Although I have been a mental health professional for 28 years, I learned most about my own stigma through having lived experience with mental illness. This was 12 years ago … when I developed severe major depression.

My family had moved to Southern California from the Seattle area only 9 months before, when my husband accepted a new pastoral call. I was 36, had two elementary age children, went through a stressful re-location, and then landed the worst job of my life after arriving in California.

I had always been a goal-focused person: able to take on challenges and, in most instances, succeed.  But it seemed there were too many challenges happening all at once. I was rapidly developing anxiety problems, losing my focus and confidence, and, worst of all, finding myself unable to sleep. Combine all this with a genetic vulnerability toward mental illness … and swiftly, it became too much for me.

Although it had rarely been discussed openly, I had long been aware of  the mental illness on my mother’s side of the family. Early in life, I developed a steely determination to avoid such a fate. One of my deepest drives was to never have problems like my mother.

My grandmother had an unnamed mental illness. Nobody talked about Grandma’s ailment, and I’m not sure they knew what it was. But my father told me one day, in a rare moment of openness, that one time Grandma was psychiatrically hospitalized. It seemed she tried to jump off the roof of the house – she thought she could fly.

When I was a child, we had to be very quiet around her because of her “nerves.” Although grandma was gentle and loving, she could not tolerate lights, noise, television, or active children.

My mother is diagnosed with bipolar disorder. While I was growing up she had to be hospitalized a number of times for what was then called “nervous breakdowns.” She was treated with Electro Convulsive Shock Therapy (ECT), and took medication that made her seem less lively, detached, and kind of dull. She hid the bottles of medication in her bedroom dresser, tucked between her nightgowns. She never let us four kids see her take it.

As an observant young girl, I got the impression this medicine was something to be ashamed of because it must be hidden from others. I also learned early on that the kind of hospital she went to was not something to tell people about. Not if you want them to like you. I sure wanted to be normal and accepted, so I learned the rules quickly.

Rules we learn from our families aren’t easily changed. So, as an adult, even though I was a therapist myself, when I began having symptoms, I felt too ashamed and overwhelmed to seek help until it was too late. I plunged into the most devastating depression imaginable. Seemingly overnight, I went from being the treatment provider to being the treated patient. I no longer knew myself. I felt like I had shattered into a million pieces.

Why take the risk to share this story publicly? Why violate the rules and beliefs that I learned as a child? Especially that mental illness is something to be ashamed of, and that it is not something nice people talk about? Why? Because I have come to believe that those are lies.

In recovering from my own depression, I learned how profoundly I was affected by stigma – both external (which came from the culture surrounding me) and internal (which came from within me).

The stigma I held – about my mother’s mental illness, and eventually my own, kept me from properly addressing my symptoms as they arose.  This was not a recipe for healing. Instead, it was the key ingredient for disaster.

When I finally got treatment, my stigma was a gargantuan wall I had to break down to fully accept treatment for my life-threatening case of depression. It’s not an exaggeration then, to suggest to you this: My stigma almost killed me.

Am I a little scared to write about this? Yes. But stories need to be told. And … I spent enough years being ashamed. All it did was contribute to me getting sick and staying sick. It compromised my humanity and robbed me of my joy. My wise mother had a good reason for giving me the middle name Joy. I intend to live up to it!

The great American writer Maya Angelou said this, “You may not control all of the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”

It is critical to do everything we can to combat stigma in all its forms. It was stigma that kept my mother from ever properly managing her mental illness. It was stigma that made me wait dangerously long before seeking therapy. It was stigma that prevented me from benefitting from treatment for many long months. I consider it a miracle that I even survived those terrible days.

But, fortunately, I have not only recovered, I have pro-covered. In short, to me that means I came out of it an upgraded edition of myself – Lisa 2.0 if you will. My life is fuller, more joyful and abundant than ever. I now have a better understanding of myself – both my strengths and my vulnerabilities.  I am acutely aware of the many holistic and healthy practices that are necessary for sustained wellness. My effectiveness as a social worker has been deeply enhanced. I have even worked through most of my stigma.

