Many Peaces of Mind

By sharing our stories, we encourage others to do the same.

This was a major theme of the Peace of Mind Storytellers Series I attended yesterday. By breaking the silence surrounding mental illness, we also break the stigma. We allow people to admit and accept the struggle and begin recovery.

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As an anxious person (also mere weeks away from delivering a child), attending a day-long event with hundreds of people I’d never met solo was a little nerve-wracking. But I’d been awarded a free ticket through a generous contest by a local mental health facility, Butler Hospital. I’d been following and loving the organization sponsoring the event, PeaceLove Studios, for several years. And the format of the event, like our state’s own local version of TED Talks, sounded pretty cool. As a writer, I am a little obsessed with stories, after all. Add the mental health aspect and I was hooked.

Once the speakers started rolling out, I realized this was not just like our state’s own local version of TED Talks, it basically was one. The speakers hailed from around the country and world. They ranged from college students to policy-makers and changers to international celebrities. While I hadn’t recognized all the names beforehand, I was impressed by the vitae of these individuals – and even more so by the enthralling stories they shared.

wp-1463799329728.jpgLike Faith Jegede-Cole who said mental health has to do with the health of your soul. Michael Thompson who said the goal is not to focus on just the 1 in 4 who suffers from mental illness, but all 4 – to get the others to listen. Kate Milliken whose own family’s silence over mental illness moved her to create a platform for patients and caregivers living with MS to share their experiences. Amelia Grumbach wishing someone else would take control of her life because she couldn’t/didn’t trust herself to do so. Philip Sheppard, a soul-stirring cellist, urging the attack of any creative endeavor without the fear of creating crap. Simon Majumdar saved by love of food and its serving of soul. The rhythm of Steve Gross’ (left) spoken word carrying the buoyant message of the right attitude affecting everything. Butterscotch following her heart’s desire without compromising for anyone. The mother’s love of A.J. Wilde holding her son, Devin, as he found the key to unlock his autism. Ryan Brunty’s lovable yetis expressing the depression he’d been living with silently beforehand. Stephanie Prechter’s fierce devotion to learning as much as possible to support and treat people like herself and her father who suffer with bipolar disorder. Mark Hedstrom moving Movember into the mental health space. Ross Szabo creating a curriculum so that mental health is not something we look at only when something’s wrong, but taught much like physical health education from kindergarten to grade 12 and beyond.

The wide range of experiences of these speakers broadened my perspective of mental illness and health. One of the speakers said, after all, we all have stuff; we’re all human. There are different brands and flavors and struggles, but one thing we all have in common is trying to walk this world with grace and contentment – at least most of the time.

All of these storytellers did so yesterday with beauty. Through their various creative presentations, they gave swell to that part of the soul that makes one glad to be alive, through the ugly and transcendent, the low and the dizzying highs.

The Peace of Mind Storytellers showed in a grand way what PeaceLove Studios is doing everyday: using expressive arts as a therapeutic device for all individuals languishing, battling, flailing, and/or surviving life with mental illness. What ninety participants got to take part in after the series of speakers. Myself included.

I was transported back to the first PeaceLove workshop I’d attended with a friend a few years ago. While in a different space with different people, the atmosphere was the same: a safe place to create, process, emote, and share. Several participants commented that they didn’t consider themselves artistic, but due to the open-ended nature of the activity and low-pressure environment, they enjoyed creating. Another said that while she hadn’t started with any idea in mind, a plan slowly took shape on her canvas – and that it was symbolic and cohesive. I felt similarly. Exhausted at the end of a long day, I didn’t think I was up for any grand metaphor. But what rose to the surface in that quiet, stream of consciousness state was perhaps exactly what my psyche needed at this time. Indeed, what came out reminded me of my constant struggle for balance. But in that gentle unfolding, it wasn’t frustrating as it usually is, but a quiet reminder that it’s a process, about maintaining peace of mind, not achieving it and moving on.

In the grand and small movements of my day at the Peace of Mind Storytellers Series, the ebb and flow of life was reflected. The entire day was a reflection of life at its best and worst and the journey we all make together. Bound by our stories and in the sharing, we can achieve peace of mind indeed.

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Painting by Jeffrey Sparr, PeaceLove co-founder

Not Mutually Exclusive

There is no need to shame a control-freak, God-fearing Catholic. There is no need to add to the torment she has already inflicted upon herself.

Yet, that is exactly what I found a quote from Marianne Williamson doing last night.

