Zen and the Art of Taming Your Smartphone: Three Simple Tips

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When I was growing up, phones were tethered to the wall by windy cords prone to tangling. Later, during some years I can’t quite pinpoint, the “cordless” era meant you could roam all around the house (and even into the backyard!) to have a conversation.

These days the general consensus is that we’ve evolved past the primitive days of phone cords and busy signals into an advanced technological era ruled by smartphones that connect us to everything we could possibly need: social media feeds, the news, games, the internet, music, stores, and yes, even the telephone.

But for people who are depressed or down in particular, phones can be insidious devices that amplify feelings of loneliness, separation, and hopelessness. With faces lit up by the blue of a tiny screen, our hearts yearn for something we can’t find in an app.

Earlier this year, while suffering from depression, I realized that the phone I kept next to me all day long didn’t make me feel connected to anyone or anything: it actually made me feel disconnected from myself and the people around me. I’d look to it for relief from sadness only to find that my social media feeds made me feel inadequate, my text messages were not as numerous as I thought they should be, my last ten emails were from retailers announcing some kind of sale.

Over the past few months, I’ve tamed my smartphone by making some fairly simple but important adjustments.

If you’re feeling like your phone rules your life or if you’re noticing that your phone enhances negative feelings of depression or loneliness, here are some ways you can take ensure that your phone supports your well-being.

Shut Down Notifications

Your phone, if not managed, is like an infant constantly screaming for your attention. You have an email. Your mother just texted you. Something is happening on Facebook.

There are two problems with this constant stream of alerts. First of all, the interruptions make it hard to focus on the people around you. Even if, while at lunch with a friend, I put my phone away, if it’s there in my purse  lighting up, I may still, perhaps unconsciously, feel drawn into its force field, wondering what I might be missing, pulled away from the present moment. Second, if we have notifications set up and we have an day when we don’t receive any, we may start to feel bad that no one is contacting us.

The best solution I’ve found is to be ruthless with alerts and turn off notifications. This means that I don’t have a circular red badge highlighting various apps. Instead, I check my email at my own convenience. Same for social media feeds. For text messages, I do allow the badge to alert me to a new message because I want to receive messages with immediacy, but I don’t have new messages pop up on my screen.

This is a simple modification that’s incredibly freeing.

Delete or Bury Stress-Inducing Apps

Social media, particularly when I’m depressed, makes me feel terrible. The live feeds broadcasting other people’s best moments only cause me to judge myself and my depression more harshly because it looks as if everyone I know is simply delighted while I’m in the dark.

What I’ve done is to delete social media feeds from my phone. Try it. Or, if that seems too extreme, bury them in a folder a few screen swipes over. Audit all of your apps and ask yourself: do I really need this? Does it make me feel happy or stressed out? Delete accordingly.

Download Healthy Apps and Put them Front and Center

There are so many apps that encourage well-being. Some of my favorites are Insight Timer for meditation, Pacifica for mood monitoring and connecting to others to talk about mental health, my Jawbone app to track my steps and sleep, Stitcher to listen to podcasts, and Pocket to read bookmarked articles. I also like Wunderlist to keep track of my to dos and Balance to work on building healthier habits.

On your home screen, feature all of the apps that play a role in helping you stay healthy.

And one last tip, especially if you’re feeling down or depressed: dare to turn off your phone and force yourself to see other people in real life, or IRL as the kids say. As much as you want to curl up in bed and spoon your phone, you’re better off seeing a friend for dinner, finding a meet up to attend, or going to a support group.

Escaping Depression’s Dark Closet

Depression is like a dark closet that traps us inside a cramped universe where there’s no light, no door, no way out.

I woke up on Wednesday and the pit of sadness in the center of my stomach pushed me down into my bed like a malicious anchor. I couldn’t move.

After over an hour, I made it from the bed to my couch, but there, with my computer in my lap, I couldn’t read my email. I couldn’t focus. And, still weighed down, I couldn’t get up.

I kept trying to work on my computer but my brain buckled under the pressure. The depressive voice inside my head, relentless, told me: You are too sad. You’re too tired. You’re not capable. 

I spoke with my doctor. I was crying. She told me: it’s time to take the day off. No more looking at the computer. I felt guilty about my incapacity to do work, but thankfully, I do have a job and a boss that make calling in sick no huge problem.

I stayed on my couch, and instead of trying to escape the darkness of my depression, I just sat with it. When we accept what’s happening to us instead of resisting it, the battle gets easier. I picked up a knitting project. I used a new app that’s been helping me called Pacifica to share how I was feeling with the community and do some guided deep breathing. I watched a few episodes of Seinfeld.

That night, I was supposed to have dinner with a good friend, but I texted him to say that I was sorry that I couldn’t leave my apartment. He was kind enough to tell me that he would travel an hour from Brooklyn to me.

