Thursday, August 21, 2014

Positively Selfish

One of the hazards of working in the helping professions is burnout. People who are drawn to helping others run the risk of giving too much of themselves. In my case, however, I run the risk of burnout in my personal relationships more so than I do at work.

There are a lot of advantages to working in a counseling center. Even though you don't make as much money, you have access to a lot of resources that you don't have in private practice. I have colleagues, the student health center, deans, RA's, and peer counselors who share the load. The most stressful periods of my job are predictable and time-limited: they occur around the middle of the semester and end around finals week. There are boundaries that are built into our schedule, as well. Appointments are 50 minutes long at the most. We don't schedule clients past 5 pm or on the weekends. Students go home for breaks. We don't see students after they graduate.

My personal life is a different story. Many of the people I love have emotional needs that they expect me to fulfill. Appointments are not time-limited. I am on call 24-7. I usually cannot terminate these relationships, nor do I want to. I have a hard time saying no to whatever they ask of me. And in many cases, I do not feel I am getting back as much as I am putting into the relationship because their emotional resources are more limited than my own. Which is not their fault. It's just unfortunate for me.

That is part of the reason why I want a hiatus from loving and caring for anyone or anything new. No dating. No pets. Just me and my plants. I'm burned out; I want a more solitary job in my personal life.

I was telling my therapist the other day how this makes me feel selfish. She told me that I'm being honest with myself--more authentic. That we need another word that conveys positive selfishness. Which is kind of sad, really. What does it say about our culture that there would be no word for a healthy focus on oneself?

She nominated the word selful. Full of oneself, but in a good way. More like being whole. But it doesn't roll off the tongue the way selfish and selfless do. Plus it looks weird. So I am open to suggestions.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Darkness and Light, Part 2

I am deeply saddened by Robin Williams' death. I love the roles he chose as an actor. He was a comedic genius. And he was full of life--a light that seemed to shine a little brighter than the average star.

As a psychologist, I don't have any special knowledge about why Robin Williams committed suicide. I wasn't there. I didn't know him personally. I wasn't his therapist. I do know that, no matter how well you think you know someone, it is difficult to fathom the depths of the darkness they live in. Because who wants to share that with other people? Who wants to burden other people with additional darkness? It's hard enough to deal with our own.

I also know what it's like to have multiple depressive episodes. My psychiatrist compared relapses to breaking your leg in the same place multiple times: with every break you become more vulnerable to injury; it takes a little longer to recover each time. 

My dad had 3 major depressive episodes. His last episode hit when he was 69 and lasted for almost 4 years. It was a tremendous amount of work for him--and my mom--to recover again. I know sometimes he didn't want to try. And I know he felt that way more often than he let on but tried to be strong for my benefit. 

In my last depressive episode, there were times when I wanted to give up, too. Well, it's not so much that I wanted to give up. It's more like the depression told me that I should. And in my weakened state of mind, it was hard to fight back. I am thankful that I was able to do so in the end. That was my 2nd major depressive episode. I'm trying to do everything within my power to prevent a third. 

What if Robin Williams had 5 or 6 depressive episodes? What if the demons of depression never took a break unless he threw himself into something like acting or drugs or alcohol? I don't drink and I have never used drugs, but if I had to live my life feeling the way I did at my worst, maybe I would. I don't know that I would have been any stronger. So I don't think it's fair to accuse Robin Williams of being weak. Clearly, based on his body of work, he was anything but weak. He was fighting it all the time.

I was also taken aback by the anger that some people felt about his suicide. But I don't judge them for it. I can understand why, if you have been personally affected by suicide, you would identify more with the people who are left behind and have to make sense of this loss for the rest of their lives. Fortunately, I have never been there, but if my dad had ever given in to his demons, I know I would have been devastated.

I think that people who see mental illness as a weakness, an excuse, or a nonexistent entity fear the darkness in themselves. They try to deny it in themselves and in others as vehemently as possible, lest it find a way to escape. But some of us don't have that luxury. We can't lock our depression in a closet and throw away the key; it is too powerful. It does not obey our will.

