Where to Next?

Today is Tuesday, October 10, 2017, and it is World Mental Health Day. I can’t write about mental health as it exists all over the world, but I can write about my experiences with challenging mental health.

Much of this year, I’ve been wondering about my story. I really can’t explain it. I recovered, and I don’t know why. I have a slight grasp on how, but why eludes me completely.

I like to sum up the how in just five little words:

  1. medication
  2. meditation
  3. therapy
  4. exercise
  5. sleep

I think WRAP has something to do with it too, but I’ve pretty much internalized that and rarely actually look at the written document. (You can search for WRAP on this blog in the tags on the right side of the screen of your computer. I’m not sure where the tags are, if you’re on a mobile device. There’s also a little place where you can enter search items. Just type in WRAP.)

But, why?

Why did I recover?

I work in mental health now. I talk on the phone to my peers as part of my job, and it’s quite eye-opening. I hear about the difficulties others are having with many different types of situations. Each caller is doing their best to overcome whatever may be happening that is disagreeable. Sometimes, reaching out to me is one of the ways they’re trying to overcome problems. Other times, they just want someone to listen. It’s usually very clear right from the very beginning what the caller wants from the conversation.

What’s unclear to me is myself. My own story baffles me. You can search the archives of this blog going back more than 7.5 years. I came through some dark times. When I remember those times, I’m amazed I made it through and got to where I am today.

I think I’m spending so much time thinking about the why, because it has something to do with healing. I want to share healing with my peers.

But that’s off. The healing is what happened. Does it matter why it happened, or is the how it happened more vital?

There’s one more point about how that may hold the key: one. I kept it to one step. I concentrated on just the one step I was taking. I never thought ahead to a second step. I thought only of the one. Then, I would take one more step. Then one more. It was always just one.

When I was bedridden with depression, I would do one nice thing for myself for one day. Some days that one nice thing was brushing my teeth. It was one little reminder that I was worth just that tiny bit of self-care. Some days, it was making one healthy thing to eat, or just eating one piece of healthy food like an apple.

Taking only one step. Doing one nice thing for myself. One.

Life is complex. When you add mental illness to it, it can be chaotic. There is so much to think about that it’s overwhelming. Concentrating on only one thing relieves the chaos.

One.

By concentrating on one step, I made many steps. I got from there to here. It took years. I had a lot of help along the way, but I was the one doing the walking. I was the one taking just one step. I want to share that with others.

And now I ask where to next?

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What We Eat

I have read a few articles recently that give evidence that what we eat directly affects our mental health. All the articles said that persons who eat more fresh fruit and vegetables are healthier mentally. Persons with a mental illness also had better results from eating healthier food. In some cases the improvement was startling.

I made a decision this week.

As regular readers know, I meditate daily. It’s vital for my overall health. It gives me a solid, calm core. My emotions still fluctuate normally, but they don’t rule me.

I like to think it’s a result of the meditation, but I began to notice many months ago that my main diet is vegetarian. I simply gravitate toward eating more vegetable meals. I got in the habit two years ago of taking a vegetarian lunch to work.

I usually have some kind of salad that I buy ready made from the grocery store. Right now, it’s quinoa salad. I also take an apple and cheese. This happened on its own. I never made a decision to eat vegetarian lunches.

Breakfast is also vegetarian. These days, I eat a meal-replacement bar that’s high in protein. Some days, it’s just toast with butter. Other days, it’s an apple.

Dinner has been a mixed bag over the past number of years. Sometimes it’s a meal; other times it’s kind of snacking on things around the kitchen like fruit and nuts.

This diet evolved. I never labeled it. I have decided to change that and give it a label. I am now consciously mostly vegetarian and will only eat meat on special occasions. I thought about being wholly vegetarian, but that just doesn’t fit me. What I have chosen feels right for me. I am happy with this decision.

It doesn’t require me to drastically change my habits, but it does make me change the way I think. I have to be honest. After making the decision, I had some anxiety wondering what I’d done. Thankfully, personal decisions can be changed. I reserve that right. I’m going to try this for now and see how it goes.

I’m going to be adding more things to my diet like tofu and beans. I’m also looking forward to learning about new ways to live a new way.

As an aside, I found a bakery not far from where I live that just bakes bread. Really good bread. I went there for the first time yesterday, and I had two thick slices of luscious bread covered with good Irish butter at dinner last night. I’ve added a slice of bread to my lunch today.

