Everyday Grace

thoughts and inspiration on emotional health by colleen p. arnold

Archive for the month “March, 2011”

The Gifts of Salad and Sunlight

I went through a fairly significant depression in my early thirties. I’m sure I could write a book describing the journey and the hell, like so many have. But two of the memories that stand out most significantly for me during that time are not painful ones.

For the first few months, I had a very hard time eating. Not only had I lost my appetite, which, believe me, was VERY unusual, but the idea of solid food actually made me sick. There were few foods my stomach could tolerate, so I survived on soup and toast, as much as I could, for at least a month. I lost over 10 lbs. in that first month, which was significant on my 5’ tall frame.

About 3 months after what I call “the initial meltdown,” I was back to eating normal foods, but my appetite hadn’t really returned. I was at my internship eating a salad I’d brought from home. I remember it so well – green leaf lettuce, crumbled gorgonzola cheese and honey Dijon salad dressing. I have this very clear memory of sitting at the table in the kitchen, it was dark and cold out, and I realized I was enjoying my salad. It tasted GOOD. Not just adequate and not just less than nausea inducing, but GOOD. I was ENJOYING it. It was literally the first time in those three months that I was aware of enjoying anything. I’d been hanging on by my fingernails, coping and functioning (minimally), but the realization that I could enjoy something again felt like a gift from God. I actually got tears in my eyes sitting in front of that salad. The gift of feeling positively about something was huge.

The second memory happened about 6 months into the depression. I’d started medication and the really difficult periods were fewer and farther apart, but I still felt fragile and rocky. I drove to work that morning after about a week of very rainy, gray weather. The clouds had parted and the sun was shining. The sunlight streamed through the trees as I drove down Euclid Avenue in Berkeley, and it was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. I’d never paid much attention to the weather before, so the effect the sunlight had on me surprised me. I can still see in my mind the corner I was stopped at, the houses that shone in the light and the green leaves filtering the bright streams of light.

I would say these two events are two of the most profound in my life – and the reason is precisely because they were such ordinary events that, in spite of being so ordinary, produced euphoria. I expected my wedding day and the days my children were born to be important, and they were. I did not expect a salad and sunlight to become my symbols of rising out of darkness, and it’s the very ordinariness of their existence that make them so potent.

For me, depression was a transformative experience. Two small things, a salad and the morning sunlight, had such a profound effect on me that I never forgot them. Since then, I’ve been so very aware of daily blessings. The fact that the freshly washed sheets feel soft and clean when I get into bed is a blessing. The sound of the rain on the roof while I’m in my cozy bed is a blessing. Finding a Tikka Masala that isn’t too hot for my bland-Irish taste buds is a cause for celebration (FYI, Trader Joe’s is perfect).

For me, chronic emotional pain was the opening to happiness, because once I really let myself fall into the depression I’d been staving off for years, I was finally able to appreciate not being in pain – when it finally happened. I’m so grateful for every day I’m not depressed. I’m so grateful for all the gifts that my post-depression life has brought me. There are definitely times when I’m more tuned into the blessings of pleasure than others. But I try very hard to not forget how wonderful the ability to feel pleasure is, especially since I’ve experienced losing it.Depression actually made my life richer by letting me see the sacred in the everyday.

Jump Starts

In cars, a jump start creates energy in a dead engine. Every once in a while, I need a jump start. I start to feel sluggish, slow in mind and body, and it feels like everything is too tight – finances, my jeans, my family’s demands. I knew I needed a jump start when I posted on my Facebook page, “I could really use a weekend at a hot springs right about now.” Planning a weekend away is just not in the cards right now, so I thought about the smaller things I could do to get my mojo back, and two things came to mind almost instantly:

1. Exercise

2. Organize something

Exercise creates energy. Any time I’m feeling overly tired, I know I haven’t been exercising enough. I remember a doctor on the radio commenting that if they could put exercise into a pill, it would relieve the symptoms of most ailments better than any medicine available. That always stuck with me and if I ever feel like my physical well-being is less than optimal, I try increasing my exercise before checking in with the doctor, and most of the time, I feel better pretty quickly.

