Reflections

Today I decided to ride home in the train car where the seats face backward. When I stare out the window, all the world zips past me, racing from my peripheral into my primary field of vision. It’s like being sucked backward in time. I imagine that some invisible force has hooked me round the middle with a shepherd’s hook and is drawing me swiftly through time and space to review some moment of my past. Fields of snow race by. Sometimes I lock eyes with a pedestrian, or the driver of a car on the street which runs parallel to the tracks, impatiently stopped at a light. They are not used to making eye contact with train passengers, these drivers. We are supposed to be racing past the world, not reviewing it as it races past us.

It’s no surprise that I should be feeling reflective. Today, had she been born on her due date, my daughter would be three years old. I was thinking earlier today, about how different I am from who I was one year ago, two years ago… three. My mental health is better than it has ever been. Better than from before I became “mentally ill.” Does that mean I’m “recovered”? *shrug* I stopped caring about that label. I stopped caring about a lot of labels. Refusing to file myself away has been instrumental to my ability to thrive. More on that in the future.

I haven’t written much here because I’m writing a book. Not exactly a super exciting bombshell announcement, and yet – there it is. I’m writing a book. I’m not abandoning my blog, but I am being mindful of what I share here, and what I save for the book.

Anyways, back to Clara. It’s no revelation that grief evolves with time, though I would argue that it isn’t the grief that’s doing the evolving. It is us. It is the way we approach and process our grief. It is the way we push it away or welcome it in. It’s in how we honor our feelings and give up resisting because in resistance we only find struggle. It is in the way we allow our loss to define us, and then it’s in the way we stop doing that. This is where the shift happened for me. 2018 was all about dropping the things I clung to because they defined me. Loss, grief, OCD, mental illness, the need to be “recovered”, health I couldn’t control, anxiety, etc. The list goes on.

Let’s play a game. Find a sheet of paper and a pencil. Now, I want you to list out the personality traits or qualities that would describe the Best Version of You. Not a person you idolize. Not a made up person. If you could still be you, but like a totally evolved and ideal version of you – who is that person?

Okay, now look at your paper – is this how you currently identify and describe yourself?

Why not?

It’s you. That’s who you are. There is no this you and that you. They are all you. Drop the labels you’ve been using and pick up the ones you actually want. Pick up the labels that serve you. Not everyone will like this. I clung to my labels like life preservers in open water. Who would I be if I wasn’t a Mom with OCD? Who would I be if I wasn’t Someone With Mental Illness or A Mom Who Has Lost A Baby? Don’t get me wrong, those are still part of my story. I’m still that person. But I realized that those weren’t the stories I wanted to tell myself every day. I was ready for the next god damn chapter! I want to tell myself about a woman who nurtures positive mental health practices, who knits as a creative expression of love, who takes care of her body and then gets to go off adventuring in it. I want to hear about a mom who is present with her family, who feels tuned in to her children, who enjoys a deep and fulfilling connection with her husband, who spends time building friendships that are deep and lasting. I know that we all have shit days, but I want to be the ideal me who sometimes has a shit day and not the shit me who sometimes has an ideal day.

So, in the year that has passed between when Clara would have turned 2 and then 3, I have evolved around my grief. Some things will never change, of course. Today will always be a day that I feel longing for her. Today will always be a day that feels just a little too empty. There will never be a day that doesn’t hurt a little for her absence. But I have let go of the need for my grief. I welcome it when it needs to be seen, but I don’t seek it when I need something to blame.

Most of all, I know that Clara is watching, and I know that she is proud of her Mommy. I know she always saw past the story I told myself about who I was. I just needed to see it for myself.

Happy Day, my darling girl. Mommy loves you to the moon and back, and no matter what chapter I’m on, I will always be grateful for the parts of my story that include you.

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Have Bad Days

jpeg_20190106_102531_1298832463857952872Let’s talk about bad days.

Bad vibes.

Bad energy.

Bad moods.

Call it whatever you want, it’s all pretty much the same.