Self-Care

When we find ourselves in difficult times, it is necessary to nurture ourselves. It is more than necessary. It is vital.

Let’s try to do things that are truly nurturing. If you’re feeling down due to any reason, you may think that buying a bunch of new clothes will cheer you up, and for a few brief moments, you’re correct. You’ll be happy with your new clothes, but it will fade. A shopping spree is not nurturing in the long run.

What kinds of things will help us feel better longer? That is an excellent question, and it’s one I struggle to answer.

Let me share what works for me.

I like to read, so often times when I feel low, I will take an old book off the shelf that I know I like, I will open it to a random page and just read. I may make myself a cup of tea to enjoy, too.

I also meditate. There was one day last month that I was feeling a lot of anxiety. I was able to take the day off, and I spent it at home alone. I meditated four times that day. It was very refreshing, and it helped me soothe my anxiety. It worked. I felt better. (For one way to meditate, click here.)

I had anxiety last week, and I searched for anxiety-relieving music on YouTube. I found a lot, and I listened to some. It worked. It really did. Try searching for it and see what you find.

Here are some ideas for nurturing yourself:

Take a walk in a park. Sit in a park. Sit in the sunshine. Study the stars in the night sky. Study the moon. Spend time with your pet. Ask a friend who has a pet to let you spend time with it. Listen to soothing music. Play soothing music on an instrument. Read a story. Go to the library and spend time in the children’s section reading books. Read a book to a child at the library. Meditate. Try a guided meditation on YouTube. Draw a picture of a pretty scene. Make a collage of pretty scenes from pictures in magazines.

The ideas are endless. I think the focus should be on nurturing.

What will nurture your heart? Do that. Do as much as you possibly can.

Healing the Wound

When I remember my drinking days, the pain is what comes up first. There was tremendous pain. It was pervasive. It seeped into every corner of my being, and it oozed out of me in all my relationships. I was capable of happiness, but it was always fleeting. It was never enduring.

I drank for one simple reason: it gave me relief from the pain. What I did not understand was that the relief was fleeting. The drinking did not do anything to help heal the pain. The wound remained. The drinking was a kind of Band Aid on my wound.

It’s no secret that my wound was my warped perceptions of what it meant to be gay. The ideas inculcated in me about homosexuality were not compatible with living a happy life. I grew up convinced that god hated gay people, and that gays were beyond god’s grace. I also had good reason to fear ostracism from my family if they knew I was gay. Finally, society allowed violence against gay people. Some portions of society even condoned it preaching that gays were beneath contempt and unworthy of safety and fulfilling lives.

I became an alcoholic, because I got relief from my pain when I drank. The pain was so great that I needed a lot of alcohol to relieve it, and I needed it daily.

The day came, however, when the pain became more than the alcohol could cover. That day I faced the fact that alcohol no longer worked. That day I also discovered that quitting drinking was not a simple matter. I am grateful that I found AA. With the help of the 12 Steps and with the love from a sponsor and other members of the program, I found a way to live without alcohol.

Sadly, the pain was still there. The wound went untreated. I lost the Band Aid that alcohol provided. My next course of action was to find a way to heal the real wound. I am grateful that I found therapy as a young adult. I continued it through the years, and it proved invaluable for healing my wound.

Meditation also helped me slowly change my perceptions of what being gay meant. I learned I am not an abomination. I learned god loves me. Most importantly, I learned to love myself.

Gradually, I healed.

And I discovered that when my wound healed, drinking became unnecessary. It’s not even the slightest issue. I go to gay bars these days and feel nothing. I have no compulsion to drink alcohol.

AA gave me the tools to stay away from alcohol, but the AA I was exposed to did not direct me to the tools I needed to heal the wound that caused me to drink. The AA that I was part of treated the drinking as if it was the wound. It taught me that not drinking was enough.

But it wasn’t enough. I needed to heal the wound. I had to find the ways to heal outside the rooms of AA.

I doubt I’m alone. I am confident when I say that alcoholics drink because it provides relief from a pain-causing wound. We need to stop drinking because it is a destructive way of treating the wound. It does not heal. It masks only.

We are doing a disservice by telling people that the pain will stop when the drinking stops. This wasn’t the case for me, and I know many people who agree. We need to do our part to help individuals stop drinking, but we also need to actively direct them to the places where they can heal their wounds.

