Wednesday, January 30, 2013

When Work is Wearing You Down

I solicited suggestions for topics the other day on Facebook, and somebody recommended that I write a post about work, which I think is a great idea. The person who made the recommendation correctly observed that work, for better or worse, is a huge part of our lives (for most of us).

Aside from the many hours we spend on the job, we also need to account for the time we spend getting ready for the day, traveling to the office, traveling home from the office, and transitioning back into what remains of the rest of the day or evening. That time adds up quickly, especially when you consider that, for many people, that process repeats itself almost ceaselessly until retirement. So it can be said, then, that work costs us our time. Work also costs us money; we dedicate considerable financial resources to work. For example, we spend money on commuting, on our wardrobe, and on feeding ourselves during the work day.

The biggest potential cost of work, though, is on our mind, heart, and spirit.

Whether we like what we do for work or not, we've all had "one of those days." Sometimes, for some people, "one of those days" turns into "one of those" weeks, months, years, and even careers, unfortunately. And it doesn't even have to be so drastic and acute, you know? Dissatisfaction, boredom, and aimlessness in one's work can sneak up on a person, insidiously, until they find themselves thoroughly exhausted by life, and dreading "just another damn day at the office." Viewed in that light, the sardonic worker-bee refrain, "another day, another dollar: and not a penny more" is grim indeed.

I've been there, to be sure -- on the aforementioned journey of acute occupational dissatisfaction, that is. I was miserable with my work; and not so much because of the nature of the work in question, but rather because of the fact that I didn't at that time have an identifiable aim for my professional life. I perceived what I was doing to be nothing more than a means to some meaningless end, and utterly devoid, furthermore, of relevance and importance to my life's mission. It made no sense to me, given the arc of my life, and I dreaded waking up for work in the morning as a result. If that sounds dramatic, that's because it was dramatic.

So, what got me through? For that matter, what gets anyone through occupational despair? I guess I can't definitively answer for everyone, because, well, I'm not everyone. But I suspect that some folks are highly adept at compartmentalizing their lives; i.e., they're able to keep their dissatisfaction with work at work, and go on with the business of enjoying the rest of their lives. If that resonates with you, please know that I'm insanely jealous of, and happy for, you. :) For others, though, and for myself, certainly, a four-letter H-word is the key: hope. I'm not talking about pie-in-the-sky hope, mind you; I'm talking about real hope.

Have you ever wondered why and how such terrible things in our history as, for example, slavery and coal mining gave rise to such rich, amazing, and influential music? To my way of thinking, slaves and miners were horribly oppressed by the nature of their work, and they needed to be lifted up. Moreover, I think their needs for happiness and fulfillment simply refused to die: they fought their ways to the surface, and they emerged in brilliant melody and time signature. The music which these groups of people made, then, was the manifestation and reminder of the spirit -- of the life -- which continued to dwell within them, despite their troubles. And so it goes with all of us, my friends -- that spirit, and that urge to thrive, dwells within us all.

I'm reminded of a Grateful Dead song, called "Cumberland Blues," that nearly always brings me to tears when I hear it. Here some of the lyrics:

Lotta poor man make a five-dollar bill
Keeps him happy all the time
Some other fella's makin' nothin' at all
And you can hear him cry:
"Can I go, buddy? Can I go down?
Take your shift at the mine?"
Gotta get down to the Cumberland Mine (gotta get down to the Cumberland Mine)
That's where I mainly spend my time
Make good money, five dollars a day
Made any more I might move away
Lotta poor man got the Cumberland blues
He can't win for losin'
Lotta poor man got to walk the line
Just to pay his union dues
I don't know now, I just don't know
If I'm going back again
I don't know now, I just don't know
If I'm going back again

(Click here to listen to the song on YouTube)

The rest of the song's lyrics help flesh it out; but to me, it's a workingman's song of desperation, and it's heartbreaking. It's a testament to the bad old days, when coal mining was a much more prevalent occupation than it is now, and even more dangerous. A piece of me wants to give thanks that we've evolved beyond work conditions like coal mining, and like slavery -- but then I wonder...have we? In some ways, many workers are still in some situation or other that amounts to little more than indentured servitude. We work to pay the mortgage(s), or our car loan(s), or our student loan(s), or our credit card(s), etc.

Iron shackles and black lung disease have been replaced by consumer debt and anxiety disorders. To quote Arthur Miller: "Attention must be paid."

What's a worker to do? Most of the time, it isn't feasible, desirable, or advisable to just walk away from these obligations, because, among other reasons, they'll eventually catch back up with us. Sometimes, though, simply walking away is essential. I can't tell you what's best for you. What I can say, though, is that our task is to find real hope, and real satisfaction in our occupational lives. That's a big job in itself, to be sure, and will look vastly different for each person.

For me, I'm finding that the act of pursuing something I truly love -- writing and developing this blog, among other things -- provides me the fulfillment I currently lack in a 9-to-5 job. I hope and trust, even, that I will eventually find my way to paid work that is enriching and sufficiently lucrative. In the meantime, I thrive on the love of what I am doing with this and other writing projects; on the trust that I will continue to give myself the -- what? -- half-hour a day I need to work on these passions; and on the very real hope that it will lead me somewhere interesting.

