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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.

I’m In Between Shoes Right Now

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Today I woke up happy because I had a good day yesterday. My tennis team won, my other team almost won, I got to play, and a bunch of my friends went out to eat afterwards–which is always my favorite part. And even though I lost my match, I played well and we split sets. The last time I played with my partner we had a set point but we blew it, and this time we closed the set out, so this match was an improvement. My friend told me that I am always looking for the silver lining. I know some people don’t believe in small victories, but I think you’re a lot happier if you do.

I was watching this commercial the other day about these athletes who were giving this guy’s daughter advice about life. David Robinson gave her positive advice, but I can’t remember what it was. This other guy who was supposed to be some loser said, “remember–success is just failure that hasn’t happened yet.” Which I thought was freaking hilarious. That’s a good illustration of what life is like when you don’t look for the silver lining.

My tennis partner gives me a hard time because he says I’m setting my sights too low and I don’t have enough faith in myself. And it’s true that I’m happy as long as we don’t get killed, but I prefer to think of it as being easily made happy about the small things. Like hitting a good forehand, since that’s my weakest shot. Or free pie on Wednesdays.

Nevertheless, I still get that sense of foreboding joy that Brene Brown talks about in her book “Daring Greatly.” I still worry about when the other shoe will drop. Sometimes after something good happens I’ll even switch to worrying about death or bodily injury, thanks to my anxiety disorder.

I just looked up the origin of that phrase, because why would it be so terrible to drop a shoe? Apparently it has its origins in NYC. In the late 19th and early 20th century, apartments were built so that the bedrooms were on top of each other, so it was common to hear when your upstairs neighbor took their shoes off. So the phrase refers to that maddening feeling of when you’re waiting for something that is inevitably going to happen. Last night on 60 Minutes they had a feature on this guy on death row who asked to be executed as quickly as possible for that very reason; he just wanted to get it over with, even though he didn’t want to die.

Most of the time I hear people say it after something good has happened and they know this means that something bad is going to happen soon and ruin everything. However, when we are feeling down, we don’t wait for the other shoe to drop; we think we’re going to feel bad forever.

When clients express this fear, I tell them to think about both positive and negative feelings as things that ebb and flow, even if we do nothing. So it’s true that when something good happens, something bad will follow at some point. But it’s equally true that when something bad happens, something good will eventually follow. The key to happiness is to be able to savor that moment, in between shoes, even though you know that at some point you won’t be happy. This works for negative feelings, too; in this moment you may be sad, anxious, or angry, but at some point you will be happy again.

So while I know that the next post you read may well be one in which I say I’m feeling depressed or anxious, in this moment I am happy, and I’m going to let myself enjoy this moment for as long as I can.

This is My Life

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You often hear tennis players accuse other players of not having a life. Like the people who go ballistic over a line call. Or the ones who cheat or resort to head games to win. Or the people who so spend much time on the court that they seem to be neglecting their spouses and children.

While I admit that tennis is my life, none of those things are true about me. I have a really positive attitude about tennis. And while I want to win, I do not resort to cheating, head games, or blaming anyone for my losses. And I don’t have any spouses or children to neglect.

Plus, what if tennis is my life? What’s so bad about that? Sure, it’s just a game, but lots of people have jobs that center around tennis. Like tennis players. And coaches. And commentators. And all the people who work for the Tennis Channel. And sports psychologists. In fact, I could totally be a sports psychologist.

In many ways, I am a more balanced person as a tennis player than I am in my real life. For example, in my real life, I will often take on so many responsibilities that I will have mental breakdowns. But in tennis, I have learned to turn down opportunities to play so that I don’t get injured.

And in tennis, I’ve stopped playing with people who suck all the joy out of tennis. Because if I can only play so many times a week to prevent injury, then I need to be selective about who I play with. Whereas in my real life, I am drawn to people who suck all the joy out of life.

When I went to that compassion retreat back in May, one of the teachers said that she thought I loved tennis because it was a great way to practice mindfulness. Meaning I am focused, in the moment, and accepting of whatever happens. And this is true. Tennis is the only activity that can quiet my obsessive brain and help me feel better, now matter how crappy of a day I’m having.  Plus, when I play, I’m practicing mindfulness for 2 hours, multiple times a week. That might be more practice than some Buddhist monks get in a week.

OK, maybe not. But still. That’s a lot of mindfulness practice.

Plus, if it weren’t for tennis, I would have no social life. In fact, I would have very little human contact outside of work. Because this weekend I don’t have any tennis until Sunday at 6, and I already know that it will be effortful to leave my house and go across the street to the grocery store.

When I play tennis, we often eat out afterwards, so I don’t starve like I do when I’m home alone. And, as I mentioned in a previous post, thanks to tennis, I find out about really good deals like Free Pie Wednesday at O’Charley’s. And who doesn’t like free pie?

So the next time someone tells me to get a life, I’ll tell them that I like the one I have just fine.

