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It’s been a while since I posted. I’ve gotten a new job, moved to a new place, and generally life has changed quite a bit. Today I’m reflecting on when insight comes from unexpected places (like your boss).

First, a bit of background. I have ADHD. Detail work is hard for me, and learning new, complex systems is also difficult. I work as the front desk clerk at a hotel, and have struggled to learn the guest management system and sometimes forget to check on vital, small details (like the room status at check-in or whether or not I closed out of a screen properly). My whole life, it’s been that way. I do my very best, first at school, then at my job, but it often isn’t enough. I’ve been flunked, fired, and called into the office more times than I can count or remember, and my “trying my hardest and still screwing up” issue haunts me.

Other than that, though, I love my work; as an extrovert who is naturally empathetic (sometimes to a fault), hotel work is a good fit for me. My boss and I think a lot alike when it comes to taking care of guests, he’s both caring and compassionate (a rare combination in my experience). Yesterday he gave me some mental health insight, and I’m not sure he realized he was doing that.

I made a detail mistake, and was upset about it. I told my boss in passing “just once, I’d like to NOT be the village idiot.” I was about to walk back to the desk when he stopped me. Looking me right in the eyes he gently but firmly told me “you can’t feel sorry for yourself. Learn and get better.”

I stopped short. I’d honestly never thought about it that way before, but he was right. My brooding on why I always have to screw up more than other people, why it takes me so long to learn things, is nothing but self pity. This is the hand I was dealt, and I have to play it as best I can. I can talk to my doctor, learn focus techniques, take vitamins and medications, but the end result is this is me. Brooding about the fact I was born with a disability isn’t going to change it; it just takes energy away from improvement.

That isn’t the type of psychological insight I expect from my boss, but you have to take help when it it’s offered. Plus there’s the fact that when the person who signs your paychecks says something, it pays to listen.

A few years ago, when I was a comfortable, middle-class young college student, I read a Readers Digest article about Liz Murray, a teen who found herself homeless and alone at age 16. Today, she’s a writer, speaker and addiction counselor, who overcame her situation through education. Specifically, as the title of her book says, she went from “Homeless to Harvard.” I remember reading about how she’d sleep in the hallways of Bronx apartment complexes, her head cradled on a backpack that held some shoplifted food and a CD player she used to “keep herself going.”

Fast forward to today. I’m a mentally ill woman of 34. I’ve had a string of dead end jobs, and I haven’t worked a “real job” in four years. My husband and I live well below the poverty line, on the edge of homelessness. Right now, our only source of income is food stamps. We have no idea where our rent payment, due in a little less than two weeks, is going to come from. In the last few days, I’ve been unable to sleep until the early hours of the morning. When I wake up, usually at about 3pm in the afternoon, I wish I hadn’t. I tried to chat with a suicide prevention counselor, but I couldn’t get through.

Yet somehow, in the past few days, hope has been stirring. I’ve become angry at the situation, and determined to do something about it. On my local library’s website, I found an ebook about how to prepare for the GRE (the admittance test for graduate school). I started reading it, taking notes like I did in college. I’ve been spending my sleepless hours sending in job applications and trying to scrape together a little money through my writing.

And, like Liz, I’ve been using music. I did a google search for “inspirational songs” and made a YouTube playlist of them. After listening to a few, I was amazed. Those determined beats, the notes sung out of a heart hurt but unconquered, did more for me than any visit to a therapist. I’d logged on wanting to give up. Within a very few minutes of listening to that music, not only did I not want to give up, everything in me was dead set not to.

If anybody wants my playlist, here it is.

I’m in the middle of a series on where to turn when we who suffer from mental illness are supposed to turn when those who are supposed to care for us (personally or professionally) don’t do that. Today I deal with turning to a higher power which (while not part of everyone’s journey) is an important aspect of recovery for a great many of those with mental illness. There’s been a lot writing on this subject, so I’m focusing on my own experience, as that’s about the only unique thing I have to draw on.

Letting Go Of Guilt

Mental illnesses such as depression can cause guilt without any external stimulus. When your brain is misfiring and not producing enough of the neurotransmitters that let you feel happy or content, you can’t very easily feel happy with yourself. I do my best to take my meds as prescribed, but if I forget them for two days in a row, I’m beating myself up by evening.