Overcoming my stigma allows me to share a bit of my story. I hope it may give you some understanding and help you overcome any stigma that you have toward those living with mental illness.

10 Recovery Lessons I learned the Hard Way:

  1. The pathway to joy is gratitude.
  2. What other people think of me is none of my business.
  3. Mental illness can strike anyone, at any time.
  4. It is no one’s fault.
  5. I can choose to forgive myself and others for not knowing or doing what was best in times of trouble.
  6. People recover, and often develop lives that are more purposeful and satisfying than the ones they had before their illness.
  7. Wellness requires a holistic approach – supporting all aspects of the human being.
  8. Wellness is a lifelong commitment and a daily lifestyle.
  9. Getting well and staying well isn’t possible without “grit.” (Definition of grit: “the tendency to work strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failures, adversity, and plateaus in progress”).
  10. Resources, education, and support are extremely important. Here are a few I recommend:

NAMI (link)

Pacific Clinics (link)

Each Mind Matters (link)

Bring Change 2 Mind (link)

 

“If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.”                -Barry Lopez, author of Arctic Dreams

 

 

My Life as a Dog

As I was walking Winston today, happily wandering the rugged trails of Chino Hills, a vexing question came to mind. Is it possible that I am unconsciously projecting my own worries, fears, and anxieties on my Dog?

I hold the general belief that I am well-adjusted, healthy, hopeful, and even filled with a cheerful holiday spirit.  And I can find reliable evidence to back up these assertions.

But for some reason, I seem to be worrying a lot about my dog. It happens in many ways: in my private thoughts, in my one-on-one “conversations” with Winston, and even as I discuss him with others.

I have been alone with him for the last week. I find myself  thinking …  poor Winston, he’s so lonely. He misses his Daddy (Steve). He misses Johnny and Grace – they need to hurry home for Christmas, because he gets so sad without them. He doesn’t like the house so quiet. I turn on some Christmas carols to soothe him.

I cuddle and caress his coarse curly back. “Poor Winston. Don’t worry, we-re gonna have a great Christmas. You wait and see.” I brush him head to toe – his favorite form of massage. “Don’t you worry at all poor baby, cuz it will be special – we’ll watch It’s a Wonderful Life” I stroke his golden velvet ears. “Good doggie. Such a good doggie. Your mommy loves you … you’re the best doggie in the whole world.”

When people inquire about me, I assure them, “Oh, I don’t mind Steve traveling. I love time to myself. And as far as the ‘empty nest’? Now it’s actually clean, and I have so much time to do what I want. I read more, I write more, I see friends and have fun! This may be one of the best times of life.”

But poor, poor Winston. That doggie; he just gets so sad. He nuzzles up to me, and nearly breaks my heart with his old soul brown eyes.

Here’s where I need to rely on my psychologist friends. Tell me truly, is this some form of neurosis? Denial? Repression? Is it serious, or even pathological? What is your professional opinion?

I admit – there’s more. You see … I also worry about Winston’s health. I want him to have a long life, free of knee problems or heart disease. That’s why I worry about how much he weighs.  But me? No, I am strong and fit. My diet and weight? Now that’s nothing to be concerned about. (Except for the sad fact that avoiding weight gain is my second religion, sometimes my first).

Yet, Winnie, now he is entirely too focused on food – its his obsession! He’s looking rather thick around the middle lately. He can’t seem to curtail his ferocious appetite, and love for all types of food that cross his path. It’s not his fault though. He runs and walks everyday. Getting fat is in his genes. I explain this to people, wanting to be sure they understand. “Labs have a genetic risk of obesity. They are quite naturally, a stout breed. And their instinct to continually eat dates back to the old days, when they lived in cold climates, and worked all day. They just can’t help it.”

So, Labs tend to get a little on the chubby side. As a responsible owner, I must be vigilant so he doesn’t become overweight. Poor, Poor Doggie!

Winston’s so hungry all the time. So I put him on the “weight control” food. We have to be disciplined about this – no cheating! He gets a full bowl every morning and night, but I guess because its lower fat, he is never satiated. He always wants more! It’s so hard when you’re always wanting more. Poor doggie.

