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Head Games

Competition can bring out the worst in people. It is not uncommon to see anger outbursts on the tennis court from people who are ordinarily even-tempered. They’ll yell, hit the net, or knock the ball out of the park. You don’t see too many people break their racket at our level, but I had a partner do it once because he was mad that I wasn’t coming to the net.

I actually think that I have a better attitude in tennis than I do in real life.  For example, since I obsess about money, I would never break a $200 racket. Plus, I try to not let my opponents know that I’m upset because that gives them a mental advantage. Plus, I love my racket in part because it’s purple, and if I had to get a new model it would not be purple.


Some people will use head games to gain an advantage. They will intentionally make bad line calls or accuse you of making bad line calls. They will argue about the score, time violations, lineup changes, coaching, and bathroom breaks. Or they’ll do seemingly positive things to disrupt your concentration like crack jokes, be chatty, or tell you how awesome you’re playing.


I admit, sometimes I’ll use positive head games to counteract negative ones. I try to capitalize on the fact that it’s hard to be mean to someone who is being fair and kind. Last year I played against this person who is known for causing drama and making bad line calls, so I was super nice to her from the start. It worked for the most part but she still made one bad call. My partner went ballistic but she insisted the ball was way out, which was a flat out lie. I said “it may have been out, but it wasn’t way out,” just to end the argument. There were no other disputes about line calls and no hard feelings by the end of the match.


In a relationship, however, if my partner uses head games I yell at him for trying to manipulate me.


Another common way to deal with frustration is to blame your partner for blowing the point. If my partner criticizes me I either ignore it, call them on it, or never play with them again. This is one place where I won’t try to make the relationship work at all costs.


I rarely criticize my partner on the court. In fact, I take pride in being able to bring out their best game. I praise them for the things they’re doing well. I help them stay focused and positive. I get them to dig deep when we’re on the verge of losing.


However, in real life I am pretty sure my exes would tell you that I have no problem doling out the criticism.


I am also less critical of myself in tennis than I am in life. Most of the time I’m able to let mistakes go and focus on the next point. I don’t get too upset about losses. In fact, my current record is 7-11. But I play so much tennis that another opportunity to win is just around the corner.


In relationships I focus on all the negative outcomes and wonder what I’m doing wrong. In tennis, I focus more on the process than the result. As long as I’m happy with how I played, I don’t mind losing. And it’s fun to win, but the thrill of winning doesn’t last as long as the joy of trying to get better, looking forward to the next match, and fighting for the win on the court.


Maybe I should treat my next relationship like a tennis season.

2014 Blog for Mental Health Project

“I pledge my commitment to the Blog for Mental Health 2014 Project. I will blog about mental health topics not only for myself, but for others. By displaying this badge, I show my pride, dedication, and acceptance for mental health. I use this to promote mental health education in the struggle to erase stigma.”  
A Canvas of the Minds

Sometimes we make the most important decisions in our lives without consciously knowing why we made them at the time.I knew that I wanted to become a psychologist since I was in high school. At the time I wasn’t fully aware of being depressed in the clinical sense. Being anxious was so much a part of my personality that I didn’t think I had an anxiety disorder. And I definitely wasn’t aware of any mental illness in my family. I had no idea at the time that depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety would impact every aspect of my life–in both positive and negative ways.

It’s probably not surprising that I have been negatively affected by mental illness. But as I write this post, I realize that there have been positive things about it, too. I have learned the most important lessons in life through suffering and loss.

Even as a therapist, when I heard clients make comments about how they had a bad week, it didn’t fully register how horrible that week was for them. In part because clients don’t elaborate unless you ask them to. Unless they are certain that you really want to know. And because they are embarrassed about it. Ashamed, even. But after going through my worst depression 5 years ago, I have much more compassion when clients make these offhanded comments.

I admit, during that period there were times when suicide would cross my mind. But there were two things that kept me from seriously entertaining it. One is that my dad would be devastated, and I feared he would never recover if I went through with it.

