Gratitude is the latest buzzword in wellness. You can buy cute gratitude journals in which you can write lists of all the things you’re grateful for. You can buy coffee mugs and T-shirts and home decor preaching the gospel of grateful. But that’s not really practicing gratitude is it?
There are lots of sound reasons why we should all take up the practice of gratitude. Studies conducted by the National Institute of Health show practicing gratitude rewires the hypothalamus in our brains. The hypothalamus is the part of our brain that regulates body functions. We literally cannot function well without grace. Pick up any popular fitness magazine and there is an article listing out the benefits of gratitude from reduced stress, better sleep, to a reduction in chronic pain. And, all of this is true but what they don’t tell you is how to practice gratitude.
How do you practice gratitude? I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Developing a gratitude practice is the logical first step in any wellness plan. So what is a gratitude practice?
I’ve been following the website gratefulness.org which is devoted to the writings and teachings of Brother David Steindl-Rast. Brother David is a Benedictine monk who has written books and given speeches on gratitude. Brother David teaches that the practice of gratitude has three steps.
2. Be aware of opportunity. Ask yourself “What’s my opportunity here?” Ask yourself this question as you prepare for the mundane tasks of your day as well as the challenges. Life presents us with opportunities every day but we must open our minds and our eyes to see them.
3. Respond alertly. If you can allow yourself to be surprised by the simple joys all around you, and learn to recognize the opportunities in every situation, then this last step happens naturally.
Practicing gratitude is more than just saying your prayers or giving thanks before a meal. It’s more than reading scripture or keeping a gratitude journal. It’s as much a part of the way you move through your day as eating and sleeping. My favorite quote of Brother David is that if you live every day as though it was both the very first day of your life and the very last day of your life then you will have spent that day very well. I had to think about that for a bit.
What if today was the very first day of your life? Imagine you arrived in this world just as you are right now with your body as it is, your finances as they are, etc. Would you hate your reflection in the mirror? Would you be disappointed with this life you’ve been given? I wouldn’t. I would be grateful to God for giving me this life and this day to start living it. I would be grateful that unlike the rest of the people walking around in the world I wouldn’t have a past. That’s the key to understanding what it means to live each day of your life as though it were your very first. If this is your first day of life then you have nothing to compare it to. You have no history to remember all the negatives. No failures to remember. No broken hearts and failed relationships. No mistakes. No missed opportunities. No hurts, abuse, or bad memories. All you would have is the moment you came into this world and all the possibilities that go along with it. How beautiful is that? Brene Brown famously said that comparison is the thief of joy. If we live each day as though it were our very first then there is nothing to compare it to. All that happened before becomes irrelevant. There is only here and now, and the future with all of its possibilities. Every day we are given the opportunity to start over. Isn’t that surprising?
What if today were the very last day of your life? Steve Jobs famously wrote an essay stating he asked himself this question every day and the answer determined how he decided to live his life each day. Well, what would you do if you found out you only had hours to live? I doubt you would cling to your previously held expectations and pride. All of your fears of failure and rejection disappear in the face of death and like the previous question of today being your first day, the last day of your life is not likely to be spent remembering all the failures, lost opportunities, and regrets. Rather, you would remember all the good times and great people who were a part of your life. You would embrace every opportunity for joy, for love, to make lasting memories. What opportunities are here?
The mantra from Brother David encourages us to see today as it was meant to be seen. Today, and every day is a brand new day. It’s a clean slate. A chance to achieve, to succeed, to learn, and to grow. The mantra also reminds us not to dwell on the past. Life is short. Time is finite. We are given a limited amount of time in this space with the people around us to seize the opportunities in front of us.
This is what a gratitude practice looks like. It’s not down on your knees in prayer reciting bible verses. It’s not writing lists in cute journals. And, it’s not posting memes on your social media feeds. It’s minute by minute, it begins when you open your eyes and ends when you fall asleep, and begins again the next day. It does not happen naturally. It’s s mindful practice. It requires intention. The benefits far outweigh the effort. It’s time very well spent.
One of the biggest challenges for those who live with mental illness is sleep. This may come as a surprise to some because from the outside it looks like people with mental illness sleep all the time. Some people think my daughter sleeps too much. This is a logical conclusion because when they try to call her during the day she’s asleep. I’m constantly being lectured about how much she sleeps. It’s exhausting and frustrating to listen to. I’m so tired of explaining why she sleeps when she does that I’ve stopped trying. My daughter lives with bipolar depression and anxiety with panic attacks. When she is manic she has severe debilitating OCD symptoms. She can’t walk across the carpet. She sleeps on her bed with no sheets. These are just a few of the frustrating ways her mania manifests. Her anxiety disorder is at the more severe end of the spectrum and drives her to have panic attacks and suffer from a condition called agoraphobia, which is a fear of leaving the house.
Alexa’s anxiety rises sharply every night starting around 9 pm. In addition to her anxiety this is when her bipolar swings manic. The combination leaves her wide awake all night. Do you live with this? If you do then you’ll know what happens next. My daughter is up all night alone. She listens to music and reads, and she tries very hard not to have a panic attack. She used to have severe panic attacks all night. How many nights have I sat up with her holding her hands, wiping her tears while the monsters in her head waged war? More than I can count. By early morning her anxiety melts enough that she can start to relax. She reads for a couple of hours. Eventually, around 8 or 9 am, exhausted from fighting the demons in her head all night, she falls asleep. On a good day she’ll sleep until 4 or 5, which gives her 7-8 hours. On a bad day she wakes up at 2 or 3 exhausted and feeling like she’s waged a battle and lost. But, whether she sleeps 6 or 8 hours she feels embarrassed and ashamed when she wakes up. She’s ashamed of herself for sleeping all day. She’s embarrassed about being up all night. She feels remorse for keeping me up during the night, and she’s frustrated because she knows that once evening rolls around her anxiety will creep and the cycle will begin again. Rinse and repeat. If this happens to you I want you to know that you’re not alone. I want you to know that you are not a bad person or a lazy person. This is not a behavioral issue. This is one of the difficult parts of the medical illness you live with every day.
