Values and Resolutions

New year’s resolutions are odd to me. No one ever seems to follow through on them, and they’re often forgotten within a few weeks of making them. Often they look like preening or attention-grabbing. However I do think that it’s a good idea to periodically take a good long look at your life and structure some goals or ideas to aim towards. Things have been a bit on the change-heavy side in my life lately, so this feels like a good time to assess and to try to understand why I set the goals that I do and how those goals fit into my values.

 

As I was working on writing my resolutions for this year, I really found myself struggling with what I felt were the resolutions I “should” be writing. It’s been obvious to me for a while that many times resolutions are a way for people to beat up on themselves about not doing enough, but in this case it felt more like a conflict of what my values were: did I really want to resolve to work harder to overcome my eating disorder this year, or did I want to resolve to lose some weight this year? This, in my mind is the important thing about resolutions: they force you to take stock of your values and then ask you how you can actually live out those values in concrete ways. I’ve had a very hard time with values, with identifying my own values, with truly committing to any set of values, for a long time, so this year for my resolutions I’m going to start each resolution with a value that I am choosing to commit to this year.

 

  1. Family: run a 5k with my dad for his birthday.
  2. Social justice and animal welfare: be better about my vegetarianism. No meat that is not produced ethically. Do not seek out meat.
  3. Intelligence/knowledge/curiosity: read more. This means taking some time out of each day to read a real book, not just blogs.
  4. Purpose and commitment: make a decision about what I’m going to do after I finish AmeriCorps. Commit fully to it. Actively work not to feel guilty or to continue revisiting the options I did not choose.
  5. Community/friends: be more social. Get to know more people. Actively reach out to the friends I do have.
  6. Self-reflection and creation: finish a draft of my book.
  7. Work, self-improvement: learn to accept criticisms without tailspinning emotionally. Work to incorporate criticisms actively into work.
  8. Life (yes life is a value that I have to commit to and it’s one I find difficult): find things that make me happy and excited. Engage in them often.
  9. Humility: spend some real time thinking about what it actually means to be humble in a positive way. Rethink the idea that self-flagellation is humility.
  10. Self-care: eat more cake. Both metaphorically and literally.

What? You Think Differently?

Sometimes themes crop up in life. I don’t know how it happens, but if anything were to convince me of a larger power it would be the fact that many times I will see the same idea or question reappear throughout a variety of areas in my life in a short span of time (this can of course be explained by the fact that I might be thinking a lot about the theme during that time). Recently I’ve been running across the idea of trying to understand a mind that doesn’t work like your own, and the assumption that all minds work the way yours does.

 

Last night I was talking to my boyfriend about our reactions to movies, and he said that he doesn’t come out of a movie with a reaction: it takes him time to process. I was flummoxed by this. “Don’t you walk out of a movie and think ‘I enjoyed that?’” I asked him. He said he didn’t, or at least not very often. This was almost impossible to process for me. I didn’t know how one could do that. And it hit me that I’d been assuming all my life that everyone reacted like I did to movies or plays or other artistic works: immediately. It hadn’t even occurred to me that perhaps the way people processed a reaction could be different from mine because I couldn’t fathom how that would be possible. Why would I have guessed that someone else would process differently from me until I was faced with it?

 

This morning I had coffee with my dad and we talked about a wide range of things, but one of them was our mutual confusion over people who are religious and why they think the way they do. I expressed confusion that someone could believe in such a way that is so detrimental to their well-being, particularly without any questioning whatsoever. As someone who naturally asks “why” to nearly everything, it seemed utterly foreign to me to just accept what someone says. I cannot conceive of what it would be like to hear someone claim something and just say “ok”.

 

All of us do this. It’s thoroughly natural to generalize from our own experience to the experiences of others. Unfortunately it’s also extremely faulty logic and doesn’t hold up against observable reality. It’s also a fairly self-centered way of thinking and a good way to create some difficulties when communicating with others.

