Friday, March 27, 2009

Blogging to Learn, Share, and Heal

A number of years ago, I read a wonderful book by William Zinsser entitled Writing to Learn. While I couldn't find the book last night in order to share a quote with you, what Zinsser confirmed for me is that the best way to make a subject my own is to write about it.

That's part of the reason why I blog; I blog to learn, share (what I've learned), and heal. But sometimes I wonder whether I need to provide more data when I discuss wellness activities (which is just one of the many topics I blog about). When I thought about yesterday's Field Trip Wellness Activity post, I wondered whether a "new" reader might look at that and say,
"Wow, Susan Bernard is really a lightweight. I'm reading this post because I need to find out how to cure myself of bipolarity and/or depression, and she's writing about the wonder of seeing deer at a state park."
And just before I began writing this post, I had one of those Aha Moments. I realized that when I'm undergoing a severe depression, all I want is to find a way to lessen or end the psychic pain. But, unfortunately, I've learned there's just not one "cure that fits all."

However, when my depressive feelings are receding or I'm done with them, I know there truly are lessons to learned and to share about dealing with depression, and that's why I write.

Yet, when I think about my Wellness Activity posts, I wonder whether I need to put them in a larger context. Should I have written, "The reason why I went to the park on Wednesday was that because of my recent depression, I have spent months in relative isolation. And I've learned that once I feel the least bit better, it's really important to be in public places, particularly if I don't feel like engaging with people on a one-on-one basis.

"Also, I believe it's critically important to know what things in life make us feel good. What can we do that's uplifting? What environments do we find life-sustaining?"

And, I wondered whether it would have been helpful to provide supporting data. In fact, I do know that being in the great outdoors, which is my top healing environment, is therapeutic. Mind, a leading United Kingdom health charity, has discussed the value of Ecotherapy, which is "about getting out of doors and becoming active in a green environment as a way of boosting mental health. This includes taking regular walks in the countryside or the park, flying a kite, or taking part in a gardening therapy project.

"In the first study of its kind to examine the effects of green exercise on people with mental health problems, the researchers examined 20 members of local Mind groups who took part in two walks, one in a country park and one in an indoor shopping center, to test the impact on self-esteem, mood and enjoyment.

"The results showed that:
  • 71 per cent reported decreased levels of depression after the green walk.
  • 22 per cent felt their depression increased after walking through an indoor shopping center and only 45 per cent experienced a decrease in depression.
  • 71 per cent said they felt less tense after the green walk.
  • 50 per cent said they felt more tense after the shopping center walk.
  • 90 per cent said their self-esteem increased after the country walk.
  • 44 per cent reported decreased self-esteem after window shopping in the shopping center.
  • 88 per cent of people reported improved mood after the green walk.
  • 44.5 per cent of people reported feeling in a worse mood after the shopping center walk, 11 per cent reported no change and 44.5 per cent said their mood improved.
  • 71 per cent of people said they felt less fatigued after the green walk and 53 per cent said they felt more vigorous."
There's actually more information on the topic. My question is: When I discuss personal wellness activities, is it more helpful for you if I back it up by providing supporting data?

Please let me know how you feel because while I'm usually aware of the data, I don't always think to share it. In the meantime, I hope you have a happy and healthy weekend. See you on Monday!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Wellness Activity: Taking a Field Trip

Yesterday, in order to change my mood, I decided to visit Will Rogers State Park, one of the magical places in Los Angeles that reminds me why we continue living here.

Although I had intended to take a hike into the mountains so I could see the coast, once I sat on a wooden rocking chair on the porch and started writing, I didn't feel like moving. As I looked out on the lawn, I remembered my childhood--oh so many years ago--when my mother, father, brother, sister, grandmother, and I used to picnic in the park on a Sunday afternoon.

I began writing a poem about my grandmother when I heard the clop clop clopping of hooves on the driveway. It took a few minutes to register and when I looked up, I saw a man on a horse walking right up the middle of the lawn where we used to sit.

An hour later, when the sun was no longer keeping me warm, I moved to a bench and table in the picnic area, and continued writing. Again, I heard a noise, and looked up. This time it was a deer eating grass about 20 feet away. He'd scampered down the mountain while I wasn't looking. And a few minutes later, his mother and siblings joined him.












All in all, it was a glorious day. While I'm not always sure what my life's purpose is, or how to end a depressive episode, I do have these wonderful family memories to sustain me, an ability to experience great joy, and a deep love of nature and the outdoors!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Making a U-Turn While Writing About It

While I had intended to write more about how we find meaning in our lives, tonight I find myself unable to continue this series. The truth is that I felt lousy all day, and I was in a terrible mood. I felt irritable and annoyed for no apparent reason. Throughout the day, I took three bubble baths to relax, and while I now look like a prune, it's after 1:00 a.m. and I'm not relaxed at all.

