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Being Present, Part 2

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Yesterday I met with a client whose grandmother is coming to the end of her battle with cancer and Alzheimer’s. Of all of the scenarios I can imagine, practicing mindfulness when your loved one has a degenerative disease seems the most challenging. Every day you try to be in the moment, grateful for good days, for what they are still able to do, knowing that eventually they will have fewer good days, fewer things they are able to do. But I guess there is always something to be thankful for–that their suffering is over, the pleasure of having known them, memories that you treasure.

This past month and a half has been tough. Practicing mindfulness and gratitude have become survival mechanisms rather than a choice. Sometimes I think about what my life was like in August, when my primary stressor was going back to work after being off for the summer, and it seems like a luxury. Now, in addition to the usual stressors of work and family crises, I have become a parent.

Ironically, the hardest part is the stuff that “normal” people do every day–meal planning, cooking, grocery shopping. Domestic tasks in general. I hate all of them. Even if I were married, I wouldn’t be as domestic as I am now. But I have no choice while my brother recovers from heart surgery.

In moments of weakness, I think about what my life used to be like. I never thought I’d say this, but I miss my solitude. I miss boredom. I miss the freedom of not having to go to the grocery store and eating a bowl of cereal for dinner instead. Of spending hours reading and writing in my journal, even if it was because I had no one else to talk to.

Likewise, I feel even more saddened by my single state. Before, although I didn’t love it, being single felt more like a choice–even though that was an illusion, since I hadn’t met anyone. Now dating isn’t an option. I barely have time to get ready for bed.

I know that I am not clairvoyant. I don’t know what the future holds. Things won’t be like this forever. Still, my current situation is a loss of freedom similar to what I experienced when I got divorced. Although I would have never quit my job while I was married, we could survive if I lost my job. Knowing that I had to work after I was divorced made keeping my job a necessity that caused me anxiety.

But as soon as I become aware of these thoughts about my past and future, I have to focus on the present. Not because I am trying to push myself to a higher state of happiness or enlightenment, but because it’s all I can do to get through each day. I would not have chosen my current situation, but hardship is an inevitable part of life, and my life is no exception to the rule. I cannot think about what my future holds because there are so many things to come that are overwhelming. I can only focus on this thing, in this moment.

This week that thing is returning to work full time, in the midst of the period in the semester with the highest volume of clients. Which is often the beginning of my descent into depression. Except this time, I can’t get depressed, because I have to take care of my brother. But since I can’t control whether or not I get depressed, I’m scared.

But I can’t worry about that today. Today I am not depressed. Today I will focus on getting through the day, and that will have to be enough.

One could argue that my life is worse than it was before, but I cannot afford the luxury of entertaining that thought, either. Nor do I feel that way. I just focus on the things that I can be thankful for now. Although they are different things, they are as plentiful as they were before. My brother is alive. He is getting better every day. He is able to help with more domestic tasks as he gets stronger. He is happy and appreciative. He is a football expert.

In fact, he recently informed me that Aaron Rodgers is not a fake State Farm agent. He is actually a really good quarterback. It makes pro football more interesting because now when Green Bay is playing I can cheer for the State Farm guy.

See? I can still find happiness in the little things.

Perception is Reality

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In “A Beautiful Mind” John Nash, a Nobel Laureate in Economics, talks about how he learns to cope with his hallucinations by ignoring him. That is a pretty amazing thing to do for someone who has schizophrenia. There are several disorders in which the person’s thoughts are so convincing, despite being false, that it is difficult to cope with them by deciding that you’re not going to listen to them.

For example, someone with anorexia may truly see herself as being fat, even though intellectually she knows that she is not. But her inner critic is so persecutory in its insistence that she not eat, not take up space in the universe, that she ultimately gives in. People with eating disorders often conceptualize their inner critic as having a relationship with ED, and ED is the most abusive partner I have ever met in therapy.

Or someone who is psychotic might be convinced that he is going to win a million dollars because Publisher’s Clearing House has told him that he may have already done so. And despite the fact that the check has not arrived in the mail after several years, he makes outlandish purchases based on the prize money that he is convinced is on the way.

I do not have delusional thoughts, but sometimes my obsessive brain tries to convince me of things that are not as insidious but still cause me to suffer. No one gives a crap about me. I am incompetent. Sometimes I can convince myself otherwise with objective evidence, but sometimes my inner critic is relentless in trying to convince me of the veracity of these assertions. It will repeat them hundreds of times a day. The effort to refute them is exhausting.

My psychiatrist tells me that I should put myself out of my misery at the beginning of this barrage by taking an Ativan as soon as the thoughts begin. But often I don’t because, despite all I’ve said about the importance of taking meds, sometimes I still don’t want to. And because, unlike depression, anxiety feels so normal that sometimes I forget that it is not. The meds definitely help. Most of the time I know that when the thoughts come, they are not true. But sometimes it takes a lot of work to keep them at bay.

