Monday, May 26, 2014

This is me, too

Here's me swinging on a vine in the jungle of Ecuador. Like my goofy excited face?

Finding this picture the other day was a little shocking. Because even though a lot has happened since this picture (2006), this is me, too. Would the "me" in this picture recognize the "me" sitting here tonight? How wrong would my predictions for the future "me" have been?

When we are awkward and oily in middle school it feels like we will be awkward and oily forever. When our kids are newborns it seems like we will never sleep again (**spoiler alert** this is true, at least for a few years). This spring, in the midst of a mental health crisis/awakening, it is easy to believe that faulty brain chemistry will hinder me for the rest of my life.

You've probably heard that the only constant in life is change. I am not a fan of this statement, though I occasionally repeat it in conversation to sound enlightened. To shelter us from this destabilizing truth, our brains simply pretend as if our future self will be just like our current one. This provides the comfy illusion that we know something (anything!) about our future. Here's how psychologists talk about this:
"Research has shown that we can have considerable difficulty predicting our future requirements because our current emotional states override them. This is called the projection bias and it occurs despite the fact that we have plenty of experience of the problem and its undesirable consequences."  --Jeremy Dean,
Recently I've been feeling not so great, and am trying hard to get better. (Some exciting progress over the last week, more on that later). My recent reality has been mostly about trying to calm down and show up for my life as fully as possible. Thanks to the projection bias, it often feels like my current, rather challenging, predicament spells out my future.

But look at me in this picture! I was--I am--also a person who goes into the jungle and swings on vines! On this trip I was still obsessed with bugs and often irritable and frequently anxious, especially when we got stuck in an oil town for 24 hours with no running water. But I was also brave and joyful and fearless.

Maybe the old and the new me are not so different. It's just us in all our messy beautiful glory. I am still flawed and in pain, and I am still perfect and whole.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Adventures in Therapy

Awhile back I told you about my new therapist. I'm no stranger to therapy; in fact, she is my eighth! But this time it's something different. Her method involves identifying the set of internal characters that together make up the "self." Here's how our sessions typically go:
1) Talk briefly about the goal for today.
2) Close eyes and focus inward.
3) Wait for a character to appear.
4) Try to get that character to notice me. The actual me: the quiet, strong, grown-up self.
5) If that character is in distress (and they usually are), figure out what they need to feel better.
6) Repeat steps 3 through 5 until we run out of time.

This has been a profound and also hilarious process with an increasingly colorful cast of characters. There is the ambitious one, the planner, the artist. There is a joyful one filled with light.

And then there is RED HOTS. This guy is awesome. Since I can't draw, let's work with this muscle man cartoon. Red Hots looks kinda like this guy, with a rounder head. Also no boxing gloves and no fangs. He is a deep, angry red all over, like the color of Red Hots candy (hence the name). His job is to be really really mad. And that's fine, because anger is sometimes necessary and healthy. Red Hots indicates the level of his current anger by shrinking small or growing tall, like Alice in Wonderland.

When I first met him, Red Hots was very very mad at the ambitious character. He told me that the ambitious one has often taken over the whole system, pursuing approval and accolades with no heed to anyone else's needs.

"I hear you," I told him. "I'm at the wheel now and you don't have to worry about being hijacked anymore." Red Hots was a fan of this development. He shrank down in size to register his approval.

I also have a whole host of sensitive characters who are sad and hurt. Many of these have been exiled from my normal consciousness because they are too upset and too upsetting. These sensitive ones are guarded by various protector characters. The more distressed the character, the more protectors it needs. We have already met one of the protectors: the crossing guard. Here are some others: 

THE BLACK ROBOT. This character is literally a boxy robot, dusty black all over. His job is to interpret sensory information. When I met him his dial was on "high," as in "all sensory information should be perceived as a potential threat." Black Robot was protecting an invalid girl character, the most sensitive I've met so far. 

THE IT GUY. Yesterday I encountered the IT guy. At first he was curled up under his desk, despondent and so discouraged about "the data." This data is apparently about my mental health: moods, anxiety level and physical pain. He works on a boxy desktop computer, producing charts and graphs and reams of old school computer print-outs with perforated edges. No one else was tracking the data, he told me, so he volunteered. He had been lonely with no one to hear his reports. As we talked, the IT guy slowly gained energy. He went from lying under the desk, to sitting slouched on the floor, to sitting on an office chair, to standing and gesturing with his hands.

