Thursday, May 25, 2017

There Is No Formula For Success

I need to vent. Kind of. But also to impart some advice. My advice seems obvious, but in the wake of 'how to succeed in this or how to do the perfect that or how to get everyone to love you" or whatever books and articles and all of that, it's probably a relatively unpopular thought. Are you ready? Here it goes:

There's no actual formula for success. 

Bombshell, right? Well, considering that it's the title of this post, probably not. But it seems that these days we're inundated with the "right" way to do things. And if we don't, we're screwed (most books don't say this, but it's implied). Which really freakin' sucks for those of us who aren't able to do so. But let me let you in on an obvious secret: we're all very unique individuals, by nature of being human beings. What works for me may not work for you, and vice versa. What works for 99.5% of the population may not work for you, either because of your personality, or an illness, or a life circumstance, or some other reason.

So a few tips, if you're feeling badly about yourself/unsuccessful/worried you're not on the right course:

  • You do not have to get up at 5AM and go for a sunrise run in order to be successful. Especially if you absolutely hate the mornings but are awake at night. Or if you are ill or in pain and it's physically difficult to run. Or to get out of bed at 5AM, for that matter. May exercise help? Sure, possibly. At the level you can handle, and the time that you feel most energetic. Don't make yourself more ill because some book written by someone who's not battling chronic illness says it's the only way to be successful. 
  • It doesn't matter if you read the latest "how to" business book that everyone's raving about, or every book of Calvin and Hobbes (link for those born after the 80s). In fact, I probably have a lot more in common with you if you read Calvin and Hobbes. (Confession - I strongly dislike business books. I could fall asleep while drinking a triple espresso if there's a business book involved). No one person (who's not you) can tell you what will work for you. So despite all those lists that say "successful people read xyz and watch abc and do blah-blah-blah", don't worry. Maybe you're so busy being a successful... whatever it is you do... that when you get home at the end of the day you don't have the mental energy for a business book, and you choose a comic or a romance novel or to read nothing at all. Don't sweat it, you're just fine. 
  • You don't need to color within the lines. The people who stand out... stand out. Don't worry if you "march to your own drummer". I can't think of another cliche about being unique or I'd put it in here.  But you get the point. One day, that uniqueness will get noticed, and you may well stand apart as someone who has a talent or an ability or a skill that's exactly what someone is looking for. And maybe they wouldn't have noticed if you followed the norm, the "rules". 
  • You do not have to be all chipper/24-7 optimist/hell yeah fist pump in order to be successful. Nor do you have to be extroverted. You can be quietly doing your own thing, slowly making your mark. You can be changing one aspect or even one life at a time, without much, if any, fanfare. 
  • All the inspirational quotes in the world won't make you a success (unless you strive to be successful as an inspirational quote writer). It doesn't mean that they aren't important. Helping inspire people is incredibly important. But authenticity, or lack thereof, shines through eventually. Make sure that, above all, you're being you. Whoever that is. 
Now, I'm not knocking people who read business books, or run at 5AM (I do work out around that time, but that's due to enjoying food and being an insomniac, not in a 'successful" effort). This is nothing against those who color within the lines or are super optimistic all of the time.  But sometimes, especially when you battle illness, these can be nearly impossible. That's OK. You can still be plenty successful. There's no formula, no right or wrong way. You do you. That, perhaps, is the only rule I will follow for success. 

"Be yourself. No one can say you're doing it wrong."  ~Charles M. Schultz

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

On Those Days When You Just Want To Run Away

I know the feeling. There are days that you wake up and you think, "I just can't do this." It's not a specific task or job or anything - it's just this. All of this. There often isn't a specific "reason" per se. It's not that you're in so much more pain than the day before. It's not that anything traumatic has happened. It's just that life is looming. Closing in on you. Sometimes, it's a last straw. One more thing goes wrong, and you just. can't. take it.

When this happens, there seems only one plausibility: run. You think that if you could just up and leave, start a new life, maybe you could outrun illness. You picture this new life in which you're in some new town or foreign city, where you've somehow managed to make work everything that you can't now. In this new life, you're not socially anxious - you can actually talk to people and make friends. In this new life, you can actually handle stressful situations without melting down and crying. In this new life, you have skills and talents that actually make you feel like you have something to offer. And you have confidence that make you feel "worth it", able, capable. And you actually are. You feel that if you could just start fresh, you'd be OK. You'd be able to get up in the morning without dread. You wouldn't feel so dark and lonely and alone. You wouldn't be so anxious, so fearful.

