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Defending Hope

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Guess what the best predictor of suicide is? Here are some possibilities, in multiple choice form, since I used to be a psychology professor.

  1. a diagnosis of depression
  2. a diagnosis of anxiety
  3. feelings of helplessness
  4. feelings of hopelessness
  5. all of the above
  6. none of the above

I just threw in those last 2 options because students hated those. They are a bit sadistic, I have to admit.

The correct answer is…#4. Hopelessness.

I have only recently become aware of Hope. Among the cast of characters in my mind, like the Inner Critic and the Drill Sergeant, you’d think discovering Hope would have been a pleasant surprise. But I was actually annoyed with her. I had been calling her by a different name: Delusions of Grandeur.

In a previous post on optimism, I defended its merits even when it believes in something that is statistically unlikely to happen, like winning that lottery. Or that you’re going to win when you’re down 0-6, 0-5, 0-40 in a tennis match. I don’t feel like I risk too much by being optimistic, because when I lose, it’s really not that devastating. I wasn’t expected to win.

I don’t feel the same way about hope. Hope wants me to believe in things when the stakes are high. She wants me to put my dreams out there, knowing that they may get dashed. To open my heart up, knowing it might get broken. To believe in something, knowing that I might become disillusioned.

I blame a lot of my failed relationships on Hope. I yell at her whenever I think about the pain I’ve endured. How foolish she was. What the hell were you thinking? That was a terrible idea! Why did you not heed the warning signs? Why didn’t you protect me?

That’s why sometimes I am not so kind to her. Especially after I’ve been hurt. Hope must die! I must kill her off! So she hides from me. Slips between the cushions of the couch and throws pillows over herself so I won’t find her. Because I’m really not that thorough in my vacuuming.

Sometimes she tries to placate me. Pretends she agrees with me when I say things like, what’s the point of trying to get a book published? No one will probably read it, anyway. But then she tricks me into writing another blog post. Like tonight. Maybe it will make you feel better, she says. That’s the goal, after all. Not fame and fortune. It’s meant to be for you. Except she still secretly believes I will become a famous writer someday.

The truth is, I need Hope. I mean, she thinks I’m great. How can I kill off a part of myself that thinks I’m great? And she inspires me to do great things. It is because of Hope that I became a therapist. Without her, I would never have been able to help anyone.

And even when she breaks my heart and leaves me disillusioned, she convinces me that things will get better. That is the thing that keeps people alive, even in the midst of depression, after all. The hope that things will get better. So Hope has actually saved my life many times.

So I guess I’ll try to be nicer to her.

 

Walking the Line

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They say there’s a fine line between creativity and insanity. I would actually draw the line between sanity and insanity, with creativity and insanity on the same side. Sane people would be on the other side of the line. The further you get from the line, the more extreme you become.

For example, people who are creative might be the depressed artists who use writing, painting, music, or whatever to express their pain. But the further you get from the line, the more likely you are to lose touch with reality. The more likely you are to think that things like suicide might be a good idea.

People who are on the sane side might not have experienced depression, but they can imagine what it might be like and have empathy for people who are depressed. The further you get from the line, the more likely you are to believe that depression isn’t real. It’s just an excuse that lazy people use to avoid taking responsibility for their lives.

I would say that most of the time I’m pretty good at walking the line, but sometimes I get pulled over to the insanity side. Usually because I’m feeling someone else’s pain. Because my emotions are pretty intense already. So once they are combined with someone else’s feelings, it becomes too much. Then my demons seize upon my vulnerable state and try to convince me that my pain will never end. Why go on living? Follow me into the woods. You’ll be free from your pain over here.

Writing requires being able to walk the line. I have lots of entries in my journal from the times when I first started to feel depressed but none during the times when I was in the depths of despair. Because at that point, all my energy was focused on survival. If I wrote at all when I was happy, I usually didn’t have much to say because I was too busy enjoying life to have time for introspection.

I’ve been trying to keep my balance over the past month, but sometimes I have to cross over to the insanity side to bring people back. It’s a risk to my mental health, but what can I do? It’s like going into a burning building to save someone you love. How can you stand there and watch it burn down without at least trying?

