Saturday, June 28, 2014

“Family... a group experience of love and support.”*

“My friends and family are my support system. They tell me what I need to hear, not what I want to hear and they are there for me in the good and bad times. Without them I have no idea where I would be and I know that their love for me is what's keeping my head above the water.” ~ Kelly Clarkson

Whenever I talk with a new client about recovery, or lead a group on the tenets of recovery, one of the main tenets I present is maintaining a healthy support system. Based on an outline my boss created about what everyone’s ‘treatment plan’ should be after being diagnosed with a mental illness, the list includes taking our medication,  sleeping and eating well, and exercise before touching on the support system. There are other things, too: do enjoyable things, manage stress, be your own advocate, make small and easily achievable goals, be thankful, and help others.

I pretty much agree with that list of steps that aid us in recovery and to a place of wellness and stability. Maybe it was arbitrarily drawn up, though medication is almost always the first and best step in getting any thought or mood disorder under control. But if it were me, that bit about the support system would rank right up there with the meds.

For me, taking meds was not enough. When my depression and anxiety was at its worst, the meds only took the edge off things. Maybe I quit sleeping all day. Maybe I was able to go the grocery store. But there was no enjoyment or sense of accomplishment. There was no “yay, me” in my heart…just a resolve that something had to be done and I did it. Mundane. Ho hum.

When my husband decided to leave, my parents invited me to move home with them in order to give me time to recover from my many psychiatric hospitalizations that year. I was on my meds, but still unstable, and I took them up on their offer. My in-laws came and loaded up my few belongings on a trailer and brought me home.

It was overwhelming at first. My brothers were here. Their wives. My nieces…some of whom I’d never met before. We’d all get together on Sunday afternoons for a big dinner, loud conversations, and games. No one pried into what was going on in my head or with my marriage, but they were available to listen and to ask if I was doing okay whenever I’d start to pull in to myself.

For the first few months of being home with my parents, I would wait until everyone left Sunday evening and then go crash in my room. It was wonderful and exhausting all at the same time. Sometimes, I didn’t make it until everyone left before I had to retreat for a while, but no one complained.

All they had for me…always…was the amazing acceptance of me…wounded, bleeding, trying to heal and act normally and not quite pulling it off. They gave me love…quiet, with many hugs, lots of affirmations, and with lots of laughter.
I gradually became better…more able to interact…able to keep up…ready to lead the charge even from time to time.

 Finally, I was back on my feet. Back to my old self. Happy again. Confident in new areas. Ready to try new things.

And again, my family had my back. Cheering and supporting me enthusiastically as I went back to school and pursued a degree in Creative Writing. Doing the same as I accepted a position with the local mental health authority and started working with other people who have depression, bipolar, and anxiety. There’s never been a time when I have felt unloved by my family.

Added to that are my friends who have always been encouraging to me. Willing to tell me when they are concerned about me; willing to ask questions when they don’t understand something I’m doing or saying. 

Beyond that, there have been case managers, counselors, and psychiatrists...all working with me in my pursuit of recovery...of living well with my bipolar disorder...of keeping me as symptom-free as possible, but able to cope with the symptoms as we’ve waited for new meds to work, too.

I’m one of the lucky ones, though. I have this huge support system at the ready whenever things start to go south. And believe me, after working with people in the public mental health sector for the past year and a half, I know how very, very lucky I am.

So many people with a mental health diagnosis come from severely dysfunctional families. Negligent or nonexistent parents. Siblings dealing with their own diagnoses and dramas. Symptoms so bad that they have little insight into what they need to do to stop some of the behaviors that keep them in their illness.

It’s harder to tell people like those that they need a support system. They’ve never had one and don’t know how to build one.

So we, as peers, start outlining what we can do to help them navigate the system. We emphasize the role of their case managers and doctors in getting stable. We share the stories of when we were in our illness, and show them, by example, what recovery can look like. We become a small part of their beginning support system.

No one has to be without someone to encourage them, to believe in them, to cheer them on to obtaining the goals and dreams they have for themselves. 

I am one of the very lucky ones. Maybe you are, too. If you are, may you join me in being willing to hold out hope and encourage others that aren’t so lucky.

 * Marianne Williamson

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

"...the meaning of life is probably the journey..."*

There is a recent study that says the anticipation of an event like a vacation or trip is often more enjoyable than the event itself. That may well be true. How often do we plan for a party, a family reunion, a long trip, and then spend weeks or months outlining the details, counting down the days, and daydreaming about how things will be?