Nights like these are long and lonely. Alexa is wide awake when the rest of the world is asleep. There is no one to talk to. No one to watch a movie with. This is the most dangerous time for those fighting this disease. The weight of depression becomes crushing. Those suffering are tired of being numb to all positive feelings. Desperation sets in and this is when some start self harming. Cutting and other forms of self harm are desperate attempts to prove to themselves that they can still feel something even if it’s pain. Ask a person who lives with clinical depression what it’s like to live with indifference 24/7. Their answer might surprise you. It will also help you understand why people who seem to have it all commit suicide. When her panic attacks were at their highest, and she was fighting against suicidal ideation, Alexa would FaceTime with a member of our family who would spend hours during the night talking her down off the ledge while I tried to get some sleep. They say it takes a village to raise a child. Well, I’ll tell you, it also takes a village to be a caregiver for someone with mental illness but unfortunately we go it alone. The Village doesn’t show up for depression, bipolar, of any other mental illness. Alexa and I are fortunate because we have a very supportive family who will help out, and on those long lonely nights it’s something neither of us takes for granted. We are so very grateful to have them.
If you are living with mental illness and you are battling the long lonely nights please remember you are not the only one who is is going through this. You are not a terrible person. You are not being ridiculous. It’s not “all in your head” and you can’t “snap out of it.” You are not weak. You are not a crybaby. You are a warrior fighting for your life all night while the rest of the world sleeps. I know the night gets long and lonely, and the battle makes you weary. Here are some suggestions that have helped some folks battling night monsters:
For those who do not live with this I thank you for reading this post. I hope it helps you understand this disease a bit better. I think most people on the other side sincerely want to help. I see you posting memes on Facebook telling people to stop bullying. I see you sharing the suicide hotline. I know you care deeply and want to help. Here is what you can do:
1. Stop judging. Stop lecturing. Stop trying to ‘fix’ it. This is a symptom of a physiological illness. These people are not assholes behaving badly. They are suffering. They need your understanding. They need your patience.
2. If you are in a position to be up at night, and you know a friend, relative, neighbor living with this, offer your companionship one or two nights a week. Having someone to sit up with and pass the night is so comforting. Offer to come over and then, most importantly, just be there. Don’t try to fix the problem. Don’t offer your opinion or advice. Offer to play a game of cards or monopoly. Offer to make some popcorn and watch a movie. Or, just sit beside that person and hold their hand. They may be fighting the battle for their life inside their head and your hand is the only thing they’ve got to hold onto. Offer to pray with them but do not, under any circumstance, try to bring them to Jesus or save their soul. You will not be helping. You will instead only reinforce all the negative horrible thoughts running through their mind. I’m not saying you shouldn’t pray for them. Pray for peace. Pray for relief. Pray they are given the strength to keep fighting. But do this on your own. Now is not the time to force your religious beliefs on this person. When you see someone clutching their chest having a heart attack, do you grab your bible and start reading to them? No. You don’t. You call 911, you put an aspirin under their tongue. You perform CPR if necessary. And when that person is lying in intensive care in the hands of a medical team trained and skilled for this issue, then you retreat and pray. Mental illness is no different. When someone is having a mental health crisis holding them and letting them cry with no judgment is CPR. Staying up with them and offering your companionship is first aid. Mental illness is a disease like any other. It’s time to stop dismissing it as a moral character failing. If you want to help, if you want to stop suicides of friends, family, and neighbors, then it’s time to step up and be the village.
Refresh, Nourish, Connect. That’s my 2019 mantra and the mission of this blog. Usually I share information about self care, or recipes, or about healthy eating. Today’s post will not be about ways to refresh your mental energy, and I will not be sharing a recipe. Today I’m tapping the last word of my mantra – Connect.
I have a sort of sacred morning routine. My alarm goes off at 5 am, and I pick up my phone and play two 10 minute meditations. Morning meditation has become a really important part of how I wake up. It helps me frame my thoughts for the day and reduces my anxiety. Usually my cats and my dog lye quietly on my bed next to me and breathe with me and the guided meditation. It’s kind of cool. I call it family zen. After we get ourselves grounded and centered for the day I like to read my daily bible study lesson and devotions, and then write in my gratitude journal. Its such such a lovely and peaceful process. Usually.
You see, my daughter is grown. I don’t have to rush around in the morning trying to get both of us ready and out the door. I don’t have lunches to pack or permission slips to sign, or a school bus to get my kid on. For those of you reading this who are still on that roller coaster, tighten your seatbelt and hang on. I promise the ride doesn’t last forever and the reward for all these frustrating mornings is being able to design your own routine that helps you start your day with energy, focus, and determination. You will have the opportunity to trade in all that chaos for a calm, quiet, orderly morning. And it’s wonderful! Unless…you have three cats and a puppy.
Okay, I know. I was warned before every adoption they would bring chaos. I’m a sucker for those sweet furry faces and warm snuggles and the comforting sound a happy cat purring.
But there was none of that today. My senior cat Daisy Mae heard my alarm go off and started howling for me to feed her. She had a full bowl of food within easy access, but it’s a special food because she has renal failure. Unfortunately, it’s a very bland food and Daisy would rather eat what the other cats are served. I know this because she made her point very loudly and very clearly while I was trying to get myself grounded and centered. But while I was trying to detox all the negative energy and thoughts from my mind Daisy was reminding me that cats…are assholes. So give up meditating and comfort Daisy. Then the nonsense started. The dog wanted outside, and then inside, and then outside. She went into a full barking fit when the neighbor left for work. Instead of lounging on my bed peacefully reading my bible study lesson I was chasing my dog telling her to shush. Chasing her was a mistake. My youngest cat, Blue, saw me chasing Frankie and thought it looked like a game.
