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The 12 Days of Griefmas

Ah, Christmas and grief. They go together like raw eggs and rum.

Hello, my friends.

I’m typing to you with sweat-slicked palms. I have this idea about dark feelings during the holidays. This idea wants out. It’s chittering like a pissed-off chipmunk and giving me a headache.

Critter is here – my faithful friend, straight-talking muse, and imaginary raccoon. She just shook her head at me and yawned. Apparently, mouthy nut-hoarding tree-dwellers don’t impress her.

So this idea keeps buzzing in my skull. I can’t spit it out. It’s been there for two weeks.

My jaws are locked tight by an exaggerated nervousness about Things I Might Regret. It’s getting rather constipated in here.

This giant feeling of foreboding has been standing in front of my expressive outlet, looking like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. It is crossing its tree-trunk arms and giving me a cocky grin that says, “Good luck with that.”

This smug censor is an agent of Doubt, and is the biggest pain in the ass on my internal executive committee. When I get threatening ideas, Doubt’s henchman cracks thick knuckles tattooed with his motto: Don’t Write Checks You Can’t Cash. Or Else.

Well, the chipmunk isn’t having any of that. He has started stomping his tiny feet and waving his paws, and just squeaked something like, “This nut needs to be cracked!” Or, it might have been, “You’re gonna get smacked.” I don’t know; I don’t speak chip-squeak.

Anyway, these two lunatics started a brawl in the backroom of my mind. The stale grey air filled with echoing screams and hunks of fur that fell like snow. Flying chairs and tables dinged the walls.

At the height of the melee, I left the building. I propped the back door open with a dustpan, and squatted against cold, gritty brick in the back alley. I laid my head in my hands. I breathed hard and listened to the wheezy in-out huffs, trying to get grounded and figure out what to do.

On one hand, I know I am in a messy place. I’m so far behind on my obligations and so run down on my reserves that making another promise right now seems like masochism.

But on the other hand, I think that maybe Mr. Chubbycheeks is right; maybe this nut DOES needs cracking.

I tossed this question back and forth for awhile, like an exhausting game of one-man badminton.

All of a sudden, an impatient, “Ahem,” broke my thoughts. I looked up, and there was Critter. Her arms were crossed like captain beefcake, but her message was totally different. Instead of sporting a menacing grin, she was rolling her eyes.

“Are you done?” she finally asked.

“Done what?” I asked back.

“This!” she said, waving her paws around the alley. “And that,” she added, cocking a thumb toward the door; “Your drama made one hell of a mess.”

“That wasn’t me!” I protested, “Those guys are nuts! I came out here to get away from it.”

Critter gave me the “bullshit alert” eyebrow. I closed my eyes and rubbed my palm on my forehead.

“God. Okay. Fine,” I grumbled. “The drama is me. The chipmunk is me, the meathead is me…”

“And the lily-livered whiner cowering behind the dumpster right now is DEFINITELY you,” Critter finished for me. Helpful, as always.

“Fuck off, Critter.” I said. But she didn’t flinch. Instead, she came closer, and laid a paw on my thigh.

She waited until I looked at to her and said gently, “Just do it.”

I looked at her. I didn’t know what to say. My heart pounded in my ears. My breath scraped in my chest.

I couldn’t even make words for my excuses.

Critter waited patiently, breathing with me. We stared at each other, and I started to get lost in the soothing neither-nor-ness of her brown-grey coat, and her yellow-green eyes.

For a moment, I forgot what we were talking about. My face relaxed. Critter saw the shift, and her ears perked up.

I picked up her wordless expectation, and sighed.

“Alright,” I said. “Fine. I’m doing it.”

Critter smiled and patted my leg.

“Atta girl,” she said.

“What if I can’t keep it up, though, Critter?” I asked, “What good will it do if I get started and can’t follow it through?”

“We might as well find out,” she answered. “It’s not like this holding back has helped anyone, or preserved your inner peace.”

I snorted. No kidding.

Alright. So… here we go.

I have this idea, and I’m just going to say it:

I’m going to run a campaign, starting today. It’s called 12 Days of Griefmas, and it’s for everyone whose heart breaks over and over again, every single Christmas.

I know there are a lot of us; the sad truth about the Christmas season is that it is kind of a magnet for grief.

The story is in the numbers; rates of illness, death, divorce, suicide, and self-harm spike in the dark of December. I think part of the problem is the crushing reality that the perfect Christmas dream we sell to each other isn’t real. It cannot exist in our brains, bodies, and families.

We push ourselves to the brink physically, emotionally, and financially, trying to produce the holidays we think our families need from us. And instead of drawing comfort from each others’ warm bodies at this time of year, we beat ourselves up and lament our loved ones’ failures. We drown our disappointment in food, drink, overwork, and meanness. We push ourselves further and further away from the connection we crave.

And all this is happening in a season when we’re low, anyway. The short, dark, shivery days and merry-go-round of snot-spewing contagion make winter a necessarily hard time. No wonder so many species migrate and hibernate to avoid it.

Since we can’t avoid it, and so many of us are sitting here feeling shitty anyway, I thought I’d light us a fire.

I’m going to pop on here every day between now and Boxing Day to keep the flames stoked with whatever tinder I can find: tips, songs, jokes, games, stories… who knows. I haven’t completely thought this through. I haven’t even counted the days… I think it might be more than twelve. Whatever. That’s not important.

What matters to me is reaching out to you, and clearing a place in the dark forest where we are wandering so we can come together.

I hope you can join me, and I hope it helps you get through this long night.

If you like this idea, go ahead and share this post. You all know I’m not shy about broadcasting my brokenness. Maybe it will find someone who needs it, and help them feel less alone.

Whatever it is you really need, I encourage you to find it. Sniff that shit out, gather it up, and line your nest with the things that express and soothe your ache.

And have yourself a grievy little Christmas. Let your heart be embraced by the dark critters all around you, and the love that comes from relating.