Maybe it takes more than one person to bring people back to the sane side. Maybe you have to form a human chain like you do in a tug of war, where someone is anchored at the line. That way the person who has to go deep into the woods won’t get lost. They have people who are holding on to them, pulling for them, making sure they’re able to get back. That way demons can’t win.

So maybe I need to start recruiting for a team, just like I do in tennis. Find a few sane people, some people who can walk the line, and a few who are adventurous enough to cross the line so I can save someone who is lost.

If only I could find some sane people.

 

 

Journaling, Part 2

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There is this space that exists between the relationship that you’re in and the one you dream of. The land of if only. If only he would call more. Compliment me. Say I love you. Put me first. Then everything would be perfect.

I lived in that space for a long time. But it required a lot of denial and distortion. Like a really extreme version of tunnel vision. If I looked at the relationship through one eye and squinted so that everything was sort of blurry, it would faintly resemble something that might give me what I needed.

Until I opened my eyes again.

I often say that the thing I miss the most about being in a relationship is having someone to share my day with. Someone to witness my life–even the mundane things. But recently, when I thought back on my previous relationships, I realized that I actually haven’t had someone to listen to me in a long time, even when I was in a relationship.

At the time I was angry with them for not wanting to listen, but after the relationship ended I was angry with myself for not seeing what was there–or not there–all along.

I so enjoyed reading old journal entries last month when I was feeling down that I’ve been writing every day since then. Not only does it help in the moment, but it provides my future self with ample entertainment.

At first journaling felt like a lame substitute for talking to another person. But now I look forward to it. It has become my favorite nighttime ritual. I keep a running tally throughout the day of the things I want to talk about, just like I did when I was in a relationship.

And there are lots of advantages to writing about my day rather than telling someone about it. Like:

If I want to talk about a dream where I ordered a burger at some diner and they wouldn’t let me add anything other than cheese because that would be too fancy, I can retell every insignificant detail of the dream without boring myself.

Or if I want to talk about every random association I had about this story I heard on the radio about this guy in China who jumped in the river on his wedding day when he saw his bride-to-be for the first time, I can do so without seeming obsessive. (Was he trying to kill himself? Did he still marry her after he got out of the water? Were his parents pissed off? That must have made the bride feel like crap.)

Or if I want to talk about how I cried in session yesterday because I felt my client’s pain, I can do so without worrying about violating confidentiality. And without judging myself for getting so emotional.

Or if I write about the exact same problem for the hundredth time, even though I’ve written about it for pages and pages, I can give myself permission to do so. For as many times and as many pages as I need to, until I no longer feel the need to talk about it.

And when I need to practice self-compassion without being judged or criticized, I can give myself permission to list every single thing that is hurting me in that moment and respond to myself by affirming that this is pain. This is suffering. And I am sorry that you are suffering.

And at some point in the future, when I have forgotten the details of each day, I will delight in rereading these entries–even the sad ones. Because they capture my experience in the moment so perfectly. Because they help me put my life in perspective. Because I’m interested in what that person has to say. She fascinates me. She reminds me a lot of myself.

So now I no longer worry about when I will meet someone who will take pleasure in hearing about all the mundane details of my life. Because I can give myself exactly what I need right now, in this moment.

If You Don’t Keep a Journal, I Highly Recommend It

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I was feeling sad this week so I did what I always do when I’m sad: go back and read old journal entries to try to get some perspective on my current situation.

I don’t know how to put into words what a gift my journal has been to myself. It’s a surreal experience to remember all of the events I write about but to also feel as though I am reading my story for the first time. Here are a few of the things that I have learned about myself:

1 I think I’m hilarious. Maybe no one else would laugh out loud while reading my journal, but my jokes are funny to me.

2. I have been depressed a lot. My journals are biased in that I have more to say when I’m depressed than I do when I’m happy, but still. There are a lot of journal entries.

3. I really do need to trust my intuition. Some of the things I said were downright prophetic, but I had no idea at the time I was saying something important.