The other reason is that if I took my own life, it would undermine everything I ever said to my clients about how pain passes. That one day when they look back they will realize how strong they were at the time. That they will learn lessons from their suffering that it takes some people a lifetime to learn. How can you believe anything your therapist said if she committed suicide? That would be the ultimate betrayal.

So I spent months willing myself to get better. I went back to therapy, started meds again, meditated and prayed, and forced myself to play tennis and spend time with friends. And I did get better. And everything I said about realizing my strength, becoming more compassionate, and acquiring wisdom were all true. I would have never chosen depression, but we usually don’t choose the experiences that teach us the most about life.

People often ask me how I can listen to client’s problems all day long. In all honesty, I can’t imagine what else I would do for a living. It feels more like psychology chose me. And when I hear a client’s story, I always have hope that together we can change the plot for the better. After all, I always root for the underdog. I am the eternal optimist. And I never back down from a challenge.

There was a time when I would never have told this story about my struggles with depression and anxiety to my students or clients. Or even friends and family. But now I want to share it with the world, because every act of courage benefits someone else. My blog is proof of that.

Patience Isn’t Always a Virtue

I looked it up. While it is included in some lists, in Catholicism the 7 virtues are faith, hope, charity (the theological virtues), prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance (the cardinal virtues). Since I at least grew up Catholic, I’m going to use this list, because I’m not patient at all, and I don’t want to be unvirtuous.

My greatest strength is probably fortitude. I never give up in a match, even if I’m down 0-6, 0-5. I continue to play tennis, even though it makes me throw up. I will do everything I can to make a relationship work, even if it’s a lost cause.

Last week I had a client who started antidepressants and experienced a sudden onset of suicidal ideation, which sometimes happens in young adults. As she was describing what it felt like, I realized that I had experienced the same thing when I got back on meds, even though I was not a young adult. But I was on a higher dose than I was before. In retrospect, it turns out it was too high; I had a lot of side effects that I had attributed to the depression.

I didn’t think much of it at the time because I always have some suicidal ideation when I’m depressed, but it was definitely different. It was what psychologists call ego dystonic. As my client put it, my brain told me in the most illogical way that suicide was the next logical step to whatever I was thinking. If I didn’t have the energy to walk over to the fridge and get a milkshake, my brain would say Well why don’t you just jump off the balcony, then? It freaked me out. I would yell back. No! I don’t want to do that! I want to live!

So I fought the thoughts off until the meds kicked in. At the time I thought I was weak, but when I recognized myself in my client’s story, I realized how strong I am.

Patience, on the other hand, is a different story. Patience also requires strength, but in a quieter, more peaceful way. And as you know if you’ve been reading my blog, I am loud and obsessive. You can’t will yourself to be patient the way you can will yourself to save break points. In fact, although this blog is about practicing other quiet, peaceful things like self-acceptance, compassion, gratitude, and forgiveness, I have never included patience in that list until today. Probably because it seems impossible to achieve–even for a warrior like me.

As I mentioned in the post on obsessiveness, I can only focus when I meditate about 5% of the time. But it still works. I am definitely less anxious, better able to tolerate my emotions, and more compassionate. Maybe patience is the same way. Maybe if you at least have the intention of being patient, even if you suck at it, it will still work. That’s what they say in Buddhism–in a less judgmental way, of course.

Might as well give it a shot. Whether or not it’s a virtue, it’s still a good quality to have.

Friendship, Part 2

Warriors in Training

When I was in grad school, I didn’t have many visitors because it was a long drive and there was not a lot to do in the middle of Ohio.  So I saw my family and friends infrequently, and every time I said good-bye I felt this overwhelming sadness–and not just because I wouldn’t see them for a long time.  I was also sad because when I was with them, I was completely myself, and I rarely felt free to be myself.