 

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Depression, Zen, and BDSM

“I’m dying, Critter,” I whisper to my imaginary raccoon. She has appeared, as always, to talk me through a flare of chronic depression.

“No, you’re not,” she retorts.

“God damn it. I don’t mean physically,” I grumble. I close my eyes and feel my cheeks burst into flame. Jesus Christ, Zottmann. Do not cry.

That thought just makes me want to cry more. Everything makes me feel worse. I push it away the only way I know how.

“Of course, I’m not literally dying, you condescending trash muncher. For fuck’s sakes! Listen!” Then, my voice echoes back into my ears. Aw, shit. I’m an asshole.

My posture flops and I add softly, “Please.”

Yep, here come the tears.

I slink to the bathroom to loudly saturate three-eighths of the kleenex box. Then I slump back onto my kitchen chair and lay my face on the table, looking away from my shat-upon friend. The cool surface of the oak soothes my cheek, but the grit of neglected crumbs and the tacky tang of a dried apple juice puddle scratch at my tenderness.

“Fuck. This is disgusting,” I think. “I am the shittiest housekeeper who ever lived.”

I bet there is some hideous bacteria festering in the table’s center crack right now, just inches from my face. All spills run into there. It’s like an ocean of failure.

Has the the table been warped, or was it designed with an imperceptible slope just to ensure that stupid crack would catch every drop of spill? It’s so wrong! It makes my head ache, along with that ghastly-smelling organism mouldering in the dank crevice.

We don’t even own the fucking leaf that’s supposed to slide into there, for the love of God. What a piece of crap. I mean, it’s actually a nice table, all solid oak and everything, but it’s a hand-me-down, like everything else in our shithole house, and the surface is wrecked. We promised ourselves we’d fix it up, but have failed at that. Like everything.

Critter’s impatient sigh disrupts my mental rant. I open my eyes and lift my head. For a moment, I forget why she is mad. I creak my neck around to look at her. Then I remember.

She is staring at me with her short arms crossed. Waiting. She doesn’t waste time chastising me. She just looks at me with that look on her face that says, “This conversation resumes when you make it right.”

I can feel my mouth twitch. It wants to mutter, “Bitch.” But I don’t let it. I’m not thirteen years old anymore.

I take a big breath and look at the furry face of my conscience embodied. She doesn’t look hurt, but my lashing out has pissed her off. She has no time for my self-sabotage bullshit.

Part of me wishes she would rise to the bait and we could have it out like a couple of furious drunks.

I want to purge all my pent-up anxiety with an apocalyptic throwdown. It would feel so good to scream, and then grab that holier-than-thou scavenger and let the violence blast out through my hands.

My blood aches for an emptying out: a grunting, heaving, exhausting grapple.

Even the stinging trails where the Critter’s claws would rake my face would feel like satisfaction. The disaster inside me could leak out there, through the wailing pain and trickle of blood.

Finally, I would savour an explosive release as I hurled the Critter’s weight into the wall. There would be a kick-drum thud. Finality. Utter fulfillment. Maybe even a dent in the plasterboard: gleeful, undeniable proof that I escaped the jaws impotence.

But as I said, Dark Little Critter is too smart for that. And although the monster in me is roaring to bathe in our blood, I am glad that my imaginary friend steps coolly around my trap.

I don’t really want to hurt her. She’s not the one who’s done me wrong. It’s me. Just me.

I want to be done now.

“Critter,” I rasp, “I’m sorry.”

She looks at me and exhales.

“I know,” she says.

I stare at the table. The filthy, ancient fridge behind me hums obnoxiously.

“Are you going to say what you need to say?” Critter finally asks.

I sigh.

“Okay. Here it is: I’m fucked, my friend. Totally fucked. I can’t make this writing business work. I tried. I’ve been balls-to-the-wall for six weeks. I spent hours every day watching, reading, and listening to “take it to the next level!” courses, while I scrubbed floors and toilets, fed the kids, bathed the kids… and ignored the kids. I built a new website, networked, set goals and conferenced for accountability. I even got a couple of clients. I got so close to figuring it all out, and then I got sick. I had to put things off and reschedule, and suddenly, I hated it. All of it.

I don’t want to do it anymore. I dread every eyeball-throbbing early morning, and the nights of multitasking mania that don’t end until I should have been in bed an hour ago. I despise the useless productivity plans that get crushed by bullshit from the kids, or me, or just life. I can’t stand the suffocating pressure to keep pushing harder and harder until it works. I can’t do this anymore. I’m fucked. My family is fucked. I’m a useless human being.”

Critter listens with her black brow furrowed, but doesn’t interrupt. She pauses a beat before she responds.

“You need sex,” she says. “It always clears my head when the bullshit squeezes too hard.”

“Ha! Are you kidding?” I say. “I wish it was that simple! I can’t even wrap my head around the thought of it right now.” I rub the flesh between my unplucked eyebrows and more tears come.

Unwisely, I start to picture Critter in the throes of a sexual exorcism. What would that look like? Do raccoons make weird sex faces? Do they do it in different positions? And what do they use for toys – pinecones?

I must be making a weird face of my own; Critter laughs out loud.

Then, she pats my leg kindly and crawls up onto my lap like a warm lump of comfort. I stroke the tiny curve of her crown, and she rolls her neck to expose the space behind her ear. I take the hint and scratch the fuzzy valley.

“You may be a long way from carnal bliss, but you can’t deny it, that’s what you need,” she says with her eyes closed.

I think about this. She’s not wrong. Orgasm is pretty much the opposite of depression.

I think back to times when I have used sex as an escape from self-hate. Sometimes, it was a huge let-down that just made the cycle worse. But other times, it was… a great release. The best times were with a partner who let his inhibitions go, and who I trusted to respect my boundaries while I let go, too.

Wild, but safe. Honest, open, and naked with someone who joins me at my level. Putting all the shoulds on mute, and turning rapt attention to our feral appetites.

“Holy shit,” I blurt. “BDSM is fucking therapy!”

“Hehehe. Fucking therapy,” Critter says. “Sounds good.” We both ponder the thought for a moment.

