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It Takes a Village

Week one of Mental Health Bootcamp is underway, and things are looking up.

Surprisingly, I noticed an improvement in my mood even before my first mental workout. This is thanks to everyone around me, including you, Dark Little Readers.

The graph first registered an upward twitch when I decided to share my Bootcamp experience. I knew that announcing my plan would create pressure for me to follow through. Like a vicious trainer, thoughts of you all going, “What ever happened with that?” would prod me past fatigue and fear of looking like an idiot. They would keep on poking until I got the job done.

When I talked about my bootcamp idea in person, I got funny looks: smiles that were supportive, though slightly quizzical. When someone’s face says, “I love you, but have no idea what you’re talking about…”,  it gives me a call I can’t refuse. That expression is a challenge to explain myself better, move forward and make my weird vision real, so I can go, “See?” and hear, “Oooooooh! I get it. That’s cool.”

Is there anything more intoxicating than feeling someone step inside and join you in the wilderness of your mind?

I thank you all for agreeing to go there, and giving me that motivation boost.

Next, I needed help managing the practicalities of my life so I could do the work I needed to do.

To my deepest gratitude, many family and friends were willing and able to help. Together, we organized visits and babysitting so I could do the things my brain needs to heal. I had great workouts and even better writing sessions.

One night, someone brought over dinner, and another, someone took me and the girls out. One determined individual even did my dishes and tidied up the girls’ toynado while I was out kickboxing.

Seeing the calendar fill with these plans lightened my lungs. I knew that breaks were on their way – opportunities to pull in oxygen before diving back down into the jobs of the day. I even started to look forward to things for the first time in weeks. It was so good.

Patient friends engaged in Facebook conversations with me, even though I took hours or days to reply. I got to poke my head into other people’s space and feel something other than my own overdone thoughts.

My husband Skyped home every evening, managed to remotely fix our Netflix connection, and even made sure that our pulled-apart Roomba was back up and running before he left town.

Every one of these things helped; I’m not sure I can express how much they affected me, or how grateful I am. My circle of people saw me in my mess and instead of turning away in disgust or embarrassment for me, they reached out.

This reminded me of words I have seen in some of my favourite books and meditations by Deepak Chopra. They go something like, “We are all privileged children of the universe.” Right now, I feel that. In spite of my brokenness, I have everything I need to succeed.

I am surrounded by support. Knowing this, I can work wholeheartedly on standing back up. I can trust that no matter how much I wobble, those outstretched arms won’t let me fall.

How often do we fool ourselves into believing we are alone? In my darkest places, I can hardly stand myself. It seems impossible to imagine that anyone else could handle me in my reeking, tacky blackness.

There is some truth in that thought; when we are anxious, depressed, or in a rage, it impairs our brain. It makes us go partially blind, and without self-awareness, we tend to flail around and act like a bit of an ass. It is hard on the people around us.

But the aloneness is a lie. No one is alone. Even if we live alone, don’t have a job, and do our best to avoid the rest of the world, somebody out there needs us. They need our help, our friendship, our talents, our genuine smile.

When we are well, we contribute to the world just by living in it. Someone is better off because we listened and saw them. Somebody remembers a good time with us, and wishes for more.

When we are ill, our people are wishing to get us back. We are loved, all of us, whether or not we have a wedding ring, paycheque, or family tree. No matter what we have done or failed to do.

I think there is a web among us; others feel it when we hurt and they want us to get better. Of those people who feel you, there are some who are ready to help.

If you are hurting, and especially if you feel like there is no one on the planet who would or could help you, I challenge you: prove that feeling wrong.

Sit quietly in your dark place and listen; what is one thing that you need? Your pain is trying to tell you.

Then, think of someone who might want to help. People whose offers you have turned down in the past, or people who have stood with you before.

Humbly and honestly ask for what you need.

Receive it with gratitude, and go get better. Do it for you, and for them.

When you are well, for however long it lasts, contribute to your village to the best of your ability.

When you go down again, as many of us will, remember to reach back into the web.

If you can’t think of a lifeline available to you, tally your resources: family, friends, teachers, mentors, bosses, doctors, religious leaders, human resources or employee assistance programs, health insurance for physical or mental healing, not-for-profit facilities and organizations, subsidized or free programs for fitness or counselling, one-on-one therapy or support groups… even the level-headed, great listener who cuts your hair could be an asset.

You don’t have to bare your blackest pain. Just ask for help with something. Let the village materialize and prove that you are supported.