Now let me clarify, this generally has nothing to do with specifics. It's not that you're unhappy with your friends or family or partner. It's not that you dislike your job. It's not that you're ungrateful and think you have it so bad, or lack perspective. It's just that you physically, mentally, emotionally need to get the hell out of dodge, and you feel like you'll break if you don't.

I'm not going to sit here and give you platitudes. You'll get no "but there are starving children in Africa" guilt from me. Because that's not the issue. You know it's not, and I know it's not. The issue is that you feel like you just don't belong in your life.  Those closest to me will often hear me say, in my darkest moments, how I feel that I don't belong in this world. Like I was born in the wrong century in the wrong place, and that no matter how far I wander, I'll never feel at home. Because even if I get to the right place, wherever that is, I'll still be in the wrong century. It feels like I'm hollow, unfulfilled. Like until I find the "right" place and time I can't understand why I'm here. It feels lonely and isolating, and worst of all, I blame myself for it. It feels that if I can just run far enough, maybe I can outrun that self-blame. But that no amount of "you do so much good" or other similar words will help. The only words that could possibly help would be "wherever you run to, I'm going with you" (by someone close - otherwise that's called a stalker). Because at least I know I wouldn't be alone.

I wish I had a solution to offer. I don't. But I can tell you that I know what it's like. And if it helps you to vent to me, to tell me all about where you'd run to and what you'd do and what you dream of your life being, then I'm happy to listen. Imagination can offer hope, and sometimes, it's enough hope to lessen the need to run away.  Or perhaps knowing that someone else understands helps you to feel less alone. Less estranged from everyday life, from the world as a whole. The only other thing that I can suggest is to create a system of "mini breaks". Perhaps it's that you have a notebook, or a bulletin board, or a jar in which you toss written suggestions of those ways to give yourself a mini break without actually having to run away. Maybe it's going for an actual run. Maybe it's taking a drive, or a day trip out of the immediate area. Maybe it's doing something fun that you don't often do - something that reminds you of your childhood, or a happier time. Perhaps it's simply writing out your feelings, or daydreaming with a friend. Try to think of those things that could take the edge off the need to run away. They may not solve it all together, but they may give temporary reprieve. Hopefully, the need will eventually pass. I realize that doesn't offer a ton of hope, but it is, unfortunately, the best I have. And always, know that you aren't alone.

Friday, May 12, 2017

What I Wish You Understood About Chronic Fatigue

I don't write about it often, but I've battled chronic fatigue syndrome since the time I was 11 years old. I got Epstein Barre virus, and basically it never went away. It simply morphed into CFS, which is one of those odd things that illnesses can do. Morphed probably isn't the technical term, but I don't think they really know what caused it, so it's as technical as I can get.

CFS, also referred to as Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME), is an often misunderstood illness. We often hear statements like, "Well everyone gets tired" or "You just need to get more sleep". Sometimes it's "Tell me about it, I've been so busy" or my "favorite" (i.e. the one that makes me want to smack you/vomit) "Welcome to my life," followed by a litany of how they're so busy with work and PTA meetings and little league baseball and their side business selling jewelry or leggings or whatever.  Decidedly NOT listed in that list is chronic illness.  I want to make some super snarky comment about how PTA meetings must really feel like hell (in fairness, they probably would to me), but I keep it to myself, on the off chance they're not telling me about a chronic illness they do in fact have. But still, there are clearly a lot of misconceptions about ME/CFS, and I'd like to explain what it actually feels like, at least to me.
  • I'm not just tired or sleepy. I'm not even just physically exhausted. There are times when I feel like someone has drained the blood from my body, making it impossible to function. I'm physically, mentally, emotionally exhausted to the point that just doing something, but thinking about doing something, is too much to bear. 
  • There are physical symptoms (in addition to the exhaustion). I get mysterious numbness in my hands and fingers, I get swollen lymph nodes under my arms, and at times it can hurt to put my arms down by my sides.
  • My limbs feel weak and unimaginably heavy. 
  • Sleep often doesn't help. Sure, it helps compared to not getting sleep, but that would be the same for anyone - all humans need some sleep. But it seems at times like I can never get enough sleep. And yet I'm not sleepy - not as in yawning, maybe I'll take a quick nap sleepy. I'm completely drained. There weeks I nap every day after work and go to bed by 9PM and still, it seems like it's not enough. 
  • There are headaches and joint pain that almost become "just part of how you feel". I honestly, and I'm being 100 percent serious here, cannot remember the last time I didn't have a headache, or that my body didn't hurt.  
  • It's not always when I'm busy or running around. I can be relaxing at home and feel barely able to move. 
To be clear, I'm not saying that those with hectic schedules and three kids and two jobs aren't legitimately tired - or even exhausted. I'm sure they are, in fact. I'm asking them simply not to dismiss the way I feel because "they know what it's like" or "everyone gets tired."  They do not know what it's like, unless they battle illness exhaustion, because it it's a different type of exhaustion all together. And perhaps everyone gets tired (in fact I'm sure they do) - but that minimizes an illness that can at times be debilitating.  I wouldn't minimize your asthma because I'm winded after I go for a run. You're lack of breath is an illness. Mine is being out of shape, at least when it comes to running. This is the same thing, and I'm asking people to be a bit more aware and understanding.

