Monday, December 14, 2009

What I've Learned in 2009

Dear Friends,
I'm having a lovely holiday season. In fact, I feel the best I have in years. It's undoubtedly due to changing patterns that didn't produce happiness or joy, and developing new traditions that do (clearly an ongoing process).

Also, it's also due to all the months this year I spent in therapy in order to resolve old issues and move on. What I learned about myself (in a nutshell) is that I march to the beat of a different drummer. Whether it's due to bipolarity (my therapist didn't think it is) or not, I embrace life fully and completely. In putting myself out there...often times, I meet people who can't or won't meet me halfway. While that used to disappoint me, it doesn't any longer. I see it as their problem--not mine.

With the death of my mother, I now feel my own mortality, and that truly puts things in perspective. I realize that I'm just not interested in spending time with people who cannot honestly express their emotions or feel threatened that I can. I don't want to waste time on people who bemoan their situation, but do nothing to change things. I want to be with people who are enthusiastic, passionate, and uplifting.

When things don't work out, I no longer feel bad about it. I recognize that I have a God-given ability to problem solve (which is a wonderful gift although I truly didn't understand that) and find alternatives that work.

What I've also confirmed this year is that my orientation to life is different than many other people. Actually, it's always been that way, and it's a good thing. My values are different. What I want is different. And what makes me happy is different.

While it's not always easy to feel that way--and this surely was one of the causal factors of my depressive episodes--I know I can remain well if I follow my heart. So far, it's worked really well during the holidays, and I believe things will continue getting better and better.

I believe my happiness and joy have returned because I was able to release a lot of anger inside. I spent a long time in therapy discussing my mother's illness and death, and sharing my outrage over the behavior of my siblings, my mother's friends, and her doctors whose behavior was truly devastating. This was compounded because I had spent a decade--in which my doctors had prescribed medication that almost killed me--experiencing exactly the same kind of treatment from friends and relatives.

For a long time I felt that many of the people I had cared most about had destroyed my ability to trust, and my optimistic core, which has always been my trademark. What I learned is that talking things through...with someone who listens and has insight is a truly healing experience.

While there's a whole lot more I now understand, I have also learned there are things I'm not interested in sharing in a public forum. So, this is the end of my journey for now. Health and happiness to all!

Love,
Susan

Monday, November 30, 2009

Welllness Activities: Making Changes

For those of you who commented about Thanksgiving, it was a huge success. My husband, son, and I loved the freedom of spending the day pursuing our interests and hobbies without having to cook, clean, and gird ourselves up for what can only be described as a high tension day with disappointing results.

The restaurant we'd picked for our celebration exceeded our expectations. It was festive and fun, but low key. While my husband is a turkey cooker extraordinaire, even he agreed it was the best turkey we ever ate. And, the rest of the courses were unbelievable. My son thought the candied yams were the best ever (He loves vegetables). My husband loved the sauteed Maine scallops (his choice of a first course) with mangoes, mango coulis, toasted almonds, organic mixed greens, and vanilla-satsuma tangerine vinaigrette. I thought the pumpkin pie was extraordinary. What more is there to say other than the fact that I didn't have to wash a ton of dishes and pots and pans?

And, the day itself was lovely. I spent most of it (and the rest of the weekend) gardening in my front yard. And, what I found most interesting (again) is how many people walk by and chat. Perhaps, it's because we live a half block away from a major street, and in our neighborhood people walk to do their errands and to a park and mall, which are a few blocks away.

On holidays, they also tend to walk around the block--either with their children, parents, and/or dogs. And, since I've been relandscaping a small portion of our hillside, I can't tell you how many people I don't know very well, said hi, and asked me what I was doing.

And I had lively discussions with people I do know (or who are related to people I know) despite the fact that my hands were caked with mud (so were my clothes for that matter), and I looked like a day laborer. One neighbor needed advice on a book she's writing. Another neighbor's parents were here from Northern California, and we had a lovely meet and greet conversation. Since I'd volunteered to help their daughter mulch (and slightly amend) the soil so that her newly planted Agapanthus don't die, they expressed their appreciation for my gardening expertise (which, as we all know is in a nascent stage).