Now, picture this. My dog is a cocker spaniel. Blue is a Maine coon. If you aren’t familiar with that breed of cat google it. They are huge. Blue and Frankie are roughly the same size, and they love to wrestle. Oh boy do they love to wrestle! Normally it’s sweet and funny to watch, but not at six o’clock in the morning when your trying to focus on your bible study. These two don’t just chase each other in circles around my house. Blue leaps long distances across the room from various pieces of furniture. This morning, as Frankie chased him through the kitchen he decided to get the high ground on her by leaping from the door of my bedroom to my bed. It’s quite the distance. And I might have been impressed with his strength, agility, and grace, except he sailed over my head and landed right next to me sending my journal and pen and bible study materials all over the universe of my bedroom! Before I could get a word out of my mouth Frankie was at the side of my bed clawing at me to pull her up. This god damned dog can navigate her way onto every other piece of furniture in my home, except my bed. She can jump from the floor to my shoulder when we’re playing, but not my bed. She’s barking at Blue. Blue is taunting her from the top of her crate where she really should have been at this point. I reach down to quiet her and she uses my arm as the anchor she needs to pull herself onto my bed.
Shit. Now the chase is on and I’m in the god damned middle of it! Frankie is barking at Blue. Blue is taunting her. I’m yelling at both of them. Blue jumps over my head lands on the corner of my nightstand (okay even I have to admit it was impressive. He cleared the length of my bed diagonally and executed a perfect landing on a space of about 3 inches) and slips behind the curtain and onto the window sill. Frankie jumps off the bed and lays on the floor quietly chewing her Kong. Stupidly, I think it’s over.
I pick up my bible study materials, my scattered crystals, my journal, and after some hunting I find my pen. I’m frazzled. My head hurts. I wonder if shaken puppy and cat syndrome is a thing like shaken baby syndrome? I scold myself for thinking it. I decide to start over. I make my bed. I get myself a glass of Coca Cola over ice (I don’t drink coffee or tea. Actually, I just don’t like hot drinks. Weird but true.) and I settle atop my freshly made bed and start my bible study again. I’m fully engrossed and halfway through when it happened. I don’t even know what precipitated it but suddenly Frankie was chasing Blue who jumped onto my lap and used my thigh as a launching pad to the window sill. Blue is not declawed. Today was the first time I’ve ever regretted that decision. His back foot dragged just enough for his claw to sink into my thigh and leave me with a long bloody scratch. But before I can react to that Blue has landed on my nightstand only this time not so perfectly. This time he wipes out everything on my nightstand.
The lamp next to my bed. The large pile of books. The notebooks and piles of paper I’ve written notes on. Bottles of essential oils, pens, a box of Kleenex, hair ties, and that glass of Coca Cola perfectly chilled over ice.
I snapped. I broke. It’s Thursday. It’s been a long week and it’s nearly over. I’m low on patience, understanding, and humor. I screamed FUCK!!!!!!!!!!!! so loudly I don’t wonder if the neighbors across the courtyard could hear me.
There is pop on my carpet and dripping down the side of my bed. Frankie has given up on Blue and is shredding the box of Kleenex behind me, and Blue knows. Oh man does he know.
I grab the dog under one arm and snatch the box of Kleenex away. I grab Blue under my other arm. I she-hulked the strength necessary to throw both of them unceremoniously out of my bedroom and then slammed the door shut.
I sat down on the floor and used shredded Kleenex to wipe the blood off my leg. I look at my bed and the ruin of my nightstand and my throat tightens. I don’t know if I want to scream or cry. Now some of you may be saying to yourself “Why the hell didn’t she just put the dog back in her crate?” I crate Frankie during the night. She usually sleeps soundly except for last night. Did I mention Frankie kept me up all night howling in her crate? I let her out at 3:30 so I could get some sleep. When I leave for work I put her in her crate. My daughter lets her out for an hour at lunch and then she goes back in her crate. This is part of getting her housebroken. So, I do not use the crate as a form of punishment. But I wanted to this morning. Oh man did I want to!
Today, I shut her out of my bedroom along with the cats, and my daughter who also kept me up during the night because her anxiety was high. I picked up my nightstand and wiped up as much pop as I could. Then, I tried to get back into the rhythm of my morning routine. I got dressed and put my makeup on while the dog rammed herself into the other side of my bedroom door. I put my jewelry on while all three cats pawed at the door and underneath the door. And then I put the dog in her crate and left for work. I drove in silence. No radio. No podcast. Just silence.
So why am I sharing all of this with you? What’s the point of this boring long winded winding story? You’re praying there’s a point right? Well here it is.
The point is I had a shit morning. And it’s okay to admit that. I’m human. I’m not perfect and neither is my life. Scroll through Instagram in the morning and you’ll see pictures of influencers doing yoga on the beach at sunrise or holding a cup of coffee with a cute foam design on top. Open your Facebook feed and scroll past at least a dozen memes telling you to Make it a Great Day! or Happiness is a Choice!
Well, I’m telling you all those influencers and meme posters have mornings just as shitty as mine. Every day is not perfect and sometimes we need to post without all the filters to remind ourselves and everyone else that we are humans doing the best we can every day, and sometimes it works out, and sometimes you drive to work in silence with a bloody leg and a thumping headache. Every day I try to be Wonder Woman and some days I amaze myself, and some days I’m more of Blunder Woman than Wonder Woman, but it’s okay. It’s not a failure. I am not a failure. It’s just a shit morning, but with a little bit of luck, and maybe a chocolate cupcake, it turns out to be an okay day.
In his book Social scientist Matthew Lieberman argues that our need for social connection is as fundamental as our need for food and water. Social pain, the feeling we get when someone snubs us, rejects us, or bullies us is as real as physical pain. How often have we turned on the news to see a child or teenager has committed suicide after being bullied?
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs places human connection at the center of our well being. It follows our physiological and safety needs but is before self esteem and self actualization. According to Maslow’s pyramid, without human connection of some kind we cannot reach our full potential.
