Friday, September 27, 2013

Sometimes You've Just Got To

I'm not going to lie. So far, 34 isn't my favorite year, and I've only been at it for a few days. I've not been myself. Not my real self. Not the happy, positive, fun-loving, outgoing person that I know and love. Instead, I've been impostor self. You know, the fake self that likes to make an appearance and make people think I'm the spawn of satan, just for shits and giggles I suppose. It brings along it's good friends  anxiety, panic, depression, anger, frustration, lack of trust, self-esteem that's lower than low. That fake-self. The self people like to attribute to my cyclothymia and really I have no idea why it occurs at all - I honestly think it stems from my underlying self esteem and confidence levels, or lack thereof. But that's a whole other blog post. So for now, let's say I've not been myself and I hope that year 34 has gotten it out of its system, because this is just not going to fly anymore with the real me.

When your brain and body play nasty tricks on you like mine's been doing, sometimes you've just got to dig way down deep, and think of some positives. I thought that in a celebration of my birth week, I'd find some things I've been successful with over the year. Because, quite frankly, I'm having trouble finding much right now, and yet I need to.

  • I completed a combined eight years in chapter leadership of two different industry organization chapters. There were certainly ups and downs, but I'm proud of myself for stepping up into these positions, doing the best I could, and knowing that if I so chose, I could take any position in chapter leadership and be successful. And I truly mean any. I've become a leader among leaders - not an easy feat for someone who hasn't ever liked the spotlight. I know it, and I'm proud of it. 
  • In partnership with a friend and industry colleague, I helped create an annual charity fundraiser for Brain and Behavior Research. We raised over $1000 (combined) for the cause. We're already starting to think about next year. 
  • This Lilies and Elephants blog came up on the front page of google several times when searching for particular mental health topics. I mean the front page! That's huge for me. 
  • Numerous people, some who I've never met or even had any connection with at all, have contact me saying they've read my blog, that it's helped them a lot, and have ask me for help and suggestions with similar issues to my own. That's incredible. I mean, I'm becoming someone to reach out to about mental health, which is exactly the point of my efforts.  
So maybe I don't have the most highfalutin job or the most expensive car. Maybe I'm not the most composed person or the coolest or most popular.  I'm not the easiest person.  I'm certainly not the most perfect person. In fact, I'm not anywhere near it. But I have made some strides in life this year. They might just be baby strides, but they're strides none-the-less, and I need to make sure to remind myself of them and be proud when impostor self shows up and tries to take me down. And if none of that is impressive... well,  I just used the word "highfalutin" in a serious blog post. That has to count for something. 

Monday, September 23, 2013

Don't Blink, Cause Just Like That...

"You're six years old and you take a nap, wake up and you're 25"..... or 34, whichever.

If you've managed to somehow miss the news, it's my birthday today. I LOVE birthdays. I mean I love them. Mine, your's, my dog's, your dog's. I think that having a special day just to celebrate one's life is absolutely fantastic. Because quite simply life, and you, should be celebrated.

It's not surprising, though, that birthdays also often come with a bit of reflection. It's not unusual to look at one's life and think: am I where I thought I'd be at this age? Could I use a swift kick in the rear? Is my life just completely somewhere I never thought it could be and I'm amazed?

When I turned 21, I was in my senior year of college, studying Exercise Science. My plan was to go directly into grad school, get my Master's in physical therapy and then, not surprisingly, work as a physical therapist. And despite the fact that I was never one of those girls who started imagining my wedding dress at the age of five, I somehow just "knew" I'd be married by the age of 24 and would have my first child (of two, a boy and a girl naturally) at 27.

When I turned 24, I was indeed planning my wedding. Not to the person I'd planned for it to be at 21, but I still seemed to be right about the whole 24-wedding thing. I was not in grad school full time for physical therapy. Instead, I was working in corporate fitness full time and my Master's in International Marketing part time. A slight departure, but so far so good.

When I turned 27, I was the farthest thing from having my first child. I was, in fact, petrified of the idea and had decided I never wanted children. I was also, sadly, on my way to a divorce. On the bright side, I was running my own travel planning company and was serving on a board of directors for an industry organization - two things I never could have imagined I was capable of doing. I was emerging as a leader in my (new) career field.

