problem with that last one. I can’t help it. Sometimes I’m really moved by what clients say.)

But even Freud and my grad school supervisors did not say I should be a blank screen in all areas of my life. I guess it just felt safer to do so because I am terrified of judgment and criticism. That’s why I want to be perfect. That’s how my inner critic is able to manipulate me. That’s why I have developed such good empathy skills: if I can tell that the other person is upset with me, I can change my behavior before they have a chance to say anything.

I started this blog as a way to test out Brene Brown‘s claim that having the courage to share our vulnerabilities with others leads to engagement and meaningful connection. Some posts are still scary to share, but those seem to be the ones that people are the most thankful for because it makes them realize that they are not alone in their struggles. And it has made people who I don’t know very well feel closer to me. There’s this positive energy between us now when we interact. Sometimes they share their own vulnerabilities, which further strengthens our relationship. It really is a nicer way to be in the world.

After almost a year of blogging, I am finally taking the plunge by telling students about my blog. This is the one place where I have been reluctant to share my vulnerabilities because it could potentially undermine my credibility. But it will also serve as evidence that the people who they perceive as having their lives together are dealing with the same issues they deal with. Normalizing their experience, as therapists say.

But normalizing our experience takes practice. We need to be reminded over and over again. We need to repeat it to ourselves with every thought, feeling, and action that makes us worry that we’re crazy. And while everyone doesn’t need to blog about it, it certainly helps me to accept myself as is. So self-disclosure is as much a gift to myself as it is to anyone else who enjoys reading my blog.

 

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.

Darkness and Light, Part 2

I am deeply saddened by Robin Williams’ death. I love the roles he chose as an actor. He was a comedic genius. And he was full of life–a light that seemed to shine a little brighter than the average star.

As a psychologist, I don’t have any special knowledge about why Robin Williams committed suicide. I wasn’t there. I didn’t know him personally. I wasn’t his therapist. I do know that, no matter how well you think you know someone, it is difficult to fathom the depths of the darkness they live in. Because who wants to share that with other people? Who wants to burden other people with additional darkness? It’s hard enough to deal with our own.

I also know what it’s like to have multiple depressive episodes. My psychiatrist compared relapses to breaking your leg in the same place multiple times: with every break you become more vulnerable to injury; it takes a little longer to recover each time.

My dad had 3 major depressive episodes. His last episode hit when he was 69 and lasted for almost 4 years. It was a tremendous amount of work for him–and my mom–to recover again. I know sometimes he didn’t want to try. And I know he felt that way more often than he let on but tried to be strong for my benefit.

In my last depressive episode, there were times when I wanted to give up, too. Well, it’s not so much that I wanted to give up. It’s more like the depression told me that I should. And in my weakened state of mind, it was hard to fight back. I am thankful that I was able to do so in the end. That was my 2nd major depressive episode. I’m trying to do everything within my power to prevent a third.

What if Robin Williams had 5 or 6 depressive episodes? What if the demons of depression never took a break unless he threw himself into something like acting or drugs or alcohol? I don’t drink and I have never used drugs, but if I had to live my life feeling the way I did at my worst, maybe I would. I don’t know that I would have been any stronger. So I don’t think it’s fair to accuse Robin Williams of being weak. Clearly, based on his body of work, he was anything but weak. He was fighting it all the time.

I was also taken aback by the anger that some people felt about his suicide. But I don’t judge them for it. I can understand why, if you have been personally affected by suicide, you would identify more with the people who are left behind and have to make sense of this loss for the rest of their lives. Fortunately, I have never been there, but if my dad had ever given in to his demons, I know I would have been devastated.

I think that people who see mental illness as a weakness, an excuse, or a nonexistent entity fear the darkness in themselves. They try to deny it in themselves and in others as vehemently as possible, lest it find a way to escape. But some of us don’t have that luxury. We can’t lock our depression in a closet and throw away the key; it is too powerful. It does not obey our will.

One positive outcome of having known that kind of pain is that it has deepened my compassion for others. It motivates me to alleviate whatever suffering I can in others. In my opinion, the people who know what it’s like to live in darkness are the ones who are the most motivated to enlighten others. So if Robin Williams inspired more people to become light bearers, then that is at least one good thing that can come from this loss.

 

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The Battle Against Depression

I really wish that so much of my existence did not revolve around obsessing about sleep. I’m tired of writing about it, and I’m sure you’re sick of reading about it. But this is the reality of my existence at the moment, and I am committed to being honest about my current state of mind.
 
Today was another day that was filled with sleep. It makes me feel like such a failure. My colleagues don’t struggle to make it to work because they can’t get out of bed. The physicians in my family never even take a sick day. Some depressed people manage to take care of their families. I can barely take care of myself. What is my excuse for my weakness?
 
Then I thought of physical conditions that leave people debilitated. Migraine headaches. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Lyme disease. Do the people who suffer from these conditions feel paralyzed with guilt and shame when they can’t get out of bed? Or do they accept their fatigue as being part of their illness rather than a personal failing?
 
I think about the recommendations I give to clients who are depressed. Exercise. Get sunlight. Be social. Regulate your sleep cycle. If someone had the flu, you would tell them to rest. Listen to your body. But with depression, we tell people to ignore what their bodies and minds are telling them and to do the opposite. Fight it! Don’t give in!
 
Don’t get me wrong. I do all of these things when I can, and they work. After sleeping most of the day, I forced myself to do laundry, get some lunch, wave at my neighbors, put together my tennis schedule for the new league, and play tennis for 3 hours to make up for my lack of steps from yesterday. And I’m writing this blog post now.
 