“Do you actually mean BDSM, or are you just talking about regular sex?” Critter asks.

“Definitely not regular sex,” I answer. “The usual is just painfully… judgemental. It gets ruined by criticism – hating on your body, your partner’s body, your experience or lack thereof, the expectation that the act will begin in a certain way, last a certain duration, and look and sound just like the movies. That second-guessing shit is exactly what makes life such a steaming pile of… of….”

“Lunch?” Critter offers.

“Putrescence,” I say. “Loathing. Despair. Depression.”

Critter tilts her head and frowns.

“What makes you think that BDSM is different?” she asks.

I rub my hair and frown while I think about this. Where is this idea coming from?

I picture all the things that are crushing my brain right now – the spiralling money problems, the fights with the kids and the husband, and most of all, the constant, contemptuous whisper that huffs in my ear and slimes every conscious thought.

“You fail,” it says with decayed breath.

What is the opposite of that?

Suddenly, my hands spring up, finger to the sky like a field goal cheer.

“The orgy!” I shout.

Critter’s mouth flops open.

“You had an orgy? How do I not know about this?” she asks.

“Not mine, Butthead,” I say, rolling my eyes. “Someone else’s. I read an essay by a man who organized an orgy, because it was his girlfriend’s birthday wish.”

Critter looks disappointed.

“It was amazing. The piece was about this very experimental couple involved with the fetish scene. One year, the woman shared her fantasy of being the center of an orgy. She was very specific – she wanted to be lavished with attention and sex on her terms, and the men needed to be healthy and kind and share the couple’s sex-positive attitudes. She asked her boyfriend to find suitable candidates, book a venue, and serve as her bodyguard during the event. The man was intimidated, but on-board, and together, they worked out all the details and made it happen. And they were both so happy. It was the most heartwarming love story I’d ever heard.”

Critter’s robber-mask markings shift like raised eyebrows. She’s impressed.

I can feel my face brighten as I remember reading the story. It blew my mind. I couldn’t believe there were such emotionally-secure relationships out there.

Wouldn’t that be the opposite of depression?

Ownership of your appetites. Open communication, acceptance of limits, and collaboration for mutual enjoyment.

No shame. No isolation. No punishment.

“Holy shit, Critter,” I say. “We might have just discovered the cure to depression.”

Critter smiles.

“It’s sex, isn’t it?” she says.

I laugh.

“That’s definitely part of it. But it’s more than sex. I think the answer is mindful, intentional pleasure and honest connection.”

I think about my life. My brain. My failures. My piece of shit kitchen table.

What if I could forget it all, and let the sweet synaptic honey of self-indulgence wash away my bitterness?

I might be a long way from planning an orgy, but I can start right now to make room for my inner animal. Who knows where that will lead.

If I’m honest, I have to admit that in spite of all my obligations to the house, the kids, and the gaping debt hole, I can hear the wet chambers of my heart slapping out a message: write a book.

I’m going do it – let myself slide beneath the bubbles of the most selfish use of my time and money I can think of.

I’ll make sure my husband is on-board and recruit a gang for support. We’ll see if we can set that fantasy free.

And I’m going to scrub this fucking table.

“So, you’re saying we need to find like-minded members for our orgy, and march proudly into the dens of ecstasy where we belong?” Critter asks.

“Pretty much.” I answer.

“I can get behind that philosophy,” she says, her eyes crinkling with a smile. “Though, I prefer to be the one got-behind.”

Critter hopes that you let your fantasies speak, too. May you actualize your version of the great birthday gangbang, and may it cure what ails your body and brain.

Writing Your Own Survival Guide

“Hey, Critter!” I say. “I’m so glad you’re here. I need to tell you…” But I can’t finish, because my imaginary raccoon raises a paw to stop me.

“It’s gonna have to wait,” she interrupts. “Something has come up.”

My words catch in my throat; it’s not like Critter to show up with an agenda. Our little chats are usually about whatever is frying on my sweaty little mind. That’s how I like it.

I feel annoyed. And confused. And then a little worried.

I frown at her a moment, my mouth pressed tight while I spin the wheel to see which reaction I will be going with. I’m ready to open with a windy “Oh-no-you-didn’t” tirade, but the pointer stops on worried.

“What’s going on?” I ask. Oh God, please don’t say you’re leaving. Don’t leave. Don’t leave!

Critter tilts her head at me.

“All of a sudden, you look constipated,” she says. Then, she sniffs three times. “But you smell fine.”

“Just tell me what’s happening,” I say. My forehead is getting prickly.

“We’ve got to get ready,” she finally says. “We need a plan.”

“What for?” I ask, my voice squeaking like a pubescent boy’s. I knew it, she’s leaving. My imaginary friend is leaving me. Jesus, that’s pathetic. I’m pathetic. Oh god…

“Winter.” she says, looking into my eyes as if that explains everything. “Winter is coming.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” I ask, with an eyebrow raised hard in the universal expression of WTF. “This isn’t Game of Thrones.”

Critter rolls her eyes at me. Like I’m the one being an idiot.

Then, she narrows her eyes and sighs, like she’s trying hard to swallow-back some sarcasm.

“What does winter mean to you?” she asks.

My stomach drops. For me, winter means dread. The darkness and heaviness that plague me all year swell hideously when the weather shifts in the fall. Winter means I lose the sunshine, fresh air, and easy activity that sustain me. They are replaced by cold drafts blowing on my nervous sweat. Windsheild-scraping, parka-wearing and bundling up my thrashing-mad children. It makes me want to cry and go back to bed.

I have no idea why anyone ever decided to settle the northern parts of the world.

My body hates winter because shivering for seven months in a row sucks snowballs. My brain hates it because it feels like drowning and starving at the same time.

When I picture winter, I see the dirty grey sky looking all blurry because I am peering up from underneath the ice.

It makes me shudder.

“I’ve been trying so hard not to think about it,” I say quietly. “I don’t understand why you brought that up.”

Critter’s face softens.