I urge you to give yourself a little time each day to practice your interests. A word of advice: pay no mind to the outcome for now. Just let yourself do what you enjoy. You'll be surprised what it unlocks within yourself, and you'll be surprised where it leads you.


PS -- On the sidebar of this blog on the right-hand side is a list of websites I like. Check out James Altucher's work. He has written at length about jobs and careers, has a lot of great things to say, and has helped me tremendously.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Being bad at stuff

I've been practicing being really bad at stuff lately -- not all stuff, mind you, but some stuff. What stuff? Stuff that I used to invent arbitrary measures of success for, most of which were trivial, insignificant, and/or weird; and stuff that I used to berate myself for not being perfect at, when I actually-really-truly didn't give a shit about the stuff in question to begin with! There are some things, even lots of things, that we all need to give fewer shits about.

You'll notice on my Twitter profile, here, that I declare something about taking myself too seriously, which is entirely true. I've written about that on this blog, in fact. Anyway, I get really anal about my communication sometimes, to a ridiculous extent. More often than not, it just gets in the way of me being who I am, because neurotic self-editing tends to do that, you know? So I've been practicing letting myself be a crappy conversationalist with strangers. That's not to say I'm being a prick to anyone -- no. But whereas I used to secretly assume such a ridiculous burden of responsibility in most conversations, I'm letting myself just kind of not really care how it goes; i.e., I have either no or low expectations of myself and the conversation's outcome.

Honestly, it's been really fun. Because who cares if I say something the other person doesn't understand? Not my responsibility. Who cares if my syntax isn't great? I'm just letting myself be me for a change, and it's like a weight is gone.

Maybe take a minute today and think about some of the unreasonable expectations you have of yourself. And then maybe go ahead and let yourself be bad at it. "Let yourself suck," I like to say. Give fewer shits. It's kind of liberating, it really is.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Clearing the Air

I really enjoy working on this blog. I love writing and networking, and I'm even learning a little about managing a website. It's exciting to be creating something I find really interesting, and it's been incredibly gratifying to get readers' support and feedback. So, thanks.

I don't know exactly what this blog is evolving into, but I do know I owe it to myself, and to anyone who reads its content, for it to be as "top-notch" as possible. I need to always have an eye on progress. And if you're going to be reading my work, I think you ought to know as much as possible about my motives, and about my "chops," so to speak; therefore, there's something I want to share with you that might give you a better sense of why I'm doing this, and where, moreover, I'm coming from.

Here goes:

I've been interested in human psychology for a very long time, which is not in and of itself an especially notable thing. No, what's notable (to me, anyway) about my interest in psychology is that it's been driven in large part by a desire to, well, help myself. You see, I've gone through some really hard times from a mental health perspective. I'm sure I'll divulge more about that in future posts, but suffice to say I've experienced my own little slices of hell -- some of which were situational, some of which were part of normal stages of human development, and others which were, well, difficult to tidily explain.

The hell-slices which were difficult to explain were life-changing, and a lot of destruction arose from them; but, in retrospect, the destruction in each case was utterly necessary to my journey, or to my personal creation story, if you will. Each episode of destruction carried within it the seeds of growth and renewal, and so I'm grateful for them. (Incidentally, I tongue-in-cheek dub an aspect of myself "my inner Shiva the Destroyer" for these very reasons.)

It doesn't mean these episodes of destruction weren't truly hellish. Some of them left me so wretched, disconnected, and confused that I nearly lost my life.

I want you, my readers, to know these things about me, because I think they're relevant to this blog. I also am finding a certain catharsis in discussing them so publicly. You see, my desire to stand up on a soapbox and spread the word about mental health springs out of my own, very personal experiences. I know what it's like to feel abject misery. I know what it's like to feel like I'm utterly out of control. I know what it's like to feel as if I'm going crazy. Shit, I have gone crazy, in my own little way. And you want to know what really sucks about it, and what ignites my passion to do this? Much of it could have been offset if my loved ones and I had known more about mental health -- and I'm not unique in that regard: much of the mental health-related suffering that others experience today could be mitigated with a little less ignorance, and a little dose of education.

You know what else? I'm really fortunate: I made it through. That brings me to my last points for now -- and don't mess with me on this, because I know what I'm talking about:

1) There is always hope: even if you feel hopeless, even if you can't entertain the thought of it, and even if you can't see it. Always. 2) There is always something we can learn from our experiences, however horrible they may be. Stay curious about your life; and if you aren't curious, get curious. 3) If you're going through hell, always find a way to let the hurt out which you feel in your heart and mind, whether it's via talking to a friend, writing in a journal, singing in a band, taking a walk, playing with a puppy, or meditating alone in a room. Better out than in: release it.

We must free ourselves from the shackles of ignorance and shame about mental health. We all think; we all feel. We all experience this life, so let's be curious about it, then. Let's acknowledge that pain and unbalance exist within us all! Let's give each other the space to reach out in times of need, understanding that we are all, periodically, in need; and, similarly, let's extend our hand to help another up in our own unique way. That's what I'm trying to do here.