But mental illness can cause guilt problems in another way: when you’re too sick to work (or if you have co-occurring problems that screw up your life, such as drug addiction), you start building up a backlog of things to feel guilty about. For example, I am almost 35 and have never supported myself financially. When you look around and see your friends buying houses, but you’re barely able to help pay the rent on your tiny apartment, it gets to you.

Faith is, for me, one way to cope with that. I’m a Christian. Forgiveness is a core tenant of Christianity, and it means far more than just the sweeping of past transactions under the rug. Forgiveness as the New Testament explains it means that God will not only continue loving us despite our past (a potentially life-altering concept in a world of performance-based love), but that He promises to help us build a better, more meaningful life. Theologians call this concept “Regeneration.” A psychologist might call it “hope for recovery” or “positive thinking.” I call it “the ability to believe in God when I can’t believe in myself.”

Letting Go Of Other People’s Problems

A lot of what the counselors said when I was the in the psych ward has stuck with me, but I remember one thing in particular. “You guys are givers.” I think it’s true that those with mental illness often (though of course not always) are helpers. When there’s a primary stressor that triggers and episode (and not all episodes have primary stressors), it is often the demands of caring for someone else, either through a genuine caregiver relationship (as for a sick child, parent, or other loved one) or through becoming mentally enmeshed in someone else’s life (what psychologists call co-dependency).

Right now, I’m learning how to avoid the “enmeshing” part. I have a friend (who also happens to be my next-door neighbor) who is in a neglectful and emotionally abusive relationship. The things her partner says and does (like refusing to help care for their two young children even though his wife is at high risk of miscarrying the third if she does not rest) genuinely shock me.

There is, however, only so much I can do. I can drive her to her doctor’s appointments so she doesn’t have to haul two kids through the wet spring snows to the bus stop. I can give her some of our food or drive her to food banks so his own children don’t go hungry when he blows his paycheck on booze. I can give her phone numbers of organizations that can help. I can call the cops when I hear him screaming at her about spending “his money” or interfering with “his day off.” But that’s all. I can’t make her leave him. I can’t force her partner to grow up, man up and step up.

This is where my higher power comes in. My faith tradition teaches that God can change hearts, prompt action, and even perform miracles of provision. Where my hand ends, His begins. By praying for my neighbor, I can more easily let go of her issues. I don’t have to let them bother me until I burn out and stop caring, nor do I have to grant help I can’t mentally or financially afford. For me at least, faith helps in maintaining healthy boundaries (though is it no means required for them).

Giving Back

Finally, I think turning to a higher power can help those with mental illness by enabling them to give back. Almost every faith tradition on planet Earth has some kind of “take care of others” requirement in its behavior guidelines. One doesn’t have to be spiritual to give, but even for the most naturally giving of people, mental illness warps character and makes it easy to sink into one’s own misery. For me, “God wants me to do this” is a powerful counter to “but I don’t feel like it.” The fact that giving helps blunt the guilt and makes me feel like I’ve done something worthwhile is a pleasant side effect.

Also, I’ve learned nobody has to be rich, totally self-reliant, or even “not living well below the poverty line” in order to give back. Every person’s skills can be used in the service of others. I’m good at internet-based research and I have a web connection. Being able to quickly locate the phone numbers of any one of my city’s hundreds of aid organizations can be a lifesaver to someone who needs their help. I think the same is true for anyone, and it’s as simple as asking “what am I good at?” and “how can I use that to help?”

What do you think? Has your faith helped you deal with your illness? How? 

A few days ago I wrote about ways I think those who suffer from mental illness can help ourselves when the people in our lives, for whatever reason, don’t come through like we need them to.

My last post was about how to use one’s own imagination to provide comfort and insight when one is feeling sad, lonely or confused. Today I’m thinking about how to use it to reduce anxiety.

The past few weeks have been really tough for my husband and me. The bank has never had more than a few dollars in it, and our bills are significantly more than a few dollars. Needless to say, I’ve been worried.

When I can’t take it anymore (or can’t sleep), I cope by going somewhere else in my head. I’m not talking about just visualizing a peaceful scene (though I do that). I mean closing my eyes and imagining the room I’m in, from every angle, turning into another physical location (usually a fictional one from a book or a TV show). I picture what would be on the walls. What the floor covering would look like. I imagine what sounds I’d hear, what textures I’d touch.

And it works. I think part of it is simple concentration: the mental effort required to hold the image helps me take focus off of whatever is bothering me. I also think it works for another reason: if I can mentally take myself to an imaginary place, then (for the few minutes I stay there), real-world concerns can’t “get me.”

