Don’t tell me I think too much. Even if it’s true.

don't think too much

So, I want to write a little bit about mental health today. It’s a subject that’s close to my heart, but I don’t talk about it much because, frankly, it’s not easy.

For much of my life, I have dealt with a cyclical type of depression. What experience is similar to how people describe bipolar disorder, except it’s … different. I don’t get the manic highs, but I get intense anxiety that builds up until it collapses into depression. Many times, it seems that the diagnosis of mental illness depends on the illness being visible to outsiders, but because my troubles have been mostly invisible, most people figure I’m just a normal person who is moody sometimes. So, even though I’ve been coping with cyclical depression and anxiety for most of my life, I’ve never been diagnosed with anything but plain old depression. On one hand, that’s great because it means I’ve managed to dodge a label that’s easily misused and even hurtful. On the other hand, it means that in my darkest times, the responses I got from other people were usually:
Just get it together.
You’re just too emotional.
Don’t take it so seriously.
You think too much.

“You think too much,” is probably the most common thing I have been told in the midst of an emotional breakdown. I’m not sure if I can explain exactly how unhelpful that is, but for the record, it is unhelpful and also massively insulting. To a person who grew up in an intellectual family and prides herself on being able to grasp big concepts, “You think too much,” is like saying, “Just stop being yourself.”

No, I don’t think too much, but I do have really strong feelings sometimes. And sometimes my thoughts and feelings are hard to control. And there have been times when I’ve lost control completely.

It’s scary to lose control of your thoughts. One minute you’re mad at your roommate for leaving a mess in the kitchen,* and the next minute, someone’s telling you “You think too much,” and you start second guessing everything. Do I really have a right to be mad at my roommate? If not, why am I so upset? What’s wrong with me? I must be crazy. I always freak out about everything. I’m so fucked up. Why can’t I just get along with people? No wonder no one likes me. What the fuck am I even doing here? I don’t belong here. I don’t belong anywhere.

This thought pattern can get really dark really quickly, and for me, it usually lead to one place: If this is the way it’s going to be for the rest of my life, maybe I should just end it now.

That’s a pretty terrifying moment. The first time it happened, I thought, “Mary, you really are thinking too much now. Stop it. Have a drink. Take a nap. You’ll feel better later.” After the second time, I got back on anti-depressants, which I had taken periodically throughout high school and college. But even on medication, I would still have really intense panic attacks sometimes. It was predictable, too. Everything would seem fine until a little anxiety started creeping in. Over a few weeks, things would get gradually worse, and then once every month or two, I would have a meltdown. A couple days after a major meltdown, I would feel bright and shiny as though the sun had come out after a big storm. I took to hiding in my room so my roommates wouldn’t know how insane I was. I was a mess, and I was scared, and I was afraid to ask for help.

For me, help came via my husband, who saw me going through these cycles over and over again. He was confused and hurt and just wanted me to be happy and didn’t know how to help. We took long walks during which I talked to him about everything on my mind. He listened and listened and listened. He loved me even though I felt broken. There were many times when I felt guilty because I couldn’t be as good a partner to him as he was being for me, but he insisted on staying and helping me through it.

It took a long time for me to go to therapy because I thought that people who go to therapy were fucked up. Going to therapy meant admitting that you don’t know what you’re doing with your life. I was afraid it would mean I was stupid or somehow incapable of taking care of myself, and remember, most of the time, I was just normal. Nothing really bad ever happened to me as a kid. I didn’t have any good reason for being so messed up. No one but me could see my scary thoughts, so I assumed I just needed to toughen up and stop letting my emotions get the better of me. Only when I went to the doctor and couldn’t control my tears or my racing heart did someone say, “I really think it would help you to talk to someone, a counsellor maybe…” I didn’t like the word therapist, and my earlier experience with a psychologist was less than stellar, but my doctor was right. I needed to talk to someone. Even though my husband was willing to support me, I didn’t want to burden him with my emotions all the time, and I obviously hadn’t resolved my issues on my own.