One positive outcome of having known that kind of pain is that it has deepened my compassion for others. It motivates me to alleviate whatever suffering I can in others. In my opinion, the people who know what it's like to live in darkness are the ones who are the most motivated to enlighten others. So if Robin Williams inspired more people to become light bearers, then that is at least one good thing that can come from this loss.

Dead Poets Society First saw this in 7th grade and it is still one of my favorite Robin Williams movies.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Paradox of Productivity

Have you ever noticed how you're actually more productive when you have less time?

I had grand plans for all of the stuff I was going to accomplish over the summer. I was going to crank out blog posts 3-4 times a week. Learn how to write a book proposal and a query letter. Find an agent.

I did skim through a book on writing non-fiction. I actually wrote fewer blog posts than I do when I'm at work because I didn't have very many deep and meaningful thoughts over the summer. I pretty much only thought about my sleep cycle, tennis, and what I'm going to eat. You can only write so many posts about those topics.

I was going to get my jewelry business going again. I was obsessed with making jewelry several years ago and sold a lot of what I made. So I bought all these beads back in January and planned to make some new items over the summer. Take some pictures of them, even. Sell them on Etsy. The only thing I made were some earrings (the purple pair on the left) for my tennis team to match our uniform, but I didn't make any money. I just wanted my team to look cute!



I was going to knit more. I sell some of my jewelry and knitting at my friend's store, The Stitchin' Post, and my knitted items have sold the best, but it takes forever to make the things that I like. I was also going to knit this cute top for myself:


This is the picture from the pattern. I haven't finished mine yet. I've made it to the armholes, but by the time I finish it, I might only have a few weeks left of warm weather, because the top part looks pretty complicated.

I was going to get in better shape. Play more tennis. Add more low-impact cardio like riding my bike. Do some strength training. Throw in some yoga.

I tried to ride my bike, but I couldn't figure how to put the bike rack on. My ex was kind enough to help me do it, but then I couldn't load the bike onto the bike rack by myself. And it was going to take 2 weeks to take it to the shop to get a tune up. I bought something to lubricate the chain that was supposed to be easy to apply, but it still seemed too hard and messy to do by myself. In fact, the whole bike preparation experience made me feel so ill-prepared to live my life alone that I stopped trying because it was depressing me.

I did play tennis more, and I stretched almost every night, but that's about it.

I was going to read more books. I keep track of what books I read throughout the year, and I'm way behind from where I would ordinarily be. So I started reading more when I realized I only had a few weeks left before I had to go back to work. The only problem is, since I read on my iPad, the longer I read, the harder it was to fall asleep because of the back lighting. So then I had to read less so that I could fall asleep before 4 a.m.

All in all, I fell short on almost every goal. Perhaps I was being a tad unrealistic about what I could accomplish in 2 months.

Plus, when I have less time, I get more done because I have to make the most of every minute. Squeeze in a trip to the grocery store right after work, even if I'm tired. Write a blog post if I have a no show. Read a paragraph if my client is running late. When I have all the time in the world, I tell myself that I'll get stuff done eventually. No need to rush.

But I'm not feeling too bad about myself for falling short of my goals. It's good for me to set goals, not because I have to meet all of them, but because it gives me something to strive for. After all, isn't life more about the striving than the end result? At least that's what I tell myself to feel better.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Beginnings and Endings, Part 2

My job follows the academic calendar, so today is my first day back at work. I was never one of those kids who looked forward to the beginning of school. I didn't care about seeing my friends; I didn't want to have to do homework. I didn't want to have to go to bed and wake up early. I pretty much have the same mentality now that I did when I was in elementary school. Some things never change, I guess.

My summers follow a distinct pattern: I have a hard time transitioning from being stressed and having to be super-productive to not having a whole lot that needs to get done. Boredom doesn't do justice to the intensity of how badly I feel during that adjustment period. It's more like, my existence is a complete waste of time. I have nothing of value to offer to the world. I know it's is my inner critic talking, but it still makes me question my worth. I think that's why most people would rather be stressed than bored: it makes you feel more useful.