Practicing mindfulness helps, too. One of the benefits of practicing is that it helps you understand the nature of the mind. Even for “normal” people, this is how the brain works. Random thoughts will pop up. They may not be based in reality, may not reflect what you actually believe. And in the next moment, the thoughts may be completely different.

But it’s really hard. Maybe if I dedicated my life to meditation like Buddhist monks do, my inner critic would be less effective in undermining my self-worth. Or maybe Buddhist monks don’t suffer from mental illness.

But my psychiatrist supports my mindfulness practice, in addition to my meds. He confirmed that it works, even for people with mental illness. But it takes a long time, and it happens very slowly. I know it works because I remember what I used to be like. And now when I go several days without meditating, in my moments of weakness the thoughts creep in and become more convincing.

So I continue to practice, and in the moment, I feel loved, competent, and worthwhile. So I’m writing this post to remind myself that this is true because, in the next moment, I may feel differently.

Three Years Later…

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Today is my blog’s 3rd birthday! Can you believe it? I’ve written 277 posts and still haven’t run out of things to say!

In those 3 books about God that I read this summer, they all said that we have many rebirths in the course of a lifetime, and the beginning of this blog year definitely feels that way. As you know if you’ve been reading my blog, my baby brother had quadruple bypass surgery less than a month ago. What I did not mention at the time is that I am taking care of him, so his heart attack has been a life-changing experience for both of us. While taking on this new role has presented many challenges, in some ways it has simplified my life. My behavior is more intentional; my motivation for everything I do is clear. Many of the things I have realized in this past month relate to themes I have written about over the past 3 years, so I thought I would share some of them.

1. Self-care. I often tell people to treat self-care as though your life depends on it, because it does. Nevertheless, I still struggle with it. It’s hard to go to bed on time, to cook, to go to the grocery store. I still have trouble saying no. Still push myself to the point of exhaustion. But now that I’m taking care of my brother, self-care really does feel like life or death. I have to go to the grocery store and cook healthy meals because if I don’t, he can’t eat. I have to get out of bed, even if I don’t feel like it, because I have to check on him. I have to set limits, or I won’t have the energy to care for him. Like Romeo said in his last post, sometimes it’s better when you don’t have a choice.

2. Mantras. There are so many new things to worry about now that I often feel overwhelmed. Sometimes I can’t fall asleep. I wake up to anxiety attacks. In rare moments of stillness, I cry, thinking about what he went through, wondering how we will make everything work. But in addition to my usual mantras (e.g., everything is going to be OK; I’m doing the best that I can), I have added 2 more: 1) anything is better than him being dead, and 2) if God saved his life, then he’ll help me find a way. And that helps to calm me down.

3. SolitudeI offered to take care of my brother without really thinking about it. At the time, I didn’t realize it meant that he was going to live with me indefinitely. Not that it would have changed my decision. But it’s sort of like suddenly having a child without the 9 months to mentally prepare for it. There was a moment where I mourned the loss of my space, my freedom, but that quickly faded. And surprisingly, I have gained far more than I have lost. I have someone to watch football with. Someone to talk to when I get home, to share my thoughts with. He cares about how my day went, whether I won my tennis match. I don’t dread days when I have nothing planned now, because they’re not as dreadful when you don’t have to spend them alone.

4. FriendshipsMy friends are so awesome. I am so thankful for them. Even though they don’t know my brother, they call and text to ask how we’re doing. They’ve made meals for us. They say prayers for us. They wished me luck on my first day back to work because I was stressed about it. They’ve listened to me cry. They’ve spent hours putting together shelves so that my brother could have space for his belongings. They are taking good care of me, so that I can take good care of Romeo.

5. GratitudeIn my prayers, when I give thanks for all of my blessings, I always do so with some anxiety, knowing that at some point I will lose the things that I am thankful for. What will I do then? Fortunately, hardship and loss have heightened my awareness of how plentiful my blessings are. I am even more aware of what a gift it is to be able to breathe, to feel your heart beat, to walk. (All mindfulness exercises, by the way.)  I’m thankful that I have a job that has vacation days. I’m thankful that every day my brother gets stronger. That he is happier now than he was before the surgery.

If this period of my life marks a rebirth, then my goal in this lifetime is to be more fully aware of what a gift it is to be alive.

Everyday Miracles

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Today I read a chapter from Harold Kushner’s book, Nine Essential Things I’ve Learned About Life. The reading was about the importance of helping others as a way to live a meaningful, purposeful life. That wasn’t particularly helpful to me because, if anything, I think I focus too much of my energy on helping others, to the detriment of caring for myself. But it’s still good advice, nonetheless.