The funny thing about therapy is that it worked, even though a lot of people who should know better told me it wouldn’t. I told someone my doctor suggested I take vitamins and focus on getting daily exercise, and they told me she was a crackpot. They would have preferred to see me on lithium, perhaps. When I ran out of my antidepressants, I decided not to refill the prescription since it wasn’t preventing those panic attacks anyway. I learned other coping skills instead. I found that meditation and yoga helped me feel more stable. I learned to let go of those obsessive thoughts that I knew would start the downward spiral. I learned to ask for help. I never went back to taking medication because it turns out that my mental health is manageable through lifestyle adjustments rather than prescriptions, which came as a relief. Not everyone is so lucky.

There must be as many types of mental illness as there are mutations of the common cold virus. Everyone’s experience will be different. But what I know for sure is that mental illness causes suffering, and it gets worse if we believe that “you just think too much,” or “you’re too emotional.” It is terrifying to sit alone in your room and feel that there is something so intrinsically wrong with you, down to the genetic level, that you cannot live a normal happy life. To think, “Well, I guess mother nature fucked up this batch. Maybe I’ll just take myself out of the game.” It’s just an awful experience.

So, what I’m saying is I hope you will ask for help if you’re suffering. And I hope you will reach out to those who suffer. I hope you will not call other people “crazy” when they’re going through it. I hope you will have someone to listen when you need it and that you will listen in return when you can.

Footnotes:

*When you say you’re mad about the mess in the kitchen, let’s be honest. You’re never just mad about the mess. This anger very quickly triggers outrageous thoughts such as, “The mess in the kitchen is just proof that my spouse/roommates/children disrespect me. They leave the mess because they expect me to clean it up.” This line of thinking assumes the other person is being malicious when in fact, it’s just paranoia from your own lack of self worth. That kind of thinking is the result of an anxious and unhappy mind.

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If a Tree Falls and You’re Not on Twitter

Snorting some of that Pixydust.

It’s funny how no one misses you on the internet. It’s a weird thing to admit, but if a tree falls and you’re not on Twitter, no one cares if it makes a sound. Granted no one cares about most of the digital content we consume on a daily basis. We all kinda go numb to it on some level, don’t you think? We binge on bad news, celebrity gossip and the salacious details of other people’s private lives. We consume media in much the same way that I used to eat sugar as a child — by the spoonful and straight out of the bag. Social media is intellectual Pixy Stix, and what I’m looking for is like … Avocados. Let’s stretch this metaphor beyond its reasonable limit and say I would like to experience and create the intellectual equivalent of the farmers’ market online. I would like to live in a world where digital content is not just soundbites whizzing through space at the speed of your next nervous breakdown. I know our society is geared toward doing things quickly all the time. It was hard to just slow down today, and after I relaxed most of the day, I felt like the most abominable slacker. But I just don’t think most of us are capable of fully processing information and experiences at the rate we feel compelled to take them in, which is interesting. I guess that’s how evolution works — we are always reaching for something just beyond our reach.

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I Will Only Tweet This Once

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Hello there,

I’ve decided to do an internet experiment. You know me and experiments, especially where the internet is involved — I can’t help myself. This time is special because it’s a disappearing act. For the next few days, I’m going to take myself off the internet as much as possible. This isn’t forever, nor am I committing to even a shot period of total digital abstinence, but for a short while, rather than being on Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr all the time, I’ll be interacting with people on the physical plane. You know, like my husband and our friends. And instead of doing my writing on the computer where I am constantly tempted to Google something or message someone or share my every thought, I’ll be writing in my notebook. Longhand. The way I fell in love with writing a long time ago, and the way I still think most clearly.

Meanwhile, I’m letting my pre-scheduled blog posts run as planned, and they’ll be automatically sent to my social media profiles through the wonder of WordPress plugins. And because I don’t know how long I can go without telling The Internet what’s on my mind, I will also write each day about the things I’ve been doing on my side of the screen, in “the real world,” as they say.

For example, today I worked on this dress-making project with my mother-in-law (Chuqui) and her mom (Bueye). That’s them in the picture up top.

I decided for no particular reason that I wanted to make a dress. Chuqui helped me pick out the pattern and the fabric, and we started sewing the other night before dinner. Attempting to finish the dress today, we realized it was a lot smaller than it should’ve been. I usually wear between a size 8 and size 10 (curvy girls, represent!), but because the pattern looked small we cut the fabric for a size 14, and it still didn’t fit. We had no idea what we did wrong, which is why we had to call in the expert. Bueye has been making beautiful things all her life,and though she doesn’t do seamstress work anymore, she appeared to enjoy putting her skills to work and showing us young chicks up.

