Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 in Review

If I had to describe 2012 in one word, it would be awakening. Not in the new-agey or born-again kind of way, but more like I'd spent the the last few years walking around half asleep and finally started getting enough sleep that little by little I was able to function more clearly, until one day I finally felt well-rested. 

The year got off to a very rough start. My grandma Northen, my last living grandparent, passed away on December 28, 2011. She was a remarkable woman who, despite her age and increasing physical struggles, seemed timeless. She'd been through so much and always made it through with such spirit, humor, and strength that you just kind of thought that somehow she'd live forever. Then, on the day before New Years Eve, something happened in a personal situation that was incredibly painful for me. Incredibly painful can't actually even begin to describe it. It pulled apart every bit of self confidence and courage I'd manage to build up through my struggles that year, ripped to shreds my belief in people, and left me a crumbled mess on the floor, despite the attempts from good and caring friends to lift my spirits. Thus I entered 2012. 

To ensure that I'm not being overly dramatic or solely negative, there were some good points to the start of my new year (in addition to the help of my friend and family in the above mentioned situation). Though going to ones grandmother's funeral is never a joyful occasion, it brought together practically the entire family on my dad's side. His five living siblings, virtually all of their kids -  plus some of their kids' kids - and family members we hadn't seen in years (like 20+) gathered together in California. We celebrated my grandma's life and legacy exactly as she would have wanted it - reminiscing, laughing, hugging, taking family photos. It was hopeful.  This beautiful family gathering came out of a sad event, and the torch was officially past to us "kids" as the generation of adults who would keep the family glue holding in years to come. A new beginning, so to speak. Which was just what I needed. 

My winter and spring were difficult, partly due to bad decision making on my part to not, in fact, subscribe to the old adage (and White Snake song!) once bitten twice shy. Sometimes I'm a tough lesson-learner, especially when it comes to people in my life. On the up side, I took an amazing trip to Peru in March, for which I feel incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity. The roller coaster ride continued.

In late March, the awakening started. I decided to open my mouth - go figure! But this time, I was opening my mouth about something that has, over the past year, become a very deep passion of mine. I have never wanted to feel like a victim at the hands of my condition, or of anything or anyone for that matter, and I could feel myself falling slowly down that slippery slope. I started to blog about the journey of my life, and in partiular, my life with cyclothymia. I became determined to help people understand, not only for my own sake, but for the sake of others who have this and similar conditions. I feel that mental health is one of the most misunderstood parts of life, and I could no longer sit by and let people be unaware, uneducated, and unsupportive without attempting to do anything about it, even if on a small scale.  Through my blog posts over the year, I have opened up about practically everything, letting readers see the worst and the best. I want people to know that it's ok to talk about it. I'm sick of the taboo. I also started a Facebook group called Mood Disorders Support System, where members with mood and anxiety conditions or concerns (depression, mood disorders, PSTD, mood cycling, panic, etc) could talk, vent, ask questions, be inspired, and really just support and be supported. The decision to take on this cause was one of the best decisions I've ever made.

The rest of the year has had its ups and downs. But I'm learning, and I'm growing. Boy am I growing. This year has had me examining paths in my life. My spirituality has developed in a way that makes me happy. I've found, thanks to a friend, a local Buddhist meditation center that I've begun going to, though not as often as I'd like. I hope to change that in 2013. I've made some amazing new friends, and had to say goodbye to a few as well (to be clear, by choice, not because they passed away, thank goodness). I am in a good place. I am happy. Not because the pieces of my life are where I feel they all belong. Indeed, I don't think that's ever the case. I think we're always growing and learning, or at least I hope so. But becuase mentally, emotionally, spiritually, I've learned so much about myself, and for possibly the first time in my life, I've taken responsibility for my own happiness instead of letting someone else control it. The people in my life are still insanely important to me, don't get me wrong. But I know longer rest my sole happiness with them, or at least I do my best not to.

