Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Of Christmases Long, Long Ago

I'm not going to lie, I completely stole the idea for this post  from my dad (we're a blogging family!). He wrote a post about Christmas memories, mostly from when he was a kid, but also a few traditions as a young adult with kids of his own. Christmas is my absolutely favorite holiday... I'm literally like a little kid on the days leading up to it, and especially on, Christmas morning. These days it's really about the family, and the traditions - both renewing old ones and starting new ones, and while it's tough not to enjoy the gifts aspect, it's as much, and probably more, about the giving than it is about the receiving now. Quite simply, I just truly love Christmas in so many ways. So I thought I'd share a little list of Christmas memories of my own. Some (a lot) might be a bit quirky, but to me, that makes them all the more special.

  • When my brother and I were kids, we really wanted a Teddy Ruxpin, like every other kid our age. Instead, on Christmas morning we each got a "regular" stuffed bear, with a note attached to it saying that so many kids wanted Teddy Ruxpin that these poor bears had nowhere to go, and Santa knew that we'd make a good home for them so sent them to us. We were either really sweet, or complete suckers, and we loved our bears more than we would have any Teddy Ruxpin. My parents continued this tradition for years, well past the point that we realized the story was a bit... embellished. Different stuffed animals, usually some form of bear, arrived on December 25th every year with a fun (and slightly less tragic than the original) note. I think it stopped when we were about 20. 
  • Every Christmas morning, without fail, we had to sign happy birthday to the baby Jesus in the manger before we could open gifts. This also stopped when I was about 22, when we realized weren't a religious family. 
  • One year my Grandma came to visit, and we didn't have the heart to tell her we had stopped going to mass years before. So we went... and got lost and drove around for 25 minutes, making up stories for Grandma about why we couldn't figure out what should have been a two minute drive to the church we supposedly went to every Sunday. 

  • We were cooking making (and eating) machines: Spritz, cutouts, Mexican Wedding Cakes, Thumbprints, the chocolate PB ones with a hershey kiss. At grandma's, it was Cuccidatis, Sfingis, and Rock Cookies - which were fruit cake disguised as cookies, we later found out. 

  • I have always had trouble sleeping on Christmas Eve. We used to have warm milk before going to bed, to help us sleep, but it usually didn't work. One year when I was about four my mom said she tiptoed into my room every hour, and each time she'd hear me quietly singing Christmas carols. She said it went on all night long.
  • My brother and I woke up so early on Christmas that my parents actually had to make a rule that we couldn't get up before 6 AM. Every year, whoever woke up first - almost always me - would knock on the other's door early in the morning and we'd sit together in one of our rooms counting the minutes until 6 AM. I remember one year, when I was about 19, I had just come back from overseas and had massive jet lag and actually "slept in" a bit on Christmas. Around 7:00 AM, I heard a knock on my door and a whispered "are you awake". I guess some habits are just not meant to be broken. 
Over the years traditions have changed. We've grown up. Most of my siblings have kids now, we all have our own households, and we're spread out throughout the country. These days, it's undoubtedly my young nieces and nephews who whisper (or loudly proclaim) "are you awake" in the wee hours of the morning on Christmas. Me.... I still have trouble sleeping on Christmas Eve for all my love of the holiday. Sometimes, I still even sing Christmas carols... though for the sake of others in the house, I now try to keep them in my head.

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Most Frustrating Things People Say To Someone With a Mood Disorder

