may i be blessed, may i feel safe (thoughts for 2017)

I’ve written about positivity before.

I’ve written about positivity lot, actually. A quick search of this blog for the topic brings up about twenty entries in one form or another, from the happiness project I did last year (to moderate success?) to assorted musings on self-care, acting with kindness, self-care, making transitions–etc, etc, etc.

Being positive doesn’t come naturally to me. It’s always been something that I’ve had to work at–left to its own devices, my brain trends towards assuming the worst possible outcome in any given situation, or to self-deprecation, or to all sorts of other unpleasant things that I’ll skip over here for the sake of space, time, and a lack of trigger warnings. The point being, positivity, to me, is work.

(Sometimes, because humor is my very favorite coping mechanism, I make a game out of it. Which mental illness is acting up today? Anxiety? Depression? Some super-fun combination of both? Whee!)

(My husband does not find this game as amusing as I do.)

But I like to work at it, because honestly, the alternative sucks. My dad likes to say I’m an idealist, which is a nice way to phrase it, but I think it’s more that if I don’t work at it, then there I am, just kind of sitting in this swirling pool of negativity that might start out as a reflection of reality but will, thanks to my brain chemistry, very quickly devolve into something much darker.

So we work on positivity instead.

You may have noticed that we started a new year recently–2017, woo! (And none for 2016, you absolute shitshow, oh my god.) Last year, I spent some time setting actual resolutions, which I never do, and for a pretty good reason: they stress me out, and then I get overwhelmed when I don’t keep them. Amazingly enough, I managed to not get super anxious about not keeping all of the resolutions I set last year–and I actually probably ended up keeping about half of them in one way or another. Which, for me, is pretty good.

But it’s a new year. And it’s going to be a rough one.

We’re coming into a new political administration in the US, one that’s heightening anxiety for just about everyone I know. It doesn’t feel like a safe time to be a queer person, a Jewish person, a woman, a disabled person. I have the benefit of being white and financially stable, but so many people don’t. My sense of safety is shaken.

It’s hard to think about positivity right now–and even harder to think honestly about self-care when it kind of seems like the world is collapsing around us.

At a recent retreat for work, I participated in a meditation based around Birkat Kohanim, the priestly blessing. In Jewish communities, this blessing is recited on a number of holy days, as well as on Shabbat, when parents recite it over their children. The prayer goes as follows:

May the Eternal bless you and keep you
May the Eternal’s light shine upon you, and may the Eternal be gracious to you
May the Eternal’s presence be with you, and give you peace.

As we sat together, we focused on the sensations of feeling blessed, and feeling kept. They were warm feelings, I thought: warm like climbing into bed after a long day, warm like an embrace, warm like a guiding hand. And they were cool, too: cool like the dip of your toes into the ocean on the first day of summer, cool like the breeze that comes after a rainstorm, cool like fresh, clean sheets. Focusing on those sensations, we repeated the phrases: May I feel blessed. May I feel safe. 

Tonight I lit Shabbat candles while my social media feeds exploded about Donald Trump’s inauguration. I kept my notifications off.

My blessing practice for this terrifying new world is to surround myself with a resistance that is working to keep justice and safety alive. I’m going to begin with a march for women, alongside some of my closest family members and most loving role models. People who make me feel held, and kept, and safe. I’m going to wrap myself in sensations of warmth. Of coolness. Of calm.

I don’t know if this will be a year of positivity. That might be too much to ask. But it can be a year of practicing blessing.

A year of repeating:

May I be blessed. May I feel safe.

 

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happiness project: one year later

A little over a year ago, I started a happiness project.

I started my project because I was realizing that, while there were a lot of good things happening in my life, I wasn’t feeling good about the ways I was spending my time. I was feeling a lack of emotional engagement in the world around me–a combination of mental/emotional burnout from the work I was doing and the world around me, and my own mental health causing me to disengage. Even though I was surrounded by blessings, in my family life, my friends, my clients, I just found myself feeling unhappy more often than not.