When I turned 30, I was recently engaged, and had just attended my sister's wedding. I had also just had one of (what I now know as) the worst hypomanic cycle's I've ever had. Two weeks or so after my birthday I was diagnosed with cyclothymia and put on medication quite possibly for life. I was told that if I ever wanted a family it would be very difficult because of my medications and that my condition was almost 100 percent genetic. I'd been back on the fence about having children until that point. This just made it seem too risky. (I wrote about that here). But despite the diagnosis and the finality of childlessness, I was generally happy. I was getting married in five months! Two times a charm, right?

When I turned 33, I was completely single. I celebrated my birthday with dinner and a show in New York City with my parents. I pretty much swore I was going to become a nun. Well, except for that bit about my lack of organized religion, but I'd work that out somehow.

Today, I turned 34. I am still running my travel company. I recently organized a mental health charity hike with a friend of mine, and together we raised over $1000 for brain and behavior research. I'm working on forming my own non-profit organization for mental health support and awareness. I'm (hopefully) revitalizing my side job of personal training. In fact I spent, time this morning training a friend of mine. I have held steadfast on my decision not to have children. It breaks my heart, but I am firm in my belief that it's the right thing. I have seven amazing nieces and nephews. I have a wonderful little two year old in my life who I adore, and who I'm lucky enough to have adore me. I have the love of an amazing man (I'm glad I side-barred that whole nun thing). I have wonderful family and friends.

I have no idea what the future holds. I can say, with certainty, that I'm not where I thought I'd be 10 years ago. Not in career or marital status or family status or housing situation or location or any number of other things. But I firmly believe that sometimes that which is best for us, that which will make us happiest, is quite different from the path we'd have taken if everything had gone according to our plan. I don't believe in a blue print or that "everything happens for a reason". I do feel, though, that when you are truly in the situation that makes you happiest, that's best for you, that no matter how life shakes you, you will make it work. You don't give up on that career path, that relationship, that friendship, that dream. And that's where I am. I am finally ok with not being where I'd planned to be, and I'm excited to see where my dreams take me.

Since I started with a country song lyric, it seems only appropriate that I end with one as well. So, in the words of Darius Rucker, "thank god for all I missed.... cause it led me here to this."

To all of you other fall-equinoxish-first-day-of-libra-ers... Happy Birthday!!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

How You Feel...

.... Is never somebody else's fault. To be clear, I'm talking about how you feel emotionally, mentally. Physically is different. If someone hauls off and slugs you, obviously the resulting pain is their fault. When it comes to emotions, however, it's a different story.

I know, it sounds cliche. I always felt that way too. It took me a long time to actually understand this concept. I was having a great chat with one of my closest friends the other day and it suddenly it clicked. I will say I'm by no means perfect at this (who is) but when I think about my emotions and reactions in these terms, it makes a big difference. Let me explain a bit further. 

I went through a bit of a rough patch for about a month and a half this summer. I was been, for whatever reason, dealing with a lot of anxieties from some situations in my past. At first, I was very discouraged because I just thought it was my mood cycles rearing their ugly head and that there was nothing I could do about it. But then, in giving it some thought, I recognized that this interpretation wasn't entirely accurate. In fact, there is plenty that I could do about it, if I can just remind myself what's actually occurring when I feel this way.

It goes like this: something triggers a negative emotion - it could be anxiety, panic, fear, anger. That initial reaction is almost instinctual. You go into fight of flight mode and feel the need to instantaneously act on your emotion. But after this initial reaction  - it's documented that initial anger lasts 90 seconds, for instance - you have a choice. Yes, initially there is a physical reaction. It's not that your brain is just playing tricks on you. The chemistry in your brain, and therefore your body, temporarily adjusts. However, it's not a permanent adjustment. It's not even a long term yet temporary adjustment. It's a momentary one. After this point, it's up to your own internal interpretation.

Let me give a real life example. Someone from my past used to constantly put me down, telling me I'd never be successful, that I saw the world differently, and that I didn't have "what it takes". Which is, looking back, a rather ridiculous statement  - the blanket insult "you'll never be successful" is a little too broad to actually be accurate. But at the time, it was horribly painful. My self-esteem and confidence were at rock bottom, it was the peak of the economic crisis and business wasn't ideal, and I basically believed this person. I let it get to me, and it stayed with me for quite a while. Fast forward a few years. The other day, someone asked me a question about my business strategy. They were just asking a question, trying to learn about my business and wanted to see if they had any helpful insights, simply to be nice. But my brain went straight back to "you'll never be successful". I immediately felt like I was being questioned and attacked, like this person too felt I'd never succeed, and I went on the defensive.

