New

fuckingshitIt’s January 2, and I haven’t been to the gym at all in 2016. Half the Christmas decorations are still up. I haven’t finished unpacking the suitcases from our holiday travels. There’s a giant load of laundry waiting to be folded. I’ve already sent a text with an incorrect use of an apostrophe, effectively ruining 2016. And, for the love of God, do items have the ability to actually grow on my kitchen counters?

It all feels wrong. New years should begin perfect and unblemished and clean. That’s why New Year’s is represented by a baby, a blank slate that brings a sense of obligation to keep it perfect and uncorrupted.

It reminds me of when my son was a baby, when the “breast is best” people had gotten so into my anxiety-riddled head that I sobbed on the way home from a pediatrician’s appointment where I was directed to supplement with one bottle of formula each day. No, he must only have nature’s perfect food, I thought, even though it’s worth nothing that said food was seasoned with a light sprinkling of aspartame from all the Diet Coke I was drinking. I cannot ruin him. 

Now, 8+ years later, I let him order Sprite in restaurants and eat processed food and sometimes pretend not to notice when he sneaks a cookie before breakfast. I calculated that, given a 100-year lifespan, he’s just now entering the February of his life. Which seems about right, because by February most of us have long ago given up on the concept of unblemished perfection.

But here in the weak and infrequent light of early January, one feels the need to strive for absolute perfection and self discipline.

I will go to the gym every day. I will plan and actually make meals that achieve that nearly-impossible combination of healthy, inexpensive, easy, and delicious. I will only eat fruit as a snack. FRUIT, DAMMIT. All fruit will be locally-grown and organic, despite the fact that I live in a barren frozen wasteland that produces no crops this time of year. I should have bought that fruit in the summertime and canned it. This year I must learn canning.

I will get all my chargers organized in one place, on one power strip, arranged in an aesthetically-pleasing manner that does not at all resemble a ball of electrical wires one might find on an abandoned construction site. I will stick to a strict work schedule—with no interruptions from Facebook and other contents of the Internet. I will do a better job of accounting for my freelance business. I will spend less in general, because I don’t need any more belongings. In fact, I should get rid of most of the stuff I do have, because minimalism is the key to happiness.

I will always sit at the computer with straight posture and two feet on the floor. We will have a Fun Family Outing every weekend. And I will still take time for myself, because taking time for yourself is important. But I have to remember not to take too much time for myself—I mean, I have to get out and volunteer in my community. I need to appreciate that I’m very fortunate in life, and that it’s my responsibility to help those who are less fortunate. I really don’t sit and appreciate how fortunate I am. I need to add in time for gratitude in 2016. And while I’m at it, I should feel guiltier for all the privileges I’ve been given. Must add in more time for feeling guilty.

I will be a better wife, mother, daughter, friend, employee, cat owner, and global citizen. In short, I will become the absolute most perfect specimen of a human being … until I find some other way to become even more perfect. Then I will write up a multi-page, SMART-goal-ridden plan to assess each imperfection, which will also include an attached spreadsheet.

I don’t have to tell you that I’m exaggerating for comedic effect. In reality, I only made one resolution this year, and that was to get control of my sleep. With this resolution comes the sub-resolutions of weight loss and increased exercise, because I think it’s been weight gain that has caused my poor sleep and exhaustion. I’ve also made an appointment with my doctor to get the ball rolling on any sort of medical interventions I might need to take to improve my sleep.

I like to make one sort of unconventional resolution like this because I will otherwise fall into the trap of enumerating all of the above-mentioned media-promoted self-improvements I can make in the new year.