My decision to try a happiness project came from reading Gretchen Rubin’s book by the same name. I wasn’t as focused in my approach as she was–I didn’t try to set a new habit or goal each month, or anything like that. But I did–kind of without really thinking about it–follow the basic outline: identifying what brings joy, satisfaction and engagement (and, on the flip side, what brings guilt, anger, and remorse); identifying concrete actions that will boost happiness; and then, the tricky part, following through on those actions.

This year ended up being a lot more of a roller coaster than I expected when I started my project last summer. I got a new job and changed career paths. I moved to a new state. I took up yoga. I struggled a lot with my physical and mental health. There was a lot of change–and we all know how much I love change.

But there were parts of my happiness projects that stuck. I found things that brought me joy: creating things, sharing things with others, spending quality time with people I love, experiencing media in a comfortable way. And I found ways to bring those into my life as habits: I set myself writing goals. I spent more time with friends. I kept a journal. I got a pen pal. I got a library card, and read more books.

I’m going to do a few more posts to be more in-depth about the different habits that have actually stuck with me about my happiness project, but I know the biggest question I have to ask myself after a year of this is: am I happier?

And the answer is:

I don’t know.

It’s hard to measure happiness when you have depression, and harder still when that depression comes in waves that sometimes overshadow everything else. The last few weeks have been especially depressive, and even though I’ve been engaging in a lot of my “happiness practices”–journalling, writing, yoga–I don’t feel as much connection to them, and it’s been difficult to feel my usual warmth. But I still feel a sense of achievement, and that’s a step on the ladder toward happiness–and a sense of achievement is a hard thing to come by in a depressive episode.

But I think that there’s more to it than just being happier. Because I know now what kinds of things move me toward feelings of happiness. Creating something. Writing out what I’m feeling. Quality time with my husband or a friend. Snuggling on the couch with my dog. Doing something that moves my body, whether it’s yoga or going for a walk. Taking the car for a drive so that I can sing at the top of my lungs and not bother anyone else.

The hard thing for me now is to make myself take those steps toward those actions.

Right now we’re in the Jewish month of Elul, and I’m in the middle of participating in a program through the Institute for Jewish Spirituality (because I have the best job ever) focusing on reflective journalling in preparation for the New Year. It’s combining reflection, poetry, introspection, and future-focused thinking–all sorts of things I actually really need right now, as I work through a combination of depression, stress, and trying to sort out how to merge my own happiness goals with my goal for the coming year, which is to focus on strengthening the primary relationships in my life. And that’s a happiness project in and of itself.

So: a year of happiness projects. Am I happier?

Well…

I’m working on it.

on reconnecting (happiness project, part 7)

So let’s just start off by acknowledging that yep, I fell off the face of the earth. My bad, team!

Let’s reconnect.

I’ve been doing a lot of reconnecting lately, in a lot of spheres: physical, emotional, spiritual. It’s been a long, tiring few months: we’ve moved house yet again (though, hopefully, hopefully, for the last time for a long time), I’ve had a few sporadic illnesses that have taken awhile to bounce back from, work has been a whirlwind of activity and new projects…the list goes on. And my moods have been…well.

For someone who really, really doesn’t like change, the number of transitions, relocations, routine adjustments, and sudden changes of plans over the past few months have been challenging, to say the least. I wish i could say I’ve handled all of those challenges gracefully, but that would be a flat-out lie, so I won’t pretend about it. Spouse has been an absolute champ in dealing with me, but I’m absolutely sure that it has been neither fun nor entertaining to spend your down time with a cranky, over-exhausted, stressed-out wife.

So, that whole happiness project thing.

I’ll be honest: it’s fallen by the wayside in a number of ways. I’ve fallen back into a lot of old habits in the last few months–spending most of my downtime on a screen, not seeing friends as much as I’d like to, getting into a very skewed coffee : water intake ratio that generally left me crankier and more tired than I would have been if I was really hydrating well (and/or not drinking absurd amounts of caffeine).

