It isn’t about the money.

I got my Christmas bonus last week. Of course, it isn’t called a Christmas bonus. This is a government job. It is a “longevity” check. But we get it around Christmas, and not on the anniversary of our hire date.

Every employee who has worked for Metro for at least five years gets this check. It is a tiny thing at the beginning, and a little more each year. There were years where the budget was tight and we didn’t get it at all. Things are better now, and it is a nice thing to have back.

I noticed my reaction to it this year. I have this reaction every year, but this time I noticed. I’m trying to observe myself from the outside. I’m trying to see what I do out of habit and instinct and ask myself why. I want to see if that reaction or course of action is still useful. Sometimes we outgrow our actions, but we still do them because we haven’t thought about them.

I saw this money and wanted to spend it right away. I didn’t even think about buying presents for others. I didn’t think about sending some of it to a charity. I wanted to spend all of it on myself.

I wanted a treat, or a toy. I didn’t want to buy anything I needed. I wanted to buy something I wanted. I don’t even have anything in mind. I just wanted to spend this money, and spend it fast.

This is why for many years I didn’t have much of anything in my savings account.

I’ve gotten over that feeling for the most part. For the most part I’m sane. For the most part I save money and pay extra towards the principal for the house and car notes. But right now the desire to burn through that money shone like a torch.

I didn’t. I thought about it. I saw that feeling as the outsider it is. I saw it as a symptom. I saw it as being not really from me, not the real me.

I started to think about what that feeling meant. At first I thought that I was going on survival mode. If I convert that money into something physical, I can see it. I can keep it with me. Just like wandering tribal people who move their camps with their flocks, I wanted to convert that wealth into portable currency. Money is better if you can wear it as baubles on your coat, you know.

But where does that feeling come from? I’m not planning on escaping. I’m not foreseeing any need to bug out any time soon. Even if the zombie apocalypse does happen, I don’t see that bartering with beads is going to be the mode of commerce. But who knows? It worked for the Dutch when they bought Manhattan.

So I dug deeper. There had to be more to this feeling.

It is all about comfort and self soothing. This past month has been hard. Financially, materially, it has been fine. Emotionally, not so much. There’s been a lot of upheaval in my family recently. Too much drama and not enough sense.

When bad things happened I used to soothe myself with eating sugar and carbs, or smoking, either pot or clove cigarettes. I used to soothe myself in the same way that many people soothe themselves – to do everything possible to not actually address the situation itself. Sadly, a lot of our soothing methods result in even more problems.

I’ve gotten past a lot of those soothing methods, but apparently I’ve not purged myself from the “need” to spend money to cheer myself up. I’m glad I saw it as the craving it is, and didn’t succumb to it.

We can all learn from our cravings. They teach us what we really are searching for. I didn’t really want to spend all that money. I wanted what the money could buy. And really, I didn’t even want that. I wanted what it represents.

In this case I was searching for security and stability. I was trying to retreat into primitive ways of coping, rather than dealing with the problem at hand. Part of the solution is to stick with the feeling. I’ve spent so long trying to run away from my feelings that I’m not sure how to have them sometimes.

If you use crutches all the time, then you never develop the strength in your legs to stand on your own. Losing the crutches doesn’t mean that you suddenly have the ability to run, much less stand up straight. And it hurts, these first few unassisted steps. You want to grab the crutches back, or find something else to hold on to.

This is why a lot of people at AA meetings are chain smokers. They just traded one addiction for another. The problem hasn’t been addressed. It has just been transformed into something a little more socially acceptable, and a little less likely to result in legal problems.

I’m stripping away my crutches and my props, one by one, and it is hard. But it is essential. Sometimes I’m tired of all this growth I’ve done and I want to sit back and take a break. I don’t, well, not often, and not for long. I’ve learned that if I take a break, the break morphs into a full stop, and then I have to get started all over again.

Poem – the key in the rubble.

Just by being stubborn
you can get to be the person you have been.

Many people have to be able to do the work.
Maybe they should not be afraid.

We have buildings in our childhoods.
We have buildings in our hearts.

Inside each person is the key,
located in the middle of an argument,
buried under the pain of grief.

Our pain is our teacher.
Our hurt is our healing.