Thanks for reading. 

Friday, January 25, 2013

Reframing for Opportunity and Productivity

We all have problems. Some problems are easy to handle: we manage them without distress and move on. Other problems, though, are more difficult. They play on our fears, and they elicit powerful thoughts, impulses, and feelings. The resulting psychological discomfort may tempt us into groping after quick-fix avoidant behaviors which, after all, don't actually help -- and may exacerbate -- the problem. It happens to all of us. As I recently said, none of us is invulnerable in this life. We all have buttons that can be pushed, and life sure as hell pushes them sometimes.

The problem, as I see it, is when we get bogged down and knocked off track by our problems, and especially when we allow our problems to consume us. When things go wrong that really bother us, it's all-too-easy to fall into a pessimistic, angry, and/or victim mentality. The issue with such a mentality, aside from the fact that it exacerbates our suffering, is that it can limit or block altogether our ability to adjust, connect with our goals, and move on.

Pessimism, negativity, anger, and feeling like a victim are normal human experiences, but they are, nevertheless, subjective experiences. Persistent patterns of beliefs in those regards are products of what we call concrete thinking, and its limiting potential is endless -- not a good thing for the intrepid life journeyer. (For illustration, think about the most pessimistic person you know, and recall a conversation with them. If you think about the things they tend to say, you'll probably notice the utter conviction of their views; that is, they firmly, steadfastly believe that their worldview is the way it is, period.) Since persistent negativity is such a powerful experience, though, and since most of us don't necessarily intuitively question our beliefs, it's very tempting to automatically believe and identify with these negative views.

When this happens, and when we are stuck in this type of persistent pattern of thought, we have to recalibrate our thinking in order to truly move on. Fortunately, there's a simple technique -- a simple question -- we can use to help us achieve this aim, and all it requires is a little willpower. Why willpower? Because we will probably discover that negativity has its own allure, and doesn't relinquish control easily. The negativity I'm talking about, after all, is a defense mechanism, and is designed, strange though it may sound, to provide comfort against the pain of disappointment, feeling powerless, and fear. It's kind of like "The Force" in Star Wars: there's a light side and a dark side; the dark side is very powerful and, therefore, tempting -- but it only leads to decay, corruption, slavery, and death. Who needs that? I sure as hell don't. So if we find ourselves succumbing to the gravity of negative thinking, we have to choose something different, and work to make that something different happen.

I digress. The question-thought-technique is simple, and it goes something like this: "Ok, Self, you're miserable. This, this, this, and this are going badly, and everything sucks -- we've established that, right? Right. Ok, let me think...if all this stuff equals misery, and misery equals pain and suffering, then I don't want that, right? Right. So if that's what I don't want...(wait for it)...then what do I want?"

That's it! That's all there is to it! You have to force yourself into thinking about what you want, instead of ruminating perpetually about things you obviously don't. Thinking about what you want unlocks, and allows you to explore, the positive world within yourself, which is where all the good stuff that propels a person in life comes from: hopes, dreams, aspirations, motivation, clarity, passion, and resolve. And the really good news is this: Negative thinking tends to perpetuate more negative thinking, much like a trap, or a downward, never-ending spiral. Positive thinking works on the same self-perpetuating principle, except its results are freedom, joy, and achievement.

Do it up! :)

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Thought Experiments and Fear

Greetings on this fine Tuesday! I have a thought experiment to share with you, but first I want to indulge a few, well, thoughts on thought experiments.

Thought experiments can be incredibly useful, I think. Our lives and our mind-chatter can be so frenetic at times that they obscure our ability to focus. When this happens, then, and we find ourselves frustrated by the proverbial clutter, it can be helpful to impose certain parameters on our thinking. Now, I like to think about this in terms of games and music. Think about it: if games didn't have rules, there would be chaos; you wouldn't know what to do or where to go, and it would be decidedly un-fun in very short order. So if you're by yourself with a deck of cards and you don't know the rules to, say, solitaire, that deck of cards is going to be pretty useless. With music, if you don't know how to play an instrument, and you don't have an idea (intrinsic and/or studied) of how music works, then you won't be able to play it. In games and music, then, rules actually set us free by enabling us to play: when we know the rules, we don't have to think about them -- we can just play.

Good thought experiments work the same way. In a thought experiment, a hypothetical question or scenario acts the same way as do the rules of a game; i.e., just as knowledge of the rules of solitaire frees us to play it, a full consideration of the hypothetical question or scenario frees us to explore everything within its parameters.

I've found the following thought experiment to be enormously helpful with respect to, among other things, decision-making, gaining clarity, and grounding in the moment (i.e., getting out of my head). The question is, simply,

"What would you feel or think about this if all the fear associated with it were gone?"

It was a jackpot question for me at the time, it really was. When I asked myself that question, I was trying to make a decision about something important. I had made my lists of pros and cons; I had assessed the likely outcomes of my options; I had talked it out with other people; and I had done everything I could imagine to help myself arrive at a sound, decision-making platform -- but I remained very unclear about it. I soon realized that most of my confusion was borne out of fear -- not all of which, I should note, was irrational fear. I knew that there could be unpleasant consequences as the result of making a particular decision. But as soon as I asked myself that question up there, the answer instantly appeared. I made my decision accordingly, and I'm happy with it.