It has been six years since I started medication therapy for my postpartum depression and anxiety. Six years of low dose, slight increases, attempts at doing without – and it still serves me. And yet, a small part of me still questions my need for it.

Why isn’t this glorious life God has given me enough reason to rejoice? Why aren’t the three gorgeous gifts of heaven that are my children a daily cause for celebration? Am I not grateful enough for God’s blessings that I need an antidepressant to merely function, never mind embrace this life?

Catholic guilt is a strong force, but not one I blame for these thoughts. I confessed to my pastor that I feared my mental struggles were tied to a crisis of faith. I worried that turning to secular talk therapy turned me away from God’s gentle care. I fretted that medication was a crutch that kept me from leaning on God’s healing power.

My pastor told me that spirituality is an important piece of one’s healing, but not to the exclusion of other beneficial treatments. My trained counselor was helping me process my feelings without judgment and not keeping me from turning to God for quiet reflection. And if prescription medicine existed in God’s world, created by one of the people He put on this earth, why would I not avail myself of this beneficial tool? Most importantly, my pastor told me that God did not cause this suffering to befall me. It was not a punishment for some wrongdoing or turning away on my part. If I gleaned something good from the experience, perhaps God allowed the growth in me, but He certainly did not beset me with these troubles.

As always, the rational mind, while fully aware of such life-affirming and freeing arguments, still can fall prey to its irrational side. I thought I’d have no problem reading the social media post that started a furious online debate about postpartum mood and anxiety disorders. Yet, as I did, I felt some of the angst I’d been slowly putting to bed for the last six years come creeping back up.

marianne williamson

This statement plays to all the fears of the postpartum mother.  The guilt of needing medication to enjoy the miracle of life and her role in it.  The fact that she can’t come to terms with ‘normal’ changes in her body chemistry.  That she has somehow failed by not meditating enough; praying enough; eating healthily enough.  And then to judge her own success by the love of others – something over which she has no control.  Or does that speak to the love she fails to feel for her child?

I am only living a modicum of successful motherhood because of the very real diagnosis of postpartum depression and its treatment with medicinal drugs.  And yet, this statement still elicits a shameful, guilty feeling in me.  After SIX successful years of such treatment.  

What of the mother just beginning to wonder if she is struggling postpartum?  What thoughts and feelings assault her when she reads this?  She is already doubting herself and ‘succumbing’ to the crutches of medicine.  She already thinks she’s failed.  And now to tell her it’s all a ploy by ‘Big Pharma’?

‘Big Pharma’ is not issuing me any big paycheck.  I’ve written thirteen different posts about the decision, pros/cons of taking psychotropic drugs, most notably Happy Pills.  When the news initially hit that new recommendations called for all pregnant women and mothers to be screened for depression this was my reaction:

duh

I never dreamed news that was so obvious to me would be seen as a negative by others.

I’m going to imagine that Williamson’s comments were born of the assumption that those standing to make a financial gain would encourage a mindless mass to pop a pill and forget their troubles – and a meaningful life.  I do not encourage anyone to medicate their troubles away without also doing the hard personal work of introspection and spiritual growth.  Meds are not successful in a vacuum.  They must be supported by close medical monitoring, therapies, and lifestyle changes.

Choosing medication is not a mutually exclusive option over meditation, prayer, and love.

I fear that the way Williamson’s stance has been presented, the ensuing social media storm will portray just that.  God-fearing people do not fear medical marvels.  God-fearing people do not judge others for decisions they make concerning their own care.  God-fearing people would never want someone to suffer needlessly while thinking it was a fatal flaw of character.

Stuff We All Get

When I got married, I inherited a staggering amount of pharmaceutical office supplies. Some women marry into wealth. Some women carry a substantial dowry; others, a hope chest full of handmade linens and needlework. I got a cardboard box full of sticky note pads and ball point pens bearing the name of brand-name drugs. A distant cousin on my husband’s paternal side, a salesman for a pharmaceutical company, had a wealth of such products himself, to which I was now a party.

Not one to turn up my nose at anything free, I welcomed this surfeit of stationery. The pen on a lanyard came in handy as I made circuits around my classroom – not only did hanging it about my neck ensure I didn’t lose it, but the big block letters emblazoned along the side. You found an Androgel pen, you say? That’s mine. Unless there was another twenty-something female teacher with stock in Androgel, there was no doubt who the pen’s rightful owner was.

However, this example also illustrates one of the disadvantages of pharmaceutical swag. Your use of said promotional product could be construed as endorsement of said drug.

