Allow Yourself To Have Fun

istock_000015814289xsmallThe other day I found myself feeling a lot of anxiety. It was even manifesting itself in the form of physical symptoms like a slight headache and uneasy stomach. It took sitting with myself in introspection to realize that part of the anxiety I was feeling came from me taking things too seriously and not allowing myself to relax and have fun.

These things included situations in both my personal and professional lives. I wanted everything to be so perfect, afraid of making any mistakes, that I wasn’t truly enjoying what should be great and nurturing experiences.

I had become rigid and so critical of myself that I was feeling trapped and suffocated in the same way I have seen many people who are so afraid of making a mistake, looking like a fool, taking a chance or letting people see them vulnerable that they walk around stoic and detached or anxious and miserable. I was afraid to turn left or right, to get out of my lane, so I just kept moving forward even when I didn’t like or care for the direction I was headed.

I’ve never been the adventurous type, I’ve  always been afraid of taking risks, big or small. I always felt like I had to do the right thing, even if that right thing meant living a boring, safe, unfulfilled life.  I’ve never been spontaneous and have always admired people who are.

I’ve always been afraid of what other people may think or say if I did something unexpected or that put me first.

In many ways those other-imposed and self-imposed rigid boundaries were preventing me from living my best life, a full life, something I am always advocating for in the people I work with.

Last night I was watching the final episodes of season two of In Treatment, a show about a therapist and his clients that used to come on HBO. In one of the episodes, one of the therapist’s clients, Walter, a 68 year old man who had spent his whole life caring for and worrying about everyone else while maintaining rigid parameters while putting himself last, discovered that despite everything he had done his whole life, he had never truly lived or been happy. It was a depressing discovery and he felt like he was too old to start living, but his therapist, Paul, assured him that it was never too old to start focusing on himself and living a full live, but it had to start now.

I don’t want to be that way. I don’t want to discover one day at the age of 48, 58 or 68 that I have never truly lived because I have been so busy worrying about other people, what they think about me and not living the life I was meant to live, never truly being happy.

So many of us are living, but aren’t truly living. We aren’t fully participating in life. We are too afraid of making a mistake. We have to allow ourselves to be spontaneous, take risk and to not always worry about being appropriate or what other people may say or think.

We were not meant to be this rigid, this repressed and afraid of living the life we have been given. We have to find away to relax, enjoy life and have fun, to stop taking ourselves and everything so seriously so that we can see the true beauty of life. Many of us live with guilt and shame that has been placed on us by others or ourselves that keep us from moving forward and enjoying life. We have to let that go. We have to get out and enjoy life, experience life so that we can live a full life in touch with our whole self.

Sure there will be mistakes we make, lessons learned, but those will only serve to help us discover our boundaries and learn discipline, but for us to discover those parts of ourselves we have to loosen up, stop punishing ourselves and allowing others to punish us.

Life is meant to be lived, to be fully experienced, not to be so inhibited and rigid that we are just going through the day to day motions until the day we die.

Today, do something different, step out side of your comfort zone, of the boundaries that have been set for you by yourself and others. Live life and trust yourself that you won’t fall off the deep in, but will discover what life was meant to be. Start today and hopefully you and I both will continue to make really enjoying life and having fun with less inhabitions and fear, an essential part of our existence.

Mental Illness And Mental Retardation Are Not The Same Thing

Recently I read an online article from XXL magazine entitled 25 Lyrics Referencing Mental Illness. The article was written in response to Hip Hop artist J. Cole issuing a public apology last week after he used the words retarded and autistic in one of his newly released songs.

J. Cole said in his apology letter that he regretted using those words and admitted that there is a recent trend of Hip Hop artist using offensive words and language and then feeling pressured to apologize. He admitted that part of him resents that because he views music like comedy and that it is supposed to “ruffle feathers at times” which to me means that his apology isn’t sincere and he knows nothing about the stigma, issues and plight of those with mental retardation and mental illness.

