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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.

No Way Out

Last week I gave you my reflections on my brother’s heart surgery. Today he’s feeling well enough to share what this ordeal was like for him in an effort to share his epiphany: regardless of what you may have to lose in the process, it’s always worth it to choose life.

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In “The Walking Dead” Season 6 debut, former allies Rick Grimes & Morgan Jones share an uneasy reunion. “I’m sorry for all this,” Rick says to Morgan, shyly apologizing for having to lock his old friend into a cell until he can get the man acclimated to the new community he has just joined. Holding no grudges, Morgan replies: “It’s okay. Sometimes it’s easier when you don’t have a choice.”

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Fast forward to August 30, 2016. I’ve missed a couple of days at a new job. Inexplicably, I can never feel fully rested & suffer from painful gas that seems to get stuck in my chest. After weeks of combating my symptoms with sleep, stubborn cardio workouts, & Gas-X—something told me I needed a different approach this time. So I call out sick & plan to see a doctor in order to get an excuse for a couple of days & a prescription for some real medicine. Because of my reference to “chest pains”, the walk-in clinic refused to see me & referred me to the ER instead. “This will be an expensive bottle of Tums,” I thought to myself, the seriousness of my situation not yet setting in. A day later, I’m in a hospital room in my region’s premiere facility for heart surgeries. I’m told I have severe blockage in the arteries feeding my heart. They need to operate on me—TOMORROW. Doctors, nurse practitioners, & everyone who has seen my test results regard me with such astonishment. They wonder aloud how I’d been walking around.

“Oh great,” I think to myself. I’m going to have to call work again. They’re going to think I’m playing hooky.” I must have still been in emotional shock. That night, my stunned older sister calls me & tells me to quit my job—to stop forcing myself through unduly stressful challenges. “They don’t care about you! They don’t appreciate you! They have no idea how valuable you are! You don’t owe them another minute of your time. You hear me? NOT A MINUTE!” She also brought up examples of other people who should have been more concerned with my current crisis than they appeared to be. She wondered why I wasn’t more disappointed.

In hindsight, it was probably because I knew I didn’t have time to be disappointed. It was all happening so fast. I came in for painful gas, maybe some acid reflux, & they offer me open heart surgery instead. My head must have been spinning. But on some level, I knew there was no time to be disappointed or sad—it was time to be strong. Resolved. Focused. That was it. “I’ll be fine,” I reassured the only member of my family who, at that point, seemed to acknowledge the gravity of my current crisis–including me. “I have to go. The nurses just told me I had to take 2 showers with surgical soap; the first one tonight before bed.” It was already past 11 pm. It had been a long day; & the next day would be worse. I rang the nurse to get me unhooked so that I could take this shower with “surgical soap” & about 5 different washcloths intended for different regions of my body.

“Did you sleep well?” The surgeon asked me around the crack of dawn. “Yes I did,” I replied. He was stunned & said so out loud. Truth be told, I didn’t know what I had gotten myself into. And it was probably better that way. Had the details of what was about to happen been revealed earlier, I probably would have escaped! The surgery was nerve-racking. I actually woke up a couple of times after the surgical team had injected me with anasthesia. I saw myself in that horrifying environment under the blue surgical shroud. I had seen things that I had never asked to see. But the aftermath was the worst. I wouldn’t wish my experience on a sworn enemy—not even the Devil himself! I’m sure the Devil deserves punishment; but what kind is not for me to decide. Holed up in bed over the next 3 days in a state of constant discomfort, I realized how the powers both to inflict pain & subdue it are both sacred & require severe checks & balances.

I’m 40. If you saw me on the street, you’d think I look closer to 20. Yet here I was. A “kid” facing “real man” problems. But I’m recovering quickly. My vitals are consistently good. Even in the hospital, the staff seemed surprised at how well I was handling recovery. “If this is what you call ‘good’ I’d hate to see what you call ‘bad.’ “ They’d laugh at me. It was just humbling for me to be so dependent on so many people for so many things.