This wasn’t a problem with the note cube advertising Flonase. Nasal congestion and seasonal allergies don’t carry much of a stigma with them. No one cares if your nose is running or you’re snorting floral scented mist up it. Same with the cute little calculator whose flip-top lid schilled for blood pressure medication. No one will judge me for the inner cleanliness of my arteries.

But I always thought of my audience when I wrote a note on the Wellbutrin pad.

I didn’t want anyone to think that I actually needed an antidepressant; that I was such a frequent flier, I’d earned promotional prizes; that the ‘dealer’ and I were such good buds, I got benefits.

Forget that it doesn’t work that way. It’s not like filling the card of stamps at the grocery store of yore to earn a full set of ceramic dishware. One doesn’t get a sticker for each pill ingested. But I didn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea . . . whatever that meant.

Fast-forward nine years and I’d be fighting my own internal battle with stigma as I debated whether to go on low-level sertraline while I battled postpartum depression. I did. Don’t know which side of stigma won, but I started on the meds I’m still on today.

Today.

The day irony served me a big slap in the face.

The day my physician suggested I add Wellbutrin to my prescription regimen – because sertraline doesn’t seem to be cutting it; because I need a ‘lift’ in the morning to get me going; because while I don’t have ADHD, I need help focusing, prioritizing; because all my labs came back normal and there is no organic reason for my symptoms other than plain old depression and anxiety.

Whoop-ti-do-da-freakin’ DAY.

Four to five years after I started my first antidepressant. Two to three years after I finally (or so I thought) came to terms with ‘succumbing’ to the help of an antidepressant.

Seemingly light years away from that time when I humorously pointed out the name on a sticky-sided square of paper – thinking my worst worry was that people would mistake me for a person who needed medicinal balancing of her brain chemicals.

I have so much more to worry about now.

Unhushable

Suicide is often something spoken of in whispers.  The ‘unexpected death’ in an obituary.  The shadowy family secret.

Until something so very public happens, we cannot ignore the pain and problem for comfort’s sake.

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Click image for news story of Placentia, CA teacher found in her classroom

As a devout Catholic, I grew up with a peripheral feeling of shame surrounding suicide.  Scorning God-given life was a sin.  Only He could determine the beginning and end of your time on earth.  But, then, individuals who consider suicide aren’t in their right minds, are they?  Only someone completely given over to despair and illness would consider such as an option.

I think we, as a society, forget that.  The public interpretation of my faith’s stance on suicide squeezed out that important part.  People of God and faith support fellow humans to become whole – not condemn them if they are not.

Excellent discussion of Catholicism’s stance on suicide.

Unfortunately, the general public doesn’t always feel that way.  Make the mistake of reading the commentary on articles about publicized suicides and ignorance shows its ugly face.  People lambasted this teacher for her selfishness; didn’t she think what finding her would do to her students?  Obviously not.  Couldn’t she have done it at home?

I agree that I would not want my children to discover their dead teacher in their classroom.  But to think that one place is better than another to hang oneself?  To think this teacher selfish for doing it?  Suicide is not an easy, thoughtless decision.  It is often a last resort after much anguished mental and emotional battle.

Honestly, I think this hatred and judgment comes from fear.  People don’t want to be pulled from their artificial bubble of safety.  If you have issues, fine, but keep them to yourself.  Keep your mess confined to your own home, world – don’t let it infect mine.

Suicide is not contagious.  Mental illness is not contagious.  Hate, fear-mongering, and ignorant attitudes are.

How many public hangings do we need to see before we as a society develop compassion and understanding?

How to Help the Mentally Ill during the Holidays

During a season known for its twinkle lights and tinsel, it’s hard to feel the least bit sparkly when suffering from a mental illness. All the shining happy people floating around us make us feel that much more isolated, removed, and miserable. They all make it look so effortless while we struggle to keep our heads above water on a regular day. The added mayhem of shopping, socializing, and stringing the lights raises the bar to a Himalayan height.

I’ve talked before about how I’ve come to hate putting up our Christmas tree the last few years. Those Christmas crackers? They’ve got nothing on me. My head was about to pop off several times throughout the whole ordeal. This year a few events have transpired that have unwittingly saved me from the debacle so far.

This is only our second year with a real pine tree, which takes more planning than retrieving the cardboard coffin of our since deceased artificial one from the basement. As always the weekends spool away from us toward the holiday at an alarming rate and we haven’t made it to the tree farm. Not to mention, we don’t have tons of extra green of the other kind lying around these days. After two years of failing to decorate that pine tree in direct line of sight from our back door, we finally decided we should chop it down and use it as our indoor Christmas tree. To which the kids balked saying it is too small. They fail to remember the merits of a Charlie Brown Christmas tree or the top third we had to slice off last year due to our overzealous choice. BUT in any event, the ensuing chaos and discord has kept us tree-free for a couple of weeks now.