It's no secret that there's a huge stigma surrounding mental health. I've blogged before about the myths of mood cycling conditions, and even some of the positives I've gleaned from mine, but I thought I'd address some of the other statements and negativity we get dealt with on a regular basis, just for being ourselves.
  • "You're way too emotional. "  I've actually been admonished for "being a baby" for tears that people didn't understand. Yes, I'm probably more emotional than a lot of people. But I'm not a baby. I'm not weak. I'm not spoiled. I have a big heart. I feel things greatly, deeply. It means if you were in trouble, I'd feel it so greatly I'd move mountains to help you.  It means I also feel joy and excitement greatly too.  Is that such a bad thing? 
  • "You're unrealistic/delusional." Mood cyclers have expansive brains. They stretch to extremes. They're often incredibly creative, imaginative, visionary. Did you know that Beethoven, Van Gogh, and Picasso are all said to have had (or were actually diagnosed with) Bipolar Disorder? Just because our dreams and brains stretch a bit further into areas some can't understand, just because our paths aren't always the same as yours, doesn't make us unrealistic or delusional. It may well mean we reach heights or discover paths others don't think to go.  
  • "You can't change. It's just how you are." Yes, there are parts of the condition that may always be there. We may always be a little bit more emotional, a bit more imaginative. But we are humans. And humans have the ability to adjust. Even if a trait or characteristic I have is influenced by my condition, it doesn't mean I can't take note and make an effort to change it. It may be harder for me than others, but nothing is set in stone. With science these days, we can transplant entire missing organs. Don't tell me it's impossible to adjust small personality characteristics.  
  • "You'll only get worse. You'll never get better."  It's a physical condition. It can be helped by medication like any other. Furthermore, I know people who managed to come off medication for good. I know people who have had years without cycling. If I had diabetes, and I took the appropriate medication and kept the appropriate diet, I doubt you'd blame all of my issues on diabetes and be positive that I'd never "be normal". It's the same with my condition. My brain is just another organ. 
  • "You have nothing to be depressed/anxious about. Your life is good." Ahh this makes me want to scream (and sometimes I do). I'm not depressed about anything. I know people who've had lung cancer and not smoked a day in their life. They aren't cancerous about something. They didn't choose it, or even do something that made it a more likely possibility. It just happened. Perhaps, like my condition, it was genetic and they couldn't have prevented it if they tried. And besides, just because my life may look good or easy or happy, I have this damn gremlin inside my head that f*cks around with my brain on a regular basis, often when I'm least expecting it. That, I assure you, is not easy, no matter how great my life may look to you. 
  • "I have to walk on eggshells because of your condition." Absolutely not! I don't want to be treated like a pariah or a child. I don't want to be simply "tolerated" or "dealt with". If you talk to me, truly listen to me, learn about my condition, really understand who I am, then you'll learn how to communicate with me, just as I learn how to communicate with you. We all, as human beings, condition or not, have those things that are easy or tough, exciting or painful, pet peeves and idiosyncrasies, and we learn how to interact and work with each other taking these all into consideration. 
Stigma happens because of these types of stereotypes. People with mental health conditions - at least one out of every four people in the United States - have to worry about their employers, colleagues, dates, even friends and family knowing about their condition for fear that they won't look at them the same, that they'll distance themselves or treat them differently. They often feel ashamed, isolated, alone. So instead of spreading that stigma with statements like the ones above, really talk to us about our conditions with an open mind  (if the person is ok with doing so). I promise you, we aren't creatures from the black lagoon. We are human beings, who happen to have a condition, would be thrilled to eliminate the ignorance that creates the stigma, through education and communication. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Don't Feed Yourself A Whole Lot Of BS

A couple of days ago, I wrote a post from a very raw, emotional standpoint. It's the second I've written in a couple of months. Unlike the first, however, I didn't publish it. There was no deep, philosophical reason for not doing so. I simply had somewhere to be and didn't have the chance to double check it before I left. I'm glad, however, that my plans got in the way of actually putting the blog out into the world.

It's not that I didn't mean what I wrote at the time, or that I'm ashamed of people knowing how I was feeling or anything like that. In fact, while I usually try to take a deep breath of calm before posting anything overly emotional, I think it's important at times for my readers to see the "not so put together" me, to prove that I do experience those things I write about first hand, and that I truly understand how they feel.

Looking back at the post, however, I realize that I was buried in a bit of self-pity when I wrote it - something that I honestly do not experience all that often. Now contrary to the common belief, I don't have anything against self-pity... once in a while. I think it's perfectly ok to say "this sucks. I wish I didn't have to deal with this. It's not fair. I'm unhappy and I'm totally allowed to be for the moment." As long as it doesn't go on and on, I'm fine with it. But what I realized as I crawled out of this dark place inspiring self-pity as well as self-loathing, was that it I had it all completely wrong. I'd been mistakenly taking others' values for my own. I was filled with anger and resentment because of this. I thought it was directed at others for their imposed beliefs and impressions that weren't accurate of the real me. I discovered, though, that I was mad at and resentful of myself.

