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Quality Time Vs. Play Dates

6 Aug

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Certain times in our lives are more flush with close connection. For me, elementary school, high school, and college were such periods. No one carried the adult responsibilities we do today, which made friendships easy to cultivate and maintain. Everyone was in close proximity, which made things convenient, particularly when living on the university campus. There was always someone around to share a meal with or to chat with. And it didn’t matter what time of day.

I also recall wonderful summers with my grandparents that were rich in social interaction. There was a slow lazy rhythm to the August days. My grandfather would go to work while my grandmother and I ran errands, baked cookies, and tended to all things domestic. Then when my grandfather came home, we’d eat dinner together. Afterward, we’d go for a walk or work in the garden. Sometimes we watched a show on television. Other times we read books together.

In my twenties, when living in Manhattan, my friends and I would take the city by storm. We spent hours verbalizing our dreams over glasses of wine and walks in Central part. Even in my thirties, I still had some single friends with whom I pondered the meaning of life while sharing meals and life together. Although my friends’ marriages altered the dynamics of our relationships, there were still incredibly meaningful moments spent together. When my friend’s son was an infant we’d take him in the stroller for long walks, cherishing him and each other. We lived in the same neighborhood so it was easy to get together on a regular basis.

But then there are the seasons where no one has time to do anything. When both parents are working and kids are hyper-scheduled, and no one’s children attend schools anywhere near their homes, which results in hours of chauffeuring time. That sentence is a mouthful for a reason. It’s exhausting and exhaustion doesn’t lend itself to intimacy.

But human beings need depth intimacy. Whether falling in love or maintaining friendships, relationships need time to grow. Without that time, there are gaps in connection.

Of course when people pair up and find a significant other, most of the relationship investment gets funneled into that union. But as a friend of mine said to me the other day, (and she happens to be married), “It’s unhealthy to make your spouse your only go to for companionship. It’s way too much of a burden on one person and it makes for a stale marriage. We need to feed our friendships too.”

Modern life doesn’t accommodate well for depth relationships. With everyone’s busy schedules, we pencil in “play dates.” These might consist of a coffee, a dinner, or if we can spare a few precious hours, maybe a movie. In an age when people rarely even talk on the phone anymore, play dates are welcome. But I miss the wonder of unstructured, spontaneous time when it was easy to cross the street and hang out with someone.

The more we indulge in a frenzy of hyper-scheduled activities, the more difficult it becomes to nurture quality time. Even people living under the same roof are not necessarily bonding well. We can’t stand to sit still for longer than a few minutes before looking away and grabbing our Smart phones.

The only way off the merry ground is to step off it, but that doesn’t necessarily solve the problem, if everyone else is still on the ride. Loneliness settles in and we wonder if anyone else is feeling it too.

Years ago I worked in an outpatient program that served the high functioning, elderly population. Not many of our clients had a history of mental illness. However, many met criteria for situational depression and anxiety brought on by the death of a spouse or retirement or illness. People were lonely and little to do during the day. They came to our program in the morning, attended a psycho-education lecture, ate lunch and then attended two process groups. Within a few weeks most folks were thriving again thanks to the friendships created and a renewed sense of meaning.

I’m a fan of play dates. In fact, I have two today. But I’m even more a fan of quality time that emerges when there is no plan, no rush, and no strain. When intimacy just happens like the sun rising and setting each day.

It’s Not Always A Mental Illness!

7 Jul

I have worked in the mental health field for twenty-three years. I know the terrain extremely well. And although I am grateful that public knowledge of mental illness has increased, I grow weary when I frequently hear every societal problem attributed to mental illness.

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Not everything is a mental illness!

Sometimes we’re distraught because we’re going through something tough. Perhaps a death in the family, a divorce, or job loss triggers a challenging period. Or maybe we’re anxious because we haven’t learned to manage stress well and we’re going through significant life changes without much social support. These types of things greatly influence mood state and to a certain degree are a regular part of life. Human beings suffer terribly and we are all challenged by how to develop resiliency.

I invite us to consider the concept of mental wellness. How do we learn to function whether we’re ever given a mental health diagnosis or not? We all need to address mental wellness no different than we look after our physical health.

Mental health exists along a continuum. It is comparable to physical health. For instance, if I have a runny nose, am fatigued, and don’t feel well, I meet the criteria for a cold. After two weeks, when the symptoms have cleared, I no longer have the diagnosis. But if I have diabetes or a heart condition, I might have the diagnosis my entire life and then I learn to manage the symptoms. Mental illness is no different. Sometimes we’re given a diagnosis at one point in our lives but later, we may no longer meet criteria. With another illness, the diagnosis might persist. Or, we may never meet criteria for a diagnosis. Nonetheless, we still need to develop basic coping skills and to manage our emotions and stress in a healthy manner.

