Friday, July 23, 2010

Wearing a grin. Friday, July 23, 2010.

“Fake it ‘till you make it.” –AA slogan

Sometimes when someone commits suicide, they leave dozens of clues ahead of time. They are obviously depressed and release their pain to anyone who will listen. They may even announce their intentions, whether they are taken seriously or not.

Others leave their loved ones shocked and bewildered. “He seemed so happy all the time,” they’ll say. “We had no idea he was depressed.”

Some of us can hide feelings better than others. Personally, I suck at it. I’ve never been able to feign happiness or laughter convincingly, and trying to act happy when I’m not just leaves me feeling more depressed. It becomes even harder when I WANT to appear happy because I don’t want to upset or worry people (or bring them down).

And yet any therapist will tell you that depression only begats more depression. That’s because when we’re depressed, we do depressing things. And we don’t listen to the suggestions of well-wishers who urge us to do “happy” things to cheer us up. Told to go out with friends, we isolate at home. Told to read a book on positive thinking, we re-read the saddest novel we know. Told to go out in the sun, we stay inside with the drapes drawn, watching infomercials and eating Doritos.

Someone who has never been clinically depressed really can’t understand why we don’t just “snap out of it” (a topic for another day). Because they assume that when they feel a bit blue, it feels the same as our attacks of depression, they assume these happy little diversions will do the trick.

But there is a grain of truth to what they are saying. We might not be able to “get happy,” but we can prevent ourselves from becoming even more depressed. Let me ask an honest question: if you are a “cutter” (and you have plenty of company), which will make you feel better – an afternoon of cutting followed by frantic attempts to stop the bleeding, or a couple of hours volunteering at an animal shelter feeding happy dogs?

Controlling our behavior during a depressive episode does not mean hiding our feelings or pretending to be happy. But it can help to prevent one’s feelings from going from bad to worse. Isn’t it worth a try? Aren’t you worth it?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Forgive and forget? Thursday, July 22, 2010.

“When you hold resentment against another, you are bound to that person by an emotional link that is stronger than steel. Forgiveness is the only way to dissolve that link and get free.” - Catherine Ponder

Simply because we have people in our lives, all of us have been wronged. Many of us who have attempted to end our lives have been wronged to an extreme degree, as victims of physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse as children or as adults (and often, both).

If we have been significantly victimized by another, there are plenty of people preaching that we must forgive because it is our duty to do so – as someone’s child, or lover, or spouse. After all, the Bible says we must forgive, right? Only bad people hold grudges.

Author and social researcher R. D. Enright, Ph.D., is a world-renowned researcher on the topic of forgiveness. I had the wonderful opportunity to hear him speak once, and I was amazed by his findings – and his wisdom.

Enright studied victims from battered women to Holocaust survivors. What he found was that those who had forgiven their offenders were happier and more at peace than those who had not. But Enright made it very clear what forgiveness actually is – and what it isn’t.

First, forgiveness is not forgetting. Forgiveness is not denying the severity of an abusive action. Forgiveness is not condoning or excusing. And forgiveness is not reconciliation. A woman who has been battered may choose to forgive the batterer, yet still press charges against him and never return to the relationship. It is possible to forgive someone without ever telling them you’ve done so; in fact, in many circumstances, it’s the only way it can safely be done.

Forgiveness is letting go of anger, whether or not the person “deserves” it. And when we let go of anger, our mental health improves. We are less depressed, less anxious, and less obsessed with the object of our anger. When we lose that obsession, the violator can fade from our conscious thought. He can “stop renting room in our head for free.”

An individual, or a group of people, may have hurt you deeply. And every time you think of it, you return to that place of pain and victimization. It’s like pushing your tongue into a sore inside your mouth. Practicing true forgiveness – not denying, excusing or forgetting, and not necessarily reconciling – can heal that sore. Who can you forgive today?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Is suicide contagious? Wednesday, July 21, 2010

“Whether to kill yourself or not is one of the most important decisions a teenager can make.” --Clueless schoolteacher Pauline Fleming, “Heathers”

In the 1989 cult hit movie “Heathers,” a group of popular girls runs into a snag when they disguise the murder of a classmate as a suicide – only to discover that the girl they killed becomes even more popular after her death.