But the reality is, you don’t even have to make a single resolution this year. Maybe you’re in a place where just getting through each day is an awesome accomplishment. And if you are in this place, but still beating yourself up for not being perfect, I present to you a standard checklist I use when I feel like my life is spiraling out of control:

  1. Are you and all of your dependents fed? (And I don’t mean fed with perfectly nutritious, homemade, organic, locally-grown, free-of-everything-bad-for-you food. I mean Have you all had something to EAT recently? Taco Bell counts.)
  2. Are all of your necessary household utilities still on because you’ve paid the bills on time?
  3. Are you all able to go out in public wearing clothing that is in a state of socially-acceptable cleanliness?

If you answered “yes” to all of the above, you are doing great. And those very basic standards actually illustrate the inherent danger of New Year’s resolutions: While it’s always great to improve your life if you want to, you shouldn’t feel obligated to always be bettering yourself. There are times when it’s best to just accept life the way it is.

Which brings me to the concept of mindfulness. Now, I am not an expert on mindfulness. (Jon Kabat-Zinn is an expert on mindfulness. Read something from him if you want to know more about mindfulness. If you’re looking for something depression-specific, I recommend The Mindful Way Through Depression.)

And let me say that I’ve never personally found success with yoga, tai chi, pilates, meditation, or any of the other Eastern-based practices often touted for its relaxing benefits. If those practices have helped you, that’s great. I just can’t get into them.

But mindfulness just makes sense to me. It’s basically saying, I feel this way, and that’s okay. It’s accepting your feelings instead of fighting them. Because while you should fight depression, you should not fight your individual feelings. (REO Speedwagon is right on this one.) Let’s take the following hypothetical example of a misguided attempt to fight your feelings:

It’s 6:30 a.m. on a Monday, and you’ve been up for a total of 30 seconds. You begin to experience a negative emotion. Oh no, you thinkhere comes depression. Why? Why am I all the way back there again? I’m gonna have to go to the doctor. I’m gonna have to adjust my meds. I’ll go through a terrible adjustment period. How am I going to manage? And what if those meds don’t work? Then I’ll have to try different meds. Ugh, why is my life so difficult? I’m not allowed to feel this way; I’m waking up in a warm bed in a house with a loving family and a refrigerator full of food. I don’t deserve to feel sad when there are people who don’t even have access to clean water, for crying out loud. Maybe I would feel better if I actually went to the gym once in awhile. But no, instead I took a nap yesterday when I could have been exercising. Successful people don’t take naps. I bet So-and-So who has her life all together never takes naps. That’s why she’s more successful in her career than I am. I have nothing better to do than sleep in the middle of the day. I’m really not living up to my full potential.

Do you feel better? No, this exercise in attempting to fight your feelings made you feel about 100 times worse, turning a passing negative thought to a complete inventory of everything bad in your life.

What mindfulness tells you to do is accept the negative thought, breathe with it for a minute, and wait for it to pass. Sometimes I personally like to close my eyes and just imagine that Sadness from Inside Out has temporarily taken over the console in my brain.

Sadness

It’s a children’s movie, but it’s the most brilliant movie ever made. 

And then I know that all my other emotions are close at hand, and Sadness’s turn at the console will end. And no, that doesn’t mean that all sad feelings and situations will go away. Joy isn’t the absence of Sadness, it’s the acceptance of Sadness.

So, in these early days of this fledgling year, I do wish you joy, health, and happiness. But, more importantly, I wish you acceptance.

Storytelling 2015

One of my friends is, at this minute, having a miserable time on a family vacation. Maybe “miserable” isn’t even the right word. It’s the kind of horrible catastrophe that ends up being retold on Twitter over 100 different tweets, and it’s probable that my friend and at least one of her family members will never speak to each other again. But my friend keeps posting pictures on social media of her kids having fun on this vacation.

I don’t blame her for this one bit. I don’t think it makes her a liar, or that she’s deceiving anyone. I think she’s just understanding that two different stories can be true at the same time. Her kids ARE having fun. She’s ready to jump out of a moving car and take her chances in the ditch just to get away.

And I think that’s just like the rest of us, especially those of us with depression. I have one story, that’s true, of depression ruining everything I do. And then I have another story, that’s also true, of doing all kinds of amazing cool stuff and living a rich, full life despite/around/on top of depression.