Now that I realize what happened, I can look at it from a more objective point of view. I had this initial "oh no, not again" gut reaction. But instead of assuming the helpful person meant me degradation and (emotional) harm, I could have recognized it for what it was - an instinctive feeling that was caused by myself, and not by the person asking. Even if they had been questioning me, it's my choice to believe them, to take it to heart, to let it eat away at my self esteem. In this case, the damage was double because not only did I unnecessarily upset myself, I upset someone else who was trying to be helpful.

This all said, it's not easy. Instinct is incredibly powerful, especially when it's based on real life experiences. Plus, there's a fine line between not learning from your mistakes and not taking the past out on the present and the future. If I always thought "oh that person doesn't really mean xyz, it's just my interpretation," I could not only miss some important lessons, but I could end up getting hurt (emotionally or physically) by being too naive. It's a delicate balance. I think it comes down to looking internally, knowing your sensitive points, and being aware that those are your own insecurities. When you become aware of these, you can more easily pause a moment when they ignite and ask yourself, "why am I feeling this way?". Another good trick is to objectively reverse the situation. "If I said xyz to so-and-so, and he/she reacted this way, would I think it a reasonable reaction?". Don't allow your sensitivities to play a part in your answer. If that's too difficult, pretend you're not in the situation at all... "If Bob said that to Mary, and she reacted this way...".

I've learned, and am still learning, this lesson the hard way. I've actually asked very trusted people to call me out on it, albeit nicely. I've told them that I'm trying to let go of past hurts, and that when I start to bring those into the present to gently tell me "you're doing that again". If I catch it in the moment and am able to reverse course, I believe eventually I'll be able to stop it from taking place in the first place - or at least I hope so. 

Monday, September 9, 2013

That Thing You're "Not Supposed" To Talk About

September 8th - 14th, 2013 is National Suicide Prevention Week. It's one of the most important causes/awareness campaigns I can possibly think of. I mean, we're talking about people's lives. And yet suicide is one of those topics that virtually nobody wants to talk about. People who have never considered the possibility can't fathom why anyone would. People who have thought about it or have attempted suicide sadly understand exactly why. It seems we, as a society and as individual human beings, are unable to bridge that gigantic gap between these two groups.

I think part of the reason there's this huge divide is the numerous misconceptions about suicide. People have all sorts of ideas of the "types of people" who commit suicide. It's similar to the label society places on people with mental health conditions. You either fit into that group, or you want to make sure you put as far of a space between yourself and that label as possible. Yet what people fail to realize is that "those people" could be your neighbor, your colleague, your classmate, your best friend, your sibling, or your child. 

Perhaps dispelling a few myths about suicide might help to bridge this gap a bit, might get people to look around them, and understand that anyone they know could be at risk for suicide.  
  •  Not all people who commit suicide have a diagnosed mental health condition. While that certainly can be a factor, it's not an absolute. People commit suicide after a serious trauma, a death in the family, or some other specific situation that causes such extreme stress or emotion. In addition, some medications (for all types of illnesses/injuries/issues) actually list "thoughts of suicide" as a side effect, which obviously makes these a potential factor. 
  • Just because someone appears happy, social, and positive does not mean they aren't at risk for suicide. We are a society who's taught to "put on a happy face" instead of showing our true feelings. Unfortunately, we don't know what we don't know, and that could be something as serious as someone having thoughts of suicide. 
  • Suicide crosses all genders, ethnic backgrounds, socio-economic groups, sexual orientations, ages, religions, and areas of the world. Never think someone is "exempt" because of one of these factors. 
  • People who think about, attempt, or do commit suicide are not weak.  Labeling them as such only makes others who may be in danger not want to talk about it. And no serious situation was ever solved by not talking about it. This only widens the divide, and isolates people further. 
So what can you do if you think someone is at risk of suicide? Talk to them. Listen to them. Be caring, loving, understanding, and patient. If someone reaches out or even talks after some prompting, they're asking for help. If you push them away, if you are too busy or don't care to listen, whether you realize it or not you're telling them that their life isn't important enough for you to do so. In addition, never hold their concerns or issues over their head. This might sound obvious, but I've personally experienced situations in which I needed to talk about my mental health and was threatened with being put in a hospital against my will, simply because the person didn't want to "deal with" talking about my condition at the time. It only made me feel more alone.  Luckily, I was not suicidal when this occurred, but had I been, the result could have been very bad. On the flip side, never make light of someone's need. If they are truly in danger of hurting themselves or taking their life, take the necessary steps to get them to safety, to get them help. It could truly be the difference between life and death for that person. 