Contrary to popular belief, mental illness isn’t the root cause of all sociological problems. It is actually the other way around. Sociological problems can put people at risk for developing mental illness. There are only a cluster of diagnoses whose etiologies are based in pure biology and genetics. More often than not, mental illnesses emerge from a combination of factors such as trauma, genetic predisposition, environment, social isolation, family dynamics, relationship ruptures, abandonment, and abuse, etc.

If we want to reduce mental illness statistics, we also need to address bigger cosmic factors that contribute to it. We have to stop pointing fingers at “mental illness” as the cause for all and start looking at the impact of how we treat our fellow humans. TLC goes a long way in influencing mental wellness. So does social justice.

On the same token, just because we have risk factors doesn’t mean we’ll develop a mental illness. Likewise, even if we aren’t exposed to primary risk factors, we could still be vulnerable to developing a diagnosis. We could have all the support and advantages in the world and still live with schizophrenia or severe depression. Mental wellness is a complex issue because we humans are complex. We’re a unique blend of body, spirit, intellect, and emotions. We all have different temperaments and life experiences.

Finally, one of the greatest mythologies about mental health is that people with mental illness are all violent. It has become very vogue to explain every catastrophic event that occurs as a by-product of mental illness. If a crime is committed, we immediately assume the perpetrator had a mental illness. If a child or teen acts out, he or she must have a mental illness. Because who in his or her right mind would commit a crime if sane, right? Well, crimes are committed all the time by people who do not have a diagnosis. In fact, only four percent of gun homicides can be attributed to those with a mental illness. What then compels people to violence? Why do we hurt each other? Is it greed, entitlement, poor impulse control, no moral compass, ignorance, or evil? Who knows. But not everything is caused by mental illness alone.

But one thing is certain. We can all work on our mental wellness. We can challenge ourselves to engage in basic acts of self care. Exercise, get enough sleep, breathe, socialize, and relax. Explore feelings and get in touch with our inner selves. See a therapist or join a support group. Laugh. Reach out to others. Connect to something that endows life with meaning. Because we all need to feel like we have a purpose and like we’re in relation to others. That part isn’t rocket science. It’s fundamental to humanity.

 

 

Sobriety of Mind

6 Sep

It’s astonishing how obsessed we can become with our own thoughts. It’s an addiction not really discussed but we’re all susceptible to it. Our thoughts can take us down quite literally. I have seen in it myself and I have seen it in others. Sobriety of mind is a noble undertaking.

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Ultimately, recovery is a process. We can never completely free ourselves of our thoughts. It’s the nature of the mind to look for trouble. To cling and grasp, catastrophize, and create drama.

We can gain some degree of sobriety though. We can learn to tame our minds. We can alter the way our perceptions tyrannize. And we can practice serenity.

I weary though of talking heads who say we create our reality and that everything external is a reflection of our internal perceptions. To a degree that is true but tell that to the woman diagnosed with cancer. You’re basically telling her that her diagnosis is all her fault. Tell that to the little boy sitting stunned in blood caught in the crossfire of war whose photo went viral. It’s a cop out to say something like that as it reduces life’s crap and evil to simplicity and allows us to abdicate any responsibility for helping others in situations far less fortunate than our own.

If I get hit by a bus, the reality is that it is going to hurt. I am going to have to deal with the aftermath of the accident. While I have some measure of control regarding how I deal with that reality, it’s still going to have to be dealt with. If my legs get broken, they’ll have to be fixed. Pain is a part of life. Our minds will react to circumstances and stimuli.

So where is the line between addiction and sobriety? When do our thoughts make us spin out of control into complete excess? And what do we do about it?

It’s not as simple as mind over matter or willing ourselves out of our feelings. Emotions are crucial because they give us information that something is wrong. As the brilliant Sufi poet, Hafiz wrote, “The Heart is right to cry even when the smallest drop of light, of love, is taken away.” Quite frankly, it’s not the tears that are an issue. That is just energy releasing that ultimately frees us. When we move the energy out we break long held karmic patterns of hurt the yogis refer to as samskaras. Instead it’s our thoughts that can keep us stuck, prisoners in our heads.

When we cling to what happened or what could happen and then dissect every angle of something completely beyond our control, we are simply grasping for control. And that is absurd.