But I’m trying to be better.

Back in May, I bought a three-month yoga membership to a studio near my apartment. I did a lot of yoga in college and some in grad school, and it was really great not just for my fibromyalgia (though it helped a lot with that) but for my mental health and my sense of connection to my mind and my body. The person in your yoga class that starts borderline crying during pigeon/eke pada rajakapotasana? Yeah, that’s me.

IT’S FINE IT’S PART OF THE PRACTICE

Surprisingly–or not–I actually started feeling emotionally better once I started connecting and crying through some of my poses, especially the restorative ones. I started using my savassana to actually just connect to my breathing, instead of letting myself run through my to-do list or stress list or any other list of craziness that tends to rocket around my head. Since starting to work at an amazing organization that teaches, among other things, mindfulness meditation as a spiritual connection practice, I’ve toyed around with the idea of starting a real meditation practice daily, but for now, I generally localize it to my savassana. But it’s been really wonderful, and since being more mindful in my day to day life was one of my new year’s resolutions, I also get to feel like I’m making progress toward a goal.

One of the most important parts of yoga has been setting an intention at the beginning of every class. When I first started getting back into yoga, my intentions were basically “get through the class without dying and/or falling over in a super embarrassing way”, but as I’ve kept going, I’ve ended up with two intentions that tend to make it into most of my classes: self-compassion and reconnection.

Living with a chronic pain disorder gives me a weird relationship with my body. Being in constant pain means that I’m always aware of my body–it’s pretty much impossible not to be–but I don’t always feel close to or connected to it. Sometimes, I feel like my body is something heavy that I have to drag around. While I’ve tried to take time to thank my body for what it can do instead of focusing on the ways it limits me, it’s an ongoing challenge to do that on a regular basis. Setting an intention at the beginning of class to reconnect with my body–to feel what it’s feeling without passing judgment; simply recognizing where my body is telling me it’s reached a limit and acknowledging it for going as far as it could–has been eye-opening for me because it’s given me space to sit, willingly and purposefully, with my body several times a week for at least an hour: not judging, not frustrating, not grumbling, just connecting and acknowledging.

And it’s…it’s been good. Not quite life-changing, and not quite automatic yet, but good. Meaningful.

In the spirit of reconnecting, I’ve been trying to spread that intention through the rest of the aspects of my life. For a while at the beginning of the year, and again when we moved to New York, I was doing a pretty good job of seeing friends regularly, keeping in touch with family, reaching out to folks I didn’t see often, etc. In the past few months, a lot of that has fallen by the wayside. It’s hard to know for sure if that’s because my commute is longer and I’m just too tired, if I’m mentally exhausted by all the transitions, if it’s just too darn hot for that kind of nonsense, or some combination of the three, but I’ve definitely lost track of a lot of the goals I set for myself at the beginning of the year.

So this month, I’ve been trying to move forward–or go back, I suppose–to the habits that I’ve been trying to build over the course of this year and this happiness project. I’ve been connecting with friends–grabbing a coffee, keeping a monthly breakfast date, doing virtual planner decorating dates, keeping my family group text amused with occasional memes and YouTube videos, even going to a few shows. And even though my inner introvert tends to hate it (kind of a lot, merp), it’s clear–just from my mood and the way I’ve felt at the end of the day–that it’s been worth it.

 

Still–I can’t do it every day. I’m still finding myself running into mental roadblocks with spontaneous plans that throw off my original routine (and things like weather and spontaneous friend/family events have made that a pretty constant reality over the last few weeks, grumble grumble), but the warm fuzzies of spending time with my friends and feeling human connections rather than isolating myself in my apartment has been worth it.