Fear remains, but that's ok. I'll always have fear about something or other, as will we all. We wouldn't be human if we weren't afraid of things. Sometimes it's ok to honor our fear and let it guide our decisions; but sometimes fear makes things seem a lot worse than they are. Sometimes fear just works to strip us of our clarity and confidence, and of our ability to listen to ourselves. A good thought-experiment can be the perfect antidote. Give it a go!

Monday, January 21, 2013

Social Media Stuff

Hi folks,

Like most of us, I'm "on" social media. I'll hopefully be adding "like" and "follow" buttons to my blog before too long, but in the meantime, take note of the following if you're so inclined:

You can follow me on Twitter here.

I have a Facebook page, which you can "like," here.

I have a Google+ page, which you can add to your circles, here.

A quick note: that's my personal Twitter account. I'm mulling over the merits of creating a separate handle for this blog, but I like having it everything in one place for the time being. That being said, just know that a lot of the things I tweet about are unrelated to this site, and to mental health in general.



Saturday, January 19, 2013


There isn't always a clear explanation for mental health issues, you know? Sometimes they seem to just happen, without warning, like an earthquake or a flash flood. A lot of mental health work / wellness practice / proactive healthcare, then, concerns the matter of learning how to recognize these happenings, and to better-manage them if and when they occur.

If you haven't already, you'll probably hear the "tools" metaphor as you explore the world of mental health further; i.e., mental health work is akin to the process of expanding one's collection of tools. After all, as one acquires and gains mastery of a variety of tools, one's ability to fix, build, and demolish things concurrently increases. Generally speaking, then, a person is better-equipped to handle their relationship with themselves, and the world at large, if they have a wealth of inner resources.

Remember, though, that even expert repairmen occasionally encounter a job that's really difficult. World-class athletes train exhaustively, but sometimes, despite their efforts, they tear a hamstring or pull a muscle.

None of us is invulnerable in this life. We control very little of our worlds, and of ourselves, even. Sometimes, yes, shit happens. Sometimes there's a panic attack out of the blue, or inexplicable despair strikes, or an old, long-forgotten hurt arises to torture us, or we get fired, or someone we love dies,  or we find that we're "sweating the small stuff," etc. We humans are too complicated and too fragile to not be knocked on our ass by life from time to time -- maybe even for a string of time.

The tools and inner resources which we cultivate, then, while not rendering us impervious, can help us through even the worst times. You know, even the most well-built machine needs repairing on occasion. Sometimes a house gets ruined by a flood and needs to be rebuilt. In either case, it's helpful to know how to use tools, because that way, the machine can be fixed, and the house can be rebuilt. Less tangible tools -- our inner resources, if you will -- can work to our advantage in the same way: they can help us get back up, regain perspective, learn, and keep moving forward.

Link: Here's Why Mindfulness Works

This is a good explanation of the benefits and principles of mindfulness (authored by Sybille Hildebrandt). I hope you enjoy your Saturday!

Here's Why Mindfulness Works

Thursday, January 17, 2013


It occurs to me, as it has before, that the phrase "mental health" packs a hell of a wallop. It's taboo. People don't want to talk about it. Like most things taboo, the reality of mental health is surrounded by what essentially amounts to a moat -- a moat which teems with the gnarly-toothed crocodiles of stigma, misconception, shame, fear, and sarcasm.

Most people, when confronted with taboos, metaphorically turn on their heel and run away -- it's easier that way, and safer: after all, if a thing is surrounded by a moat, it must be dangerous, right? So it's better for everyone if we just leave it alone.

Admittedly, there is a thread of defensible logic to that line of thinking regarding taboo subjects like mental health. Sometimes an individual, or even the collective We, can get away with leaving well enough alone; and when the inevitable, if rare, moat crossing occurs, we can conveniently treat it with an authentic, if slightly contrived, shock and horror.
However, the fact of the matter is that we are fascinated by the deep, dark corners of this human experience of ours. We are captivated by taboos. The movies and television shows we watch, the news stories that get all the press, the jokes we tell, the games we play, and the secrets we keep tend to contain material and experiences which are somehow reprehensible, unacceptable, abnormal, and grotesque -- and we secretly devour it with relish and indulgence. Industries thrive on it; we can't tear away from it.

That, to me, is what's truly grotesque: that we can make a mockery or entertainment out of something without having the courage to have an actual conversation about it.
I am here to tell you now that we all, each of us, contain that which is dark, nasty, ugly, grotesque, and taboo. Thankfully, we don't necessarily make even a fraction of it manifest in our behavior, but it's there nevertheless; and it is an important aspect of our humanity. To deny it is folly, for it is indelibly there, whether we want to admit it or not, and it is impossible to bury or deny aspects of ourselves without suffering some sort of consequence.


