This is My Bag

Jennifer Butler Basile

This is the closest I’ve gotten to Kate Spade.

A purse that may or may not even be an original piece.

I don’t know her.

Yet, when my husband told me yesterday the breaking news about her death, my mood instantly plummeted. I stared at the black and white text and felt the sobs come.

Not because I know her. In a cliched way, I know her pain. In a frightened animalistic way, I see how quickly I could become her.

Facebook friends who know mental illness posted their sadness and support at the news. Some hinted at public posts with ugly comments and sage advice given too late. But I don’t read comments – of the general population anyway – for my own mental health.

And then one of those comments wormed its way into a personal post I saw.

It was easy for me to lament that stigma was still alive and well, that we’ve so much farther to go, and how sad it is that people still think that way – when I hadn’t read the comments. And then I saw how alive and well stigma is, how much farther we’ve to go, and how scary it is how some people think.

To think that suicide is a choice. To think that those who have reached the point of contemplating suicide are doing so as part of a rational decision-making process. That they eschew their many blessings in life purposefully.

Suicide isn’t supposed to make sense. That’s the fucking point. The mind, the psyche is not working properly. Depression is replacing the authentic voice of self with lies.

You would think the fact that it strikes down even people with blessing piled upon blessing would make people realize that there is something more to suicide than horrible circumstance and selfish choice.

May God save us all.

So Much Blah

For such a bland, nonspecific word, blah actually does a lot.

At the end of last month, I started a mood tracker to get a closer look at and more specific language for my moods.  I’d been using blah too much and too widely.

Now that I’ve been pinning my days and moods to – what I thought were – more specific descriptors, I realize just how evocative blah is for me.

Blah is not wanting to get off the couch – either from physical exhaustion or lack of motivation – or both.  Blah is not knowing where to start when faced with a day’s plan or duties.  Blah is not knowing how to structure a day with no plan or duties.  Blah is feeling off.  Blah is not wanting to get dressed because you haven’t had the time to shower or because nothing would feel as comfortable against your skin as pjs.  Blah is worrying about an unnamed idea.  Blah is not wanting to interface with people.  Blah is not eating because nothing seems appealing.  Blah is eating candy or snacks that will bring on more blah for sure – but perhaps will be a happy treat.  Blah answers the question, ‘How are you?’ with a shrug because blah really isn’t sure – even if things aren’t that bad.

Blah is a lot of ‘not wanting to’.  Blah must be a toddler.  Or a moody teenager.

Blah comes to visit me a lot – and not because I have all of those in my house.

I wanted to get away from using blah to describe my state of mind because I wanted something more specific.  I don’t know that I realized how many versions of blah there were.

In my mood tracker, I opted for descriptors like ‘not focused’, ‘not productive’, ‘unsettled’.  According to those little squares of color on my chart, there’s been a lot of unsettled lately.  I think I just switched blah for unsettled.  I need to unpack the feelings in that paragraph above and figure out the different shades of blah or unsettled or whatever I want to call it.

blahblah

from sillyoldsod.com

 

‘An Insidious Disease’

Source: providencejournal.com

I’ve had this article in my archives for a while now (click above for link).  Shanley offers a great primary source of living with depression.  Also, mental health’s place in greater society.

“Mental health has a bad PR firm.  It only seems to be on our radar when a well-known individual speaks to it, either in life or death, or when there is a mass killing.  Suicide is a word rarely spoken, and if so, only in whispers in back rooms.  Some of us know people who have stood on a bridge.  Some walked down.  Others did not.”

Many Peaces of Mind

By sharing our stories, we encourage others to do the same.

This was a major theme of the Peace of Mind Storytellers Series I attended yesterday. By breaking the silence surrounding mental illness, we also break the stigma. We allow people to admit and accept the struggle and begin recovery.

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As an anxious person (also mere weeks away from delivering a child), attending a day-long event with hundreds of people I’d never met solo was a little nerve-wracking. But I’d been awarded a free ticket through a generous contest by a local mental health facility, Butler Hospital. I’d been following and loving the organization sponsoring the event, PeaceLove Studios, for several years. And the format of the event, like our state’s own local version of TED Talks, sounded pretty cool. As a writer, I am a little obsessed with stories, after all. Add the mental health aspect and I was hooked.

Once the speakers started rolling out, I realized this was not just like our state’s own local version of TED Talks, it basically was one. The speakers hailed from around the country and world. They ranged from college students to policy-makers and changers to international celebrities. While I hadn’t recognized all the names beforehand, I was impressed by the vitae of these individuals – and even more so by the enthralling stories they shared.