 

But probably the most important element of this tendency is that most of us do it without realizing it. Unless there’s someone else there telling us that they process differently than we do, there’s no way for us to know that we’re incorrect in our assumptions. An example from the history of philosophy: philosophy of mind has spent a great deal of time wondering about whether we can form images in our mind or not. For a long time philosophers would argue back and forth, with one passionately saying that of course there were images in the mind, and another saying that it was impossible. Only recently by looking back through the history of the debate have we realized that each philosopher was essentially generalizing their experience: one who could bring up images in his mind argued that they must exist for everyone, one who couldn’t argued they were impossible for anyone. People published entire books based on the premise that everyone’s minds must work like theirs and they didn’t even notice.

 

This is all to say that it’s extremely easy to make this assumption without realizing it. Unfortunately, the assumption can also be damaging. It’s the sort of thing that underlies the assumption that listening or learning looks the same for all children. It’s what can lead us to assume that someone is criticizing us or mocking us when they’re expressing things differently. It’s what can lead us to label someone “stupid”. It’s what leads to things like victim blaming, classism, and attempts to write opinions into law.

 

It may seem like an esoteric or arbitrary element of human nature to focus on, but it can do wonders for your empathy to pay attention to not just what others think, but also how.

What Someone With Depression is Like

Tonight at dinner someone mentioned Silver Linings Playbook, a movie about people with mental illness. My uncle chimed in “It did a very good job of portraying what someone with depression and anxiety is like”.

I felt the hurt of it before I realized why. Something bubbled up inside of me with the need to yell “Here’s what someone with depression and anxiety is like. Your niece!”

Sometimes people with depression can make it through a whole dinner conversation, but sometimes they need to escape to the basement with the kids.

Sometimes people with depression are willing to chime in and talk, and sometimes they’re quiet.

Sometimes people with depression are manipulative and self-centered, and sometimes they are selfless and kind.

Sometimes people with depression eat pie. Sometimes they eat steak. Sometimes they eat ramen noodles from a package.

People with depression graduate college. Or not. They hold down jobs, except sometimes when they can’t.

They might be a dog person or a cat person, a people person, or not so much.

Sometimes they die of a drug overdose and sometimes they fly through school with straight A’s and land their dream job.

Someone with depression might be bounding with energy or they might take naps every day just to make it to the evening.

Some people with depression will let you know about it and others won’t.

Some people with depression have kids, others never will.

Some are chatty, chatty, chatty, others introverted.

Sometimes they make it through incredibly difficult times. You might not know they’re hurting so bad inside. Sometimes they crash and burn (but even when they do, they usually don’t want you to know).

A person with depression could be scrappy or smart or artsy or average or generous or really any adjective you might be able to think of to describe a human being.

Sometimes they hate themselves for having depression but sometimes they just hate you for using phrases like “people with depression” as if they’re a monolithic and foreign species.

Someone with depression might just be like that person sitting right next to you. Your niece, your cousin, your daughter. And they might just never open up to you about their depression if you say things like that.

Because let’s be up front here: people with depression are pretty much like other people. Some things are just a little harder for them. And it pretty much is horrible to be considered a foreign people that your family members need to watch movies about in order to get an inkling of how you work and who you are, or to be completely erased for a fictional portrayal of mental illness.

Unpacking the Spoons

Most of you have already heard the spoon metaphor by now. It was originally coined to describe what it’s like to have a chronic illness, although since then it has been used to describe mental illness as well. It’s an incredibly helpful tool, but I’d like to take a minute to expand on why those of us who have illness of one kind or another use up our spoons so quickly. There is an invisible aspect to illness that most of us don’t talk about. It’s oddly taboo, particularly for mental illness. Let’s shed some light on it shall we (I’m going to confine this discussion to my particular mental illness because that’s what I have experience with, but I know that this type of thing is applicable to all sorts of different illnesses).

When you’re mentally ill you have to think about more things. Let’s look at some examples of things that I have to think about on a regular basis that most people are blissfully unaware of: (trigger warnings for ED and self harm)

1.Are my hands shaking? Will someone notice? How will I explain it if they do?

