Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Ups and Downs of 2014

Ups and downs. Mood cycling. Get it? I can't pass up a pun, even if it's at my own expense. Cheesiness aside, 2014 was filled with a lot of action, and I thought it worth writing about.

If you have read my blog for any length of time, or even if you just know me in general, you probably know there are two things I don't much believe in: major regrets, and New Year's Resolutions. The first is because, quite simply, all of my decisions, both the good and the "how 'bout we not try that again", have lead me to where I am today. And overall, despite all my quirks, my struggles, and at least one or two pretty significant life disappointments, I'm pretty proud of who I am. If I were to know how my life would unfold (i.e. people ask me all the time if I'd have gotten married knowing I'd be divorced three years later), I wouldn't change it. To do so would discount the experiences, and the people, that those parts of my life included, and I refuse to do that. And New Year's resolutions? Well, quite frankly, isn't it better to create life goals, both big and small, and then actually make a plan - which includes things I can do this year, this month, and even this week - to help me get there? At the end of the day, where does "I'm going to lose 10 pounds" or "I'm going to spend less money" really get me, other than the extra expense of a gym membership or some financial self-help books, if I don't have a plan to go along with them?

So I thought that instead, I'd do a year in review.  I think it's important to include big things and less seemingly momentous occasions (life is made up of little moments), lessons learned, and discoveries about myself and life. As usual, my messy brain is putting them in no particular order.

  • I moved out of Philly after four years, and moved into a house (my first in seven years!) with my boyfriend, his son, and our two dogs. It's nice to be able to do home-y, family things, like have a real, full-sized Christmas tree! 
  • I started a permanent part-time position at CHF and remember once more what it's like to have a manager, coworkers, and a schedule that requires you to be at work at a certain time in clothing that doesn't include PJs. I realized how much I was missing the routine and camaraderie of this type of job. I have also realized strengths that I'd forgotten I have (turns out I'm a spreadsheet master and an eagle-eyed proofreader). 
  • We had a Northen family reunion in St. Simon's, Georgia, in which I got to spend a week with my parents, siblings, and all of the nieces and nephews. I have an incredibly close family, and this was one of the highlights of my year. 
  • I started re-learning how to snowboard, and as a result now actually enjoy the winter instead of just counting down the days until the ground thaws. It also afforded me some of the best times of the year with a good friend, and established some new traditions. 
  • Cinn turned 10. I hate that she's getting older, and it made me pretty sad, but she's still running around as much as she did as a pup... though she wasn't a very active pup either. 
  • My condition was more troubling than it has been in years, possibly ever. I felt like I cycled more frequently and more rapidly, and my social anxiety has gotten worse (I didn't really used to have social anxiety until the past few years). This made this year very tough for me, and most likely for those around me. 
  • I cried. A lot. Sometimes for no known reason, or at least no reason I knew consciously. The crying wasn't always because I was sad. Sometimes it was just a tension release, needed to un-muddle my head. 
  • I took a lot of time for self discovery. I needed it, and I think I'll continue to need it. I learned that I haven't been taking as good care of my mental health as I'd like to, and began to do so more. I learned that I need more time to myself than I used to, and that often that time involves reading or writing, as it lets me "escape" the mess of my brain for a while. 
  • Speaking of writing, I started writing my first novel. It's pretty exciting, as I've never written fiction much before and previously thought it something I wasn't much capable of, but it's coming along nicely (I think). 
  • I found some confidence in these last few months. I stopped letting other people's opinions of me dictate how I felt about myself. It's amazing what this will do, and it finally just clicked for me one day. I realized that our lives are dictated by our choices, and by nobody else's. We choose how to act, react, and respond, and once you actually "get" that, it's pretty empowering. 
  • I became a godmother. SO COOL. 
  • I turned 35. I was dreading it, for reasons that I wrote about here. It didn't hit as hard as I thought it would. Perhaps that's due to all of the mental preparation. 
There are entirely too many moments to list. These are just a few that stick out most in my mind. I have no doubt that they will influence my 2015, and that the year to come will have it's own share of important occasions. For the time being, Happy New Year! May your year in review 365 days from now be filled with more happy moments than sad, and if I am a part of them, I hope to be a positive one. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Celebrating A Life

December 17th. Today would have been my Grandma Ventura's 88th birthday. My grandma passed away six years ago, though it feels at times like much longer. It feels like a lifetime since we used to greet her at the airport gate, her bags filled with her trademark zucchini bread and small gifts for us. In a way, it was a lifetime ago - these days, she'd have to make her way through Philadelphia International on her own and meet us at the baggage claim, and they'd probably search her zucchini bread to make sure it wasn't a cover for some sort of hazardous material.

To me, the best way to honor someone is not to mourn their loss, but to celebrate their life. And sometimes, it's the little things, the memories you almost forget until the smell of their favorite cookies permeates the air, the sweater you see in their favorite shade of mauve, or the funny anecdote that is so quintessentially "them". So I thought I'd share some moments that remind me of my grandma so well, as a way to celebrate her life on her birthday. Many of these are from childhood and adolescence, as we spent the majority of our holidays with her during those days, but some are more or less timeless.