If you are far from other people, reach out through the distance. Read, write, and make a long-distance call. If worse comes to worst, just start scribbling it all down and stuff your expressions into a seafaring bottle (or launch it onto the internet), and trust that someone is going to pick it up one day and get you.

You might find that you are the one who finally receives your message. Hearing yourself, completely and without judgment, opens you up to hear others. You can plug yourself into deep, fulfilling empathy.

You are not alone.

This week, my incredible friends and family sang to me that I am not alone. It lifted me up, and I hope it lifts you up, too.

Cue Musical Montage: Dark Little Critter is Lacing Up for Mental Health Bootcamp

The Critter and I have been battling against a hulking springtime depression. We’ve been in the ring with it for over a month, and we’ve had enough. It’s time to knock this greasy sucker down and get out from the stench of its presence.

Throughout this grisly matchup, my shadowy friend has been in my corner. Every time I flop onto the bench, she wipes blood from my nose with a soft cloth in her tiny paw and says,

“Don’t just stand there, blocking with your face. Do something.”

“I am doing something,” I mumble through the hamburger that used to be my mouth. “I’m taking refuge in Being.”

She raises a racoon eyebrow and answers, “I think you’re doing it wrong.”

She may be right. I have been trying to shake this bad boy off through avoidance. I have traded writing for reading, walking for baths, and real food for these chewy marshmallow bars made with various kinds of sweet garbagey cereal.

It has been interestingly crunchy, but not productive. I can’t really enjoy these mental getaways, because I spend them dreading their end, anticipating the cold wad of despair that will resettle in my lungs the moment I turn back to my obligations.

What has made things worse is that my kids and I have been taking turns getting sick since January. At any given time, one of us has been either aching, whining, and spewing sticky geysers of mucus, or cramping, whining, and spewing stinky geysers of ew-ness.

This has been not only disgusting, but also a surprisingly potent threat to my mental resilience. Our family germfest has blown away my survival routine. I’m self-destructing without my thrice-weekly visits to the gym where I can sweat, write, and get the hell away from the river of, “Nos!” and “Mommy I wants!” that make me want to slowly push a smelly marker all the way up my nose (right into the old Crayola oblongata, just like Homer).

Now, when I’m at my messiest, my husband has left town for work. The next couple of weeks are going to have me chained with one small, complaining child on each ankle.

It’s like this hideous depression is about to tag in a fresh new harbinger of hell.

I decided I don’t want to go to hell. I want to come back and be here, available for my kids. And for the love of everything sweet and chocolate and holy, I want to start tasting my snacks again. I need to get my brain back online.

I am ready to win this round, to climb out of the ring laughing and be done being a sporting victim.

Therefore, I’m starting on a Mental Health Bootcamp.

Like a strength training program for the brain, this curriculum is going to provide structure and move me through techniques that work.

It is based on the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and will involve daily exercises to strengthen the neural pathways that create calm and clarity.

MBSR has been studied extensively since 1979. In numerous university and hospital trials, it has produced measurable improvements in mental and physical health for people suffering from anxiety and depression, as well as heart disease, cancer, and chronic pain.

Starting today, I will be following the Free Online MBSR program at PalouseMindfulness.com, and sharing my experiences here on this blog. You all are going to be my accountability team, so thanks.

If you are curious about MBSR, or if you can feel something furry tickling your ear with a whisper of, “Doooo it!”, then I invite you to join me.

You don’t have to purchase anything, input personal information, or send the first toenail clippings of your third born daughter. Just check out the videos, talks, and readings.

Here’s how to get involved:
– Visit palousemindfulness.com to explore the program or try it for yourself.
Like Dark Little Critter on Facebook to have new posts, updates, and additional resources show up on your newsfeed.
– Send me a Private Message on Facebook to be added to a Bootcamp Discussion Group where we can talk about our experiences, mindfulness, and recovery from depression.

If you are terrified of cracking under the weight of stress, and think you should do this someday, do it now. There is no reason not to.

There is no cost, no travel, and no schedule. You can make it work with whatever time you have, even just a few minutes before you go to sleep each night.

The exercises won’t be easy (I know because I’ve done this type of thing before), but they will be productive. Within a week or two, you will start to feel stronger, steadier, and freer. As you build the relaxation muscle in your brain and body, it will change the way you move through each day, the good ones and the bad.