2.Will the clothes that I’m wearing expose any of my scars or current cuts? Am I going to be somewhere that I care?

3.Will someone use the word “purge” today? How will I deal with this trigger if it comes up?

4.Will someone talk about my body or eating habits today and how will I quickly escape the situation if that happens?

5.If I eat something, will my stomach be able to keep it down or will it get uppity because it’s not very good at digesting anymore?

6.Will it look suspicious to my family or friends if I go to the bathroom immediately after a meal?

7.If I stay at someone’s house, do I have my meds? I cannot stay at someone’s house unless I have my meds.

8.If others want to do a physical activity, will I be able to keep up? Will I start feeling faint?

9.Did I bleed on my sheets or my pajamas after I cut last night? Can I get that stain out? Did it get on my computer, and will other people notice if I bring my computer out? Also gross.

10.Can I leave the house today without overwhelming self-hatred based on how I look in these clothes?

11.How distracted will I be today by my body? If my thighs rub together while walking, will I still be able to keep it together, or will I start having some really bad thoughts?

12.Will there be calorie counts listed somewhere that I go today?

13.How do I get all my hours in at work and get to 5-10 hours of therapy a week? How do I explain to my boss and coworkers that I’m not lazy it’s just really hard to find good times for appointments?

14.I usually get tired at around 9:00 (probably from nutritional deprivation among other things). Can I go out and socialize tonight? How can I see my friends when I have a full time job and I can’t stay awake past 11?

15.Was that slight chest pain just some anxiety or other minor something, or am I finally getting the irregular heartbeat that is supposed to come with my eating habits?

16.What do I say if people bring up food habits? Fasting? (yes this has happened, e.g. how long have you gone without food). How do I keep myself from blurting out “yeah, I ate once a week for a couple months once”?

17.How much do I tell people?

18.If someone hugs me, will they be able to feel my fat? Will I be ok with it, or will I want to pull away (most of the time it’s pull away. Then I have to be polite)?

19.If I purge, will I smell like puke? Will I be able to get those nasty stains out of my clothes (yes, it gets everywhere. yes it is gross)? What happens if my boyfriend tries to kiss me?

20.How much of my day will I waste thinking about food and debating whether or not to eat and how much to eat? This varies from about 1 hour to my whole day, depending.

21.Sometimes I even waste my brain space wondering if what I expel from my body is the same as what I put into it (yes I am talking about poo).

22.How many layers should I wear? I’m always cold, but I can’t regulate my body temperature at all so I swing to really hot if I’m under blankets or layers.

23.Can I handle looking at myself in the mirror today? Will I look like a complete idiot if I get dressed and leave the house without a quick mirror check?

24.Will someone notice if I start poking at my wrists or my hips to feel the bones? Can I feel my bones? Am I too fat if I can’t feel my bones?

25.Have a fasted/restricted today? How long has it been since I last ate? How much did I eat? If someone tries to give me breakfast, how can I say no?

This was just a list I came up with off the top of my head. Imagine trying to get out of bed while thinking about all these things, plan your day while thinking about all these things, accomplish work while thinking about all these things. THIS is where the spoons go. The reason that doing simple tasks requires so much more energy and effort is not just the physiological difficulties of depression or illness (and yeah, those things often do come with some serious fatigue or pain), but also the fact that everything is inherently more complicated. You are constantly trying to protect yourself from whatever threat your illness brings. You have to plan ahead like nobody’s business. You have to be assessing what’s going on around you and what’s going on internally to make sure you’ll be ok.

With mental illness, many of these thoughts are intrusive, paranoid, and irrational. Unfortunately that doesn’t mean you can turn them off and that doesn’t mean that you’re expending less emotional energy by having them. These thoughts are intrusive, distracting, and oftentimes pervasive, which means you’re taking a lot of your executive function to refocus your brain on the task at hand. All the time. Over and over.

