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.

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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.

Why I’ve Fallen in Love with Tig Notaro

In this Jan. 26, 2015 photo, Tig Notaro poses for a portrait to promote the film, "Tig", at the Eddie Bauer Adventure House during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Victoria Will/Invision/AP)

In this Jan. 26, 2015 photo, Tig Notaro poses for a portrait to promote the film, “Tig”, at the Eddie Bauer Adventure House during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Victoria Will/Invision/AP)

Last night, I watched a Netflix documentary about Tig Notaro, the comedian who catapulted to stardom after she stated “I have cancer” on stage and went on to share recent tragedies in her life to an audience that embraced her ability to find humor in her pain. 

Watching the rollercoaster of Tig’s life after the death of her mother and cancer diagnosis reminded me about human resilience and what it means to live a meaningful life.

Towards the beginning of the film, Tig decides she wants a child. This means fertility medications, a surrogate, and risking her own life because of the possibility that the fertility meds might feed cancer back into her body. But she finds the surrogate. She also unexpectedly falls in love.

Spoiler alert: her eggs don’t result in a pregnancy. Before she gets the news, she is holding her girlfriend’s hand and she says something to the camera to the effect of: “If this happens for me [the child], I will never be sad for another day in my life.” It’s such a moving moment that we can all relate to. 

If I could just marry someone, life would be complete. If I could publish a book, life would be complete. If. If. If. 

Her girlfriend embraces her as she processes the news, and we know that Tig is going to be OK. Why? Because she is a loving person who knows that this particular incomplete—this not being able to have a biological child—may be painful, but it will not destroy her ability to love. 

We can take comfort and learn from Tig’s life. We all live with disappointments, with dreams that go unfulfilled. We then make a decision: do we define ourselves by the disappointments, or do we learn from the disappointments?

A few years ago, I was crushed after a long-term relationship ended. I lost someone I loved, and I also lost the dream I had about my life—the dream of having a family, a marriage, a life that felt ‘complete.’ But that loss opened up space in my life to learn, to reflect, to better understand who I am. It led me to yoga. I’m infinitely stronger now than I was back then. And my future relationship and whatever family I eventually build will be stronger.

Imagine how much comfort and joy Tig has brought to those battling cancer because she turned her own struggle into art. Watch to doc here. Prepare to be inspired.

(Read a recent New York Times profile on Tig here.)

You Can Actually Transform Jealousy into Love—Here’s How

A few months ago, I reached a breaking point when my disgust with my own personal failures—I’ve never written a book; I don’t have my own podcast; I will never be Lena Dunham—fermented my thoughts into a putrid jealousy that started to rot the insides of my brain.

The foul stench of envy was suffocating me.

Facebook became intolerable. My inadequacies plagued me. Why don’t I have a boyfriend? Why don’t I have a child? Why don’t I have a blossoming mass of Twitter followers to affirm that my opinions matter? These kinds of thoughts bounced around my brain all day long.

I stopped writing. I stopped feeling anything but forced gratitude. And then, to make things even worse, I beat myself up for having these feelings in the first place.

What saved me was stumbling on a Buddhist workshop called “Overcoming Jealousy.” What saved me was listening to a Buddhist monk, clad in a yellow robe, say to the group: “Why do we feel angry when someone else experiences good fortune?”

Indeed.

As he framed it, envy wasn’t something to be ashamed of. It was something to be acknowledged so that we could then throw it away and transform it into love.

I learned this lesson a few months ago, but I still struggle with envy. That’s OK. It’s not the envy that matters, it turns out. It’s our own response to the envy.

At another Dharma talk last night, a Buddhist teacher named Kadam Mortem offered up a quote about how to handle our inner delusions:

Just as a storm has no power to destroy the sky, unpleasant feelings have no power to destroy our mind.  —Geshe Kelsang Gyatso

Isn’t that beautiful?

A storm cannot destroy the sky. Envy cannot destroy the mind. 

We don’t need to identify with the passing clouds of envy, anger, jealousy. There’s a blue sky of love and happiness beneath it.


 

Here are five quick tips on getting closer to the blue every single day day:

  1. Stop comparing yourself to other people. Really. When you hear yourself saying something like, “She’s only 25 and has already done X. I’m 55 and haven’t done X,” just stop. You are on your own journey. Life is not a race. Compare you to you. Congratulate yourself for the small victories.
  2. Get off social media—or cut that shit down. If social media exacerbates jealousies in your life, then stop looking at it. You don’t have to go cold turkey. You also don’t need to have Facebook on your phone. Removing Facebook from my phone means I don’t mindlessly scroll through a feed broadcasting everyone’s best moments. I look at Facebook when I’m in the right frame of mind.
  3. Cultivate the joy you feel for others’ good fortunes. Even if it’s your first instinct to feel jealous, practice feeling joyful when someone else gets a promotion, gets married, has a baby, does something that initially causes you to feel that tinge of why-not-me-ness. If you have to fake it at first, that’s fine.
  4. Celebrate your own small victories. I may have mentioned one, two, or two hundred thousand times that I envy other writers. This is because writing is my biggest challenge. In college, I had a boyfriend who was a superb and very fast writer. He’d write a five page paper in the time it took me to write a paragraph. This felt like a cosmic joke then. As it often does now. My gut instinct is to feel terrible that it took me too long to write whatever I’m working on. But then I just have to say to myself: I’m writing. That’s what matters.
  5. Write fan letters. One of my closest friends is a writer who reveres other writers. If there’s any jealousy attached to that reverence, you wouldn’t know it. She writes a lot of fan letters.  I’ve started to do this more often. To sincerely tell people how impressed I am by whatever milestone they’ve reached.