We live in the age of social media. We connect with each other through an electronic device more than verbal or physical communication. We text, send emails, and post messages. A friend of mine looks at her phone every morning to see if her boyfriend has sent her a “Good morning Beautiful” text. If he fails to send that text her anxiety rises. Why didn’t he text me? She doesn’t think he’s cheating. She doesn’t doubt that he loves her. Her anxiety is the result of the instant gratification addiction we’ve all developed from our smart phones. When our parents and grandparents were our age they had to put more effort into connecting. Without a smart phone to send a text they had to make a conscious intention to connect. They might get up earlier in the morning so they had time to have a cup of coffee together at the kitchen table before work and kids and life got in the way. There was no such thing as Netflix and chill. They carved out time to go on picnics, a bike ride, dancing, dinner. In other words, they went out on real dates. Church was massively important and not just for the sermon. The social connection from going to church was extremely important. Folks arrived early and mingled in the hall outside the chapel to say good morning. They often sat in the same pews next to the same people, and after the service everyone stayed for coffee and sweets. Coffee hour was the time to catch up with each other and share what was going on in each other’s lives. Church attendance has decreased in recent years. I myself am guilty of sleeping in and listening to sermons on podcasts. Another intention I am setting for this month is to make the effort to get up on Sundays and start going to church. I miss the social connection.
As adults we have fewer built in connection opportunities than when we were kids (i.e. sports, school). This is why I think it’s more important than ever that when we do have the opportunity to connect with other people we take full advantage. Turn off your cell phone when you are having lunch or dinner with a friend. Those texts and calls can wait 2 hours while you give your full attention to the human in front of you. It’s not just about good manners. It’s about being fully present. You cannot be fully present with the person in front of you if you’re answering texts and calls on your phone.
Make one family meal a day mandatory. Dinner time at the table used to be a big deal. But let’s be realistic; it’s the 21st century and a lot has changed. Both parents work, and work schedules do not always align. After school activities means a lot of driving around in the minivan and not much time for the dinner table. But a family meal doesn’t have to be dinner. A family meal could be breakfast. It may be that the only time of day your family is together is in the morning. So, put a breakfast casserole together in the evening so you can pop it in the oven in the morning. Put oatmeal in your crockpot the night before. Make everyone gather around the table sans phone in the morning for breakfast. Talk about the day ahead. It can have just as great an impact as having dinner together.
Human connection nourishes our heart. But it must be authentic to have a lasting positive impact. I recently cleaned out my friends lists on social media. I removed all the toxic positive people. What is toxic positivity? Well, for me it’s the glossy perfect, always happy, always grateful for god family and life, over-filtered inauthentic folks. I stopped following a lot of brand ambassadors. I cleared my feed of women who layer a half dozen filters on their pictures and look more plastic than human. And, I hid the folks who constantly post the memes and messages telling us all to “Make it a great day!” First, I’m tired of everyone trying to sell me something. I don’t want to buy your shakes, vitamins, or athletic wear. Second, stop with all the filters already! Don’t hide the lines on your face. Those lines tell me you have lived life. And third, spare me the motivational messages. No one wakes up and says “I want to have a shit day today.” Life happens. It comes at you hard and fast. I need to know that when the shit hits the fan I can turn to you and rather than hear you say “Keep your chin up!” you will say something more like “Man that sucks! I’m so sorry you have to go through that.” That is real connection. That is human connection. That is what we’re all hungry for.
Charlie Chaplin said that and I couldn’t agree more. Laughter nourishes our heart and our soul.
Scientists study laughter. Gelatology is the study of laughter and it’s physiological and psychological effects on the body. This branch of science was pioneered by a guy named William Fry of Stanford University. Clinical studies have shown that laughter helps patients with atopic dermatitis react less to allergens. Other studies have shown laughter can alleviate pain, stress, and help with cardiopulmonary rehabilitation. Laughter as a form of therapy has emerged in recent years. Laughter yoga and laughter meditation are the two most common.
Laughter is one of the most contagious human experiences. Have you ever walked into a room full of people laughing and found yourself laughing with them though you have no idea what the joke is? Laughter is a collaboration between the mind and the body. It’s one of the distinguishing features of being human. Laughter helps us to connect and bond with one another. I read somewhere that primates groom each other to connect and bond. I was a cosmetologist for 15+ years. I regularly groomed a lot of people. My clients became friends. They trusted me. People open up to their hairdresser more than they do to a psychologist. I think it’s because of the connection made through the grooming process. But unlike apes and gorillas, we humans live in groups that are too large for the grooming process to help us bond and connect. We can’t all be hairdressers. So, as humans evolved it seems laughter evolved with us to facilitate the group bonding and connection that we need to thrive. Laughter helps us bond quickly and easily with groups of people.
Laughter is so important to our health and well being. It boosts our immune system, aids in circulation, and protects us from heart disease. Laughter lowers anxiety, releases tension, and fosters resilience. My daughter suffers from a severe anxiety disorder that causes her panic attacks and sleepless nights. I have a 6-month-old puppy. Recently, my dog has noticed my daughter struggling at night and has taken it upon herself to comfort my daughter. So how does she relieve my daughter’s anxiety? By making my daughter laugh. My dog will tickle my daughter and act silly. She’ll lick my daughter’s face and basically ham it up. She’ll send Alexa into fits of laughter and within 15 minutes her anxiety is significantly better. Alexa has not had a panic attack in weeks because every time her anxiety gets high enough to trigger a panic attack the dog steps in and uses the power of laughter to calm my daughter down.
I’m setting an intention this month to laugh more. I want to laugh every day. I’m going to set aside time every morning for laughter meditation. There are loads of laughter meditation videos on YouTube. I’m curious to see if my day is different when I begin it with laughter. My focus word will be joy. I am going to consciously focus on the joy in my day and the joy I see in the world rather than all that is disappointing, broken, and failed.
When was the last time you laughed? Really laughed? What made you laugh? How did laughing make you feel?
It’s the second word in my 2019 mantra. The dictionary defines the word as to provide with the food or other substances necessary for growth, health, and good condition. What do you need to grow? What do you need for good physical and mental health?
Nourish is not just an act of providing food. Our hearts and minds need nourishment. Our soul needs nourishment. I’ll be reflecting on the word nourish and what it means to self care all month. Today I’m thinking about old fashioned Sunday dinners.
