Why I scroll past mental illness denial memes. (Thoughts on happiness as a state of being.)

Self-help has good intentions, but I think it’s gotten a little out of hand. I mean, I shouldn’t be, but I’m still kind of astonished when I scroll through social media and see that suddenly, everyone has become a life coach.

Wisdom wrapped up in little square boxes. I post memes, too, sometimes. The last one I posted said, “Reading can seriously damage your ignorance.” Most of the few I’ve posted have been fitness-related.

My pet peeve of the self-help meme universe is the genre I think of as “mental illness denial.” At the tired center of this genre, you get phrases like, “Happiness is a choice.” “Happiness is a choice, not a result.” “Today I choose to be happy.” “Happiness is not a feeling, but a choice.” And so on. I know that these are meant to serve as motivational, but I have a hard time with this category.

Happiness isn’t always a choice when you’re clinically or acutely depressed. The opposite of happiness is depression, and depression isn’t a choice, either. Happiness and depression are states of being, states unalterable by neat and tidy little happiness instructions. Glib quotes like “happiness is a choice” or “today I choose to be happy” can’t loosen bleakness embedded in your consciousness.

Dear Everyone Living with Mental Illness:

It’s not your fault if you can’t attain happiness by simply waking up and stating an intention to choose it that day. You’re not a failure. We know that “Today I choose to be happy” can’t account for a day that hasn’t happened yet. We know that a conscious navigation of our thoughts toward a mindset of happiness just isn’t possible all of the time.

Scroll on by those pebbles of wisdom online, because the last thing you need in front of your face when you’re struggling with depression is a meme suggesting that it’s your own fault if you’re not happy.

I get you.

What we might be able to attain is a state of being okay in specific instances; it’s worth floundering between anger and sadness in the process of talking ourselves into okayness with the situation. We have to get brave and get real with ourselves, and this can be difficult. It comes down to mental strength, an especially relatable concept for the mentally ill, as “okay” is more of a mindset into which we can will ourselves. For us, “okay” is “well.” Wellness is a solid aspiration.

Happiness is a state of being. It’s my humble opinion that the declaration “Happiness is a choice” cheapens the experience of being happy. I think it makes happiness superficial. (I may be interpreting the word differently than you do. Do you feel that happiness is the same as joyfulness? As contentment?)

We all have our definitions, interpretations, and strategies to get us through. A few of mine:

1). I work on reaching a state of okayness, and then I seize on that and do what I can with it. Okayness is a good foundation for me. It’s something I can top off with music, for instance… and then I can derive joy from those moments. It’s always the little things.

2). It sometimes helps to throw together a list of joyful little things, just quickly, without thinking about it. Reading over such a list can be soothing. I free-wrote a list for this post. It came out looking like this (in no particular order):

music.
poetry.
stories: fiction and creative non-fiction, whether depicted on the page or on a screen.
plants.
animals and their rights.
fitness and combat sports training.
paranormal, horror, thriller, action.
lipstick, band shirts, skin care.
sumo and mma.
desert and the sea.
black, gunmetal gray, periwinkle and other blue-violets.
tortoises.
cats.
volcanos.
albatross!
the zombie emoji.
food writing.
zodiac.
blueberry scented anything.
anticipation.
buddha.

3). I take a cliché of vague resignation like “Life is full of mysteries” and I tag “mysteries make life interesting” at the end. Then I have something of intrigue to ponder, rather than the hopeless quality of the mystery, itself.

4). I take optimism carefully. I’m all for optimism, but I’m even more for cautious optimism.

“Happiness is a choice” – not that easy. Such declarations in these self-help memes don’t account for we who battle depression. Don’t let them make you feel worse. We know we can experience moments of happiness… days of happiness, even. As for those other days, well, we shouldn’t be hard on ourselves. We know that we’re trying.