De-cluttering, for me, is another powerful way to increase energy. I find that the act of clearing away or organizing an area makes me feel productive and clears the way for new ways of seeing things. In Feng Shui, de-cluttering is a necessary step to inviting new energy into your life. My life gets cluttered very easily. I tend to keep things I don’t need, or might feel sentimental about, and then I get overwhelmed with the clutter and ignore it. My natural way of being is not simple and clutter-free, so for me, de-cluttering has actually become kind of a spiritual practice that I need to continually practice.

My husband agreed he’d be responsible for the boys that afternoon, which gave me a few hours. If I hadn’t been intent on creating energy, I probably would have taken a nap or done office paperwork. Which is fine, but I knew in my heart that I needed to stoke the fire a bit.

I would have preferred a walk outside, but it was raining buckets, so I pulled out the Wii Fit, informed my sons that it was Mama’s turn to use the Wii, and no, I wasn’t going to do a 2-person game so the 5-year-old could just put down the extra remote. (He parked himself next to the board the entire time, so I just told him this was my time to exercise, and reminded him that he was capable of getting a drink himself or he could ask his dad.)

I felt better quickly. The Wii Fit isn’t exactly running a marathon, but it’s fun and I know which activities I have to do to work up a sweat. I did about 45 minutes, which was enough to remind my body that it could do more than sit in a desk chair.

Then I put my earbuds in my ears, pulled up “This American Life” on my iPod, and went to work in the bedroom. In about 2 hours I’d cleared out four large garbage bags of sweaters, jackets and pants that I kept because they were good quality, but I never wore. I took photos of all of them (for tax purposes – we always itemize our donations and keep careful records). They will be delivered to a local clothing bank within the week.

There are a lot of things on my to-do list that I haven’t gotten to, and that’s fine. I needed to prioritize those tasks that would help me gain momentum and propel me into this week so I could tackle it with energy.

Look at your to-do list. Which of those tasks will create energy, instead of deplete it?  Sometimes it’s important to put aside that which is urgent and focus on that which is essential.

Charlie Sheen: Mental Illness is Not Entertainment

One of my guilty pleasures is celebrity gossip. And I have to admit, part of my fascination is pure schadenfreude – when I’m struggling to make ends meet or balance my kids, work and other commitments, and I think, “If only I had an extra pair of hands, or a housekeeper, or a personal assistant, or more money, life would be easier…” it’s kind of reassuring to see that people with far more money and resources than I are also messed up and probably not very happy, even with their perfectly highlighted hair and designer clothes.

I’d been very peripherally following the Charlie Sheen saga, and knew he had issues with drugs and women. On Monday, I heard about these interviews he’d initiated in which he defended his actions. So I tuned in that night and watched his Today show and GMA interviews.

As I watched, I became increasingly uncomfortable. This wasn’t a hedonistic rock star who knew the consequences of his actions and was still choosing inebriation. Now, I obviously am not going to diagnose him on the basis of a television interview, but I will tell you that as I watched, I had flashbacks to every adult I’ve ever hospitalized in an unmedicated manic episode. Grandiosity, flight of ideas, pressured speech…it was all there. Of course he’s high on Charlie Sheen – it’s fun to be manic. And when you’re manic, you think you’re going to stay manic forever and it will be fabulous. Of course he can be sober now – his brain is providing a natural high. (Another disclaimer – I don’t know that he’s bipolar or in a manic phase – this is simply my impression based on his televised interviews).

But what about when he crashes? That’s when some people with bi-polar disorder turn to stimulants to try to keep the high going. That’s why so many people with mood disorders have co-occurring substance abuse issues. Their brain chemicals are not working right, so they’re trying to self-medicate to even out those chemicals.

I’ve seen more calls for the media to stop enabling him, and I hope it sinks in. In my opinion, they’re not just enabling him, they’re using his mental illness for entertainment value. Mental illness is not entertainment.

I do hope this ends up raising awareness for what mental illness can look like. People who are mentally ill are often unaware that their minds are playing tricks on them, but they also are smart, talented, and able to function in other ways. It can happen to anybody, and it doesn’t have to ruin lives. So please, stop laughing at him.

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