I miss Sunday family dinner. Growing up we went to my Grandma’s house every Sunday for dinner. My grandmother would make a pork roast, or a ham, or a roast chicken. She would fix all the classic sides – mashed potatoes and gravy, vegetables, stuffing, and she always had a dessert.
My Uncle and his family would drive from their home in Midland MI to my grandma’s home in Flint. My cousin would put her young children in the car and drive up from Indiana. The day began around noon. Grandma would make dinner. Grandpa would fall asleep in his recliner. The adults would play scrabble or Trivial pursuit. My cousins and I would color or sculpt with Play Doh. The house was warm and smelled wonderful. Dinner was delicious and when it was done and the dishes washed and put away we would all gather in the living room where Grandma would knit and Grandpa would sit in his chair next to hers and we would talk and laugh for a couple of hours. Then it was time to go home. There were lots of hugs and kisses goodbye. The goodbyes always hurt but the next Sunday we would do it all over again.
I miss Sunday dinner. I miss gathering with family and connecting. No cellphones or tablets. No to do lists. Just us gathered around board games and coloring books. Grandma’s dinner nourished our bodies, but connecting with each other, laughing, playing, talking, nourished our hearts.
My daughter and her cousins don’t know what that is. Sadly, Sunday family dinner has become a relic of the past. It’s an old photograph on the back of quaint greeting cards. Today families only gather around birthdays and big holidays, and when they do gather everyone has their face pointed downwards at a piece of technology.
Lately I’ve found myself craving an old fashioned Sunday dinner. Today I’m going to make a roast chicken. I’m marinating a chicken in apple juice. I’m going to stuff it with oranges and lemons and a bouquet of fresh herbs. I’m going to smear the skin with butter and season it with a poultry spice blend from the Alden Spice Shop in Alden, MI. I’m going to whip up a batch of mashed potatoes and some Stovetop stuffing. I’ll steam some corn and warm up some garlic dinner rolls. I’m going to set the table. I’m going to put my phone and iPad away for a couple of hours and make my daughter do the same. I’m going to pull out some coloring books and sit on the floor with her and connect. No distractions. After dinner we’ll eat a piece of the banana cream pie I made and watch a movie. We’ll laugh. We’ll talk. And I hope, we’ll start a new tradition.
My grandma was a wonderful cook, but her Sunday dinners were not wonderful because of her culinary skills. Those dinners were the best dinners of my life because they were cooked with love and served to a group of people who gathered intentionally to connect with one another. We need more of this in the world today.
What are you hungry for?
One month done. January went by so fast didn’t it? It seems like last week I was toasting the new year, and now it’s February! This year I want to take a pause at the end of each month and reflect. What moments stand out? What lessons did I learn? What am I grateful for?
I love poetry. A good poem sums up all you feel in a few short lines. This month I discovered a poet by the name of Maggie Smith. Her poem “Good Bones” is one of the best I’ve read in a long time. It’s so honest. It’s so raw. It’s beautiful.
This month I made a commitment to myself to improve my health by losing weight through Weight Watchers (now known as WW). I’ve given myself a slow, more realistic start. My goal this month has been simply to track what I eat. It’s the first new habit towards a better me. I kickstarted the program by doing the #7DaysForEveryBody challenge. I usually quit these challenges because I find them stupid and unmotivating, but this one was different. This challenge was not about how many squats I could do or how much water I can drink. This challenge forced me to look inside myself and understand my motivation. It made me see my current self in a positive way. Even if I don’t lose a single pound, I have already succeeded with #WW because the #7DaysForEveryBody challenge made me see myself as a hero and has improved my self esteem and my self confidence.
What Are You Grateful For?
I’ve been practicing gratitude this month. That seems like such a strange thing to say. We practice sports. We practice playing an instrument. You can practice law and medicine. You can practice singing. How the hell does one practice gratitude? How did gratitude become an activity?
To answer that question we need to understand what gratitude is. So what is gratitude? Gratitude is being grateful! Gratitude is being thankful! Grateful and thankful for what? Well, let’s back up a minute and look at that definition again. The dictionary defines gratitude as the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness. Okay, so if that’s gratitude then what is the practice of gratitude?
Practicing gratitude is taking time to notice and reflect upon the things you are thankful for. Practicing gratitude is intentionally setting aside time to notice the little things, the small things, the invisible things. When I first started practicing gratitude I would list the things I’m grateful for. My list looked like this
My list looked like a lot of other people’s list. There is nothing wrong with that list. We should be thankful for all those things. They’re a gift. But intentionally practicing gratitude requires us to go a bit deeper. Practicing gratitude is taking time to notice how wonderful the hot water feels on your skin under the shower and feeling grateful and thankful that you have access to clean, safe, near instant hot water to shower with. It’s taking time to notice the chirp of the one bird on your bird feeder every morning and feeling your heart swell with gratitude for the comfort it’s song brings.
Practicing gratitude is good for your health. There is science to back it up. Studies show that practicing gratitude helps you sleep better and gives you a stronger immune system. This is likely due to lowered stress. Practicing gratitude improves our relationships, our emotions, our career, and the best part is that gratitude makes us feel more gratitude. Gratitude triggers positive feedback loops. The more gratitude we feel the more intense the feeling becomes and the longer that feeling lasts. Journaling in a gratitude journal for 5 minutes a day every day can have the same impact as doubling your income, but the positive feelings from money never last. It’s always awesome when we have more money, but we get used to it and then it’s not enough. This is what’s known as the hedonic adaption. But gratitude just breeds more gratitude.
Practicing gratitude is definitely a skill. I have a place in my planner dedicated to gratitude. Every morning, before I get out of bed, I spend 5 minutes reflecting on my day ahead, my surroundings, and the things and people in my life. Some days it’s easy. Some days it’s not. But, the effort has been worth it. My mood is lifted. I’m not as stressed. Gratitude reduces envy and makes our memories happier.