I finally realized that part of my discomfort is that I'm still slightly depressed and I'm finding it difficult to enthusiastically embrace the topic of finding meaning in life. One of the reasons is because, as I mentioned yesterday, during a depressive episode, I lose whatever sense of purpose I feel I have.

Of course, the truth is that I intellectually know my sense of purpose doesn't just disappear. It just feels like that. I also know that once an episode is over, I shouldn't feel "better than great." But, in the old days, since the medication I took kept me cycling from depression to hypomania and back again, that's exactly how I did feel for many years, although I don't now.

So, what I have to get used to is coming out of a depression and feeling somewhat disoriented and lost, rather than euphoric. And that's been disappointing.

For all those years of being on a roller coaster that I was told (and read over and over again) was biochemical in nature, I've also realized that I ultimately felt powerless to stop them. Over time, what I internalized from my psychiatrists was the feeling that depression is an illness I am powerless to prevent or even diminish because I am medication-resistant.

The alternative viewpoint offered by the so-called alternative healers I turned to, was that if they could just find the right amino acid or the right combination of vitamins and minerals, I could end these episodes. And, that too, never happened.

And, in all those years, while I tried my darnest to find some way to alleviate the pain and suffering, I never thought to try and embrace it in any way, or to learn from it. I never considered that my resistance might be making things worse rather than better.

Because I had read (and been told) about brain kindling, a psychiatric theory that suggests that repeated untreated depressive episodes worsen a person's condition, I figured that after 25 years of untreated depressions, it only made sense that I could barely survive each successive episode.

Now, it's been 41 years (if one counts the years of medication), and the very thought of it is overwhelming. What I now believe is that everything I was ever told and most of what I've read was wrong (for me), and there was undoubtedly a better way to have dealt with all this.

So, hours ago when I started looking at the books in my home library that might inspire me to continue writing about finding life's meaning, instead I found one that enabled me to feel good about not writing about it.

What I picked up was Pema Chodron's book, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. While it had been recommended me to me years ago, I remember reading it, and either "not getting it," or not liking what I got.

But...suddenly much of what she says makes sense to me. While I'd like to promise that tomorrow I will explain Chodron's premise, I think it's an unrealistic expectation. I'm not feeling well enough to finish the book and try to distill it in a day.

All I can promise is this: Sometime in the future I'll write again about finding life's meaning. Sometime in the future, I'll figure out if the type of meditation Chodron practices will help me. But, tomorrow, I need to stop staying indoors and reading, and go outside and smell the flowers!

Having said that, I must admit that months ago I received a Flower Smeller's Award, and didn't even put it on my blog. How meaningful is that?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Thinking About Life's Meaning Again (Part 2)


The purpose of this series is to discuss how we go about finding life's meaning. I wrote that during a severe depression, I always feel I've lost it. I also said that when I have discussed my quest with others--with whom I have worked--no one else even suggested it was important to them.

Yesterday, I mentioned that I'd bought a new book, U-Turn: What If You Woke Up One Morning and Realized You Were Living the Wrong Life?, by Vancouver writer Bruce Grierson, which seemed like it might address issues relating to finding life's meaning.

Actually, U-Turn is about people who decide to dramatically change their lives. Grierson interviewed more than 300 people, including a doctor who quit his job to become a poet; a former journalist who became a pastor; a restaurateur who became an environmentalist; an army lawyer who prosecuted homosexuals, "came out," and began defending gays in the military; a slaughterhouse employee who became a vegan and animal rights activist; a U.S. Marine general who became an antiwar activist; a man who became a woman, and dozens of others.

While I am interested in the stories of people who dramatically change their lives, the true appeal of this book for me is: "What motivates people to change their lives?"

Grierson writes that "U-turners are inclined to view the world as a story rather than as a truth." He quotes psychologist Jerome Bruner who says that we are chiefly rational or we are mythological. We are either people who lean hard on reason and motivation or we are invested in a narrative mode of thought.

Grierson continues, "The mythological imagination breeds a deep curiosity. U-turners are, by and large, questors. More than most people, they are interested in searching for meaning--a trait Jungian psychoanalyst Marian Woodman believes, you either have or you don't. The incurious are not likely to examine their life, and therefore the U-turn process will never be initiated. Woodman calls the unexamining liver of life a 'happy carrot.'

"They don't ask why. They live their life day by day, they don't question the meaning of things, don't think about coincidences. Those questions never come up. They're not interested in the unconscious. They never pay attention to their dreams, so their dreams cut out."