Which is totally fine by me.

One day when only one of my elves was home from school, I dragged out the bin of wreaths and garlands and hung those up, deposited the empty bin downstairs, and enjoyed the view. Another day, I set up the bin with the nativity and related items. And quit for that day. A third day, I retrieved the mamma-jamma bin longer than I am tall – and which usually makes me want to lay down inside and cry because the kids fling stuff out of it with reckless abandon – and opened it. That’s all. It’s still sitting in the corner, lid askew. The kids pick a few things out here and there, but we haven’t set it all out yet.

And still no sign of a tree.

I know it’s my anxiety and perfectionism and ability to get easily overwhelmed and controlling tendencies that made opening that Christmas box of decorations so hellish. I know I may be missing the point by not letting my girls pull it all out with reckless abandon. But it doesn’t come from some deep-seated desire to be like Martha Stewart. It comes from my tendency to move like a snail and being pushed through the steps heightens my anxiety like the Abdominable Snowman’s toothache. A previously joyous activity becomes hell on a holly branch.

So low and slow is my speed this year.

It seems as if the absence of the tree lets us focus on other beautiful parts of the season, too. Our advent wreath. The nativity. The soft glow of candlelight. Christmas stories and cuddling.

The slow dissemination of decorations from storage bins is not a foolproof solution for all people struggling during the holiday season, though.

How can we all lower our expectations and be at peace with ourselves? How can you keep it low and slow? How can you help your loved ones cope?

The Hairy Crumb

Do you remember when you were a child and your mother seemed so neat and tidy, so put together? She would whip the house into shape in no time. Flit about the house each morning, making beds, washing breakfast dishes, hanging clean laundry to dry in the sun.

You knew she did it, but it never occurred to you how. You never weighed the drudgery of the tasks, the tedious amounts of effort that went into the seemingly effortless job she did.

Did the tasks weigh on her the way they do you? Another item added to the to-do list adding one more stone upon your chest. The never-ending monotony of it threatening to suffocate you like a toppled tower of laundry. The disarray around you making you feel like a failure.

The hairy crumb on the floor taking on a life of its own, sucking the life out of yours spiraling out of control.

Keeping house probably didn’t send your mother into the existential angst of a panic attack. Not because she emulated June Cleaver, but because she was not (is not) ruled by anxiety. She would not take on more than she could chew. And if she did pack her calendar, she’d know how to prioritize to make it all work. She did not suffer from the irrational desire for physical orderliness as a means of reining in her mental and emotional chaos.

Or maybe you’re seeing your mother through the eyes of a child – a superhero who can do all effortlessly and heroically. Perhaps not unlike your own children see you. Only you’re pretty sure you never saw her sitting on the floor, hands hovering near her heart, tense and twitching, physically trying to push. the. demands. away.

Quirking

Marking the distance yet to cover when your arrival time has elapsed. How close can I get?
Noting how many more steps yet to complete a recipe before your spouse returns. How far can I get?
Washing clothes and putting them back in drawers before it’s been a week since you first took them out. How anal retentive can I get?

Perhaps we all have such markers, paces we put ourselves through – though we might never know because not many would admit them. For fear of – sounding crazy? Mental? OCD?

I actually asked my therapist once if I was OCD. She said there are such things as OCD tendencies or even an OCD personality without an actual OCD diagnosis. One way to tell, she said, if whether such routines disrupt our way of life. If they stop us from all the other bits of living we could be getting to because they take up too much time – or if we cannot even begin living if we don’t first complete them.

So I may not have full blown OCD, but I have my quirks.

Not being fully free of a dinner party until the platters, teacups, tablecloths are all clean and back in their original homes.
Reading library books in the order they were taken out of the library.
Impelled to leave pieces of projects out, where they will taunt me, until I’ve completed them.

My mind works in weird ways. Segmented. Compartmentalized. Whatever part of it that is responsible for my control freak tendencies has trained me to believe that physical limits lead to overarching control. What a quirky rule of thumb. And I fall for it mind, heart, and fingers.

Psychosis Sucks

Information on symptoms and treatment of psychosis – Fraser Health Authority.

You may want to spend some time perusing this website.  Its brilliant title is not its only merit.  A pharmacist specializing in mental health brought it to my attention.  Great tool kit.