Why am I writing about this now? Because May 12th is International Awareness Day for Chronic Immunological and Neurological Diseases, including Me/CFS, Fibromyalgia, Golf War Syndrome, and Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (I don't know about the other illnesses to write on them, so will let others do so). It's incredibly important that we bring awareness to these illnesses, which are so frequently brushed off when "we don't look sick".

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Today, I Empathized With A Mouse

Some background:  My fiance and I (and our dog) are currently staying with my parents while our condo is under kitchen and bathroom renovation (complete tear down and rebuild). Over the past few weeks, we've noticed that something other than ourselves and our dog has been munching on the food in their pantry. Now if you know anything about me, you know I'm a strict vegetarian that literally can't hurt a fly. But I also understand that my parents don't want mice traipsing, among other things, around in their food.

My parents, being the good people they are and knowing that I can't stand to see a creature harmed, put out sticky paper so that they don't have to kill the mouse, but can manage to relocate it outside. This morning, a mouse, being unknowingly obliging, got his or her foot stuck on the sticky paper. My parents shielded me from it by telling me to stay downstairs, so that I didn't see the mouse struggling at all, while they brought it outside, extricated it's foot from the paper, and set it free in what seemed as safe a spot as they could. And I love my parents for doing the most humane thing possible outside of just letting a mouse wander through and poop in their food, potentially spreading any disease that goes along with this.  But still, I broke down. 

It wasn't really about the mouse. Yes, I was sad for it. Being the highly sensitive person and empath that I am, I hated the idea of a living creature experiencing any pain or discomfort. But more than that, I empathized. I pictured that poor mouse stuck, having no idea why, with no clue of what to do, trying in vain to move and run but being trapped - not in an actual trap, but by its inability to go anywhere, struggling for the little movement it had managed to obtain, all the time confused about what had happened to it. And in that moment, I felt just like that mouse. 

Lately, that's exactly how I feel. Depression, anxiety, and mood cycling can stop you in your tracks. There are days, weeks, months where you can try as hard as humanly possible and you can't break out of it. No matter how much wonderful you have in your life, no matter how grateful you are for the support you have and the good things that come your way, it doesn't matter. The sadness takes over, the anxiety sets in, the cycles continue despite every attempt to stop them. Your life seems to halt, even though the world goes on without your feeling able to participate in it, at least not as you wish you could. You feel that you're going nowhere, that you have no hope, that you aren't able or capable. It feels as if everyone else is, and somehow you just fail - like someone else could do exactly what you do and they'd be successful and moving forward, but when you do, there's nothing. Some days, you just don't feel like you have the energy to even try to fight it. Like you're that mouse, and you eventually realize that all your struggling to move just takes precious energy that you're already lacking. 

And on top of all of this, unlike the mouse, you often must try to pretend it's not happening. It's not acceptable to spend your days curled in the corner of your office crying, unable to interact with coworkers or clients. Or maybe there are those who don't understand, and when around them you feel it's easier to just put on the mask. Or perhaps you're simply tired of everyone thinking of you as "that person who's so depressed and anxious that they can't handle anything." Do you know how frustrating it is when people assume you're anxious even when you're joking and happy? But they're so used to you being worried about everything that even what sounds like a joke to you comes off to them as seriously upset. Even in your happy moments, when they come, you have to deal with the results of depression and anxiety. And so you just smile and nod and say you're OK, until those days when you can't. Then, you do those things you absolutely feel you must, and then quietly retreat, cocooning in yourself in an attempt to heal through isolation. 