I can look back at 2015 and think about how incredibly low and dulled I’ve been in some parts of it. How things happened that I just didn’t have the energy or alertness to prevent or deal with the way I wish I could have. The loneliness and guilt and self-recrimination. Failing my kids. But I can also look back at the business I’m building and the projects I’ve done for clients and the friendships I’ve maintained and made. Being the mom my kids really need and love. The really interesting and cool things I’ve done in 2015.

Both those stories are equally true. I am not enough of a Pollyanna to “live on the good parts” all the time. I guess I could try to ignore my depression story if I wanted to, and only look at the good stuff. But then when something knocked me back into the pit I wouldn’t have that depression story to tell me that I can climb out of the pit again. (I always have. So have you.) I wouldn’t be able to go back to the transcript and see what I did that worked and didn’t work.

As long as I have depression (and I think that’s going to be forever, even though I spend a lot more time in remission than I ever thought I could) I get to live two (at least) stories that are true at the same time. And you do, too.

If you are telling yourself your 2015 story right now, don’t forget to tell yourself both stories. You’ve lived both of them, so you deserve to tell both of them.

We’ll Take a Cup of Kindness Yet

I know we don’t have our own specific usernames for the “posted by” line on these posts, so let me clarify that this is Shannon. And this is my last post of 2015.

Naturally, one tends to become reflective as one year ends and another begins, which I guess is sort of strange given that these delineations of time are totally arbitrary. Nonetheless, here are my reflections on 2015.

It wasn’t a great year in the world. Mass shootings, terrorist attacks, and a general sense of fear pervaded 2015. Some really frightening people (in my opinion) are running for President in 2016. We saw that racism and intolerance are still very much alive in modern society, even if we’d like to think we’ve moved past all that. Climate change is frighteningly real. Sometimes it seems like we spend half our lives in anger and disbelief. And at least we had Jon Stewart to bring some much-needed humor to these tough situations … until he signed off, too.

But on the plus side, gay marriage became legal in all 50 states, and Trevor Noah is pretty funny.  We finally got some closure on Mad Men, and the show left behind a fun legacy of mid-century-modern fashion and household decor.

I guess the bottom line on world news is that we need to remember that there have always been scary times. There have always been a few bad people, although they make up an infinitesimally small percentage of the overall population. What’s changed now is that news about all the anger and fear and injustice is in our faces, all the time. It’s reported on 24-hour news channels, websites, and in social media. And then we argue about it online. We make the mistake of reading the Comments section. At the end of the day we’re weary from our battles with friends and strangers, and our general feeling that the whole terrifying world has invaded our homes.

Sometimes it’s best to just turn it all off. You need to get the perspective that 50 years ago there were still shootings, bomb threats, and idiotic opinions—you just didn’t hear about them ad nauseum like you do now. Nowadays it’s only natural to perceive that the world is horrible, and to worry that you’re going to be the next victim of the world’s horror. Just remember, you need to live your life and shape your thoughts based on probability, not possibility.

(Which isn’t to say I think all is peachy keen. I have very strong feelings what we are and aren’t doing to address some of the world’s serious problems. I just know that I can’t fixate on these feelings all day.)

Obviously nobody knows where the world is going in 2016. Much of it is outside our control. But you can control many aspects of your own life. You can choose to take a deep breath, to accept your feelings (whatever they are), and to block or hide or unfriend anybody who makes your life worse. You can be the good in the world that counteracts the bad, just by being a kind person. You can win at life in 2016 if you just put one foot in front of the other, keep fighting the good fight, and making it through each day the best you can. You can find peace, even if the rest of the world is fighting. Because as we heard during that positive, rainbow-splattered day when the Supreme Court made its historic decision, Love Wins. 