There are some things that I’m still working to reconnect with. My writing time has fallen by quite a bit (hence my very neglected blog), I’ve been journalling less, reading less. But slowly, that’s changing too. I hit the library this week and picked up two new books. I finished the first draft of the novel that I’ve been working on since November (TAKE THAT, WRITER’S BLOCK), and I’m starting some new stories. Slowly, slowly, I’m reconnecting to the the things that bring me joy.

 

When you set an intention for a yoga practice, it’s not meant to be an intention set for the rest of your day or week or life. It’s just that: an intention for your practice, whether that practice is a morning sun salutation, an hour-long class, or a full-day workshop. But you’re setting it for yourself, for the moment you’re in, the body you’re in, the space where you are. So that’s what I’m doing, one moment at a time: setting an intention to reconnect.

One moment at a time.

when happiness is work

One of the odd roles I’ve taken on in a lot of my friendships and other relationships has been “the happy one.”

The first time someone told me that I was the “happy one” in our particular group of friends, I was…well, let’s say “confused,” rather than “offended,” because it sounds nicer. It wasn’t that being happy is a bad thing–it’s obviously not, and the work I’ve been doing on my happiness project is part of my effort to move toward the whole happiness thing–but that I’ve just never thought of myself as an especially happy person. I didn’t (and often still don’t) think of myself as unhappy, either, just not super happy.

At the time, I asked my friend what she meant by that, and she shrugged. “You look on the bright side of things,” she said. “You find good things in people. You smile a lot. You just come off as a happy person.”

Okay. All fairly true things–I will totally admit to being the sort of warm and fuzzy person who hopes that the person tailgating me on the highway is speeding to deliver a baby and not just being a dick, I have one of those weird smiles that seems to prompt people to talk to me and tell me about their feelings (basically the opposite of resting bitch face. Resting therapist face?), I don’t like cutting people off when what they’re saying seems important. But does that really make me seem like a happy person?

Apparently yes, because over the course of the next several years, more people in various walks of life–coworkers, friends, clients, relatives–commented on my positivity, my bright mood, my smile, my idealism, all that jazz. Meanwhile, there I am, looking around in confusion, because my head feels like a jumble of depression, anxiety, chronic pain, and brain fog, and all the happiness that everyone else seems to see coming off me just doesn’t feel visible to me. In fact, I usually feel like I have to force it to show up.

Spending most of my working years in various “helping” fields, from childcare to higher education to mental health, means that I’ve rather inadvertently put myself in professions that require me to be more emotionally “on” than, say…I don’t know, working in accounting or something (sorry, accountants. I just assume that spreadsheets don’t bring that many feelings to the game). For most of my day, whatever my actual mood might be, I needed to be plugged in to the feelings of the people around me to offer support, advice, problem-solving, insight, etc. I’ve been lucky to work at places where I can be a little more “off” when not interacting with whoever the client base happened to be (students, campers, mental health clients, etc), but it still involves a significant amount of emotional labor on a day to day level that can get incredibly draining, especially when the positive emotions you’re expected to display might not be entirely reflective of your genuine feelings. But when people start taking your manufactured happiness as real, they start to expect it, and then you start to assume that you have to project that happiness at all times.

Being and looking happy, then, turns into a job. This is a problem that other women have talked about all over the internet and I won’t repeat their very good points, mostly because this is more about my personal experience than about my feminism, but then, it can be hard to separate the two. Would I be feeling so nervous about not feeling the happiness I project if gender norms didn’t expect me to be smiling and cheerful to every person I meet? I don’t know.

The big question I’ve always had for myself, though, is whether there’s a difference in my mood when I’m not making the effort to act positive compared to when I am. There is something to be said for the “fake it till you make it” effect, and I found that out the hard way over the past few weeks.

