Category: Mental Health

Attention is a Valuable and Limited Resource

One of the personal resources that’s easy to take for granted is attention. That is, what you’re looking at or thinking about at a given moment. And in today’s information age, attention is a valuable resource. Marketers are constantly trying to grab your notice through commercials, billboards, pop-up ads, and product placement. The research on attention is actually pretty cool. Some of my favorite findings are:

  1. Babies use their attention (where they are looking or if they are looking) to help regulate (control) themselves. Ever see a baby fall asleep in a really noisy place? They are overwhelmed with stimulation and sleep is a way to control that. So is looking away from that loud stranger who has gotten too close.
  2. The key problem in ADHD is that children can’t keep their attention from being distracted. This is known as “inhibition.” Whereas children without ADHD are able to ignore distractions, like someone coming into their classroom or a noise going on in the other room, a child with ADHD can’t help but react. Even if that means they get in trouble!
  3. When we learn something new like driving, reading, or tying shoes, our attention is fully focused. We can’t do anything else. Likewise, when we do something challenging, like driving in traffic, reading in fuzzy font, or figuring out our new Smartphone, our attention is fully focused–and again, we can’t do anything else.
  4. Learning something new is often frustrating. When learning a new task, people’s thoughts and attention tend to be negative. E.g., “I don’t like this,” “This is hard,” “I’m never going to get this,” and other downers like that. But the cool part is, the better you get at the task, the less likely you are to have those negative thoughts. The key is to make it past that first, tough part.
  5. Just like babies, children and adults can refocus their attention to regulate or improve their mood. If their friend takes away a toy, a 5-year-old who immediately finds a new toy to happily play with is going to have less trouble in kindergarten than a 5-year-old who strikes out and becomes angry. Likewise, an adult who can “focus on the positive” (ick-phrase, but true) after a setback has better mental health.

Last night, at Torn Space Theater’s surreal production of They Kill Things, I used my attention to regulate my fear. There were lots of creepy situations, and in an everyday environment, I would have freaked out if a bulky masked man walked up to me and looked closely at my hands. Or if a group of masked maidens dressed in white rags wrapped a May pole while chanting.

Maypole Maidens | photo by C. E. Cameron

But I was in Silo City, a converted industrial site. The environment was so amazing and so different from anything I’d ever experienced, that I could move on from feeling scared immediately, simply by refocusing my attention on something else.

Silo City | photo by C. E. Cameron

Obviously there are times when it won’t work to refocus attention. There are plenty of situations that demand your full attention, for safety, or learning an important lesson, for example. But awareness of attention as a resource has definitely helped me in certain situations. Even outdoor interactive theater productions.

Social Capital Is Part of Inequality, Too

Inequality is talked about a lot. Poverty is talked about a lot. In my work, poverty and its consequences are considered the “no duh” reason for a lot of children’s problems in school.

Parents who, to make ends meet, have to work more than one job, without a steady schedule, suffer all sorts of consequences. Maybe they can’t get childcare at the last minute, have to skip work, and lose their job. Maybe they don’t have time to fix a taillight, get pulled over, and are fined an amount they can’t afford to pay. A recent report described how this type of inequality–maybe we could call it unequal labor rights and privileges– doesn’t just stress out parents. Children in low-income families without regular schedules are stressed too.

Money–financial capital–comes up a lot whenever people talk about inequality, but there is another type of resource, social capital, that makes a huge difference. Social capital includes all the resources you have access to because of your social connections. The “Hey, I need a babysitter, can I drop my kids with you, Auntie?” and the “I have an extra X (crockpot, grill, bike, mattress–all things I have lent or borrowed at some point), do you want to use it?” Or the “Hey, I know a gal who knows a gal who can…(get you a job, review your resume, proofread your website for free).”

I recently met a woman–a longtime Buffalo resident–who, after we discussed real estate, got to talking about “poor people.” At first her comments bordered on insulting. Then, after she talked for awhile, she seemed to catch herself. Empathy seemed to come into the space.

She finally said, “I bet it’s really hard to be poor.”

“YES!” I thought. Poverty is hard, and part of why it’s hard is because it’s about more than money. But when it’s about community–social capital–that means we can solve it, as a community. I’d be lying if I said I knew exactly how, but I’m proud to live in a city that wants to try. I think it has something to do with social relationships.