For many of us who are dealing with a low spoon count, we don’t even realize that this is where the spoons are going: all we know is that things feel hard. They feel exhausting. We’re more worn out than other people even when we’re doing what appears to be less. Again, the key appears to be patience with yourself and with others, as well as clear communication about what you’re feeling. Many of us don’t want to speak up about the things that are hard for us, whether because we don’t want to appear weak or because there is a strong taboo against them (most of the things listed above fall into this second category). If we can get better at telling others what we’re really feeling, maybe this whole spoons thing will start making more sense to everyone.

 

Why I Need Mindfulness

Recently my mood has been fairly low. I’m still trying to figure out why and how to make it better, but for the moment things are pretty stagnant and I’m really not sure what steps I can take to improve my mood. This is a place of intense frustration, and I know that many people can get to be in this situation: you may not be able to change your work or family situation, you may feel like your external situation is actually fairly positive overall, or you may have no idea what has triggered a depressive episode. There are often times when you can’t take positive actions to improve your depression.

Of course when that happens it tends to snowball on itself. If you don’t know how you’re going to improve your situation, there is an intense hopelessness that it will get better. You think about the future and you don’t know how or if it will ever change, and all you can imagine is the whole size of your whole future feeling the way you do now. That is an intensely icky feeling.

You start to feel bad, you think about feeling bad forever, and how you feel now gets worse. Then you think about feeling even worse forever and it gets even WORSE. Imagine this on loop for days and weeks at a time. This is what it’s like when you don’t know how to fix your depression.

Of course the whole crux of the problem is that you don’t know what to do to make yourself feel better. Here’s the secret though: I know what you have to do. A warning: this will not necessarily make right now feel better, but it will give you some relief from the circling, spiraling pain and might just give you enough time and space to breathe and figure out a good solution. So what is the solution? Mindfulness.

Are you all done giving me dirty looks now? Good. This seems trite. It seems woo woo. It seems ridiculous and not practical. When I was first introduced into mindfulness, I would fart in its general direction too. But that was before I heard this explanation of why mindfulness is useful. Mindfulness cannot make you feel better right now: that’s not its purpose. Mindfulness is about only letting your mind be in the present. While depression can often involve angst and anxiety about the past or the future, mindfulness is just existing and doing what you are doing.

So remember all of that angst about the future that crops up when you cycle in your depression? Those things are not hurting you right now. They’re not even happening right now. If you can stop thinking about them and only exist in this moment, you’ll stop feeling all the crappy feelings of the past and all the potential crappy feelings of the future. That is a lot of crappy feelings that you don’t have to worry about until they actually happen. And the whole point of mindfulness is that if you can train your mind to exist in the present, you don’t have to take on all the suffering that is not really affecting you right now.

If you’re like me, that all sounds lovely except that you have no idea how to do it. Half of your problem is that you’re really bad at being mentally present, you can’t focus, you’re too tired. Never fear. There are concrete steps that you can take to be mindful. They aren’t easy, but they do at least give you a clear path forward.

The most important thing to remember about mindfulness is that it’s about being aware: observing, describing, and being present. That’s what it means to be present-to focus on your surroundings, your emotions, your thoughts, and your senses. Here are some basic steps you can start with. Initially, try one simple, small thing and do it mindfully. Try washing the dishes or driving home from work. While you’re doing it, just notice things: how the water feels, the song playing in your head, the smell of the soap. Once you’ve started to notice it, you can add words: describe it. It might be good to just start with these two steps, and you don’t need to go overboard: 10 minutes might be the most you can handle. Once you’ve started to get the hang of those steps, try participating. If you notice your thoughts or your concentration wandering while you do an activity, just take note and then gently bring your focus back to what you’re doing.

This is probably the hardest part of mindfulness: the idea is not to get annoyed or frustrated with yourself, but just to notice what you’re doing and change it. If you can approach mindfulness with the intent of being gentle with yourself, of recognizing that you’re a little fragile right now, it generally will go better.