“I know,” she says. “You didn’t want to ruin the summer with anxiety about fall. But we’ve got a problem. Fall’s here. Winter is coming. And we don’t have a plan.”

Suddenly, I understand. I run my hand through my hair.

“You’re right,” I sigh. “I need a plan. Crap – I can’t believe I haven’t started preparing.”

“Don’t sweat it,” Critter soothes. “Let’s start now.”

Those three words have saved my life repeatedly: Let’s Start Now.

So here goes.

Disclaimer: This list contains affiliate links, which means I learned how to play around on Amazon and create buttons for some of the stuff I wrote about. If you make a purchase through these links, Amazon will send a small fee to the Critter and I. My furry friend has asked that I spend it all on cat food. The wet kind. Although that’s probably not going to happen (sorry, Critter, that stuff stinks), we are grateful for your support! Also, full disclosure: making these links was really fun.

My Winter Depression Survival Plan

Motivation:

When I don’t commit to a plan, my lows get out of control; I sabotage myself and act like a dick to the people I care about.

No more burning bridges and sinking deeper into the cycle of messing up, hating myself, and throwing good things away. I can’t wait until spring to feel human again.

Rationale:

Making a plan helps. It makes it easier to get moving and do the work I need to do. I feel more confident knowing I won’t have to try to come up with solutions after I’ve slipped into dysfunction. It will be easier to get up and try.

Having a plan also helps me win the argument against the voices in my head. They tell me to stop acting, because I don’t really have a problem, and nothing can help me, anyway. I know that stuff is garbage, but it gets to me. My best chance to beat it is to get a head start.

Plan:

  1. Reach Out
  2. Take Care Physically
  3. Seek Pleasure
  4. Find True North

Details:

  1. Reaching Out

Struggle Buddies

At least once a week:

  • Call, message, or arrange a visit with someone who can handle me, and talk about my struggles
  • Let them empathize, relate, and share their strategies
  • Take their caring and encouragement in
  • Reciprocate
  • Thank them and appreciate our connection

Community

At least once a week:

  • Reach out within a Facebook group where people share some of my same challenges
  • Share something that is giving me heartburn
  • Encourage at least one other person
  • Share stuff that helps
  • Celebrate each other’s wins.

Therapy

At least once a month:

  • Check in with my counsellor
  • Ask for help with the biggest thing that is weighing me down
  • Commit to feeling what is there and saying what I need to say
  • Open up to one new task that helps me handle my fear, despair, and exhaustion in a new way

2. Taking Physical Care

Serotonin:

  • Every morning, use the UV light for Seasonal Depression
  • Every day, take brain-support supplements (fish oil, Rhodiola, and 5HTP)
  • Every two months, check in with the naturopath to monitor and adjust dosages
  • If this stops helping (or if side effects get out of control) talk to my doctor about going back on antidepressants.

Sleep:

  • Set an alarm to chide me when it’s time to turn off the computer, TV, and phone.
  • Turn my stuff off at bedtime, even if I still have work to do.
  • Make sure I finish all my chores and prep for the morning before I flop into downtime
  • Bribe myself as extensively as necessary to finish those chores
  • Build a Netflix-watching nest out of snacks and blankets
  • Have one good book beside the bed to entice me away from the TV What I’m currently reading
  • Do yoga and progressive muscle relaxation, and listen to guided meditations when I’m too wound up to sleep
  • Get serious about weaning the baby

Exercise:

  • Schedule exercise around all the crap I have to do
  • Multitask as much as possible (take the jogging stroller on errands or to the park; ride bike to Starbucks for writing mornings, workout at the playground while the kids play, make an obstacle course for all of us in the living room, etc.)
  • Go to at least one interesting fitness class per week all by myself
  • Buy groupons for classes I can’t normally afford
  • Let my embarassment about being out of shape motivate me to work on my weak spots between classes
  • Let my sense of impending burnout motivate me to get to drag myself to class

3. Seeking Pleasure

Feel Better Music:

Food

No more than once a week, indulge completely in something that I usually have to avoid: chocolate, cheese, or anything with ICING

Stories

Lose myself in stories that make me feel like the world is twisted and beautiful enough to fight for:

  • The Walking Dead, Fear the Walking Dead, and Talking Dead
  • Game of Thrones and Song of Ice and Fire
  • Anything by Stephen King, Elizabeth Gilbert, Yann Martel, Alice Hoffmann, or Lawrence Hill
  • Re-reading the Harry Potter series

Pampering

  • Massage – as often as our health plan will allow
  • Painting my nails
  • Getting the wherewolf waxed off my face

Escape

  • Date night
  • Girlfriend visits
  • Starbucks writing sessions, runs and bike rides all by myself

4. Finding True North

As needed, I will bring out writing, film, and webcasts by people who help me find my bearings:

  • Deepak Chopra
  • Elizabeth Gilbert
  • Ekhart Tolle
  • Jon Kabat-Zinn
  • Patton Oswalt
  • Daniel Tosh
  • Amy Schumer
  • Kristen Bell

So that’s me; now what about you?

Whatever it is that triggers you, Dark Little Critter wants you to face your villain standing up.

Make YOUR survival plan. Do what works for you. And yes; blasting the Stones while you squeeze fudge sauce onto a bowl of peanut butter and bacon bits IS therapy, if that’s what lifts you out of the gutter.

Think about what gets you out of bed, and write it down. All of it. Make it happen as you schedule each day, week, month, and year.

Turn back to it when the manure hits the propeller. Adjust when it’s not working.

And always remember, you are the author of this Choose Your Own Adventure. You are the only one who can rub the genie’s lamp (or any other part of him) and arrange for the day to be saved.

A Constant Process of Coming Back

“Holy crap, you’re back! Where the hell have you been?” I blurt.

It comes out too hard, like an air-bubble blast from a ketchup bottle. I groan.

I have been sitting at the kitchen table with my laptop open. My butt has warmed the grooves of my grubby wooden chair, and my heart feels tight in my chest.

