Depression as a Gift

What?  Has she really lost her rocker this time?  Perhaps.  My kids would tell you that I do that often.  But, I am asking you to think outside the box with me on this one … that depression might be an opportunity.  Let’s try it on for size.  
 
If seen in a certain light, depression could be an invitation to reflect.  It can be the entryway by which we stop and ponder the deeper nature of our being.  Who are we?  Where are we on this journey of life?  Are we living from the the essence of our truest self?  Depression can be symptomatic angst that draws our attention to the fact that something is not working well inside of us and needs to change.  Are we stalled in our path of growth?  Have we been storing anger?  Have we experienced a loss yet to be grieved?  Have we grown out of (or need to grow out of) a tired relationship?  Are we preparing for an important life transition by going inside to later explode outside much like a caterpillar cocoons before becoming a butterfly?  Are we having an anniversary reaction to something held back in our unconscious life?  

Whatever it might be, it is something.  And as I have learned in my life and work, no one is crazy to themselves.  Somewhere, somehow there is meaning and reason for the symptoms and feelings we are experiencing and the behaviors we are exhibiting.   Depression is thus a possible opening to learn something helpful and important about ourselves. Maybe it is a much needed wake-up call for us to begin a long overdue shift.    

Furthermore, depression is a chance to wander the halls of our dark side.  In the totality of our humanness, we aren’t meant to be just happy.  Happiness is a feeling – just like all the other feelings we are capable of having and enjoying in life.  But often, it is not the feeling of pleasure that connects us to our deeper self and to that in others.  In fact, frequently, it is in our most unpleasant moments that we get honest, tell the truth, become most creative and get authentically emotionally connected with another person.  Many of the world’s best leaders and artists are known to have struggled with depression.  From the depths of their soulful painfulness came great art, music, poetry and leadership.  Depressive feelings offer you a chance to explore and embrace your yet-to-be-illuminated self.  You never know what you might discover.

So, if depression can actually be beneficial, then shame is not necessary.  No self-attacking.  And for that matter, no attacking of anyone else either.  No criticism, judgment or preconceived ideas of what I should be like or feel like.  Unfortunately, mental health – or lack there of – remains a scope in the human landscape where we go one-up on the other.  This grandiose and entitled jockeying serves to distance ourselves not only from other people, but also from our own anxiety … “at least I am not like that” or “thank God, I am not as bad off as they are.”  The truth is  … we are all like that … struggling, issue-ridden, imperfect, doing the best we can in the rocky boat of life.  Ideally, we take up the journey of growth and discovery on our own accord.  But as is often the case, many of us need a good push to get started.   
 
So, this month, if you, or someone you love, is feeling depressed, I extend you the invitation to get curious about the feeling state in a deep way – as opposed to wanting to deny or avoid it.   What does it mean?  What is it trying to tell you?   Why now in your life?  Does it have a greater meaning within context of your family?  Do you seek misery as a protection against further loss and hurt?  Does it offer comfort like a warm blanket?  What is it hiding, covering defending against?   Explore and embrace your depression as an unwanted surprise.  It just might enable an unveiling of an expanded, freer you.

Road-Tripping

This summer, I took several road trips.  I even took a road trip accidentally … one that I never intended to take.  If there is a hell, it has to partially be paved with I-95 … particularly the four mile section that took three hours to traverse.   We could have walked home faster. 

I once heard a college friend of mine say that when traveling, he’d rather drive than fly.  He said that unless he feels each and every mile under him, he loses a sense of groundedness.  In other words, to leave one world one moment and be in another world in the next moment, that is too mind-blowing.  Flying disoriented him.  He wanted to see every mile pass by his own eyes.  He wanted to know exactly where he was, where he had been and where he was going.  No “I-Dream-Of-Jeannie now-you-see-me, now-you-don’t” eye-blink for him.   His feet were staying flat on the ground. 

Ok …  I understand that when he made that proclamation, he was young and dumb.  (To his credit, he has probably long since changed his mind and become a proud frequent-flyer.)  But, on the other hand, I appreciate his sentiment … and even my sure embellishment of it.   Life cannot be lived by skipping over the required mileage.  We  just can’t be picked up and beamed from point A to point B.  Rather, we have to live every inch, every mile, every pothole, every road construction, every detour, every toll booth, every traffic jam.  In fact, if someone had magically flown me into mile 48 of my life without me having to wander and negotiate through the first 47, I would be so stupefied that I would swear I taken the wrong flight.  I would be left dumbfounded,   asking the question – how the hell did I end up here? 