Woodman said, "Exactly why some people are happy carrots and other strive for meaning is a question Jung had no answer for. I don't know of anyone who does. I envy happy carrots, sometimes."

Grierson writes that happy carrots will never be U-turners. He also writes that people who reverse their lives usually do it for one of two reasons. "The first are those who follow a sort of redemption script--we 'come clean' from a life we view as ethically wrong, answering a sense of duty to do the right thing.

"And then there are those that are more Platonic, more ethically neutral; we abandon a life that was 'wrong' only in the sense that it was wrong for us, now. The distinction points out two definitions of morality: a fidelity to goodness, and a fidelity to whom you feel you intrinsically are."

At this point, while I enjoyed reading the life-changing stories that Grierson shares with us, the question I wanted answered was: What did the U-turners have in common that caused them to change.

Grierson writes, "The U-turners in this book are, you could say, people who fell out of balance, but in lots of different ways. The restorative snap back depended on what, in particular, they were thinking too much about, and what they were neglecting as a result.

"But what they have in common is that the gap between personal values (like being kind or raising a family or volunteering) and social values (like making money) just became too great, reaching the point where they didn't recognize themselves. The social self and the private self became strangers to each other. And when that happens, something has to give."

Perhaps, because U-Turn is 341-page-book with dozens and dozens of examples of different people who chose different paths, at the end I still wasn't sure how this related to me. So, I turned to my favorite little book (117 pages), Let Your Life Speak: Listening to the Voice of Vocation by Parker J. Palmer, and reread a passage that always makes sense to me.
"Discovering vocation does not mean scrambling toward some prize just beyond my reach but accepting the treasure of true self I already possess. Vocation does not come from a voice 'out there' calling me to be something I am not. It comes from a voice 'in here' calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given to me at birth by God."

(to be continued)

Monday, March 23, 2009

Thinking About Life's Meaning Again (Part 1)

Late yesterday, I read a comment on last Monday's post by oneofsixbillion (signed cravinglife) that truly touched me. Because it's been a week, and you probably won't see the comment without my mentioning it, I've decided to write a post in response.

Cravinglife had written that my writing and Gianna's (as well as others) have been very helpful, and quoted Viktor Frankl, who's always been an inspiration to me, although I didn't remember reading this particular quote (or the one that follows).
"The purpose of life is to find one's gift. The meaning of life is to give it."
Cravinglife also wrote: "I honestly believe that you all write with such clarity and deep meaning that you truly have found the purpose of your life, and by means of your public writing and of all the readers who benefit from it, you have also discovered your true meaning in life. And for that, I thank you all."

CL ended with a second Frankl quote: "...man's main concern is not to gain pleasure or avoid pain but rather to see a meaning in his life. That is why man is ever ready to suffer, on the condition, to be sure, that his suffering has meaning."

What CL couldn't know was that every time I go through a depression, I dwell on whether my pain and suffering has any meaning whatsoever, and more recently whether I should be writing this blog, or concentrating my energies elsewhere.

And, in fact, it seems like the search for meaning has been my quest ever since my first depression--41 years ago. For most of my life, I have wondered why I can't just be happy, like other people seem to be, and why I have had so much difficulty finding meaning in my work.

As I've mentioned before, when I was younger I had a number of very prestigious jobs, none of which provided meaning. In fact, when I was 27, I was the Art and Antiques Editor for Architectural Digest, one of the most prestigious magazines in the world. It was one of those jobs that when people asked what I did for a living and I told them, their mouths literally dropped open. It was "oh so glamorous" and "oh so unimportant" to me.

After three years, I couldn't stand it any longer and quit. I couldn't imagine that my purpose in life was to work for an art and antiques magazine--no matter how impressive. But, it's not like I had lined up another more meaningful job before I resigned.

The truth is it took months to get my next job. I decided I may have made a mistake in quiting prematurely (another unfortunate pattern) My next few jobs were far less impressive, and didn't have anything to do with a calling. In fact, no one understood why I'd quit, and it seemed to be the beginning of a downward spiral.

Sequeway to the present...When we were in Santa Barbara, I picked up a book, U-Turn: What If You Woke Up One Morning and Realized You Were Living The Wrong Life? by Bruce Grierson.

"Oh, my God," I thought. "Maybe that's my problem. Perhaps I suffer from depression because I'm living the wrong life. I wonder if my quest for meaning is a bipolar symptom or just a personality flaw that I should have come to terms with years ago. What in the world is wrong with me?"

(to be continued)
P.S. Today would have been my father's 88th birthday. "I love you daddy and miss you so much. I imagine you and mama are in heaven together smiling down on me."

