Change begins by not trying to change

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Our kids are 7 and 10, and I never really got out of the habit of cutting their food for them.  WTF, right?  I’m not saying this is a good or normal thing, I’m just saying it’s a thing.  Sometimes we fall into habits that continue far beyond their useful or necessary life.

So this morning when Henry, who is 7, asked his dad to cut his pancakes, Jeff’s reply was, as is typical for him, candid, self- aware, instinctive, maybe a little ornery, definitely astute.

He said, “I can cut your pancakes, like, two more times.”

Henry, bewildered, asked, “Two more times In my whole life?!

Jeff said, “Yes.  In your whole life.”

So of course, Henry picked up his knife and sawed the pancakes into pieces by himself with no problem.

When it comes to habits that have continued far beyond their useful or necessary life, or in this case let’s say bad habits that never served a useful purpose, it also so happens that I have been mentally beating the crap out of myself for years, especially along the lines of being a Bad Mom.  So a typical Bad Mom response to this would be me thinking, Duh, Ally. Obviously he can cut his own pancakes.  He can probably do a lot of things that you aren’t asking him to do for himself, like help around the house, pick up his clothes.  He can probably run the washing machine by himself, if you’d just take the time to teach him.  You are not setting him up for success.  You are setting him up for failure.  He’s going to have entitlement issues and low self-esteem and difficulty his whole life because you are a shitty mother and have not recognized all the things he is capable of doing for himself and you have just obliviously carried on, cutting his pancakes for him, because that’s what you think a caring mom does and you are wrong.  You need to work harder at this parenting thing.  You need to be Maximizing the Children’s Development.

I wish I could say I am exaggerating this voice, but I’m probably not.

However, today, that voice did not come.

Have you ever had this happen?  Where something like grace or perspective descends upon you, seemingly out of nowhere?  Like there is this huge unveiling of an obvious truth, something you’ve known “in theory” for your whole life but have never been able to truly “get”?

I can of course “imagine” having that reaction, that voice in my head, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to type those words.  But I don’t really believe any of those words.  Instead, I have this feeling, this knowing, actually, that it’s fine.  I’m a good enough Mom.  The kids are fine.  We are all fine.

Wouldn’t it be great if that Bad Mom Voice was gone for good?  I will not be so bold or foolish to think it is, but it is on a break it seems, and thank you God, I will take it.

Tasting squirrels

Note: I wrote this on Friday, but I chose not to post it because (a) it was still Mental Health Awareness week and I was concerned that reading it within that context wouldn’t really bode all that well for me and  (b) it wasn’t very interesting.

Now it’s Monday so everything is different because (a) my mental health is no longer in the spotlight and (b) it is still not very interesting but then there was some serendipity on Saturday, so here we are.  Read on, and be prepared to be thoroughly underwhelmed.

grey squirrel on tree look

On the walk home after taking the kids to school this morning, there were a couple of squirrels chasing each other around the base of one of the huge boulevard trees.  This of course is not an unusual thing.  What was unusual was for the first time ever I thought, “I am so close to this squirrel, I can almost taste him.”

Him.

Not it. I didn’t mean it metaphorically.   I actually had the wet squirrel fur smell and sensation in my mouth for a lingering moment.¹

The serendipity part of the experience happened the next morning when we were walking back from piano lessons, and Elder (aka the 3rd grader) had the exact same wow-I-am-so-close-to- a-squirrel experience (without the tasting sensation, I’d assume), and declared “I am so close to this squirrel.  I cannot even believe how close I am to this squirrel.”

The truth is, I think we have both been in closer proximity to squirrels, I think we were both simply very mindful of the squirrel and for some reason I would say that we both felt a certain affinity with the squirrel.

Apparently the mindfulness meditation class is having some spillover into my regular life, in the paying attention to things realm.  Truthfully, I would prefer to be more mindful of pleasant things, rather than the taste and mouth-feel of a squirrel, but you see that is the tricky thing with mindfulness–you just accept whatever is, whatever comes up, without judging it or wanting it to be different, not grasping for a better taste, like Oreos or Doublemint Gum or whatever–no, you just say Here it is, squirrel sensation in my mouth.  Interesting.

Can’t you just sense my greater sense of well-being and calm?  Me neither.

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¹This might be less alarming to you if you have already read Flora and Ulysses, which I have not (but I have heard an excerpt on MPR).  Please don’t think that I have any interest in eating or tasting a squirrel.  It’s only in the context of saving a life via mouth-to-mouth resuscitation that I imagined the squirrel mouth sensation.

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Ulysses the squirrel, from Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by K. G. Campbell

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week – Here’s my story

Well, dang, people.   I just learned that it is Mental Health Awareness Week.  Which means it wouldn’t be appropriate to write the post I was going to write today, because although it was on the topic of mental health, it was irreverent and ironic and not especially hopeful or enlightening.  (I’ll write that one next week–I promise it’ll be more fun!)