Because if I gave in to the desire to do nothing, I wouldn’t really be trying to get better. I wouldn’t be taking responsibility for my illness. But I don’t think it’s fair to hold it against someone if their depression is so severe that it’s too much effort to go outside and get sunlight. Because sometimes I’m that person, too.
 
When I have a client who cannot will themselves to follow these recommendations, I don’t judge them for it. But I tell them to keep trying to do them. And no mental health professional that I know would tell a client that if they felt like they need to sleep they should listen to their bodies and rest.
 
There is an article circulating on the internet about how for some depressed people, positive reframing doesn’t work. Telling the person to be positive actually makes them feel worse. That it’s better to support them by expressing empathy for their feelings.
 
Perhaps someday, researchers are going to find that listening to your body when you are depressed is sometimes more effective than fighting it with wakeful activities like forced exercise and socialization–two things that can be difficult to do even when you’re not depressed.
 
I’m going to do my own case study to see if this works.
 

Liebster Award

I would like to thank Somber Scribbler for nominating me for the Liebster Award. I am new to blogging so I always wondered how people got these awards. What a great way to find out! In the words of Sally Field, “You like me! You really like me!”

What is the Liebster Award?

Liebster is a German word that means lovely or valued. It’s an award for relatively new bloggers with less than 200 followers. Nominating someone’s blog is a way of letting them know that you like their work and a way to interact with other bloggers. 

Liebster Rules

In order to participate, Liebster nominees must:

1.  Thank the person who nominated you. (Thanks again to Somber Scribbler, who writes one of my favorite blogs.)


2. Answer the 11 questions given to you.

3. Nominate at least 5 blogs with less than 200 followers (approximately).

4.  Post 11 questions for your nominees to answer.

5.  Post a comment on your nominees’ blogs to let them know that they’ve been nominated.

Questions from Somber Scribbler

1.  Why did you start blogging?

About 2 years ago I started writing a self-help book on self-acceptance, but I thought it was so terrible, I was embarrassed to let anyone read it. I had to figure out some way to let other people read about my ideas, so last September I decided to start a blog, even though I barely even knew what a blog was. It turns out blogging is perfect for my writing style.

2.  If you could describe yourself with one word, what would it be?

At the moment, I would say “hopeful.” That’s why I’m a therapist, why I continue to try to get better at tennis, and why I think I can write a book.

3.  If you could be famous for one thing, what would it be?

That’s a tough one. I’d like to be famous for just about anything, as long as it’s positive. But I’ll say writing a best seller.

4.  What advice would you give to fellow mental health sufferers?

Listen to that voice that tells you to believe in yourself, regardless of how small it may be at the moment.

5.  If you could only eat one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?

Another tough one. I will interpret “thing” as “ingredient” and say anything with sugar, for obvious reasons.

6.  Which fictional character do you relate to the most and why?

Ellen O’Farrell in “The Hypnotist’s Love Story,” by Liane Moriarty. She falls in love with a man whose ex is stalking her and becomes obsessed with her stalker because she has so much compassion for her suffering. That would totally be me. 

7.  What did you want to be when you grew up?

The first thing I remember wanting to be was a cashier when I was 5 because they had access to all that money. But then my parents told me that money wasn’t theirs. So then I wanted to be a bank teller, but my parents said that money wasn’t theirs, either. After that I clearly gave up on any attempt to make money.

8.  What is your greatest strength and your biggest weakness?

I would have to say that my greatest strength is my biggest weakness, which is my empathy and compassion for other people’s suffering. It helps me to help people, but having too much empathy can be overwhelming at times.

9.  What is your dream vacation?

Maui is one of the few places that has lived up to all of my expectations, so that’s where I would go for my dream vacation. With Roger Federer.

10.  Which of the many quotes about mental health speaks to you the most?

My favorite quote is from Kung Fu Panda (although I’m sure it’s originally from somewhere else):

Yesterday is history,
Tomorrow a mystery.
But today is a gift.
That’s why they call it the present.

I have a lot of trouble living in the moment, which is why in my blog I often start sentences with “In this moment….” A lot of suffering can be minimized with the practice of mindfulness.

11.  What is the most positive thing about today?

Today I got to spend time with my niece, Sadie, which is always a gift.

My Nominees

I’m going to interpret “new blogger” loosely so that I can nominate some of my favorite bloggers. So in no particular order, I nominate:

1.  Amy Purdy, who writes Bipolarly. Her blog on bipolar disorder is informative, personal, and from the heart.

2.  Matt Fried, who writes Fried’s Blog, because he is committed to honesty and to eradicating stigma against mental illness.

3.  Tim Clark, who writes Life, Explained, because he rooted for UVA to win the NCAA championship in basketball after his team was eliminated.

4.  Joy Page Manuel, who writes Catharsis, because she is a fellow Filipino and we think alike.

5.  Somber Scribbler, which is probably cheating, but we think alike, she also writes about mental illness, she also includes doodles in her blog, and she would have been my first nominee, had she not nominated me first.

My Questions

1.  What job would make you say, “I can’t believe I get paid to do this!”

2.  What’s the last dream that you remember?

3.  Who was your favorite character on “The Brady Bunch” and why?

4.  What was your New Year’s Resolution this year? 

5.  What do you want to be remembered for? 

6.  What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about starting a blog?

7.  How many jumping jacks can you do in a minute?

8.  If you could put 3 things into a time capsule, what would they be?

9.  Who is your favorite superhero? 

10.  What song best describes you?

11.  What’s the last book that you couldn’t put down?


Here is a random picture of Sadie and me in Legoland.