It’s not escapism. Sometimes I avoid reality, but my mental excursions aren’t an evasion technique (as is, for example, “forgetting” to check the mail for overdue bills). “Going somewhere else” is more like a vacation. Life will be there when I get back, but when I’m on “vacation,” I can rest.

“For it is in your power to retire into yourself whenever you choose.”
― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

A few days ago I wrote about what people with mental illness can do if those who are supposed to care for us — professionally or personally — fail to do so. I came up with a list of places to turn when someone fails you:

  • To your own inner strength
  • To nature
  • To a higher power
  • To people other than those who failed you

Today I’m thinking about what it means to turn to your own inner strength. There could be (and have been) libraries full of books on the subject. Since there are people out there with Ph.D.s who are far more qualified to discuss things like resilience and positive self-talk, I’m not going to focus on those. Instead, I thought I’d mention a few slightly odd (but effective) techniques I use, that (as far as I can remember) I haven’t heard about anywhere else.

Talking to Imaginary Friends

This is one I’ve used for years. I have imaginary conversations with fictional characters from TV, movies, and books. I’m not delusional. I know they’re not real. But this “active imagination” technique allows me to get the response that real people don’t always know how to give me.  When I can’t get anyone to tell me “it will be ok,” to soothe me with gentle kindness, or just to listen, I can turn to Zhaan from Farscape or a compassionate Elf from The Lord of the Rings. If I’m frightened and need some help thinking things through logically, I can have a chat with a Tuvok (a Vulcan) from Star Trek. (Side note: I just realized how much of a nerd I am when it comes to entertainment).

Pretend It’s Not You

This one I got from, of all things, learning to use makeup. I started doing so in my 30s, having spent my teen years and 20s without it. Because I’m not used to seeing color on my face, it didn’t look right to me. So I’d look in the mirror, pretend I was looking at someone else, and ask “what would I think of her if she passed me on the street?” That told me if my look was really “too much.” Then I started doing it for psychological concerns. I’d look at whatever situation I found myself in and say “if someone came to me with this situation, what would I tell her to do?” As I am a bit of natural psychologist and teacher, that worked. It let me step back and tap into my own studies, knowledge, wisdom, or whatever you choose to call it. Insights that represented major breakthroughs included:

  • Letting go of guilt during spiritual activities and connecting with divine love
  • Remembering that caring for myself is an important part of keeping my marriage strong (I’m a better wife if I’m not grumpy)

I still find this technique useful whenever I feel stuck or confused.

What do you think? How do you turn inward when there’s nobody around to help, or you just (for whatever reason) don’t want to ask?

Who has words at the right moment? -Charlotte Bronte 

The general consensus of the mental health community is that sufferers need a support community. I agree with that. Scientific research supports it.

However, my experience has been of being let down far more often than helped. Close family members have refused to call emergency services when I was acutely suicidal, believing that I was “just trying to get attention.” Doctors have sent me home from the emergency room despite being told I do not feel I can keep myself safe. Community mental health psychiatrists have attempted to threaten me into signing a blank piece of paper as my “treatment plan.”  Friends whom I have lent a listening ear despite my own fragile mental state have, when I call on them for help, rewarded my compassion toward them with apathetic silence.  Family members who told me to “call them whenever I needed to talk” have glossed over my tears in order to rant about their high-paying jobs or home remodeling projects.

One — only one — individual on this list has shown any interest in learning how to better support me. This person is one I now can safely turn to. The rest have not changed. Maybe it’s my fault. Perhaps my expectations are unreasonable. It is likely I do not clearly communicate what I need. I know I have allowed professionals to violate the standard of care and patient rights because “patient advocates” have ignored me and I didn’t want to deal with the issue anymore. Some of the wounds are old. Some were inflicted today. All of them hurt.

What do I do when those who are supposed to care for me — in a professional or personal capacity — fail to do so?  How do I mentally deal with their failure?  Then, how do I get the help I need?  The first one is easy once I get enough distance to see through the fog of hurt and anger. My spiritual beliefs state that humans are fundamentally flawed, but I don’t think anyone really needs a holy book to see that. Just look around. Watch the news. Humans are capable of greatness, but they do not always act the way we as sufferers need them to. Sometimes we can heal the breach, teach our friends and family better ways to help us. Sometimes we can appeal to the authorities, to correct or remove the professionals who disobey the rules. Sometimes we can’t. We can mourn over that, but we have to accept it.