I Must Be Feeling Better

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About 2 months ago I wrote a post about feeling depressed again. I knew I was at risk of it because it was winter, and we were at our busiest time of the semester at work, and I had spent an extended period of time with my family over Thanksgiving. But often when I am in the midst of something difficult, I try so hard to be positive that I do not fully process how miserable I am in the moment–like when I hurt my back.

But that day in December I could no longer deny it–I was officially depressed. Evidenced by the fact that I was not looking forward to our cookie exchange party. Because I really like sweets. If I had been my “normal” self, I would have been singing the Cookie Monster song. You know the one. C is for cookie, that’s good enough for me! Oh, cookie cookie cookie starts with C! 

In fact, not singing out loud in public is also a sign that I’m probably depressed.

Don’t get me wrong–I still went to the party and I still ate a bunch of cookies. And I brought home a bunch of cookies and ate those, too. But I was much less joyful about it than I ordinarily would be.

The good news is, I’m better now. Because last night my friends and I went out to dinner at O’Charley’s after our tennis match, and our waitress told us that it was free pie Wednesday.

Initially, we were in a state of disbelief. It’s what? We get a free pie? Are you serious? That is awesome! Is this a limited time offer? So you mean every Wednesday we can get free pie? How long have you worked here? You’re sure it’s not going to end? If we stay here all day do we get more than one piece?

And then throughout the night I would spontaneously yell out “free pie Wednesdays!” I told my brother when he called me last night. And this morning I texted my friends who were there to remind them about free pie Wednesdays. Although I’m pretty sure they remembered.

This is what my normal state is like. Celebration of sweets to an annoying degree. But come on! Free pie! That’s the best promotion I’ve ever heard of. Still, had it been a couple of months ago, I would have been much less exuberant. I mean, I still would have gotten it and eaten my pie, but I might not have kept yelling “free pie Wednesdays!” every few minutes.

And then a couple of weeks ago I ordered some new tennis shoes and did not realize that they glow in the dark until we turned out the lights at the indoor tennis facility where we play–the one that is closing at the end of the month–and they were glowing in the dark. I couldn’t believe it. I was like, these are the most awesome tennis shoes ever!

Since then, I’ve been thinking about starting glow tennis. All of the lines and the net and the balls would glow in the dark. Plus, in addition to shoes, we could have glow-in-the-dark clothing, hats, wrist and head bands, overgrips, and strings. This would be a great way to get kids interested in tennis. And it would save electricity. There may be a slightly increased risk of injury from running around in the dark, but we could get everyone to sign a waiver and tell them to play at their own risk. No one listens to those warnings, anyway. Like running at the pool. Or diving in the shallow end.

And I could make a bunch of money if it were successful. Heck, I wouldn’t even need to win the lottery anymore. And I would get to wear my new shoes. And then after playing glow tennis I can go to O’Charley’s and eat free pie.

The only problem is, this semester may be busier than last semester, so I may be headed for a mental breakdown again in a few weeks. Knowing this in advance does not always make it possible for me to prevent it because, despite all of the work that I put into maintaining my mental state, some things are not in my control.

But in this moment, I am happy, so I’m just going to enjoy it for as long as it lasts. And wear my new shoes. And eat free pie on Wednesdays.

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Is Optimism Always a Good Thing?

 

You know how when you ask people how their holiday was and they say it was good? Well, I didn’t. I wasn’t trying to complain or anything. I just like to be honest.

My back was hurting for 3 weeks, which means I did very little over the break. The worst part was that I couldn’t play tennis. It may sound extreme to some people, but my mental health was severely compromised. I tried to practice gratitude, patience, self-compassion, and all that, but the truth is, without tennis, life hardly seems worth living.

That’s why I spent 2 and 1/2 weeks in denial about how bad my back was hurting. Which means I tried to play 3 times. The tennis sucked and I wasn’t able to move at all. I couldn’t even swing. The last 2 times actually made my back worse.

Why would I continue to try to play, knowing that I couldn’t move? Knowing that it might slow my recovery down? Because I was so determined to get better that I was completely out of touch with reality. I was almost delusional.

Sometimes I beat myself up over this. Many of my relationships have failed because of this same delusional optimism. I’ve relapsed into depression because I was unrealistic about how much I could take on. I’ve wasted countless hours trying to fix some mistake in my knitting rather than cutting my losses and ripping the thing out. (Unless you knit, you probably don’t appreciate how obsessive this is, but it is a serious waste of time.)

But at the same time, my optimism is what allows me to enjoy tennis, even when I lose badly. It’s why listening to people’s problems all day doesn’t get me down. It’s why I’ve been able to knit dresses.

Plus, even if it’s unrealistic, unbridled optimism can give us something to look forward to. Like, even if the chance of winning the jackpot is 1 in a billion, isn’t it fun to imagine what you would do with the money? To debate whether you would take the payout and calculate how much you’d have after taxes or whether you’d spread the payments out over 20 years?