And then, I admit, I have some concerns about his overall lifestyle. Does he have enough time for play? Maybe he has too much time alone at home. Could he even be getting too sedentary, or even, God forbid, lazy? Lately he would rather scarf down a treat, than chase rabbits through the field– that’s a bad sign.  Poor Doggie!

What about his social life? Is he too isolated? Maybe he is spending excessive time sitting around the house, when he should be out romping with the other dogs and making new friends! What about play dates and the doggie park? He would probably be happier if he got off the porch, and ran with the big dogs. But here he sits. Poor, tired doggie.

As his owner, I’m simply concerned for his well-being. A dog is a big responsibility. MY responsibility! He is one of God’s precious creatures. He deserves a good life. He deserves to be happy, healthy, and loved. His life could pass him by, and what would he have to show for it?  Was each day lived to its fullest? Did he give and receive every possible ounce of joy? You never know how many dog years you will have – and then suddenly, bam, its all over.

That’s it.  For New Years, I will have to make some resolutions for Winston. Poor doggie!
Winston

Winston

 

 

Writing is one of my most beloved methods for being well and staying well. In recent years, I have been surprised by its many benefits, increasingly relying on it as a way of bringing greater clarity and joy to my life. Writing makes me happy.

The specific form is secondary – what matters most is putting my thoughts, feelings, and ideas on paper. It may be a flood of unedited emotion in a journal, a sentimental poem scribbled on the back of a shopping list, or a carefully crafted essay … maybe even a three hundred page memoir. In the end it all nourishes me. Perhaps this may be true for you too.

My time invested in writing has provided continual enrichment. It has given me a sense of catharsis, clarified my viewpoint, and communicated my feelings to others. Through writing I become more balanced and self-assured and less burdened and confused. It helps me navigate my struggles – arriving at the other side with my feet firmly planted. What remains are personal artifacts to look back on, and occasionally, even enjoy for their beauty.

Writing can serve so many purposes: self-care, self-expression, creative endeavor, a compelling method of telling your story, or an avenue for connecting with others. Powerful feelings can provide the spark for an evocative poem. Have you made a curious observation? Write about it. Do you have an idea for a little story? Write it! Have you had a transformative life experience? Consider writing a memoir.

When you attempt to say what must be said to someone special, sometimes the words come out all wrong. At a pivotal time, you may be better able to express yourself through writing a letter than approaching your dear one face-to-face.  Although you may be tongue-tied, you are not hog-tied; pick up a pen! It slows the communication, calms the nerves, and allows more time for reflection before the message is delivered. This thoughtful clarity can strengthen honesty and intimacy. Through writing, you can speak your mind.

In getting started, you may experience an unfortunate cultural barrier: writers have long been shrouded in smoky mystery as The Artists. They are often viewed as brilliant, mercurial, tortured and lonely. Perhaps you’re picturing Hemingway: pen-in-hand, scowl on face, scribbling tales of foreign adventure, a near-empty bottle his only companion. Indeed, some writers are shining artists, celebrated icons … fulfilling our romantic ideal of the writer.

But you too have a human capacity to write, even if it will never earn you a dime or an ounce of acclaim. Writing has value for its own sake. Sadly, we have been taught that writing is for the rare “creative types” who are different than everyone else. This is a myth. We can all be writers. There is no pre-requisite to write, other than being literate in the most basic sense. One doesn’t have to be published, intellectually gifted, embarking on the next great work of fiction, or even have an innate talent. And despite the memorialized words of Virginia Woolf, one does not even need a room of one’s own. Anyone can write, anywhere, any time. And everyone can benefit from writing.

Silence your internal critic that tells you your writing must be worthy by some external standard. It can simply be by you and for you. What is within you is unique and has intrinsic value. Writing is simply allowing that uniqueness and value to emerge in a tangible way … on the page. It will serve a purpose, whether it is for you, a friend, or the public. You get to decide.

Many people associate writing with wretched memories from high school English class: composition due … staring forlornly at the blank page, blocked by frustration and fear of failure, awaiting harsh red markings from an uptight school marm. This is not a recipe for creative expression!

