Monthly Archives: September 2013

Thoughts On Flocks

 geeseIt was rush hour, but traffic was light. I slowed when I saw several cars stopped in the road and people milling around. I assumed it was a fender bender until I got closer and saw that one man was chasing a goose who was running in circles on my side of the road. Again I made an assumption: Oh! Isn’t that cute—a family of geese out for their afternoon stroll decided this was a good place to cross to the other side of the road. I realized I was wrong again when I saw, lying on the road in front of the first stopped car, a goose with wings widespread and obviously beyond help. The driver was visibly distressed as she stood looking at the lifeless bird, while several men continued to chase the dead bird’s distraught mate.

“It’s true,” I thought. “Geese really do mate for life and look after a hurt or ill partner.”

Several days later, at about the same time of day, I was in my living room staring out the window at nothing in particular when I noticed a number of geese flying lazily over a nearby field. Most of them were flying in pairs, but I spotted a trio and wondered if one of them was my recently “widowed” bird.

I have pondered upon this incident recently as I have watched my mother put her life back together after the passing of my father. Like a pair of geese, Mom and Dad were mates for life. They married young and were absolutely devoted to one another. Three years ago my father fell headfirst down a flight of stairs and suffered a traumatic brain injury. Like a goose, my mother dropped out of the flock to stay at the side of her injured and ill mate until he finally passed from this life.

My mother has since rejoined her flock of neighbors and members of her religious congregation, and now they watch out for her. Couples invite her to go with them to various events, creating the kind of trio I observed floating on wind currents outside my window. Neighbors bring dinner over several times a week. And one little girl has adopted her as her “grandma” and comes over to read to her or just to keep her company.

Soon I’ll be seeing geese flying south in their undulating “V” and, if I’m lucky, hear their distinctive honk as they pass over head. These sights and sounds are hallmarks of my favorite season, autumn, and I anticipate their arrival with pleasure. In fact, just writing about them now brings a smile to my soul. This year the experience will be tinted with a brush of sadness, though, as I am reminded about lost mates. But there will be echoes of hope in the honks as I remember that, although a companion is gone, the flock keeps flying—together. And I will be grateful.

Image credit: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/photo_2601772_reflected-riparian-tree-and-canadian-geese-in-golden-sunset.html’>tntemerson / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Psych-ick Fruit

 brain treeMentally ill—that’s what I am. It’s a circumstance I have endured, managed, adapted to, coped with, struggled with, suffered from and, yes, even learned from for most of my adult life.  But oh, how I hate that label! I hate the stigma surrounding it. I hate being prayed for as someone who is “less fortunate.” (Yes, that really happened.) And I really hate how it makes me feel somehow less than others. So I’ve decided I’m going to start using the term “psych-ick” instead. That’s not psychic as in 1-900-SendMeMoney; rather, it’s short for “psychological ickiness.”

 The first 30 years of my psych-ick experience was all about depression. This is no secret to those who know me even casually. For whatever reason, I have always been very open about my distorted state of mind. I’ve often thought that if I had enough money, I would take out a full page ad in the newspaper that said, “I have a psychiatrist. I see a therapist. I take psycho-tropic drugs.  I’m a good person.”

Recently I added acute anxiety into the mix. I think I’ve had at least some anxiety symptoms for a long time, but I always just lumped it in with the depression. Then about nine months ago it started getting really, really bad. I eventually began having massive panic attacks and ended up in the hospital–and yes, that means the psych ward.

Oh, the psych ward. Now that’s an experience. Your husband takes you to the door, you walk through, and he goes home. You watch the door close, feeling scared and confused and more than a little angry that you’re there even if you know it’s where you really need to be.

The first thing you do is go to your assigned room and take off all you clothes while a nurse and an aid look to see if you have any injuries anywhere and, I suppose, if you are trying to smuggle something in. No body cavity search, thank goodness. I know they have to document this kind of stuff, but believe me, it’s humiliating. Then they take all your clothes, including the underwear you are wearing and what you brought with you in your suitcase, and wash everything. I’m sure there is a good reason for that, but no one ever clued me in on what it was. Meanwhile, you get to wear one hospital gown in front, one in back, with a breeze up the middle until your wash is done.

For me, the first was the hardest part. The rest of it was tolerable, if somewhat annoying. Someone checks to see where you are every 15 minutes, 24 hours a day. At night, the nurse checks you every 30 minutes to see if you are still breathing. You can’t close the door to your room all the way. The door to the bathroom is like a saloon door—cut off at the bottom and top, giving you only as much privacy as is absolutely necessary. You can have only three books. You have to get someone to come unlock the shower for you. You can’t have any of your own toiletries. You get checked out by a doctor and get your blood taken. You see a psychiatrist and a therapist. The windows really do have bars. During the day there are groups you can attend. If you don’t go to “group,” you have to stay in your room working on your goals, whatever they are. You can’t have any laces for your shoes or drawstrings for your sweats. I wasn’t allowed to have my favorite ugly jacket because it had a zipper.  You can have visitors from 6 pm to 7 pm. Then they leave, and you’re trapped because the doors to the outside are locked.

I fully understand the need for all these precautions, but the result is that the psych ward is not very conducive to healing. In all fairness, though, healing isn’t what the psych ward is for. The main purpose is to make sure you’re safe for the short term and get you started with the resources you need to begin the long term healing process.