Thursday, March 19, 2009

In Celebration of My Mother's Birthday

Although I am away and having a wonderful time, I couldn't help but awaken this morning and feel sad. Today would be my mother's 87th birthday; she died two years ago. In celebration of her life, I'm reprinting one of her poems.

Marjorie Schwartz, 1922-2007

On a Sad Day

Don't cry for me.
I have loved and been loved
with more sweetness than most.
I promise to be a gentle ghost,
with only a reminder here and there...
an off-key song...a steak that's rare...
an ice cream cone...a silly poem.
So, smile awhile and think of the stories I'd tell,
then remember me...and laugh like hell!

"Mama, I love you dearly, miss you, and often think of you. You live in my heart and soul."
Love,
Your one in the middle

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Vacation Therapy

Dear Friends,
My husband and I are taking a short vacation to celebrate my birthday--which isn't until April 6--a little bit early. We needed to be near the ocean, to see nature up close, to walk places rather than drive, to visit our favorite independent book stores, to take photographs (that's my newest hobby and my husband paints), to go on hikes in the hills, and to participate in what small town life has to offer.

I'll be posting again next Monday--or perhaps over the weekend. See you then!

Susan
P.S. The graphic is a lovely painting called Santa Barbara Beachcombers by Gavin Brooks.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Steps on the Pathway to Wellness

In yesterday's post, I ended by posing a question for myself, which was: How do I cast aside the illness in my heart that is preventing me from moving ahead?

When I wrote the post, I thought it was a question I needed to address. But, Andrea wrote a response, which was very helpful, and enabled me to look at the question from a different perspective.

Most importantly for me, she responded although I hadn't asked for help. She volunteered without my seeking her support.

While I have done that many times for others--and with strangers one rarely knows whether it's appreciated or not--during this illness, only a few close friends and family members have stepped in, even when I have asked for help.

So...yesterday, you can't imagine how pleased I was when Andrea lent me an unsolicited helping hand. (And there have been others who have offered advice and friendship as well, and you know who you are.)

Maybe, therein lies the answer to my question. Unlike the cancer patient in yesterday's post who took her own life because she felt she had failed to heal herself and had to depend upon someone else, with my blog I feel I have developed a virtual community of caring people.

And perhaps each of us heals a little bit each day because one of us sends a hug from afar, offers a few words of heartfelt advice, or reminds us that we matter, and they care.

Today, I would like to thank Andrea and everyone else who reads this blog, comments, and lets me know they care. As I type all of the names of the people who have commented since I have returned to blogging, I realize that each person is a part of my healing process. Each represents a step on the pathway to wellness.

I have tried to list the names in the order that the comments since February have been made. Thank you's go to: Gianna, Duane Sherry, Catatonic Kid, Howard, Sandy Naiman, Jazz, Carrie, Paula Joy, Susan, Marja, Marissa Miller, Wendalyn Love, Dirkmonster, Bitsy, Gabriel, Isabella Mori, John D., iHanna, Annie, Emma, Mariposa, and Louisa.

If there's anyone I neglected, it was an oversight, I apologize, please let me know, and I'll add your name to the list! (I don't want any "step" to be missing on my pathway!)

FYI...my husband and I are going away for a few days, I'll be posting again next Monday. The graphic is from bhojman's photostream.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Accepting Wellness

I read the following passage in Healing Into Life and Death by Stephen Levine. I can't stop thinking about it, and I'll explain why after you read it.

"A few years ago we were told by a physician a story of one of his patients who 'had tried her damnedest to get rid of cancer and couldn't.' Though she applied the latest techniques as best she could, the cancer spread to a point where it seemed she was about to die.

"Deciding to take a 'last vacation,' she went to the West Coast to spend some time on the beaches of Southern California. During the course of her visit she met a well-known healer who in two sessions of laying his hands on her apparently removed the pain and cancer. Two weeks later she killed herself.

"After the healing she told a friend that if it was that easy to heal she really must be a failure as a person. 'I really do deserve to die.' All the ideas she had about being responsible for her illness and having not previously 'chosen to live' left her feeling great despair and distrust in her own personal strength.

"Because of her belief system, being healed in this manner dis-empowered her. Someone forgot to tell her that all the work she had done until that time had worked to allow her to allow the healing in. The healer, thinking he was responsible for her healing instead of to her healing, perhaps kept too much credit for himself instead of sharing with her that she was already so prepared all it took was a little extra energy in the system to shift the tides."