Re-define your writer self. Don’t be a casualty of the rigid, repressed, and faulty notions about your capacity with the written word. Rid yourself of these unnecessary burdens – and be free. Just write. No demands. No rules. No red pen. Let yourself play with words, ideas, images. You are only a few strokes away from expressing yourself.

Writing coach and prolific author in varied genres, Julia Cameron, wrote a wonderful book on this subject entitled The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life.* Her philosophy is that writing can become a natural, intensely personal part of life. She provides both inspiration and practical tools for making writing a daily practice that is playful, practical and profound. She emphasizes permission rather than discipline.  Cameron explains, “Writing is therapeutic. Writing connects the self to the Self … I have seen writing work less like a tool than a medicine. It is a medicine all of us can make and administer to ourselves.” After reading a few pages, I am twitching with the desire to write. It is good medicine.

I have never considered myself a poet. But in a number of instances in my life, when no other method of release seemed available, I found myself compelled to write a poem.  This is one I wrote when I saw my oldest child, then fifteen, holding hands with his first girlfriend. I was overwhelmed with a mix of bittersweet emotion. I had to describe it. Immediately. But no one was near. I had only the back side of a shopping list and a pen. This is what I wrote:

 

A Mother’s Glimpse

 

I stole a glimpse of them,

on the path near the waterfall.

Walking hand in hand,

awkward, hesitant affection.

 

My boy and “his girl,”

exploring new feelings.

surely welcomed and thrilling,

blindly tumbling into that

foreign land adulthood.

 

And me,

awash in old feelings.

A mother hanging on,

reaching for this man-child.

 

Was it yesterday,

he marched off to kindergarten?

“I can walk alone,” he said.

Assured little man.

 

The tears dampen my face.

Bittersweet liminality,

boyhood and manhood;

so impossibly simultaneous.

 

And me having joined

that army of mothers,

silently waving the unseen banner.

 

Considering, “Did I

give him enough?”

Pleading, “I need more

time. What about …

 

But manhood approaching

makes no allowances

for such uncertainties.

 

He is. He will be

just more of who

he always was.

 

Created, yes molded

(happily by me).

Now emerging his own.

 

A few days later, I even decided to show it to my son. For this fifteen-year-old boy of Scandinavian descent, his response was the height of receptivity and encouragement.

“That’s really good, Mom,” he said.

Not only did I find blessed release in writing it, I had the pleasure of a fleeting moment of connection with my boy. And seven years later, this admittedly syrupy poem is a treasure that brings a reminiscent tear to my eye.

Exercise your right to write … today and tomorrow. Gladness will follow.

 

*Cameron, Julia, The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life. Penguin Putman Inc., 1998.

 

 

 

A Great Ending

Have you ever been to a really good funeral? This may sound like a strange, even inappropriate question. However, a few days ago I went to the funeral of Dave, a wonderful 75 year-old man who was dearly loved by his family, friends, fellow church members, colleagues … and me.

It was one of the most powerful and spiritually enriching services I have ever experienced. There was a palpable sadness amongst the hundreds in attendance. But the diverse voices coming together to share his life narrative provided an astonishing testimonial to a life well lived. We all went away more in touch with what is most important. Few things deliver a message so piercingly clarifying as the funeral of a man of character.

Dave was a pilot, a surveyor, a father of two and was married to Linda for over 50 years. Although his life was marked by several tragedies, he remained steadfast in his faith in God, his relentless commitment to his loved ones, and his determination to achieve his goals. He said “yes” to God and to life, throughout his journey, regardless of the obstacles in his path. His life story was an illustration of the prophetic truth in John’s gospel, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart. I have overcome the world.” *

Pastor Paul officiated. He invited us to freely express what was in our hearts. “It is okay to cry today. It is okay to laugh today. We will lament; we will rejoice.  We will shake our fist at God and ask “why”; we will praise him for the life he gave his faithful servant.”

A rich tapestry was woven, reflecting the many colors of Dave’s life: sorrow, humor, tears, laughter, prayer, and a wealth of gorgeous music. And holding it all together was an intricate pattern of faith. This was the inspiration that I endeavored to take with me. Any complacent people amongst us were probably effectively agitated. For Dave’s was a life of purpose.