Besides those comments, what really bothered me was the title of the article, “25 Lyrics Referencing Mental Illness”, yet all 25 examples they gave mentioned the words “retarded” or “retard” in some way, which in itself is offense, but I was more offended that the person or persons that wrote this article didn’t take five minutes to do a Google search and learn that mental retardation and mental illness are not the same thing.

A person can be mentally retarded and not mentally ill, or mentally ill, but not mentally retarded OR both mentally ill and mentally retarded, but mental retardation and mental illness are no where near the same thing.

In short, the difference is that mental illness typically develops in an otherwise healthy person, such as depression, anxiety and schizophrenia. Some forms of mental illness may look like mental retardation, such as autism and other pervasive developmental disorders, but in those cases children usually start off developmentally normal and then regress or stop progressing mentally and/or physically.

Mental retardation, mostly called developmentally delayed today, on the other hand is usually a congenital defect where the mental, motor and other life skills of the person are somehow kept from fully developing. Mental retardation is usually confirmed by an IQ test, where mental illness is not. You can also develop mental retardation as the result of a traumatic brain injury and we will explore some of that in a later post.

Also, a major difference between mental retardation and mental illness is that, for the most part, mental illness can be treated and even cured through medication and therapy while mental retardation can’t.

As a licensed mental health counselor, I can put someone in involuntary hospitalization if they are acting out (harm to self, others, self-neglect) due to a mental illness, but not if it is due to mental retardation or a developmental disability. Legally there is a difference.

If you are going to write an article talking about the derogatory use of the words “retard” and “retarded” then entitle it “25 Lyrics That Reference Mental Retardation”.

It’s hard enough for people with a mental illness to find the courage to ask for help, but when they have to fear that people will start calling them “retarded”, it only makes finding the courage tougher.

Writing an article like this just confuses people, places stigma on people who already have enough stigma to deal with and doesn’t do anything to further the cause of making everyone aware of being sensitive in the way we treat and refer to our fellow humans.

Working Around Your Abyss

SONY DSCI’m always amazed at the lengths some people will go through to hide their pain. All of us have pain, disappointments, regrets, wounds, and parts of us we wish we could hide forever, but many times those very issues are the things we need to address in order to move on and live truly fulfilled and happy lives.

The other night I was watching Beyond Scared Straight on A&E and there was a kid on there whose father committed suicide when he was younger and it looked like the kid had never really talked to anyone about it or dealt with it in any sort of healthy way. Instead he turned to drugs, violence and other petty criminal behaviors as a way of acting out and dealing with what I believe must be anger towards his dad coupled with immense depression.

Most people would look at this kid and see a juvenile delinquent, but all I saw was a kid crying out for someone to see past the walls he had erected around his pain and help him navigate his way around it.

This young kid wasn’t unlike many of the high school kids I dealt with that teachers thought were just bad apples, but they were really acting out because of the pain they were holding on to, such as coming from poverty stricken, sometimes violent and unstable broken homes. Especially the boys who would hold on to their pain so tight, not wanting to show any weaknesses, and yet the pain was literally destroying them by causing them to constantly get in their own way by fighting, failing out of school or getting involved in illegal activities that were sure to lead to incarceration.

We all have stuff. We all have issues. That is something I say all the time when people open up to me, no matter if they are clients or friends. I always encourage talking about those pains because I believe that talking about them, even just a little bit, helps ease some of the tension, stigma, shame, and fear people attach to their pain.

While some people try drastic measures to consciously or unconsciously hide from, ignore, deny or cover up their pain (sex, drugs, alcohol, cutting, eating disorders, continued bad relationships, etc.), some people are so absorbed in their pain that can’t even enjoy moments of happiness when they happen. They can’t see anything except for their pain. They live in constant depression, anxiety, suspicion, and pessimism.

It may be something that happened a long time ago, yet they are never living in the moment, they are constantly living in the past and their pain. They are constantly unconsciously telling themselves stories which for the most part are untrue. Stories about themselves, their pain and their lives. Stories that hold them hostage to turmoil and they will hold on to those stories with a death grip even in the face of evidence that their stories are at least partially untrue.