I’ve actually been thinking about buying lottery tickets because the indoor facility where we play in the winter has closed, and without tennis I really do get depressed. So I fantasize about winning the lottery and building a facility, where I would build it, how many courts it would have, whether I would also have outdoor courts. Maybe I’ll even include a pro shop. Then I could buy cute tennis outfits wholesale and save some money. Not that I would need to save money since I would have won the lottery.

Do you see how much more enjoyable this obsession is rather than thinking about how I am going to be depressed and out of shape without tennis? Even if I don’t get to play, either way. And really, what’s a couple of dollars every week if it keeps hope alive?

Plus, someone has to win the lottery. So someone’s optimism paid off. Why can’t it be me?

 

Social Pain

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I’m all into social pain right now. I mean, not experiencing social pain. I’m not masochistic or anything. At least I don’t think I am. Actually, maybe I am, based on my relationship history. But that’s beside the point.

Let me start over. I’m reading this book on Social Pain, and it is really fascinating. Probably not something you would be interested in reading unless you enjoy learning about brain research, so I’ll just tell you about it, since that’s what I do.

It turns out that social pain–things like rejection, bullying, loss, and separation–registers in the same parts of the brain where we register physical pain. So some researchers thought, hey, I wonder if pain relievers might help people who are experiencing social pain? So they gave people Tylenol for 3 weeks and it turns out that it works! How cool is that?

The other thing that I learned is that we can relive social pain but not physical pain. Which is so true. I hurt my knee 2 months ago playing tennis, and I remember being in pain, but I don’t re-experience the pain when I remember it. But I can remember how rejected I felt when my tennis partner broke up with me because we didn’t win enough.

That’s the other major difference. I take social pain more personally. I felt humiliated by the whole thing. It’s hard to talk to that person now. The rejection is always there, hovering between us. And it has undermined my confidence in my game.

It turns out that social pain hurts so deeply because in our ancestral history, being accepted by your group meant that you would be taken care of. Being an outcast meant that they might tell you to wait in the cave while they go out to hunt and gather and never come back to get you. So being accepted was actually a matter of life or death.

Which is why people are more afraid of public speaking than they are of death. Because speaking in front of others could result in humiliation and rejection, which can feel like death. More so than actual death, apparently.

I guess that’s why I didn’t have to practice compassion when my knee was hurting. I would ice it and take ibuprofen and try not to play. And I’d sort of be pissed off at myself when I played and reinjured it, but I didn’t really beat myself up over it.

Actually, now that I’m writing this, I realize that I haven’t practiced self-compassion over the tennis breakup. So I guess I’ll do it now.

It hurts to be rejected. Everyone feels hurt when they’re rejected. That’s how our brains work. At some point, it will stop hurting, and I will be here with you until it does. In the mean time, I want you to think about something else, because I don’t want you to suffer unnecessarily.

I guess I’ll see if that helps. Maybe I’ll kick ass in tennis tomorrow night.

Weakness? I Don’t Think So

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I talk a lot about how I pride myself on being a warrior on the tennis court. Evidenced by the fact that, despite having several conditions that lead me to throw up on the court every now and then, I continue to play. Giving up tennis is not an option.

Admittedly, sometimes I take this to an extreme. It’s probably better to retire from a match when you’re having an asthma attack. But I didn’t say it’s always smart to be a warrior. Sometimes it’s smarter to know when to walk away.

But it’s hard to know when to fight and when to accept defeat. Especially when you struggle with a mental illness. It feels like you should be able to will yourself out of it. Even though no one would accuse someone with pneumonia of being weak when they can’t will themselves out of it. But we are not always fair in our judgment of other people. Or ourselves.

It wasn’t until I started my blog 2 years ago that my family and friends found out how debilitating my depression has been at times. So I was able to hide it somewhat. Still, there were days I would wake up and know I wasn’t going to be able to go to work. No amount of shaming and screaming at myself was going make me get out of bed. So I would stay home and spend the rest of the day feeling like a loser.

If you are an avid tennis fan, then you know that Mardy Fish played his last match as a professional tennis player yesterday. It was particularly meaningful because he has not played for the past 3 years after developing panic disorder. He was unable to leave his house for 3 months. And even though his disorder is better controlled, he still has difficulty traveling and sleeping alone. So being a professional tennis player has not been an option.

Despite how paralyzing his anxiety disorder has been, Fish decided he didn’t want it to dictate how his career ended. So he faced his fears and entered the U.S. Open for one last tournament.

And what a match it was. He was serving for the match at 5-4 in the 4th set but double-faulted 3 times because of nerves. He ended up losing in the 5th set because he started cramping. Not exactly a fairy tale ending.

Still, choking and losing leads are part of the game. It happens to the best of players. Being a warrior doesn’t guarantee that you’ll win–just that you’ll fight until the bitter end. And Mardy Fish did just that.

Fish demonstrated his strength of character when he decided to end his career on his own terms. But an even greater testament to his strength is that he shared his story with the world. Our demons grow in darkness and silence. Only the most courageous are willing to show people their vulnerabilities.

Which is why those who are open about their mental illness are among the strongest people I know.