I realize that this is a lot to get from a mouse with it's foot on some sticky paper. And there may be some ever-optimistic people who say "But look, the mouse got out free! Your parents made sure it was safe!" And that did make me happy. It managed to bring a bright spot into an otherwise incredibly tough morning. But the difference between me and the mouse is, there's nobody who can ensure I will be Ok. They can help me along the way. They can support me. They can be there for me on the days that I'm not, and they can try to lift me back up. And perhaps nobody can ensure that the mouse is OK either - nobody knows what happens to it after it ends up in the field, and that's life for all of us. But in that moment, we could. We could take care of that little mouse and set him or her free, and hopefully he or she felt like it had a new chance at life. I'm sure there are people ready with platitudes to say things like "Every day you wake up is a new day and a new chance at life". But that's not true, not really. Because I still wake up as depressed or as anxious, or I'm still cycling badly. There's nothing new about it, and that's the trouble. I'm stuck in that trap. Nobody can magically set me free and say "Go, run, live! You're saved!" And while a week from now that mouse may have no memory of the sticky paper on which it struggled, there's not a day that goes by that I can forget the illnesses I battle, even if they're just kind of sitting there quietly on the periphery.  And so many days I wish someone could just say "You are too precious to hurt, even though you don't really belong here. So we're going to save you. And once again you'll be where you belong, running free." 

Sunday, May 7, 2017

What If I'm Not Ready To Talk About Mental Health?

As a mental health advocate, my opinions on mental health conversations are obviously a bit one-sided. I wouldn't be much of a mental health advocate if I told people not talk about mental health. But as much as I want to tell everyone they should loudly voice their support, I also need to understand that some people might not be ready, and I have to respect that every individual is different.  But I'd like to help. So first off, let me ask you why? Without knowing why, I can't give any guidance. Here are a few of the most common answers I hear.

Is it because you are afraid of repercussion? From friends, family, your work, other sources? 

Is it because you are a private person, and would be unsure of talking about any illness, physical or mental? 

Is it because you don't know how to? 

Is it because you're afraid of being vulnerable? 

Is it because once you step across that threshold you can't go back? 

Is it because you are afraid of being defined by your illness? 

Is it because you're afraid of what you might learn about yourself? About your loved ones? 

Is it because you're afraid you can't make a difference? 

Let me be the first one to say, these are all understandable reasons. When you begin to talk about mental health, a lot changes. It takes incredible strength and courage to do so. Let me address each of these fears as candidly as I can.