Indeed, flying might be the more efficient form of travel but the value of speed doesn’t work when it comes to our personal pilgrimage.  My story … my particular road-trip … is horrifically and wonderfully mine.  I didn’t plan it and I certainly didn’t intend it to turn out the way it has.   But it is mine and I got to find a way to own it.  Were there many stretches of road that I wish I could have flown right over.?  You betcha.  In fact, there are exits and detours taken that I hope to never visit again.  And yet, I am where I am today because of the path I have trod.  And in that, there is no magic.  Just worn tires,  mileage on the speedometer, crumbs on the seat, scratches on the paint … and hopefully, along the way, an expanded soul that has been nourished and can now nourish.  

Next summer, my family and I have plans to fly somewhere, anywhere.  Meanwhile, my daily life requires that I keep my feet on the ground and stay on this adventure.  No telling what it has in store for me, but I am grateful that I get to take it mile by mile.  I am buckled up and settled in.   It’s gonna be a long ride ahead but I am ready. 

The Unconscious Redefined

I was putting my daughter to bed recently.  In her own beyond-her-years precociousness, she says to me … “you know, Mom, how you know something in your heart but your brain does not quite know it yet?”  Out of the mouth of my nine-year-old came a perfect description of the unconscious.   That the truth is there  – just sitting, just waiting, sometimes patiently, sometimes not – for us to open our mind and put a thought around it and maybe even a spoken word.   Like tiptoeing in the dark, we sense something, intuit its validity in the depth of our being, only to complete its acknowledgement when it enters the light of our intellectual understanding. 

I don’t know what cloud my head was in but I certainly did not grasp such an abstract concept at the tender age of nine.   In fact, it has taken me more years working on myself than I want to count to begin to trust that the truth, my truth, was tucked inside me, tapping its fingers, waiting for me to listen and to trust it. 

May you have the courage to unbusy your life and your mind to listen to your heart.  It just might have something that it has been dying to tell you.

How Stress Hardy Are You?

“Stress is an ignorant state. It believes that everything is an emergency.”
                                                                                         -Natalie Goldberg   
Psychophysiological conditions have a mind/body connection component and are supported by science.  Chronic stress is a contributing factor for a large number of illnesses and diseases.  When the fight/flight/freeze response remains activated for an extended period of time, we start to experience certain physical and emotional effects.  According to a report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, stress has a great impact on our health:

 
  •     70-80% of all visits to the doctor are for stress-related and stress-induced illnesses;
  •    Stress contributes to 50% of all illness in the United States
Stress hardiness is a set of beliefs about oneself, the world, and how they interact.  It takes shape as a sense of personal commitment to what you are doing and a sense of efficacy about  your place in the world.  These factors provide an adaptive foundation of resiliency that allow you to withstand the stressors that life throws your way.  So, what are some ways to increase your stress hardiness? 

1.  Breathe.  The body cannot co-exist simultaneously in a stressed and in a relaxed state.  When you find yourself winding up and starting to go over the edge, take a few deep breaths into the depth of your belly.  It will shift you from the panic breathing of the chest  to that of slowed relaxation from the diaphragm. 

2.  Question Your Thinking.  Are you staying in reality or has your perception of the situation become distorted?   Are you clear about what is yours or are you taking on more responsibility and contribution than is yours to take?  Are you expecting perfection rather than giving yourself the space to be human?  Stress can often be averted or downgraded once we have accurately assessed reality and determined what exactly needs our attention and action and what really is not necessary.

3.  Stay in the Now.  Stress is a fear of the future which is activated when a stimulus threatens our survival.   When we  keep our feet, heart and head in the present moment, then stress for the future dissipates.   We can focus on the resources we do have at our disposal as opposed to spinning our self into a “what if” panic. 

4.  Learn to Self-Soothe.  We all need some grease for the wheels when life gets demanding.  Learning to provide a soothing cushion for ourselves is part of growing-up.  Whether yours be a particular hobby, a genre of music, a favorite form of self-care or a specific mindset that is reassuring – get to adding it to your tool box.  The more ways you have to cushion life’s edges, the softer the ride. 

5.  Take Care of Your Body.   Damn, we ask a lot of it.  It houses our heart and mobilizes our actions for some 80-plus years if we are lucky.  When we are young and bounce-backable, well … we could treat the ole machinery with some honest neglect.   But as the body ages, it is very good at letting us know that our years of hard living, while taking her for granted, will amount to payback.  So, you know the drill … sleep, eat your vegetables, take your vitamins, visit your doctor, move your body,  give in to a good belly laugh now and again and take a frequent roll in the hay.  All these things are good for you and will increase your stress hardiness.