You can change your brain. You can take whatever you are doing now, whether it is self-management through exercise and diet, or getting help through counselling or medication, and add this piece (the program recommends that you let your counsellor or doctor know you are participating so they can monitor how it affects your therapy).

If it feels right, go for it.

There are a million right ways to get better. I know that MBSR is what I need right now. By the time my husband comes home from his trip, I will be waking up with lightness in my chest.

Whether you join me, or take your own path forward, the Critter and I hope to see you rise up lightly, too.

Just Show Up

My mind is a mess today. I’m sorry. I wasn’t able to pull together a proper essay for you all. There has been a lot of screaming, crying, and dragging of unwilling donkeys around here in the last few days… my brain has finally walked out, waving goodbye with its hypothetical middle finger extended.

Whenever my Productivity takes a sabbatical, Appetite for Snacks and Naps takes the wheel. And here she is. She has little patience for any obstacles to her comforts, and is threatening to make me fiddle with more settings and crash the site again.

I’m surrendering this battle, but not the war.

Before I slink under my blankie with something sweet (yet not crumbly! No crumbs in bed, for Pete’s sake!) let me leave you with this:

Sometimes, all we can do is show up. That might mean dragging our reticent bodies out to the car and physically appearing where we planned to be. Or, it might just mean not ultimately checking out.

Whatever that means to you, just keep showing up. I promise that both of us will be back in fighting form soon.

I’ll meet you back here when the fog clears.

 

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

Last week, I almost slapped my daughter.

The brutal urge chilled my guts. The image came through crystal clear. It seemed nearly real.

Shaking, I stepped away from my girl. I retreated to my room and paced. My heart raced, but my head was surprisingly clear. I watched myself buzz back and forth, feeling the dust on the carpet as I pounded with my bare feet. I heard the air scrape in and out of my chest like a blacksmith’s bellows.

At the same time, I replayed the awful mental scene in my mind. I felt lightning flash from my belly to the tip of my hand. I heard a brittle crack that brought a sting to my palm. It felt horribly good, as though the hot, tense energy from weeks of escalating frustration was suddenly released.

In my mind’s eye, I saw my girl’s head snap to the side and back. I saw her mouth open, fingers splayed in shock. I watched her little face crumple as she lifted her gaze to mine and raised her hand to touch a red patch blooming at the corner of her mouth. I saw her shrink away from me as a scream began to peal from her throat, so high-pitched it barely made a sound. Then, the noise suddenly swelled, and the piercing wail made my brain tremble.

I couldn’t watch anymore. I came back to myself in my room and looked at my hands. They had almost done The Really Bad Thing, something of which I thought I was incapable.

On seeing the truth that yes, I was indeed capable of striking a child, my first thought was, “I am a monster.”

But luckily, I know better. I can thank a really filthy bout of prenatal and postpartum depression, and the counseling that got me through it, for teaching me how to see through this shattering mental spiral.

Peace and security, knowing that my children are safe in my care and that I can cope with this frustration, comes from peeling back all the layers of the truth. The process is ugly, but it is only by facing the ugliness in my heart and mind that I can deal with it and stop it from lashing out through my hands.

These are the layers that I found:

Truth: I am capable of violence. I am essentially no different than other people – my father who spanked, my mother’s father who went further. We all encounter pain, helplessness, and rage, and we all have a limit beyond which we can lose control.

Truth: I can hurt the people I love. Loving does not shelter us from that possibility; it only makes the consequences more devastating.

Truth: I am responsible for how I handle my fear and rage. No one else can see it, tolerate it, and process it for me.

Truth: Rage can be resolved, but it requires determination. It is uncomfortable and it takes time, energy, and humility.

Truth: It is hard to admit that I need help, but doing so is the only way to save my relationships, my soul, and my life.

As I remembered this, the blood in my face started to cool. My eyes welled up, and I admitted to myself that it had been a hell of a couple of months.

The stress between my daughter and I had reached titanic proportions. She and her baby sister kept taking turns getting sick, each receiving a handful of sleepless nights, while I volleyed, bleary-eyed, between them. This began at the end of January, and is just waning now, in the middle of April.

The big girl and I have been a mess. We both struggle through our mornings, slip-sliding on the slop of our brains. We constantly fall off track and our tempers spew out of nowhere, scalding each other like treacherous geysers. Every breathless, clenched-teeth late arrival to preschool makes both of our hearts sink in shame.

Week after week, the misery has been rising. My big girl’s behaviour has become increasingly defiant and demanding, and she melts down like Fukushima over the tiniest denials and disappointments.