Then turn elsewhere. To nature. To a higher power. To our own inner strength. To other people, seeking for those who will succeed where their predecessors have failed. Perhaps to a mix of all of them.  Each of these could be an entire  post. I’m not as yet totally sure how to “turn elsewhere.” I’ll think about it and get back to you.

Once, in college, someone told me I “use too many analogies” when I think about how life works. Well, I don’t know if I use “too many,” but I do agree with her that I get my ideas from some pretty odd places. Recently, I’ve gotten some insight from, of all things, a video game. I’ve always said “I’m not a gamer.” I don’t like gore. I don’t like puzzles that make me feel stupid (as most do, since my ADHD brain just don’t work “that way”).  Then I happened to see a play-through Hubby was watching on his computer. The game was Don’t Starve (which I can only describe as “Gary Paulsen’s ‘Hatchet’ meets Tim Burton’s fantasies”). It looked like fun. So I started playing.

I didn’t expect to get a lesson in lifestyle management of mental illness while gaming, but I did. In this particular game, there’s a “sanity counter.” Letting the counter drop too low is dangerous; your character will start hallucinating, and eventually the hallucinations will kill you.  You don’t just respawn like I hear you do in other games (minecraft anyone?). You have to start over.  So here’s what I learned so far.

Pick Flowers: Spend Time in Nature 

In Don’t Starve, picking flowers is worth +5 Sanity Points (for non-gamers, that means it increases your sanity counter by 5). I’m not much for actually picking flowers in real life (for one thing, the people growing the flowers don’t tend to like it, and in some areas, wildflowers are legally protected). I do, however, know how soothing nature can be. Some sunlight helps balance me out when I’m feeling down, anxious, or irritable. I even have a blue light I use during the winter when I can’t get outside as much as I need to (it’s designed to simulate sunlight, and I highly recommend it).

Don’t Eat Monster Meat: Watch Your Diet 

Monster meat is another one. If you kill monsters in the game, such as  spiders or one of the vast array of hybridized mythological creatures, like “warepigs” or “deerclops” (a boss-level deer monster with one eye), they drop “monster meat.” If you eat it, it hurts your sanity. In the real world, low quality food (read: fast food) and my brain don’t get along. I can handle one meal (and when my cravings demand some fries, and it’s actually better for me to get a small order instead of stressing about it all day). Too much McBurger, however, and I start getting angry and irritable. Pretty soon I’m ranting about how totally unacceptable it is that the spoons are in the wrong compartment of the silverware drawer. Yeah. Not great for marriage. So I try to stick to home-cooked stuff most of the time.

Sleep at Night 

In Don’t Starve, you can build a bed roll to sleep through the night. It doesn’t work in the daytime though (the character actually says “it’s too bright to sleep). Everyone (or at least everyone I know over the age of 25…do 18 year olds just run on hormones?) pretty much agrees you need enough sleep to stay sane, but I’ve discovered it’s also important to listen to your natural sleep schedule. I’m a morning person. Staying up late and sleeping in makes me sad. If I weren’t on meds, it would make me depressed. I’ve really gotten that one messed up lately (I’m writing this after midnight), but I’m working on it.

Don’t Spend Too Much Time Around Monsters

Don’t Starve monsters have an “insanity aura.” The longer you spend around them, the more sanity they suck out of you. I’ve noticed the real world has “insanity aura monsters” too. Some of them like to hide in whatever part of my brain houses my quirks. For example, I tend to lose sanity the longer I spend in a messy environment, until I have to either clean it RIGHT NOW or physically get away from it. I haven’t worked outside my home in a while (yea freelance writting!) but I remember the “insanity aura” of the workplace “monsters,” like that one coworker who I am pretty sure would have burst into flames if he ever said something positive. I also can’t spend too much time watching the news or I start getting irrationally angry, and some of Hubby’s eBooks make me panicky. I guess the important thing is to figure out what in your life has an “insanity aura” and work on managing your contact with it (if you can’t just avoid it entirely, which you usually can’t). I’m still trying to figure this one out too.

Finally, Don’t Game Too Much 

This isn’t a game mechanic, but it is something I notice. As a person with ADHD as well as mental illness, sitting still gaming (or doing anything else on the computer) for too long isn’t good for me. All my extra energy can’t go into squirming or running around, so it turns into irritability. So I’m going to stop blogging now and go to bed.

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