Permission

When I was a kid, I used to hear adults complain about how much they hated the holidays. Now, to a child, for whom Christmas was all cookies and Santa and presents, the expression of hatred for the holidays made about as much sense as the waahhh wahhhh of the adults in Peanuts holiday specials. Why would anybody hate the holidays? Only Scrooge and the Grinch hated the holidays, and even they came around. In fact, watch any holiday movie ever made about a person who’s lost the Christmas spirit, and you can pretty much guarantee by the end that they’ll find it.

But life is not a movie, and as an actual human I found myself liking the holidays less and less as I progressed into adulthood. It started in the days when you had to actually shop for gifts in actual brick-and-mortar stores, which were crowded and hot and just intensified the stress of obligatory gift-exchanging. Then there was the wrapping. The staggering costs. The overeating. The baking. Family issues. Holiday travel.

It got to the point where when that first holiday display came out in a store in October, my body physically tensed up. Here we go again, I’d lament.

But the weird thing is, instead of just allowing myself to dislike a time of year where you’re supposed to pile on eight times your normal responsibility, I fought my dislike of the holidays. This isn’t right, I’d think, this is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year. 

Last year was the low point for my conflicted holiday attitude. I need to love Christmas, I would think. I’m lucky to have all the necessary material blessings of this life, and a loving family, and my health, and I’m supposed to be loving this. I’m not allowed to complain about it. 

But this year, as typically happens after one hits one’s rock bottom, I decided things needed to change.

This year I gave myself permission to hate the holidays.

And a weird thing happened: I actually didn’t hate the holidays this year.

Sure, there have been parts I still hate, namely centered around the fact that everybody needs to be in the exact same places at the exact same time during the holidays. Some of these crowds can be avoided by shopping online, but everybody still goes to the big light displays and the airport. Everybody’s on the road, impatient and angry.

But mostly, I liked the holiday season this year. I accepted that it was temporary, and that I was allowed to feel however I wanted to feel about it. I found myself appreciating the pretty lights and the gingerbread. Instead of swimming upstream, I decided to go with the flow.

And the flow was pretty good.

Get Out of Town!

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This is the sign on the door of a local business near my house. The first time I saw it, I immediately thought, well, I guess I’ll never be going in there. 

Now, it’s not that I support negativity. We’ve all encountered that negative person, who just always seems to make your day a little worse. Those people are unpleasant. I don’t want to be one of those people.

It’s just that I don’t like a store forcing its customers to have a particular emotion. Because even if I don’t support negativity, I also don’t support forced positivity. This sign is everybody who’s  ever told me to smile or to get over it. This business—and all those people—don’t get to tell me how to feel.

And yes, I realize I am reading too much into a store sign that was just meant to be cute and fun. I’m guessing the business wouldn’t invoke the we reserve the right to refuse service to anyone rule just because a customer didn’t smile.

It’s just that something about this sign rubs me the wrong way. Not every day is a day for smiling. It’s okay to be sad. Did you see the movie Inside Out? One of the central messages of that movie is that it’s okay to feel and acknowledge any emotion. Or, as the Pretenders said, if you’re mad, get mad. 

Simply put, it’s stupid to fake positivity. While I’m sure plastering on a smile for the brief duration of your visit to this store isn’t going to kill you, in general it’s quite hurtful to deny negative emotions. And as we come to the home stretch of a season of forced-positivity events, a lot of us are growing weary. Denying your emotions is a recipe for disaster.

So don’t tell me how to feel.

And So This is Christmas

This is it. This Big One is here.

Maybe you love it or maybe you hate it. Maybe you’re exhausted and/or wondering how you’ll make it through. Maybe there are people you can’t wait to see, and others with whom you know you’ll spend the whole day biting your tongue and walking on eggshells.

But for better or for worse, This is Christmas.