 

 

How to Get Unstuck in an Hour

I’m stuck right now. Creatively. Mentally. Emotionally. Physically. I can’t seem to write anything worthwhile. Every word in this blog post already strikes me as unintelligent—and I’m about 10 words in.

Creative paralysis strikes me when my mood is low. These past few days, I’ve struggled to get out of bed and come to work and feel excited about anything. I can’t stop judging, envying, criticizing. I focus on all of the people who have achieved more than I have even though I know this is a recipe for disaster.

As stuck as I may feel, I’m committed to getting unstuck.

This morning, I opened up my bullet journal, and I thought about one project that I can’t seem to make progress on, which is this blog. I wrote down: “Finish Blog Post.”

And then I scheduled one hour to complete this task.

The task was not “finish amazing blog post.”

The task was not “write inspiring blog post.”

The task was simply to finish something in one hour and publish it, despite knowing it would be far from perfect and possibly shitty.

In journalism school, one of my favorite professors would tell me, “Better done than perfect.” He watched as I’d write and rewrite the lead of an article only to waste so much time striving for perfection I could barely meet my deadline.

The only way I know how to get unstuck is to finish something. Anything. Today, it’s a blog post.

Feeling stuck? Take one hour —or if you don’t have an hour, ten minutes, five minutes! —out of your day and do something, anything, from start to finish.

Check off that box on your to do list. And then give yourself permission to enjoy the accomplishment. Rinse and repeat.

The small steps matter.

Why You Should Stop Focusing on What You Haven’t Done

After I was hospitalized for an acute manic episode my junior year of college, I returned to school with a new medication regimen—Depakote, Zyprexa, Risperdal, Wellbutrin—coursing through my veins. On the Risperdal, my eyes wouldn’t focus. I could hardly read. The Depakote made my hands shake, Parkinsons-like, so that I couldn’t bring a spoonful of soup to my lips without some of it spilling on the table.

In the months prior to my hospitalization, I had enrolled in a Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald course where, sitting next to me in the lecture hall, a guy with curly hair and wire-rim glasses used “maudlin” in a sentence made me swoon. A few weeks passed and, soon, I was manic and not attending any of my classes. The hospitalization lasted 28 days, and then I moved back home—all of my courses incomplete. I never stepped foot in that lecture hall again, and because this was the late 90s, before the sticky web of Facebook and email trapped everyone you knew in the same tangled, social sphere, I never saw the guy with the glasses again.

Back at school the following semester, the Risperdal made reading impossible. I fell behind in all of my courses.

Because of the kindness of a dean I’d met at some point while dealing with the details of coming back to school, my transcript had no ‘incompletes’ to indicate that I’d started courses like the Faulkner course and then dropped out. Instead, my transcript marked a medical leave for a semester.

Now, I had to finish long papers about To the Lighthouse or Lolita, but I was too medicated and beholden to sleep to stay up in the computer lab until dawn to finish essays in the only way I knew how—at the last minute with the adrenaline of sleeplessness coursing through my veins.

My doctor tweaked my medication every few weeks. I got enough done to finish out the semester, but in three of my four classes I had incompletes. Winter break, I tried to finish the essays, but I was too anxious. After another semester, summer arrived, and over a few months, I finally finished the essays to ensure my transcript was not marred by incompletes.

At that time, the unblemished transcript was an accomplishment. It was the document that proved I’d finished something important. But I spent so much time thinking about what life would have been like had I finished the Faulkner course, had I dated that guy, had I finished that semester.

When I am depressed, as I was feeling earlier in the week, this familiar feeling that I’ve not finished anything of substance, that my life is not complete, washes over me. I decide that what I am missing — a boyfriend, a bigger salary, a recently published essay—defines me.

What I try to remember is that it is my responsibility to focus on what I have instead of what I don’t. For me those marks are my meaningful friendships, a healthy lifestyle, a job I can tolerate, a commitment to yoga and spiritual growth, a medication regimen that leaves my hands still and eyes focused. Have I finished a novel? Nope. Will I finish this blog post? Almost there.

Remember that you don’t need to define yourself by what you have not finished.

Remember: you write the transcript of your adult life.

Remember: you are complete.

All You Can Do

Sometimes all you can do is accept that you feel depressed.

Sometimes all you can do is order food online because you can’t cook for yourself tonight.

Sometimes all you can do is come home from work and let yourself cry into a throw pillow.

Sometimes all you can do is turn off your phone because to be tempted to look at others’ smiling faces on social media is depressing.

Sometimes all you can do is to type a short blog post to assure yourself that, even though it’s hard to believe right now, you will not feel this way forever.