Don't get me wrong. I don't subscribe 100 percent to "nobody else can make you feel bad about yourself".  While technically true - they're not physically inside your brain tinkering with it - the bottom line is if you hear enough negativity, especially about something you're already sensitive about, it's going to affect you, and to me, that's perfectly normal. I realized, though, that I'd basically let the outside take over my brain. When I think about it, without any beliefs tainted by external stimuli, I'm ok with where I am. I like who I am. Sure, I have faults and weaknesses I'd like to change. I'd like to make more money (who wouldn't?). There are things in my life that I wish for that I'll probably never have or be - and I mean this literally, because it's not physically possible or at best highly not feasible. But overall, I am happy with who I am deep down. In fact, I love who I am deep down. I'm ok with the fact that my life is taking a little more trial and error than others'.  It's not ideal, perhaps, but it's not the end of the world, and I'll surely grow from it. I don't mind being overly emotional - it means I have a big, caring heart, not just for myself, but for others in my life. I'm truly able to deal with all of these things about me,  and yet I've been feeding myself a ton of BS that none of them are ok, because the outside world says they're not.

So when I looked at this draft of the blog I wrote the other day, and I dissected it a bit, I realized that the honest reply to most of the things that I felt so awful about was, "So what?" In some cases, it was "I'm proud of that. I'm happy with that." Or "I'm working on that. I am getting there, even if slowly." It brought me to the realization that (actions that hurt others not-withstanding) what truly matters is what I think of me, my life, my goals, my dreams, and my path. It's not to discount what others think. It's not that I don't take their thoughts into consideration, because they might be very helpful indeed. In the end, though, my values and my opinion of me have to come from within me. It's this that will allow me to truly be myself in my most honest form - something that I feel I've been missing a lot lately.

To start out, I might have to remind myself of this on a daily, or even more frequent, basis. But I have the knowledge, and that is a huge piece of the puzzle. I'm excited to see where it takes me. 

Friday, December 13, 2013

Youth and Teens - It's Not Just Hormones

An issue very near and dear to my heart is mental health in teens and youth. It's important to me for several reasons - first, I believe it's when my condition first started to show symptoms of creeping out, and yet I more or less ignored them for the next 15 years or so, which I feel was a great disservice to myself. Secondly, these demographics are often ignored when it comes to mental health, and their issues chalked up to hormones and a phase they're going through. Their actions and personalities are thought to be moody, defiant, frustrating, and independent. They're not usually considered to be symptoms of very real, medical conditions that aren't phases at all.

I thought I'd write about the signs and symptoms youth and teens might exhibit, to provide some insight that may traditionally be thought to be "normal" of their age groups. I thought this might prove helpful not only for families, but for youth and teens themselves who are going through something like this, and are feeling confused and frustrated. It's important to note, I'm not a licensed mental health professional. This list below from my first hand experience, and those of others I know who have battled mental health conditions in their youth and teen years.

  • They completely withdraw, not only from the family, but from their friends and social activities as well. While this could be just "teen years", it may not be. Teen years are usually a time of trying to cultivate friendships, find your niche in life, be part of a group. Pulling away from these mirrors how depression often appears in adults. 
  • There's drastic change in eating or sleeping habits that persists over a long period of time. This can be a symptom of multiple conditions, such as depression, anxiety, mood, or eating disorders. 
  • Their friends notice a major change in personality or attitude. We have to be careful with this, because it could indeed just be the ups and downs of young friendships. But it could be something more. Sometimes those who know us best can see the signs before we ourselves can. 
  • They exhibit or feel pronounced mood swings, which don't appear to be linked to specific situations. Often these will last for a few days to a week, but they may last longer, or they may be more rapid. 
  • They complain of being constantly anxious, jittery, irritated, and/or jumpy without a particular reason. This can be a symptom of hypomania or mania in someone with mood cycling. 
  • They have extreme trouble concentrating or focusing on tasks or ideas, even those that are really important to them - ie it's not because they're bored or uninterested. 
  • They talk about feeling worthless or hopeless, particularly without a triggering event that might make them feel this way. 
Of course, virtually everyone experiences these types of feelings from time to time. It's the pattern of these over time, and often the presence of numerous symptoms, that can be cause for concern. It doesn't necessarily mean that they have a condition, but it may be worth consulting a doctor or mental health professional. 