This month I was reminded of the value of friendship. I had a bad day. A no good, rotten, crappy day. I vented on facebook after smashing my finger in a door at work. My friend Cecilia read my post. More importantly, she read through my post. She knew my frustration was more than just a sore finger. So, in an instant she packed up her car, kissed her husband goodbye, and drove two hours to spend the weekend with me. We didn’t do anything fancy. No trips to the museum or sightseeing. No spa day or shopping. We vegged on my sofa and talked. We talked about philosophy, religion, politics, and metaphysics. We laughed. We meditated. And when the weekend was over I felt so much better. I had more energy. I had better energy. I was recharged. Connecting with Cecilia was exactly what I needed, and I am thankful she knew it even if I didn’t.
I also learned that friends come in all shapes, sizes, and in the most unexpected places. My friend Mary shared a picture of a doe that has been sheltering outside the window of her office. There is an overhang on the roof and a row of bushes that provide shelter from the weather. The doe became a frequent visitor and soon became comfortable to Mary’s presence on the the other side of the glass. Mary set up some straw to make the space more comfortable and give more insulation, and the doe has made herself right at home.
Mary is the doe’s friend, and now the doe is Mary’s friend. She is a wonderful companion for Mary while she is working in her office. It was a small act of kindness on Mary’s part to put out the straw for the doe and allow her to stay in this space, and from this small act of kindness Mary was rewarded with a beautiful new friend.
Lastly, I began reconnecting to my Lutheran faith this month. I’m reading books about the Lutheran church and rereading the Catechism. I came across the meme above yesterday and it really resonated with me. We look to scripture to tell us what to do and how to love, but that’s backwards. It’s the opposite of what Jesus would do. We should use love as the lens through which we study scripture. February is the month of love. Valentine’s Day is coming up. I’m going to reflect on love this month. Thank you for reading and following my blog. What are your end of the month reflections? What are you looking forward to this month? Please feel free to share in the comments.
A love letter to myself
Day 6 of #7DaysForEveryBody challenge – Compliment Yourself.
This is the most difficult writing assignment you’ve ever tackled. Let me begin by saying I’m proud of you.
Stop rolling your eyes. I know you better than anyone. There are some things you need to know.
I love you. Like, I really love you. I love your short squishy body. I love your pale skin and your dark hair. I love your silliness. I love your thirst for knowledge. I love that you can look at a painting by Frida Khalo and cry and two hours later watch an episode of Archer and laugh until you pee your pants. I admire your passion and I’m proud of your activism.
I love you for your strong faith in God and your understanding and acceptance of science. Please don’t believe the lies your mind tells you when you’re lying in bed unable to sleep. That cacophony of noise is nothing but lies. Ignore the so called beauty magazines. They will only make you feel ugly. You were made perfect in the image of God. Fearfully and wonderfully your life was given purpose from the moment you were conceived. Your beauty shines bright and spreads wider and farther than wildfires. Your joy is infectious. Your kindness spreads like sunshine after a storm.
I know you’re blushing. And now, you’re rolling your eyes again. I told you; I know you better than anyone. I’ve felt your heart break from the inside. I was there when your soul and spirit were crushed. I know your hopes, your dreams, and your fears. I hear the prayers you whisper from the deepest corners of your heart every night.
You need to know that you are an incredible human being. I admire how lovely, tough, and soft you are. You were not supposed to be here. You were not planned.
You were born in a rough neighborhood in a rough town to a single mom the world gave no breaks to. But you didn’t wallow in it. You focused on the love in your home with your mom, your sister, and your brother. You didn’t lament what you lacked. You lived and laughed with what you were blessed with – a family that loves you.
And you are loved. You are so loved. Life hasn’t been easy. But, rather than let it run over you, you’ve figured out a way around the obstacles.
You’ve raised a lovely daughter to be a smart, kind, compassionate, empathetic, lovely human being.
You chased dreams and turned them into accomplishments
You’ve raised your voice for the causes and the people you believe in even when your friends and family told you to be quiet
You’ve sacrificed and fought to help your daughter fight mental illness, fought against your own anxiety and depression, and still had energy to be a voice for others living with mental illness
You are a rock star. You don’t see the world as a broken, fallen, cesspool of sin and hopelessness! You see the world as a big ball of magic and wonder filled with places to visit, corners to explore, weird and interesting things to see, touch, smell, and taste.
You’re not afraid to learn new skills. You know there is no end date for the timetable to learn new things
We’ve made a lot of mistakes these past 46 years. We’ve made a few wrong turns. We’ve broken a few good hearts. But my only regret so far is that it’s taken me this long to tell you how much I admire you. My biggest failure is that I’ve failed to encourage you. I let all the bad little voices in your head whisper things you should never had to hear, things you didn’t need to hear.
But sweetheart, those are little voices. There is only one voice you need to hear and that is the Holy Spirit inside your heart. God’s love for you is unconditional. God made you short and unathletic. God chose not to give you a beautiful singing voice nor the grace and elegance of a ballerina. God designed you, and you were designed with purpose. God doesn’t see all the things you hate about yourself. God doesn’t see all the things society says are wrong with you. God sees you, as you are, as you were designed and created. And, you are loved. You are so loved. You are loved so very much. You are loved by your daughter. You are loved by your family. You are loved by your friends. You are loved by God who made your heart, your mind, and your soul. You were made in God’s image. You were made to love and to be loved.
It all starts with loving yourself.
Today, I commit to never leave you searching for love, affirmation, or acceptance. I commit to reminding you to never seek anyone’s approval. I commit to reminding you every day that Jesus died for you, and you are worthy of that sacrifice.
Because today and every single day
YOU are loved.
YOU are significant.
YOU are worthy.
YOU are kind.
YOU are a light.
YOU are bright.
YOU are enough. You are so enough. Never again try to be anything or anyone other than who you are.
I love you more. Always.
It’s day 4 of 7 Days For Every Body. Today I’m tasked with sharing my favorite exercise move or fitness class.