Part of the problem was that the feeling of being different followed me well into my adult years.  I wasn’t like the other grad students.  I watched reruns of The Flintstones and Gillian’s Island rather than keeping up with what Koresh was doing in Waco.   I wasn’t spending 70-80 hours a week on grad school stuff.  I didn’t listen to the right music, didn’t hang out at the cool coffee places.

I moved around a lot during that time, too.  While I was with my first husband, we moved almost every year because he was never happy where we were–which turned out to be more about him than our location.  Still, I didn’t mind the excuse to not get too close to anyone.

When I finally moved back to Virginia and became a part of the tennis community here, I was a little freaked out.  There was no way I could avoid being a part of the gossip, what with my failed marriages and all.  Plus, I only dated tennis players, so everyone knew who they were.  I had no place to hide; giving up tennis was not an option.  I had to let people know what I was really like.

Of all the gifts that tennis has given me, my tennis family is the best one of all.  These are the only other people who I can be myself around without obsessing afterwards about what I said or did.  They have seen me throw up on the court.  They’ve been there when I’ve gotten kicked out of restaurants for being too loud.  They don’t judge me for always being hungry and constantly having to pee.  They don’t expect me to make anything for potluck dinners because they know I can’t cook.  (But I do bring the Karaoke and board games.)  They even indulge my grandiosity by calling me the Queen.

Often the feedback I get about my blog is about how honest I am.  In an I wouldn’t do it, but good for you! kind of way.  I’m tired of hiding.  I spent the first half of my life trying to be like everyone else.  I want to spend the second half being myself.

Competitive Latch-Hooking

When I was a kid, my mom got my brothers and me to entertain ourselves through arts and crafts. One year she bought us latch hook kits. 

My first project was a picture of Scooter from the Muppets, which she turned into a pillow. I quickly moved on to a picture of Linus. I can’t remember what my brother Jr.’s project was, but I do remember that what began as a fun activity for the 4 of us turned into a fierce competition between him and me.

My brothers and I had this unspoken code of ethics. If there were a box of 12 Fudgesicles, we were each allotted 3. Once my brother Romeo was looking for something to eat and my mom told him that there was a Fudgesicle in the freezer. He had already eaten his share so he didn’t take it. He knew better. She was confused, though.

When someone left the room, their seat was saved. This is because whoever was closest to the phone had to answer it and hunt my dad down, because it was almost always for him. We would pull in every chair possible into the TV room to avoid sitting next to that phone.

Of the 4 of us, Jr. was the most law-abiding. He never cursed. He followed all the rules. He never lied or cheated. Unless he was competing against me in something like latch-hooking.

As I reached the end of my Linus project, I ran out of yarn. Which really pissed me off. What kind of project lacks the necessary supplies to complete it? I thought it was only fair that he stop working on his rug until I bought more yarn. Since I’m the oldest, I made up and enforced most of the rules, so I took his latch hook. He did not protest because this was consistent with his sense of justice, too.

But he wanted to win so badly that he secretly worked on his project without the latch hook. Because you don’t need it if you’re really determined. He quickly gave himself away though with his guilty laughter, so he didn’t get very far. Still, I took his rug from him, just to be safe.

I don’t even remember who won. He probably does, though. But we both remember how fun it was to compete against each other–in that instance, at least.

I realize that this fiercely competitive attitude is not the norm. Yet it still surprises me when people don’t feel the same way. I don’t understand why my colleagues don’t rush to turn in their paper work first. Or why some players don’t play in tournaments or leagues because they don’t like the pressure. Or why more people don’t read my posts about sacrificing my health for the sake of my team.

It’s not that I have to win. I often play in leagues above my level, so I lose quite a bit. It’s more about being fully engaged in whatever I’m doing. Competition forces me to do this, but it’s really more about competing with myself. That’s why I do things like spend 4 months knitting a dress for my niece by Christmas.

I’m so proud of that dress that I thought I’d show you a picture of it, even though it is only tangentially related to this post.