International Widows Day 2013 ~ The Widow “Lifestyle”

Sunday, June 23, is International Widows’ Day. This day of recognition was initiated by the Loomba Foundation in 2011 because around the world, widows are subject to discrimination, marginalization, and even violence. International Widows’ Day was established and ratified by the UN to raise awareness of this issue and to encourage societies to respect, support and care for widows.

young widow in Zorba the Greek

I will never forget the shock I felt after watching Zorba the Greek (spoiler alert). I’d always heard good things about the classic film…but never once did I hear that it portrayed a town’s dramatic execution of a widow who wasn’t “behaving herself.”

Here in the United States, we don’t stone or starve widows. But attitudes are another thing. In our upcoming book, Braver Than You Believe, one of the most powerful scenes unfolds when the main character Samantha runs into an acquaintance. After asking how Sam, a recent widow, is doing, and hearing about how Sam goes out once per week to let off steam, the woman bizarrely tells her, “Some people are jealous of your lifestyle, you know. Doing whatever you want. You don’t have to answer to anyone.”

Sam is shocked and hurt, on top of wondering what type of lifestyle it is, exactly, that widows lead. Her friends – divorcees and widows alike – tell her to brush it off. But the scene lingered for me long after reading it. I too wondered what could be attractive about the lifestyle of a widow. Lonely. Possibly a single parent. Especially for younger widows – no peer group. Filled with grief, which I would argue, on the basis of no data, is the most draining emotion. Sounds great!

When a person is sick, we can empathize to some degree, because we have all been ill. When a person stubs her toe – again, we can probably recall a bodily pain and know what that feels like. But when a person loses her love, her partner, and her helpmate – it is so difficult to really know what that’s like, unless we have experienced the same extreme loss.

Having been divorced myself before age 30, I remember an instant “wall of alienation” that went up between me and my friends. Thankfully, 99% of my friends climbed over the wall and kept right on being friends with me. But at times it was tough to find common ground with even to my closest pals. They were re-doing their houses, when I was dividing up the household. They started having babies, when I was finalizing divorce papers. And no young married person wants to be reminded either that a) marriages end or b) spouses die. DEEEE-pressing!

In the years since I got divorced, I’ve encountered many people who have gone through “stuff.” (This is an appropriate place for a swear word, but I’ll refrain). This doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve gotten divorced or had their life partner die on them, but maybe they had a major health problem. Maybe they lost a parent. Maybe they’ve volunteered for the poor or sick.

Going through “stuff” is part of life. And it does help a person develop empathy, but it’s not enough. For me, I had to process and process and PROCESS the pain. I had to work through it, not shove it under the rug, which our society seems so good at telling us to do. All problems should be solved in 30 minutes of sitcom, right? Or else there’s something wrong with us…

Maybe more than any other group, people who have lost a spouse realize that some problems will never be solved. They can only be dealt with, accommodated, and accepted. Acceptance is difficult. Pretending the problem isn’t there or that other people got a better deal out of life may seem emotionally easier. But it’s not necessarily the healthiest approach, long-term.

Acceptance of the hardest truths takes work. But as the women in Braver Than You Believe learn after a year of sharing their sorrows, the work is worth it. The work of admitting their vulnerability, mistakes, and true feelings makes them stronger than they seem…smarter than they think…braver than they believe. Said Christopher Robin to Pooh!

Sue (the character Samantha’s) take~ read more at http://griefbusters.wordpress.comWhat I think happens is that people who are in a marriage or life that is unhappy or stagnant see everything through that lens. Maybe the woman felt jealous because all she could see was that a widow does not have a man dictating her life. If a person is feeling trapped in her marriage, the freedom of no husband may seem carefree. Yet the complete opposite is true for a new widow. I felt paralyzed with fear many nights, worrying how I would be able to raise 3 kids all by myself. Only then did I realize how much my husband had been my partner and teammate. So going out once a week – the target of the woman’s comment – gave me a few hours off from 24/7 grief and anxiety that would have sent me into a deep depression.

Guest Blogger Eve Pearce: Overcoming Addiction with the Written Word

Eve Pearce is a full-time writer and mother of two. When she was in her teens, addiction hit the family and left wreckage in its wake. She has since moved states, settling down in Oklahoma, which is a far cry from her Connecticut roots, where she writes about her experiences and passion for art and literature to help addiction’s victims and addicts themselves.