What I realized is that front yard gardening is a true tonic. It allows me to combine my love for gardening with socialization. So...once I've finished planting a portion of my hillside (a truly difficult task given 30 years of ivy roots embedded in the soil), I'm going to redo our parkway (replacing the grass with drought tolerant plants), and perhaps even get rid of our patch of front lawn and plant vegetable boxes for Square Foot Gardening! How's that for a Thanksgiving weekend resolution?

P.S. The photo on the upper right is Mel Bartholomew, the Square Foot Gardening Guru.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Coping with a Seasonal Mood Swing

The fact is that despite everything I do to overcome these seasonal mood swings, I'm not able to eliminate them--at least not now. That's not to say that I feel bad. I don't. I do have a low-grade depression, but the Adderall enables me to live with it.

The problem is that I'm just don't feel as well at this time of year as I do during my best months --which currently are April through September. But, I've decided this doesn't need to be a huge problem. I'll list the symptoms--as I see them--and the solutions.

1. I don't feel like writing my blog five days a week (until I have more energy). So...I've decided (for the time being) to only post on Mondays until I feel like posting more often.

2. For the most part, I don't feel like reading other blogs (for now), and commenting. I'll trust that my online friends will understand this, and realize that as soon as things change, I'll be there to support them.

3. I don't feel like socializing as much as usual. I've decided this is no longer the problem I once thought it was. I know plenty of people who are so busy that they rarely see their friends. I know others who are so self-absorbed that they rarely put themselves out for people. So...independent of the causal factors of my own situation, I've decided I no longer have to explain myself if I need more "alone time."

4. I don't feel like exercising as much as I usually do, except I know how important exercise is in reducing the symptoms of depression. So...I have vowed to continue walking the dog at least once a day, and to try to walk him twice because of the importance of exercise. If I need motivation, I have a few friends in the neighborhood with whom I can walk.

5. It difficult to motivate myself to do things I don't truly enjoy. I've decided that's okay. There are very few things I need to do that I don't enjoy.

6. The good news is that when I feel like this, I enjoy working on personal writing projects, and I have a few really good ideas that I plan on pursuing.

7. After a few months where I didn't feel like shooting photographs, my interest in photography is renewed, and this is a good hobby for me to pursue on my own.

8. Since I have problems with Thanksgiving and Christmas when I feel this way, I've come up with some new ways of celebrating the holidays that should make a huge difference. This year, my husband, son, and I are going to have Thanksgiving at a wonderful restaurant, and we're all looking forward to it. I'll write about our Christmas plans sometime soon.

9. My gardening projects still interest me, and that's a real relief. Next Saturday, I'm going to help my friend do the landscaping job at her daughter's elementary school. And I'm still working on a front yard and backyard project at my house.

10. Most of all, I'm going to accept the way I feel without judging myself. It's the way things are whether I would choose to be this way or not. I don't have to apologize. I don't have to feel bad. I can see all this as a "quirky personality trait" rather than a disability of sorts.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Wellness Activities: Gardening, Libraries, and Books


Tuesday nights are my botany class, and although I decided not to go last night (I like the people, but I don't like the way the class is being taught), I spent the evening reading gardening books, which is my new passion.

Yesterday I went to a public library I rarely visit, but they had a book on hillside gardening that I wanted to check out. And, I had such a wonderful time that I've decided to start trying new libraries just for fun. It's less expensive than going to bookstores, one of my favorite places. And, I love libraries. What's better than going to someplace with a ton of books on so many interesting topics, and being able to take home so many...for free.

One of the books I chose is The Illustrated Garden Book, an anthology of gardening columns by Vita Sackville-West. She was an English author and poet, and created the garden at her home in Sissinghurst, Kent. I had known about her since college, when I took some women's history courses.

What I love about this book is Sackville-West's writing style. She writes delectable personal essays about gardening and flowers. And, since this is the kind of writing I may wish to do, not only am I enjoying the book, but I'm learning a lot.

As I spent hours reading her marvelous essays and poems, my experience confirmed why I'd chosen to miss class. I'm taking these gardening classes to learn. But, at this stage in my life, I'm truly not interested in listening to people talk who don't inspire me. So...while I may have to rethink my participation in this certificated program, I've realized that my true goal is to continue finding teachers (like my first one) whose love of gardening makes my heart soar!