With the New Year upon us, I’ve seen an influx of shirts, mugs, pins, patches, art prints, and IG hashtags with slogans like “No Bad Days” or “Good Vibes Only”. The problem with these sentiments moves beyond the obvious impracticality. Everybody has bad days and having the inevitable bad day does not make you a failure. Let’s just level the playing field for a second – I can assure you that that IG bombshell with her perfectly posed beach sunset shots has had and will have, plenty of bad days. She has stubbed her toe. Lost a loved one. Woken up in a bad mood. Had a terrible day of diarrhea.

There. Feel better? Remember that the next time her hashtags get super ethereal.

Anyways, these sentiments and the people who cling to them miss what should be the point of bad days – learning how to have them. Can you imagine for a moment what your life would be like if you woke up one day in a terrible mood, and then moved on to do the things that mattered to you or that you needed to accomplish anyway? What if something bad happened to you which was really upsetting, and then you did some more things that mattered to you and that you wanted to accomplish? The thing about bad days and bad moods is that they happen, and while you might have a small amount of control over your circumstances or environment that could, in some cases, lower the frequency of bad days, you’ll never have full dominance over them. The real problem that most of us have with bad days and bad moods is that they derail our plans. How many times have you said something like “man, everything was going so GOOD!”, after encountering some negative experience or feeling? What if things could still keep going even after the negative thing happened? That would be pretty awesome, right?

Well, it’s possible!

Herein lies the problem I have with the commitment to having no bad days. People who are fixated on not having any bad days never learn how to have them. They never learn how to work through a bad day or bad experience and stay on track doing the things they love to do and the things they need to do. This is why having a clear vision of your values and goals in life (both long-term and short) is so important. It gives you something to lean on when the days are bad. It’s easy to do things we love when we’re happy and feeling good. It’s a lot harder when we are going through something tough. The good news is, with practice, it definitely gets easier and easier. For some tips on identifying your values and some associated value-driven behaviors, see my post on the topic! It’s an excellent place to start with this concept. I’m not saying you won’t feel bad when bad things happen. You will! 🤷 You will feel bad. But you will learn how to have bad feelings while living your good life. Your life doesn’t become bad because you have some transitory bad feelings or experiences.

The next time you find yourself having a bad day, or experiencing bad vibes, take a moment to recognize where you’re at. Don’t get caught up in the trap of resisting negativity. The resistance itself is what brings discomfort. Instead, accept that things are the way they are in this particular moment in time. Then, move on to something you want to be doing or should be doing, even if that feels hard. It is in this purposeful redirection of energy that you will find immense power.

So, what I’m telling you is this – have bad days. Have all the days! Live a life rich with contrasting experiences. The more you do this, and the more you direct your energy towards your values no matter what you are experiencing, the more you train your brain to be more resilient in the face of bad days. Better resilience means being less affected or derailed by bad days when they happen.

All vibes only. ✌️

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Admission

Yesterday was the one year anniversary of my admission to an inpatient facility. Admission is a great word for what happened to me one year ago because I was not only technically registered into a behavioral health facility, but I was admitting that my mental health was at a point that I no longer knew how to deal with it.

Notice that I did not say that I couldn’t deal with it. Though I would have used that word one year ago, I know better now. I know that we are capable of handling everything in our lives, good and bad. I know that contrast (bad things) exist to teach us about what we desire and who we are, and to remind us to savor the good because no experience, either good or bad, is permanent. I walked into that facility thinking that I needed help because I “couldn’t” deal with my OCD, but a weekend in the hospital taught me that I could at least cope. Then, roughly eight weeks later when I graduated from the partial hospitalization program, I understood that I was not only capable of coping, but I was capable of dealing with OCD, I just needed the right tools. When I discharged from the program, I had those tools, but I was still very unpracticed at using them. One year later, I am hardly an expert, but I can tell you with certainty that my skills with my toolset are drastically improved. My mental health is a pendulum, I have good days and bad days. However, when the days are bad I no longer feel like OCD is a steamroller, slowly flattening my life. Instead, OCD is an unruly child, which requires some attention (“what is it that you need? why are you acting out?”) and occasionally, a good old fashioned time out.