  • Pulling up to grandma's house in the middle of the night and her waiting there with zucchini bread and Italian Wedding soup for us (no soup for me, it has meatballs, but it smelled great). I always wondered how someone that "old" could be up that late. In retrospect, she was probably in her 50s. Now that I'm 35 and rarely make it past 10:30 PM, I really wonder how someone in their 50s could be up that late. 
  • Walking with her from our house to the Town House restaurant when she came to visit. She loved taking me and my brother out to eat when we were younger. It was a small thing, but it was "our thing".
  • Her joke book. Grandma loved to tell jokes but wasn't great at them. She'd keep the jokes written in a book, categorized by topic, so that she could reference them when she wanted to use one. Sometimes she didn't get the jokes herself. There was a very inappropriate one about a sheep that she had categorized under "cute animal jokes" (I sincerely hope she never used this at a party). 
  • Her bringing my brother a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle flashlight that was shaped like a gun, and it getting confiscated at the airport as potentially dangerous. This was well before 9/11, which made it all that more ridiculous. 
  • The year she came down for Christmas and we didn't have the heart to tell her we'd stopped going to mass years ago. We drove around for a half hour trying to find the church in our own town, making up excuses as to why we couldn't find it. If she caught on, she never said a word.
  • Me and her singing a duet of "There is a chapel in the town" (not sure of the actual name of the song) for the family talent show on vacation. 
  • Her horrendously grumpy cat, Chuckie. The scary cat meme has nothing on him. How a nice, gentle woman like my grandma bonded with this cat, I'll never know. 
  • Being one of the first ones awake in the morning and going downstairs to her room to see if she was up (we were both morning people). Sometimes, it would be just the two of us up for a while. 
  • Sitting in the green and orange recliners in her living room, listening to Harry Belefante on the record player. 
  • Her bell collection. Especially the dinner bell. No matter where you were in the house, you came running to the table when she rang that bell. Being allowed to ring it for her was a treat.
  • Going to Washington, D.C. with her and attending mass at the National Cathedral. My brother and I got our portrait sketched by a street artist named Thomas Murdock. My parents still have the sketch in their house. 
  • Cuccidatis, guiguilenis, pupa ca lovas, and rock cookies (tiny portions of fruit cake passed off as cookies). I needn't say more, because if you don't have a Sicilian grandma, you have no idea what I'm talking about, and if you do, you know exactly what I'm talking about. Feel free to google them. They're delicious (well, maybe not the fruit cake cookies). 
There's plenty that I'm forgetting. I'd love for my family to add their own memories in the comments. 

Happy Birthday, Grandma. I know that what you would have wanted most of all was to have a happy, healthy family, whose generations carried on the love and closeness that you worked so hard to foster. Looking at your children, and their children, and their children's children, I can honestly say, you would be very happy, and very proud. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Thank You For Being A Friend

Friendship is an incredibly important part of my life. Mainly because, in addition to family, it's my lifeline. And really, my best friends are family, if not actually related by blood.  The best therapy and medication couldn't save me if I didn't have my close friends and family. I'm positive about that.

Having a mental health condition adds a very interesting dimension to friendship: what do they know? What do they not know? What do they not want to know or acknowledge? The last one is the most essential. I write a blog, tweet, post, etc about my life with cyclothymia and I'm actually not particularly shy in talking about it, so it's not uncommon for people to know I have a condition. To me, though, the key to someone being a close friend is not them knowing. It's them accepting it, trying to understand, loving me just as much for my differences instead of despite them, and being there when I need them.

I have high standards of friendship. I know this. Quite honestly, I don't think it should be any other way. I feel that, in part, my condition demands this be the case. While I'm open about my condition, I do have some secrets, believe it or not - or at least things I haven't broadcasted to the world via blog post. If I trust someone with this information, I want to know that it's "safe". By which I mean they won't go telling other people, write some cryptic Facebook post or tweet, use it against me if we argue or ever are less close than we are at the present moment. This is particularly important if the friend is involved with other aspects of my life - part of an industry organization, a coworker, part of a group or club I'm involved in, etc. The bottom line is, there are still a lot of closed minded, ignorant people out there who don't or won't understand the truth about mental health, and I don't need any friends of mine adding fuel to the fire, either intentionally or unintentionally. Luckily, knock on wood, I've yet to encounter this, and I hope it stays that way.

In addition to the ability to trust people with whatever I tell them, I need to be able to trust people to be there for me and to understand. I get socially anxious, depressed, hypomanic, panic attacks, etc. I need friends who get this and the ramifications that go along with it. If I randomly burst into tears, ask me how you can help, and don't judge me. If my anxiety is too much for me to go to that social function, please understand - I am not trying to be dull or ruin your time, to isolate myself or be aloof. I physically am unable to go. Please get that. And maybe, occasionally, say "screw that big gathering" and offer to come over and have a glass of wine with me and talk in the comfort of my own home instead. Understand that I get hypomanic, and while it may draw attention, it's not intended to. I cannot help my energy and all that goes along with it - it is what it is.