Like authors who only become famous after they die, they decide, teenagers become ultra-cool if they kill themselves. Suicide becomes the cool topic of discussion, and faux rock band Big Fun performs the song, “Teenage Suicide (Don’t Do It).” Of course, it doesn’t occur to the characters of this dark comedy that by committing suicide, they won’t be around to enjoy their newfound popularity.

I don’t think anyone commits suicide to be “cool,” but it’s true that, at least among young people, suicide seems to be contagious. School counselors are familiar with “suicide clusters,” which may or may not involve actual pacts, but involve young people who knew each other. When a suicide of a youth hits the press, it’s not uncommon for other youths to attempt, especially if the method is mentioned.

And now with social networking, the news of a suicide has a limitless reach. “Sensationalizing suicide, whether done by the media or on a Facebook page, can offer other troubled individuals what seems like a solution to their own problems,” says AOL writer David Knowles.

When I started my SAS group in April, I didn’t know what to expect. I needed to share my experience with people who understood. I had no idea that so many young girls would join, or that some of them would seek me out as a special friend to confide in.

Now, having the SAS group gives me a special responsibility. Regretfully, I can’t prevent a suicide, even if I try my best to help. But if one occurs, I’ll need to handle it in a sensitive and cautious way.

I hope it never happens. But should someone in “my” group take his or her life, I won’t be creating a special Facebook memorial page for them. I won’t be the main support for friends that are grieving – they’ll have to go to their own families, and hopefully professionals, for that. I won’t keep “secrets” about plans or pacts – I’ll seek out other adults for help.

“Heathers” was wickedly funny, but “IRL,” suicide isn’t cool. And I won’t do anything to make it look that way.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The New Normal. Tuesday, July 20, 2010.

“The only normal people are the ones you don’t know very well.” –Joe Ancis

For almost three months, I had been in a bipolar “mixed episode,” but never having experienced one, I didn’t know what it was. I only know that I had been experiencing white-knuckle fear every day, for weeks and weeks.

Even medical misjudgments about my medication, and significant job stressors, couldn’t explain the depth of my constant panic. Sounds were too loud, colors were too bright. Pounds fell off, until my pants wouldn’t fit even with a belt. I could only manage about four hours of sleep a night, and exhausted, I could barely drive or function at my full-time job, much less my home business.

I’d quit wearing makeup and styling my hair. My thoughts were so fragmented I couldn’t choose a cereal brand at the store or count change. I did jumping jacks in the restroom at my office to discharge my nervous energy. And always, there was the pound-pound-pounding of my heart, which had taken me to Urgent Care.

I wanted desperately to cry, but could not. I’d begged to move up my appointment with my psychiatrist, but he was booked for months. I contacted the hospital and asked if I could go inpatient; my insurance wouldn’t cover unless I was in “imminent danger.” My mother complained that I was distant; my husband complained that I was self-centered. I tried Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, journaling, meditation, self-hypnosis, EMDR, yoga, walking, breathing, and copious amounts of prayer.

By the time I arrived in the psych ward via the ER, with four kinds of pills in my body and stitched-up wrists, my mind and body were on such overdrive that even the entire bottle of Valium I’d taken didn’t sedate me for 12 hours. I tried to tell a psych nurse about the state I’d been in for almost three months, and I said to her, “I’ve always been a nervous person. But this isn’t normal.”

“Well, maybe it’s your ‘new’ normal,” she responded. “Maybe this is just the way you are.” And she shrugged.

I’m sorry, but – what the fuck? Incapacitated? Unable to work, sleep, eat, or even think? My “new normal?” The way I was going to be every day for the rest of my life? Obviously, I would have rather been dead – hence the stitches and the IV cleansing out my liver. What was this nurse thinking?

Of course, I was in the psych ward, where some patients are prone to exaggeration. She’d never met me made-up and dressed professionally for my job. She didn’t know about the awards I’d won or the promotions I’d received. She hadn’t seen me interact happily with my family. In short, she hadn’t seen me at my high-functioning self. All she saw was a pale, disheveled woman in a hospital gown, who hadn’t washed her hair for a week.

Now it’s over a year later. To be honest, I don’t feel 100% yet – I hope I will someday. But I finally found a doctor who would see me, and who prescribed mood stabilizers and an antidepressant. I’m enjoying time with my family, and I’m on full steam at my demanding job. I fix myself up for work, I eat, and I sleep. I have a ways to go before my mood is where I’d like it. But I’m leading a normal life.