Even the best outcome – and there are many great outcomes from all of our planning and work – does not build that same excitement as the anticipation does.

So perhaps it is true then that the meaning of life is in the journey...the getting to milestones and plateaus, the meandering through woods and riding along the twisty curves of mountain roads...not the graduation, the tenure, the historical marker or the tourist town.

The meaning of life...if it is in the the accumulation of experiences and interactions rather than of things. The meaning is found in conversations, in hugs, in giving and receiving love, in writing letters, in forging friendships and relationships that ground us when storms buffet and help us soar when the winds of life are favorable. It is not in grand houses, wealth, the best cars and toys. All of those things have their place, but they are the bones of a life and not the spirit.

We are all on a journey...some to farther horizons than others...and none of us walks alone. We all touch some small way or other...almost every day. A smile or comment to acknowledge another person can have the most profound effect on someone whose path is particularly difficult. Spending time to help someone in need...when giving objects would be easier and less demanding of self...can impact a life for years...even forever.

As you go your way in life, be mindful of the things you do and say...savor the moments that make up your happiness...and don’t mind the things that will never remain with you in the end.

*Charisma Carpenter

Friday, June 20, 2014

"Just because the past taps you on the shoulders, doesn’t mean you have to look back." *

Yesterday, I complained that I felt disconnected. I felt unmoored and adrift. I was physically and psychically uncomfortable. I wanted to talk with my lover; I wanted people to reply on facebook more quickly than they were; I wanted to talk to clients and make some profound statement that would somehow touch them and give them something to hold on to. I wanted to make an impact...and I wanted acknowledgement that I do make an impact.

I was needy. And small. And frustrated with myself for being so.

But I think I nailed down the reason for my disconnectedness. It is anxiety-related and fraught with some self-doubt and insecurity. I have to remember that my fears are generally unfounded and not let my imagination run away with me. I have to remember to be tethered to the positive things I know to be true rather than be quick to attach to things that may not be anything at all. I also have to trust and believe in other people.

In my first marriage, I was often put down. For just about everything. My weight. My lack of housewifely skills. My laugh. My sense of humor. My desires. My dreams. My looks. My attempts at intimacy...emotional and physical.

In my second marriage, I could almost do no wrong...except that to have or want or desire anything outside of him and us was wrong.

I thought I was over all the repercussions of that. But the truth seems to be that while the past was put away, it was not done away with. It had no impact on me because I was not in a relationship. Like a muscle that does not ache until it is over-exercised, my past was merely resting somewhere in my head, waiting for a chance to start playing back old memories and feelings.

So I have love in my life now. A man who does not make fun of me when I get silly, even if he can't quite go all the way with me into my silliness. A man who is thrilled for me that I am losing weight ONLY because I am thrilled with losing weight. A man who shares my humor, my appetite for life and loving, and my housekeeping skills. A man who neither rejects me outright because his own time is too precious to himself nor demands all my attention because he is so insecure that he needs constant reassurance that he still exists.

And it is apparently scary.

To a part of me that is not used to being treated well, it is apparently a daunting thing to be loved and cared for just because I'm me.

And so the past comes up and tries to poke holes in my happiness. And the past me who was so attention-starved that any scrap would do slinks in the door.

The past few days, memories of what Pat has told me about myself...about himself...about us...were not as firmly held in my heart as the old insecurities about whether or not I was worthy, wanted, acceptable. I was scared I was being smothering, so I didn't ask to talk. I cut back on my texts. I reigned myself in...maybe not well, but I know I did try. The harder I tried not to seem needy, the needier I felt and the more upset with myself I became. The me of the past wanted to text and say, "Are we okay?" though I had no indication that we weren't. I wanted to say, "Have I upset you?" though, again, there was no indication that I had or that he was even upset with anything.

I worked hard to get to the bottom of my find a way to get comfortable with feeling needy and not doing all my old behaviors that reflected it. It was difficult, and I don't know to what degree I succeeded, but at least this time I tried.

The past is apparently not gone away completely. It still whispers and taps me on the shoulder, trying to get my attention and drag me back where I lived so long.

But I don't have to look back anymore.

I know that with most of me.

I just need to remember it better.

* Facebook meme

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

“I fell in love the way you fall asleep…slowly, then all at once.” *

Admitting to being in love, at the age of 51, seems an odd thing to do. The world does not recognize great loves that start in the middle of life…looking at the sunset years. The world delights in painting lovers are young…so very young…and yet the young seldom have a concept of what truly loving someone is really all about.