After 18 years of sobriety, I’ve seen countless people return to drinking after a period of sobriety, and I am convinced it’s because they could not find a way to heal their wound. They return to using the only Band Aid they knew that gave them any amount of relief.

It’s not enough to stop drinking if we ignore the reason the drinking started. The drinking is only a Band Aid. It is not the wound.

Again, we need to actively help individuals find a way to heal their wounds.

[I have been thinking about this for a long time. I’m reluctant to share it, but I have experienced my words reaching others who feel the same but are unable to speak for various reasons, so I’ll share.]

Being Selfish

One of the oddest things about life is that when we are very small, we have to be taught to share. It is stressed over and over again that we have to share with our playmates. We aren’t allowed to hoard all the toys or take all the food from the lunch counter.

Many of us spend a great many adult years unlearning this lesson. We have to learn a healthy way of being selfish.

I have spoken to many people in various forms of distress. One of my favorite suggestions is to do one nice thing for ourselves every day. These can be very simple. We can give ourselves a full minute of deep breathing. Taking a walk in the sunshine is another good way to be nice to ourselves. If it’s what we want, we could indulge in our favorite food. We get to decide how to be nice to ourselves.

Many of us are taught to always place others before ourselves. This is appropriate in many situations, but it’s not healthy at all times. There are many times we have to place our own needs above our neighbor’s.

It is popular to say that we have to love ourselves before we can love others. I used to disagree with that. I thought I needed to deny myself my own love. I thought I could love others while ignoring my own needs. I now see that I cannot give what I do not have.

Ultimately, doing one nice thing for ourselves each day is meant to lead us to loving ourselves continuously.

When I come from a place of self-love, I can reach out with more love than I ever imagined. I am capable of more compassion than I knew previously. Empathy is more genuine.

It’s possible that being selfish may be the best way to help each other.

New Frontiers

A few days ago, I thought I’d finished with all the transforming I needed in one lifetime. I was done. I was going to live with the imperfections, and I was going to be happy.

That lasted until I got too tired of the discomfort. Pain actually.

This morning in meditation, I opened my belly, and I began to pull out something that hurt. It turned out to be attached to a chain that would not let go of its anchor, so I dove down to find out how deep it went.

It was deep. Very deep.

I got right down to where a little, snarling childlike version of myself was protecting the end of the chain. I thanked the snarling child for doing his job. He protected me for many years by getting me the things that I wanted. I then explained to him that his work was done. I soothed him. He was quite surprised, but he settled down and released the end of the chain.

I picked up the chain, I took the boy’s hand, and we went up to the surface. I gave him to an angel, and I was released from the pain.

It left a void, and I invited light to fill it.

What I have just described is a kind of guided visualization. I use it a great deal, and I get very good benefits from it. I’m able to help myself with very simple techniques. It’s really startling how much pain I’ve been able to release using guided visualization. I recommend meditation to anyone who thinks they can’t help themselves. I’ve been meditating for many years, decades actually. It works, and it does not have to be difficult.

I’m still going to revel in my humanity.

Using Tools

This morning, my anxiety has been high. I have hopes for a situation to work itself out in a certain way in the very near future, and I’m anxious about it. Because I’m in recovery, I have experience using tools to help me cope when I have difficult emotions rolling around inside.

The first tool I used this morning was meditation, and it helped enormously. I was very calm and centered for a few hours afterward. Sitting in a quiet place and breathing helps me when I’m anxious or otherwise unhappy.

I would normally go for a good powerwalk, but my knee doesn’t feel right. I have to stay off it for a while. I’m sad about this, because exercise is a very good way to work through unpleasant emotions.

I got to work fine, and I’ve been concentrating on some tasks. That helps a great deal, but it doesn’t take my whole mind off what I’m anxious about.

So I turned to another tool: friends in recovery. I’m a member of a small group on the internet of people in recovery from mental illness. I asked them what they did to cope with anxiety. One person reminded me to take breaks from the busy-ness. I just did that. I left my cubicle and went for a walk in the sun. I went down the street to the cathedral and sat there for five minutes. It worked. I feel calm again.

I have therapy tonight, and it couldn’t come at a better time. I will be able to talk to my psychologist about what’s going on. I have found in all my years in therapy that when I talk about a problem, it loses its power. Sometimes it disappears completely.  It really works.

I do not know if talking to my therapist will cause today’s anxiety to disappear completely, but I am positive it will help.

I am grateful today for the tools I have to aid me in my recovery.