I’d like to go back and visit her the psych nurse. Not that she would remember me; obviously, I was just another psych patient to her. But I’d like her to know that I was not about to settle for HER idea of “normal.”

Monday, July 19, 2010

Pins and Needles. Monday, July 19, 2010.

“If I was having a bad day, or if something was really getting me down – boy troubles, whatever – I wanted to go out and get a new piercing.” – Christina Aguilera

I was at the grocery store yesterday, and she was behind the cash register. I did a double-, and then a triple-take. I’d never seen anything quite like it. She was a plain girl, dirty-blonde hair, wearing a plain T-shirt. But she was a human pin cushion. I’ve seen plenty of piercings before, but this was – well, amazing. There was not a part of her face that was without piercings. Her lips alone had a dozen rings – six on top, six below.

“How many?” I asked her, simply.

“Thirty-seven,” she answered, with a big smile.

I know how much a cartilage piercing hurts, because I had one for five years. I finally took it out because I wanted to be able to sleep on my left side. A fellow I used to work with, in a moment of TMI, informed me that he had his tongue, his ear cartilage and his private organ pierced, and the ear cartilage was the most painful. And this girl behind the counter had several thick barbells in each ear.

Since the beginning of time, people have had both piercings and tattoos. I’d like a little tattoo, but my religion forbids it. I have four ear piercings in my left ear and I guess that’s enough. For a while I wanted to get my eyebrow pierced, but both my husband and my mom talked me out of it.

These days, piercings and tattoos are certainly fashionable, especially among certain social groups. But they provide more than a fashion statement. They say, “I AM WILLING TO UNDERGO PAIN.” Some schools of thought consider multiple piercings and tattoos to be a kind of body mutilation, not unlike “cutting.” Some people go so far as to burn symbols into their flesh; body branding definitely seems like a form of mutilation to me.

I’m not sure exactly where to draw the line between “fashionable” and “pathological.” At some point (again, like cutting), tattooing and piercing become addictive; the injuries to the skin release endorphins. People are willing to spend a great deal of money and time having needles put into their flesh. The want to “make a statement.” And they do – but what statement are they making?

I wanted to ask the girl behind the counter why she had covered her face with rings, studs and barbells. I wanted to ask about the pain. I wanted to know why she felt the need to appear so brave. I wanted to know what her family thought. I wanted to know what “statement” she was making. I wanted to hear her story.

Instead, I took my change and told her to have a nice day.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Hide-and-Seek with God. Sunday, July 18, 2010.

“Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.” – Mother Teresa

Last year, when her biography was released, the world was shocked to hear that Mother Teresa – who had spent her life bringing the love of God to some of the poorest people in the world – had, for many years, suffered a crisis of faith. There were times, she admitted, that she doubted the existence of heaven, and even of God.

Many spiritual leaders refer to this as “the dark night of the soul.” Some believers never experience it, some question God for a time and then receive a message that removes all doubt. Others spend their lives wrestling with their faith.

For a time in my life, I was a member of a very rigid, judgmental belief system. When I chose to leave that path, I was plunged into my first “dark night.” I was afraid of God. I wished that he did not exist. I was envious of atheists, who didn’t worry about things like hellfire. I tried, very hard, not to believe.

But I discovered that for me, belief or non-belief was not a simple matter of choice, like picking the right meal off a menu. The harder I tried not to believe in God, the more he showed himself to me – in the beauty of nature, in the amazement I felt reading about physics, in the different expressions people gave to their practice of worship. I finally gave in: OK, God … you’re here. I can’t wish you away.

When my bipolar went out of control and I became terribly sick emotionally, I prayed and prayed that God would send me some relief. My prayers went unanswered for almost three months, and in desperation, I wound up in that motel room. Since then I found the right doctors and the combination of medications that help me at least be able to function.

People tell me that God did, in fact, answer my prayers, by allowing me to have the medicine. And they say God was in that motel room with me, because I survived what should have been a lethal attempt on my life.

But now, I have the opposite problem than I used to have. I’m trying to believe, trying to see and feel God, but I just can’t. He’s gone. When I pray, I sense that my prayers are just dissolving in the ethers. Where is he?

The spiritually learned tell me to be patient; that one day, I’ll come to understand God’s role in all of this, and that I’ll be able to trust in him again. I hope that day comes soon, because I really need him. In my game of hide-and-seek, he’s “it.”