I have been gripping the shreds of my patience desperately, but they keep slipping.  I snap and yell. I keep getting filled with a scorching desire to put my fist through the wall. I keep shoving it back down into the darkness, but it keeps bobbing back up.

The image is so satisfying – a bang of exploding paper and plaster, a white mushroom cloud of dust, a delicious burn in my scraped knuckles and stony-clenched fist – I think I might have been secretly harbouring it, while letting myself think I was letting it go.

Everything came to a head last Thursday morning, when I had finally coaxed, cajoled, threatened and reprimanded the four-year-old into the bathroom. I asked her to open her mouth to let me brush her teeth, and she flopped down onto the floor with the fiercest, “Nooooo-ooo!” that her thin little chest could produce.

My fantasy-self wound up and let loose on her, as though ridding me of all of her infuriating reflexes, throwing all the stress she had caused me back into her face. My punishing-self thought that pain would finally teach her, where firmness and explanation had failed. I thought it would end our war.

My rational self knows that it wouldn’t work, but like many burnt-out parents before me, I felt the destructive compulsion.

Why do these poisonous impulses surface when we experience anger?

I think it’s because violence sells. It gets our attention. Anger has a message for us; something is threatening us and we need to act. If we ignore our anger, it swells into rage. Rage speaks through visceral images and urges. Like a dream, it can access all of our senses and transport us into a vivid scene. It is like a waking nightmare with a warning. Also like a dream, we need to dig deeper into our dark visions to decode their message.

The fury that slashed my brain wasn’t really shouting, “that kid needs her bill slapped ‘round backwards like Daffy Duck.”

It was whispering, “Laurie, you’ve got to do something about your girl’s stress and behaviour. It is pushing you toward violence. You need to change it. Find a way.”

It was a hard truth to take, because I felt overwhelmed and at a loss for a plan. But seeing where our path was leading, all I could say back was, “Hell, no. We are not going there.”

It made my overwhelm and doubt suddenly unimportant. That horrifying view of my darkest potential gave me strength. It opened my eyes and made me determined to choose a better outcome.

The next day, I did some things I had been thinking about for a long time, but kept putting off.

I emailed my daughter’s teachers and admitted we were struggling at home. I asked for their input; were they seeing the same anger and anxiety from her at school?

I had been avoiding asking them. If they said no, I was afraid they would think I was either a neurotic, overreacting parent who saw problems that weren’t there, or worse, a hot-headed, incompetent one who was causing her own problems with her child.

I was afraid they could be right on either count.

If they said yes, it might mean there was more going on with my daughter than typical childhood boundary-pushing, something that needed more attention. Where would I possibly find more attention?

Next, I sat with my husband and told him about my chilling moment, and the email to the school. It made him freeze up, like I knew it would, because he is even more fearful than me of how people see us, and of receiving bad news about our children.

To his credit, even though he was distressed, he didn’t walk away. I eventually managed to reassure him that reaching out for help would gain us information, and possibly resources, that could help our family.

We are moving forward.

What I learned from that Dickensian vision of my darkest potential is that I need to get over my self-consciousness and find concrete answers for my girl. If that means revealing my imperfection to her teachers, so be it.

Perhaps, though, with them seeing me come panting into the class with her, late, day after sweaty, grimacing day, I think that particular cat may have already left the bag.

Of course, this blog is out there, too, proving to the interwebs that I am a messed-up mom. I don’t mind, though. I know I am going to do something productive with this mess.

And I trust you all to take my stories and see the truth, that there is strength and hope for you, too, in your darkest, most honest moments.

Don’t be afraid of the dark; see it, hear it, and take care of it.

There is Always a Way

My oldest daughter, a four-year-old so opinionated she will probably launch her own blog before I get this one off the ground, recently had her first nightmare. At least, it was the first one she shared with me.

The dream involved volcanoes. As she related it, several things struck me. First was the sense that this moment was critical, my first attempt at open surgery on her anxiety. There was a hush in my ears that blocked out the breath of the furnace and other murmurs of the night. I wanted to be there and get my reaction right.

Second, I noticed my little one’s tone. It wasn’t hysterical or dramatic, like I would expect from a small child confronting the limitlessness of imagined fear.

Her voice was quiet, and surprisingly sad, like she was resigned to a crushing inevitability. I realized that she had not come to me for comfort after her bad dream. I might not have known about it at all, if I hadn’t been woken by her baby sister and noticed her sitting awake as I passed.