Ahh, "mental health"...I wish I had a different phrase for it! It carries such stigma. When I was growing up, I equated mental health and mental illness with people in padded rooms. Anyone with mental health problems, in my view, was utterly crazy, always, and incapacitated with their inexplicable, terrifying weirdness. That may seem naive -- and it is -- but I suspect there are many, many people out there whose own views about mental health and mental illness are not too far off that mark. What a shame. What an unnecessary, inaccurate, and destructive shame.

The truth is that mental health is almost exactly like physical health, in that it evolves, stabilizes, and periodically destabilizes throughout a person's life. By way of an example, a person who lives to a ripe old age has probably enjoyed a relatively healthy life, which has been free, perhaps, from chronic, severe health issues. That same person, however, may have endured a few dozen illnesses throughout their life, ranging from the common cold to bronchitis to the stomach flu to appendicitis. Likewise, a person who has remained "mentally healthy" throughout their life can probably identify instances in which they were intrusively pessimistic, angry, fearful, harried, distracted, sad, "out of control," etc. Some of these instances would certainly be circumstantial, but I'd be willing to bet that at least some of them would be rather difficult to explain.

Let me say this: if you have ever had an unusual emotional experience which has affected your actions, perceptions, and/or interactions with others, then you have experienced a mental health problem -- maybe even (gasp!) a mental illness. It doesn't mean you should have been wrapped up in a straight jacket, or that you should have been committed. It simply means you're human -- and human beings have mental health to contend with. If you can understand that, then you can understand where I'm coming from. There is no intrinsic shame in having a mental health issue; instead, it's one of those things that, well, just is. I urge everyone to consider the universality of mental health. If we can strip away the shame, stigma, and taboo, then we can free ourselves -- individually and collectively -- to offer real assistance to those in need. Chances are good, after all, that we, ourselves, will need that assistance at some point.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Guerrilla Tactics in Battling Depression, Part 2

I really don't feel like writing at the moment. We're in the middle of another single-digit-temperatures cold snap; I can't seem to get warm no matter how many layers I wear; my dog is tireless and won't leave me alone for more than a couple minutes; she woke me up at 3 am to go to the bathroom, and I wasn't able to get decent sleep last night as a result; there are a million things to do at home; this weekend was filled with frustrations; and the impatient, angry mood I've been managing lately has intensified over the last few days. Good times. I'm at the point where I want everything, and everyone who gets in my way, to f*&k off.

Okay. I've clearly escalated. I'm not sure "f&*k-ing off," or isolating myself, is A) feasible at the moment, and, moreover, B) what will actually do me some good.

You see, I want to get away from all that stuff: I'm feeling, and have been feeling, like life is kicking me around a bit, and, moreover, as if I've had no control. It's natural and normal to want to get away from that kind of discomfort -- it's indicative of an important learning tool, as a matter of fact. Think about it: from infancy, if you touch something hot, you reflexively withdraw your hand. If you stub your toe, you yell "ow!" and stop what you're doing until you've made sure your toe is still attached to your foot. Over time, you learn to not touch things that are hot, and you learn to be more careful about walking into stuff.

Interestingly, the same principle applies with psychological discomfort, and again, it's not "bad." To illustrate my point: from infancy through childhood, when we're upset about something, our caretaker(s) give us comfort. We learn, then, to seek comfort when we're upset; and, by extension, we learn / teach ourselves to avoid discomfort and pain. While these are natural, normal aspects of human development and behavior, that last bit, avoidance, can be problematic.

I worked in a facility with a psychologist, a self-described Behaviorist, who ascribed to the theory that avoidance is at the root of most psychological problems -- depression and anxiety among them. I have to say, it makes a lot of sense. From this perspective, depression and anxiety are viewed as learned behaviors, and as defense mechanisms, moreover, against some experience, thought, feeling, etc. that is believed, by the sufferer, to be unacceptable, and to be avoided at all costs. And what a cost, indeed.

While I wouldn't classify myself as depressed at the moment, my behaviors -- thoughts and feelings are behaviors -- are currently governed by the same principles of avoidance. What I've found is that it's often helpful to jump right into the things I find myself wanting to avoid. So I feel the impulse to get away from the stuff I have to do around the house? Okay, do the stuff around the house. I wish: it weren't cold / my dog wasn't crazy / she hadn't woken me up last night / the weekend hadn't been frustrating, etc. Okay, take a breath, acknowledge that those things DID happen (are happening), and that I cannot retroactively do anything about them; acknowledge that those things sucked and I'd rather they hadn't happened; chuckle sardonically, say "f&*k it, I survived," and proceed.

To Be Continued...

PS -- Even though I didn't want to write when I started this post, I'm now really glad I did. Also, my dog settled down for a nap right after I started writing. :)

Link: Adventure — Paulo Coelho's Blog

Adventure — Paulo Coelho's Blog

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Guerrilla Tactics in Battling Depression, Part 1

That last post had a life of its own; I think I was originally going to write this post, but I needed to say that stuff first. Anyway, as this blog has "mental health" in the title, and because, you know, I want to, I think it's okay to write about depression right now.