Without judgment
without fear
without turning away

look into your life.

Look into your own building site
among the abandoned rooms,
the peeling paint,
the broken bricks,

and find your heart
Again.

Family secrets

I realized that it was very freeing to let go of family secrets in a recent post. I’m not sure why they were given to me to hold on to. When I told the story about my brother’s fake military service credentials I felt a weight come off of me that has been there too long.

There was a lot of lying that I was encouraged to do as a child, and that habit went on too long. I was strong-armed into not telling. Something about “family name” and “honor” and “pride” got mixed into there. After I was about 5, the only trips my family went on were of the guilt variety.

There’s nothing healthy about this, but I went along, because that is what you do as a child. I didn’t know better. Here was my family, teaching me something harmful. I was the youngest member, so I didn’t have any perspective. I didn’t know that what they were teaching me was wrong.

There is a lot of shame tied up in lying. It takes a lot of energy to pretend that you are something you are not. It weighs you down, like the proverbial millstone, like the metaphorical concrete shoes. I was drowning in someone else’s stories. I inherited bags of lies and half-truths.

I was told by my brother to not tell anybody the truth for the sake of our family name. The funny thing is that he changed his name. What name? He modified his last name some time when he was in the Air Force for that one year. Did the lies start then? Or was it when he was having “naps” with his girlfriend in the family home and got her pregnant? Did it bloom into full fruition when he somehow forgot to tell wife number four that she was in fact wife number four, and not number two as he’d told her and the county clerk when they got married? Everything started to crumble when the child from the first marriage showed up on their doorstep, 16, and running away from home. Wife number four didn’t know about any other children. Somehow it seems that the person who needs to be concerned about “honor” and “family name” is him, not me. I don’t have anything to hide. Everybody knows my business.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

He threatened me to never tell his girlfriends about him. He realized after our parents died that I was the only person who knew the truth about him. I was the only person who could kick down that house of lies he had built around himself.

He blamed me for marriage number four falling apart, saying I told her something. I never talked to her. The problem was, neither did he. It isn’t my fault that he forgot to tell her really important facts about himself. But his habit of blaming me for his failure is very common.

And I took this for years. I’m now seeing the lies that I was fed. This may not be pretty to read, but it is very healing for me to write this. I’ve held this in for a very long time. It is like I finally noticed that there was a festering boil, and I’ve lanced it open. A lot of gross stuff is coming out, but better to get it out than keep it in.

He stole money from me on a regular basis when I was a child. I started to notice something was wrong and I started to keep a tally of money in and out in a separate place. When I saw what was happening, I told our Mom. She confronted him and it stopped – but he never apologized and never paid me back.

So he started stealing from me in other ways.

There was a time in my childhood that I remember intentionally forgetting about things. There was something so bad that happened that I made a point of not remembering it. Apparently I was successful, because all I can remember is that I chose to forget. It is like having a spraypaint outline of a stencil. You can see that something happened there, but you don’t have the full picture.

He blamed me for going into debt. A few years ago he was a quarter of a million dollars in debt. The real estate business he was in had taken a nose dive, and he’d borrowed money to start up some get-rich-quick plan. It failed, and he borrowed more money, for another stupid plan. He had to declare bankruptcy and moved into a friend’s green house.

He actually said that he thought that the reason he was a quarter of a million dollars in debt was that I had “prayed for his downfall.”

How’s that for a guilt trip? That’s an express trip to crazytown. If my prayers are that powerful, I’m pretty connected.

He didn’t want to admit that it was the fact that he kept borrowing money for yet another hare-brained idea that got him in the hole he was. Once again he wasn’t taking responsibility for his own actions.

Then his new girlfriend asked to be my friend on Facebook, and he freaked out. I got numerous messages from him begging me to not tell her anything. I said that was his responsibility. I didn’t contact her, but just watched what was going to happen. Then she posted a picture of her engagement ring. So she was going to be wife number 5. I asked him if she knew about the others. He fudged on the answer. I suggested they go to premarital counseling. He got very angry and said how dare I not wish them happiness together. My point was that with counseling there would be a chance of happiness.

You won’t get good fruit from a rotten tree.