The IT guy looks kinda like this cartoon, with no smile and a paunchy belly almost bursting the buttons of his white shirt. But he was also wearing a dinosaur costume head like the one my son wore to school yesterday (see photo to right). My therapist said: "No wonder he is discouraged. He is all weighed down, with a lot on his mind." As represented by... a costume dinosaur head?!

"We are going downhill fast," the IT guy told me, pointing at a graph on the computer screen. It showed a downward trend during the last 24 hours due to anxiety. I told him I understood, and thank you for noticing. He was unaware that just two days before I was feeling much better, even hopeful, for a whole day! Without a nap and with a minimum of pain! He just nodded, as if to say "That's fine, you're the boss," and sat down to keep working on the data.

THE PRETENDER. After the IT guy was the Pretender. I didn't get much of a visual, but she showed me memories. Times when everything around me had seemed fake, and I felt I had no choice but to conform. How I pretended to be just like the group--whatever group I was in at the time--to avoid rejection and social anxiety. The Pretender worked hard while I was growing up, but also into adulthood, even into the present. My therapist says that the IT guy and the Pretender are both protecting yet another character, one who is still in hiding.

And then it was time to go. I opened my eyes and felt good for the first time that day.


Monday, May 12, 2014

Mental Health Blues

If you are already feeling down today, consider skipping this one. Or maybe keep reading and know that you are not alone in your bad mood.

In January, I cracked a back molar. It happened while chewing gum, but was likely susceptible from many years of unconsciously grinding my teeth during sleep. It took awhile to figure it out, and has caused a lot of physical and emotional pain. Over the past four months, recovery has required muscle relaxants, massage and muscle releases, a root canal, two rounds of antibiotics, a disturbing amount of anti-inflammatories, and a lot of money.

Last week I was back at both the dentist and the endodontist, who have provided compassionate and thorough care during this whole debacle. Their conclusion: the remaining pain radiating from my jaw into my head, ear and down my neck is attributable to TMJ disorder (which for me normally flares up only in December due to holiday stress).

This was, in a way, good news: that the root canal worked, and is healing (if slowly). But if you are familiar with TMJ, or suffer from it yourself, you will know that this is also bad news. TMJ is tough to treat and slow to heal. After the pain goes away, it basically just lies in wait until the next stressful event. In my case, and I suspect in many others, it is just another physical marker of mental unrest.

Thankfully, my body seemed appeased by the TMJ diagnosis, and so the pain has been slowly decreasing. The weekend was awesome. After a lovely evening with friends Saturday night, we rolled into my best Mother's Day to date. Sleeping in! Breakfast parade with gluten-free waffles! Family bike ride! Fancy brunch! Pedicure! And then, miracle of miracles, the kids played quietly together for A FULL HOUR while both of us read our books. Topped off by three decadent episodes of Dexter.

I was hoping to ride this glow for awhile. But today, a phone conversation with a loving friend kicked the pain back into gear. This friend was the first in my orbit to brazenly de-stigmatize mental illness. Through honesty and humor about her own issues, she helped me recognize my own and get some help.

Because she has been there, this friend instinctively reads between the lines. She knows that my life is awesome, but that in the midst of all this awesome I am still unwell. That contrast becomes her call to action.

Today, she listened to my story of the past few months, including the tooth/jaw debacle, persistent low energy and need for emergency naps. I also may have mentioned the fact that I recently swore off attending child birthday parties because they are too loud. And we didn't even cover the acid reflux, or the fact that I often wake in the morning with my fists clenched.

My friend expressed her concern approximately as follows:
"Your life is kick-ass but you feel like shit. You cracked your own tooth from clenching your jaw. Your experience of the world is not normal, and it is not YOU; it is a chemical imbalance. You need a lot more medicine than you are currently taking, from an excellent psychiatrist."
Her level of concern is a bit shocking, but also reassuring. She understands too well my related mental and physical pain. She knows that I can get better, and won't let me pretend I'm okay.

I have been trying hard to get better. I will keep working at it, for myself as well as my husband and kids. I know that medicine is not the only answer, but maybe it is AN answer. 

As I write this, the pain is ebbing, and there is a bit more space and peace in my body. Writing is good and helpful. And friends are good and helpful, too.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Dancing Bones

I love to dance, and so does my husband. Over our 14 years together we have evolved our own style, mostly East Coast swing with lots of strutting and ridiculous faces. No alcohol is required. In fact, we are happy to be the first people out on the dance floor, in the middle of the day, stone cold sober. Feel free to invite us to your next wedding or dance party; we will serve as your party-starters. For free! Or at least for cheap.