Quizzical

 

Which character on Downton Abbey are you most like? What color represents your personality? What does your favorite fruit say about you?

Every time one logs onto his or her social media venue of choice, there is an endless supply of such quizzes. I admit, a few have piqued my interest. Perhaps it’s the ever present quest to find ‘my dream job’ that almost lured me into taking that one. But I never wanted to waste precious spare moments on such an endeavor and certainly didn’t want to link up my personal details with some outside entity. One quiz in particular that scrolled across my screen, however, hit me in a personal way even without relinquishing my information.

What mental disorder do you kind of have?

First of all, the qualifier ‘kind of’ is a slap in the face. Those who ‘full on’ have a mental disorder know there’s nothing ‘kind of’ about it. The questions dilute the struggles and pain of common side effects of these conditions, such as a misplaced pattern in a range of tiles. In a list of adjectives to describe oneself, the choices range from sad to crazy. One choice for the question ‘Are you an active person?’ is ‘No, I’m super lazy’. Is that how pop culture would describe the malaise brought on by clinical depression? I don’t think that’s how one suffering from it would. In a range of pictoral representations of one’s demeanor at a party, there are gross caricatures of stereotypical mental states. In terms of treatment, one question asks whether one would choose talking to a trusted individual or taking pills. Is that an either/or question? Is one any less noble than the other?

house party

After completing the quiz, here was my diagnosis:

 

OCD, or obsessive–compulsive disorder, is an anxiety disorder characterized by intrusive thoughts that produce uneasiness, apprehension, fear, or worry. You, while being completely healthy, know your fair share of disturbing and worrying thoughts. Don’t you worry, you’re perfectly fine. Just stop thinking.

Yeah, cuz it’s just that easy. Never mind that fact that I’ve never actually received such a clinical diagnosis, but to dilute overcoming OCD to simply ‘stop thinking’?

I get that I’m taking a silly quiz much more seriously than it was ever meant to be taken. I see the other quizzes in the side bar that invite me to find the decade I was born in or the quote that best describes my life. But forgive me for taking a possibly egregious offense to putting a real life daily-lifelong struggle alongside such drivel. Is this what we’re up against? The stigma surrounding mental illness will never be shattered with online memes like this. I’m all for humor, but this is the kind that pokes fun like a bully on the bus. This is not the release valve, instructive humor that is healthy.

Sorry if I’m ‘kind of’ offended.

 

 

Hide and Seek

 

Tip: Always be the seeker in Hide & Seek. It’s gives you 30 seconds of peace.

 

Come, now. We’ve all done it. Or at least wanted to. We’ve all paused for a moment before seeking, enjoying that glorious moment of silence, relishing the fact that we are free to roam about the house with no shadow in our steps.

And then we hear the giggle, the irrepressible bubble that cannot be held by hands, cannot be stayed. The insistent pssst, or even the outright, “In here, Mama.” They cannot stand to stay hidden, cannot bear to be apart from us. After they give us a turn at hiding, they will crawl right back into the spot we just vacated, so dear is their desire to be like us, learn from us, stay close to us.

Other than the tempting tricks we can play during this child’s game, there are serious questions and consequences it can raise for adults. In our role as parents, will we choose to hide our mental illnesses? Will we seek to be completely open and honest with our families, including our children? At the very least, we must seek solutions to live a healthy, fulfilled life. But will we pop the pill in secret and stuff the rest of our struggle down our throats with it instead of voicing it, breathing it?

There is the great possibility of two sides to a person with mental illness. Stigma makes me not want to write that because I fear untrained minds will go straight to schizophrenia, but that’s not what I mean. Light and dark. Public and private. Hidden and sussed out. The very same reason I didn’t want to allude to two sides is what may keep sufferers suffering in silence. It may be to keep a modicum of positivity in their lives – rather than dwelling on the difficulties. This and a fierce sense of protection for their children, I think, drive the decisions that most mentally-ill parents make. While I don’t consider myself the best at looking on the bright side, I know I do not want my children to know I suffer from depression and anxiety.

Yet, I resent the times I must plaster on a smile. I regret that I must function in spite of my foul mood. I revile the perfect, perky person I must be at all times for my children when I’m hurting.

There must be a sweet spot, somewhere between ‘Ready or not, here I come’ and ‘A-ha’, in that glorious moment of silence, where mom can hear herself think and child is about to unleash a cascade of laughter. Where child and mother are happy and true to themselves. Where hiding is only temporary in certain situations. And seeking is rewarded with sharing love and validation.

 

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