And he’s pretty rotten. Time to dig out the root of it all, the reasons for the lies and the deceit. Time to dig down deep and clean things up and out.

Things got pretty ugly there, right after they got engaged and we were still communicating. I was reading a lot of self-help books and ones on better dialogue in difficult situations, but unfortunately he wasn’t. I tried to tell him how I felt, and like always he twisted what I said.

My brother is the kind of person who you can say “It is a pretty day outside.” to and he will reply “What do you mean – are you telling me it is time to mow the yard again!?”

When you are raised with crazy as your normal, it is kind of hard to know what normal is.

I know crazy. I admit that I’ve hospitalized myself twice. Bipolar disorder runs in my family. Both times I knew something was wrong and I asked for help. Both times I needed to get my medications adjusted. I’ve heard it is very rare to realize that you aren’t well mentally and ask for help.

When Ian went crazy, he certainly didn’t know that he needed help. At the time was living just 45 minutes away from where I lived with our Mom. She was dying, and he’d been in denial of it. He’d ignored the fact that we were living on Social Security and disability for one. I’d quit my job so I could take care of her and drive her to her appointments. Dad sent money to us when he could. He was living in Birmingham with his Mom, who had Alzheimer’s. Our parents had separated a few years earlier.

Instead of being a help, he’d send letters to us with clippings from the paper showing how much money he had made off a commission. He’d send a copy of his planner, showing how busy he was, to “prove” why he couldn’t come and help or visit. During the year she was sick, he visited twice. He sent only $100. Most of his energy was devoted to harassing me on the phone, telling me that I “could do more” to help her. I was 24, had quit my job, was buying food with food stamps, and doing all the cooking and cleaning and caregiving. He was 30, and was being a jerk.

When it finally became clear that she was dying, he lost his mind.

He called once and was talking very excitedly. He went away for a little bit and I could hear coughing in the background. He said “Mom is going to feel a lot better now!” When I asked what he meant, he said that he had just coughed up some of her cancer.

This was not helping. This is insane.

A few days later he trapped his girlfriend in their house and took the distributor cap off her car so she couldn’t leave. He painted crosses on the windows with wine. He said that “she was pregnant with the next Christ” and that “demons were going to come to take the baby away.” Now that is off the charts crazy. That is certifiable. That is a danger to others crazy. And so he got committed against his will. A judge got involved. He spent two weeks in. He simply learned what not to say to appear normal, but he didn’t ever admit that he was sick.

Six weeks after Mom died, Dad died suddenly. I had to handle both estates. Ian’s name wasn’t on the will. Turns out Dad created the will after Ian threatened to kill him, and the situation never improved.

Ian insisted on getting the Rembrandt etching that had always hung over the mantelpiece. It was entitled “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” He said that Dad had always wanted him to have it, because it symbolized their relationship. I think I’d have heard about something as earth-shaking as reconciliation between them. I let him have it, because it wasn’t worth arguing about. But in reality, he was just propping up his house of lies. The son had not returned to the father. The son was adrift in a sea of deceit.

Sometime around then I also insisted that we communicate only in written form, because he had that habit of twisting what I said. I’d write letters to him and save a copy for myself. That way when he said “you said this (insert hateful comment)” I could point out that I didn’t.

It is tiring to communicate with someone like this. I wonder how tiring it is to be him, to have to constantly be checking up to see how his lie-house is doing. Nobody is perfect, and nobody is awesome. It is far healthier to admit your mistakes and move on. When you have to lie to cover up a lie, then you are getting into really deep trouble. Maybe one day he’ll figure that out. I’ve had to admit that I’m not the one to help him. I tried, and it only got worse. For my own mental health and for his, I left.

Our last conversation was a message on Facebook. He told me to read Dale Carnegie’s book “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. He told me that I had to read that before I talked to him again. That seemed to make it easy on me – I chose to not read that book. Ever.

I unfriended and blocked him and everyone directly associated with him. I can’t take the lies anymore. I can’t take him or any of his drama. I don’t know what is real about him, and I don’t think even he knows anymore.

So I’ve honored his request. I’ve not told his girlfriend (possibly now wife) about him.

I’ve told everyone.

Thriving with a mental health diagnosis.