There’s so much I want to relate to you guys about what I am learning, and I’m sorry that I haven’t been the best steward of this blog. The truth is that my life has been really busy, in mostly positive ways, and I’m still trying to fit writing back into my life. But I wanted to acknowledge the anniversary of my admission and share a little bit with you about what has made a difference in this past year.

You already know my love affair with value-driven behavior, and I can’t stress enough the impact that devoting myself to my values has had on my life in the last year. Mental illness creates footholds in your mind if you allow it to, and those footholds make it easier and easier for it to work its way into your life and climb to the highest peaks of you, to the parts that matter most. Value-driven behavior helped me to smash the footholds that my OCD was trying to create. Focusing on my values and behaving the way I would without OCD meant that OCD couldn’t find the footholds it needed. It isn’t easy at first. It requires constant vigilance and pushing through difficult emotions to stay focused on values while mental illness desperately tries to distract you and gain footing. But the more you practice it, the easier it gets. I promise you that. If you haven’t already, head over to my post on Value-Driven Behavior and spend some time with the worksheets there. If you get stuck, or if you just want to chat about this concept, feel free to drop me a line! I’d love to hear what your values are and the kinds of behaviors you’re choosing in order to live into them!

The second concept that I want to share with you is that emotions are just data. Our brains are continually funneling data our way. As you go about your day, your brain is processing everything that you come into contact with, and many of those things will elicit an emotion. If you wake up and the sun is shining, you might smile and feel hopeful about the day to come. If someone gives you a dirty look on the street, you might feel defensive or vulnerable. We don’t have much control over these types of involuntary emotions, but what we do have control over is how we react to them. For example, let’s say you woke up and it was rainy and gloomy outside, you might feel down or disappointed. You might not feel so excited about the day to come. As a result, you’d trudge through your day and you’d probably get the crummy, dismal day you were expecting. You’d be responding to your emotions as though they were directions that you had to follow, and that’s what a lot of us do. BUT, if you’ve practiced treating your emotions like data instead of directions, your process might look something like this: “Hm, the weather is gloomy today, and I’m feeling disappointed about that. But that’s okay. I know that I don’t need the sun to be out to have a great day.” You could choose instead to be grateful for what rainy days bring (a couple of days of not having to water my vegetable garden, if you’re me!), or if gratitude is too hard (because if you’re way low down, gratitude is just too far a reach sometimes, I get that), you can at least choose to recognize your bummed emotion as a gut check reaction to the weather, and not a firmly paved path that you must follow. I’ll expand more on this concept, as I did with Value-Driven Behavior, in a future post, but I wanted to introduce it to you now because I have found it to be helpful in the last year.

In therapy last week, I hit on something which I think sums up very well the way that my mindset has changed over the past year. Lots of things are still happening in my life which are difficult or would typically be very triggering for OCD. At the end of 2017, we discovered that my oldest son had a rare, aggressive cyst in his jaw which required two surgeries to remove (he is now recovered, and there is only a 5% chance the cyst will return). We started 2018 with my youngest son having a bout of the stomach virus so bad that we ended up in the hospital for fluids, then that same child broke two bones in his right arm just a week later. I have had some chest pain and breathing trouble that has resulted in the discovery of nodules in my lungs (so far they aren’t worried about them though), a lesion on my spleen which is still unexplained, and a Holter monitor which revealed that my heart throws two different kinds of extra beats (I am having a stress test and an echo-cardiogram next week). I have been in near constant pain from this mystery auto-immune illness (I am due for another round of blood work in April which will hopefully bring some answers). We are renovating our house, which has been exciting but stressful.

It’s a lot, right?

A year ago, I would have been drowning. I would have been dreading the next thing. I would have been saying things like “Why does stuff like this always happen to me?” I would have been living under the weight of the “Other Shoe” sensation, believing that my life is a series of stressful, negative events. And since that’s what I would be believing, that’s exactly what I would get. Or at least, that’s what I would see.