I am supposed to be writing, lightening the world and my debt load one essay at a time. But I am not writing. I am drowning.

I have got to get these words moving.

I have banged a title across the top of this document. It is my summoning incantation, an invitation for my muse to come and show me the way out of the crushing pressure in my head.

And she has appeared. I heard the dry tick-tack of her raccoon claws jogging my way. I turned my head, and saw her furry grey form approach.

But instead of relief, I felt a cold flare of anxiety.

My armpits began to prickle. This isn’t the sweet comfort I was hoping for.

That’s when I spat criticism at my dearly-missed friend.

Now, my Dark Little Critter has stopped beside my chair. She doesn’t answer my rude question. Her face is blank.

She cocks her head to the side and stares at me, then rises up on her hind legs and begins to sniff. She puts her paws on my thigh and leans in for a stronger whiff. Her head sways back and forth and her nostrils dilate, sniffety-sniffing, taking my measure.

Finally, she stops, and sits back on her haunches.

“You’re in strange shape,” she says.

“You have no idea!” I answer. “I’m stuck! All gunked up. I can’t breathe. Can’t think. Can’t sleep! Can’t parent, or wife, or write. I’m full of garbage. Where the hell have you been?”

My voice cracks and my heart hammers.

Critter stays seated at my feet, looking up at me. I become hyper-conscious of my face – my cheeks, mouth, and nostrils. They all seem to be snarling. I try to force them to relax, but they won’t listen. There is a numb disconnection between me and my body, and I am awful.

“You’ve been gone for months!” I suddenly cry. “How could you leave me like that? I’ve been floundering without you. Everything is bloated and stiff: every muscle, every thought. I’m in agony. I needed you, and you didn’t come.”

Now, there are hot tears in my eyes.

Critter’s face softens. Her green eyes seem to melt into puddles of mossy light.

Looking into them, I feel like I’ve slipped into the heart of a deep cave. I see a pool of cool water, rippling with light from a source I can’t explain. In this space that should be dark and cold, I feel penetrating comfort.

Critter’s voice brings me back to my kitchen.

“I know it’s been too long,” she says. “You’ve been unhealthy. It’s been hard for me to watch.”

“You were watching?” I ask. “Why didn’t you come?”

“Because you never asked,” she said. “I watched and waited, and hoped you would reach out, but you never called.”

Now I feel sorry. A wave of it rolls over me, dousing my hot blades of anger.

She’s right. I didn’t call. I had felt the freezing stress, rising higher and higher up my body. My toes went numb, my groin screamed alarm, and my chest squeezed blue. I was strangling inside the pressure of fear and despair, but I never called out for help.

I had forgotten that was an option. I lost the words to say and the numbers to call. I went horribly blank.

Two blinders had covered my eyes; one said that I was alone, trapped in a world where no one and nothing could help me. The other said that no one would help me, even if they could, because my darkness was too sticky and gross. I was unbearable to touch.

“So you kept your mouth shut,” Critter interjects, having seen this story scroll across my trembling brow. “How did that work for you?”

“Not good, Critter. Not good.” I admit. I take a full breath and sigh it out slowly, feeling the weight of my mistake.

I didn’t call for help when I needed it. I didn’t open up and give my friend a chance to help. I made her watch me drown, and attacked her when we finally came together. That must have been painful.

This truth, seen directly, is sad, but not crushing. I am surprised that I can fully feel my regret, and somehow draw strength from it. It feels like next time, I will remember this, and I will do better.

I look up at my fairy god-rodent. She is crying.

“I’m sorry, my friend.” I say. I scoop her up and hug her to my chest. It feels like I have shed a chain mail sweater. My burden is suddenly lighter, and there is no more barrier keeping warmth away from my heart.

I bury my nose in the Critter’s thick, coarse coat, and inhale the dusty spice of her body. She sighs.

This is why people love pets, I think, wishing that I wasn’t allergic to real fur. I would get the most intuitive, raccoon-looking cat I could find and love that thing with all my soul.

“It’s not about holding a furry body so much as choosing to open up ,” Critter says.

“Mmm-hmm,” I agree. And it starts with being honest with myself.

I hold my imaginary raccoon for one more breath, letting the warmth of our embrace penetrate right to my spine. Then I let go, and she hops down from my lap.

I notice that the cold pressure around my lungs has released, but a weight has settled down on my lap. It doesn’t interfere with my breath, but it begs to be handled.

I look down, and see the weight take on a physical shape. It is a grubby bar of steel, and there is a number stamped into it.

“What am I supposed to do with this?” I ask Critter.

“That is your work. You need to make something out of it. Take your aching and turn it into something useful,” she answers.

“Oh. Okay,” I say. “But what does this number mean? I can’t quite make it out.”

“That is the number of people you need to help. You don’t need to know how many just now, but I’ll tell you, it’s a lot.” She explains.

“Whoa,” I say. “I think I see five digits!”

“Yep. But don’t worry about that. Just start working, and start helping.” she says.

“Okay,” I say. My chest is getting warmer. This feels right. “What happens when I hit that number?”

“You’ll see,” Critter answers, and her eyes sparkle.

I really want to know what is making her smile like that, but I know damn well she’s not going to tell me. It makes my eyebrow wrinkle, but I give it up for now.

“Alright,” I say. “One more hug, then.”

“Of course,” she says. “Then, get to work.”

And now, I am.

Today, I want to leave you with a few thoughts:

First, we are all drifting in the same ocean. No one is so wretched that the world has created an entire, extra-horrible ocean just for them. The universe is way too busy maintaining the physics of every atom, planet, and star system to single out one pitiful human. We are all in this mess together.

That means that you are not alone in your darkest times, even though your weather may be stormier at the moment than others’.

If you feel like you’re drowning, reach out your hand.

Ask for what you need, and try not to blame people for not reading your mind.

Apologize when your fear makes you mean. Get back on track.

Find people you can trust to listen and help you get oriented when you’re lost. They may be friends, professionals, or figments of your imagination. Call on them as needed. Allow them to support you.