There are resources available for those who are feeling suicidal, as well as for those who have friends and loved ones that are experiencing suicidal thoughts. Never be afraid to reach out in either case. There are also campaigns, walks, and other events to raise awareness for suicide prevention., for instance, offers an online crisis support center, and they are currently running a Giving Challenge to raise money to establish a 24-7 online crisis chat service.

 I understand that talking about suicide makes most people uncomfortable. To many, it's a dark, very personal topic that they would like to stash away behind a locked door. But quite simply, we can't afford not to talk about it. Not when people's lives are at stake. 

Friday, September 6, 2013

A Little Less Talk? .... Not So Fast

It seems that life constantly encourages a little less talk and a lot more action. In fairness, I often tend to agree. I don't just want people to just tell me things, I want them to show me. For instance, someone saying "I'm here for you" means nothing if when you need them, they're nowhere to be found or you have to make all the effort to reach out. So I'm a total proponent of the actions revealing what people actually mean.

Unfortunately, though, all the focus on action seems to provide people a perfect excuse for lack of communication. People base so much on action that it seems we've lost the ability to have a conversation. I'm not talking about "how's the weather", but more those types of important conversations that life requires. Talking about how one feels, talking about important topics involved in the situation, whether it be business, personal, or interpersonal. It can even be discussing plans for the week or ideas about a new project you want to start.

To clarify, conversations, by my definition, are two-way discussions in which all people involved are actively listening and speaking. One person unloading on another, for instance, is not a conversation. That's someone stating a fight, or at the least blame dumping, or name calling, or taking their bad day out on someone. But it's not a conversation. If you aren't truly interested and willing to take into account what the other person has to say, it's a not a conversation. Also, I'm using the word talking liberally here. It can be done in writing, in some sort of electronic communication, as long as it's a back and forth. Though the more important the topic, the more important to have a spoken, and if possible in person, discussion, in my book.

So what's led to this lack of talk? It could be numerous things. For one, we as a society put more merit on the ability to "be tough" than we do on discussing things like emotions and feelings, and we seem to think that those who are emotional aren't strong. Which, for the record, is completely false. There'll be another blog about that. Secondly, I think there's a lot of apathy.  People don't want to "waste time" having long conversations when they can more easily update their Facebook status or tweet it out. In addition, as I mentioned, we've so emphasized action that it seems words don't count anymore. But sometimes, people just like to hear something. For instance, if someone's important to you or you appreciate something they've done, tell them.  While actions are critical, the bottom line is, people don't want there to be room for mis-interpretation. They want to hear it from you. And yet people pass the buck, putting the blame on the person who didn't interpret their actions correctly, instead of taking the responsibility themselves for not conveying verbally what they meant.

Why all this talk about communication? Quite frankly, we can't afford to not communicate. It's the cornerstone of all types of relationships, from colleagues to friends, family, and significant others. Without it, we risk misunderstanding and misinterpretation, frustrations, fights, and even serious rifts or falling outs that could have been prevented had we only actually communicated. Because truly, no issues can ever be fully solved if we don't listen enough to know what's really going on, or communicate enough to express it in the first place. So yes, it's very important to back up your words with your actions. But remember, there have to be words to back up in the first place.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The "Normal" Pieces

You all know I strongly dislike the word normal. I feel that 1.) there's no such thing and 2.) being like everyone else would probably be boring as all hell. Maybe I'm just used to being one of those people that makes you go "hmmm".  But I rather like my uniqueness. There are certainly things about my life that I wouldn't choose if I was building it from scratch, but that doesn't mean I dislike myself overall.