Love,
Kristi

~~~~~

Afternote: this pic is the last you’ll see of me in these glasses. Yeah, I got new ones. New prescription, new frames. It’s the little things.

 

Retired glasses. [23 February 2019)

 

 

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“That one time I went to the shrink…” (My worst therapist experiences!)

You’ve likely had at least one negative therapist experience if you’ve been in therapy for any length of time. This is normal; no one meshes with everyone. It’s like psych medication… you have to find what works for you. I’ve been lucky to have had mostly good experiences with my counselors over years of on-and-off therapy.

I do have a couple of bad experiences to share, though, so I thought I’d go ahead and do that since I regularly discuss my mental health adventures in this space. Moreover, I know it can help to hear about others’ bad experiences!

Let me say that my two unfortunate therapist experiences weren’t bad in the usual ways. That’s how my life works. I can’t just have a normal bad therapist experience. It has to be a really freaking bizarre therapist experience, maybe more bizarre than bad.

First, there was:

  • The shrink who ghosted me.

I’d gone to this counselor for several months. I thought we had a good rapport, so I was surprised when I went to my appointment one day and she stood me up… as in, I knocked on the office’s front door, and she didn’t come to answer it. She was there. I knew she was there. I could see the light on in her office through the glass. She just didn’t come to the door! I even called her as I stood outside. Maybe she can’t hear me knocking. She didn’t answer her phone.

We later re-scheduled. The same thing happened again. I don’t remember if there was a third time, but for all of her apologies and excuses, I never saw her again.

To be ghosted by someone in your personal life is one thing. (I’ve had it happen to me, and I’m guilty of having done it, myself. Not proud of it. Just being real.) But by a counselor? A therapist? I’d never heard of any professional in the field of mental health doing this kind of thing to a client.

You place your trust in your therapist, right? Trust is a fundamental of the therapist/patient relationship. That’s why you keep going back. You’ve established trust, and you’re confident that you’re in a safe place free of judgement. Trusting this particular counselor turned out to be a mistake. After those last experiences, I felt worse than I did before I started going to her.

I might as well have wired $1,000 to a Nigerian prince to get the riches promised, only to discover the scam and find myself $1,000 poorer.

 

Next:

  • The shrink who lectured me for an hour about the evils of gluten.

He was an interim counselor, so it was the one and only time I saw him. But during that one appointment, all he did was try to convert me to a gluten-free lifestyle.

His proselytizing had nothing to do with mental health. What happened was he started out reviewing my list of medications, noticed that I was seeing a rheumatologist for autoimmune issues, and decided that I could easily cure myself of everything. All I had to do was go gluten-free. Miracles happen once you quit consuming gluten. I spent the rest of the session receiving an education for which I never signed up.

And I mean, he went on at length into biochemical detail, even showing me anatomy graphics to illustrate how gluten was wreaking havoc on my immune system and destroying my body from the inside out. His conviction was profound. A true evangelist, he made sure to pull out a pamphlet for me to take home. His passion for the gluten-free lifestyle bordered on fervor that almost edged me out of the room, but I sat frozen in awe. Without a doubt, this was the most bizarre and unhelpful counseling session I’d ever attended.

Seriously, I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried! Rest assured, most of my experiences have been good, if not excellent. The two that I’ve shared above are anomalies… don’t let them deter you if you’re thinking of seeking assistance. Talk therapy does many worlds of good. It does help.

 

 

Conquering the day. (On chronic depression.)

My next shrink appointment is in August, and I have a feeling it’s going to be a long two months.

There’s no cure for clinical depression. Coping mechanisms are the currency we need to survive. We look within and gather what we can, learning from ourselves. We learn from others, too… mental health professionals, counselors, clergy, friends, family. We look to individuals we admire, gaining inspiration from them. And, of course, there’s the internet, always ready with advice and “life hacks.”