  • This could happen. Technically, the ADA protects you at work, but it doesn't protect you from people's attitudes towards you. And it doesn't protect you at all when it comes to family and friends. Before you speak out, please know this. I would not be a good advocate if I pretended it was all roses and rainbows. But I will also tell you that as much as some people may surprise you with their lack of support, there will be people who surprise with support you never imagined. People that I never thought even paid attention to me have reached out to not only offer support, but to share their own stories.  I've reconnected with numerous people from my past, and I've made some wonderful new friends. Remember that one out of every four people in the U.S. has a mental health condition. To understand the full impact of this, next time you're in a room with four other people, look around - one of those people, statistically at least, has a mental health condition. And like you, they may feel unsure and alone. By sharing your story, you let them know that they're not. 
  • There are absolutely ways to support mental health without having to overtly tell your own story, especially to start with. You can begin by donating to an organization or or sharing a social media post. If a friend is participating in a walk or an event, supporting them shows just that - you support them, and because it's important to them, and they're important to you, it is, by extension, important to you. 
  • This is the easiest one to answer: Ask. Us advocates are always sharing ideas. You don't have to reinvent the wheel, just join in. 
  • This is unavoidable, I'm sorry to say. When you open up about something, you're vulnerable. But please do not confuse vulnerability with weakness. It is anything but. It takes incredible strength to make yourself vulnerable, especially in the face of stigma. 
  • Also true. But I promise that the first step is the most difficult. If you'd like, think of advocacy as you would a physical goal - say, running a 5K. First, you have to say "Ok, I'm going to start running." Then, you have to get dressed in your running attire and leave the house. The first day, you may only make it a couple of blocks, or less. But now, you know you're physically capable of running, even if just a block or two for now. Each time you get dressed and go running, it becomes less scary. So no, you can't go back - just like once you go for a run you can't ever say "I've never gone for a run in my life." But you don't have to sprint out of the gates either. And you can hold steady at any point. There's nothing that says you have to run every single day (or nothing that forces you to at least). And there's nothing that says every advocacy action has to be grand. Dip your toes in, and go from there. 
  • There are two types of people who will define you by your illness: those who don't know/understand, and those who are determined to stigmatize. The first group, you can educate. Those are actually the people you want to reach, so if you find them, take it as an opportunity - people who are open to learning, but they just truly don't understand. People don't know what they don't know, and this is where advocacy can truly make a huge impact. This is your chance to really explain, to help them learn. Maybe even get them involved somehow if they're receptive - experience is the best teacher.  Ask if they want to participate in a walk, or some other activity that you're doing. It doesn't have to be anything monumental.  The second group, those who are determined to stigmatize, have made up their mind. It's unlikely that anything you do can change it. So don't waste your energy trying to.  They aren't the people who want to surround yourself with so, don't, unless you absolutely have to. And most importantly, make sure that both of these groups know that you don't define yourself by your illness. Leading by example is always the best way, and sometimes, even if people understand a concept in theory they need to see what it looks like in action. 
Talking about Mental Health, especially as it relates to ourselves, can be scary. In fact, it often is, especially to start with. And as much as I wish everyone was ready to talk about it, and to others hear about it, I understand that they're not. So start with yourself. Write it in a journal, or even a private document (Word doc, private blog, etc) that nobody else has access to. There are even apps to get you started. Start describing your feelings, your emotions. If you are diagnosed, start using the terms of your diagnosis - depression, anxiety, mood disorder, whatever your condition is. Hearing yourself say these, seeing yourself write them on paper, makes it less intimidating - kind of like that first run. Sometimes, the most difficult person to tell our story to is ourselves, so start there. In time, I hope you'll be ready to talk about mental health. You can always reach out to me as a start. I am happy to listen. 

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Why Mental Health Month Is So Important

Yesterday was May 1, so I'm a bit tardy. My days have been incredibly long, and I haven't had a ton of time for blogging, but I'm trying to prioritize it once again. May is Mental Health Month, and that's important, and so it's pushing me to pick up my pen and paper open up my blog page, and start raising my virtual voice.

Why is Mental Health Month so critical? Quite simply, because we shouldn't need it. We shouldn't need a month that tells people it's OK to talk about mental health. We shouldn't need a month to work on eliminating stigma. We shouldn't need statistics that tell us how prevalent mental health conditions are, or how many people take their lives each year - each day even -when people try to deny that mental health is a priority. We shouldn't need to explain at length, ad nauseam, why mental health is no different than physical health when it comes to how we should be treated, both as people, and actually medically treated. We shouldn't have to be fighting to take a sick day for our depression, when nobody would bat an eye at us taking a sick day for the flu. We shouldn't have to explain that we can't just think happy thoughts or smile more or calm down or look on the bright side or be more grateful. We sure as hell don't need to be told to just pray about it and we'll be "saved" - we need therapy, medication, understanding, concern, people taking us seriously, not an exorcism.  But we do have to do this. All of this. Sometimes on a daily basis.

We have to listen to "well everyone gets depressed", or "we all get anxiety", by people who think that depression and anxiety really mean being "down in the dumps" or simply stressed.  We have to listen to people say things like "omg she keeps changing her mind, it's like she's bipolar" (yes, I just used "omg" in a post, because to me, that's the least ridiculous part of that statement). We have to hear phrases like "I'm so OCD today; I think my ADD is acting up today (when they have neither); I'm so depressed I have nothing to wear to this party." While we sit there not wanting to get out of bed, not feeling like there's a point to our lives, like people would be better off if we just never existed. I don't have OCD or ADD, so I won't pretend to know what it's like to have those, and to hear these comments. It must be frustrating as hell.

We're constantly bombarded with the media creating monsters out of illnesses, touting how people with a mental health condition are violent, oblivious of the fact that people with a mental health condition are 10 times more like to be victims of a crime than perpetrators. But there's no media that will stand up and say that, so we have to listen to it. And then we have to listen to people - often people we know, sometimes even those we are close to- believe it and worse, repeat it.

This is why we need Mental Health Month. And we will need mental health advocacy not just during this month but every single day, year round until this type of stigma goes away. Thank you for listening to my rant/vent, I am much obliged. Now please, get out there with me and help me fight this stigma.