I went away pondering an important question: at my funeral, what do I want to be said of my life? Would I be remembered for my values? My actions? My relationships? My accomplishments? My failings? My work? My faith? What parts of my life have eternal significance, and for which of these things will I be remembered?

Dave’s purposeful life and incredible funeral reminded me of a central principle from Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: begin with the end in mind. Covey teaches the power of creating a clear, compelling vision of what one’s life is all about, going so far as to define the destination. Having the destination clearly in mind affects every decision along the way.

Beginning with the end in mind is based on the principle of vision. It is vision that gives one the power and purpose to rise above the baggage and act based on what matters most. He suggests the value of creating a personal mission statement or credo. “It’s drafting the blueprint before constructing the building, writing the script before performing the play, creating the flight plan before taking off in the airplane.”**

As a pilot, Dave understood the value of a flight plan – in aviation and in life.

Creating your personal mission statement can help you be well and stay well. It supports a big picture perspective, preventing you from getting consumed with the small stuff – bogged down in the daily drudgery of life. Short-term setbacks are more easily tolerated and transcended when higher principles and long term goals are embraced.

Influenced by Covey and other management writers, I decided several years ago to write my vocational mission statement. I call it a “credo” which means a formula of belief. It helps me stay on the right track, like a compass pointing me in the right direction. It guides and corrects me in my daily life and work. As I recite, pray, and meditate on it, I am reconnected with the principles and goals that I stand for. My best days are the ones in which I remember it.

When I fall short, as I often do, I know that I am in need of some redirection, perhaps some self-care and renewal. Maybe I just need to play or rest, or take a day off. There are so many distractions and so much noise that can detract from what is most important. Petty conflicts, confining policies, excessive regulations, and obstructive bureaucracy can pose barriers to achieving my vision. The important thing is to not lose sight of it; to hold fast to what is good. I believe deeply in the verse, “without vision, the people perish.”

My credo reads:

Founded in purpose

Serving in joy

Mastery in performance

Here is what this means to me:

Founded in purpose:  There is an inspired purpose to the work I have chosen, and life is a continual process of uncovering and maintaining fidelity to it. It is to offer hope and healing, health and wellness, and improved quality of life to those who have suffered hurts and losses. It is about binding the wounds of the brokenhearted, offering a cup of cold water to the thirsty. Any pain I have overcome can fuel the passion I bring to help others overcome pain. It is focused on supporting the right of all people to have dignity, equal rights, and a chance for happiness. It is about striving to be Christ-like in my conduct.

Serving in joy: This means approaching this work with joy, making it fun and having a sense of humor. Remaining aware and engaged in each day is required. It involves an irreverence: not taking myself or the task at hand so seriously so as to miss out on the chance to laugh, and appreciate the absurdities and ironies that arise. It is keeping my sense of fun and valuing the pleasure that is possible if I pay attention with a playful spirit. There is a positive community spirit that arises when I value joy. When I make it fun, great things happen. Humans, both children and adults, need to play. It helps us enjoy each other and the task at hand. My middle name is literally “Joy”, and I strive to live up to my mother’s aspiration in giving me that name.

Mastery in performance:  This is about excellence. I value total quality improvement – knowing that more progress is always possible. It requires a commitment to lifelong learning, and not being afraid to make mistakes and learn from them. It involves being curious and bold, and willing to work hard at what matters most. As one of my favorite novelists George Eliot said, “It is never too late to be what you might have been.”

********

So, how will you plan for a great ending? What ways can you begin with the end in mind? With a bit of forethought and personal inquiry, you can steer yourself in the direction that you define as important. Consider writing your own credo. It may help you construct your life with greater quality. Someday, your story will be told. It is up to you to make it a marvelous story, one with a great ending.

 

*The Bible, New International Version, John 17:33

**Covey, Stephen, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Golden Books, 1997.

THE PATHWAY TO JOY

I learned a number of lessons after recovering from depression 11 years ago. When I came out of that devastating illness, I vowed to do everything in my power to never allow depression to take hold of me again. I committed myself to embracing life and health with every cell of my being. It was then that certain wellness principles took on a life and death importance to me.