I have no idea what 2013 holds. I'm slightly superstitious, so I would like to believe that since my lucky number/birthday, the year, and my age all end in the number 3, that it has to be some sort of serendipity and a good sign. Who knows. But I do know that there are things that I can control (myself and my actions/thoughts/beliefs/behaviors) and things that I can't control (everything else) and that I'm going to focus my energies on those that I can. In fact, I'm actually going to work on trying to control less all together. For I've learned that sometimes when you just let life happen, it takes you on a route you may never have thought to look for otherwise, and you find open doors that you hadn't even considered.

To my readers who have made this first (official) year of my personal blog feel successful and fulfiling, I cannot thank you enough! Happy New Year! Let's make 2013 amazing, whatever it holds!

Friday, December 21, 2012

It's The End of the World As We Know It...

I'm sitting at my desk at Indy Hall writing this, so I, along with the rest of planet earth, am still here. But, the Mayan's didn't predict when specifically on the 21st the world would end, so I suppose there's still time. All kidding aside, though, the concept of the world ending got me thinking a bit. More specifically, it got me looking at my actions, and the actions of others. This happens to also coincide with the end of the year, when I tend to look back at the past twelve months and think about what went well, what challenges I faced, what lessons I learned, and what adjustments and goals I want to make for next year.

So, with the very hypothetical "end of the world" concept in my head, in conjunction with the start of a new year coming up, I started examining my life a bit, and asking myself a few questions. Am I proud of myself, my actions, and the way I treat others? Are there any hurts or wrongs that, if I really was going to go out in a ball of flame, I would want to apologize for and right before that happened? Are there people or things that I'm taking for granted? Am I taking enough risk for the sake of my dreams, or do I too often play it safe worrying about the "what ifs"? Do I laugh often enough, share my happiness and energy enough with others as much as I can, show the people I love that I love them? I know, I know, sappy stuff. But, apocalypse aside, when I think about all of the crazy things that can happen to us and change our lives drastically in a split second, I sometimes wish I examined more carefully.

There's a song by Tim McGraw, written for his father (Tug McGraw, famous Phillies player) when his father was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. The title of the song is Live Like You Were Dying, and it's basically asking "what would you do if you knew you were dying? How would you live your life".  It's a morbid, yet pretty interesting question, and it always gets me pondering.

So as 2012 comes to a close and we look ahead to 2013, I wonder what it would be like if I decided to go all in, truly make every minute count, because really, you never know when it's all going to change. I think I like that idea a lot. Worry about the little things less, focus on those top priorities more. Those things that I want to be remembered by and leave as my legacy. When you look back on life, doesn't it seem so short? Where did the last year go? The last 5? The last 10? If it's going to pass so quickly, I personally think it's worth making my time count as much as possible. What do you think?

I hope you all have or had a wonderful holiday, and a very happy new year! Thank you all for being part of the inaugural year of Lilies and Elephants. See you on the flip side of the calendar!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Anger, Part 2

I'm taking a break on the letter writing blogs until after the holiday. They require a bit more time from the reader (being a task, as opposed to just reading the blog) and shouldn't be rushed. So, I thought I'd address one of my favorite topics again - anger.

It might sound weird that anger is one of my favorite themes to write on. I like doing so because others seem to find it so taboo, and yet there are probably very few of us who aren't angry about something. It might not be an apparent anger. It might be something that sits below the surface but with the "right" trigger bubbles up.  This time of the year, as loving as it aims to be, is especially prime for anger. Family disputes about hosting the holidays, work stress due to deadlines, memories of frustrations from previous years, and the like. So I figured, what better time to address it, and get it all out before the holidays. Start the new year fresh.

I was thinking about anger yesterday because there are a few situations and people in my life right now that I will openly admit are making me angry. In most cases, it's because I believe I'm being treated unfairly. Whether it's the feeling that I'm being judged by a past situation and not by my current self, or the opinion that I'm not being given a chance on something I downright am positive I deserve and have earned, or that I'm just very frustrated by someone's actions and they way they are treating me, I have some anger. I'm not ashamed of it. Anger is a natural emotion. It's a passion. Would it be better to feel so little emotion that we never get angry?