Return the favour when someone you love falls into the ocean.

And most of all, never stop trying until you grasp salvation. It is near, even when you can’t see it. Remember that. And find it.

And Now for Something Completely Different

Today, I’ve got something different for you.

I’d like to introduce you to my dad.

With Father’s Day around the corner, of course he’s on my mind, but he is also wrapped around everything I am trying to achieve with this blog.

My dad passed away when I was thirteen. Losing him was hard, and it was one of the things that tipped me over into my first major depression.

My dad was a wonderful and hard man to live with. His sense of right and wrong was like granite. He would go to the ends of the earth to do right by his family, but he didn’t really believe in forgiveness or acceptance, for himself or for others.

My dad was also bipolar. That meant my siblings and I were more than twice as likely as the average kid to develop severe mental illness (that is, bipolar depression, unipolar depression, or schizophrenia), and eight times more likely to have ADHD.

Many issues connected to my dad – the need to understand the effects of emotional trauma, the skill development required for grieving, forgiving, and accepting, and the tools necessary to overcome genetic and biological obstacles – are what we need to talk about in order to get a handle on mental illness.

But there is something more, and with Dad on my shoulder, this is the perfect time to bring it up.

We need to be able to flip our suffering upside down once in a while and look into its bunghole to find the light.

Because even though I am a neurological mess, I can be funny, too. At least 35% of the time.

So could my dad.

And while sometimes I need to talk about my hard stuff to help illuminate yours, I also need to make you smile. That is the only real thing that keeps us from being victims.

Laughter is a leap of faith. You have to open yourself up to receive it. It is a choice. You need to decide that you are secure enough to touch the things that make you squirm. If you do, and find the ridiculous in your pain, you will shatter the shame that keeps you stuck.

Laughter dissolves misery. We all need that.

I am bringing up the funny around my dad because it helps me remember that I am more than a kid with a wonky brain. I am the daughter of a one-of-a-kind man who was smart, passionate, and quirky as hell.

When I think of Dad from all angles, I know that in spite of what went wrong, he loved me, and all of us around him. I believe he still does.

To honour that, and to balance my message, I’m sharing an essay I wrote about him. I think is as important as anything in the mental health conversation.

I hope you enjoy it, and that it helps you sniff out the farts in your own disasters and laugh about them, with the lack of respect they are due.

Hot Diggety Dad

A lot of the comfort that Dad left behind for us exists in objects. These articles were special to our family: things that he built, restored, or scrounged up from God knows where.

Each of these things symbolized something unique about Dad: his huge imagination, his brilliance for design, his eye for the potential in something broken, or his hilarious glee at discovering an item for sale that he wished he had invented.

One thing Dad snatched up like a feverish pirate was the Hot Diggety Dogger. It was basically a toaster, but instead of having two long slots to drop your bread into, it had two round holes for wieners and two big half-moons slots for buns.

With this genius contraption, he could make both the essential parts of his all-time favorite meal with a single, satisfying thunk of a lever.

Everybody knew that Dad loved hot dogs. If hot dogs had needed child support, he would have found a way. No one would have batted an eye if hotdogs had been named in the will. It was a surprise that all three of us kids escaped a meaty namesake; there is thankfully neither an Oscar, nor a Meyer, among us.

Dad demanded that his hotdogs be crispy. He quickly dominated the Hot Diggety Dogger’s anemic settings by developing a special technique. This consisted of pulling out the buns after the first cooking cycle and leaving in the meat for an extra “bing” or two. He toasted and re-toasted his pork cigars until the drip tray ran with salty rivulets and the air hung thick with the smell of bacon’s tubular little brother.

I’m not going to lie; Dad’s dogs were good. Damn good. Those crackly, crisp tubes of ground pig lips got sublimated into hot dog heaven.

The Hot Diggety Dogger’s existence was a metaphysical wonder, like some being of the highest evolution had reached into Dad’s technicolour mind, pulled out a dream, and made it real. He loved that thing.

And I loved him.

Ever since, I have appreciated a nicely crisped meaty morsel on a golden-toasted bun. Much to my delight, my stepmom let me take the Hot Diggety Dogger with me when I moved out. It was one of my prized possessions.

I’m pretty sure that the first meal I made for my roommate, Lucas, was Hot Diggety Dogs. He may have thought I was a tiny bit nuts as I tried to prepare him for the pure, crisp-salt-smoke satisfaction he was about to experience.

“Sure, I like hot dogs,” he shrugged, like someone who had no idea that his mind was about to be blown.

I’m guessing that my eyes were as demented as Gollum’s as I gingerly struggled the apparatus out of its tight cardboard cocoon.

There may have been some muttering under my breath like, “Mmm… Crackled skin… Ooooo… One more cycle! …Oh my god, it smells like bacon!”

My mind would have raced while I waited endless minutes for our smoked puree of unmentionable animal parts to alchemize into condiment-drizzled bliss.

Finally, we would have eaten.

But Lucas, one of my truest, most cherished friends, had thought the Hot Diggety Dogs were just okay. He continued to boil his wieners in a pot. Like a total chump.

Somehow, we managed to stay friends.

Oh well. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him classy.

Speaking of classy, I was at the discount grocery store the other day. I was pushing a squeaky cart with my runny-nosed girls in the classiest way possible, when a vision arrested me: there, inside a gleaming, red, brushed-stainless case, sat a modern version of our sacred appliance.

But it was all wrong. Someone had pathetically renamed it, “hot dog toaster.” I mean, come on; where’s the poetry? That’s like a name that got translated from another language. You might as well call it, “depress-lever cooker of mixed meat cylinders.” Total lack of reverence. Disgraceful.

Although my face was crunched into a “Tsk”, my neck was peppered in goosebumps.

Dad has been gone for twenty-two years, and all that time I have been dreaming of running into him somewhere, feeling a wave of recognition and longing crash over me like thunder.

And there he was. Hot Diggety Damn.

Elimination Meditation

“How’s it going with the brain training?” my furry little imaginary friend asks.