4. I’m a positive person. Which seems incompatible with being someone who has been depressed for so much of her life, but the proof is right there, in writing.

It was six years ago that I had my most severe episode. Last night I was reading my entries from around that time. Below is the entry from the week before I got depressed:

March 10, 2009

OK, so I’m finally reading this book on Life Coaching that I’ve had for years, and the first exercise is to make a list of what we want out of life. That seems like a pretty good idea. So rather than using my journal for focusing on the negative, maybe I can also use it to focus on how to make my life look more like I want it to.

I want to write a book.
I want to get paid to do public speaking—the motivational kind.
I want to help people live lives that are more fulfilling.
I want to be surrounded by people who remind me of what is good about myself.
I want to continue to improve as a tennis player.
I want to continue to have time for the things that I love.
I want to keep spending time w/ my friends.
I want to get better at enduring my feelings.
I want to be a more compassionate person.
I want to have more faith in myself.
I want to have some kind of successful business that gives me more freedom.
I want to be in good shape.
I want a personal chef!
I want to continue to develop my spiritual side.
I want to be loving in all of my relationships, including w/ myself.
I want to have more money in savings.
I want to have a better sex life.
I want to be a good wife and be in a healthy marriage.
I want my brothers to be happy.
I want my friends to be happy.
I want to approach life without so much fear.
I want to feel comfortable with whatever decision I make about children.
I want my ankle to heal!
I want to be comfortable with myself.
I want to have an impact on the world.
I want all my teams to win!
I want to be able to enjoy the present for as many moments as possible.
I want to feel like an expert in something.
I want to be wise.
I want to be able to make people feel.
I want people to love me and see me as lovable.
I want to believe that I’m lovable.
I want to believe in myself more.
I want to be a good therapist and teacher.
I want to be able to have a good balance b/t being honest and helpful and being intrusive and critical.
I want to be able to ask for help when I need it and accept it lovingly when it’s given.
I want to be more forgiving.
I want to be able to let go of anger, pain, doubt, fear, anxiety, and frustration.
I want to be able to age gracefully.
I want to be able to sleep when I want to!
I want to be creative.
I want to sing.
I want to spend time with my family.
I want to be able to be more appreciative of all of the wonderful things in my life.
I want my life to be meaningful.
I want to pee!
I want to be able to follow the serenity prayer.

That pretty much sums up what my blog is about. Which brings me to the last thing that I am reminded about myself:

I am the same person I have always been, striving to be the same person I’ve always wanted to be. 

200 Posts!

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You know what I love about blogging? Unlike birthdays and New Years, I feel different as I reach each landmark. In honor of my 200th post, I thought I would take this opportunity to reflect on what I’ve learned up to this point. Here are the highlights:

1. Vulnerability works. I started this blog in part as an experiment to see if sharing our vulnerabilities really makes people feel more connected to one another. The answer is an emphatic yes. Every time I read posts warning of trollers whose purpose is to write mean comments on your blog, I brace myself for the cruelty. But perhaps it’s harder to be cruel to someone who has already shared their weaknesses with you.

Perhaps there is less of a need to tear someone down when you know they feel just as flawed as you do.

2. Compassion works. You’re not supposed to judge how well you are practicing compassion, so I will just say that at this point, criticism is still my default. However, the more I practice, the more amazed I am at how powerful it is. MLK day was last Monday, and I think about how someone tried to strike down the message of peace and love. But that has only multiplied exponentially the power of Martin Luther King’s message.

Hate might be easier, but love is stronger than hate, so it is well worth the practice.

3. Prayer works. Every time I pray, I throw in a caveat that I totally understand if my prayer isn’t answered, given how trivial my concerns are in the grand scheme of things. And every time, I am surprised that God cares about my problems, big and small. I hate to admit it, but when I’ve heard people say that in the past, I looked down on them. But now I know it’s true. I guess if my parents care about my problems, why wouldn’t God?

It’s good to be reminded that my suffering is never trivial.