Now we get to the fruit part. This may sound a bit contradictory, given what I’ve just described, but I actually felt like my stay was a very positive experience. Fortunately, because I was feeling insanely anxious rather than suicidal, I had some emotional reserves to work with. When I first came in I felt pretty uneasy and at a loss as to what I was supposed to be doing. Nobody told me what to expect. Nobody even told me where to go or what to do. I had to keep asking, “What’s next?” In other words, no one acknowledged I was there except when they had to examine me like a specimen in a lab experiment. Talk about feeling insignificant! This situation ignited a deep, compelling urge to do what Christ would do in that circumstance. So I decided the least I could do was to get to know some of the other residents and make sure I spoke to the newbies in their hospital-gown glory.  It’s amazing what happens when you get outside of yourself and look for what you can do to ease someone else’s troubles.

Another fruit that came from my stay in the psych ward is this blog. The therapist I met with while in the hospital introduced me to Action Commitment Therapy (ACT). Mainly it is the idea that instead of putting your life on hold until you feel like it is in control, you just go out and live your life by committing to and acting upon valued goals, regardless of your emotional state of mind. Unfortunately, he didn’t know of a therapist in the area who was trained in this kind of therapy. I wrote him a thank you note after I got out of the hospital and gave him my contact information in case he learned of someone who could work with me from an ACT perspective. A couple of months later he contacted me to say that he was no longer with the hospital and, because of that change, there would be no conflict of interest in his working with me if I were interested. I was. As we started working together, he suggested I start writing. I shared with him what I was writing and, after a great deal of encouragement from him, I decided to forget waiting until things were perfect and just jump into life with both feet. So I created this blog and with some, ok, a lot of trepidation put my thoughts out there for everyone to see. It feels kind of like one of those dreams where you’re out in public in just your underwear. Flapping in the breeze in just my undies, metaphorically speaking, will be worth it if someone benefits by reading what I write.

There is another fruit that has sprung from the seeds of my suffering. It is, in fact, the most important one. Because of my experiences, I have learned compassion. I have learned that we seldom know what is going on inside someone else’s head. I have learned that we don’t know what is in a person’s background that directs his or her choices. I have learned to give the other person a break just as I hope they will do for me. I have learned to be more gentle in my judgments.

Above all, I have learned that there is always reason to hope. When I’m in the throes of a depressive episode it seems not only impossible but incomprehensible that there will be, that there can be, anything other than unrelenting darkness. But after 30 years, I have gone up and down so many times that I know, intellectually if not emotionally, that it really does get better–always. Knowing that doesn’t magically draw me out of the black abyss, but it does help me know that if I just keep slogging through the emotional muck and mire I will eventually get to solid ground again where the fruit is sweet and satisfying.

Image credit: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/photo_17693610_white-human-head-with-tree-3d-concept.html’>vicnt / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

I (Heart) Bugs

Anistons bug copy

We came home from a recent weekend getaway to find a four-inch bug on our refrigerator. Fortunately, it was a drawing that my granddaughter Aniston had made for us. I have no idea why she drew a bug, but it was really quite well done and real-looking for a second-grader. It had six hairy legs, a mean-looking set of pincers on its head, a hard shell covering its body—and a heart. Not an anatomically correct kind of heart, but the bumper-sticker “I (heart) everything” kind of heart. I haven’t had a chance to chat with her about the drawing, but knowing she’s a tender-hearted soul, I suspect her reason would be something along the lines of “Bugs have hearts, too.” And because bugs have hearts, too, she would say, we should be kind to them.

Now I’m not exactly on the same wavelength as Aniston when it comes to creepy crawlies. I am not the least averse to disposing of the occasional ear wig that crawls across my bathroom floor, though I prefer flushing to smushing as a means of eliminating the unwelcome visitor. Somehow it seems more humane, but I suppose the result is the same. And I own an old-fashioned, bright yellow fly swatter that I’m not reluctant to use.

But I do think I know what she was trying to get at: Just because someone (or something) is different doesn’t mean we can’t be friendly and kind. It reminded me of the day my oldest daughter came home from kindergarten talking about “peach kids” and “brown kids.” As a mother, I was pleased that she put different skin color in the same category as different hair or eye color. There was nothing about either brown kids or peach kids being somehow better or worse as human beings. It was just another physical characteristic she used to describe her classmates.

The grown-up version of this idea is what I once heard described as an “equality of esteem.” Over the years I’ve tried to incorporate this idea of an equality of esteem into my dealings with others. In fact, I’ve turned it into my own golden rule—only I call it my platinum rule. It goes like this: Think about others the way you hope they think about you. This means that when someone cuts me off in traffic, instead of labeling the offending driver a “stupid idiot,” I try to remember that odds are that he or she didn’t do it intentionally. Or when I get stuck behind a person with obviously more than 15 items in the “15 items or less” grocery line, I try to remember that I’ve done the same thing more than once when I was in a hurry and the regular lines were backed up. (But don’t get me started on the poor grammar of “15 items or less”—that really bugs me. In fact, my family has often heard me yelling “Fewer! It’s fewer!!!! when some version of this offending phrase is included in a tv commercial.)

The power of this platinum rule is that it puts us on the path to what Brian Eno called “the great social virtue” and Roger Ebert believed to be “the most essential quality of civilization”—empathy. “Empathy,” according to David D. Burns, “is the ability to comprehend with accuracy the precise thoughts and motivations of other people in such a way that they would say, ‘Yes, that is exactly where I’m coming from!’”(Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, p. 185)

Although we usually think of empathy as a way of relating to and supporting others, it is, in actuality, also a way of relating to and supporting oneself. It is difficult to think about others the way we hope they think about us if we have not determined exactly how we want to be thought about. Additionally, when we nurture empathy in ourselves, we create “the necessary mental and emotional climate to guide [our] behavior in a moral and self-enhancing manner.” (Ibid., p. 207)  I find when I live by my platinum rule, I’m kinder and more content with both myself and others.

And that makes my heart happy.