This is about mental health. Some of it is about depression, because that is something that many people wrestle with. But some of it applies to mental health in general. These are things that I’ve discovered that have helped me. I offer them to you with the hope that they may be of use to you as well.

Depression feeds on itself. It has its own gravity. It is like a planet that is larger than you, sucking you into its own orbit, making it hard to escape. But you can. Inch by inch, step by step, you can get further away from it. You have the power and control. It is a thing, a force outside of you. It isn’t you. Do not let your diagnosis be your definition. You aren’t mentally ill. You have a mental health diagnosis. It is very hard to be objective about your own care when it is your mind that is affected, but it isn’t impossible. It takes a lot of work, but it is completely worth it. Every little step counts.

I was diagnosed as bipolar when I was in my early 30s. I’m in my mid 40s now. I’ve hospitalized myself twice – the last time was over 12 years ago. Both times I realized that I needed help. Since then I’ve bought a house, gotten married, and been at the same job far longer than I can believe. I’ve become a stable adult SINCE my diagnosis. If it weren’t for my diagnosis, I’d probably be homeless now. It isn’t the illness that is the problem – it is what you do with it. You can live very well with a mental health diagnosis- you have the power.

There are steps you can take to take control of this condition, to not let it be in charge. Every little tiny thing you do is a positive step towards health, and each step generates a little more energy to be able to do the next step. You won’t be able to do it all at once, and you will fall and fail several times. This is normal. This is normal for everybody – not just those with a mental health diagnosis.

You won’t be able to do it all at first. But doing something is better than doing nothing. Yes, it is hard. Yes, it is worth it. You are worth it. The disease will tell you otherwise. But I’m here, standing on the shore, having waded through the rapids and slipped on the rocks, and I’m telling you there is hope after diagnosis, and there is a way. There is a way to feel better, even to feel great.

It isn’t going to happen on its own, though. You have to do something.

Take your medicine every day. This isn’t like an antibiotic, where you take it for ten days and then you are done. You have to come to grips with the fact that this is a chronic illness. Chronic means forever. That alone can get you a little depressed. But – here’s a way to think of it. Without medicine, you will get worse. With medicine, you will be fine. We are lucky to live in a time where we have medicine to take. Medicine is essential, and taking it is a step in the right direction. Taking your medicine isn’t a sign of weakness – it is a sign that you want to get well. It is the opposite. It is a step on this path to health.

I like to think of mental health medicine as the same as medicine for diabetes. I used to think I could do all this on my own, that I could just eat right and exercise and I wouldn’t have to take pills at all. But if I had diabetes, I wouldn’t think that way, I’m pretty sure. I’d do what I could to help myself, and I’d take my medicine. We forget that we are biochemical machines – being in a human body is being part of a moving chemistry experiment. We are faulty in bits – it isn’t perfect. So we take medicine in order to fix what doesn’t work well. It is the same with glasses – if you have bad vision, you wear glasses or contacts. You don’t think you can adjust what you eat and do and suddenly see better. Props are healthy. It isn’t admitting weakness to ask for help. It is healthy.

Work with your doctor. If your medicine needs to be adjusted, tell her. Sometimes our body chemistry changes and the medicine no longer works. If your doctor doesn’t listen to you, get another doctor. I had one who treated me like a stupid child. He also said “That’s normal” when I said that I couldn’t concentrate enough to read and I was sleeping 10-12 hours a day. That isn’t normal. And a doctor who thinks that is isn’t a doctor, he is a quack.

Yes, it is hard to find another doctor. Making any change is hard – you feel like you are pushing a huge rock up a hill. You just want to sit there on that hill and just let things happen to you. This is the disease talking. If you let it win this conversation, it will keep winning. Remember, slow and steady wins the race. Every step you take gets you stronger.

Eating well and getting regular exercise is essential. It isn’t about a starvation diet at all – it is about making good choices with food. It is about seeing food as healing. It is about movement too – about intentionally incorporating moving into your daily routine. The human body isn’t meant to sit for hours at a time. You’ll feel much better if you move. It will be hard to do at first. It gets better. It gets amazing. You’ll be creaky and whiny at first. Keep on going. It gets better.