4. I love being alone. I have always been one of those people who had to be in a relationship, even if it was a crappy one. Of all my faults and failings, this is the one I have been the most ashamed of. But it turns out that I am happier when I am not in one. I admit, the first year was hard. I imagine it’s sort of how it feels to go through detox. Which gives me a better appreciation of how hard it is to overcome an addiction.

But now that I am “clean,” I have never felt better.

5. I am a writer! Perhaps the biggest philosophical question in the blogosphere is when you can call yourself writer. When you are published? When you receive your first paycheck? When you have declared yourself a writer? For me, it was when I discovered that many writers are night owls. They are always in their heads. They are plagued by demons that tell them that their writing sucks. They write even when they don’t get paid or published. Even when they find out that fame and fortune are unlikely.

I’m not even sure if I care about publishing a book anymore. Or about trying to make my blog popular. I like the freedom of writing about what I want when I want. I write because the joy is in the act of writing itself.

Roadmaps

Road maps

I have a special guest blogger today! She is one of the members of our Body Image Support Group, and I am so thankful that she is a part of it. In almost every session, I find an excuse to make her share her list of reasons for why she did not want to count calories because I love the list so much. I asked her if she would be willing to write a post for my blog so that all of those readers out there who struggle with mental illness can see that there is light at the end of the tunnel, regardless of how long that tunnel may seem.

***

It is a sad truth in our society that many people struggle with eating disorders. Moreover, just like any other mental illness, its spectrum is broad and deep. It is a big city that some people travel to and then leave after a short stay, while some set up residence in its limits and never leave. It is also full of invisible smog that suffocates and kills. I know this place like I know myself. I wore that citizenship like a second skin for nearly ten years of my young life.

I know the city like I grew up there, because in many ways, I did. My mind spent its adolescence wandering the streets of self-hatred and the alleys of obsession. It was easy to forget that anything else existed. I did make half-hearted attempts to recover once or twice in my teenage years, but these trips weren’t long—my permanent address remained the same.

It wasn’t until two things happened to me in college that set in motion my decision to leave and permanently depart from the city of this illness. One: I found my passion, writing. Two: I started going to therapy. Writing became a creative, constructive obsession that helped me face and make meaning from my eating disorder. Therapy allowed it to bubble to the surface and become something that was a crucial roadblock in my development of an authentic self, rather than a part of my identity as a person. These elements combined to free my mind to the rest of the world. As a result, I have opened up more to my peers, my surroundings, and the prevalence of eating disorders and their immense harm at my small university and in Western culture.

Therapy and creative writing both helped me put my eating disorder into words. In doing so, I realized that not only could I put it into words, but I could also fight it with words. Language—what we tell others, what we tell ourselves, what we see and choose to believe as truth—is the most powerful tool there is.

Here’s one of the ways that positive, empowered, truthful language has saved me: as I neared the end of the recovery process this summer, as I learned to love my body and myself, one thing that I had to work extremely hard on was not counting calories. Even as I had gained weight, even after I abandoned my eating disorder, my mind still wanted to walk on its sidewalks—they are straight, even, and predictable. They are safe.

Yet, a bigger part of me knew that I was lying to myself, that counting calories is like living in the suburbs of a city to which I never want to return. I had to force my brain to stop counting calories, and it was one of the hardest things that I have ever done. It was mentally difficult not because of emotions or intellectual depth, but rather because the sheer force of habit is a brick wall that is nearly impossible to scale. But I did it. One thing that helped—or perhaps, the main thing—was the creation of this list. The list started as a statement that I heard from a friend, and it developed over several weeks. The list is a roadmap for departure from my eating disorder, a map that only gives directions one way. The day that I decided to stop counting calories for good was the day I was truly recovered.

Reading this list every morning became a ritual that replaced the obsession of calorie counting. It nourished my mind like the food and love that I had gone for so long without. As I continue to think about combating unrealistic standards for women and other causes of my and many others’ body image struggles, I keep this list in mind. Though at this point I do consider myself fully recovered, this list reminds me the importance of not turning back. In continuing to write about eating disorders and other issues, the empowerment of this list remains with me, too. The list is specific to me, but it also isn’t.  It is my hope that it can resonate with others, too.