However, by the time I have about 2 weeks of vacation left, I start panicking about having to go back to work. I don't want to feel stressed out again--to be on call, have back-to-back clients, rush to get my nightly routine completed. By the end of the summer, I feel like I could quit my job altogether. But I have no one to support me, so that's not an option.

This summer I had the added adjustment of being alone for the first time. Braking down on the side of the freeway alone. Attending weddings alone. Spending holidays and weekends alone. At least when I was working, I was guaranteed to see people every day. Over the summer, I had to make plans to motivate myself to leave the house, and sometimes I couldn't do it.

Plus, I was also going through the steps to finalize my divorce, so I no longer had the illusion that I could return to the more stable state of matrimony. I didn't date anyone or even have someone I could fantasize about dating. Well, I guess there's Federer, but even in his case, the most I could imagine was being one of the nannies for his new twin boys. Not terribly romantic.

Despite the struggles with boredom, reversed sleep cycles, and solitude, I think the highs and lows actually helped me tolerate my emotions better. I would remind myself that boredom and loneliness are painful sometimes, but I'll be busy eventually. (Usually the next day, because I played in 7 tennis leagues and captained 5 of them over the summer.) And when school starts and I'm feeling overwhelmed, I'll remind myself that I have a long break to look forward to at the end of the term.

I think it also helped that I spent the past 2 weeks on vacation with family and friends. It was the highlight of the summer, but it was also hard to be around people 24-7. Now that I am accustomed to extended periods of solitude, I realize how much I need down time to feel sane. So by the time my vacation ended on Friday, I was ready to go home. Ready to catch up on tennis, blogging, and even work.

This summer was a good reminder of how, even when something seems intolerable, that feeling will pass. And you might even find value in the experience that you hated so much at that time.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Mistakes

You know how I hate making mistakes? Well I made a big one last week, and now my inner critic is in full force. I am having a hard time forgiving myself, so I thought I'd blog about it.

Intellectually, I know that everyone makes mistakes. But my inner critic tells me that everyone else is allowed to make mistakes. I, on the other hand, am on strict probation: one mistake will lead to dire consequences--failing, getting fired, going to hell, losing everyone's respect, etc. I don't know what I've done to warrant this zero tolerance for errors, but it must have been pretty bad.

I am trying to put things in perspective. I try to remind myself that, although some people could judge me harshly, God does not have a zero tolerance policy for errors. God knows that I am not perfect and does not hold me to the standards that my inner critic does.

I gave a sincere apology for my mistake. I didn't lie, get defensive, or evade responsibility. I acknowledged what I did wrong and that I am aware of the consequences of my error. That I am committed to making amends. While this should move my transgression into the somewhat healthier guilt category, I am still feeling quite a bit of shame about it.

My inner critic wants to make sure that I am taking this seriously. That I am not one of those people who superficially apologizes without being genuinely sorry. That is one of my pet peeves, and I don't want to be a hypocrite by doing the same thing. So I keep reminding myself that this is a big deal--which only serves to reactivate the cycle.

I am trying to call to mind all of the sage advice on forgiveness, perfectionism, and letting go. Advice that I, myself, have given to other people. It seems to help them. Why doesn't it help me? Why am I not improving faster? I envy people who can read an inspirational quote on social media and feel better. People who are simply able to turn off the obsessive soundtrack of shame in their head. Or who listen to a different soundtrack altogether.

So I am also trying to remind myself to honor my own timetable. That self-improvement is not a race that I have to win. In fact, I'd settle for a participation award. I tell myself that at some point in the future, perhaps even later today, I will be able to put things in perspective. And if it takes longer than that, I'm talking to my therapist on Tuesday.