Employing guerrilla tactics is an advisable course of action when battling the tenacious anti-hero, Depression. What does that mean? It means, first of all, that one must come to grips with the fact that there is no magic bullet, and there is no single "cure," for depression. To be sure, some things work better than others for different people, and may take the lead role in their treatment and recovery, kind of like how the Marines are (to my understanding) the elite, front-line branch of the military. (I'm no fan of warfare, but let's stick with that metaphor for a sec.) But in times of full-scale war, the Marines can't do it alone, can they? They need the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, and the Special Forces to all do their thing, too, right? Right. So we must refrain, then, from endowing any one treatment method with our "magic bullet" hopes. Kapisch? Kapisch.

Depression is a terrible thing. It can be lethal, and often is. It has a negative impact on our ability to think, make decisions, prioritize tasks, etc.; i.e., it messes up our cognitive functioning. It screws up our bodies, too. Lots of people suffering from depression feel achy and sluggish, and find themselves more prone to illness and injury. Many people with depression have experienced unusually disruptive sleep: some people report feeling the need to sleep all day (or not get out of bed); others report great difficulty falling asleep; others report difficulty staying asleep. Depression can even affect a person's appetite. Some sufferers lose their appetite either entirely or in part, and lose weight; some others begin to eat more than usual, and gain weight.

And of course, depression obliterates one's moods. Some people describe depression as being somewhere along the sadness continuum. I've heard others describe it as an absence of feeling altogether, or as a terrible, black emptiness. Regardless, it impedes (to put it nicely) one's ability to experience themselves, other people, and, well, the whole of the world external to them. The sum total of all this is that depression can, and often does, destroy a person's life as they know it. It is an equal-opportunity problem, meaning it occurs regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, etc.; it is widespread; and it is to be taken seriously.

The really tricky thing is that, while there are detectable symptoms of depression (some of which I described above), it can look very, very different from person to person. The reason for that is simple: we're all different. Depression, as I noted, affects just about every aspect of a person's, well, person. It interacts with thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and physical-body processes; and since we're all different, there isn't an algorithm, per se, that can necessarily predict how depression will manifest in an individual. (To be sure, one who suffers from depression can learn to recognize the signs and symptoms of depression within themselves; rather, I'm talking about depression in general terms.)

Let's regroup for a moment. My primary observations in this little essay are that, 1) depression affects all aspects of a person's self, and is not, in fact, "just" about feeling down in the dumps; and 2) depression manifests differently in different people. Thus, I conclude that it doesn't seem reasonable to expect any single treatment method to -- voila! -- do the trick. No. An effective treatment for depression will include a whole-person approach, and will address, perhaps, the medical aspect (medication), emotional aspect (too many to list, but talk therapy is up there), and physical aspect (behavior modification, e.g., exercise).

I'm no shill for the pharmaceutical industry. In fact, I suspect/believe that many psychiatric medications are over-prescribed. I'm also nervous about the short-term side effects of many psychiatric medications; and I wonder about the long-term ramifications of their use. Anyway, in spite of those doubts, I strongly believe that medication is imperative for many folks suffering from depression. (There's not much I can really add to that statement, so I'll end it there.)

I'm biased in favor of talk therapy, but I concede it is most certainly not the best option for everyone -- for a variety of reasons, you know? Sometimes a person just can't afford it. There's also a strong stigma, especially for men in our (USA) culture, against seeing a therapist. Or, sometimes a person just doesn't think very highly of therapy in general, for personal and/or cultural reasons. That being said, I believe therapy can be extraordinarily helpful for someone suffering from depression -- even life-changing. There is unique and powerful value in the therapeutic alliance, there really is. It's an opportunity to discuss, learn, and grow in a supportive environment, and with someone you don't have to worry about upsetting, insulting, or alienating. It's a therapist's job to help their clients get where they want to go, so to speak. It can be a great thing.

The behavioral aspect warrants its own post. Stay tuned.

Guerrilla Tactics and Guruism

"Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense." -- The Buddha

In retrospect, I have been held back by others' dogma many times in my life, as have many/most/all of us. When seeking answers to a personal problem, one is almost guaranteed to encounter other opinions and perspectives that conflict with one's own sense of what ought to be done. The conflict can be subtle as to go undetected, and, to one who is vulnerable and in pain, the urge to be soothed by another's message can overwhelm one's intrinsic sense of guidance. I don't mean to paint a picture with too broad a brushstroke here; rather, I am warning against falling into the trap of guru-ism at one's own expense.

I encourage anyone who seeks my input to employ guerrilla tactics when seeking solutions to their problems. (Most of the time, I don't put it that way, but sometimes I do.) Why? It's all-too-easy to get drawn in to another person's dogma and lose sight of one's own. There are a lot of magnetic people in the world, many of whom are doing really good work, but whose messages can nevertheless feel like a catch-all problem solver to the desperate solution seeker. People turn to others for help, and that's well and good. But there needs to come a point at which the seeker detaches from the guru to evaluate what has been learned, to filter out anything that doesn't jive with inner sensibilities, and proceed into a decision, or other avenues of exploration. In other words, the seeker has to be the one to regroup and make the change in their life. No guru or dogma can do it for them.