  • Because my body isn’t a project.
  • Because my body has a voice.
  • Because I am not my mom.
  • Because I might have daughters.
  • Because my body deserves kindness.
  • Because I want to be able to say honestly, “I am over my eating disorder.”
  • Because food isn’t a reward or a punishment.
  • Because being skinny doesn’t get the kind of love or attention that I truly want or need.
  • Because being skinny doesn’t result in anything that is good for my mind or my soul.
  • Because I can’t think about other things or be my best self if I don’t eat enough.
  • Because I shouldn’t waste thoughts on calories.
  • Because I need and deserve nourishment.
  • Because I expect others to respect and to be kind to my body, so I should respect and be kind to my body, too.
  • Because growth is necessary.
  • Because life is short.
  • Because even if it feels impossible, the alternative isn’t an option that I can live with. Life is for living, not controlling. I can eat what I want.
  • Because no one else really cares what my body looks like.
  • Because I am a strong woman.
  • Because it is a mental, chemical problem that I can’t just wish or talk away.
  • Because I am a hard worker.
  • Because counting calories and controlling food never results in ANYTHING valuable.
  • Because thinness is not part of my identity. Neither is smallness.
  • Because I would disappoint people who might respect or believe in me.
  • Because I don’t want to trigger someone else.
  • Because it’s not just about eating disorders, it’s about inequality, which I can fight IF I start by confronting myself.
  • Because the pain of change is better than the pain of staying the same.
  • Because I believe in change. I believe that people can change for the better.

Annie Persons is a senior English major and Creative Writing minor at Washington and Lee University. She enjoys writing and hopes to teach one day.

Running My Own Race

I am a terrible runner. That’s why I decided to take up running 16 years ago. I like to challenge myself to do things I suck at. I wanted to prove to myself that I could run for more than 5 minutes. My husband at the time, being the competitive athlete that he was, said he would train with me if we ran a 5K at the end. Which was intimidating, but I liked the idea of having a running partner, so I agreed to do it.

So we started a 10 week program for beginners. By the last week you were supposed to be able to run for 35 minutes. I couldn’t imagine getting to that point, but in the first week you only had to walk for 2 minutes and run for 1 minute for 7 laps, which was totally doable. So I just focused on my goal for that week and trusted that if I did that every week I would be able to run for 35 minutes by the end, whether I could imagine it or not.

We never made it to the last week but we ran the race, anyway. And it was even more embarrassing than I imagined. We were so far behind everyone else that we couldn’t see a single runner ahead of us. We were even behind the police officer who was supposed to follow the last runner, so we missed part of the route and ran past the finish line in the wrong direction. We assumed people were supposed to cheer when you got to the end, but no one did. So we kept running.

The police officer realized his mistake and told us to run around the block to make up for the segment of the route we missed. We came in second to last, and I finished the race in 36 minutes. But I came in 3rd place in my age group because there were only 3 people in it. I love awards, so I was like, woo hoo! When is the next race?

So we ran 5Ks for a few years before I rediscovered tennis. It always hurt, I never got runner’s high, and I hated everything about it except the sense of accomplishment when I crossed the finish line. Sometimes I would place if it were a small race, but I was still always one of the last runners. Women pushing baby carriages would pass me by. Sometimes I was barely in front of the walkers. But I just focused on my goal, which was to run faster than I did in the last race.

I’ve been struggling lately with posts where bloggers say how many followers they have or how many views a particular post has gotten.  It makes me feel like I’m wasting my time. Sometimes it makes me want to give up. But I don’t. Because even if I don’t have a large audience, I know my blog means a great deal to the small group of people who read it. And that small group of people is still larger than the number of clients I see in a week.

Recently I decided that I would use my running mentality whenever I read a post with numbers in it. I will focus on writing and promoting and trust that in the end, I will get to where I want to be. I will focus on my own progress rather than on the people who are passing me by. I will focus on my own race.

So far so good.

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