I haven’t been shy on this blog about my struggles with chronic pain and depression. Living with chronic physical and mental health issues isn’t a walk in the park, but they’re my everyday existence, and I find myself generally able, for the most part, take a bunch of meds, put some product in my hair, smack a smile onto my face (HELLO HAPPINESS IT’S SHELLY HOW ARE YOU TODAY) and get out the door. But that’s the thing about chronic issues–they’re chronic. You get used to them. You know what to expect, you know what they feel like, you get a feel for your bodies aches and pains and occasional-oh-hey-it-feels-like-there’s-acid-on-my-skin moments. But when you get something else on top of your usual chronic illness (for example, the ass-kicker of a flu I came down with two and a half weeks ago and am still getting over), all bets are off. The things that usually work stop working. All the energy you’ve saved up to get you over the hump of compensating for crummy joints or nerves or serotonin receptors is suddenly gone, and the spoons you’re used to having to get through your day promptly disappear.

Over the last two weeks, all of the positive energy I usually try to summon up to project my happy attitude–to be “the happy one”–went out the window. No more Shelly happy face. I was stuffy and cranky and sleepless and exhausted; I was coughing constantly and couldn’t breathe through my nose (my nose! the only part of my body that I can usually rely on to work! wtf??), I was, in conclusion, a mess. I meandered from my bed to my couch to my bathtub, I slept constantly, I mustered a few smiles for my nephews and family but overall didn’t really even try to be sociable during our Passover seders with my in-laws. I was cranky toward my husband and often asked to just be left alone, and didn’t take much of time to ask how he was doing (except for the occasional thank-you for the many, many sweet things that he did for me while I was being a brat toward him).

It sucked.

But now that I’m finally on the mend and had a bit of my spark back yesterday and today, I’ve started to realize that what sucked about it wasn’t that I felt like crap, but that I was wallowing in feeling like crap. Don’t get me wrong, the flu is miserable, and I think everyone’s entitled to a few “woe is me” days through the worst of it. And in all honesty, throwing a crappy flu on top of an already messed-up body should probably earn me a few extra days. I didn’t bother with any of the usual self-care I took on even on my worst fibro flare days, and losing that probably made things worse. I took baths, but spent them just staring at the wall instead of lighting something that smelled nice and putting on an audiobook or some music. I put the same pajamas on again and again. I didn’t brush my teeth. I didn’t eat and barely drank any water. It felt a lot more like a bad depressive episode than a physical illness, and I think that my total lack of attempt to do anything to take care of myself because I was just in such a bad mood could have very nearly turned it into one.

It’s still strange to think of myself as the “happy one,” as I continue to struggle with the same health issues (both physical and mental), but the past few weeks gave me some insight into just how much I miss that positivity, mostly manufactured or not, when it’s not there. I don’t know if the positive attitude and forward-focused mindset I project are becoming parts of my personality that I like more than I resent, but my time spent feeling miserable and sorry for myself certainly didn’t help me with my healing process.

When we’re kids, no one really tells us that happiness can feel like work, and that sometimes you have to make your own, and that sometimes it sort of feels forced. But I think that I’ll take a little bit of manufactured happiness over my self-sustained misery bubble any day.

It might be faking it until I make it, but I think the faking it helps.

10 things a year as a therapist taught me about life, work & growth

As of 6pm on Friday, I am no longer a therapist.

It’s a strange, bittersweet feeling. For over a year, being a therapist was more than just a job–it was part of my identity. Work didn’t get to stay at work; it was part of my life in a deeply profound way. My co-workers became my supporters in ways that were unlike anything I’d experienced at any other job; the concept of a “mental health day” took on an entirely new meaning, being present in my work became more important than ever.

Looking back on the past year, it’s hard to pick out the things that I learned from being a therapist as opposed to things I learned simply by getting another year older (and maybe a few months wiser). But that, I suppose, is why self-reflection has become such an important part of my growth process. I’ve written before about journaling and how daily reflective practice has changed the way I spend my time, but it really has made a huge difference–not just in my ability to look back at moments of gratitude, but to watch myself experience learning and growth. It’s also allowed me to read old entries and see the places where I learned hard lessons and received some painful reminders of my own limitations–limitations that, thanks in part to that active self-reflection, I was sometimes able to turn into strengths.