Here's us dancing at a holiday, party a couple (ahem!) of years ago.

We laugh a lot when we dance together, and I fall in love with him again every time.

For me, dancing is full immersion in the moment. It is movement, music and connection. When dancing, I fully inhabit my joyful self. This is particularly important, since she is so often overshadowed by my ambitious self, or my sad self, or my snarky self, or any of the myriad of other internal selves that I am in the process of meeting. I am deeply grateful to be able to dance so freely, especially as someone who struggles with anxiety.

I believe--I hope--that there is at least one activity that brings each of us fully into our joyful self. What is it for you? Maybe art, or walking in the woods? Listening to your favorite music? Cooking a special meal? Laughing with a child? How does it feel, when you get there?

Some people believe in the idea of a soul that lives on after we are gone. I use the word "soul," but am not totally sure what I mean by it. The closest approximation I've come across to date came during Easter service, when Shelly Wilson closed her sermon with this quote by Sydney Carter:
"Coming and going by the dance I see
That what I am not is a part of me,
Dancing is all that I can ever trust,
The dance is all I am, the rest is dust.
I will believe my bones and live by what
Will go on dancing when my bones are not."
Carter was an English poet and songwriter, best known for writing the words to "Lord of the Dance" (one of my favorite church songs). He wrote this as his own epitaph.

After hearing this, now I think maybe my soul is "what will go on dancing when my bones are not." This idea makes me smile. It takes the emphasis off heavy, unanswerable questions of heaven and consciousness, instead focusing on the movement itself, which is the heart of life.

I love the idea that some essential part of us would continue moving, with joy, even in death. But what if, instead of waiting for the end, we figured out how to move our bones with joy, all through our lives? All together, our joyful movement would be powerful. Plus, it would be a lot more fun.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Lonesome Song

My siblings and I were raised on folk music, with a healthy dose of smooth jazz. My dad was in the Navy after college so my parents couldn't really be hippies. But they did wear bell-bottom corduroy pants and my mom, though Caucasian, had a really impressive afro. They loved the folk music of the era: Peter Paul and Mary, Jim Croce, The Brothers Four, James Taylor. We sang along to these classics on family vacations. They sound like the beach, and my parents voices. They feel like the plush blue fabric of our family van, and they smell like home.

It's not surprising, then, that I would carry a love of folk music into my adult life. My favorite current musicians are folk artists who draw from country, blues and soul, with lots of acoustic instrumentation and earnest harmonies. Like Girlyman, The Civil Wars, The Good Lovelies and The Wailin' Jennys.

Darrell Scott is just right, too. His song "A Crooked Road" became one of my all-time favorites the first time I heard it. One of the verses goes:
"I sing a lonesome song to anyone who’ll listen,
To anyone who’ll listen I will sing my lonesome song.
And when I hear you singing too, the sorrow sounds so hopeful
the sorrow sounds so hopeful, when I sing my lonesome song."
This is so deeply true to me. Lonesome and sorrow are part of the human condition, no matter how easy your life is. My favorite truth-teller Glennon puts it this way:
"sadness is not a "first world problem." It's just part of the human experience. And we are all blessed/cursed with the ENTIRE human experience no matter where we live or what we have or don't have. So please don't tell yourself you can't be sad because someone somewhere is probably sadder unless you're also going to refuse to allow yourself to be happy because somebody somewhere might be happier." 
Sorrow comes from lots of very legitimate sources. And lonesome comes from a legitimate source too: the fact that we are each, ultimately, alone. No matter how loved and lucky I am, it's still just me, responsible for being a grown-up and taking care of myself. I fight this truth every day with things like tv and wine and chocolate, and also with singing and dancing and laughing. It is human to want to run from the loneliness.

My lonely and sorrow have nothing to do with my childhood or my parents. My parents are amazing. They populated my life with love, comfort and opportunity. They gave me great advice and a spiritual foundation, and taught me how to navigate the world. They took us on vacations and played folk music. Their home is maybe my favorite place on earth.

In fact, ever since leaving my parents' house over 15 years ago I have been trying to go "home," looking for a way out of my lonely and sorrow. I exhausted myself, and my husband, in this effort.

But... as much as I hate to admit it, there is no going back. My parents home, though it will always be a source of love and comfort, cannot be my grown-up home. I AM my grown-up home. I have to become my own caretaker, my own source of comfort, my own best friend.

It is a wild, solitary journey, and I have a long way to go.

This is my lonesome song. I'm singing it to anyone who will listen, seeking fellow travelers and hope in the process.