Certainly, coping mechanisms and strategies and inspiration can be found online. That stuff abounds in books and videos, too. We have popular culture contributors, historians, philosophers, teachers, poets and writers, celebrities of all sorts, and spiritual sages and practitioners and self-help gurus whose words of wisdom are posted as adages meant to uplift or even save us.

I’ve written about a few adages I find to be helpful. I haven’t mentioned those that I find to be detrimental, though. There are a few out there that I think are really just not good. Some adages or tidbits of “wisdom” (often displayed as memes) only serve to show you that you are to blame for your own depression. I saw one on Instagram recently – the one that spawned this post:

“If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.” (attributed to Lao Tzu)

We’re constantly looking for those coping mechanisms, for ways to survive depression. When we see these kinds of adages, we think, well… maybe that person isn’t aware that they’re trivializing the struggle by placing pithy quotes before our eyes, suggesting that if we wanted to, we could change our outlook or perspective and just “get over it.”

We’re happy for those who are well, and we know that many of them mean well, but those who are well aren’t helping when they (inadvertently or otherwise) wellsplain our lives to us. The last thing we need to be told is that we’re doing life wrong.

Unfortunately, there’s no “how to” when it comes to being happy. There’s only a how to cope. How to get by. Clinical depression presents like any other chronic illness: we go through spans of time that feel “normal” and fine. We can feel good and at peace. Then there are the dark spells. The dark spells are tough to work through. I lean on gratitude and love, purpose and intent, anticipation and music, working out, reading and writing, “little things” and those adages that do help. But general happiness is a unicorn in the forest of the depressed.

Each trial through mental illness is individual, because the people living with those illnesses are individuals. There is no panacea for mental illness, and if there is, it’s just not going to arrive in a meme. I know it’s easy to misunderstand depression and think that the depressed can just “get over it.” I wish that it worked that way. It just doesn’t.

Depression can be managed, though. I’m doing a pretty good job at managing it, a fact that I can recognize even though I’m in a dark spell.

 

Conquering the day.

 

Speaking of life hack memes, is there one for how to not eat a whole box of Medjool dates in one sitting?

 

May Favorites!

I’m not sure how to sum up the month of May. Mental health real talk: May was the white serial killer van creeping slowly down the street in front of your office window; you’re mesmerized by a combination of horror and morbid fascination as you wonder when it’s going to stop, and what you’ll see when it does. The van doesn’t stop, though. It keeps going, slowly, and when it disappears from view, you’re relieved, but you wish you’d seen more. Then June rolls around in the form of another serial killer van, and now you’re wondering whether you should ask for an adjustment to your depression medication cocktail.

In other words, ugh. This is what “Little Things” are for, right? Here are some of the Little Things that I enjoyed in May:

 

1). Ali Wong: Hard Knock Wife (Netflix)

 

 

Some hilarity was in order. We got it by watching this. BEWARE if you have delicate sensibilities. Ali does not hold back!

 

2). A Quiet Place (film)

 

 

We finally made it out to a movie, and we picked a good one. It’s immensely gratifying when a horror film turns out to be good and not cheesy at all, like this one, though I love cheesy horror flicks, too.

 

3). The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu, S2)

 

 

I probably noted the first time around that the phenomenal The Handmaid’s Tale is visually stunning, and that you could hit “pause” anywhere and it’s like you’re looking at a Vermeer painting. Season 2 follows suit.

 

4). Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist (Netflix)

 

 

Netflix’ real-life crime drama docuseries game is strong.

 

5). Cobra Kai (YouTube Red)

 

 

Cobra Kai is a current day “where are they now” blast that puts you back in the 80’s because the main character is stuck there.

 

6). The Americans (FX) Series Finale (S6)

 

 

The Americans series finale couldn’t have been better, in our opinion. We’re sad that it’s over, but it had to end at some point, I suppose.

 

 

Philip and Elizabeth in the final scene of the very last episode of The Americans.

 

7). Sumo/Natsu Basho (May 2018 Grand Sumo Tournament) and Tochinoshin’s promotion to Ozeki.

 