Instead, my life is still a never boring series of adventure and experiences. Some of those experiences are good, and some of them are bad, but I see the negative stuff as contrast. I don’t enjoy it, but I know that contrast experiences are necessary to our lives. You can’t avoid the bad stuff, but you can avoid letting it control you. Contrast teaches me about who I am and what I want. My experiences with my health troubles have taught me that I want to feel vital again, and they’ve taught me that I haven’t been the best steward of my body. My experiences with my health have led me back to fitness, and in the last few months, I have made changes to my diet which have already shown positive results (my cholesterol is almost back in the normal range!). My experiences with my children lately have taught me that my instincts as a mother are pretty damn good. OCD tried to convince me that I couldn’t be trusted to react correctly in the face of health issues, but that’s not true. I’m in tune with my children, and I’m good at knowing how to care for them. My experience with my son breaking his arm showed me, yet again, that my husband is an amazingly empathetic and emotionally courageous person. We handled a situation, which was exceedingly hard and traumatic for our son, like a well-oiled machine. Our teamwork made the experience as easy as it could have been.

Do you see what I am doing? I am not saying the bad stuff was “good.” But I know that the bad stuff was just stuff, and I get to choose what I get out of it. When you start to practice seeing contrast (bad stuff) this way, you inadvertently train your brain to stop expecting bad stuff. I am dealing with things better because I don’t believe that “this sort of stuff always happens to me.” I am dealing with everything life throws at me because I am not waiting for the other shoe to drop. That would require me to live in dread of the future, and I’d much rather live in the joy of the present.

So, one year ago today, I was miserable in an inpatient ward. I was at one of the lowest points of my life. I was deep in the contrast. And yet, without that admission, I wouldn’t be where I am at today. So, I choose to be grateful for that low point. I am so grateful for that past version of me. Admission required bravery. Admission required vulnerability. Admission required me to own that what I was doing wasn’t working, so I needed someone to teach me something new. I hold that moment of contrast in high regard.

The band Birdtalker has a song about depression called Blue Healer which I love, and I want to leave you with some of the lyrics that I think sum up so perfectly everything I have learned in the last year:

And now I stand tall
Used to think my sorrow was a brick wall
Made me want to curl up in a tight ball
Self-pity dealer
But there’s a gate here
You can only find it if you wait here
Now I’m walkin’ through it with my gaze clear
Me and the Blue Healer

 

Sending love,

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Stop Shoulding All Over The Place

Often, practicing good mental health means breaking a series of bad mental health habits. Whether it’s identifying cognitive distortions, practicing mindfulness, or learning to sit with anxiety without acting, what you are really doing is exchanging bad habits for good ones. Like all bad habits, each of us has our own personal “faves”. In other words, we each have our unique bad habits that are particularly hard to break.

For me, it’s “Shoulding”.

Last Spring I spent the longest weekend of my life in an inpatient behavioral health facility after a particularly bad OCD spiral. Upon discharge, I entered into a partial-hospitalization program designed specifically for OCD. I attended the program from 9am-3pm every day for almost two months. My case manager was also my primary therapist in the program. In a relatively short period, she pretty much had me entirely figured out. It was rather impressive. What’s more, is that once she had my number, she didn’t let me away with anything. That is precisely the type of therapist with whom I excel. I cannot be coddled. My mental health requires tough love. My current, post-program therapist is the same way, and I am doing excellent work with her, as well.

ANYWAYS, back to my case manager. One of the things she loved to say was to tell people to “Stop shoulding all over the place”. You see, when we are struggling with our mental health, or indeed with any number of problems, psychological or otherwise, we are almost always comparing our current circumstances to another set that we think we should have.

For example, let’s say you are struggling with a bout of depression. You wake up in the morning and feel off, despondent, hopeless, etc., and you become distraught or frustrated at realizing that this is how you feel.

Why? Why are you distraught about it? It’s because you are shoulding all over the place. You recognize the way that you feel, and you are subconsciously telling yourself that you should feel differently. “I have a wonderful family, so I should feel happy.” “It’s a beautiful day, so I should want to go outside.” Whatever it is that you are feeling, you are not allowing yourself to be with it, because you are always comparing it to how you think you should feel.

Let yourself off the hook. Sure, maybe you should feel a different way, but you don’t. So, release yourself from the added pressure of telling yourself that your feelings are wrong, or invalid.