Luckily, tennis is on all day today, which I am hoping will be an effective distraction until I have my moment of clarity.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Good Fortune

Money can't buy happiness. Beauty is only skin deep. Age is just a number. It may be an illusion that wealth, beauty, and youth bring happiness, but I have to admit, sometimes it's still a convincing one.

Earlier this summer, when I was stranded in South Carolina waiting for my car to be fixed, I had the good fortune of staying with a friend from graduate school and her family. At the time, I had been on this kick about destiny, so her daughter recommended that I read Holes, by Louis Sachar. It's about a boy who is sentenced to work at a camp for delinquent boys for a crime he didn't commit. Although it didn't seem like it at the time, he was exactly where he was supposed to be. I was working hard to stay positive about my situation, so I wondered if my reading "Holes" was meant to be, as well.

I asked my young friend what else I should read, and she recommended Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin. It's about a Chinese girl named Minli who goes on a long journey to try to change her family's fortune. In the end, she learns that family is the greatest fortune of all.

Every year my college friend and I have an Inner Child Reunion. During our first reunion a few years ago, I introduced her to Sophie and she realized that she had a part of herself that was not allowed to play. So we make it a priority to get together for a few days over the summer for an extended play date. This year we could not find a mutual time to meet, so she decided to bring her son and meet me at my brother's house because I had to babysit my niece. So it was a double reunion since she, my brother, and I all went to UVA.

As usual, my friend and I lamented over the very adult burdens of money, weight gain, and aging, but without the same level of obsessiveness as before. Perhaps it was because spending several days with 4 adults and 2 actual children, in addition to our inner children, left us with less energy for lamentations. Or perhaps it was because being together helped us to be more grateful for what we have.

I'm not gonna lie. We did not become enlightened beings over the past few days. We would still like to make a little more money, lose a little weight, and slow down the aging process. But we were also reminded that we are blessed to have family and friends who enjoy singing and recording "Let It Go" for hours on end, several days in a row. How many other people can say that? (I would post one of the videos but it's kind of embarrassing.)

Perhaps it is no coincidence that I finished "Where the Mountain Meets the Moon" last night, at the conclusion of our Inner Child/College Reunion. Grace Lin was right: gratitude brings good fortune.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Almost Whole

"Things that are broken can be made whole." That's my favorite line in Little Princes.

Conor Grennan did not volunteer at the orphanage in Nepal for religious purposes. When he decided to start a non-profit organization for the sole purpose of rescuing 7 of the orphans he met from drug traffickers, he still did not think he was doing God's will. But there were so many miraculous incidents that allowed him to succeed in his mission of finding these orphans, and their parents, and reuniting their families, that he decided to buy a Bible so that he could rediscover God.

This line was actually spoken by Conor's friend, Liz, who would eventually become his wife. She confessed to him that she was married and divorced by her mid-twenties. She felt so broken and ashamed at the time that she stopped going to church. She tells Conor that "God used that time of great sadness to reclaim me, to redeem me. Things that are broken can be made whole."

Isn't therapy, too, about making people whole? Isn't that what I'm trying to do with my blog? I have never thought of it in those terms.

I have always feared that there was something fundamentally wrong with me. Like I was born with some kind of crack in my foundation that becomes apparent whenever I make another mistake. My therapist said that perhaps these cracks are there to allow me to breathe. I didn't believe her when she said this, and I was annoyed that she was trying to turn my fundamental flaw into something positive. Those darn therapists! Always trying to see the positive side of things.

I signed and notarized the divorce papers a few days ago. Usually every step forward makes me cry, but this one did not. Not yet, at least. Maybe it was because I had it notarized by my tennis partner after our match and went to lunch with my team afterwards, which did not leave me any time for self-reflection. Or maybe I'm finally beginning to accept that this is the right thing for both of us.

In any case, I did not beat myself up for leaving or for failing to make things work, as I usually do. I did not let my inner critic tell me that this is what I deserve. I can't say that I am at peace with the whole thing, but I am further along than I was when I wrote the first post on divorce.

In this moment, I am focusing more on my blessings than my losses. Perhaps this means I am on my way to becoming whole.