However, I feel I focus a lot on my condition on this blog - since indeed that's the theme of it - and that I may at times come off as somewhere between an alien invader (albeit a cute one) and a side show circus act. Obviously, I'm exaggerating here. But I do realize that it may appear as though I'm always acting out or having a difficult cycle or being hypomanic or freaking out and truthfully, that's not the case. So, I thought I'd point out the ways in which I'm not that different from the rest of humanity. Because I really do a lot of every day things. Here are a few examples:
  • I go to the gym and care about my general health and appearance. 
  • Sometimes, I sleep in instead of going to the gym. 
  • I go out for happy hour or hours or entire evenings. Hence bullet point #2. 
  • I love dogs. I know most breeds, even mutts, simply by looking at them. Ok maybe that's not so "normal." But still, I love animals, like a lot of other people. 
  • I have a coffee addiction. I fully admit it. No cream or sugar. I like the hard stuff. 
  • I love music. Especially live. I wait all year for summer concert season.
  • I travel every chance I get. 
  • I get upset. It's not always because I have a condition. Sometimes, someone is being a jerk. Or I'm bloated and feeling gross. Or I've just almost gotten into an accident because some ass cut me off in traffic. Or I have a sinus infection and struggling to breath and who's happy when they can't breathe? Or I'm tired or hungry and it makes me grumpy. 
  • I take off a nice Friday once in a while simply to enjoy the weather and some "me time". 
  • I'm a huge sports fan. Sundays (and Monday nights and some Thursday nights) in football season are practically sacred. 
There are plenty more examples. But the point, that I'm sure you get by now, is that I'm not a alien-invading-side-show being. I'm a human being. I do stuff that everyone else does. I get happy about things that everyone else does. I get upset about things that everyone else does. I'm not a condition. I have a condition. I'm not defined by it. It happens. Not all the time, just sometimes. Less often than not in the general scheme of things. Like someone who has slightly clumsy tendencies and trips more the average person. Once or twice they might fall into your bookcase or china cabinet and break something important, and apologize profusely and you forgive them. They're still Bob or Mary Smith, who is a bit clumsy.  They're not "the-expensive-china-breaker." And I am not my condition. 

Inside The All-Or-Nothing Brain

The cycling brain is used to extremes. It's used to rules and schedules and well-planned events. It's also used to the total lack thereof. It can totally do spontaneous and random. What it's not used to is something in the middle. Any middle. I'm great at going to the gym every day during the work week, or not going for two weeks at all. I'm fine with planning a party in detail for months or randomly deciding at 3 PM that day to have a get together that night. I rarely have part of a plan.  My brain just has a tough time comprehending things that are "in between", and it literally makes me feel physically uncomfortable.

This type of thinking can have it's positives. In those situations that require serious planning and dedication, I'm your woman.  At the same time, this black or white thinking can be quite detrimental.
A lack of a gray area creates little room for error or growth. If I am trying to correct something, or create a positive habit, it must generally be done little by little. To the "average" person, a small improvement puts you on the right track. To the "absolute" thinker, if you've not accomplished your goal right away, you've failed. You have to start all over again, or give up all together.

While this absolute thinking is very characteristic to the cycling brain, there are tricks that you can use to "retrain" your brain and become more comfortable with some gray areas. Here are a few things I've learned over the year, many to the credit of my therapist.
  • One bad hour does not make a "bad day". You can still have 23 great hours. Clearly with a 23:1 ratio, great prevails. Similarly, a bad evening doesn't make a bad weekend, bad day doesn't make a bad week, bad week doesn't make a bad month, and a couple of bad months does not make a bad lifetime. 
  • Find something gray (or silver or some variation of gray) that you like. Wear/carry it with you every day to remind you that gray areas can be beautiful too - it's not all black or white. This may sound cheesy, but I've personally done it and the constant, physical reminder is a quite powerful. 
  • Try to eliminate words such as always and never. Replace them with often, frequently, rarely, infrequently, etc. The same goes for words like "all" or "nothing".  Find terms that illustrate your point but aren't so absolute, that don't rule out every single other possibility. 
  • Focus within - why are you feeling so all-or-nothing? Is it a value that you've always held? Is it something you've just always done and it feels un-changeable because you can't imagine doing it another way? Have you gotten hurt when being more flexible with your thoughts or actions? 
  • How is this way of thinking limiting you? What is the worst possible outcome if you allow yourself to be even just a little more flexible? I'll add the exceptions that you're deathly allergic to something, it's seriously illegal or immoral or would really hurt someone else. But in the majority of cases, allowing some flexibility is probably not as awful as it feels it might be. 
I encourage you to try this experiment for one week: allow yourself to think in the gray. Allow yourself to be ok with the nebulous, the unsure. Try to replace your absolute words, thoughts, and actions with slightly more flexible ones. So much anxiety can stem from being uncomfortable with the unknown. The more comfortable you are able to get with it, the less anxiety you may experience. Even within the confines of this experiment, avoid the all or nothing judgement. If you slip up and think "always" or "never", it's ok. You don't have to be perfect at seeing the gray areas either. Just try, and see what happens.