Being diagnosed with a mental health condition can be difficult for anyone, at any time in their life - not only does it mean a medical condition that you may have to deal with for the rest of your life, but there is a lot of stigma about mental health. For youth and teens, who are also dealing with major changes in their lives and their bodies, who are trying to find their way, their social groups, their interests, and their direction in life, it can be even more difficult to have to also battle the stigma and the realization of a condition. It's therefore incredibly important to be supportive and understanding, and if they are diagnosed, to show interest in learning about their condition in an effort to understand and help, instead of either denying it, pushing them away, or making them feel "abnormal". 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Mission Impossible

As part of an exercise I've been doing for a coaching plan, I wrote an impossible list. If it's not particularly clear by the title, it's a list of everything that seems impossible for me to accomplish (that I'd want to accomplish in the first place). I didn't understand the point of the exercise at first. Writing a list of all the things you can't do when you're feeling pretty bad about yourself doesn't particularly sound like a good idea.

As I tried to create my list, being the honest person that I am and taking the word impossible at its true definition, I found I was having a tough time creating my list at all. Sure, there were things on there that I didn't feel confident that I'd accomplish. There were items that seemed highly unlikely. Then there were those items that I thought, "I really just don't have enough faith in my ability to do this". Now mind you, I kept all of these items on there because they'd come to mind, and because at the moment that they popped in my head, they seemed impossible.  When I really studied the list, though, I had to admit, most of them weren't actually impossible. Impossible would be a goal that for whatever reason required me to be six feet tall, because I'm 34 years old and presumably never going to grow past my current height of five feet. Luckily none of my goals have a height requirement, so I'm safe there. With this as a contrast, I realized that we often use the word and mindset of impossible a little too carelessly and willingly.   

I'm not sure if this reverse psychology was what the exercise intended. Perhaps it was truly to weed out the unrealistic goals and standards we focus on in order to put more energy and effort into those that we can accomplish. My guess is, though, that this is exactly why the creator of this plan had in mind. It was a pretty good reminder of all of the little lies I tell myself about the things I can't do and the abilities I don't have. This certainly doesn't mean that I will accomplish all of the goals and dreams I have. What it means is, I have been giving myself less credit than I should.  I've been using absolute words like never and always (as in "I'll always be bad at xyz), when I could use slightly gentler, more pliable, more flexible words.

I suppose that in the end, very little is impossible. At least very little that we want to accomplish in the day to day of our lives. It might be weighty or difficult or take learning a new skill or tweaking things in our life. It might even mean big sacrifices or changes or adjustments in attitude. Those, though, are more manageable than impossible, because it puts the control and the power back in our hands. Which exactly where we need it to be to make things happen.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Would You Like to Write in Costa Rica?

It's no secret that I love to write. At times, I feel it's almost as essential as food or oxygen.  It's healing to the soul. It's not just the act of writing itself, but the opportunity for expression. What others explore through painting or pottery or music I find in the written word.

So a few months ago, while letting my mind wander between writing and travel, my other love, an idea suddenly sparked. As I do with many of my spontaneous ideas, I turned to social media and  tweeted that I would love to organize a destination writing retreat. It was an impromptu gesture that I figured most people wouldn't see and would garner little reaction. Within minutes, a friend of mine, poet Hila Ratzabi, replied "I'll teach poetry!" In that simple exchange, a collaboration began, and a few conversations later, the Eco Poetry Retreat was born.

After several months of research and planning, we decided upon our ideal location - a quiet guest house compound in Norosa, along the western coast of Costa Rica. Norosa is known for its biodiversity, white sand beaches, spectacular surfing waves, and natural beauty. It seems the perfect place for nature-fed inspiration.

I feel that Hila, as an accomplished poet and the instructor at our retreat, gives a much better description of the workshop itself than I can probably offer, so I'll quote her here:

"In this generative poetry workshop, geared toward all levels of poets from beginner and on, Hila will provide readings and exercises that explore the ways in which poetry arises out of our relationship to the Earth."

In addition to the poetry workshop itself, participants will get to enjoy all that Costa Rica, and the Norosa area in particular, has to offer. The retreat will offer opportunities to participate in guided jungle and river tours, horseback riding, snorkeling, and more.

For more information on the retreat, please visit the Red Sofa Salon retreat page here. Of course, you are welcome to ask me any questions you have as well. Oh, and we're offering a little discount:  register by December 15, and receive $100 off! 

I'm incredibly excited about this venture, and the opportunity to share it with others.  As always, please feel free to pass along this retreat information to anyone you feel may be interested!