When I first started working out, I felt like I was going to die. It hurt, I was worn out, I was sore. It was really hard. I hated the class. I hated being there. I wanted the class to end. I puttered through, doing only about half the routine. But I felt better after the class was over. I felt glad that I had gotten through it, and done something good for myself. And then I got stronger, and now the classes seem easy. This is the trick. Stay with it. Of course it hurts at the beginning. You aren’t in shape. But keep going. Every good thing you do is a step towards healing.

Find what is right for you. I’m going to tell you what I do that works for me. It has taken me years to figure this out, and I’m OK with the idea that this may change. Currently I do yoga, water aerobics, and I walk.

I do yoga for 10-15 minutes every morning. I also take a yoga class every week. I have made a commitment to myself to do this. I’ve noticed that if I decide to skip one morning, or the class once a week, then I start to want to skip every day or every week, and then it is a month I’ve not had my class. My body and my head let me know that this isn’t good. Push through that resistance, that desire to not do what is good for you. Go ahead and do it, and you’ll feel better afterwards. You’ve won that battle.

There is something amazing about yoga. It unkinks your body and your head. It isn’t just exercise. It teaches balance, both physically and mentally. It teaches about acceptance of where you are, and gently pushing yourself to get better and stronger. Yoga is like a massage you give yourself. I recommend it highly. I’m grateful that my local YMCA teaches classes. There are many different kinds of yoga classes. Some are very basic, some are very advanced. If you go to one class and it is too much or too little for you, go to a different one with a different teacher.

I do water aerobics, at least twice a week. The class I take is taught by a very energetic teacher. I had thought that water aerobics was just for arthritic little old ladies, and while it can be, it doesn’t have to be. It can be a very vigorous cardio exercise with resistance. The water provides support and resistance at the same time. This exercise is great on your joints – you can move them and not hurt them like you would with land exercises. Also, water aerobics is fabulous for your core. Having a sexy belly does wonders for your self-esteem.

I walk every day at lunch for 20 minutes. I’ve had to bring my lunch to work to make this work out. I have changed how I work as well, and I get in a mile and a half. Again, every little bit counts. Even ten minutes of walking is better than none.

I’ve had to give up a lot to do these things. There is only so much time in the week when you work a full time job. But I’ve found that being healthy is more important than reading ten books a week. You have to figure out your priorities and find a healthy balance. Sometimes you can do several things at once – you can listen to an audiobook or a podcast while walking or gardening, for instance.

What you eat is important too. Why go through the effort of exercise if you aren’t going to put good fuel in your body? Balance is important here. If you eat a lot of high-energy foods (caffeine and processed sugar) you’ll crash hard. If you eat a lot of low-energy foods (junk food, fried, processed, meat) you’ll just drag through your day. You have been taught by our society that you need these things to get through your day. You don’t. Our culture lies about a lot of things, and is totally unaware of consequences. This is why so many people are dying of preventable diseases. Don’t be them. You have a choice, and you have control.

I eat yogurt or oatmeal for breakfast, along with grapes and bananas. Eat organic when possible. Eat more vegetables than meat. When you do eat meat, eat fish. Don’t eat anything fried. No sodas, and avoid processed sugar. It causes a crash. I’ve gone without caffeine for over 5 years. Caffiene is a cheat – it over balances. Drink mostly water, with some fruit juice. Go natural as much as possible. Eat real food, not processed. Again, you won’t be able to do everything at once. That is normal. Even doing one thing is a great start. This is kind of like learning how to juggle. You won’t be able to have all the balls up in the air at once. But do one, and get used to it, then do another. Patience yields progress.

Get outside. Get some natural sunshine. Go for a walk outside, or garden.

There is no substitute for sleep. Get enough sleep every day. You can’t shortchange yourself on that.

Avoid overstimulation. For me, this means avoiding the news. It isn’t news, so much as bad news. I can’t handle it. I’m overwhelmed. I feel helpless. I started by not watching the news. I would read it instead. Then even that got to too much. If you can, reduce noise around you. This is at work and at home. Too much noise jangles our nerves. The same is true with a lot of visual stimulation. I try to make sure the TV is off at 9:15, and I’m in bed by 10. I need time to wind down. I read before bed, but nothing stimulating or exciting. Usually non-fiction does the trick.