These days, I've been feeling a bit like the cancer patient, although I'm not despondent, just somewhat shell-shocked. In returning to therapy, I've quickly figured out a lot of things I've been stewing over for years. Suddenly, I seem to have developed a clarity about bipolarity that I never had before. I see pattens of behavior I never understood before. And I can't believe I had to experience so much pain and suffering to figure all this out.

It's not that I believe my therapist has "healed me." Clearly, I am ready to "get it." What I can't believe is that it took me so long to get back into therapy, although I also know I may not have gotten it--even a few months ago.

Unlike the cancer patient, no one has taken away my pain and suffering. But...it feels like it's time to unload decades of hurt and anguish and move on. My question to myself is: How do I cast aside the residue of illness in my heart that is preventing me from shifting the tides?

Sunday, March 15, 2009

When We Feel Overwhelmed During a Hypomania

While I rarely post on weekends, today's post is for Wendalyn Love (and if it helps others, that's great too). This morning she wrote a comment about how inspirational yesterday's post about Moses was, and mentioned that she's feeling a little overwhelmed today.

In response to her comment, I began thinking: "How do we define being overwhelmed?" I'm not sure how Wendalyn does, but it means different things to me dependent upon my mood. If I've been going through a high energy period, sometimes I feel overwhelmed because I've emotionally and physically worn myself out.

For me, while having a lot of energy isn't always a hypomania, the summer months usually are. During those times, I often feel "better than good" every day. If I'm blogging, I work that much harder to think about posts that might help others. I ask myself, "What have I done, what do I know, what have I read that might help someone who's feeling depressed feel better?" I make a special effort to respond to comments by providing advice I think might make a difference.

If I'm with people, I feel like I'm giving 110 percent. I'm warm and welcoming to strangers. I'm more thoughtful with friends and family members. I volunteer to do things for strangers. If I am working on a project, I do it to the nth degree. (You get the drift.)

Again, dependent upon my mood, living at 110 percent can last days, weeks, or months. But, sometimes, either at the end of the period or during it, I feel exhausted. It is as if I've given everything I have...and I either need to decompress or replenish myself.

I'm not sure if shifting moods are due to hypomania, energy shifts, personality traits or possibly medication--but they clearly require a periodic adjustment. I've always been more of an "all or nothing" type person. And, for me, feeling overwhelmed is usually a question of pacing. I've learned to ask myself the following questions:

1. Are you beginning to feel depressed or are you truly overwhelmed?

2. If you're overwhelmed, what's causing it? Are you spending too much time with people and do you need some alone time? Are you giving too much of yourself and can you cut back? If you feel like others need to step in and do more of their share, can you ask them to do that?

3. Can you spend time with others and feel less responsible?

4. Are you involved with too many projects? Which ones are truly important? Which ones can wait? Which ones can you eliminate?

5. When you're feeling this way, who can you talk with or spend time with who can help you replenish yourself or can you do this by yourself?

Finally, there are activities that I know do help when I'm overwhelmed. For me, it's spending time alone and playing a musical instrument. It's taking a long bubble bath and reading while I'm in the tub. Sometimes, it's taking off a few hours during the day to watch a DVD that I enjoy. Other times, it's driving to the park and taking a long walk.

If my mind is too active, it's trying to switch from left brain to right brain activities. Again, music does that for me, and so does photography. Being with animals instead of people works as well. Mostly, for me, it means that I need to be alone so that I can relax, regroup, and restore myself.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Overcoming Disappointment

Yesterday's quote about Abraham Lincoln was from Rabbi Harold S. Kushner's book Overcoming Life's Disappointments. And as I mentioned in my post, since mine is a secular blog, I don't feel comfortable discussing theology. However, I finished the book last night, and realized that Kushner's message transcends religion, so I've decided to share it with you.

"Kushner turns to the experience of Moses to find the requisite lessons of strength and faith...because Moses was a man whose soaring triumphs were upset by crushing defeats in some of the things that mattered most to him...His people don't listen to him, he is denied entrance to the Promised Land, his family suffers. But he overcomes."

For me, what Kushner says is particularly important because during my last depressive episode, I realized that I have viewed my illness as a "crushing defeat," my inability to achieve wellness as a failure, which I have been unable to overcome, and I have been sorely disappointed.

Kushner writes: "Perhaps failure and disappointment can teach us that we may fail at one thing, we may fail at several things, but that does not mean we are failures as people. The worth of a person's soul is not measured by his or her bank account or the volume of applause a person evokes, but by one's humanity, by one's compassion, even by the courage to keep on dreaming amid the broken pieces of your earlier dreams.

"True success consists not in becoming the person you dreamed of becoming when you were young, but in becoming the person you were meant to be..."