“Mommy,” she whispered when I asked what was wrong, “I’ll never go back to sleep. Never.”

I took her in my arms and could feel the weight of sadness, her chest pressing into me with more than her little body’s mass.

I held her close, rocking her, breathing words into her hair, willing the warmth of my chest to radiate into her. Her trunk was stiff and her limbs were limp. It felt out of sync.

I pushed my worry down and pulled my knowledge up, all the things I knew about childhood emotions, managing anxiety, and the role I wanted to play in her growth.

I listened quietly until she was done. I reflected back the feelings she described, and admitted that sometimes, I had bad dreams, too. I said I knew a trick that helped me feel better, and would share it if she’d like.

She sat on my lap, turned her back into me, and looked out into the darkness. Then, she nodded.

I said, “My trick is to close my eyes and imagine the dream again, but this time, I imagine myself solving the scary problem. I might fix it with magic, or by talking, or fighting, or calling someone who can help me.

Maybe you could wave your hands like Elsa and make all the hot lava get frozen, so it’s not dangerous anymore. Maybe you could make it turn into chocolate syrup, and eat it all up. Or maybe you could imagine a great big butterfly that appears and picks you up and flies you to safety.

All you need to remember is that there is always a way to get safe. Every scary dream has a way out: a secret door, or magic spell, or fairy godmother who will come to help when you call her. No matter what, there is always a way to get safe.

When you wake up and feel so scared and can’t get back to sleep, start telling yourself, ‘There is always a way to get safe.'”

We repeated the words together a few times. At first, my girl was reluctant, then she got into it, and finally, she started to seem a little bored. She rubbed her eyes.

“Great job, Honey, “I said, kissing her soft hair, “I’m so proud of you.” I laid with her a little while, and when her breath got slow and even, I crept back to my own bed.

Ironically, now I couldn’t sleep. I was happy with how we handled her fear, but bothered by what I saw behind it. That quiet shift she made, from fear to hopeless resignation, bore the signature of my personal monster. That is depression, in a nutshell.

This was my biggest fear, the reason why I didn’t want to have kids. I hated the idea of bringing someone into the world who would grow up tormented like me, and many others in our family.

I felt tangled in smothering blankets of guilt, shame, and doubt. I looked ahead and saw my gorgeous girl struggling, growing up emotionally stunted, sabotaging herself both purposefully and unwittingly. I saw her in my place, fighting dark urges that never completely go away, especially when near a high railing.

I sneaked down to the bathroom, where I could tremble and cry without disturbing my husband. I did that for quite a while.

What finally brought my breathing back was a particularly sharp slice of shame. It poked me between the ribs, harder and harder until I could barely breathe. When I finally paid attention to it, I realized it was not just garden-variety shame at my brokenness, but something more focused: it was shame at my hypocrisy.

I realized I would never be able to sell the whole, “There is always a way to make things okay,” shtick to my anxious daughter unless I lived it, too.

My nose stopped gushing and my chest stopped heaving that very second.

I won’t say that I haven’t had any moments since then of sorrow and fear for the journey ahead of my sensitive kid. I have. However, I can say honestly that recognizing the need to take my own medicine in order to help my child has made me ready to commit with all my soul to winning the war inside me.

Fighting depression through every strategy imaginable has dredged a rusty ton of useful tidbits from the bottom places of my life. The knowledge is there to help me and my girl; I just need to trust it and use it, to wave my magic hands and call upon the wisdom to resolve each nightmare as it comes.

If you see me looking in the mirror, or watching my star-bright, complex little girl with a smile on my face but a wrinkle in my brow, you will know that I am whispering to myself, “There is always a way.”

And there is. For you, too.

Welcome, Dark Critters.

Welcome to Dark Little Critter.

My name is Laurie, and my dark critter takes many forms: depression, anxiety, rage, and a mental fog that sometimes gets so thick, you can stand a fork in it.

I’m starting this blog to give my shadow animals some air time. They have surprisingly helpful things to say. I suspect yours do, too; you just have to learn their language.

Once you get past all the moaning and hissing, dark creatures will tell you something true that will help you move forward. That is what they do. (They also have a tendency to knock over garbage cans, but it’s not their fault; they just want to visit, and don’t understand why we hoard our rotting refuse.)

Anyway, my Dark Little Critter and I welcome you and your mental raccoons, and look forward to deepening the trust and communication in your strange metaphysical marriage.