The therapeutic nature of writing should not be underestimated. Studies have shown that writing can help people overcome personal trauma, and even helped US students come to terms with the events of 9/11. Writing has also been linked with helping to ease the physical symptoms of such illnesses as asthma and rheumatoid arthritis, and is said to boost the immune system. With all that writing is capable of, the question remains; can it help those suffering from addiction? Whether it is addiction to drugs, alcohol, or gambling, addiction presents itself in a variety of ways. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to overcoming an addiction, but as with so many problems in life, writing can and does help.

Julia Cameron recommends journaling in the morning

Artist and author Julia Cameron recommends journaling in the morning

Taking the First Step

Of course the first step to overcoming an addiction is admitting to having a problem. The next is to seek outside help, as this will give addicts a much higher chance of beating the addiction and staying on the wagon. While the love and support of family and friends can be a great help in the journey to recovery, for most people it takes the help of qualified professionals to truly get them on the right track. Drug abuse rehab is one of the most reliable options available for addicts who truly want to get better. New York rehab facilities are some of the best in America, with places that offer varying types of programs to help deal with all kinds of addiction. Therapeutic writing is often used as part of rehabilitation programs, depending on the facility. Regardless of whether it is part of the program, patients can and should use writing as part of their healing process, whatever stage they are at in their recovery.

Dear Diary…

Regular individual and group therapy sessions are commonplace in rehab. Individual sessions can help patients to identify the root cause of their addiction, and what changes need to be made in their lifestyle to keep them from temptation. Whereas group therapy can help patients in understanding that they are not alone in their struggle; that others experience the same highs and lows that they do. Some people thrive in this type of therapy, and have no issue with discussing their personal problems and experiences with strangers, while for some the process can be very tough.

Keeping a daily journal provides a fantastic addition to this form of speaking therapy, helping those who are shy about speaking to let out their bottled-up emotions. It is a human tendency to omit certain details when relating our experiences to others, depending on the image we want to present of ourselves. This happens subconsciously. A journal however, will only be read by its owner, and there is really no point in lying to oneself. Patients should empty their thoughts and feelings onto paper, without worrying about coherency and without censoring any of the less savory details. This process of ‘letting it out’ provides an immense sensation of relief. Reading back through the journal will also help patients to identify areas they need to work on during therapy.

Reaching Out

In order to have gotten to the point of admitting to having a problem and seeking help, most addicts will have reached the ‘rock bottom’ stage. Addiction grips its sufferers in a way that forces them to make bad decisions that they would not have made in their right mind, as getting the next ‘fix’ is all that matters. Family relationships and friendships are often greatly damaged as the result of addiction, and putting pen to paper can go a long way towards repairing this damage. It’s often hard to eloquently express ourselves through speech, and it is also too easy to avoid the most difficult of topics. Writing a letter to the loved ones that have been hurt because of addiction is the best way to truly express remorse. Not only will this process help to repair the broken bonds, it will help relieve the guilt that can often drive people back to the source of their suffering.

Award-winning author Jill Dawson

Sharing Your Story

Whitbread and Orangeprize-shortlisted novelist Jill Dawson began her writing career with a journal she started writing at age nine. As quoted in The Guardian, she says: “It has helped me personally and also made me a better writer.” Like Dawson, addiction sufferers may find that the process of journal writing unlocks a potential they never knew they possessed. Addiction is a common problem throughout society, and for many, reading or hearing about the struggles and success stories of fellow sufferers can be a great help. So for those who have faced addiction and come out the other side; there may be no greater way to give back.

 

Celebrating International Women’s Day…on My Birthday

I can’t remember when I learned that my birthday, March 8, falls on International Women’s Day. I must have been pretty small, and I recall thinking, “Huh. That’s cool. I should do something to celebrate.”

Google's image on IWD 2013

Google’s image on IWD 2013

Then two decades went by. Today, my 32nd birthday, was the first birthday I celebrated IWD in any meaningful way. It turns out that today, March 8, 2013, marks 100 years since the occasion was moved to the date of March 8 following the 1913 late February event.

IWD emerged between 1908 and 1913 following unprecedented tumult in societies around the world. Sound familiar? Today feels much the same, though for educated women like myself living in modernized societies, I don’t deal with life-or-death working conditions. I have the right to vote. Though I love and want to share my life with a particular wonderful man, I am beholden to none. And though it seems a precarious freedom at times in the South, my value to my community does not depend on my capacity to bear children.

Today, I’m mindful that many women around the world live in deplorable conditions, are subject to the whims of violent or controlling men, or lack basic human rights. I recognize that the challenges in my world are more spiritual than physical in nature. Compared to what other women of our world face, it seems a privilege that the challenges in my particular world include figuring out whom to love and how best to love them.