Kushner goes on to quote Viktor Frankel, a prominent Jewish psychiatrist who was interned in a concentration camp, and is the author of Man's Search for Meaning. "Looking back at his Auschwitz experience, he [Frankel] wrote, "Everything can be taken from a man but the last of the human freedoms, the right to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances."

"In other words, what happens to you , no matter how hurtful or unfair, is ultimately less important than what you do about what happens to you."

Kushner concludes his book by talking about the blessings in the Bible. "What sort of blessings were these? I can only understand the phrase a 'full and complete blessing' to mean the experience of life in its fullness, tasting everything life has to offer, the bitter and the sweet, the honey and the bee stings, love and loss, joy and despair, hope and rejection. The blessing of completeness means a full life, not an easy life, a hard road, not an easy one, a life that strikes the black keys and the white ones so that every available emotional tone is sounded.

"If you have been brave enough to love, and sometimes you have won and sometimes you have lost; if you have cared enough to try, and sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't; if you have been bold enough to dream and found yourself with some dreams that came true and a lot of broken dreams that didn't, that fell to earth and shattered, then you can look down on the mountaintop you now find yourself standing on, like Moses contemplating the tablets that would guide human behavior for millennia, resting in the Ark alongside the broken fragments of an earlier dream. And you, like Moses, can realize how full your life has been and how richly you have been blessed."

Friday, March 13, 2009

Abraham Lincoln and Depression

I'm reading this wonderful book by Rabbi Harold S. Kushner entitled Overcoming Life's Disappointments. Since mine is a secular blog, and I know many of us worship different faiths, I don't feel comfortable discussing the religious lessons I'm learning.

However, there is a quote about Joshua Wolf Shenk's book, Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, which might have a universal application. "[Shenk] offers a portrait of Abraham Lincoln as a man weighed down with despair and depression, not only during the years of the Civil War but throughout his life.

"But the depression did not keep him from living a productive life. On the contrary, it forged a strength of soul, that in the words of the book's subtitle, 'fueled his greatness.' Shenk writes, 'With Lincoln, we have a man whose depression spurred him, painfully, to examine the core of his soul; whose hard work to stay alive helped him develop crucial skills and capacities, even as his depression lingered.'

"His mental condition taught him to 'look troubling reality straight in the eye' rather than with unwarranted optimism. Lincoln became a great man and a great president, perhaps the greatest president ever, because his road to the White House was a hard road, not a smooth one.

"...Lincoln used the discouragements of his life not to permanently block his way but to help him uncover who he really was. And we, who can aspire to be like Lincoln, can be like him in refusing to let the discouragements of our lives permanently deter us from the fulfilling life that may await us."

As I bid you a happy and healthy weekend, I'd be interested in your thoughts on this quote. What can we learn from our depressions? How does it strengthen us? What "skills and capacities" does it give us?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Wellness Activities and Hope (Part 2)

The moment I felt slightly more energized, I began removing a Boston ivy vine from a stucco wall of my husband's art studio. Outdoor wellness activities usually make me feel better. I think it's the combination of being outside, physically working, and doing a repetitive task, which puts me into a Zen-like rhythm.

While none of the photos I'm showing are mine (they are courtesy of HGTV), the one above is exactly what the vine looked like. And the photo on the right of Paul James, master gardener, shows the way I was dressed, although my face looked more like the one in The Scream by Edvard Munch.

When I'm feeling well, I like doing manual labor. During this depression I didn't enjoy myself at all, although it beat the alternative, which was moping around indoors. So, every day for two months, I worked on this project. What the pictures don't show are the terrible roots that were underneath the soil.

And removing the roots actually was somewhat pleasurable (a relative term). Of course, Horticultural therapy is a well-known healing method, unlike Home Improvement Therapy, which is something I may have invented.

The most tedious, and the best healing task of all because it required so much concentration, was removing all the little adhesive disks at the end of the tendrils, which aren't easy to see in the photograph.

I had to use an electric drill with a wire brush attachment and a Spackle knife because they're so difficult to scrape off. And this took about three weeks since the vine had also grown under the eves of the roof in the front of the studio. Finally, I had to Spackle the stucco, and paint it as well as the wood.

The reason I tell you this is twofold: 1) It was truly an enormous accomplishment for me, since I was otherwise unable to feel like I was getting anything done. During a depression, my brain cells die by the thousands, and there's so much I can't do. So, I look for projects I can do.

2) The very act of awakening each day and knowing I have a tangible goal is part of my healing process. There are other wellness activities I do when I'm well, and I'll continue to write about them. But the key for me is to figure out what I can do when I'm depressed in order to feel productive.

Over time, I have learned that even completing the smallest task can provide hope when I feel so sick I can barely function. While I'm no Helen Keller, she certainly was an inspiration.