There is so much information available about basically anything, or any idea, in the world. Our physical health is aided by a diet of nutritious food. Similarly, our spiritual health is aided by dynamic learning: the more we learn, the more we have available to help ourselves. What I would say, then, is to allow yourself to investigate the things that hold your interest. Learn about them. Read about them. Talk to like-minded people about them. Teach other people about them. Draw connections between the things you're learning and the things you've learned, and allow them to spur you onward toward new things. You, by pursuing your interests thus, will be creating a rich psychological framework for yourself; you will be cultivating your inner world, and developing it as your most precious resource. And drawing your knowledge from a variety of sources gives you a better chance at being flexible in your thinking, and able to tackle the inevitable problems of your life with dexterity -- after all, many times we must only look at something from a different perspective in order to see the way forward.

But it all comes down to you. These are my words, and my way of looking at things. If what I just wrote doesn't make any sense to you, and even if it does, keep searching. I think that, for many folks, especially in a world as nuanced, and as full of disparate information, ideas, and cultures as ours, it can be helpful to draw inspiration from a variety of sources, and to then employ guerrilla tactics (so to speak) in problem-solving.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Radical Acceptance

Are you familiar with the term, "radical acceptance?" Whether you answer yes or no, take a moment to think about what it means to you. As for me, I had a breakthrough experience with it earlier this morning, and I'm excited to share it here.

I've always had a tendency toward introspection, and, as a result, I'd even classify myself as being mostly introverted, which is fine. (There's a lot of great literature out there regarding the benefits [and pitfalls] of introversion. I don't want to go down that rabbit hole right now, but Google it if you're curious.) The problem I've encountered with my introversion, particularly over the past 15 years or so, is that I've reinforced many of my unhelpful, personally restrictive "deep thoughts" and conclusions about myself. The result is that, in service of self-improvement and awareness, I've established a near-automatic denial mechanism against what I've deemed the more undesirable and uncomfortable aspects of my inner life.

In other words, I've spent a lot of time trying to push away or reprogram many of my thoughts, impulses, feelings, and aspects of self -- all because I've labeled them irrational or bad, somehow. I've been aware of this habit for some time now, and it's definitely reaped some important benefits; but now that I've reaped those benefits and continue to repeat the process, it causes me more pain than anything.

What happened this morning, then, was both unexpected and highly welcome. I found myself thinking, and having all sorts of thoughts, feelings, and impulses (par for the course). Inevitably, things started coming up that I habitually try to push away, reject, avoid, or argue with. Instead of doing those things, however, I found do I put this? It's almost as if I gave each of those things a pat on the back when they came up. Every time something came up, I more or less said to myself, "I accept you (this part of myself), I love you, and you're good. You're part of me, and I like that."

WOW! What a change! I instantly felt lighter, easier, and happier. I saw the good that each of those aspects of myself has been attempting to bring into my life. I saw how they round out my personality, and my humanity.

And that, folks, was my awesome experience with radical acceptance this morning. Thanks for reading!!

Monday, January 7, 2013

Fear and Comfort and Results...Screw It. DO IT!!

The Internet is flooded with content, of course. As I sit here thinking about it, I'm tempted to give in to the defeatist within, saying, "There's nothing you have to offer that will truly add any value to other people's lives." It is definitely tempting to think that way, because when I do, I feel the peaceful serenity of being let off the hook from some arduous task. But wait: alarms go off in my head, and I realize, "Nate -- that's how you know that thinking is total crap."

If you're considering your options as you pursue your craft, and one of those options makes you feel like you do when you're sitting in your sweatpants in front of the T.V. with a bowl of ice cream, then you should not pick that option. It would be very easy to turn off my drive to provide something of value, but it would be the path of slow decay. By giving in to my metaphorical couch potato in this regard, I would be giving in to that opiate bliss of mediocrity and Zombie Brain.

I'll tell you what: I may well indeed be mediocre -- but that's beside the point, and not for me to decide. As Gandalf said, "All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us." It's so tempting to rage against that thought, though, isn't it? "NO! I am not mediocre!!" Well, what if you are? Is that so bad? Does that mean you aren't unique, gifted, and with things of value to offer? No. Wait...what does "mediocre," when applied in wholesale terms to a human being, even mean? (Hint: nothing. It's crap.)

I was a theater major in college, so I studied a lot of, well, theater stuff. One of the most damnably frustrating -- and invaluable -- mantras of my professors was some variation of, "It's not about the results; it's about the process. Focus on developing a good process." It used to drive me crazy! I intuitively knew it to be a valuable thing for me to understand, but I couldn't internalize it. I grew up feasting on results, as do most of us in this culture. As for the process...huh? What does that even mean? Why are you talking to me about process when this won't mean anything if we aren't totally successful?

And there it is, folks: the fossilized nugget of crap we are tempted to buy into when we contemplate pursuing our dreams, ideas, goals, or taking steps into the unknown. The reason it's a nugget of crap is twofold: 1) It's an assumption that, if listened to, is 100% guaranteed to keep you from doing what you actually want to do with your time, and with your life on the whole; and 2) It's utterly out of step with reality. After all, folks, everything about the future, and most things about the fleeting present, are utterly unknown. In other words, we are always stepping into the unknown, folks -- always. Every second, every blink of an eye -- whether we want to or not.