What wellness activities/hobbies makes your heart soar?

P.S. I don't mean to blow my own horn, but Wendy Love wrote a wonderful essay about my blog in hers, and it made my day!

Friday, November 6, 2009

When a Depression Speaks

One of the best things a psychiatrist ever said to me during a depressive episode was when he told me to ignore my feelings because, "It's the depression speaking."

And while it's difficult to do, it's terrific advice. For those of you who've experienced a severe depression, you know that everything changes when you're depressed, and it changes back again when you're not.

Since it's already November 6th, and I'm not depressed, this is a very good sign for someone who suffers from seasonal depression. However...should a depression hit, for the first time ever I've written myself letters, reaffirming my strengths, and reminding myself which wellness activities work, and which people I consider to be members of my support team.

So...for example, I've written:

1. You are a talented writer.

2. You're a good person.

3. You're upbeat most of the year, so it's okay if you choose to share some of the sadness you feel if you become depressed.

4. It's okay to let the people whom you help during the rest of the year help you if you're feeling sad.

5. Wellness Activity: Gardening.

6. Wellness Activity: Playing the keyboard and electric guitar.

7. Wellness Activity: Walking Jack.

8. Wellness Activity: Photography.

9. Wellness Activity: Watching your favorite musicals.

10. Wellness Activity: Writing poetry.

Of course, this is just a partial list. And, my letters to myself are far more personal. I remind myself of everything I like about me. I'm my best cheerleader and I tell myself what wellness activities I need to do and why.

I've created a list of people with whom I enjoy being if/when I don't feel well, and I remind myself why I like them. I've also come up with a list of activities we could do together.

Given the way I'm currently feeling, I believe it's possible that my November/December depression won't be realized, or the symptoms will be greatly reduced. While that's undoubtedly due to therapy and my gardening program, maybe the very act of writing these letters has made a huge difference. Wouldn't that be a kick in the head?

Have a happy and healthy weekend. See you on Monday!

(When I originally posted this last night I was tired from gardening and grammar-challenged. Thus, this is a slight revision.)

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Taking Baby Steps Towards Pursuing Your Dreams

Susan wrote a heartfelt piece about feeling like she's lost her dreams. If I were her doctor, I'd say, "It's your depression talking. And, I know you'll feel differently when you're not depressed."

The advice I gave to her--and some I didn't--is worth repeating here. I believe that dreams represent hope. In the same way I assumed I'd ultimately be well--even during my darkest days--I also assumed I'd be able to contribute once again.
The mantra that I whispered to myself over and over again was, "You're not a quitter. You're not a quitter. This, too, will pass. You're not a quitter." (It's seems silly to me now, but for some reason, it always made me smile inside.)
Once I was well most of the time, I suddenly realized I was lost...for awhile. I'd spent so much time focusing on illness and then wellness that I didn't know what I wanted to do once I actually became well.

I knew I wanted to write, but I couldn't decide what to write about. I started this blog, which has been very satisfying in many ways, but it wasn't enough. I knew I didn't want to return to grant writing, which is how I made my living for many years. I finally decided I was stuck, and I didn't know how to get unstuck. And it was a very painful and frightening feeling.

Ultimately, I returned to therapy, and one of its many values was to talk about my strengths and the ways in which I feel I can contribute. Luckily enough, I was able to take the time I needed to explore things without feeling like I had to make an immediate decision.

These days I'm quite clear that my path will be to combine my love for the outdoors and gardening with my love of writing. I'm still not sure how this will play out...but I know I'm headed in the right direction.

If I were to give advice to folks who are feeling lost and worried that their illness has destroyed their dreams...it's this: "From experience I know that wellness is possible. I don't know of anyone who's experienced more depressive episodes than I have, but I truly am well...most of the time now. And, if I can do it, so can you."

"And, if you've been ill for a long time, but you're feeling well now, recognize that it's okay to take baby steps towards finding your way again. For me, the first baby step two years ago was to sign up for a six-week photography class at a community college. For years, I wasn't able to commit to anything in advance, and before I took the class, I didn't know if I could remain well for six weeks. So, just completing the class was a huge step forward."