The stories we tell ourselves include things such as, “My dad left because I was a bad kid”, or “My husband cheated because I wasn’t enough for him” and “I fail at everything I try”. The list goes on and on, but you can imagine how someone who is telling themselves these stories will live their lives in the present and future if they continue to believe these stories about themselves.

They will hold on to those stories, sometimes because it is the only story that they know and it’s much easier to believe in the story that you know than to try to create a better story where there may be unexpected surprises even if some of the surprises include very pleasant ones.

One of my favorite books is entitled The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish To Freedom by Henri Nouwen. It was given to me as a gift several years ago and I have since given it away, brought it again and given it away again no less than eight times.

The first passage in that book is called Work Around Your Abyss and it says:

There is a deep hole in your being, like an abyss. You
will never succeed in filling that hole, because your
needs are inexhaustible. You have to work around it
so that gradually the abyss closes.
Since the hole is so enormous and your anguish
so deep, you will always be tempted to flee from it.
There are two extremes to avoid: being completely
absorbed in your pain and being distracted by so
many things that you stay far away from the wound
you want to heal.

When I first read that passage about six years ago, I almost cried because I felt like it was talking directly to me. I was holding on to a lot of pain and not doing anything about it. Pain about my fathers death, pain about our relationship, pain about the romantic relationship I was in and fear of not being completely loved and fear of failure.

Holding on to and not addressing those pains was leading to anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and agitation. It was until I read this passage that I started to address and work around my abyss which slowly, but surely started to close and this passage is probably the #1 reason I have shared this book so many times with people who have shared some of their pain with me.

All of us have issues, or what I like to call “stuff”, but it doesn’t have to define us and we don’t have to wear it like a scarlet letter nor pretend like it’s not there. We define ourselves and our situations, our situations do not define us. Let’s all make a commitment to start working around our abyss so that we can start living fully and completely, the way we were all meant to live.

Bipolar Disorder: A Snap Shot Through A Clients’ Eyes

The other day I was privileged to work with a client who had been battling bipolar disorder for over 30 years. This remarkable woman, we’ll call her Jane, first started experiencing symptoms of bipolar disorder at the age of 17.

In high school Jane was popular and on her way to be the school valedictorian, and then suddenly she was struck with a deep, deep depression. She describes that depression as feeling like someone had taken a dark veil and wrapped it all around her. It was suffocating.

During this depression Jane slept and ate as much as possible, gaining a large amount of weight. Her father, whom she lived with and was very close to, had no idea how to handle this situation. Instead of getting her help, he let her wade through this depression which she eventually came out of and went on to graduate from high school despite having a very rough year.

Then she started college, and the other side of bipolar disorder showed up, mania. She was extremely hyper, unfocused, partying all the time, exhausting her friends and boyfriend who eventually broke up with her and she quickly failed out of college.

Her father, still confused about what was going on with his daughter and maybe in denial or frustration, sent her to live with relatives on the other side of the country, telling her to get herself together.

By the time Jane was relocated with other family members, the depression was back and so was the binging and the weight gain. Jane reported that she slept as much as possible to try to avoid the intensely deep depression.

The mania and depressive episodes continued and eventually Jane left her family, ended up living on the street abusing drugs and alcohol like so many people who have a mental illness, but feel misunderstood do.

Eventually she was arrested and later hospitalized where she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and put on Lithium, which she still takes to this day.

After she got treatment for her disorder, Jane was able to be her true self again. As she describes it, “Lithium allows me to be me”. She became fully functioning, got married, had children and obtained a job making six figures.

However, eventually her husband and her started having marital problems and she felt as if she had lost the bark she used to have when she wasn’t on lithium and was in one of her manic states. She felt as if the lithium was dulling her ability to stand up for herself so she stopped taking it.