There was a section of this chapter that gave me pause, however: his description of the miracles that occur in everyday life. The predictability and reliability of nature. The fact that we can count on the sun to rise and set every day, the waxing and waning of the moon, the changes of the seasons. They happen with such accuracy we know sometimes down to the minute when they will happen. According to Kushner, “a faith system attuned to the natural world celebrates the orderliness that makes our lives livable.”

I’ve had the sense of awe and wonderment about these very things, though not every time they happen. I’m not that mindful. But I guess no one is. Like, when I meditate, I begin by focusing on my breathing, and then I shift my focus to my heart, because for some reason, feeling my heart beat, feeling my pulse throughout my body, makes me acutely aware of the life force that is my heart. How, even when I’m sad, when I’m heart-broken, when I can barely summon the will to live, my heart keeps beating for me, carrying me through life. I know the heart isn’t as immutable as the sun, moon, and seasons, but it fills me with a sense of wonderment and awe, just the same.

In a previous blog post I’ve written about how the weather is a metaphor for our feelings–how it varies from day to day, moment to moment. Some weather conditions are more desirable than others–rain during a tennis match is highly undesirable, for example–but we ultimately accept whatever the current conditions are because we have faith that at some point, the weather will change. Plus, we don’t really have a choice.

We can have the same faith in our feelings, but it does not come as naturally. It takes a lot of practice. When I’m anxious or sad, I’m better able to remind myself that if I wait, at some point my feelings will change. It doesn’t really make the pain go away, but it keeps me from wasting energy on wishing I were feeling something else–a small way I can reduce my suffering in the moment. Perhaps this is a miracle, too–the fact that having compassion for our pain has the power to reduce our suffering.

As I read about these everyday miracles, my Inner Critic was quick to point out my failure to appreciate them. You should be thankful for these things more often! You shouldn’t be taking them for granted! My inner critic often turns practicing gratitude into something that leaves me feeling ashamed and inadequate–as far from awe and wonderment as you can get.

So I’m thinking maybe I’ll practice mindfulness by noticing these everyday miracles more often–to pay attention to the changes of the season, the sunrise and sunset, the waxing and waning of the moon. In practicing mindfulness, there is no expectation that you should feel any particular thing at any given moment; you simply notice what’s there. But even the act of noticing creates an opportunity to experience wonderment and awe. So I’ll try it out and see what happens.

Recovering Control Freak

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So in addition to all of the books I’m reading about God, I am also reading Rick Springfield’s memoir, Late, Late at Night. Because Rick Springfield was my first love. It’s funny, because some of my friends scoffed at how I could love someone I didn’t know, but it turns out that Rick and I (hopefully he doesn’t mind if I call him Rick) are actually very similar: we both struggled with depression since high school, have both named the part of ourselves that is always telling us that we suck. Mine is the Inner Critic. His is Darkness. So perhaps it is possible to sense the darkness in others, whether we know them well or not.

One of the ways people cope with self-hatred is to try to have control over things that they don’t actually have control over. And since this is a futile strategy, it tends to exacerbate one’s suffering.

I am intimately familiar with this strategy. My Inner Critic demands that I control every aspect of my life. That’s why I had straight A’s. Why I’ve never used drugs. Why I had to start a blog to let people know what I’m really like–because my “confessions” reveal just how imperfect I am. I’ve also tried to control other people–particularly the ones I’ve dated. I haven’t quite figured out how to stop doing that, so for now I’ve just decided not to be in a relationship at all.

One of the best things about practicing mindfulness is that it teaches me how not to listen to my Inner Critic. People don’t practice mindfulness because they’re afraid they’ll do it wrong, when in reality there is no right way. There is no particular result you’re aiming for. No specific amount of time you must be focused. I compare it to Weather on the 8’s on the Weather Channel: you’re just checking in with yourself, seeing what’s going on in there. There’s no expectation about what the dew point should be.

When you practice mindfulness, you begin to realize how much of your thoughts are not your own. Random stuff just pops into your head. You can’t stop it from happening. You begin to realize that just because you have a thought–like you suck–that doesn’t mean it’s true. It doesn’t mean that it came from you. And since it’s just one of the hundreds of thoughts that will enter your mind while you meditate, you can just observe it and let it go, just like you do with all the other thoughts.

As I begin to let go of all of the things I can’t control–which are far more numerous than I thought–I realize there is one thing I can control. I can choose my intentions. I can choose to be kind to myself, kind to others. I can choose to live mindfully, to be fully present. And when I become seduced by my Inner Critic once again, I can recommit to my intentions again.

And I have to say, I like myself a lot better this way.

Being Present

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Every year the student group that I advise, Active Minds, hosts a mental health panel in which students with a mental illness share their stories. A few years ago, during the Q and A portion of the program, I asked the students to say what other people can do to be helpful to someone who is in pain.