We want perfection out of life. We want everyone to like us, for there never to be a mishap, and to micromanage ourselves and others. This will never be attainable yet the mind will keep questing for it. Why we build an alter to worship at it, I will never understand.

There is no constancy, as much as we long for it. There is our breath and this moment. That is it. The more we can move from one moment to the next without clinging or rejecting, then we achieve a degree of sobriety.

It’s okay to have pleasure. It’s okay to say, “F— it to worry and pain.” The pain and the worry will always be there because we are masters at it. We can ruin even the happiest of moments with obsessions but we don’t have to live with drama 24/7. For a bit, we can let go. We can enjoy ourselves.

Lady, You’re Gonna Get Wet!

1 Sep

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Sometimes, all you can do is laugh. This morning a woman in a water aerobics class started screeching at me for “splashing too much”as I did laps in the lane next to the class.

I didn’t understand what the problem was until the life guard approached me, embarrassed, and told me the woman was upset by my swimming. “I don’t understand,” I said. “If she wants me to switch lanes, I have no problem but how am I to swim without splashing?”

Lady, if you’re going to get into a swimming pool, chances are you’re going to get wet!

I switched lanes. The lady continued to scowl. The man in my new lane smiled. I smiled back. Because you’ve got to keep a sense of humor.

When people are that angry you almost have to feel sorry for them.

The woman didn’t understand that I’d just received a string of bad news and that I’d come to the pool to try and feel better. It didn’t matter. As I get older I just can’t be bothered anymore with bs – my own or other people’s. When I’m embroiled in my own, I have to shake myself and say, “Stop it! You’re driving even me out of my mind.” Because none of us knows how much time we have on this planet and I want to enjoy as much of it as I can.

Here is the thing. We are going to get splashed. We are going to get our hair messed up.

Why be alive, why sit by the pool, if you’re not going to get in it?

 

Self-Pity’s Cousin

10 Aug

If self-pity had a cousin, its name would be “lack of personal responsibility.” In addition to the deep pain that is associated with self-pity (underneath the kvetching), there is often a great fear or inability to take control of one’s life. If we constantly complain about our circumstances, we end up with no time, energy or focus for creating a magnificent life.

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But it takes tremendous courage to own one’s life. It’s much easier to blame the world for our woes. The problem with this approach is, while it’s true that life can be cruel, unfair, and brutally painful, fixating on what has been done to us leaves us with little will or motivation to effect change. No transformation can occur without an authentic grieving process, but part of grieving entails action and creative movement towards the unknown.

The challenging thing here is that if we take active steps away from self-pity and toward empowerment, our demons will most likely come out to haunt us. Every false belief we have, about ourselves or the world, will come back IN STEREO to try and persuade us that we can’t own our lives and create change for the better- and like a hero or heroine in a fairy tale, we will have to get out our swords and slay these dragons. The monsters aren’t just in our heads, either. All the people around us who are on some level committed to us staying stuck, whether conscious or unconscious, will feed us the same lies: “You can’t do that. Most people fail at that. Who do you think you are?”

Owning our lives is hard work. We actually have to do something. Whether we’re trying to change careers, start a business, get out in the dating world, fine-tune a skill, or break a habit, we have to invest in the process. Like children learning to walk, we stumble and fall, and even if we have skinned a knee in the process, we need to get back up and try again. We have to lace up our sneakers and hit the pavement whether it’s raining or snowing. We have to invest in our goals, though there’s no guarantee of success and certainly no guarantee of a supportive team cheering us along. It’s much easier to sit on the couch, eat bonbons, and feel sorry for our selves. When it comes to the places where we have been the most wounded, it’s very scary to create a new reality. Yet stepping in this direction activates a source of true power.

 

Prison of Shame

12 Jul

When my mother was sentenced to a state penitentiary for a 5th felony DUI she was transferred from the local prison to Chowchilla, the women’s correctional facility in Central California. She was taken in a Sheriff’s bus. The vehicles are typically painted black and white like a zebra. It is rare to see one of these buses on the highway. When I do, I cringe. It is especially difficult if I notice prisoners’ faces at the windows. I have no idea whether my mom was handcuffed or if she talked to anyone during the ride.

My mother never talked about her experiences in jail. This was the one area of her life that was a closed book. Yet her silence spoke volumes.

When she was released from Chowchilla, she was given a Greyhound bus ticket to get from Central California to San Diego. She had asked me to take $200.00 from her accounts to purchase some items for her. Her instructions had been incredibly specific. Most important, she needed an outfit to wear on the bus so that she didn’t have to return home in orange prison attire. At the time, orange wasn’t the new black. She wanted a nice tracksuit and asked when I purchased this at Target that I try it on since we were the same size. She also wanted a bag of tortilla chips and a jar of bean dip. All of these items would have to pass inspection at the prison to ensure that drugs or weapons weren’t being smuggled in.