In a short matter of time she fell back into a manic state which caused her to drive halfway across the country where she was eventually hospitalized after she was found wandering the streets telling people she was Jesus and they should follow her.

She was hospitalized and put back on Lithium, but by then she had lost her husband. Now however, she knows that bipolar disorder is something that she is going to have to live with, deal with and respect her whole life.

Now she doesn’t have a six figure job, or a husband, but she has her life back and she goes around speaking to groups about bipolar disorder in hopes to help get rid of the stigma of mental illness through recognition and education about mental illness.

There is a lot of stigma that goes with mental illness which causes those who are affected with it to refuse to talk about it and get help, and family members and friends to live in denial, refusal or misunderstanding about it.

Jane is helping people talk about mental illness so that someone doesn’t have to go through the things she went through before finally getting help.

She is a remarkable and strong person like most people who battle a mental disorder are once given the tools and support they need.

Daniel Sommers: A Soldiers Losing Struggle With PTSD And Depression

istock_000011501105small-eda6b80f8b0e6fb04724b38c94926b4e798fe269-s6-c30***Warning… this post may contain language that can be a trigger for depressed and/or suicidal individuals***

Recently I read about and researched the suicide of Daniel Sommers, an Iraq war veteran who was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Gulf War Syndrome, fibromyalgia, and other medical conditions after his service in the armed forces in 2007.

Last month he committed suicide and his suicide letter was posted across the internet by his family, hoping to draw attention to the poor treatment of veterans by the United States Office of Veteran Affairs (VA).

While Daniel Sommers sought treatment through a variety of modalities including music, medication, and traditional therapy, nothing was enough to alleviate the physical and mental pain he felt and ultimately he took his own life.

Before I even started researching for this post, I was already researching the increase in young veterans committing suicide and was preparing to write a post about that, but when I read Daniel Sommers suicide letter, I felt like it gave a chilling insight into the mind of someone struggling with PTSD and depression.

“My body has become nothing but a cage, a source of pain and constant problems. The illness I have has caused me pain that not even the strongest medicines could dull, and there is no cure,”  Daniel wrote in his final letter. Those words echo so much of what I hear when I have worked with people suffering from diseases such as fibromyalgia, lupus and even undiagnosed problems that they are told are all in their head.

“All day, every day a screaming agony in every nerve ending in my body. It is nothing short of torture. My mind is a wasteland, filled with visions of incredible horror, unceasing depression, and crippling anxiety.” 

It’s not often that we get to see the last words and thoughts of someone who feels like the only solution is suicide. Being able to read Daniel’s words and analyze them, not only gives us great insight into the way he was thinking, but it can potentially help us help others who are thinking about ending their lives.

I have a book called Psychotherapy with Suicidal People and it is filled with suicide letters from people who ended their lives,  including some famous individuals. At some points it was one of the most depressing books I have ever read, but the amount of insight these letters give to us trying to help others is invaluable.

While the military and other non-profit support groups have many resources aimed at helping veterans with PTSD, Daniel Sommers family feels like the military failed their son and is failing others who have and are currently serving our country.

In February, the VA released findings from a study that said that 22 veterans commit suicide everyday and that 325 committed suicide last year. Those numbers are astonishing. If we were losing 22 children to shootings everyday, something drastic would be done.

Those numbers tell me that things could be better when it comes to the way we deal with and treat veterans dealing with PTSD and depression and some changes are coming.

In August, President Obama signed an order to increase veterans access to mental health services and the VA hired 1,600 mental health professionals while also adding more telephone and online help for veterans. Help for veterans is better than it’s ever been, but it’s far from perfect and too many people like Daniel Sommers are falling through the cracks.

As much pain as Daniel Sommers was going through, suicide is never the answer and the bad thing about his suicide letter going viral is that others suffering from depression and mental anguish may see this as verification that suicide brings about peace, but suicide is a permanent solution to what are usually temporary problems.