In Times of War

I find it fascinating to read accounts of the things people do to survive in times of war.  I will never forget reading this memoir of a refugee from Korea.  She described how one mother threw her baby in the river while she was fleeing.  That has become my symbol of survival at all costs–throwing your baby in the river.

One of the things I love about tennis is that you get to see what people would be like in times of war.  Competition can bring out the best and worst in people.  There are tennis players like Federer and Nadal, who are warriors but also class acts on and off the court.

And then there are players who couldn’t be nicer off the court, but get them in a losing match and you’ve got rackets, curse words, and insults flying everywhere.  They question every line call.  They cheat.  They resort to gamesmanship.  They do whatever it takes to win.  You probably know some of these people.  I have no doubt that in a war, these people would have a better chance of surviving than I would.

But I also read this book called The Noonday Demon where the author interviewed people all over the world to get different perspectives on depression.  One of the interviews was with this tribe that fought bitterly in a civil war to survive, but once the war was over many of them committed suicide. 

Apparently, the things you have to do to survive make it hard to live with yourself after you’ve won.

I try to play with people who are competitive but are still the same person on and off the court.  That’s why in my mixed doubles partner ad, I said I wanted a partner who demonstrates good sportsmanship, has a positive attitude, and never stops fighting for the win.  I want to win, but most importantly, I want to be around people whose company I enjoy.

I think that for the most part, I am the person I strive to be on the court.  In fact, I find it easier to be the person I want to be in tennis than I do in real life.  But because I don’t want to win at all costs, combined with the excessive empathy problem, I’d probably reduce my chances of survival by doing something like helping someone who has no chance of making it.

But then again, we never know how things are going to turn out.  We don’t know if we’re going to win or lose, survive or perish–because all the factors aren’t in our control.  So I try to make choices that I can live with, regardless of the outcome.

Thanksgiving

There was a time when I questioned whether miracles really occur.  I could not understand why God would intervene in some people’s lives but not others in a way that appealed to my sense of justice.  Now I realize that you don’t have to understand why for something to be true.

As I await my parents’ arrival, I can’t help but remember when they came to my house for Thanksgiving two years ago.  At the time, my mom was obsessed with learning how to type to prepare for the dreaded electronic medical records implementation. 

My dad was still in the midst of the worst depression he’d ever experienced.  He was somewhat better than he had been two years prior, but still a shell of the larger-than-life person I had known all my life.  Still, in his compromised state he decided that he, too, would practice typing.  I was encouraged by this, because in his darker moments he barely had the motivation to exist.

Several hours later, he asked me for help.  When I looked at what he was working on, I saw that he had been trying to log on to his email account all of that time.  I wanted to cry.  But at the same time, I admired his determination to master the computer, even though he was no longer practicing medicine and did not have to worry about electronic medical records, and even though his cognitive abilities were greatly diminished. 

I write a lot of blog posts about my affinity for challenges.  It is definitely something that has been instilled in me by my parents, whose favorite motivational poster says “Don’t quit.”  On that day two years ago I was thankful that the depression had not destroyed my dad’s fight.  He was still a warrior, albeit a wounded one.

Last year around Thanksgiving, somehow the depression completely lifted after 3 years, even though nothing had changed in his meds.  It’s as though his personality finally broke through and he was exactly the way he had always been, which was essentially in a sustained hypomanic state.  It was truly like seeing someone come back to life. 

These days, he is constantly on FB, commenting on people’s pictures and posting copies of every photo album my parents own.  In fact, the only reason he is not on FB right now is because he is on his way to Knoxville.

My dad’s recovery is nothing short of a miracle, and every time I think of him I say a prayer of thanks–even though he tells me that I need to lose weight and gives me appetite suppressants.  Actually, he read that post, so now he tells me I look good.  So I’m thankful for blogs, too!

And wouldn’t you know that my parents showed up right as I finish this blog post.  God has perfect timing. 

I even have a picture for you today.