I always thought of myself as “tough,” but I never really knew for sure. Even after what I went through, I don’t feel tough or brave or strong. In fact, when I think about how severe the pain was & how terrifying everything seemed & how long the discomfort lingered long after the the violent pain had dissipated, I marvel that I got through at all! It took a lot of intervention from my Creator, but also some personal resolve. This wasn’t a challenge that I chose for myself; but once recognized, I was seeing it through. I was strong & brave not because I am all the time, but because I had to be right then.

Like Morgan said, “Sometimes it’s easier when you don’t have a choice.” Yes, well said, Morgan. All life truly is precious. Given everything I’ve had to endure over the last 2 weeks, my life is not only precious, but sacred to me now. That was a choice that I did have to make for myself. But now that I have, I’m as happy on the inside as I’ve been in a long time–maybe ever.

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Still Depressed

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People have been so kind to reach out to me after I published my last post, expressing their hope that I’m feeling better. I wish I could say I do feel better. That it was just a one day thing and I’m no longer feeling depressed. I feel like I’m disappointing everyone.

It’s not like I’m depressed every minute of every day. I made it through work and survived being on call. I played tennis. I went to dinner with friends. I seemed like a normal person when I was around other people.

I continue to be frustrated that all of my efforts to prevent depression have not worked. Maybe if I hadn’t stayed up to watch Federer and Nadal play on Saturday night it would have made a difference. Except I didn’t wake up until 1:30 in the afternoon, so I wasn’t that tired at 2 a.m. And it’s not every day that you get to see Federer and Nadal play, even if it was only a set.

Last night I had a realization that helped me to not beat myself up over all of the things I could have done differently. And that is, it’s not my fault. It’s not my fault that I am prone to depression. Not my fault that I am particularly vulnerable at this time of the year. That I am not able to handle the client overload as well as my colleagues. That my family stresses me out. That I’m not perfect in doing all of the things that are supposed to help with depression. This was the most helpful lesson in Tara Brach’s book Radical Self-Acceptance and Paul Gilbert’s The Compassionate Mind. I’m glad that I remembered it for some reason.

The other realization I had last night was something I learned in the self-compassion retreat that I attended last May. And that is, trying harder doesn’t eliminate pain and suffering. It is not for a lack of effort on my part that I feel the way I do. As much as I like to think that if I just work hard enough I can make everything better, life is filled with pain and suffering, no matter how hard you work. And while this did not make my pain go away, it helped me to accept it more and to beat up on myself less.

I have appealed to God for some salve for my wounds. Something to make the pain more tolerable. But I feel guilty for asking, given all of the things that are going on in the world. All of the people killed in Paris, San Bernardino, Sandy Hook, and other places. All the people who have terminal illnesses. All of the people who are hurting worse than me. Sometimes thinking about these people helps to put my suffering into perspective, but that is not the case at the moment. Right now I can barely tolerate my own suffering. So for now I’ll just have to focus on me.

But I am learning through my practice of self-compassion that it’s OK to focus on me. My pain counts, too. I can wish for my own well-being for as long as I need to.

Perhaps if God has any angels left over after he sends them out to all of those other people, he can send an extra one to me. Just for a little while, until I feel better. An angel in training, even, like Clarence in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” And if you believe in God and angels, please feel free to pray that God will send one my way.

Empathy vs. Compassion

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I figured that after an entire week of meditating on self-compassion I would be this transformed, kind, loving person to myself. But now I realize that what I learned was just the beginning of a practice that will take a lifetime. I guess that shouldn’t be surprising, but it’s hard to give up on the hope that something will be a quick fix. Especially if it involves pain and suffering.

I’ve written a lot of posts about how I struggle with having too much empathy. I feel other people’s pain as though it were my own–and in addition to my own. Sometimes that’s just too much pain to take, and I end up crashing and burning.

And then I beat myself up for not being able to handle my life. Because other people have spouses and children they have to care for and they still work and go to the grocery store and cook dinner. I, on the other hand, just fall asleep on the couch, tired and hungry, because it’s too much effort to go across the street and get food.

Or I’ll choose a relationship where the person is in pain and feel compelled to help them. And they won’t be able to help me, because when you’re in pain, you’re not really in a position to focus on anyone else. But then I’ll be like, why aren’t you helping me? This relationship sucks! And then we break up.