First of all, I want to take a moment to congratulate you on making it through Pre-Christmas. In a society where the Christmas season now starts on approximately October 15, it’s a long haul just to get to the actual holiday itself. You made it through the office parties and the tedious conversations, the traffic and the wrapping and the battle with the decorations that didn’t fare well during their year in the garage. You survived “Santa Baby” and that weird Dean Martin version of Rudolph where he refers to “Rudy the Red-Beaked Reindeer.” (Seriously, reindeer are mammals. Mammals have noses. Birds have beaks.)

And you made it through the dread and anticipation, which in my experience are usually worse than the holiday itself.

So I want you to know that today and tomorrow you will be fine. You will make it through. Even if you have to retreat to the bathroom for some alone time before you cause That Incident that people will be talking about for Christmases to come.

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day comprise, at most, 48 hours. That’s a very small percentage of your life.

You will make it through. December 26 will come.

And I love you.

The rest of us

Man, the airing of the grievances can take over if you let it. So much hurt, especially at this time of year. Ghosts of Christmas seasons past coming to overwhelm you.

Traffic is horrible today, both in quantity and quality, because we’re all trying to escape something.

Make yourself bigger, to fill the space. Or get quiet so you can really listen, and hear the wind and the grass and the breathing of your cat or dog, resting near you as if you actually are enough.

Hold on, here. We can do this together.

 

Here comes the sun

Today is the shortest day and longest night of the year. Sometimes the darkness can seem overwhelming. But you can make the sun come up for yourself, by deliberately spending more time and energy on people who think you’re great.

It’s not always possible to just walk away from people who think you’re lacking or who are trying to diminish you. But you can understand that they aren’t your core group (even if they’re technically family) and you can build a core group of people who think you poop rainbows. Even when you’re depressed.

Maybe you’re thinking about a few people who are always there and always supportive, but you haven’t connected with them because of that weird barrier effect of the depression. If that’s the case, specifically focus some energy on connecting with one of them every day. After a couple weeks this will not be overwhelming because it will start generating a feedback loop that energizes you.

Maybe you’re thinking that you can’t think of anyone who thinks you’re great. That’s a terrifying feeling. But remember that depression lies to you and puts blinders on you. Just because you aren’t noticing someone who thinks you’re great doesn’t mean that no one thinks you’re great. Spend a few days not worrying about what you’re saying and instead paying attention to the people you interact with. When you have a positive interaction, go toward that person and see if you can have another positive interaction. Eventually you will find at least one person who knows you enough to like you. Use the energy you gain from interactions with someone who likes you to go toward more positive interactions to eventually build a group of a few people who really like you.

(There’s a lid for every pot. And several friendship lids for every pot. The right people will like you because you’re weird, not in spite of it.)

Friendship makes the sun come up. And you can be a friend and you can have friends.

Dragging

I couldn’t wake up this morning. It wasn’t that I was too depressed to get out of bed. I just kept falling asleep. I woke up, and then my cat came to snuggle and then I woke up again, and then I was lying there thinking about all the stuff I had to do today and then I woke up again, and rinse and repeat until it was 10:30 and I was finally away. Ten thirty. I don’t think I’ve slept until 10:30 since my older son was born almost 14 years ago.

And then I couldn’t get it together. I had this long moment of looking at the coffee I’d brewed and not knowing exactly how to get it into my mug. (Once I got it into my mug I did manage to figure out how to get it into my mouth.) The whole day went like that. I’m just not firing on all cylinders today. And when was out in the middle of other people it felt like everyone else was tense and frenzied, and I was tense and dull and not as good at dodging other people’s bad energy as I usually try to be.

I am wondering if this is just the natural result of a long and stressful two weeks leading to a day in which I had no hard deadlines. Or maybe I’m getting sick. Or maybe it’s just overwhelm from the normal Christmas stuff, and you are feeling it, too, and we’re going to keep needing more sleep until this long dark season is over.

The shortest day of the year is Monday. Peak darkness. Perfect for rest. Can we calm ourselves enough for rest? Or will we drag through, misfiring and fumbling through the next two weeks?