I drove to the mailbox store and quickly found out that packages sent to a state penitentiary required special paperwork. I fidgeted as the clerk asked me various questions related to the forms she was filling out. I remembered that even sending books from Amazon to the prison had been a challenge. I worried what the woman at the mailbox store thought of me because I was sending something to an inmate. As I paid the fifty bucks to have the package mailed, I realized both my mom and I were doing time in one way, shape, or form.

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Incarceration is like a death in the family. The person leaves and then suddenly resurrects upon release. I went through this process with my mother five times, until she actually died for real.

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Running Water Over Stones

25 Mar

As I watched a group of neighbors dressed in black walk to Maudy Thursday services at a nearby church, I looked down and realized that I too was dressed in black. My yoga pants were black and so was my sweater. Only the neigbhors entered the church and I walked into the funky and traditional yoga studio near my house. “I’m worshipping at a different altar tonight,” I thought. However, for me, it’s all the same altar. Prayer, meditation, yoga, nature, church fellowship, and worship are all fundamental resources that help me feel connected to God.

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Although I have taken yoga classes for twenty years, it has only been in the last few that I have started to understand yoga and to realize why having a practice is vital for my emotional, physical and mental well being. Yoga teaches me not just about my body but about how I hold stress and negative thought patterns and how I can stop the constant gripping.

I went to class last night because it was a restorative one. Restorative yoga is different than active yoga. It is specifically designed to calm the nervous system. By using props (a bolster, blocks, blankets, and a strap), you put your body in resting, open postures and hold them for a good ten minutes, if not longer. As you relax into the poses, you can actually feel when the body begins to melt into the floor or the props; you start to notice when the body begins to surrender its never ending push for control and hyper-vigilance. You notice when it starts to release the defensive and protective armor that no longer serves.

“As humans, we are always pushed into stressful states yet the body cannot hold stress and relaxation simultaneously. If we train our bodies to relax, it is physiologically impossible to hold stress at the same time,” said the teacher.

“In growth and transformation, there is always a degree of discomfort. So when you hold new poses, you might initially feel uncomfortable.” I burst out laughing. Yeah, growth and transformation can make one a wee bit uncomfortable.

The first pose we did was called something like “running water over stones.” At least this is the imagery the teacher talked about. Lying on our backs with bolsters and blankets propped to put our spines in their natural curvatures, our bodies were akin to stones that stay  solid and stationary as water runs over them. That water, that ever pulsating movement of life can wear down the stones, yet if we are solid and stationary, the water doesn’t have to push us around. We can be in harmony with the flow of life.

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There are some restorative yoga poses where the props are meant to be intrusive, pushing the body to open and stretch more actively; others that are designed for the body to simply melt and surrender.

There is also the inhalation, the exhalation, and the space between the next breath. That space is vital; it’s where the next beat of life and creativity spring from. That is the space I am most interested in harnessing, yet it is the whole flow of breath that keeps one moving through transformation and growth.

“Relax, relax!” the Saturday teacher always says to me when taking the hatha yoga class. “You’re making it too hard.” If he only knew. If he only knew how often I can make things too hard or how hard I can be on myself. It’s good to take a look in the mirror sometimes. Yet he also says like a kind grandfather (and with a twinkle in his eye), “That’s beautiful. You’re holding the pose beautifully.” It’s also good to note our progress.

Life, Death, and Creativity

30 Nov

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My family lost a member to suicide this week. For all involved, it has been a time to process this information while offering support. There is a legacy of loss here that can’t be negated. My mother’s death from seven years ago was on people’s minds as well.

Tragedy always strikes in the strong currents of life. There is a never an ideal time for loss. Often you’re already at max point with the demands of work and day to day, yet death insists that you stop. It insists that you keep going as well. When I received my mom’s suicide note, I was asked to come into work until I knew more because the hospital accredidation surveyors were there for their annual review. I thought this was the height of insensitivity, particularly from a mental health organization, but I went in and led groups and charted my notes. Three days later the police called me.

This is life. It will toss you about like a garment in the washing machine on spin cycle.

The day after news of the family death, I received confirmation that my male lead in the short film I wrote and am producing and starring in got cast on another film. He was already in Europe on a film and starts work immediately on a new feature.