I say this, then: we might as well seize control of the one thing any of us actually has control over: our actions. Fan those flames of creativity! Pursue what it is that is fulfilling and value-adding to yourself and others! Abandon your attachment to the outcomes of these endeavors, and just do them! You will be frightened, yes. But you will be fully in touch with your greatest resource and ally: yourself. And you are undoubtedly much more intelligent and resourceful than your opiate comfort zone would have you otherwise believe.

That's why I wrote this post, you guys. I was fretting and hemming and hawing about the "saturation of online content," and some such garbage. I cast off those shackles, and I wrote this post. And you know what? I feel really good about it.

Chances are good I'll have to always wrestle with that kind of self-doubt to some degree, and I accept that. But it's a process, just like recreational fishing: catch and release. All you can do is choose to cast your line; and if you do, and if you work at it and hone your technique through practice, the results, though out of your control, will follow.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

A bit about me.

When I look back on my life, and I look now at my motivations for writing this blog, I don't really arrive at a particular conclusion, although identifying one would be convenient for the sake of story-telling. No, this life is on-going, and although what's happened in my past will forever stay in my past, I suspect my relationship to those happenings will continue to change. (As it should be, I think.)

I've always felt, way deep down, that I have something to say, something to contribute, something to give. These sensibilities have driven me throughout my life, from the private machinations of my heart and mind all the way up through the decisions I've made along the way. Objectively, I think I've done a moderately good job of recognizing and honoring those intuitions to date. Subjectively, however, I am extremely dissatisfied with myself. And that, Dear Reader, is both my blessing and my bane.

On the one hand, my inner restlessness, when channelled into a pursuit or activity or interaction I love, runs like a locomotive at full bore: screaming down the tracks, and pulling the load with might, precision, efficiency, and exuberance. On the other hand, though...on the other hand. Sometimes I can't enjoy things when I know I should be enjoying them. I treat my desires and passions like belligerent schoolchildren in need of harsh discipline. I become confused, mired in self-doubt and despair. The locomotive, once vital, is relegated to the shadows, where it leads my thoughts into circular punishment on some lonesome, wind-whipped moonscape.

And all I have, inevitably, is my faculty of something to say, something to contribute, something to give. My life was kind of a breeze until I turned 17 or so, when the Shadow Train Ferris Wheel started cranking into motion. At the time, it was tame enough, and I was busy enough with being a senior in high school, that I could get away without paying it too much mind. But as I made my way through ages 18 and 19, it became impossible to ignore. I had become a different person. Things I never had to think about were suddenly, yeah, impossible. My mind, heart, and moods had become Mr. Hyde, and the Nathan Gismot of old had become a shell -- a shell who, Thank God, held on just tight enough to fight the fuck back, and to not give in.

I survived. But it cost me. It cost me in lost time in school -- it took me an extra year and a half to graduate. It cost me thousands of dollars extra in student loan debt. It cost me precious, age-appropriate life span development. It cost me a lot of clarity and confidence.

I'm reasonably sure that, in some ways, I'll bear the scars, and be healing from these (and other) wounds for the rest of my life. Maybe not -- I'm no fatalist. I say that, though, because I do know that the Shadow Train Ferris Wheel experience -- and the number of similar, if less severe, manifestations of it since that time -- utterly changed the course of my life. It's been tempting at times to indulge in that Siren Song, "What If?" You know, "what if this hadn't happened?" I know things would be a lot different, and while I have a few ideas of what things would look like, it's impossible to say for sure. Maybe there's a Nate in some parallel universe somewhere who can tell you about it.

Anyway, I think I've done pretty damn well, all things considered. I've hit some personally important milestones, including earning a Master's degree last May. My survival through several stops in hell -- largely unexpressed to others at the times I experienced them, for better and worse -- have revealed a mettle and toughness and courageousness and tenacity and resourcefulness and intelligence that I NEVER thought I had in me when I was young. Indeed, I have to remind myself, or be reminded, of those qualities sometimes, almost as if I still can't quite believe it. Sometimes I kind of picture all that stuff now as being like a blacksmith's fire, and that I was the sword or the wheel or the yoke which the blacksmith's hammer had to forge into form. Think for a second about what a blacksmith has to do to take a piece of iron and turn it into something almost completely new. It was painful and terrible, because I was being beaten; it was painful and terrible, because I was being utterly transformed. But, like the iron that becomes a wagon wheel, I am still elementally ME.

And here I am. I still find myself hesitating when I wish I wouldn't, or censoring myself when I want to speak up, or holding myself back out of fear. Bit by bit, though, I'm chipping away at the dam. Bit by bit, I'm scaling the wall. And in moments like this, when I'm high enough up, taking a breather and surveying the landscape, I can appreciate the wall, because it's forcing me to become a truer version of myself. I can appreciate it for making me fight, and becoming leaner, wiser, more efficient, more learned. Better-able to pick myself up when I trip. Better-able to drive that locomotive, and enjoy the ride that is this lifetime.

Link: "Accepting the Unacceptable"

This is a good, concise article on acceptance by Eric Sudler, M.S. at The Albert Ellis Institute's blog.