Anger in itself is not bad. It can be a catalyst for positive change. If I'm angry about something, I could take a stand. If angers me when I hear stigmas about certain conditions, it motivates me to work even harder to build awareness and educate people. If it's a less broad, more personal anger, I could address the person or situation I'm angry at. Or, I could change my view on and interaction with the person or situation. Before choosing an action, though, here are a few key points about anger to consider:

  • Anger almost always comes from hurt, at the most basic level. A hurt of a betrayal, of rejection, of working really hard at something and feeling unappreciated, of loneliness, of having a stigma thrown at you, of not being understood, of having promises broken, and the list goes on and on. But anger makes us feel powerful and hurt makes us feel vulnerable. And most people don't like to feel or appear vulnerable, so anger manifests itself more easily. 
  • Initial anger is a reactionary emotion - like a fight or flight. Fear would be the flight, anger is the fight. But once that initial response is over (probably a couple of minutes at most), it is 100 percent our choice to be angry or not. We could choose to acknowledge the truth and feel hurt instead of anger, we could to be motivated to make a positive change, or we could decide it's not a big deal and move on. Often we decide to prolonge it and keep feeling angry instead. 
  • Examine the anger carefully. Before taking any action, ask yourself "why am I angry?" The real answer isn't "because Bob Smith called me a jerk"; it's something more like "because Bob Smith doesn't like me and that feeds into my fear of rejection." In truth, there's nothing you can do about Bob Smith if he really wants to keep calling you a jerk, except choose not to interact with him. But when you find the root of the problem, you can address it at a personal level within yourself. 
  • Before taking any action, look at all of your options. Then look at the potential consequences from each action. Which will most likely get to the heart of the issue and turn out best in the long run. 
For me, anger is often a catalyst for change. It's the "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore" mentality, but in a positive way. First off, there are patterns. It's the same situations and people, over and over again, and they're hitting at the same trigger points. Most often, it's my fear of rejection. I have to keep in mind that you can't change anyone, you can only change yourself. So first, I look at what I can change within myself. Am I being too sensitive? Am I expecting to much? Is there something in my actions that's unintentionally aiding and abetting the situation? Then I look at what I can change with each situation. In some situations, it means walking away. In others, it might mean talking about it with the person(s) and seeing what can be done to improve things. Anger is incredibly personal, and incredibly individual, and I have to treat it that way. 

2013 is going to bring some big changes to my life in many areas. I've decided, as a Christmas present to myself, that I'm going to start those changes early. I've begun with the complete opposite of anger. I'm spending much of this week writing, doing creativity exercises, contemplating, meditating, and feeling the incredible energy that seems to be flowing around me - for what I do not yet know.

How will you address your anger and clear out your heart and mind to start the new year? 

Monday, December 17, 2012

My Self Forgiveness Lesson

Last week, I wrote a post containing my second letter-writing exercise: a letter of forgiveness to yourself. I promised a followup with the insights and challenges that I learned from my own letter, and I believe in keeping promises, so here you go!

First, I'll start with the challenges, because I suspect that others may recognize similar ones in their own letters. Most notably, I noticed my tendency to dig deep back and try to think of everything I could possibly forgive myself for. In theory, this isn't a bad thing, because it forced me to look at what may be some underlying causes of frustration, sadness, or confusion. However, as someone who's already an over-apologizer, I have the bad habit of taking the blame for everything, feeling guilty about things that I shouldn't, and hence having to forgive myself for all of the above. So my first challenge came in determining what items really required forgiveness. I noticed that there were patterns - everything had to do with my interactions with others. I had no concerns that I've been ungrateful, haven't worked hard enough, or anything that's completely self-contained. It always involved others, and most of the time, my past romantic relationships. (For the record I really dislike that phrase because it sounds like something my great aunt would use, but can't think of another to differentiate this type of relationship). And therein lay the other challenge - forgiving myself was only half the battle. The other half is forgiving the other person, because we all know it takes two to tango. Luckily, that letter is coming up in the next couple of weeks.