"Then I signed up for a second photography class, which I had to quit because my mother was dying. But, what I learned from that experience was that photography is an interest rather than a passion. And, that was a good realization because it paved the way for me to begin taking my gardening and horticulture classes.

"Now I don't think twice about signing up for ten-week classes, and I know I'll complete them. And, it was a natural progression to commit to a nine-course certificated program, and I know I'll complete it if it continues to interest me."

"Most of all I know that once again, I can pursue my dreams--big and small. Without dreams, there is no hope. But, with dreams, the sky's the limit."

To my friend Susan, I want to add that I know how awful it feels to wonder what you'll do for the rest of your life in order to find meaning. For me, the answer was getting help, and having the courage to move ahead...one baby step at a time.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Keeping Things in Perspective

Sorry, this is a bit late. I was so tired after my midterm last night that I couldn't write one more word. And I slept in this morning. The bad news is that I can't imagine I did well on my botany midterm since I didn't finish it, and became hopelessly confused after days of studying.

The good news is I decided I need to change my orientation--after so many years as a high achiever in school--and fully embrace the concept that the joy of learning is more important than the grades I get. Having said that, I'll share a few of my feelings about the class, the program, and the responses from my fellow students.

When I started taking gardening classes last April, what I loved best about the two classes I took was their practicality. In the first, all of the students designed and planted a garden at a local community garden, and our teacher shared her vast knowledge of plants--which was extraordinary.

We had weekly assignments where we charted the growth of plants, collected seed pods, and brought in examples of what was in bloom in our garden or neighborhood. Our tests were take-home exams, which leveled the playing field. For the people who had a breadth of background, they could spend very little time answering the questions. For those of us to whom the subject was new, we could spend as much time as we needed, and taking the exam was a learning experience.

The second class was pruning and we saw slides of good and bad pruning jobs, and for four consecutive Saturdays, we spent three hours pruning plants, shrubs, and small trees at our teacher's clients' homes. I learned a tremendous amount that I'm using on a daily basis.

Our teacher was not only supportive, but she learned everyone's name by the fifth week of class. She wrote lovely comments on our papers, and fully answered the questions we posed. After 30 years as a landscape designer, she was still so enthusiastic about her subject that it was inspiring. And, she was a true plant advocate, and had a wonderful sense of humor.

The botany class is a totally different experience. While our teacher is enthusiastic, he clearly needs to rethink the way he's teaching this class. I could go on and on, but I'll leave it at that.

Last night, when the midterm and class were over, and I walked to the parking lot with a few friends from class, one of them said, "You know, the teacher didn't prepare us for this test at all. What a waste of time." Another said, "I don't know why we have to learn this. It's not helping me at all. And when I get my certificate in gardening and horticulture, no one is going to ask me, 'What was your grade in botany?'"

But, the best comment was from a friend who knew two sisters who were enrolled in the interior design program. She said. "The one sister, who's my friend, really cares about grades. She studied all the time, and while she got 'A's, it was a tremendous commitment of time. Her sister didn't care at all about the grades. She got 'C's', and shrugged it off. All she cared about was learning interior design. She volunteered for all kinds of projects. She truly enhanced her skill level, and she loves the work she's doing."

I told my friend about a man in our first class, who was the most knowledgeable person of all, and although he had a Ph.D in another subject, only got what he called "gentleman C's" in his gardening classes. He said his true interest was the gardening itself, and he didn't have the time to devote to memorization.

So...what is the point of this lengthy post? I've decided I need to change. I, too, care way more about gardening than grades. I, too, don't want to spend ridiculous amounts of time indoors reading when I am taking these classes so I can be outdoors gardening. I, too, would prefer volunteering to work in gardens rather than trying to dazzle people by my intellect, which isn't at all apparent in a botany class.

While I know it's easier said that done, I have decided it's better to be a mediocre student who spends my days with my hands in soil and studies plants in the great outdoors than an "A" student who spends day after day reading books and studying online.

What challenges have you faced when returning to school or learning something new? How have you resolved them?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

My Depression Recovery Program

It's Tuesday night as I write this, and I've just returned home from my Botany class at UCLA Extension. I think that one of the things I like most about this certificated program in Gardening and Horticulture is the people.