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This, from NAMI:

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There are not many impersonal “calls to action” that I feel a need to heed.  In fact my knee-jerk reaction to those quasi-political words, in any context, is to “go lie down,” let the activist types take the lead, and to offer assistance only if asked directly (or if told “there will be treats and/or prizes for the volunteers!” )  However, timing is everything, and it seems like a good time to do my part.

My two cents (This turned out to be longer than I thought.  More like a buck fifty’s worth. You’d better go get a beer.  Or come back next week.)

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I don’t have a lot to say about depression, because mostly, I don’t understand it.  It’s nothing like you think it is, if you’ve never experienced it.  For me, It is not a mere sad mood (and being the melancholic type to begin with, I will say sadness is not such a terrible thing, in fact, it often feels like it is closer to beauty and to joy than are many of the other “negative”emotions).  Where sadness is an emotion, depression is a loss of all emotional responsiveness.  It is an emptiness, a profound nothingness.  It might sound like a big case of the “blahs,” which we all succumb to from time to time, and that is certainly a component of it, but it is so much more.

Along side of the emptiness is a sharp, painful awareness of the fact (I should say perception, or misperception, but such is the cognitive distortion that it feels like a fact)  that one is cut off from life itself –a life everyone around you seems to effortlessly inhabit.  It is a feeling of such supreme isolation and alienation that being around normal pleasant conversation, innocuous recounts of a typical weekend, or other ordinary exchanges can feel like physical blows, like being deliberately excluded, separated from that which matters most deeply to you.

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Notice that I say “being around” these ordinary exchanges rather than “being in” them–and it is that distinction, that separateness, that makes all the difference.  And the inability to be “in” them is not for lack of trying!  Often times, most of the time, a person with depression is trying, has to try, for more hours of the day than not, just to go through the motions.  (It’s exhausting.)

Most of the time, I can hold it together, I can “look” and “act” normal, and can participate quite convincingly in these ordinary exchanges.  A couple of close friends who know my struggles will sometimes say “Well, for what it’s worth, you seem better today.  If I didn’t know, I’d never guess you are depressed.”  And sometimes, ironically, that is the most alienating thing of all to hear.  I am trapped behind a large pane of glass  watching everyone else–I desperately want to rejoin the land of feeling, of living, and being, but I can’t break through.  And nobody even knows I’m gone.(1)

This is the double bind of the isolation of depression–sometimes it is too painful to be around others, to be both unfeeling and unseen, and yet to cut oneself off from others provides little solace, and often worsens the condition.

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As Joseph Campbell said, “I don’t believe people are  looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive“–and (my words now) it is this experience, of being alive, that is so profoundly missing in depression. The kindest thing a friend said to me recently was simply, “I give you a lot of credit for just keeping on going.”  He himself has never been depressed, but somehow he just “gets  it”– how hard it is to just keep showing up. (Thanks, Boonie.)

Why Can’t You Just Snap Out Of It?!?

Probably the most damaging part of depression for me, when I’m in the throes of it, is the self-blame.   Other people have bad things happen, very bad, unimaginably hard things, and yet they are not depressed.  Allie Brosh’s tragicomedy “Adventures in Depression,” paints a painfully accurate description of this self-berating.   In essence, “Get over yourself!  Quit your whining!  You are pathetic.”

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She writes “When I couldn’t will myself to not be sad, I became frustrated and angry. In a final, desperate attempt to regain power over myself, I turned to shame as a sort of motivational tool.” (No one would recommend this strategy, by the way.)

(So why can’t you just snap out of it?)

“Why can’t you just snap out of it?” Despite the self-condemning and self-defeating nature of the question, the question remains (and so too the negative spiral downward that so often follows).  Without going into a long medical model diatribe attempting to explain, the short (oversimplified) answer is this:  dysfunction in several regions of the brain that regulate mood.  Real live measurable observable impairment in areas including the pre-frontal cortex that contribute to an inability to “think positively.” (2)

Depression is not a normal behavioral variant or personality style; it is a clear abnormality of brain and behavior.

I found these passages so oddly reassuring when I first came upon them, in Peter Kramer’s Against Depression:

“I consider myself reasonably depressive, in terms of my personality style.  I am easily upset.  I brood over failures.  I require solitude.  I have a keen sense of injustice.  In the face of bad fortune, I suspect that I might well succumb to mood disorder.  In medieval or renaissance terms, I am melancholic as regards my preponderant humor, and yet, I have never qualified for a diagnosis of low-level depression [much less major depression.]”

So, yeah.  I have a depressive personality, it’s true.  But experiencing clinical depression is a different beast entirely.  As he puts it, “Depression across a broad spectrum remains a distinct disease, separate from the various personality states it sometimes accompanies.”  For whatever reason, this helped me a lot with the self-blame.  It’s an actual disease of the body. Those of us that are living with depression should all get huge medals for how decently we do function, a lot of the time.

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And then the fog lifts. . .