6.  Reach Out for Support.  Yes, we all need people.  Independence is not what it’s cracked up to be, particularly when we were born to connect and have healthy wants and needs that can only be met by someone  else.  People that have peopled lives are more stress hardy.  We need to laugh, cry, share, expose our vulnerabilities, celebrate our successes and know that we are not alone and have good company no matter where we are on life’s path.    

7.  Know Your Limits.   Learning what my limits are – emotionally, physically, relationally –  and living within these limits can go a long way to free me up.  When I move past the grandiose idea that I can do all things and that I am responsible for all things, life suddenly becomes more manageable.  Learning to live within the boundaries of my own self gives me permission to let go of all the rest. 
 
Ok.  There are seven good places to start.   Take a deep breath … and just start …

Damn on you Death

A good friend of mine died last weekend.  She was one day shy of turning 64.  Brain cancer got her.  And it only gave her a three-month notice.  I was not done being friends with my friend.  I want more time.  But, I guess death got demanding.  It did not listen to my wishes and chose to have its way.  Damn, death can be unyielding that way …  always arriving unannounced and at the most inconvenient of times.

Vicki was one of my “Mexican Jail Friends.”  You know the kind.  The ones that if you find yourself unexpectedly in a bind, they are on the short list of folks that when you call them, they will drop everything and come fetch you.   I loved her for that.   She was present.  In the big moments and in the small ones.  In the tearful ones and in the joyful ones.  In the sober ones and in the not-so-sober ones.   She celebrated my successes and picked-me-up after my failures.   Her life was indeed a treasure.     

Vicki always wanted me to write, to do more than even I thought I was capable.  I am grateful to have walked the steps of life we did as friends.  I wish you peace, my friend, and send you on your way in love. 

Relational Success: The Five Winning Strategies

Here are five sure-fire-never-fail ways to make your relationships more effective.  And remember, that changing my behavior – working my side of the net – will impact the dynamic of the relationship, even if the other person keeps doing the same unproductive thing over and over.   
 

1. Shift from Complaint to Request.

Move from a negative and past focus to a positive and future focus.  Criticism is demeaning and one-upping.  Instead, ask for what you want differently.  Make your requests specific, behavioral and reasonable.  Use language that is direct and respectful such as … “I would like it if you would …” or “I would like to make a request.”  Your partner will feel more willing to want to help and thus, you are more likely to get what you want. 
  
2.  Speak with Love and Savvy. 
 

If one person in the relationship is in disharmony, than the relationship is in disharmony and is in need of repair.  Ask your partner to engage in the repair process.  Tell your partner what you experienced, what you made up in your head about what you saw or heard, what you made yourself feel about it and what you would like differently in the future.  Once you have done this, let go of outcome.  You have a hit a good ball on your side of the net and you cannot micro-manage or control your partner’s response.   

 
3.  Respond with Generosity.

Relationships are not a zero-sum game.  Unless I am a boundaryless codependent, if I give to you, I am not depleted.  There is still plenty left for me.  In fact, there may be more left for me.  I do not have to engage in endless bean-counting because when I help you, I help the “we” which helps me.  Thus, assisting my partner from a place of generosity is an act of self-care.  When my partner is in disharmony, I listen with the intent to understand.  I then swallow some humble pie and own my contributions, however minimal they may have been.  I consider his/her request for the future and give whatever I can give. 

4. Practice Gratitude.

Acknowledge the gifts that your partner has offered, even if it is less than or not exactly what you wished for. Learning to grieve what we are not getting allows room for appreciation for what we are receiving.  Ask your partner what you can do to help him/her meet your request. 
 

5. Cherish the Other.   

This is your partner.  This is your lover.  This is your child.  This is your parent.  This is your neighbor.  This is your business partner.  Remember the gift that this person is to you and relish in the abundance that this person provides in your life.  Like you, they are an ever-evolving, imperfect human being with a back story.  Learn to nourish them and your relationship with time, energy, effort and compassion.  For, it is the sweetest juice of life. Enjoy!   
 

Which of these behaviors can you begin to practice today?   

Pulling Teeth

I come from a long line of dentists.  And I mean looonnggg.  Ready?  Both of my grandfathers were dentists.  My maternal grandfather was also a dental school professor.  My father was a dentist and slated to be the President of the Tennessee Dental Association.   His only brother, my uncle, is a dentist.  Both of my brothers are dentists.  My cousin is a dentist.  My nephew is currently in graduate school studying to be what?  Yes, you guessed it.  A dentist.   And, of course, my parents met at none other than a dental convention.  Hmmm … luck of the draw that all these men (notice – they are all men) have a passion for teeth or is this a sign of family dysfunction and enmeshment?  Perhaps another essay for another time.   