“Umm, okay,” I answer. “I’m meditating every day, but I can’t stop falling asleep in the middle of the practice.”

“Sounds like my kind of workout,” my companion says. She yawns as she arches her back and spreads her tiny toes luxuriously. Then she smacks her lips and smiles. Her black eyes glimmer like glass beads in her charcoal bandit markings.

“Must be tough, being a raccoon,” I say.

“I’m not going to lie, it’s pretty sweet,” she answers. “I nap all day and roam all night. People worship me. It’s delightful.”

“People worship you?” I laugh.

“Of course. That’s why they leave me tributes.” She answers.

“What the hell are you talking about?” I ask.

“You know,” she says, pointing to the garbage can beside me, “tributes. Every household maintains an altar in the back lane. People even leave spontaneous offerings on the sidewalk. They rejoice in me. The spirit to praise The Dark Little Critter strikes everywhere.”

I chuckle.

“Wow,” I say. I am impressed that my imaginary talking raccoon has more colourful delusions than I do.

“Hey, listen,” I add, “can we chat later? I’m kind of occupied.”

I am sitting on the toilet with my leggings scrunched around my ankles and a notebook on my lap.

Critter tilts her head and regards me.

“You don’t look busy,” she says.

“I am,” I say, and heartburn flares in my chest. “I’m fighting with a blog post again. It’s four days late. I have to get this thing out.”

“Well, why don’t you?” she asks.

“I’m trying!” I whine. “I’ve been working on it all week. It’s stuck. There’s this idea that is driving me nuts, and I’m trying to get down but it won’t come out right.”

“Hmm…” Critter says, “but, why are you writing in the bathroom? Is this some kind of metaphorical gesture, like you’re mentally constipated and you’re trying to push the words out?”

I roll my eyes.

“No, it’s not a metaphor. I really have to poop. My husband took the kids out to play, and I was going to write, but then my guts started to groan. I brought my notebook in here to multitask. The kids will be back any minute.”

“Oh,” she answers, “too bad.” Then, she looks quizzical, “Well, why aren’t you pooping? I can smell a turd from eighty paces, and my stink counter isn’t registering a single pebble.”

Suddenly, my throat feels hot and tight.

“You’re right,” I moan, “I can’t even get the pooping done. I have no time, and here I am, completely wasting what little I’ve got.”

Dark Critter scowls.

“Completely wasting? Some people would be grateful to get an audience with a minor deity,” she pouts.

“This is not a spiritual communion!” I snap. “This is you, harassing me. On the shitter.”

“You’re the one who called me,” she huffs, crossing her short arms.

“I did not!” I burst. “You just barged in here and started bragging about your fan club!”

“You can’t blame me for anything!” she shouts, “I’m a figment of YOUR imagination!”

Our eyes lock, narrowed against imminent battle.

Then, my face drops. The Critter’s face softens. She lets her arms flop to the sides of her fuzzy belly and heaves a deep sigh.

“Listen,” she says, “I’m here to help. It wouldn’t matter if you were in the middle of eating toenails on a toadstool with a… toad. When you need me, I’ll be there. Now, silly human, why did you call me?”

My eyes well up.

“Because I can’t do this,” I whisper. “I can’t be a professional writer. I am terrified to monetize this blog. I feel like it isn’t an honest trade because my writing isn’t good enough. I want my words to be sharp and deep and full, but they’re not. They’re muddled, because I’m so muddled. I can’t run a real business, and I’m wasting my family’s resources by trying.” I close my eyes on this, and hot tears spill down my cheeks.

Dark Critter pads softly over to me. She stands on her hind legs and rests her head on my bare knee. I stroke her coarse fur. I can feel the warmth of her body radiate up my arm. Amazingly, I can even feel the pitter-pat of her heart. It raps out a rhythm in double-time with my own. The soft, steady beat makes my blood feel lighter in my veins.

After a moment, she raises her head and catches my eye.

“What do you need right now?” she asks.

This is her magic question. Whenever I answer it, I find my way.

I think for a minute.

“I just need to poop,” I say. “I need to put down my pen, close my eyes, and have the poop, the whole poop, and nothing but the poop.” As I say it, I start to feel better.

The Critter smiles at me and I smile back, and then I do what I need to do.

It is amazing.

As soon as I let go of my desperation, stillness embraces me. My body does its job effortlessly. I realize that at that very moment, it is quietly completing a million processes. Metabolism, digestion, and elimination are all unfolding in a dance of enzymes and tissues that know exactly what to do. There is no pressure for me to intervene or understand the mysteries at all.

I feel amazed and grateful.

Words start to flow in my head like a glacial stream. Out of nowhere, I start to pray.

Dear god, thank you for this poop. Thank you for my body that is so healthy and more intelligent than my mind. Thank you for the food that it has transformed.

Thank you so much for this quiet. Thank you for this break from the kids, and for my husband who steps in when my head is about to explode.

Thank you for this bathroom, the plumbing that makes it so comfortable to do my business, and our home.

Thank you for this weird world where I can find bliss in the fog of my own stench.

And thank you for Dark Critter, who shows me the way.

When I open my eyes, my friendly racoon is gone. My bowels are empty, my blog post is outlined. Even though I have no idea what my readers will think of this story, I know that somehow, everything is going to be alright. Maybe I can link this to an ad for Metamucil, or something.

The Critter and I hope that comfort finds you wherever you need it. And we hope that you trust your inner raccoon (or giant talking gorilla, or whatever you’ve got) to help you let it go.

A Tag-Along for Target Practice

Last week, I told you about my village, the circle of family and friends whose support gave me the energy to crawl out of my latest depressive relapse and care for my girls during my husband’s work trip.

All the help and connection I received lifted me up and got me moving. I rolled one good day into another as I enjoyed and looked forward to each opportunity to exercise, write, and be more than an aching brain.

But when the friends went home, the Facebook chats trickled to a close, and the post-workout highs wore off, I was right back where I started: alone with my spiralling thoughts and the crap-crusted carousel of my kids’ incessant needs.