Confession #2 – I am not athletic. I never have been. I was the short skinny kid in gym class always picked last for a team. Dead last. The only thing worse than being picked last is the sea of disappointed faces when they realize they are stuck with you. I can still feel the bellyache I’d get before gym class. The dread of being yelled at by my classmates for an hour and a half because I couldn’t throw the ball into the basket, or spike it over the net, or remember which way we were rotating in volleyball. I finished my last gym class my sophomore year of high school and vowed never to go to any kind of gym class again. And it was going really well for me, until I got fat and turned 40.
The thing about getting older is that if you don’t use your muscles then you lose them very quickly. And, as your muscles go so does your balance and then eventually your mobility. When you lose your mobility you lose your freedom. Suddenly, gym class has become very important.
Going to fitness classes makes me anxious. It’s a throwback to high school gym class. I see women who are thinner, stronger, faster than I am. I feel judged. Suddenly, I’m the short skinny kid up against the wall in gym class watching everyone else get picked. I’m not a fitness expert. When I go to the gym I feel overwhelmed when I look out at the sea of equipment. Where do I start? How do I use it? What should I do?
Last year I worked with a personal trainer for a couple of months. Her name is Mary Ward. Mary is a retired elementary school teacher with a passion for fitness and cycling. Mary trained me 3 days a week. She taught me about circuit training. She taught me how to mix in cardio with strength. She taught me how to use agility equipment. She taught me how to exercise at home or anywhere using just a few pieces of equipment. But more importantly, Mary taught me to believe in myself. Mary helped me believe in myself. I’m still uncomfortable going to group fitness classes, but I’m confident walking onto the fitness floor at the gym. Mary is an awesome trainer. She kicked my ass during our workouts. She challenged me. Mary’s friendship is a gift. I really miss training with Mary, but I’m pinching my pennies for another goal right now so I’m using what Mary taught me along with an online program and exercising on my own.
I have a membership to the Lifetime Fitness club that’s less than half a mile from my home. I love using the pool, the steam room, and taking yoga classes there. But I really haven’t been utilizing the club enough to justify the monthly cost. Recently, I discovered Alexia Clark. Alexia is an influencer on Instagram. She posts workout videos from different fitness clubs. I love her workouts. They’re simple, fun, and extremely effective. She mixes strength with a lot of movement which I really like. She has a website you can subscribe to and receive a new workout every day. You decide if you want the 30 minute or the 60 minute workout. Then, you decide if you want the home or gym workout. Alexia’s workouts combined with Mary’s teaching have removed my gym anxiety. I don’t feel overwhelmed when I walk onto the fitness floor. I know what I want to do and where to start.
My favorite exercise Mary taught me was how to use kettlebell weights. I love kettlebells! Mary taught me the kettlebell circuit below. It will leave you sweaty, breathless, and feeling like a she hulk beast! This routine is great for cardio, strength, and it’s really fun! It’s a total body -mind exercise.
The Three Bears
Equipment – 3 kettlebells of three different weights 10 lbs, 15 lbs, 20 lbs
10 lbs – 15 kettlebell swings
15 lbs – 10 kettlebell swings
20 lbs – 5 kettlebell swings
20 lbs – 5 kettlebell swings
15 lbs – 10 kettlebell swings
10 lbs – 20 kettlebell swings
You want to rest as little as possible all the way through. This is just one of dozens of fun, effective, challenging exercises Mary taught me. Mary’s routines can be done at home or in the gym. If you’re interested in learning more about Mary’s exercise programs, or you want to work with Mary let me know. I would be happy to connect you to her.
What is your favorite exercise or fitness class?
My mother suffered from major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and bipolar. Growing up I never knew which way or when her mood would shift. She was deeply ashamed of her mental health problems and did not get proper treatment. Towards the end of her life as her physical health declined so too did her mental health. This was very difficult for me and my family. During this time my daughter was struggling with anxiety and panic attack. She was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. We started therapy and put her on medication. We waited more than a year before we finally let our family know that she was undergoing treatment. Why did we wait? Fear. Shame.
My daughter’s mental health issues have been an ongoing challenge. Unfortunately, she inherited her grandmother’s trifecta of MDD, GAD, and Bipolar II with depression. Unlike her grandmother, my daughter has been proactive about asking for and seeking treatment. Its been a roller coaster that has included two inpatient hospitalizations, two outpatient hospitalizations, weekly therapy sessions, and GeneSight testing. There have been numerous medication changes. We’ve tried changes to diet, exercise regimens, meditation, and a host of other alternative treatments and therapies. All of this closely managed by a wonderful psychiatrist. And the result is that today, as I type this, my daughter is on a medication regimen that has significantly reduced her symptoms. She has learned strategies to help her manage the triggers that worsen her symptoms, and for the first time in five years she is living a life not ruled by fear, overwhelmed by the weight of depression and the rollercoaster of bipolar. She is the happy, upbeat, silly girl I used to know.
Two years ago I found myself struggling to get out of bed in the morning. I slept my weekends away. The death of my mother combined with my daughter’s mental health issues left me depressed. The cost of my daughter’s treatment left me struggling financially. This combined with struggles at my job left me with anxiety. I didn’t recognize my anxiety at first. My daughter suffered panic attacks. I didn’t have panic attacks so I didn’t think I was struggling with anxiety. When it all became too much for me to manage I did what I lectured my daughter and everyone else to do. I asked for help. My doctor identified me with depression, anxiety, and grief. Yes, grief not processed becomes a mental health issue. I was prescribed an antidepressant and began therapy. Medication and therapy are a very important part of managing my mental health and I am not ashamed to tell you that because I am not ashamed to be taking care of myself. Just as people take vitamins and drink shakes for their physical health, psychtropics are a very important piece for some to manage their mental health. Just as exercise is an important part of managing our physical health, therapy and meditation are an important part of managing our mental health.
There has always been a stigma around mental health. The top reason people don’t seek out treatment for their mental health is shame and fear of rejection from their family, friends, and community. People desperately in need of inpatient treatment don’t seek it for fear of losing their job. We don’t think anything of taking a week or two off work to have surgery, but taking time off work to seek inpatient treatment for depression for many is out of the question for fear of their boss or coworkers finding out. If you fall on the ice and break your leg you are not embarrassed to spend a week in the hospital, but when my daughter had to spend a week in a psychiatric hospital most who knew preferred we keep it quiet. Don’t share it on social media. Don’t tell anyone. Why? What on earth did she have to be ashamed of?