When you are 51 (as I am) and 55 (as Pat is) loving someone is more than giddy feelings (though it involves that), more than physical attraction (though there is that), and more than all the syrupy lyrics of all the best love songs (though I’ve been inspired to write poetry again these last few months).

I read a meme this weekend that said mature love is about choice.

And there is definitely that.

After years of being single for both of us, we have chosen one another for companionship. We have chosen to put the other’s needs as equal to our own and sometimes above our own because we want to. We choose to make changes in ourselves that make us better people – not FOR the other person – but BECAUSE OF the other person.

I have known Pat for almost ten years. We met in an online support group for people with anxiety and panic disorders. We hit it off almost from the start. We met in person for the first time about nine years ago when he drove through Indiana on his way home from Illinois just to meet me. We’d been talking a lot online and some on the phone, and we wanted to at least say we’d met in person.

We had a good visit. Short, but good. I liked him as a friend and he returned that sentiment.

And we kept talking off and on over the years. On the same websites, friending each other on facebook, chatting online while watching our favorite TV shows 1000 miles apart.

We’d talked through unemployment, job changes, depressions, my divorce, my college career at the late age of 46. We’d talked each other down from anxiety and panic attacks in the past...helped each other see what is and is not real in our perceptions of life around us.

During that time, we came close…a couple of times…to admitting that the feelings we had for one another were something a little more than friendship. But we’d dance close to admitting something stronger, then move away back to our own side of the dance floor and act as if nothing had happened.

I don’t know what changed.

I don’t know how we went from talking sometimes to almost every day. From the occasional (months apart) phone calls to almost daily FaceTime.

I don’t know what it was that “clicked”…but like Hazel Grace in “The Fault in Our Stars”, this falling in love with Pat seemed to come on slowly…and then was all at once just there.

We are enjoying getting to know our daily selves in our talks and online chats. We are getting used to each other’s moods. We are taking trips together and planning more to see how we get along in person.

We are 51 and 55. We did not invent love…but what we have is new with us.
When most people are planning their retirement and not looking beyond their twilight years, Pat and I find ourselves with more to look forward to. We are serious about our health in a way that we might not have been before because now there is something beyond the 50s to look forward to.

Like Hazel Grace and Gus, in TFIOS, we may not have long decades spanning out in front of us as a possibility…but there is an infinity between 0 and 1, and a bigger one between 0 and 2.

Whatever bit of infinity we have in common…

It is enough.

*John Green, “The Fault in Our Stars”

Friday, June 13, 2014

“Supposing it didn’t…”*

“Supposing a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?”

“Supposing it didn’t,” said Pooh after careful thought.

Piglet was comforted by this…

As a person with an anxiety disorder, I’m used to having my mind race to the worst-case scenario with the smallest of hints that something could go wrong. For that matter, I’m used to having my mind rush off to “what if this bad thing happens now” even when things are going well.

I’m not alone in this.

Many people, with and without anxiety, have a hard time accepting a happiness, a grace, a blessing of time and love when it comes to us. Maybe we are jaded…or have been hurt too much (or just enough)…that we think all silver linings come with a dark cloud.

This past week, I had the most amazing vacation with the man I love. It was six days that we had together.

At first, I thought how quickly the time would pass. I thought, even in the midst of doing some pleasant thing or having some adventure, how much I was going to miss him when he went back home. But wise man that he is, he cautioned me to just enjoy the moment. Each moment.

And hard as it was for this anxiety-prone, what-about-the-future, scared-it’s-all-to-good-to-be-true girl to do…I made that happen.

When my thoughts would race ahead, I would reign them in. Difficult at first, it became easier.

And an amazing thing happened.

Instead of hours rushing by like minutes…like I’d feared…I found moments that felt like hours.

Time spent lingering over coffee, browsing the news, and holding hands felt like all day. Yet we still had time to ride the motorcycle, shop in the little tourist town we were in, find lunch at the place Everybody Said We Should Try, and have a long, lazy afternoon and evening that stretched into the stars.

It’s over now. It was more than a week ago. That time has been the time that has flown by…when I’ve been busy with work, home, and friends.
But that time away in the cabin was drawn out like a silken spider web…strong and taut and ethereal…because I chose to live in the now. To savor the simple elegance of each moment.

And nothing bad happened, either.

We enjoyed each other’s company. We didn’t have an accident on the motorcycle. I didn’t make an idiot of myself getting on or off the bike, though I’m still not perfect at it.