This is where my depression lives, and the place where I built cerebral training camp.

My plan looked like this:

First, I would clean up lunch, which neither child would have eaten. I would scrape their plates onto mine and shoo the girls into the living room while I stress-ate my second helping.

Then, I would wrestle the one-year-old into a clean diaper and referee between her and the four-year-old until we had litigated our way through two or three storybooks.

Finally, I would lay the toddler down for her nap, and set the preschooler up with a craft of some sort so I could retreat to my room and follow a guided mindfulness meditation.

The first day after my husband left, we went through the preparatory steps. The girls and I were pretty worn out. Little One went down to sleep without protest. I checked on the Big One, and saw that she seemed to be drifting off in her room.

I tiptoed into my room and climbed up onto my bed, the only tidy spot in the house. I took out my phone, turned off the ringer, plugged in my earphones, and called up the body scan meditation at palousemindfulness.com.

I had just lain down and closed my eyes, when Big One’s smurfy voice intruded in my quiet.

“Mommy, can I come and cuddle with you?” she asked.

“It’s Mommy’s quiet time, Sweetheart.” I answered, my eyes still shut.

“What’s in your ears?” My daughter chirped. “What are you doing?”

“I’m listening to some relaxing words,” I said.

“Go play,” I thought.

“Can I listen, too?” the four-year-old asked.

“Hmm…,” I said, frowning.

“Pleeeeeeease, Mommy? Can I please listen to your relaxing words with you?” She begged.

I cracked an eye and looked at her, considering. She raised her arm and started sucking on the back of her wrist, leaning into her curious self-soothing reflex. Above her purple sleeve, she blinked her giant globes of chocolate brown, silently pleading.

I saw the outer corners of her brows sink and her breath snag in the top of her chest. The needle on her anxiety gauge was creeping toward the meltdown zone.

We have been living at the upper end of my girl’s anxiety range for awhile now. I have been searching for ways to help her let go and relax. This slightly annoying request actually presented an opportunity.

I was painfully aware that she had been watching me crawl through a long string of bad days. I had felt her eyes on me many evenings, as I slithered up to bed the moment her dad emerged from work.

I knew she had heard me say, “I’m too tired to play,” too many times, because she was starting to use that line on me when I asked her to tidy her toys or brush her teeth.

I realized that I needed to show my girl the other side of overwhelm. I wanted my anxious, frustrated daughter to see me working, building calm and strength. I hoped to plant the seeds for her own rebellion against the evil empire in her thoughts.

And someday, I wanted to explain that she was the reason I was doing this work. I needed her to know how badly I wanted to be there for her and her sister, and that all the times I had to tap out of motherhood made me sad, too.

“You know what, Honey? Let’s give it a try. I’ll turn up the speaker, and we can listen together.” I said.

My Big One grinned as she clambered up onto the bed beside me, and laid her head on her daddy’s pillow.

With that, she became my first, and only, bootcamp recruit.

We lay there softly, and the recording began. The instructions dissolved, though, before they reached my ears. All I could feel was the quiet, covering us like a blanket.

With my eyes closed, my other senses reached out. I could hear my daughter continue to gently suck her arm for a few minutes, then felt the bed jiggle as her hand came down and she nestled her body into a supine posture of openness.

My firstborn’s peacefulness was sweet and comforting, like home-baked pastry. I took a deep breath, and my throat welled up: such a rush of gratitude and relief.

A tingling in my chest told me I had just released a tight cramp. My heart had been gripping sadness, a sweaty fistful of grief about my girl’s ear-piercing meltdowns and all the things that were tougher than they needed to be.

As I breathed in the quiet, the wad in my chest unfolded further. I saw a hopeless feeling in there. It hovered behind my daughter’s worries and her never-satisfied restlessness, the way that she kept pushing away her peace and sleep, and sliding deeper into my familiar, miserable spiral.

Looking at these feelings was hard. They were sucking me in, dragging me back to prior moments of grief, frustration, and guilt.

But thankfully, amazingly, I realized I didn’t need to go there.

Because of mindfulness, the mental-ninjutsu I have been working so long to learn, I had another option. It gave me a perspective I could reach for beyond the emotions that threatened to overwhelm me.

Counselling, books, and guided meditations like the one I was currently ignoring had helped me see a helpful truth about depression and anxiety. I recognized the chilly muck of rumination, the old, grey thoughts and feelings that trap my brain like quicksand.

Those painful feelings wanted me to do something, but I was so terrified by their strength that I became paralysed, enthralled by my grief instead of taking action to care for it.

I caught myself as I was about to dive in and wallow in memories of every difficult moment with my daughter. I remembered I needed to do something, to take care of my feelings. So I took a breath.

I listened to it whisper in through my nostrils.

I felt my chest tense up as I tried to bring the air in deep.

I felt the breath slowly drain out, dragging against the back of my throat.

I felt the absolute quiet in the pause between my breaths.

I remembered that my girl was right beside me. I heard her breath, even and deep. I realized she was asleep. She had let go, and was doing the thing she needed to be restored.

I listened to my breath. It was not so even, but it was there. My lungs were doing their restorative work, and I realized, so was I.

Even though I was struggling, I had shown up, and I believed that I got stronger each time I consciously decided to let go of those old, worn-out thoughts.

I squeezed my feet, let them relax, and felt a flow of warmth run down my body.

I am going to do this,” I said to myself. “I am going to make this work.

I know you are,” came a small, furry voice.

I could almost feel a puff of warm breath, and a tiny, wet nose tickle my ear.

Thanks for the vote of confidence, Dark Critter,” I whispered to my imaginary raccoon.

Anytime,” my dark friend answered. “By the way, you’ve slept through it.

Wha??” I asked. I suddenly realized the recording was silent, and the baby was stirring in her room next door.

“Aw, crap!” I said out loud, startling the four-year-old.

Better luck next time,” the Critter chuckled, and I knew she meant that there would be a next time, because I was going to keep at it.

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.