Making a film doesn’t begin to weigh in comparison to the life and death of an individual. Yet in this chaotic swirl of the last few days, creativity affirms life in the face of death. We can collapse or create. Or collapse and then create. We film in a week in LA. Figuring out a new shooting schedule with a new lead who has the chops was like trying to solve a rubik’s puzzle but we did.

It is a constant honoring of loss while moving forward with life. After the film wraps, I see clients, finish up a course, and then get on a plane to see my grandmother one last time before she passes. She has held out beautifully on hospice living longer than we expected. Then it’s another plane ride and teaching for a week while we all continue to grieve for the recent death.

For the most immediate family members, they will not be moving on quickly. For them, they will need time to stand still. They will need to simply rest while remembering to eat and take out the trash. And then one day, the darkness will lift a bit. They will take a step out from the shadows and they will see a ray of light and life. During that time before and after, we will hold hands and make phone calls for this is God’s grace.

 

 

 

 

For Some, For Others, For YOU….

19 Sep

I have a colleague who often self-discloses about a traumatic car accident she had when she was sixteen. Hit by a drunk driver, she almost died. It took months for her physical injuries to heal and significantly longer for her psychological scars to heal. She was afraid to drive and became increasingly isolated. Distraught, she asked her mother, “When will I be normal again?” Her mother looked at her and quietly said, “For some, for others, for you.”

What a beautiful way to conceptualize healing and recovery. There is no cookie cutter formula for getting better and there is no specific timetable either. My colleague’s mother was basically saying that normal might as well be a setting on a dryer.

The best thing we can do when coping with trauma – (aka life) – is to approach our process with curiosity and compassion rather than judgment. Instead of asking, “Why am I not over this YET?!!!!”, we can instead ask, “What is still hurting that needs love and attention? What do I have yet to learn from this irritation and sting? How can I soothe the pain and transform it into something of beauty that affirms my life versus negates it? How can I help myself, and in helping myself, help others?”

Although we can begrudge winter and wish it away, nature never adheres to our pleas for summer. On the day we curse the snow and chill, Nature typically shows no mercy. The frigid air remains. Yet in her own time, she rewards our patience with miracles.

Although all our lives are unique, the themes of death and transformation are universal. Snow melts and Spring explodes in splendor. The roads clear and the driving conditions improve.

Eventually, we feel like driving again. We find the courage and the desire to get behind the wheel, heading out on the lone country road. We might not know where we’re headed or whether we’ll pick up any passengers, but we are indeed in the driver’s seat once more.

It is always the journey and not the destination that matters. And taking the road less travelled is often the most exquisite ride.

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Who wants to stay stuck in traffic looking at a view of Target and WallMart? Why not take a much more glorious highway or side road while ditching the GPS?

For some, for others, and most important, for YOU.

Because Life is Too Damn Short

16 Aug

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Something happens to women in their forties. I call it the “I’m done with bullshit,” phenomenon. By the time you get to be a certain age, you’re just done with nonsense in all facets of your life: work, relationships, social expectations, etc. You simply stop caring what other people think and do what you want because you realize LIFE IS TOO DAMN SHORT. It will be over in a blink of eye, so why waste time doing things you don’t enjoy? Why not surround yourself with a tribe of folks who accept and celebrate your authentic self instead? Granted, we of course have to be responsible and tolerant and show up for our day to day tasks. Likewise, we learn and grow when relating to those who are not sycophants and who challenge us towards growth and transformation. But truly, we have far more choices in life than we realize.

I remember years ago a supervisor saying, “Lise, you’re working harder than your students. Stop it. It’s not serving them and it’s not serving you.”

There are things that I put up with in my twenties and thirties that I simply no longer have patience for in my forties. They say by the time you’re in your sixties, you go from not giving a damn to not giving a (insert your word of choice). Do you develop a foul mouth as you age? No. Of course not. And I don’t mean to insult anyone with my language. I am trying to make a point. As you age, you start to carve out the precious time to do what means the most to you and what adds premier value to your life. You surround yourself with others who “get” you and who support you in being all that you possibly can be. And you in turn want to do the same for others. A life of meaning and value is one of service but of the best kind – the kind that comes from choice vs. a sense of obligation that has no real heart behind it.

Let’s all lead a heart filled life, embracing each moment and squeezing all that we can out of life. This doesn’t mean avoiding sadness or pain because these are part of life. The more we can feel our own emotions, the more compassionate we are towards ourselves and others. Yet there is such grace in the ethers, if we let go of the bs in our lives and focus on what’s of integrity, joy, passion, and commitment. Sometimes that starts with ourselves, as we carve out time to appreciate God’s grace and settle into our authenticity. Then we can show up for others and support them in theirs as well!