I stayed on my couch. I continued to cry, on and off. I watched more Seinfeld. There was a yoga class at my gym I wanted to go to, but I was too upset. It wasn’t a possibility. I let it go.

My friend arrived around 7. Together, we sat on my couch and talked openly about both of our experiences with anxiety, fear. We talked about my depression and we ordered Thai food. Having him there, this smart and empathetic friend, made me feel connected. Talking about my own depression somehow disempowered its hold on me. Instead of the fear and self-doubt ruling over me, I was taking over the narrative.

I was still inside that dark closet, yes, but instead of just living inside it as a victim, I could describe my version of its narrow walls, the suffocating stench, the locked door.

We finished eating and my friend said: “Do you want to take a walk around the block? So you have a chance to get outside? We could do it together.”

I wouldn’t have thought of such a thing. But he was right—I hadn’t been outside all day.

I told him: Yes.

I put on my boots. I found my jacket. And we left the apartment. It was chilly outside, but not too cold. We walked, together, north one block, then west, then east, back toward my apartment.

I came upstairs and I had a feeling of elation, as if I’d just completed a marathon. This may seem ridiculous, but that very short walk was my leaving the dark closet.

I couldn’t have done it by myself.

But sometimes, there’s a friend who is able to open the door and lead us towards the light.

The Ache of Depression

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There is an ache inside me that tells me I am a failure. The ache spotlights all the people I know who are more successful, who have secured higher profile jobs, who have found a spouse.

The ache is relentless. On this Sunday morning, before I’ve had a chance to brush my teeth or shower or meditate, the ache tells me: why bother.

The ache is familiar. The ache is a manifestation of my illness but also a manifestation of being alive. The ache swallows me up, tries to drown me. The ache persists, I challenge it and begin to look for the light.

What does this mean? Today, the light is getting out of bed; the light is taking my medication; the light is walking to the drugstore to buy more paper towels; the light is eating breakfast; the light is restructuring this Sunday so I don’t have time to ruminate in my own darkness.

This day, every day, is ours to create. We can choose to honor the ache or we can choose to let go of it. Actions—no matter how small—suffocate our pain.

If you are suffering, accept that the ache is not permanent. Accept the ache for what it is—your sorrow, your depression, your loneliness—and then choose to help yourself move on from it. This may mean challenging your negative thoughts. This may mean devising a plan for what you will do today, no matter how small: take out the trash, do the dishes, tackle the laundry, take a walk.

It may also mean finding a therapist, a psychiatrist, a new medication, a support group, or a loved one who can help you. There’s no shame in getting help.

Millions of people have shared in this suffering. If you truly accept what you are feeling, then you free yourself to move on from it.  As Thich Nacht Han writes in No Mud No Lotus, this acceptance may be what helps us find joy:

It is possible of course to get stuck in the “mud” of life. It’s easy enough to notice mud all over you at times. The hardest thing to practice is not allowing yourself to be overwhelmed by despair. When you’re overwhelmed by despair, all you can see is suffering everywhere you look. You feel as if the worst thing is happening to you.  But we must remember that suffering is a kind of mud that we need in order to generate joy and happiness. Without suffering, there’s not happiness. So we shouldn’t discriminate against the mud. We have to learn how to embrace and cradle our own suffering and the suffering of the world, with a lot of tenderness. 

[Image courtesy of Larry Smith via Flickr.]

A Simple Day is OK

FullSizeRenderIf you’re sick with a cold or the flu or, God forbid, cancer, you don’t expect that you’ll be able to do all of the things you can do when you are well. The same goes with mental illness. You can’t expect, as a depressed person, or even a semi-depressed, melancholic person, to be getting everything done.

There are days when I’m able to speed through reading, writing, and work. There are days when I’m bursting with so much energy I am ready to take on the world.

And there are days like today.

I am tired and my energy is low. I slept until 10. I’m groggy because the medication I am taking has side effects. Do I wish I didn’t have to take medication? No. I don’t wish for this anymore than I wish I didn’t have bipolar disorder.

At a certain point, we have to accept ourselves. We have to accept the warts, the freckles, the disorders, the struggles, the failure, the medications—all of it.

Today, for me, this means being kind to myself and keeping my to-do list short.

It’s a simple Sunday, ruled by a six-item to do list, two of which include showering and getting to bed on time.

Right now, I’m off to dinner with my sister and then, later, I’m going to bed at 9 so I can fall asleep by 10 p.m. Before bed, I may listen to some Tara Brach because her talks are calming, enlightening, perfect.

Give yourself permission to have a simple day, to do less, to be fine with it.

OK, fine: I give you permission.