As for the insights, in addition to realizing which patterns tended to need the most forgiving, I realized that I was indeed ready to forgive myself. Which was incredibly refreshing to discover. I'm generally quite tough on myself, and the fact that I was able to say "yes, it's time; I deserve to be forgiven" was a nice change. It helped thinking about it in terms of others - if they were trying to forgive me for the same thing, would I accept it. Undoubtedly, I would. If they were genuine about it, it wouldn't be fair not to, and there would really be no way to move forward unless I accepted it.

I'm curious to learn of your experiences. What overall effect did this letter have? Did you find it easy or difficult to genuinely forgive yourself? Do you feel that you can move forward, and not regress into self-blame for those actions again? As always, I'd love to hear from you! 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Starting With You

Last week I started a series of blog posts about letter writing, aimed at helping people work through emotions and the personal journeys they've undertaken, whatever thy may be. I'm starting off with letters to ourselves, as I feel that they are quite possibly the most important, and also, they can be written without fear of judgement from others.  Plus, starting with you helps address any internal struggles you might be facing, which is crucial before working on interpersonal situations.

For letter writing exercise number two, it's all about self-forgiveness. We probably all have at least one thing that we (figuratively) beat ourselves up over. It may be something obvious, or it may be something that seems like no big deal to the outside world, but is matters to us. It's said that often times the concerns or struggles we have with others reflect our internal concerns - for instance, the traits and behaviors that bother us in others reflect traits and behaviors that we don't like in ourselves, and things of that nature. So, it seems natural that we need to work on that internal relationship and self-forgiveness first, right?

When preparing for this letter, take a minute to examine what blame or grudge you are holding onto within yourself. The "I should have", "I shouldn't have", "if only I", etc. Look not only at what these mean on the surface, but what underlying behavior, pattern, or struggle they might point to. Are there other related blames that you hold with yourself? You may discover a pattern. If so, consider incorporating these into your letter as well.

Once you have narrowed this down, you're simply going to write a letter to yourself (no, you don't have to mail it) forgiving yourself for this blame or grudge that you hold against you. Let it all out - the reason you feel this blame, how it affects you, and why you hold onto it. Don't judge whatever comes out on the paper, just write it. You can address related behaviors, but don't go on a blaming binge with yourself - it will probably do more harm than good. Be earnest about it the forgiveness. It's important to note that you're not saying "none of this was my fault." Rather, you can fully admit your mistakes, and then say "that's ok, it's forgiven." Think about what lessons you can learn from the behavior or situation, and how letting go of the blame could positively affect your life. How might it affect your relationships with others, your behaviors, even your goals? And then let it go. If you have trouble with this last part, think about it this way - if you wrote this honest and sincere letter to a friend or loved one, wouldn't you hope that all would be forgiven and the relationship could positively move forward? You wouldn't want them clinging to this grudge and holding it over your head indefinitely. Then why should you do that to yourself yourself?

I'm planning on a follow up blog later in the week to discuss insights I glimpsed, challenges I faced, and the positive outcomes from my own personal letter (though as with the last, I will spare the readers the specifics of the letter itself). I'd love to hear your thoughts, and while, as always, I'd never pry into the personal details, any overall insights gained from your letter writing would be happily welcomed! Until later this week, happy writing! 

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Letter Writing - Looking Back

I strongly believe in the healing power of writing. While I love to blog for others to read, I feel writing can be just as cathartic, and sometimes even more so, when you're writing for no one to read. Why? You don't have to judge it. You don't have to worry about how someone will react. You don't even have to worry if it's any good. You just have to write.