Not only are they a diverse group in terms of backgrounds, countries of birth, age, and so much more...but for many, they are learning about gardening and horticulture in order to change careers--whether now or sometime down the road.

And, this shared interest in gardening and a desire to pursue a new field of study is a terrific combination. I think that when we meet others who are wanting to change and grow, there is an openness and vulnerability that allows us to cut through a lot of the "crap" that usually prevents true communication.

In addition, I believe that people who are willing to commit to something new--by enrolling in a certificated program, which in this case requires nine classes--are a different breed than those who take a class here or there, but are less committed to achieving a specific goal.

I feel blessed that I made the decision to try something that's so far afield from anything I've done before. I am delighted with the course content. It's exciting to immerse myself in nature. And, I believe this program is one of the key components of my personal Depression Recovery Program.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Giving Advice about Depression (Part 2)

What's most difficult about giving advice for depression recovery--a subject about which I truly know a tremendous amount--is that I lack patience when people don't listen.

I guess the problem is that during the periods when I have been severely depressed--and would have been thrilled to find anyone who could have helped me--I was unable to find people who were truly effective. And, in periods of great need, like last November and December, once again someone I knew recommended yet another charlatan.

This guy was a psychiatrist, and I had to drive all the way to San Diego (more than 100 miles), and it was a complete disaster. He allegedly had this "secret process," which he couldn't explain to me, but he said had worked with other patients. And, he learned it on the telephone from someone over a two year period. I could go on, but you get my drift. My need for help is sometimes so great that I've been willing to allow charlatans to financially take advantage of me rather than trusting my own instincts.

And, I know that much of what works for me works for others--but only if they are willing to listen, and fully participate in their own wellness. Yet, I also believe that in a deep depression, medication is the only way to end it--if you can find something that works. And, once you feel better, you have an opportunity to start doing all the wellness activities that will enable you to feel better long term.

What I mean by this is that I, too, realize it's very difficult--in fact, next to impossible--to start an exercise program when you're depressed. However, if you start one when you're not, it's much easier to continue with it when your energy level diminishes.

Same thing about finding a new therapist. It's almost impossible when you're depressed. At least it is for me because talking is so very difficult. But, if you find someone you like when you're feeling well, it's far easier to continue this relationship when you're not.

For me, this year will be the ultimate test. Earlier, I spent nine months in therapy resolving my issues. I am participating in this gardening program, which is truly healing, at UCLA Extension. I'm figured out what I dislike about the holidays, and we're developing new ways of celebrating this year. And, I've been reading about how to "embrace the darkness," which is clearly an issue for those of us who have a seasonal depression.

So...if my low-level depression worsens, I know what I need to do to get better. And, I've written myself letters to remind myself what needs to be done, and I've told myself that I am the only healer I truly need.

What works for you?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Giving Advice about Depression

I was trying to tell someone I love about how to determine if she is clinically depressed. This person, whom I'll call Mary, said, "My therapist thinks I'm depressed, but I'm just not sure."

I asked if she knew the symptoms of depression. She said she did, but she didn't feel they fit her situation. "I'm just not motivated," she said. "I can't force myself to do the things I need to. And I don't know why."

"When did you notice a difference in your behavior?" I asked.

"About a month ago," she answered.

"Was there anything that happened which caused you to feel this way?" I asked.

"Not that I know of," she said.

"Why does your therapist think you're depressed."

"Because of the motivation issues," she said.

"Did your therapist say anything else?"

"She suggested I talk to a psychiatrist."

"Are you going to do that?" I asked.

"I've made an appointment," she said. "But I'm not sure whether I'd feel okay about taking medication. What do you think?"

"Well, I'm neither pro or anti medication," I said. "Even though I've had terrible problems with it, I know people for whom it was a Godsend. Still, I strongly believe there are steps you should take before you take medication. I am a big believer in keeping detailed mood charts," I said. "I don't believe things happen in a vacuum or that depressive episodes come out of nowhere. And I strongly believe that you can learn to figure out triggers from mood charts. And...I also strongly believe in exercise, which has been proven to be more effective than anti-depressive medication."

"I won't do either," she said.

I sighed...

(to be continued)