Tochinoshin (actual name: Levan Gorgadze)

 

We’re big Tochinoshin fans, as you may recall if you’ve been here for a while, so we were thrilled to witness Tochinoshin’s historic promotion to Ozeki (Sumo’s 2nd-highest rank) at the end of his spectacular May tournament.

 

 

The wonderful tribute video above doesn’t include Tochinoshin’s most notable victory of the May Basho (for reasons of respect, I would guess), so I’m posting another video showing that match. This is his win over the formidable Yokozuna Hakuho. Yokozuna is Sumo’s highest rank. A Yokozuna is basically like a god in Japan.

 

 

8). Cherry season.

Cherry season is when Dad drives 1.5 hours to the cherry orchards in Brentwood (CA) and picks pounds and pounds of cherries and sends a big box of them to me, and then I know that we’re on the verge of summer, because I can taste it. Cherries are my favorite fruit. Callaghan doesn’t like them, so these were all for me.

 

Rainier cherries and another type whose name I can’t remember. The deep red-black Bing cherries come later in the season.

 

9). Popcorn with nuts.

 

popcorn and nuts

 

I started dumping roasted, salted mixed nuts on top of my popcorn, and it’s so very satisfying.

 

Alas, I could only come up with nine Things this time. They were outstanding. They were more than enough.

What do you get when you cross a flamingo and a ukulele? My office.

I had a hard mental health day on Friday, and all of the late-afternoon popcorn and Perrier couldn’t fix it. Neither did it help that that was the day I decided to watch Childish Gambino’s “This is America” video. Excellent song and video. Bad timing.

But then things got better, because when I woke up the next day, it was a gym morning and it was Mother’s Day weekend. I got cards from Nenette, Geronimo, and Callaghan, and for my main gift, Callaghan took me to Home Depot and said I could go crazy and choose any plant I wanted, emphasis on “any”! I chose this tall guy and named him “Flamingo”:

 

Flamingo! (He’s a Dracaena ‘Massangeana’)

 

My desk now, as seen from the doorway:

 

Four of my nine office companions, from left: Holder, Flamingo, Icarus, Thoreau

 

At some point, I’ll do an updated office tour and take you around to see all of my companions of the chlorophyllous persuasion. Two of them have joined me since my last such update, and some of the older ones have migrated to different spots.

Also, you may be noticing that there’s a ukulele sitting next to my desk. Yes, I’ve brought the ukulele back into the light! I haven’t dusted it off yet, but it’s out. That white binder on the shelf above it is a lesson book. Mom gave these to me, as some of you may recall, and I proceeded to capitalize on the opportunity to share some of my favorite ukulele jokes.

i.e. (from my previous blog post about the ukulele):

What’s the difference between a ukulele and a trampoline? You take off your shoes to jump up and down on a trampoline.

What’s “perfect pitch”? When you throw the ukulele into the garbage can without hitting the rim.

What do you call a beautiful woman on a ukulele player’s arm? A tattoo.

And my personal favorite:

A ukulele player suddenly realizes he left his vintage ukulele out in his car overnight. He rushes outside and his heart drops when he sees that his car window is broken. Fearing the worst, he peeks through the window and finds that there are now five ukuleles in his car.

I still love to laugh at the ukulele, but I do respect it, and I’ve decided to learn to play it. Going through my old rhythm and timing workbooks, composer collections, and sheet music made me realize how much I miss doing music. Self, I said one day recently – yesterday, in fact – why don’t you learn to play that beautiful, new ukulele Mom gave you? Why not.

I’m sure I’ll be back with ukulele-learning updates for any of you who may be interested; I can’t wait to laugh at myself as much as I laugh at the ukulele.

Oh, and my second Mother’s Day gift was a new tool box! Callaghan knew that I wasn’t thrilled with the one I’d been using. My new one (which I chose) is shiny and black and spacious and lovely. I should’ve taken a pic of it, too.

I hope you’re all having a great start to your week!

On minimizing “decision-fatigue.” (Mental wellness post!)

One day, in the third week of April 2017, I figured out what I’d wear to the gym each workout day of the following week. I wrote it all down. It was life-changing. I’ve since kept up the practice: once a week, I plan and list my gym outfits in a notebook (to keep track), gather the clothing, put them together in neat little bundles, and place them in the drawer in the order of the workouts. This completely eliminates having to think about what to wear to the gym as I’m getting ready to go.