I have written often about how, in our attempts to be helpful, we say unhelpful things. We give unwanted advice. Tell people to push through. To look on the bright side. To count their blessings. Or perhaps we are so afraid that we will say the wrong thing that we say nothing at all. Pretend that we don’t see their suffering.

Occasionally students will make an appointment to ask for advice on how to help someone in pain. And the advice that I usually give is to ask the person what they can do to be helpful. But often we don’t know what will be helpful because we are so unaccustomed to caring for ourselves, to practicing self-compassion. So I was genuinely curious about what the students on the panel had to say about what they found most helpful.

All of the students essentially gave the same answer: the thing that they found the most helpful was to have someone be fully present. To listen. To let them be sad, anxious, angry, or whatever else they were feeling. So seemingly simple, yet difficult to do.

I teach clients how to practice mindfulness and self-compassion because we can’t control whether other people will be fully present, but we can always choose to be present with ourselves. And until we are able to sit with our own feelings, we cannot bear witness to other people’s pain.

Although it was not my conscious intent to use my blog for this purpose, often my posts are my attempts to practice being present with my pain. I keep a journal where I do the same thing. I read books on mindfulness and compassion. I meditate regularly. Nevertheless, when I wake up to another day of feeling anxious or depressed, or whatever crappy feeling I’m experiencing, I just want it to go away, just like everybody else.

I have started reading Wisdom and Compassion in Psychotherapy, and today’s chapter was on mindful presence. Tara Brach suggested that, whenever we are feeling something painful, we whisper to ourselves, “I consent.”

I have to admit, my first response when I read this was, what the? I consent? That’s a little more inviting than what I was going for in trying to be fully present. But it’s true that there’s this resistance that I feel in my mind and body when I don’t want to face something painful. This instinctive response to brace myself against it. And today while I was meditating I caught myself doing it and remembered to allow myself to feel the pain, and it did help.

So I’m going to try to give this strategy a shot. No matter what I’m feeling, I’m going to consent to it. Allow it to be heard and felt. I’ll let you know if anything interesting happens.

On the Road to Enlightenment, Part 2

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So I finished reading “Lovingkindness,” and I’ve concluded that people who dedicate their lives to meditation must not have mental illnesses. This is not to say that I did not get anything out of the book. I loved the book, and I have recommended it to several clients. It’s just that I think you have to have a certain level of mental stability to become enlightened.

When I went to this conference on trauma, Ron Siegel, another mindfulness guru, practically said the same thing. He said that you need to be fairly mentally stable to go on a silent retreat because you realize how much your mood is affected much more by random thoughts than anything that is going on in the external world. When you’re depressed and anxious, those random thoughts can be fairly persecutory, so to be left alone with them without anyone to tell you that they’re not real could be a major mental health hazard.

I’ve been feeling depressed this past week. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, because this is what happens at the end of every term. I should be used to it by now. But how do you get used to the pain? To your brain telling you all of these things that aren’t true? Every time feels like the first time. Maybe that’s why it takes so long for me to admit it’s depression. I keep thinking it’s something else. Something real. Something that might go away if only this thing happens. Or this thing. Why are these things not helping? Oh. It’s because I’m depressed and nothing helps. Nothing stops the pain.

I played tennis today and even that didn’t help. However, it was an unusually frustrating experience because it was so windy. You think you can go out there and do your thing like you always do, but no. The wind has other ideas. The wind is like, you think you have a good serve? See if you can get the ball over the net if I’m in you’re face. You’re not strong enough. I bet you thought that ball was going to be 2 feet out, didn’t you? WRONG! You lose the point. So we ended up stopping early.

I told my friend I needed to write a blog post and she said I should write one about the wind. How it can be a metaphor for something. And the wind actually is a pretty good metaphor for depression. It makes you feel like you suck. Like you don’t know how to play tennis at all. All of your strengths are stripped away from you, and no matter how hard you try to overcome it, you cannot play your game. And during that 2 hours while I was playing in the wind, that’s exactly how I felt about being depressed. I was trying to be in moment, out in the sun, spending time with my friends. I was trying to enjoy myself, be thankful, focus on nothing but the ball. All things that come natural to me when I’m not depressed. But my demons, like the wind, just kept telling me how much I sucked.

There really is so little you can do to stop the pain in the moment when you’re feeling depressed, so I tried to practice self-compassion. To be kind to myself. I ate lunch. I read old journal entries, because I find them hilarious and prophetic. I wrote in my journal. Tried to watch tennis. And then finally I took half an Ativan and took a nap. And now I’m writing a blog post. And I do feel a little better.

I guess if practicing lovingkindness and self-compassion can at least help me battle my demons, that in itself makes it worth the effort.