If you don’t want to do this while you’re trying to get something done, or if you just want to have some time to seriously practice mindfulness, some good practices are focusing on breathing and body scans. Instead of focusing on a task you can just pay attention to your breathing, or you can start at your toes and focus on each part of your body individually. This is a little more concrete and a good place to start when you’re beginning mindfulness.

Of course throughout your day you can also take time to pull your thoughts back to what you’re doing, to notice your surroundings, to pay attention to your breath, or to stimulate your senses in some way. I particularly find that being aware of my body and being aware of being in my body are good ways to be mindful. As much as 15 minutes of these little things each day can really help to reset that spinning wheel of anxiety and fear that starts going in the midst of depression.

Obviously this needs to be done in conjunction with some problem solving and reflection about what’s really making things bad for you. You might need a change in meds, an adjustment at work, changes in relationships, or a variety of other problem-solving things to improve the situation. But a good way to wait things out when you can’t figure out what to change or to get through your day to day tasks without ruminating is to work on mindfulness.

Anhedonia 101

One of the more common symptoms of depression is what is known in psychology circles as “anhedonia”. Most people see this word and go “huh?” then continue their lives. However for those people who experience anhedonia, it’s an incredibly debilitating aspect of depression and is one that more people need to understand. Without that understanding, others can make suggestions that seem like impossibilities, or simply say things that are cruel without realizing it.

Anhedonia is a lack of pleasure in in what would typically or in the past have been enjoyable activities. It is often found in depression as well as some other mental illnesses. Unfortunately this is one of the elements of depression that often gets overlooked in the face of things like low self esteem, isolation, irritated mood, or low energy, however anhedonia can play a huge role in all the other elements of depression because it makes it nearly impossible to find activities that will alleviate feelings of depression.

Anhedonia can feel like a lot of things. For some people it’s a lack of interest or motivation in doing things. Nothing sounds appealing. For as miserable as it feels to lie around in bed all day, it feels as if getting up would be just as bad and you’d be exhausted and put out by doing it. Other times, it might be that you can motivate yourself to get up and do something, but no matter how hard you try you can’t become engaged in the activity. You’ll watch a movie but never lose yourself in the plot, you’ll try to have a conversation and constantly find your mind somewhere else, bored and frustrated and unhappy. You might try to do something you’ve always loved, like exercise, or music, and find that no matter how much you do it or how hard you try, your mood does not rise when you engage in the activity. Or even worse, you might try to do something and feel completely detached. This can lead to some intense frustration and anger, as well as potential social anxiety (how hard is it to hang out with people when you can’t join in their jokes or games?)

Anhedonia is hard to describe because it doesn’t make events bad. It’s not as if your favorite activities necessarily suddenly cause anxiety or depression. They may even be entirely neutral. The problem is that you don’t get any sense of fulfillment out of doing them. This is particularly difficult when you lose the sense of mastery or accomplishment that you may be used to getting from completing tasks. Oftentimes it’s the sense of pride or accomplishment you get from doing things that helps you to solidify your self identity. That in turn with things that you enjoy creates your personality. If you lose both of those things, you can feel unmoored, as if you don’t know who you are or what way to turn anymore because you have lost all bearings.

Many of the remedies for depression include telling someone to get out of the house, increasing socializing, finding activities that are relaxing or restful, doing things that make you feel grounded, connected, or joyful. The difficulty with anhedonia is that it makes nearly all of these things impossible. How on earth are you supposed to fight a nasty low mood if nothing makes you feel good?

An additional element of the frustration of anhedonia is that it can lead to some serious hopelessness. Oftentimes we hold on to certain things in the midst of hard times: love for family or friends, a particular activity that truly drives us, or important work. Something about anhedonia makes it feel like these things have been pulled out from under you. They’re still there, but somehow the emotional pull of them is gone. You can feel broken, as if nothing will ever bring you joy again. Without any indication that your mental state might change and allow you to feel pleasure again, it’s hard to have hope that your life will improve.