If you would like to read  Daniel Sommers suicide letter just click on the link. I didn’t want to post it because it could serve as a trigger for those already suffering with suicidal ideations. This is definitely a tragedy, but just think, there are 22 tragedies like this occurring everyday with just our veterans alone, not to mention our civilian population where the Center for Disease Control estimates 105 people commit suicide everyday.

Setting Up A Coping Skills Toolbox

My Journal
My Journal

Today I read a sign that said Sometimes you’re the statue, sometimes you’re the pigeon. It served as a good reminder that not everyday will be a good day.

It’s helpful that in anticipation of those not so good days that we have a set of healthy coping skills easily at our disposal, a “toolbox” if you will.

What are coping skills?

Coping skills are basically behaviors that we have developed to deal with times of distress. Some of those behaviors are positive (i.e., exercising) while others are negative (i.e., smoking). Positive coping skills allow us to deal with life stressors in a healthy way while negative coping skills generally make us feel better temporarily, and then either make us feel worse or lead to bad consequences.

People in recovery have probably heard of a coping toolbox before, it’s something that we usually have them work on in anticipation of relapses, temptations and set backs. I am not just talking about recovery from drugs or alcohol, but recovery from a mental illness, codependency or whatever it is you are trying to overcome.

Even if you aren’t in any form of recovery, having a coping skills toolbox can prove to be an invaluable asset when you have to face those not so good days.

Naturally, we all have coping skills we have developed over the years. Some we are conscious of and some we are not. Many of our coping skills are unhealthy or  ineffective. People who use substances, cut themselves, etc., are all using coping skills that are unhealthy.

The trick is to develop healthy coping skills that we are conscious of so that we can use them when we are having a bad day or feel ourselves headed in that direction. People who have a toolbox that is filled with positive coping skills are better prepared to deal with life stressors.

Because each person is different, one persons coping skills may not work for everyone, but it is useful to try different healthy coping skills to see what does work for you and to put those into your “toolbox” so that you can have a collection of visual or written cues to help you when you are having one of those days where you feel more like the statue than the pigeon.

Positive coping skills are a great way to reduce anxiety and depression and bring back a sense of balance and peace during times of distress.

It’s good to think about and start putting together your toolbox when you are having a good day, before a stressful event happens when you still have the energy and creativity. It’s like putting together a hurricane survival kit (for those of us here in Florida), you don’t wait until a hurricane is here to put together a survival kit, you do it before a storm even develops so that when the hurricane is knocking on your door, your kit is already prepared.

Here are some of the coping skills in my toolbox:

  • Journaling– I love keeping a journal as a way to express my thoughts and feelings, especially when I have a difficult time figuring them out and when I feel like I can’t talk to anyone else about them.
  • Creative writing– sometimes it’s helpful for me to put some of the distress I am going through into fictional characters or situations that may mirror mine. It helps to sometimes work them out in a fictional setting before applying them to my real world or just to vent and play things out without the real risk of harm.
  • Drawing/sketching– art therapy is a great way to release tension or explose your thoughts and emotions. Sometimes I just take a scratch sheet of paper and sketch, nothing in particular, but it helps ease my mind.
  • Exercising– I love to workout, but when I am stressed, working out becomes therapeutic. Sometimes I think it is the only way I have remained sane for so long 🙂 .
  • Meditation– sometimes I just sit steal and don’t try to think, feel or solve anything. Amazingly, sometimes just sitting still and doing nothing for five minutes resolves multiple internal conflicts I was having.
  • Mindfulness– focusing on the here and now often takes away angst I am feeling about the past and future. Just allowing myself to be here and reminding myself that I am exactly where I am supposed to be, allows me to release built up tension.
  • Distraction– sometimes I allow myself to just “change the channel”, virtually taking a mental break from whatever is bothering me. I may play a video game, read a book, call a friend, anything and often that distraction is enough to either allow those bad feelings/thoughts to pass or to put them in better prospective.

This is definitely not a definitive list, it’s just some of the tools I use in my toolbox. I know other people have included music, knitting and yoga in their toolboxes. What are you going to put in your coping skills toolbox?