Surprisingly enigmatic; they are simple yet profound, commonplace yet difficult to master.  They incorporate the whole self: the mind, body, and spirit. In short, they are principles and practices that help me stay balanced. Making them a part of my everyday life not only keeps me “on top of my game”, it helps me be who God intended me to be. I plan to write about a number of these lessons in this blog. But if I had to pick my most central recovery lesson it would be this: the pathway to joy is gratitude.

Joy emerges when gratitude is practiced. Gratitude is not something I simply have or don’t have – it is a mindset I cultivate. When thoughts of entitlement or resentment creep in, I chase them away with gratitude. “I deserve greater success, or more money, or more acceptance by others” is replaced with “I am grateful for a meaningful job, my physical needs being met, and the connections of friends and family.”

Gratitude (mind) can be approached with the discipline similar to that of exercise (body) or prayer (spirit). With consistent vigorous exercise, you become physically strong and the results are broadly experienced in all aspects of your body. A new lifestyle takes shape; a healthier, more balanced and integrated you emerges.

Or, consider prayer. Through the discipline of praying frequently and in all circumstances, eventually a transformation happens: one’s life becomes a prayer. Prayer is no longer a garment to be put on when the weather requires it. Somehow it morphs into a second skin – inseparable from the self, providing a layer of being that brings acceptance and meaning to all of life’s experiences.

In a similar way, maintaining a grateful heart and honoring oneself can be transformational. How can gratitude be practiced? Here is a simple daily meditation to get you started:

Each day, complete this gratitude / honor exercise: write down three things you are grateful for, and three things you honor yourself for:

I am grateful for …

I am grateful for …

I am grateful for …

 

I honor myself for  …

I honor myself for …

I honor myself for …

Through this simple practice, you are training your mind to appreciate, and to recognize the things that you deserve to honor yourself for. It doesn’t matter how great or small the items are, simply that you consistently and genuinely strive for gratitude and honoring of yourself in all circumstances.

Eventually, you may find, as I have, that you will not limit yourself to this short list of things to be grateful for, or to honor yourself for.  A mindset of gratitude and honoring will take over, and joy will be the result. And this, I know to be true: the pathway to joy, is gratitude.

22. April 2013 · 12 comments · Categories: Uncategorized · Tags: ,

 

I love to read. Since about age five or six, it has been one of the great pleasures of my life. When I read, I traverse the world and skip across time. No place is too remote to explore, no experience is too foreign to undertake, no time is beyond my reach. And the people I get to befriend! They are astonishing. No matter what mood I am in, I can get in a better one by picking up a great book.

In the forty plus years since I discovered this love, reading has provided a wellspring of joy. Doing what brings me joy helps me be well and stay well. Being well and staying well is the subject of this blog. I plan to write each week about one way of being well and staying well. A big part of wellness is to discover what you love, and commit yourself to do what brings you joy. Reading brings me joy.

What better place for a reader than the LA Times Festival of Books? My husband Steve and I have gone every year for the last nine years. It may be our favorite weekend of the year. We just spent two days at the festival (held at USC) and are brimming with excited conversation; discussing challenging ideas, debating everything from secularism to syntax, buying deeply discounted books, and jotting down curious thoughts sparked by the lectures. Each time we go, we realize more fully that we have not even scratched the surface of all there is to explore and enjoy in the world of literature.

We heard intriguing lectures by writers such as Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, and Anna Quindlen. We enjoyed panel discussions on topics such as “The Politics of Poetry,”  “Not Just Writing Good: Writing Well,” and “Fiction: The Social Novel.”  I even got to hear one of my favorite entertainers, Carol Burnett, talk about her recent book Carrie and Me and hear her recount hilarious stories from her years doing her variety show. It brought me back to my girlhood pleasure of laughing at the darkly comic Ed, Mama, and Eunice. And of course, the dopey but shapely “Mrs Sa’wiggens.”

So today ends well. I have joy. I spent time with the one I love, exploring what we both love. And this is just the beginning … of so many more good stories.