Anhedonia can also make someone suffering from depression seem cranky, unpleasant, and nagging to be around. They might complain about things, they may seem unhappy all the time, they may come across as a drama queen. Please remember that someone else’s depression is not about you, and that while it may be a pain in your ass to deal with, it is much more difficult for them to have to be experiencing this lack of pleasure all the time. Patience is a major virtue when it comes to depression.

Overall, anhedonia is one of the more difficult elements of depression because it can underpin and exacerbate almost every other element of depression. Unfortunately there’s very little education done about it and many people don’t even know what the word means. It can help to understand yourself if you’re going through it, to have more hope, and to have better tactics for fighting it if you know about anhedonia, and if you’re a support person it can lead to perhaps more patience and less guilt. If you have any more questions about the internal experience of anhedonia, please ask away (although I can’t speak for everyone, just myself), or if you have experiences to share I’d love to hear them in comments.

Reality: It Is Hard To Accept Your Privilege

Note: I am white. I am still working on privilege. I am not very good at dealing with my white privilege. Please tell me if this is totally and completely wrong. Thanks 🙂

When someone of privilege has to accept their privilege and make changes to attempt to help those who are less privileged, the conversation is most often about the people in the oppressed position. This is totally appropriate, because your privilege isn’t really about you it’s about a system. But there is one element of privilege that IS about the privileged person, and that’s how that individual comes to accept their privilege and feelings that they have while doing so. Of course this is not as important as the oppressed that the non-privileged person feels, but let’s be perfectly honest: accepting your privilege is hard and uncomfortable. That’s just the truth.

While this is a selfish truth on the part of the privileged, it is also simply what happens. It is normal and human to feel some measure of confusion and guilt when you realize that you have been benefiting at the expense of others. I have yet to meet someone who, when faced with their privilege simply goes “OK! What can I do to help?”. There are stages of guilt, acceptance, bargaining, confusion, and self-hatred (at least there are for someone who accepts that privilege exists and they have it). These things just happen because it really sucks to realize that simply by existing as you are you are contributing to oppression. It happens because it’s extremely difficult to look at the situation and know how to change your behavior and become the perfect ally. It happens because you know you’ve screwed up in the past and you know you’ll screw up again.

It is important to quickly move on from this moment because this is a moment of inertia: it is hard to move or do anything when caught in a whirl of emotions. But as someone who both wants to respect others’ mental health and promote dialogue around race, it’s important for both of those goals to validate that it is hard to accept your own privilege. First, this is a normal and understandable reaction. It doesn’t help to invalidate someone’s emotions. Second, when we validate people’s emotions, we allow them to accept those emotions and then move on. We allow them to wrestle and see that that struggle is ok, but still make movements.

When we are talking about race, we need to be honest. White people need to be honest when they are not being good allies. They need to be honest when they’re lost or confused. It needs to be ok for that to happen, because race is hard and it’s complicated, and yeah, white people need hand holding. Hopefully we can make it the minimal amount by understanding where they are. It would be ideal if white people could simply jump in and get over whatever guilt they might have, but that is simply not the way human emotions work. If we’re going to be effective at talking about and combating racism, we have to be willing to accept reality as it is because only once we see reality can we change it.

For people who are exposing others to the concept of privilege for the first time, I beg some patience. Of course it is annoying to have to do 101 for the first time, but you cannot change that human beings will have emotions when exposed to something new and difficult. Instead of telling someone that their guilt is not helpful, recognize that the guilt exists and that they can process that guilt, but that there are ways forward.

As a final note, I don’t believe that it is the responsibility of people of color to do all this work. I think a great deal of it needs to be internal work on the part of the privileged, and I also think that white people who have already started to figure their shit out need to do a lot of the work to walk their friends and family through things. I know how frustrating it is when people continue not to get it, and I know that it isn’t fair that white people need time to process. All I know is that the guilt happens and if we want to be as effective as possible we have to understand that.