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Three years ago, in the spring of 2010, my three-year marriage was about to unravel. By September, I was living alone. It was the most emotionally difficult time of my life. Then in December, I met a friend of a friend who wanted to write a book. It would be based on a year of emails among six women who had lost a spouse either to sudden death or to divorce after an affair.

This meeting changed my life.

I became the editor of the book, and over the next two years, I worked in the evenings and on weekends to turn over 103,000 words of emails into a 75,000-word narrative non-fiction story of hope and healing after loss. Through the process, I gained confidence. As my heart steadied, I slowly “grew into” myself while I enjoyed a special window into the journey of these six brave people.

Sanctuary Window at Seven Oaks RetreatMadison, VA

Sanctuary Window at Seven Oaks Retreat
Madison, VA

As a newly single woman, I read about other women – single mothers – who were making it on their own.  Their struggles were not mine exactly – for example, I don’t have children. But their heartache was familiar, along with their desire to love and live fully. Like me, they were women emerging from a great loss into their stronger, deeper selves. In that way, they were the same as all of us, male or female, or “prefer not to say.” We are all hurtling through this world, hurting each other and ourselves, wondering how to do better.

We are all trying, really, really hard.

Today – March 8, International Women’s Day – our book is complete. It’s a story by women, about women, for women whose hearts may be hurting and whose feet sometimes have trouble finding the path. Today, Sue Mangum and I are ready to begin sharing her dream…our book…and six true stories with the world.

Braver Than You Believe: True Stories of Losing Love and Finding Self

Happy Birthday, International Women’s Day! This one’s for you.

What Pain Taught Me (Other than that Acupuncture Works)

What Pain Teaches Us (Other than that Acupuncture Works)

As part of my physical healing from some mysterious and not-so-mysterious causes like major stress, I occasionally experience severe low back pain. The latest episode was the worst yet, appearing on Monday at the end of the work day. Like my body decided it was time to go home but my brain hadn’t yet figured it out.

Instead of waiting patiently, my body revolted. One minute I was washing dishes in the work kitchen, and the next minute I was sitting on the floor. I called my boyfriend to pick me up, then decided I could manage to drive home.

seated woman

By the next day, I was unable to stand without assistance. I walked stiffly with my middle protected, like I was carrying a very fragile, very heavy rock. I couldn’t sit upright and instead arranged pillows in different formations to keep my back muscles from doing any work.

I’d like to say I handled it gracefully the entire time, but the experience wore on me. I thought about all the people who have chronic pain and wondered if this is what their lives are like all the time. My episode lasted 48 hours, from the time it started until I could get an acupuncture appointment for Wednesday, late afternoon.

In that time, I learned that back pain keeps more Americans out of work than any other health condition. A colleague said that he knows of no other physical ailment more distressing and debilitating than back pain. After two days of it, I agreed with him. I was irritable. My thoughts were addled and my responses felt threadbare.

At the same time, in those two days I was more present than usual. My thoughts were more often with my body – how to ease it out of bed, how to reach a cup of water, how to put on my socks – than with my plans or everyday worries. There was a minor crisis at work that barely fazed me, because I wasn’t thinking about it other than when I needed to. Two days of pain clarified and simplified my purpose. I wasn’t trying to solve any world problems through the power of rumination. I was simply hoping that I wouldn’t sneeze, which contracted my muscles where they hurt the most.

Despite my clearer mind, I was eager to see if acupuncture could help me return to more normal functioning. I was afraid to drive to the appointment, knowing that a single painful sneeze could send me careening into an immovable object. My friend picked me up and asked “Should we be going to the ER instead?” I said, “No, this has happened to me before. We’re going to the right place.”

 

In the treatment room, my acupuncturist, Bob, arranged another complex pillow formation so I could lie on my stomach without putting pressure on my low back. It took a pillow under my stomach and two piled under my calves to get comfortable. I realized that I’ve always taken for granted the work my body does while I’m lying down.

Bob used what felt like 12 needles. One on the inside of each lower ankle, the rest on the small of my back. Only two of them hurt going in, but not like the sharp, linear pain you’d imagine from a sewing needle. Instead it was like he’d released a small globe of bottled up sensation that burst when exposed to the air. When the worst one went in, I exclaimed, “Ooh! That was a good one.” Immediately I felt tension in my right leg, between the whole length of it, needle to needle.