When the depression lifts, which often is surprisingly all of a sudden, out of nowhere, I literally can’t even recall how bad I felt.  When it’s back, I can’t recall what it feels like to feel normal.  There is an amnesia that permeates the entire experience, such that I frequently have to ask my husband, “How long have I been feeling this bad?” (It’s been awhile . . .)  Did I feel like this all last week?  (You had some good stretches in there . . .)  Or, has it really been since January?  Did I have any good weeks?  And so on.

I sometimes look at a photograph and think, wow I look so normal (read: happy) there, but I remember that day vividly, how I was just going through the motions, how I did not feel at all like myself, how I was counting the hours until bedtime, so I could escape into sleep.

Here is an example of one of those photographs. . .

Here is an example of one of those photographs. . .

Or conversely, when the fog lifts, as it has, today, I will think, Wow, I remember saying that I felt worthless, but I cannot even conjure up what that actually even means.  (And hence the difficulty in writing about it at all–even now as I describe it, I think surely I must be exaggerating.  And yet if, when, it returns, I will think:  that doesn’t even begin to touch it.)

Well, I started out by saying I don’t  have a lot to say about depression, which apparently is not the case.  What I should have said is there is not a lot I can say I understand about depression.  How it comes on, or how it lifts.  But just going through the exercise of trying to describe it, my experience of it, makes me feel less alone with it.  More connected to the world.  It’s a first step, and at the same time, a coming full circle, back into myself, back into being, experiencing, connecting, feeling.  Living.

The kindest thing you can do for someone who is suffering is to simply listen, and try to understand.  So thank you.

Footnotes (which you should just skip because, seriously, this isn’t graduate school.  No one will check.)
(1) And since figuring out how to live authentically is a huge driver for me, writing with transparency, and vulnerability, with a desire to connect, to remind myself and others “we’re all in this together,” you can imagine that this is especially painful,  to feel alienated.
(2) Kramer’s conclusions come from ” a wealth of recent research on the disease in the last decade, including work in genetics, biochemistry, brain imaging, the biology of stress, studies of identical twins, etc.  . . . Kramer presents a sustained case that depression essentially pokes holes in the brain, killing neurons and causing key regions of the prefrontal cortex — the advanced part of the brain, located just behind the forehead — to shrink measurably in size.  . . He compares the brain damage from depression with that caused by strokes.  (I did read the entire book, but here I am sort of crappily citing from this NYTimes Book Review)

Please Don’t Eat the Pipe Cleaners

Sometimes when starting a new medication it can be helpful and informative to visit an online discussion forum where other people share their experiences and offer support and reassuring words.

Other times, not helpful.

[–] ticklesmypickle  I heard voices on Wellbutrin and I ate pipe cleaners.

[–] WafflesHansen  Holy shit. That’s terrible.

[–] eat_fish Did the voices tell you to eat the pipe cleaners?

( . . .because if he ate the pipe cleaners on his own volition, that would be so much more disturbing than if the voices told him to do it, right?)

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The Other Thing I Wasn’t Going To Tell You

The other thing I wasn’t going to tell you on Tuesday is that when I accidentally saw the Twenty Four Million dollar house for sale on EdinaRealty.com, I naturally thought “Who the hell lives in a Twenty Four Million dollar house around here?” so I did what I always do which is to go to the Hennepin County Property Taxes website and look it up. (I know this isn’t a good thing to do, and I’m trying to practice loving kindness and be less judgy about things like money and wealth and materialism since I am doing meditation now, and practicing non-judgment is one of the main things about it.  Which is why I didn’t tell you in the first place.)

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But then, this morning’s headline was “Viking fans to pay hefty seat fees at new stadium” so I took that as a sign that maybe I should have told you that the (albeit former) owner of a professional sports team like the Vikings is exactly the kind of person who might own a Twenty Four Million Dollar home in Orono, and maybe all of the professional sports team owners have gazillion dollar homes, and yet they still always go around acting like they shouldn’t have to pay for the new stadiums because they are too broke, which is not exactly honest.

I’m not sure where I’m going with all this, but the story ended with even a Republican saying “I think that should make Minnesotans very angry.  It makes me very angry,” and then told how one guy even threw his shoes on the table and said “This is fricking ridiculous, man.”  So I guess it’s not just me and maybe it’s okay to get a little pissed off instead of try to just meditate all the time.

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I wonder if he really said “fucking ridiculous” but they couldn’t print that.  I totally would have wanted to say fucking.  And throw my shoes.

Feeling out of touch with the “younger generation”

I was having an okay morning and then I saw this costume in the Party City ad, and realized I have no idea what a “Teen Partysuit” is, and why this would be a good Halloween costume.

Teen Partysuit

Teen Partysuit

And then I flipped a few more pages and saw that it is also offered in adult sizes, and many different colors.

Many colors to choose from

Many colors to choose from

Somehow this made me feel a little worse.

(I didn’t mean for this to be a depressing post, but now it’s kind of feeling like one.  If anyone would care to make a lighthearted comment about the suits, or about your own Halloween costume plans, or about anything else on your mind, I would be very glad to read it.)