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Embrace Your Limitations

tumblr_kuygfotqWv1qzkclao1_1280More than twenty years ago, I had my first writing-induced panic attack. A ninth grade English assignment about Oedipus Rex sent me into hysterics. The blind prophet could “See.” Oedipus was “blind” to his own fate. My teacher would say, “Tiresias can ‘see with a capital S.’” I had no idea what she was talking about.

On a Friday night that ninth grade year, sometime around 1991, the paper was going well. I wrote my introduction. I mapped out and wrote my three body paragraphs, each crowned by a topic sentence. I then faced the conclusion. If I could just write the conclusion, I would be finished. The conclusion, as it always is, was key.

But I couldn’t. There were too many options. Should I talk about “Truth with a capital T?” Should I talk more about Oedipus stabbing his eyes out? Should I talk about the meaning of the prophecy? I had no idea. My parents returned from wherever they were and, in the kitchen in front of our new PC desktop, I broke down into hysterical tears. My mother listened. With a pen in hand, she listened to me talk about what I wanted to write, and she wrote. In fact, she continued to help me write my conclusions all throughout high school. After so much work on the paper in its entirety, the conclusion was always what put me over the edge.

For those of you who have studied the five-paragraph essay, you know that the conclusion is the one part of the essay that’s not bound by any rules. After you restate your thesis, you can go on to do whatever you want. A new insight, or maybe a few. Eventually, in college, after dozens of writing-induced panic attacks, I managed to teach myself how to write a foolproof conclusion. I developed a formula that relied on one quotation I identified early on as the ‘wrap-up’ quote. I learned how to write and finish my own essays so well that I became an English teacher.

And yet.

For me, writing is excruciating. Tonight, I was sure I would skip writing this blog post because the idea of sitting down and figuring out what I should write about was terrifying. I then received a notification for a meet-up group I signed up for a while ago where people—both friends and strangers—gather at a coffee shop and write together for one hour.

I realized that I could handle one hour. I’d think of a topic on the train and then I’d limit myself to 500 words. Just 500. That limitation paired with the security of a coffee shop gave me the freedom I needed to write something. Anything.

Limitations. They frustrate us to no end. We bemoan that we’re not taller or stronger or smarter or blessed by a better title at work. In Wicked, the Wicked Witch of the West, Elphaba, sings, “I’m limited.” Here, she’s talking about her green skin and her ‘secret powers’ that have made her a pariah. She’s also the most powerful person in Oz. Her limitations—an unusual skin color and those secret powers such as being able to defy gravity, or fly—have, in fact, given her strength.

My instinct is to avoid writing because I know it can push me over the edge. My instinct is to give up before I’ve even started. The reason I’m able to push through is because I put limits on myself—limits like “You are only allowed to write one short blog post. That’s it. One hour.”

And so here I am, in a coffee shop on the Upper West Side, surrounded by other writers who, like me, have committed to this hour.

Limitations, I am learning, actually help in every single facet of our lives.

Take yesterday. My best friend got married in a small town outside of Boston. I’ve only been out of a recent stint in the hospital for 10 days. I’m just starting to understand how to manage new medication. Socializing has felt impossible. But she’s my best friend. And so instead of not going, I worked on how to manage the challenge in one of my wellness groups. I spoke with my parents, who agreed to drive me to the wedding and then pick me up when I was ready to leave. I arrived. I reconnected with my friend’s family. I did a little mingling. I drank ginger ale. And then, about twenty minutes after the ceremony, I called my parents who came to get me.

I knew that being at a wedding sober and single and knowing almost no one would feel impossible, so I placed a limit on myself. No alcohol and no staying past what felt comfortable. I used this limitation for bravery, for strength, and as a way of coping.

I think the reason I’m succeeding in managing my illness is because I know how to use limitations. Yes, I’ve made mistakes. But I’ve also thrived because of limitations. I know that I need to leave the party at eleven. I know that I can’t drink more than one glass of wine. I know that I can’t drink caffeine after noon. I know that I need to be in bed by ten.

You can strive by placing limitations, but finding out where and how to apply them to your life is crucial. How can you place a limitation on yourself to enhance your life or your creativity? What can you do for one hour? Even if you are struggling with something as treacherous yet seemingly simple as cleaning your apartment, give yourself a limit. You will work on your closet for one hour. You will deal with that stack of papers on the bureau for one hour.

One hour is power. One hour is freeing. Pick an hour and get busy.

Mental Health Heroes Do One Thing: They Listen

Last night, John Oliver did a nice job explaining our nation’s problem with talking about mental illness and caring for the mentally ill.

But for those of us living with mental illness right now, how can we talk to our friends, family, and colleagues with our (horribly misguided) national tendency to conflate gun violence with mental illness? How can we talk when the national stigma is that we’re “crazy people?”