Find a creative outlet. Bead, paint, sew, make music. Do whatever makes you happy. It won’t be perfect at first. Nobody ever is. That isn’t the point. Get over your need for control and perfection and allow yourself the ability to play again. This is play. This is fun. It is the opposite of work. Allow “mistakes” – let yourself discover. I also highly recommend writing in a journal. Writing is essential. Write every day. Not only will you get things out, you will learn things.

Seek the company of good people. If someone is constantly bringing you down, they aren’t a friend. Friends are helpful, not destructive. Understand you may have issues with your boundaries. A lot of us do. Look at my post called “Survival books” under “Resources” and pick one. Read it. It will help a lot. You also might be a “highly sensitive person” – there are books in that list for that too. I’ve learned a lot from those books that have helped me understand how to deal with this diagnosis. You aren’t alone.

This is what I do to turn around depression. I look at what I’m doing that is different from my usual routine. Usually I’ve started eating more candy, or I’ve not gotten enough sleep, or I’ve slacked off on my exercise. I redouble my efforts. Drop the candy and pick up the walking shoes. You’ll turn this funk around. There will be times where you will want to slack off. Don’t. That creates negative energy. When you feel “I don’t want to exercise/eat well/ go to sleep on time” see it as a cranky toddler. Be the adult – you are in charge. If you slack off, it will win energy and get you to do it again. Then you are in a hole again.

I find having a faith is important. I read the Daily Office every day – it is a selection of three Bible readings. It is a regular structure. If left to my own devices I’ll read whatever I come across from a random page flip. And then I’ll not read at all. I’ve discovered that having regular habits is very important. I pray regularly. I’ve also developed a habit of thankfulness and gratitude. I find this is essential.

Stillness

We are afraid of the stillness, the quiet time. We pack our days with things to do. We are terrible about allowing our bodies and minds to rest.

We can’t sit still. We have our phones out, checking in with the news, with friends whenever we have a spare moment. In reality we are checking out. We are divorcing ourselves from what is going on right there, right then.

When was the last time you just stood in line, just stood there?

So much for the mantra “Be Here Now”. We are nowhere and everywhere and timeless. We are either running late or planning ahead, but we are rarely right here and right now.

Stillness is healing.

Seeds have to be in darkness for a while before they can grow. The sun isn’t always shining. The rain helps plants to grow.

Stillness is a time of quiet energy. Look around you at nature. We have so divorced ourselves from the cycles of nature that we don’t even know what our own nature is. We sit inside, where we can adjust the temperature and light to our liking. We have confused ourselves, thinking that we are something separate from nature.

So when the crash comes, we fall hard. We fight against it, seeing it as a weakness. It is the simple inevitable result of not taking time out.

Our brains, our bodies, our souls must have rest.

We forget to schedule this. We work and push and stretch so much we wear out sooner than we should. Depression sinks in. Lethargy. Doldrums. We feel adrift in an empty sea.

We can fight it, or we can see the rocking of the sea as the gentle rocking of a mother, holding us in her arms, helping guide us to nourishing, healing sleep.

Children are often resistant to go to sleep. They feel they are going to miss something. We are the same way, for the same reason, as adults.

Now, there is also something to the idea of not being adrift too long. It is all too easy to stay out there forever and never get anywhere. I’ve written a lot about how to jumpstart your creative self, how to get past the self censor that lurks in all of us.

But it is also important to not see the down time as an enemy. You need some of it to regroup, recommit, restore. Balance is essential. So it is important to plan for quiet times. Schedule them in.

I’ve discovered that physical group exercise is a time out for my head. I don’t think about what is going on for 75 minutes. Someone tells me what to do and I do it, and meanwhile I get a workout. I also know that creative time is good. It is quiet yet productive. Sometimes it isn’t about making a specific thing so much as letting the Spirit work through me. In those times I step aside, taking a mental break.

If music is the space between the notes as Mozart says, then “down time” is more important than the up time. It shapes it. It gives it meaning. It provides content.

Try this meditation. It was provided to me in a recent class. Say each phrase out loud, or have someone do it for you. Breathe for several moments after each phrase. Let it sink in.

Be still and know that I am God.

Be still and know that I am.

Be still and know.

Be still.

Be.