One of the things I learned in the meditation retreat is there is no such thing as compassion fatigue. There is empathy fatigue, which I described above, but compassion, like love, can expand to encompass all of the people we wish to send it to. In mathematical terms, the formula is:

compassion = empathy + love

I have always wondered why I felt the need to help people who I didn’t even really like. Who I had grown to hate, in some cases. It was tiring and confusing, so I would also berate myself for doing something so hurtful to myself. Which isn’t very compassionate.

Now, instead of exhausting myself from trying to get rid of the other person’s pain and then beating myself up for trying to do something that isn’t even possible, here are some things I can do:

1. I can say, that person is in pain. I will send them compassion.

2. I feel their pain, so I will send compassion to myself, too.

3. Actually, I think I need to focus exclusively on me, so I’m just going to keep sending myself compassion.

4. I feel selfish and guilty for not doing more, but I can have compassion for myself and accept that I have limited resources.

5. I’m mad at that person for asking me for more than what I’m able to give, but I can have compassion for my anger and honor my need to focus on my own well-being.

6. I’m mad at myself because even though I just said I was going to focus on me, I gave the person what they wanted, anyway. But I can have compassion for myself for being human and therefore imperfect.

And I have to say, so far it’s going pretty well. In this moment, at least. But that’s all I need to focus on.

Learning to Put Myself First

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It seems that for some people the idea of compassion entails a complete disregard for or even a sacrifice of their own interests. This is not the case. In fact, you first of all have to have a wish to be happy yourself – if you don’t love yourself like that, how can you love others? – Dalai Lama

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Last Sunday a friend of mine was talking about how her priest was retiring because of compassion fatigue. That witnessing the suffering of his parishioners all those years had depleted him, and he had nothing left to give.

In the post What Compassion is Not, I talked about the misconceptions that lead some people to believe that compassion enables people to be lazy, unproductive members of society. But there are also misconceptions about compassion that can lead to burnout. Here are some of the ones I’ve written about in my blog.

1. Date your enemies. When Jesus said to love your enemies, I took this a bit too far. Yes, I do try to put myself in the other person’s shoes. To recognize that we are all capable of good and evil. But I also thought it meant that if I didn’t want to date someone because of race, SES, mental illness, red flags, etc., then I was judging them, and judgment is bad. So I should try to overcome my prejudice and go out with the person, anyway.

This has lead to disastrous consequences in my personal life. It would have been kinder to both of us if I had just acknowledged that we were not compatible from the start.

2. Love your neighbor more than yourself. I know that the quote is actually to love your neighbor as yourself, but somewhere along the line, I came to believe that my needs were less important than others. If I could help someone, I should, whether it hurts me or not.

Blogging has been the best reminder to put my needs first. Since I’m always preaching self-care, it would be hypocritical not to take care of myself. Plus, since I have made blogging a priority, before I take on a new task, I ask myself how many blog posts it will cost me. And even if it costs me one post, I won’t do it.

3. Practice compassion perfectly. Technically, evaluation should not be a part of compassion at all, but tell that to my Inner Critic.

In my last relationship, I hated the guy for a year after we broke up, and I felt terrible about this. Despite my best efforts, I could not make myself let go of my anger. But when you are practicing compassion, you must have compassion for yourself first. So I would tell myself that this is where I am at the moment. Not yet ready to let go of my anger toward this person who hurt me. And that’s OK. When I’m ready, it will happen.

And it did.

If you are interested in learning more about how to practice compassion, I recommend Jack Kornfield’s compassion meditation. It is one of my favorites.

Mantras

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It is in our faults and failings, not in our virtues, that we touch each other, and find sympathy. It is in our follies that we are one.

– Jerome K. Jerome

Last semester I had a client who was talking about how a close friend seemed to be taking an interest in her, but she wouldn’t let herself believe it. Even though she wanted to believe that someone could find her attractive and desirable. Part of that whole undeserving thing I talked about in a previous post.

Lately I’ve been trying to help clients come up with mantras to counteract their inner critics. In this case, her inner critic kept saying, “Why me?” Why would he like me? What do I have to offer?  To which I replied, “Why not you?”