We laughed, loved, and lived in the moments and racked up scores of memories to see us through until we get to spend time together again.

Had I fretted the whole time about how quickly it was going or wondered what could go wrong at any given second, I would have missed so much.

I’m glad for the wisdom of my love and Pooh…who teach me to think counter to how my anxiety would lead.

* A.A. Milne

Thursday, June 12, 2014

“Faith: It does not make things easy; it makes them possible.”*

Depression has a way of sapping all the good things out of life. And it doesn’t have to be depression that comes about because of anything. No event, no maltreatment, no change has to occur for those of us prone to depression to fall into pits of despair and think we will never find our way out.

Tempting thoughts, those.

“I will never find my out.”

“It will always be this way.”

“Nothing will ever change.”

For a while, it was only because I didn’t want to have anyone think less of me that I clung to life with a hardly tenacious hold. I didn’t want to let anyone down, sadden anyone; make anyone ever wonder what they could have done to have convinced me to keep on living. A sense of guilt or obligation can be a powerful thing, evidently.

After a while, stubbornness wasn’t enough and I turned for help to the medical professionals. I took medication. I received counseling. I joined support groups. I was a “getter” – someone that “got help” from others. I looked to those with more knowledge and expertise to guide me through a maze of depressive episodes.

I’d like to say that I bounced back. But when one is depressed, one is deflated. There is no bouncing.

There can, however, be a slow re-inflation.

The meds? The professional care? The support from family and friends?

It all has a place in recovery.

There have been times in my life when my faith has been small…weak…almost (but not quite) non-existent. My spiritual faith has faltered. My faith in others has been shattered. My faith in myself has dwindled down to almost nothing.

But it never died.

Always, there was a spark of faith…a glimmer of hope…that there would one day be more than the obstacles I could see, the darkness in which I was engulfed, and the mind-numbing dreariness I felt.

Today, about seven years out from my last deep depression, I find myself not only in a stable place…but standing firmly on a foundation of faith.

Faith not just in meds or doctors or others who have believed for me all these years, but faith, too, in myself.

I set some goals and achieved them. I stepped out into the unknown and landed on my feet. I stretched out my hand from the merry-go-round and grasped the brass ring.

Good things are happening.

With my job. With my friends. With my family. In my heart.

Some things are happening that I could never have expected.

I had faith that things could get better…but even I couldn’t have dreamed what things might come when I was willing to step out in faith.

Indeed the verse is true for me. Faith has been there…however much in small measure…and it has not magically made things easy.

But it has made a rich, full life possible.

My friends, if you are in darkness, know that someone else has been there, too. We…I…hold out a candle…a flame of faith…in the night for you until you can walk again in the light of day.

It will come.

Have faith.

*Luke 1:37

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

"Dreams can come true again When everything old is new again..."*

Wow! If that's not a true lyric, I don't know what is.

I just turned age I would have once thought "old". I remember being little and learning my grandmother was 50...and she was ancient.

But here I am, 51 years old, and my life has been nothing but change, change, change the past year.

As mentioned before, I did graduate in July of last year. I'm sometimes slow, but I'm writing again now that I don't HAVE to do it for school. I have been writing letters and poetry, and bouncing around ideas for some short stories and blog posts. It's good to be coming back into my stride again with the words I've always loved.

I'm still working for the local MHMR and have been to even more trainings. I'm getting the hang of packing light, learning lots, and relaxing in hotel rooms after class is over. I've been to a national conference for people with all kinds of mental health diagnoses and came away with more information and ideas of what it means to live in recovery.

I have fallen in love with a dear friend of mine whom I've known for almost ten years. We just had our first vacation together where we both enjoyed many firsts. He rode his motorcycle 1000 miles to see me and to teach me how to ride a bike. From a girl who has always been terrified of them, I have turned into a woman who loves riding on them. My mounts and dismounts are still far from graceful, but I'm doing it. My love gives me a thumbs up and a big grin whenever I perfect a move off of the bike and I laugh like crazy when we speed up on the road. I've gone from holding on to the handgrips so hard that my hands have lost feeling, to riding comfortably with my hands on his back or around his waist. F

New is how I feel. Not old and ready to retire, but young at heart and ready to meet new adventures and face any challenges that life might bring. I've sometimes been one to settle for the status quo. Okay...I've almost always been one to settle for the status not rock the not try new things. But this journey that started when I set my mind to going back to school in my forties just keeps getting better and better.

Here's to being "new again"!

*"Everything Old is New Again" by Peter Allen and Carole Bayer Sager