"I thank God for my handicaps for through them, I have found myself, my work, and my God."

If that means I was meant to be a manual laborer, so be it!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Wellness Activities and Hope (Part 1)

For those of you who are new to my blog, I frequently write about different wellness activities I enjoy. After years of heartache, in which I spent all the time I wasn't depressed researching depression and bipolar disorder, I finally realized that dwelling on illness was making me feel sicker rather than better.

While my motive in doing research was a sound one--since no one else was helping me I had to heal myself--the outcome was a poor one. So many of the authors of books on these topics seemed to blame the depressed (DEPS) and bipolar (BIPS) folks for our situation. And since a lot of psychiatrists and mental health professionals don't believe we can get better, we don't.

These days I find that many authors of new books on bipolar disorder are presenting an equally untruthful point of view. It's usually a four-part story. 1. I was acting out, didn't know why, and was ruining my life. 2. I was diagnosed as bipolar. 3. My psychiatrist prescribed a few different medications. 4. The medication worked, I'm well again, and thriving.

In my experience, their stories are unrealistic and simplistically naive. I believe it's as much a disservice to pretend that achieving wellness is easy as it is to suggest that it's impossible.

What I have learned--over a period of 41 years--is that depressions don't happen in a vacuum. There is usually a reason, the least of which may be the way I deal with stress. And that even when medication works (and it doesn't for many people, myself included), it should still be considered part of a larger wellness program.

While I recently lamented offline that during my most recent depressive episode, none of my wellness activities worked; that was only partly true. The real problem was that I lost hope. I stopped believing in their effectiveness...and mine...and was overwhelmed by fear, grief, anger, and loss.

When I realized I seemed to have lost my sense of humor entirely, and that the best word I could find to describe myself was "embittered," I knew it was time to return to therapy, and to actively pursue my wellness activities because they represent hope.

(to be continued)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Wellness Activity: Visiting Libraries

I love libraries. More than 30 years ago, I went to Manhattan for the first time on business. And one of my goals--for pleasure--was to go to the Humanities and Social Sciences Library to see the two famous stone lions, Patience and Fortitude, that guard it, as well as the main reading room.

Over the weekend, I went to the Beverly Hills Library, which is my favorite library in Los Angeles. Of course, I go to check out books, and they have a terrific collection. But, what makes it special is the architecture. It's right behind the City Hall, which is a real treasure.


Actually, I'd intended to write about some of the books I picked up. But, it's kind of fun to post about places I enjoy going.

P.S. When I was responding to CK's comment, I realized that I had loved visiting The Morgan Library & Museum as well. And I never thought to ask: If you have a favorite library, share the link with us. It would be fun to fantasize about seeing new places...if only in our minds.

A Caveat: I posted this piece early in the morning. But this afternoon I realized that for new readers, I may have to explain why I write about wellness activities that would seem to have nothing to do with bipolarity or any other medical malady. That will be the topic of tomorrow's post.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Wellness Activity: Pet Therapy

I felt much better today. I'm not sure if it was because we turned the clocks ahead for daylight savings or because I spent a few hours today playing with a red Miniature Pinscher dog we were considering adopting.

It turned out that Dickson looks a lot like Spike (my terrier-mix who died last year) although Dickson is red rather than black. And, although he is a pure-breed Miniature Pinscher, the breeder who owned him--and used him as a stud--abandoned him, and a pet rescue group is trying to find a home for him.

I found Dickson through petfinder.com, which is a great resource. While I had promised my husband we would be dog-free for awhile, I so miss my dogs that once a month I scan Petfinder to see who's available...even though I don't take it any further.

But today, I just had to see Dickson, and the rescue group's adoption clinic was held at a local pet store a few minutes away. I took him for a long walk around the block, and then just sat outside (it was a lovely warm day), put him on my lap, and pet him.

While I have read that the "act of petting" actually lowers your blood pressure and makes you feel better, I believe it is the "act of loving" that truly does this. And pet therapy for depression truly works.

When I came home and researched the breed, I realized we won't be able to adopt Dickson for a number of reasons that are too lengthy to go into.

And although I felt a little sad tonight, knowing that Dickson isn't quite right for us, I felt so happy today because we had a chance to spend time together. And I realized that this past depression was the first one in 14 years where I didn't have Spike to comfort me.

Clearly, it's time to adopt...it's just a question of when.

P.S. The graphic isn't Dickson; he's almost four and this is a younger dog.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Learning from Depression (Part 1)

Once the panic is over...once the psychic pain has receded...once I know I have survived, yet again...there is always something I learn from depressive episodes, no matter how painful they are.