This might make it sound like I have gym-clothing fashion concerns, but I do not. What I have is limited time and a limited mental/creative energy capacity each day.

No matter how little I care about my gym attire, I still have to decide what to put on. It’s a small, inconsequential decision, but it’s still a decision. Toward the end of the day, small and inconsequential decisions have added up, and then I start to make poor decisions, or I struggle to make decisions at all anymore. It could be that when it’s late-afternoon and I find myself stressed and unable to pinpoint a cause, I’m actually looking at decision-fatigue.

Why do couples sometimes bicker (stereotypically) over what to have for dinner? Maybe because they’re both at the end of a long day of making hundreds of little decisions, and they’re decision-exhausted and hangry. Decision-fatigue is a documented phenomenon; I’ve found web pages devoted to it.

As I said, my habit of putting gym clothes together a week in advance has been life-changing. It helps immensely that getting dressed for the gym involves only opening a drawer and pulling out the bundle on top. Zero decisions, minimal time. Even if I know what I’m going to wear, I’d still have to search for the pieces (t-shirts and pants – told you I didn’t care about gym fashion!) if they weren’t already bundled together.

 

Minimizing decision-fatigue: gym outfit prep, week-in-advance

 

This week-in-advance planning and prep – as opposed to multiple night-befores – allows me to devote my mental/creative energy and time to writing. Early mornings are especially precious to me; my primary focus each day starts with my “morning pages,” which consist of whatever part of my project I have in front of me. (Usually, it’s a single chapter.)

Gym-clothing planning is just an example. I’ve made it a point to try to be aware of other little decisions that feed on my energy levels throughout the day, and to get ahead of these decisions by strategizing accordingly. Because of my new awareness, I’ve returned to the habit of making daily lists of things to do. I might know what I have to do, but having the list in front of me saves me time and mental energy.

This leads me to a tangent: I don’t consider decisions to be distractions. There’s always a time and reason for distractions. Callaghan’s the same way! Perhaps we who work in creative realms need distractions because we’re easily over-saturated with our creations. Distractions carry me into a different head-space… they wipe the slate clean, so to speak. When the text is no longer at the forefront of my mind, I can start the next writing session and see what I couldn’t see before.

With that, I’m going to slam the door shut on this topic, because I can sense other tangents rising up!

Happy Friday Eve, everyone.

Getting personal: autoimmune disease. (Sjögren’s syndrome)

Though I’ve mentioned it in recent posts, my current medical situation has been a big enough part of my life that it warrants a post of its own, I guess, for anyone who might be interested. I’ve spent most of my adult life dealing with autoimmunity, working around various symptoms until receiving my diagnoses with Sjögren’s syndrome and autoimmune thyroiditis (hypothyroidism). I used to write about my Sjögren’s syndrome a lot. I haven’t written about it at length in years.

I felt fine when I left the country in 2011 and stopped taking my medication (hydroxichloroquine – Plaquenil, in my case), and I assumed that I was in remission. A few years later, I came back to the Land of AZ and went to my optometrist for a routine vision check. He informed me that as far as my eyes were concerned, I never went into remission. (Telling myself that I was in remission sure helped me to feel like I was in remission, though!)

Musculoskeletal symptoms started up again toward the end of 2016, along with worsening “brain fog.” I’d entered an autoimmune disease “flare,” and it left no room for denial. Weird things started to happen, as they do with autoimmunity. When the middle of one finger turned blue one night (“Idiopathic Blue Finger,” diagnosed the E.R. doctor – not Raynaud’s, which I also have), I returned to the rheumatologist, who put me back on hydroxichloroquine (again, Plaquenil). I shrugged my shoulders and pressed forward. I had a rough draft to finish! It was the thing that was causing my stress, but it had to get done.

Toward the end of 2017, my immune system went into overdrive again, even as I diligently took my daily dose of hydroxichloroquine.