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I don’t have any lesson to share from this. The dress still isn’t finished, nor do we know what we did wrong exactly, but Bueye helped us fix the darts so my boobs look even and add a pleat so the back will close. I got stuck with a few pins in the process, but I also got free coffee, lunch and a sewing lesson out of it. It’s better than what I would have gained spending the day on Tumblr. (Sorry Tumblr, I love you and all, but I think we have a productivity issue.)

There are lots of other things I’ve been thinking about, but the noise in my head these days is just too much. Being on the internet 24/7 has made me feel trapped by the news cycle, to use a cliche. Especially in the wake of the Texas legislature’s assault on women’s rights and the Zimmerman verdict … I’ve been feeling sortof powerless and sad, and the constant flow of information doesn’t help with that. So, I’m gonna step away for a while until I feel like I have my head on straight again. And I don’t know how long that’ll take. I hope it’s quick because I want to get back to talking with everyone and having a grand old time. But you can’t rush these things, so it’ll take as long as it takes.

Oh, and I will still teach the online yoga class and respond to e-mail because I do want to hear from you and interact with you on a human level. Just not in the intensely public format of social media right this second.

Thanks for understanding.

xoxo~

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Meditate Like a Boss, Part 4: Fear Not

Pressure

Welcome to part four of my meditation series! This week, I want to talk about the resistance, fear and anxiety that sometimes come up during meditation.

On the surface, meditation doesn’t look scary, but sometimes it is. When I started meditating, I was afraid that by going too deep into my own mind, I would find out I was crazy, or I’d realize some terrible thing that happened to me as a child. There was really no need to worry, although it’s a pretty legitimate fear that lots of people have. Even if you’re not sure what you’re getting hung up on, the anxiety you feel when you start meditating is rooted in our fear of facing ourselves. We’re taught by our society that self-loathing is somehow admirable — it’s not just humility we’re taught, but putting ourselves last, being self-less, and even ashamed of so many parts of our nature. But it’s crazy to me that we have such a deep rooted fear of really facing ourselves. Is this some kind of evolutionary quirk that we outgrew but never got around to shedding from our genes?

Whatever it is, the good news is that meditation gives us the tools to work through it.

The first way to deal with this fear is to recognize it for what it is. Fear is a projection of your worst-case scenario. It’s also a chemical reaction in your brain. It may feel like an inexplicable shot of adrenaline or a nagging need to fidget. First and foremost, see it for what it is, and accept it: I am experiencing fear.

Second, have compassion for yourself. Imagine how you would feel for a little kid scared of the dark. It’s really the same. You’re moving into unknown territory or perhaps dealing with some issues you’ve avoided until now. It’s perfectly understandable for your mind to dig in its heels at this point. But just like there’s no use dragging a kicking child anywhere (I promise the experience won’t be positive for anyone), there’s no use forcing yourself to confront deep dark monsters. So ease up! Be kind enough to back off if the fear feels like too much.

You may find that the feeling of acceptance of this fear is enough to melt it so you can move forward with your meditation. Focus on that feeling of compassion. If the fear is too great, back off and return to focusing only on the breath. Count your breaths and stay with that for as long as you can. Whatever you do, don’t feed into the fear. Don’t obsess about it. Don’t chase it down demanding to know where it came from and why it’s coming up now. You’ll only make yourself feel crazy with that. Simply focus on the breath or on the feeling of compassion until either the fear subsides or your meditation ends.

For many people, this compassionate approach to fear and anxiety is enough to get comfortable with meditation. However, if you have an intense or persistent feeling of fear that you can’t get past, I recommend working in person with a teacher you trust. I have often found that meditating in the presence of a teacher or close friends makes it easier for me to settle down, as though that person’s physical presence is a mental security blanket for me. Going to meditation classes at a yoga studio is a good place to start.

Finally, if you struggle with anxiety consistently, you may want to go a step further and seek support from a therapist or counselor. Yes, I certainly believe in the power of yoga and meditation, but there are folks in other lines of work who can help immensely. I say this as a person who has dealt with somewhat severe anxiety and depression in the past — accept help and support wherever you find it, whether that’s in the form of your yoga teacher, your best friend, or your doctor.