Although I keep on telling myself there must be an easier way to gain insight, a more gentle method of figuring out that my life needs tweaking, thus far I haven't figured out how. And until I do, I guess I'm stuck with depressions that make me feel like I can only grow by getting smacked in the head by a iron skillet or run over by a two-ton truck. Still, hope springs eternal.

There were many such lessons in the last few months, but one of the primary ones is that I have been stagnant in many ways. When I'm not blogging, I keep on writing the same stories...over and over...with different words, but the same themes.

So, my new therapist recommended a writing class--my first one ever--taught by a poet. While I've read some brochures on it, tomorrow afternoon will be my first class, although it's the last of eight classes in this session.

Although we aren't expected to write poetry, and the teacher's method is unique and quite different--and I'll tell you all about it after I attend--tonight, in anticipation of class, I decided to skim a book I've read a few times, Poetic Medicine by John Fox, who's the president of The Institute for Poetic Medicine.

I particularly liked the following passage by Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D.

"Poetry is simply speaking truth. Each of us has a truth that is as unique as our own fingerprints. Without knowing that truth, without speaking it aloud, we cannot know who we are and that we are already whole. In the most profound way, speaking our truth allows us to know that our life matters, that our viewpoint has never existed before. That our suffering, our joys, our fears and our hopes are important and meaningful. One of the best kept secrets in this technically oriented culture is that simply speaking truth heals."

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Thoughts on Being a Wellness Writer (Part 2) and Hibernation

After reading the comments from yesterday's post, I feel better about calling myself a wellness writer even though I'm not always well. And I would like to thank Duane, Gianna, John D, Hanna, and Marja for helping me see the light.

I've written before that I'd would probably be categorized as "quite well indeed" if hibernation was considered an admirable skill to have developed. What if...instead of having to apologize for falling off the radar screen for months at a time, I could boast, "Hey, I've really got this hibernation thing under control. It works just like clockwork from November 1 to March 1. And when I awaken from my winter's sleep, I've got a huge amount of energy."

Or, what if...the people at NASA felt there was a burgeoning market for astronauts who could hibernate in space? The above photo, which I could only find once and then it disappeared, was evidently a prototype of a machine for hibernating in space. Think of how cool it would be to be picked to be an astronaut just because you're SAD (seasonal affective disorder).

Certainly, I would feel much better about myself if I could say, "I'm a wellness writer and an astronaut."

Monday, March 2, 2009

Thoughts on Being a Wellness Writer (Part 1)

Two years ago when I started this blog, I played around with a few different blog names. The first was Bipolar Wellness. The second was Bipolar Wellness Writer. And the third is Wellness Writer. Since my mission for the blog was to focus on wellness rather than illness, Bipolar Wellness seemed like a good point of departure.

And then I decided that since I focus on my thoughts, feelings, and experience, I should personalize it so that it's clearly one writer's perspective. Once I realized I have a huge problems with psychiatric illness labels, and because I think labels contribute to illness, I switched to Wellness Writer.

Having explained all this, I must say that once this depression began...and since it has lasted interminably, I have thought again about about changing the name. "How can you consider yourself a wellness writer if you get depressed?" I asked myself (and perhaps others have been wondering about this as well).

During the worst phase of the depression, I said to myself, "You have been dishonest with your readers by appearing so upbeat so much of the time. Why don't you ever share the true devastation? Now, that you're ill, and you clearly can't 'heal yourself,' they'll never read you again."

I still feel that way to some degree although my new therapist (this was a very positive step since I haven't been in therapy for 20 years) disagreed. He said, "Don't your wellness activities work for you?"

"Yes, they do," I replied. "And in fact, I utilize them all the time. They're not exactly wellness activities per se, it's just about having a positive outlook in life, and doing things that make me feel better. Years ago when I was so sick so much of the time, I kept on looking for inspiration, advice, humor, and positive steps to take, and I couldn't find it online. So, I decided to fill that niche."

"And don't you feel you can still do that?" he asked.

"Well, for awhile I felt like a real fake because once the depressions hit hard, it feels like everything I know goes out the window."

"But, if your readers are in a different place than you are, will what you've written help them?"

"Yes...it will," I said, after thinking about it. "The moment I have any real energy, and feel at all cheerful, I'm back to doing all my stuff. This week alone I did the Zen of Electric Sanding Activity, and I learned some new songs on the Autoharp in anticipation of volunteering for seniors once I feel better. I've been spending time reading quotes on positive thinking, and I've been getting sunshine, gardening, and blogging--all important wellness activities.

(to be continued tomorrow)
P.S. I got the logo on a site called Club La Santa, and promise to use it only this one time.