I’m not saying to wallow or give up. Far from it. If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you will know that I am a proponent of Value-Driven Behavior. That is, I believe that no matter how you feel, it is best to continue to do the things that matter to you. The post before this one is a comprehensive look at Value-Driven Behavior, complete with worksheets to help you both identify what truly matters to you and some actions that you can take to move in the direction of those values. I encourage you to take a look and to do the worksheets, because it isn’t always as cut and dry as one might think and having the insights sorted through ahead of time can make a rough mental health patch much easier to navigate.

What I am telling you to do is to simply allow yourself to be exactly where you are. In my own experience, releasing myself from the expectation of how I should feel was like clearing the path for me to be able to feel that way.

The expectation itself was the barrier.

So, I simply said “This is how I feel today, and that’s okay. I will allow for that, and continue to move in the direction of my values (ie: engage in behaviors that aligned with my personal values), regardless of how I feel or how I want to feel.” I stopped worrying about how I was feeling. I stopped telling myself that I should feel differently.

You know what happened? Over time, I started to feel better. That’s what happens when you stop shoulding all over the place and just focus on moving in the direction of your values. Values are your life-blood. They are the things that bring you joy and contentment, which is why I say it is so important to identify your values and some value-driven actions if you ever want to have truly good mental health.

Something that is important to note is that values are more than just things that make you happy. They are deeper than that. Values are the things that give your life meaning and purpose. They are the things for which you live. Earl Grey tea and biscuits make me happy, but they don’t give my life meaning. They are not part of my value system. I might have some Earl Grey tea and biscuits on a bad mental health day, but I’m not going to expect them to change things much.

All that said, these last couple of months I have had more bad days that I would like in regards to my mental health. I’m not in a particularly bad space, but I’m becoming increasingly aware of a need to reinforce some of the good habits that I’ve perhaps let fall by the wayside as my mental well-being stabilized. This morning, I woke up and didn’t feel the way I wanted to, mentally or physically. I have had some physical discomforts which are the fuel of choice for my health-related OCD. As I moved through my morning, becoming increasingly aware of the way my mind and body felt, I noticed that familiar slip into frustration at the circumstances. Thankfully, I heard my old case-manager in my mind, calling me out and telling me to “Stop shoulding all over the place!”

So today, I acknowledge precisely the way that I do feel, right at this moment. I choose to see it from a place of non-judgment. This feeling is neither right or wrong. It just is. Each time I catch myself judging how I feel, or telling myself that I should feel differently, I will course-correct (and believe me, this will happen over and over). Lastly, no matter how I am feeling, I will spend each day moving in the direction of my values.

I’m going to stop shoulding all over the place.

I encourage you to do the same.

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Values & Value-Driven Behavior

What matters to you? What makes you tick? What brings light, joy, and purpose to your life? Do you even know? Do you really know? Often, we may have a general idea of what makes us happy, but few of us have spent time doing the deep work of identifying our core values. This task isn’t always easy, either! Sometimes, the things that we think should make us happy just well, don’t. And that’s okay! Finding your values isn’t about identifying what you think should make you happy. It’s about looking deep within and choosing the things that really DO make you happy.

For example, when I first began to explore my values, some of them were easy to identify. Things like Family, Helping Others, and Creativity bubbled up quickly to the top of my mind. I knew this wasn’t it though. It took a little more work for me to discover the rest of what floats my boat. However, once I did, my battle against OCD began to change. All of a sudden, I had ways to fight back. Rather than feeling helpless in the face of intrusive thoughts and obsessive thinking, I had positive things to turn to. Not just things I liked, not just things I was good at. Once I identified my values, I could access things that set my soul on fire.

So, because I want your toolbox to be as beefed up as mine, I’ve created three worksheets to help you:

  1. Identify Your Top Five Values
  2. Identify 15 Value-Driven Behaviors
  3. Create An Emergency Agenda of Value-Driven Behaviors

I hope you’ll take some time to work through them and I hope you will find this work as rewarding as I have.

I’m leaving this post pretty light because I want you to explore the worksheets more than anything else! That is where the work is, and that is where you’re going to find the good stuff!  So, print them off, grab a beverage, find your favorite pen and do some soul work. You are worth it.

Happy Value Hunting,

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