I've decided that in addition to sharing my thoughts through my own writing, I'd like to help others help themselves develop/heal/progress on their own journey through writing as well. I'm creating a series of blogs about writing (the irony doesn't escape me here), most notably in the form of letters either to oneself or to someone else - the latter to a recipient who will, quite possibly, never read it. The first exercise, I'm 100 percent, "stealing" from The Artist's Way book, on which I've been basing my creativity project for the last month and a half or so. I have added some of my own touches and suggestions from my own experience with it, though the basis for it is from the book. Despite not being a personal original, it impacted me so profoundly that I had to share it. That being said, I can't fully disclose how it impacted me so strongly at this time, but I suspect you'll find out eventually.

That leads me to this: you probably, at least at first, don't want to share your letters with others.  Perhaps if they're the subjects of it and you think they really need to read the contents, but even with this I'd at least give it a re-read to make sure you truly want to share it, and can deal with whatever results come from sharing it - remember, it may not be as you think. Why do I suggest not sharing? Because you may come through the exercise with some sort of a breakthrough, great idea, or energy. And you may be excited, ready to take action, but what if you tell someone and they shoot it down or are skeptical? It could completely undo those positives that came from the letter. I'm not saying that you can never share it, but I would wait until you know you're confident enough in your decisions not to let others discourage you if they're not completely gung ho.

And now, with the "formalities" out of the way, on to the first writing exercise. This is the letter that made me realize just how powerful of a tool it is.

Imagine yourself as an 80 year old . Yes, you're alive, you're not writing from the grave. This is an imaginative exercise, but not quite that imaginative. Write a letter back to your current self (I changed the age here, that's the only difference from book exercise). Describe what your life is like at 80, and what's occurred between your age/state of life now and your 80 year old self. If you need inspiration, some things you could include, but aren't obligated to, are:
  • Which friends are still in your life? What are they up to? What is your friendship like at 80?
  • What has your career path looked like over the years? 
  • How are you spending retirement (if in fact you are retired)?
  • What about your romantic relationships over the years? (this particularly is effective if you're unmarried/not in a serious relationship, but can be helpful to address either way.)
  • What chances have you taken/adventures have you had?
  • What questions/decisions are you facing in your current life that you can speak to from your 80 year old self? What actions/paths would you encourage your present self to pursue?
There's no template for this. It's important that you write stream of consciousness, and don't judge your work. That's where your intuition and gut reactions play a part. If you see something down on the page that you weren't expecting or don't like, don't cross it out and try to rewrite it to something that pleases you. There's a reason it came out that way, even if you don't yet know what that is. If you haven't listed someone still being in your life that you thought would be, don't include them just because you feel bad. We can't possibly remember to include everyone, and truly, they won't ever know. 

You don't have to over-analyze your letter, but take a look and give it some thought. Why did certain aspects of your life come up, and why did others not? While I don't suggest ending a friendship because they didn't come up in your letter, I do suggest that if you wrote about an unexpected career change, relocation, path in life, you may want to consider why that came up, especially if it's something you've been struggling with or even something that might have been in the back of your mind but you hadn't wanted to say out loud. Your letter doesn't have to be all positive motivations, rainbows, and sunshine. Allow it to flow as it does. Life has disappointments, and they might come out here. They may also bring to the forefront situations that you're thinking about but have been pushing to the back of your mind. It's amazing what truths may appear when we can express ourselves with no judgement from either ourselves or others. 

One final thing to consider - the letter doesn't have to be all serious, and it doesn't have to be all-knowing. If it comes naturally, and that's the key here, have fun with it; feel free use some humor, and it's okay to acknowledge that you can't disclose everything - you don't want to make something up and put it in there just to have it in there. 

I'm so curious to hear how you feel about this exercise after trying it. I would never expect anyone to share the secrets of their letter unless they felt truly necessary. However, I'd love to hear if you came up with anything that genuinely surprised you or opened your eyes. Until next time, happy writing!