Do you have other questions about meditation? Leave me a note in the comments, and I’ll do my best to address them! Next week, we’ll talk about how to set up your personal meditation space to nurture your practice.

Namaste!

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Meditate Like a Boss, Part 2: Being in Your Skin

Yoga vid Dödsklippan

The real reason we do yoga poses is to prepare the body for meditation. Yep. In fact, in the Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the only pose or asana mentioned is the simple seated posture we use for meditation. In a classical yoga practice, the primary reason for doing poses is to help the body be strong enough and flexible enough to meditate comfortably. Of course, that translates to better overall health as well, which is one reason yoga has become so immensely popular in recent years. The good news is you don’t have to do a long, complicated or showy practice to prepare for meditation. Here’s a simple practice that you can modify based on what your body needs and how much time you have. Each pose has a unique effect on the body, so it’s best to pick one pose from each category to get a well-rounded practice.

Step 1: Side Stretch
Side stretches are energizing to the body and good for the digestion. A simple side stretch can be done while sitting, standing, kneeling or lying down. To start, try reclining half-moon. Lie on your back on the floor, and stretch the arms out overhead, touching the floor behind you. It’s OK if the elbows to bend in order for the arms to relax in this position. With the legs straight, walk the heels over to one side as far as they’ll go, and then inch the arms, head, and shoulders in the same direction, forming a “C” or half moon with the body. This will create a stretch through the elongated side of the body. Take a few deep breaths, and allow the body to sink into this stretch without using force. Come back to center before repeating the stretch on the opposite side.

Step 2: Twist
Twists are cleansing and calming to the body. Like side stretches, they’re also good for the digestion as they gently squeeze and massage the internal organs. Here’s a quick and easy twist anyone can do.

Sit in a comfortable position on the floor or in a chair. Stabilize the hips so they will not move when you twist. Place the right hand directly behind the spine on the chair or floor, and place the left hand on the right knee. Inhaling, imagine you could actually grow taller, extending the head toward the sky and tucking the chin slightly to create length through the back of the neck. As you exhale, gently squeeze the belly button toward the spine to begin twisting. The heart and ribs turn to face the right while the hips stay grounded. Turn the chin over the back shoulder. When you’re ready to come out, inhale once more to sit up tall, and on the exhale, gently unwind the pose. Then do the same twist in the opposite direction.

Step 3: Back Bend
Back bending is considered very energizing – no wonder it’s the first stretch most of us want to do when we wake up! When you spread your arms wide and raise the chest with a big yawn, that’s a gentle back bend. To do a seated back bend, simply rest your hands on your knees while sitting up nice and tall (just like you will for meditation). Inhaling, lift the heart and press the chest forward while rolling the shoulders back and down. Slightly lift the chin to create a sense of length and openness in the front of the throat. As you exhale, hug the belly button in toward the back, tuck the tailbone, and create length through the back of the body, reversing the curve. Do several rounds of this movement combined with slow, deep breathing. The same thing can be done on the hands and knees and is usually called “Cat/Cow” in yoga classes.

Step 4: Forward Bend
Forward bends are calming and are great for times when introspection is needed. There are tons of great forward bends to pick from, such as child’s pose, standing forward bend, wide-leg forward bend, and downward dog. If you’re seated in a chair, place both feet firmly on the floor, and simply drape the upper body over the thighs, allowing the head to hang. If your chest doesn’t reach your thighs, a blanket or pillow across the lap can make this more comfortable. Alternatively, sit on the floor in a comfortable cross-legged position (also known as sukasana or easy pose), and place the hands on the floor in front of you. Walk the hands out in front of you, bending forward until you feel a gentle stretch in the back of the hips. Whichever foot is in front, that side of the hips will feel the stretch first. After a few breaths, change the cross of your feet and do the stretch again to make sure you address both sides.

Once you’ve completed this brief practice, try sitting for a short meditation. Notice if there is any difference in the body, the breath, the energy level, or the state of mind. If you are very distracted, a longer practice can be helpful in calming the mind. Several rounds of Sun Salutation, for example, can be a great preparation for a longer meditation.

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