I’ve been living with bipolar disorder for fifteen years. Three weeks ago, I was hospitalized for an acute manic episode. I came home from a yoga retreat having not slept and not taken my medication. I entered a state of psychosis, believing there was a Nazi conspiracy against me and that I was in fact a boy named Michael. My friend contacted my mother and my loving and supportive parents called 911. The ambulance brought me to the hospital.

In my first week in the hospital, I punched nurses. I threw furniture. I screamed. As sick as I was, I was also extremely fortunate to get treatment. After three rounds of electroconvulsive therapy, my brain returned. I returned. Because of the ECT and the Lithium, I returned. And here I am, getting better.

My Heroes

Most people don’t know how to talk about mental illness because they don’t understand it. Well-meaning individuals tell depressed friends things like: “You should really try to work things out for yourself. Are you sure you need medication?”

When I was in college, I suffered from a debilitating depression. I started antidepressants and a good friend at the time told me she thought I should work things out on my own. I had no support system. I wasn’t showering or eating.

I still managed to attend some classes. I was taking a film history course with a brilliant professor I didn’t really understand. She gave me a B-minus on a paper I wrote on a Hitchcock film. Rewrites were possible, so I went to her office and met with her. I will never forget that meeting. I asked her how I could do better on the essay. She looked at me, and she said, “Michele—you are not allowed to rewrite this paper right now. Please stop working on it. My assignment to you is this: go to the movies.” She said what she said with so much care. In between the lines, she was telling me: I can see how depressed you are. You are too sick to work. You need to help yourself.

I’ve never forgotten that conversation. Because of that professor, I went back to the health center and got the support I needed.

These people—the ones who listened—have offered moments of grace throughout my life.

Two years ago, after a break up, I became depressed. I was still going through the motions of my life until one day, right before a meeting with my boss, something snapped inside me. I started crying at my desk. I knew I wouldn’t be able to handle my next meeting, so I typed an agenda, printed it out, and then walked to my boss’s office. In his doorway, I told him I was not feeling well and needed to go home. I started to hand him the agenda I’d printed. He looked at me and tilted his head to the side. “Wait—are you OK? Please come sit down.”

He closed the door behind him. He knew something was wrong. He asked me to tell him. I started to cry and told him, “I need to meet with HR. Something is wrong with me. I need a break.” He listened. And then he told me this: “Many years ago, I had a doctor write me a prescription that said, stop working for the month.” And he said, “Mental health is no different from physical health.” He told me to not worry about HR. To take the time I needed to get better.

He’s my hero. His kindness saved me.

How to Find Your Heroes

Not everyone knows how to listen when it comes to mental illness. I don’t tell everyone in my life I have bipolar disorder. Not everyone in my life needs to know. Not everyone is ready to listen. You can be proactive about finding your heroes, however. Here are a few tips:

  1. For starters, share with colleagues that you have a “chronic illness.” You don’t have to tell anyone you suffer from “depression” or “bipolar disorder” or whatever other specific ailment. You can share that you have a chronic illness and leave it at that.
  2. Tell friends in a way that doesn’t solicit unnecessary feedback. “I have bipolar disorder and I’m being treated with Lithium and psychotherapy,” you might tell friends. If someone offers you advice, you might say something like, “I appreciate your wanting to share advice but I’m getting very good treatment and would appreciate it if you can just listen.”
  3. People who are really there for you—your heroes—will show up. Just notice them when they do. This may be the friend who visits you in the hospital. This may be the colleague who just wants to support you. This may be the sister or brother who helps in whatever way you need.

Your heroes are out there. They’re the ones who listen. And you can be someone else’s hero too.

Show up. You may save someone’s life.

The Blessing of Forgetting

eraserI just walked out of the apartment and ran into my super on the sidewalk. He looked at me, confused, like I was some kind of puzzle he couldn’t figure out.

“Do you remember what happened?”

I nodded because I knew what he was talking about, not because I remembered.

He, like the others, had seen me turn into a different person a few weeks ago. A manic person who, in a state of psychosis, believed I was privy to some kind of governmental conspiracy. A person who got into an ambulance and asked the driver for his gun. A person who, once hospitalized, punched nurses and threw furniture and screamed at everyone.

“I was sick,” I told him. “I have bipolar disorder.”

“Oh,” he said. “You really scared me. I was holding a package and you were grabbing it from me, telling me it was yours.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

He shook his head and dismissed the apology as not needed.

“Are you OK now?”

I told him that I was. I thanked him. I turned the corner.

And then, as I was walking down Broadway, I thought about how lucky we are that there are some things our minds won’t let us remember. At least for now, my mind is protecting me by forgetting. It’s called motivated forgetting. Critics say that this kind of repression may not be healthy. I’m not sure I care.

Right now, I am feeling blessed to have an illness that can be treated by Lithium.

And right now, I’m blessed to have forgotten.