But not without challenges, and not without luck, and not without help.

For better or worse, I’m a lists person, and I do my best memory collection through organization. So, here we are:

10 Things a Year as a Therapist Taught Me about Life, Work & Growth

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listening to the wise mind

Readers, it may have come to your attention, as you’ve followed me throughout this blogging adventure, that I’m a bit of a feelings person.

I mean, I’m a therapist, so it makes sense that I’m a feelings person in the sense that I understand feelings. I get feelings. I can look at someone’s face and body language and figure out what emotions are bouncing around their head. I can pluck an emotional heartstring like the prettiest darn harp you’ve ever heard. I can sit down and process emotions with someone in my sleep (not that I would, since it wouldn’t be very nice of me, but still: doable). But there’s more than that when it comes to being a feelings person.

When I talk about being a feelings person, I tend to mean that I listen to my feelings first and my thoughts second. I get vibes. I look for emotional energy in a room. I tend to trust my gut instincts over a logical argument. If my feelings are stuck somewhere, it’s hugely unlikely that any amount of thought or logic is going to change them, much to the annoyance of my therapist, who likes to tell me that there’s a breakdown in my cognitive triangle.

My husband, on the other hand, is totally a thoughts person. This dude is thought-oriented like you wouldn’t believe. He likes logic. He likes reason. He spent a few months as a philosophy major just so he could hang out and talk about logic and reason with other logic-and-reason-minded people for hours on end. He gets very confused when I flail around about feelings and he doesn’t understand why I can’t grasp simple concepts of logic, and then gets much more confused when I explain that I understand his logic perfectly, my feelings just don’t care about it.

So, fellow therapists, the feelings person and the thoughts person–sound familiar?

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The Wise Mind idea is a concept that comes out of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, a treatment approach that combines cognitive and behavioral therapies. It was originally designed to treat borderline personality disorder by Marsha Linehan, a psychologist who developed the model based on her own lived experience with mental illness and suicidality.

The idea of the Wise Mind is simple: When we make decisions based only on reason, we miss out on the impact of emotional experiences. When we make decisions based only on emotional impulse, we miss out on the knowledge and logic that the rational mind provides. The Wise Mind combines both of these intelligences, and allows a person (or, in our case, a family) to take the logical experience of the rational mind and the sensitivity and feeling of the emotional mind to approach an issue with serene, informed confidence.

DBT is designed to be an individual approach, but I’ve had the luck of watching it apply in my marriage as well. This past weekend, the Husband and I went out to Westchester to explore the place where we’ll be living come April, and I just about had a panic attack in the car. I didn’t really like the apartment we had already decided (in a previous Wise Mind conversation) that we were going to take. I didn’t like how far we were from town. I didn’t like that I couldn’t walk to work. I didn’t like so many things.

But while I was flailing, Husband was thinking. And when I stopped flailing long enough to come up for air (and also to take some more migraine medication, because that was just adding insult to injury on a rough day), he gave me the rational mind approach. But he also listened to my emotional mind, and gave me room to have all of my feelings (and there were many). And what we ended up deciding, once again, was that yes: this was the right choice. This was the right, wise choice for our family–not just the family we have now, but the family we hope to have in the future.

Listening to the wise mind isn’t easy. As an emotional mind person, I tend to dig my heels in. I latch, stubbornly, onto anxiety and fear and worry, onto nervousness and apprehension. I don’t like change, and I fight tooth and nail against all logic attempting to remind me that change is, in fact, a part of life. The wise mind, as far as I tend to be concerned, can screw right off.

Fortunately, I’m not the only one in charge of making sure I listen to the wise mind. Until I learn how to do it myself, I have plenty of help. And I’m even learning to step away from my insecurity over needing to be independent, and accepting the help that’s being offered.

Maybe I’m learning to be wise after all.