There is no shame in the mental health treatment game!
Studies show that as many as 60% of people with mental health problems do not take their medications consistently. There are lots of reasons for this. First, there is the financial cost. Some antidepressants are very low in cost and available as generic, which is great. But, new medications and medications for issues like bipolar can be much more costly. At one point my daughter was on a bipolar medication that cost $110 a month after insurance! Thankfully, that medicine proved ineffective to manage her bipolar and she was switched out. Her new medication is not nearly as expensive. Another reason people are reluctant to take medication or go to therapy is denial. Taking medication and going to therapy is admitting that you need help. Its an admission that something is wrong. Society has shamed mental illness so badly that we are terrified to admit that we need help managing our mental health. But really, why should we? Diabetes is a disease of the pancreas. There is no shame in admitting you are a diabetic and no shame to take insulin. A person with diabetes doesn’t try to will themselves to be better. They know they need medical intervention to manage their disease so they can live their healthiest life.
Most people who pill shame or shame mental health in general do not do so intentionally. Their intent is not to make someone with depression or anxiety feel worse. In fact, most of the time their intention is to help. Most of the time pill shaming and mental health shaming don’t come from strangers on the internet or the street but from our own family and friends. Its done by the very people who love us the most and want desperately to help. The problem comes when they give advice and try with loving intentions to fix us. How do we get them to stop? Simply asking them to stop doesn’t work. “Please stop telling me what to do. Please stop sending me articles. Please stop…” all come across to the receiver of the message as “I don’t want your help.” And, the truth is we do want their help. We desperately want and need their support and help. But if those we love the most are going to help us, its up to us to teach them how.
How Do You Help Someone With Mental Illness?
First, let’s start with what mental illness isn’t. Mental illness is not a moral failing. Its not a lack of motivation or laziness. Its not something that can be cured by a change in diet or a strict exercise regimen. Mental illness is a chemical imbalance in the brain. Just as diabetes is an imbalance in the way the body produces insulin, mental illnesses are an imbalance in the way our body produces certain chemicals in our brain. Sometimes the severity of the imbalance is mild and so symptoms are mild. They can be treated without medication using different alternative strategies and therapies. But for most, the imbalance requires sufferers to seek and receive ongoing medical treatment in order to not experience symptoms or active illness.
The problem starts when we tell someone we love that we are undergoing treatment. We share that we are taking medication because medication has side effects and sometimes, with mental health, we don’t realize we are experiencing those side effects. We need our family and friends to be honest with us and look out for us. But, when we tell our loved ones that we are taking medication we are met with silence, stares, and then advice. “Have you tried this herbal?” “You should read this book!” “You should start going to the gym.” “Have you tried this new diet?” “You should come to my church and do this bible study with me”. All of these suggestions while meant well imply that there is something unacceptably wrong with us. A heart attack is a life-threatening illness. When someone you love is prescribed medication to prevent them from having another heart attack you don’t make that person feel badly for taking their pills. Rather, you insist and fret over whether or nor they’ve taken their pills. Mental illness is a life-threatening illness. People with untreated depression and anxiety often end up attempting suicide. Tragically, many are successful. Psychtropic medications and therapy saves lives.
Mistrust of the pharmaceutical industry drives a lot of pill shaming. Antidepressants have a particularly bad reputation. When antidepressants like SSRIs and Prozac were brought to market the media was flooded with stories of people who committed suicide while on these medications. What was not understood then was that patients with severe depression lack motivation. Their depression may be so bad that they are suicidal but lack the motivation or energy to develop and implement a plan. Once a medication regimen is started improvement is slow and gradual. People with depression don’t take a pill before bed and wake up with the sunny disposition of Mary Poppins the next day. Medication takes time to build up in the system to a therapeutic level and as that therapeutic level is increased depression is slowly lifted. This can be a dangerous time for someone struggling with depression. A person who didn’t have the motivation to commit suicide last week may be improved enough this week to find that motivation. But, with close monitoring and careful management and lots of support, we can prevent our loved ones from hurting themselves and in time, the medication will lift their depression so they no longer feel suicidal. Medications also have side effects. Watch a commercial for any prescription drug and it always ends with a voice over detailing all the possible side effects of the medication. Its terrifying! Why would anyone want to take something that could cause severe dry mouth, leg cramping, diarrhea, skin rash, partial facial paralysis, risk of blood clot or stroke, racing heart, or any of the other frightening reactions? In truth, we choose to take medication because we all deserve to live a life that is not ruled by fear or crushed under the weight of depression. The risk of any of those side effects is small. The potential benefits of the medication are great. Pill shaming is toxic. Living with a mental illness is hard enough. Having to defend the decision to take medication and go to therapy to your family and friends makes it harder. People suffer more and much longer because they are afraid of what their family and friends will say and do when they know their loved one has decieded to seek and receive help.
So what do you do for someone you love who is living with mental illness? Just support them. When they tell you they are taking medication keep your ideas and opinions to yourself. Keep your fears and worries to yourself. I promise you the person who prescribed the medication went over the risks in detail with your loved one prior to handing over that prescription slip. What your loved one needs from you is your unconditional love and support. Let them know if you see their mood or behavior getting better or getting worse. Let them know if you notice any tremors or other strange ticks. But otherwise, keep your advice to yourself. And, most importantly do not ask them to explain it all to you. Its difficult to wrap our minds around mental illness. Its hard for patients to understand their disease and until they find the right medication and therapy they can’t answer your questions anyway. The answers change from week to week and month to month. Again, just provide your unconditional love and support.
Lastly, if you reader are struggling with anxiety, depression, racing thoughts, or any other mental illness, please seek help. There is no shame in the mental health game. There is nothing wrong or bad about seeing a therapist and taking medication. Your mental health is as important as your physical health. Make it a priority.