——–> ——-> ——>

After about 20 minutes, almost all the dull ache and tension had subsided. I imagined myself hopping off the table like a little kid. But then when I moved to stand up, the pain was still there. When Bob asked how I felt, I grimaced, and he said, “You can be honest.” In a couple moments, my brain went from “hopes dashed” to “better to have no expectations” to “oh well.”

Then as I was putting on my socks, I noticed a subtle tingling in both feet. Like fairy dust had been sprinkled and the extra was falling off onto the carpet. When I stood up, at least half my pain was gone. I could walk normally. I could have driven home, but of course had no car. Another friend was waiting in the parking lot to drive me home, where I washed dishes and prepared my own dinner.

Today, feeling almost normal, I feel grateful for the pain – it lasted just two days. I feel grateful for my moments of being present, not worrying about economic collapse or widespread starvation. I feel grateful for my friends, my acupuncturist Bob, and my boyfriend who cooked for two days so I wouldn’t have to stand up in the kitchen. I feel grateful for my body, for its weaknesses and vulnerabilities. For its strength and endurance, and for the fact that wherever I am, my body is with me with all its energies and its pains and its mysteries, and that means that I am home.

Elegy ~ Sandy Hook Elementary School ~ December 14, 2012

In memory of those who died at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, CT, on Friday, December 14, 2012.

It’s humbling to try to write anything as a response to an event like the Connecticut school shooting. It’s a reminder of just how inadequate words can be.

After something horrific happens, whatever we feel is our truth. All feelings are a certain kind of very fleeting truth. Since Friday, I have felt deeply sad, a sort of a grief though I didn’t know any of the dead. I’ve also felt fear, anger, and again, sadness.

Fear is an emotion designed to helps us avoid future pain. It leads us to close down, to escape, to batten for another blow. Some people will feel fear and want to stay home, stay in, stay away. Others will feel fear and want to buy a weapon. Still others will want to ban future weapons sales, or even confiscate the weapons that are already owned. Fear makes us want to control.

Anger is an emotion that compels us to act, to protect and to defend ourselves. Some people will feel angry and lash out at the shooter, the community, the NRA, the lack of mental health care in this country, the government, the President. Those feeling angry will want to do something with their anger. Angry people arm themselves, protest and threaten, or blame. Angry people sign internet petitions and write their Congressperson or Senator.

Grief means that something sacred and dear has been lost. We will grieve and our grief will be overwhelming. We will feel helpless, hopeless. We will want to do something to prevent ourselves and others from future grief. We will want to give up. Those who are grieving will not be able to think clearly or concentrate until their grief has dulled. For their grief will never pass, but only dull. The grieving need our support and our love. They don’t need our fear or our anger.

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After something horrific happens, whatever we do is our choice. In our choices we reveal, or obscure, our humanity.

I agree with Liza Long, “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” who wrote that more than anything else, we need a conversation. A conversation with those who become so angry or so scared that the only thing that makes sense to them is destroying life, their own or others’. A conversation with those who are caring for the scared and angry. We need a conversation with those who own guns out of fear and those who train their children to use them out of fear.

After all this carnage, it might help to talk to one another using kind words. It might help to acknowledge that some people only feel safe if they own a gun. Then we must decide together how to make sure that everyone actually is safe.

It might help to look at the data, to learn about the places in the world that are most safe and those that are the least safe. To see how many weapons exist in each of those places and how the laws in the safe places deal with weapons and how the humans in those safe places deal with each other.

Fear, anger, and grief don’t lend themselves to conversation. But I have to believe that we can learn to acknowledge our emotions and then make humane choices. We can choose to talk, and choose not to fight, because we are human beings.

We can look at the facts and the deaths. We can accept each other’s deep emotions and say: I understand. Like you, I also feel pain and anger, grief and fear. Like you, I have felt lost and I have felt loss.

Like you, I want this to change. I hope for this to change.

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Hope means that we trust in a promise, or at least, that we would like to trust. We feel hope when a way opens that seemed closed and when either the rock or the hard place gives way. We feel hope when the angry and fearful voices, the voices that are inside all of us, are heard, acknowledged, and so can finally be quiet.

We feel hope when our fears are no longer ignored.

I’m reminded of the words of non-fiction authors Pam Cope and Aimee Molloy in their story of a journey after grief. They wrote of little children, the voices of our children, the voices of all of us:

Now that you’ve seen my suffering, now that you know about me, what will you do?