So given all of this, what is a friend to me? A friend is someone who will reach out, instead of you having to always make the effort. They'll reach out for good as well as bad... they're not always asking something of you. They'll listen/be there for you when you reach out back. If they're local, they'll invite you to things without your being attached to anyone or anything else. If someone only reaches out in group form, I don't consider them a good friend. EXCEPTION:  People who deal with serious depression and anxiety have a very tough time reaching out. Sometimes, if they get the courage to do it, they reach out to several at people at once because it takes all of their energy and courage to do just that. I get this, and appreciate anything you can muster.

A friend is someone who notices when something's off. It might be the glazed over look in your eye that says "I'm turning inward because the anxiety in this setting is overwhelming". It could be the tone of a post or tweet that just doesn't feel quite right - "she didn't say anything was wrong, but I know her well enough...". A friend is someone who knows the right way to include you. If groups make you anxious, they suggest smaller settings. If they know certain topics are tough, they stay away from them. For me, a big one is including me actively without putting the spotlight on me... you all know by now how being the center of attention makes me feel. But, friends also understand that, because I think and see the world differently, it's very easy for me to feel like an outsider. Friends make sure that I don't, or do their best to.

I do want to be clear on one thing a friend is not:  they do not have to be someone I see in person. In fact, I have a friend that I consider a good friend that I've never actually met. We've gotten to know each other through twitter, FB, mental health groups, blogs, etc, and we now text, via app because we're not in the same country. She's one of the first people I reach out to when my condition gets really bad and I need someone who understands. Yet because of our logistics, we haven't had the chance to meet. To me, that doesn't make a bit of distance, she's still an amazing person and a great friend.

I know I have a lot of requirements for friends. But I think I'm worth it, and I deserve it. In fact, I think everyone deserves it. Life is too short to surround yourself with people who don't understand, support, cherish, and love the real you, and all of you. It's just that simple. I am so very lucky for the friends I have. You keep me going. You're wonderful. I love you.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Give Me All Your Money....

Ok, not all. Just a tiny bit.

It's not Giving Tuesday. In fact, it's not Tuesday at all. I totally missed that.... intentionally. I knew there were going to be so many solicitations for donations that I didn't even bother. Besides, this particular cause is one that is often incredibly personal, and people are either going to give to it because it's somehow affected them, do so to support me, or aren't going to at all, regardless of the day. Don't get me wrong, I have absolutely nothing against Giving Tuesday. It's head and shoulders above people having to miss their family Thanksgiving so that others can get a good deal on a big TV they don't need. In the grand scheme of Thanksgiving-week promotions, its certainly more noble than most. But I wasn't going to compete against it. I'd be lost in the mix.

If you've been reading my blog, or follow me on any social media, you probably know that this past summer, I completed the Overnight Out of Darkness Walk for suicide prevention. It's a 16-18 mile walk that starts at dusk and goes until whenever you finish 16 to 18 miles. This past year it took me about 5 hours. It was my first time participating in this event, and it was life-changing. Truly. It is the only fundraising/awareness event I've participated in, in which almost every single person is walking for someone that has been lost. Unlike other walks I've done, the opening ceremonies were, while inspirational, very sombre. There was no cheering for survivors, because in suicide, there are no survivors. Period. There are those who people have been "survived by", but that is no more uplifting. What is uplifting if I dare to apply that word anywhere near the topic of suicide, is that there is something that we, and I personally, can do about it.

End of the Philly Overnight, actually around 12:30 or 1 AM.

This year, I'll be walking in Boston. It's not for a while yet, but I want to raise as much as I can for this cause, so I'm starting early. A few weeks back, I posted on Facebook, asking this: if you were thinking of sending me a holiday card, I ask you to please instead donate the dollar or two it would cost you to my fundraising for the Overnight.  Too many people are not here celebrating with their families because they have taken their own lives. Too many families are spending the holidays without a mother, father, brother, sister, son, daughter, or friend that they've lost to suicide. Suicide does not discriminate between gender, economic class, ethnic background, or job title, which means that nobody is exempt from the possibility of being affected by it. So as much as I love getting cards and family photos at this time of year, giving them up to raise money for prevention and awarenes is the least I can do.

I figure that if all of my Facebook friends and blog readers could donate just a dollar or two, I will make my goal in no time. Here is my personal link. Of course, if you'd like to walk with me, volunteer to help with the event, or participate in any other way, that would be more than welcome as well.

Thank you, in advance, for any way that you can support this incredibly important cause, for me and for the people who are no longer here to support it themselves.

Luminaries, each lit for someone lost to suicide