2018’s been more difficult, yet. The last three months have revolved around some of the most painful attacks on my joints I can remember, some of it incapacitating. My agenda jammed up with medical appointments and testing of various sorts, as my rheumatologist wanted to rule out the development of other autoimmune disorders before deciding on our next course of action. Let me just say that my rheumatologist at the Phoenix V.A. has been the best I’ve ever had! She’s fantastic. Autoimmunity is something that can gather steam with time and generate additional disorders, so it’s good to re-check everything when things go awry.

Genetics likely play a role here, by the way, and I think I know the source of mine: when we met, my bio-mom told me that I physically take after my father’s mother’s family (the Ashcrofts, in England). I would love to meet them and find out who’s had what autoimmune disease. I’m assuming there’d be something to learn.

It’s pretty easy for me to dismiss my symptoms. I’ve had dry eyes for so long that I forget that it’s a part of my disease. A lot of people have dry eye syndrome without having Sjögren’s. It’s “my normal” to be unable to open my eyes in the morning until I put in artificial tears. (I might have stopped taking the hydroxichloroquine when I moved to France, but I’ve never stopped with the eye drops.) Since I push myself in the gym, it’s easy to assign blame to my workouts when I experience bouts of musculoskeletal pain. I focus when I work out. I don’t consider that I’m dealing with Sjögren’s symptoms. I don’t want to go there in my mind.

I don’t feel sick, for the most part. There’s a general malaise sometimes. My energy levels are mostly good, but fatigue sets in more quickly during my workouts now, and I can feel that it’s Sjögren’s-level fatigue. I have occasional abdominal pain and nausea. The brain fog has led me into some embarrassing conversational exchanges. All of this is minor enough.

Since 2016, my white blood cells have mainly attacked my joints and my eyes. My vision in my right eye has worsened slightly over the course of a year, and there’s more scarring on my corneas. My optometrist applied a temporary contact lens bandage to the cornea of my right eye (the more affected one, the one that hurts) and sent me to a corneal specialist.

My last musculoskeletal attack started at a party a week ago Saturday. In typical autoimmune fashion, it struck all of a sudden and out of nowhere. My left hand seized up with intense pain, starting at the large joints on the outside of the hand and radiating inward. For the rest of the night and into the next day, I couldn’t open or close that hand all the way. It swelled up a little bit and changed colors, and it felt like a mild constriction was happening. It was excruciating. Thankfully, the episode lasted less than 24 hours. Some of my recent attacks have lasted for almost two weeks.

I’m grateful that so far, Sjögren’s syndrome has left my internal organs alone.

Meanwhile, my plant-based lifestyle helps me to function at a physically high level with Sjögren’s syndrome.  I’m trying to keep processed foods to a minimum. I’m trying to get more sleep. I’m continuing to drink water all day long, including water spiked with organic, raw apple cider vinegar. I really believe in that stuff!

Now that my test results have come back, my rheumatologist is adding methotrexate to my hydroxichloroquine. On the alternative side and courtesy of my amazing parents, I’m also adding Manuka honey (Comvita brand, from New Zealand) and Ukon (tumeric) to my daily supplement cocktail. I’m hoping for the best, but expecting life to continue as it is, with good days (as in, I can go to the gym) and bad days (as in, I can’t go to the gym). No, it’s not all or nothing – there are days that are bad because I’m in pain, but I can still do something, so I go to work out and I do whatever I can.

I went to the gym this morning. I took this selfie about an hour ago, in the late afternoon. I’m still feeling fine.

 

Autoimmune, don’t care. Today is a good day.

 

With my new treatment plan, I hope to see the end of this flare. The attacks on my joints should stop. My head should clear up so I can remember things like, say, the first thing about a prominent politician, and that a person who’s ridden in my car on many an occasion does, indeed, know what my car looks like, and that a friend’s get-together was in April, not in March. About that last: I’ve never missed an occasion by a whole month before. It just happened, and it sucks, because the friend who invited me lives out of town, and it might be years before I can see her again… not to mention, I’d accepted her invitation. I accepted, and I didn’t show up, and I regret that very much.

That’s the story. I know that many of you also live with chronic illness. HUGS to you all. Let’s keeping fighting the good fight!