So this became her mantra. And I liked it so much, it has become one of mine, as well. Along with other mantras that I have come up with to counter my inner critic.  Here are a few of them:

1. Why not me?  This mantra now replaces the oft-repeated “Who do you think you are?” To think that you can find the one decent guy who is not in a relationship. To think that you can find an agent. A publisher. Readers. To think that you can improve your rating in tennis.

Other people do it. It’s not beyond the realm of possibilities. Might as well tell myself this instead and see what happens.

2. Everything’s going to be OK.  This may sound overly Pollyanish to some, but for me it is a source of comfort. After all, this is what we say to babies and children to calm them down. And as you know, I am a new parent, just beginning to learn how to soothe my inner infant.

3. I’m doing the best that I can.  This is to counteract my inner critic’s relentless evaluation that I suck. I can’t function without sleep like “normal” people. I can’t make it through a semester without crashing and burning unless I vigilantly focus on taking care of myself. My blog isn’t widely read. I can’t cook. I throw up when I play tennis. I don’t make enough money.

But I really am trying. And I’m trying to be OK with effort rather than results.

4. The purpose of life isn’t to be productive.  I was sick for my entire vacation this week. Five days in my house doing nothing but watching bowl games and knitting. No steps. No meals with friends. No tennis. No New Year’s celebrations.

My drill sergeant has tried to bully me into being productive, admittedly with some success. But for the most part, I’ve been able to tell myself that my only task at the moment is to get better. To rest. To care for myself. Regardless of what other people do when they’re sick. My life is worthwhile, whether I get my laundry done or not.

5. I’m just like everyone else. No better, no worse. I’m still a recovering perfectionist, but recovery is progressing quite nicely. Through blogging I have found that the kindness I receive in sharing my perceived flaws means as much to me as the compliments I get from my perceived successes.

So what’s your mantra? If you don’t have any, feel free to borrow mine if they help!

Smile: It Gets You Free Stuff. And Followers.

Appearances can be deceiving, even when you’re trying to be honest.

Today was a terrible day. I don’t want to waste an entire post on the details, so I’ll just hit the highlights:

1.  I spent 2 and 1/2 hours hanging out with the cable guy. This was after having a different cable guy show up at 8 a.m. yesterday and after multiple conversations and chats with customer service reps whose only troubleshooting advice is to tell you to unplug your cable box and turn it back on again.

2.  The office where I get my allergy shots randomly closes fairly often. So often that, to avoid getting into trouble, they’ve asked me to call ahead to make sure they are there. Which is ridiculous, because their job is to be there when the clinic is open. So today I didn’t do it. And guess what? They were closed!

3. I had to spend a bazillion dollars on a mattress today. OK, maybe not that much, but you know how I am about spending money. I have been sleeping on the same cheap mattress for 17 years. I only gave in because my back and hips hurt. And since I’m doing this whole self-care thing, I figured I should invest in a good mattress. Plus I had to get the reclining thing because of my stupid GERD, which was also expensive.

OK, that was a little more ranty than I meant it to be, but I had to give you some context about what my mindset was when I walked into the mattress store. When Mr. Salesman asked me how I was doing, I told him about the cable guy, the doctor’s office, and how he was robbing me of my savings. He told me that I didn’t seem like I was in a bad mood because I was smiling. Which is true. I’m always smiling, no matter how upset I feel. I told him not to be fooled.

After our transaction was complete, Mr. Salesman asked me what I do for a living. I told him I was a psychologist, and he was surprised by this. He said that all of the psychologists and psychiatrists he knew were super uptight, and I was super laid back.

What the hell? I don’t think I could have possibly had a worse attitude when I came into the store. And I’m pretty sure I’m just as uptight, if not more so, than most mental health professionals, given my various mood and anxiety disorders. Can my pathological smiling response really make me seem laid back and happy when I am actually pissed off? I don’t get it.

But I guess it’s a good thing. Because I made him give me every possible free thing he could throw in. Plus I told him that he needed to start following my blog. I also told him tonight’s post would be dedicated to him. So here you go, Mr. Salesman!

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