My father wanted me to join the family heritage and become a dentist.  I too could pursue dentistry as a profession and I could be the one that broke the gender glass ceiling.  But, no, thank you!  I was very clear from a young age that such was not going to be my chosen path. 

Before I was of legal working age, Dad had me assisting at his office during the summer.  I think my official title was “Go-For.”   You know … get this, go for that.  I cleaned dental instruments, organized trays for the next patients, restocked supplies and did whatever other grunt work nobody else wanted to do.   It was enough hands-on experience for me to get a sense of what the day-to-day life of a dentist involved.   Don’t get me wrong.  As a pre-teen, I loved the paycheck.  Seven dollars an hour felt like riches!   And the flexible hours I had with the boss … well, that was unbeatable.   Any afternoon, I could just take off for the movies.  But, putting my hands in people’s mouths all day long?  Trying to make one-way small talk while the other party was gagging with an open mouth?  Having to tolerate the sight of blood?  Having to cause all that pain?  Having people hate you just because they fear you?   Not for me.  Nope.  Nada.  Not even considering that one. 

Besides, with all those dentists, I figured this family needed a good shrink.  And of course, the rest is history.  I am the lone ranger who carved an uncharted vocational path within my family history.  But, what has surprised me as my career as a psychotherapist has unfolded over the years, is that perhaps I did choose the same family profession after all.  

Like a dentist, folks come to me in pain and want me to “fix” them.   And not only do they want me to “fix” them, but they want a cure that is instantaneous and pain-free.   

Like a dentist, I too am frequently feared and hated in that in order to heal a wound, I often have to dig under and around  it –  which can temporarily cause, not only more pain, but the rawness of the unfamiliar.   But unlike dentistry, I cannot offer a shot of anasthesia or a dose of laughing gas to aid in this process.  Sometimes, it just hurts.

Like a dentist, I teach preventative care.  Instead of brushing and flossing, I teach emotional literacy and relational effectiveness.  Working my way out of a job is my job. 

And like a dentist, I pull a hell of a lot of teeth.  In my field, we call it resistance.  Folks come in and proclaim they want change.  Something in their life is not working – something within them or something or someone outside of them.   As we begin the process of uncovering what needs to change and why it has not changed in the past, we often hit Newton’s law of physics – every action has an equal and opposite reaction.   You mean you want me to do that?  You mean you want me to modify that?  Heels dig in.  The walls of Ft. Knox solidify.  Self-protection of the known and the familiar becomes almost impossible to penetrate. 

Dr. Suess knew this dilemma.  He discussed it in melodic poetry in his classic, Green Eggs and Ham.  As a refresher, this annoying little varmint tries to convince the older, wiser creature that if only he would try green eggs and ham, he would love them.   The more the seller tries to convince his friend that he really will enjoy the meal, the more the older guy runs for the hills in resistance.   But the seller is ever persistent.  He skitters optimistically from a boat to a moat to a goat trying convince his friend that he has something that he will enjoy, that he even needs.  And of course, out of perhaps sheer exhaustion or at least with the hopes of finally getting rid of this pest, the old guy surrenders.  He tastes the goods … and the tide turns. …   “Thank you, thank you, Sam-I-am.  I do so like green eggs and ham.” 

Like the annoying Sam-I-Am in Green Eggs and Ham, I am in the position of seduction.  Patients come to me for something and yet often, they leave with something more … something they didn’t even know they needed.  Unlike the patients that sit in the dental chairs of my kinfolk, my patients are not passive objects who are knocked out, drugged-up and unable to talk back.   Yes, it is my job to relieve the pain that brought them to my office, the pain they carry unnecessarily.  But, stopping there is not my goal.  I want to make them better than ever, better than they ever they knew they could be.  

So, if you run into any Dr. Sullivans from the Southland, chances are he is a dentist.  And if he is a dentist, chances are he is a relative of mine.  That being said, I too am carrying on the family legacy by pulling teeth in my neck of the woods, in a way that I like to do it – by removing character traits and defensive behaviors that are no longer functional and are causing more pain than assistance; by teaching effective and strong tools to obtain the emotional nourishment one needs to sustain the journey; by sharpening a better bite when life demands that one take care of one’s self; and by polishing a healthy smile to flash the world should a moment of joy be uncontainable.