wp-1463799329728.jpgLike Faith Jegede-Cole who said mental health has to do with the health of your soul. Michael Thompson who said the goal is not to focus on just the 1 in 4 who suffers from mental illness, but all 4 – to get the others to listen. Kate Milliken whose own family’s silence over mental illness moved her to create a platform for patients and caregivers living with MS to share their experiences. Amelia Grumbach wishing someone else would take control of her life because she couldn’t/didn’t trust herself to do so. Philip Sheppard, a soul-stirring cellist, urging the attack of any creative endeavor without the fear of creating crap. Simon Majumdar saved by love of food and its serving of soul. The rhythm of Steve Gross’ (left) spoken word carrying the buoyant message of the right attitude affecting everything. Butterscotch following her heart’s desire without compromising for anyone. The mother’s love of A.J. Wilde holding her son, Devin, as he found the key to unlock his autism. Ryan Brunty’s lovable yetis expressing the depression he’d been living with silently beforehand. Stephanie Prechter’s fierce devotion to learning as much as possible to support and treat people like herself and her father who suffer with bipolar disorder. Mark Hedstrom moving Movember into the mental health space. Ross Szabo creating a curriculum so that mental health is not something we look at only when something’s wrong, but taught much like physical health education from kindergarten to grade 12 and beyond.

The wide range of experiences of these speakers broadened my perspective of mental illness and health. One of the speakers said, after all, we all have stuff; we’re all human. There are different brands and flavors and struggles, but one thing we all have in common is trying to walk this world with grace and contentment – at least most of the time.

All of these storytellers did so yesterday with beauty. Through their various creative presentations, they gave swell to that part of the soul that makes one glad to be alive, through the ugly and transcendent, the low and the dizzying highs.

The Peace of Mind Storytellers showed in a grand way what PeaceLove Studios is doing everyday: using expressive arts as a therapeutic device for all individuals languishing, battling, flailing, and/or surviving life with mental illness. What ninety participants got to take part in after the series of speakers. Myself included.

I was transported back to the first PeaceLove workshop I’d attended with a friend a few years ago. While in a different space with different people, the atmosphere was the same: a safe place to create, process, emote, and share. Several participants commented that they didn’t consider themselves artistic, but due to the open-ended nature of the activity and low-pressure environment, they enjoyed creating. Another said that while she hadn’t started with any idea in mind, a plan slowly took shape on her canvas – and that it was symbolic and cohesive. I felt similarly. Exhausted at the end of a long day, I didn’t think I was up for any grand metaphor. But what rose to the surface in that quiet, stream of consciousness state was perhaps exactly what my psyche needed at this time. Indeed, what came out reminded me of my constant struggle for balance. But in that gentle unfolding, it wasn’t frustrating as it usually is, but a quiet reminder that it’s a process, about maintaining peace of mind, not achieving it and moving on.

In the grand and small movements of my day at the Peace of Mind Storytellers Series, the ebb and flow of life was reflected. The entire day was a reflection of life at its best and worst and the journey we all make together. Bound by our stories and in the sharing, we can achieve peace of mind indeed.

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Painting by Jeffrey Sparr, PeaceLove co-founder

Unhushable

Suicide is often something spoken of in whispers.  The ‘unexpected death’ in an obituary.  The shadowy family secret.

Until something so very public happens, we cannot ignore the pain and problem for comfort’s sake.

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Click image for news story of Placentia, CA teacher found in her classroom

As a devout Catholic, I grew up with a peripheral feeling of shame surrounding suicide.  Scorning God-given life was a sin.  Only He could determine the beginning and end of your time on earth.  But, then, individuals who consider suicide aren’t in their right minds, are they?  Only someone completely given over to despair and illness would consider such as an option.

I think we, as a society, forget that.  The public interpretation of my faith’s stance on suicide squeezed out that important part.  People of God and faith support fellow humans to become whole – not condemn them if they are not.

Excellent discussion of Catholicism’s stance on suicide.

Unfortunately, the general public doesn’t always feel that way.  Make the mistake of reading the commentary on articles about publicized suicides and ignorance shows its ugly face.  People lambasted this teacher for her selfishness; didn’t she think what finding her would do to her students?  Obviously not.  Couldn’t she have done it at home?

I agree that I would not want my children to discover their dead teacher in their classroom.  But to think that one place is better than another to hang oneself?  To think this teacher selfish for doing it?  Suicide is not an easy, thoughtless decision.  It is often a last resort after much anguished mental and emotional battle.

Honestly, I think this hatred and judgment comes from fear.  People don’t want to be pulled from their artificial bubble of safety.  If you have issues, fine, but keep them to yourself.  Keep your mess confined to your own home, world – don’t let it infect mine.

Suicide is not contagious.  Mental illness is not contagious.  Hate, fear-mongering, and ignorant attitudes are.

How many public hangings do we need to see before we as a society develop compassion and understanding?

How to Help the Mentally Ill during the Holidays

During a season known for its twinkle lights and tinsel, it’s hard to feel the least bit sparkly when suffering from a mental illness. All the shining happy people floating around us make us feel that much more isolated, removed, and miserable. They all make it look so effortless while we struggle to keep our heads above water on a regular day. The added mayhem of shopping, socializing, and stringing the lights raises the bar to a Himalayan height.

I’ve talked before about how I’ve come to hate putting up our Christmas tree the last few years. Those Christmas crackers? They’ve got nothing on me. My head was about to pop off several times throughout the whole ordeal. This year a few events have transpired that have unwittingly saved me from the debacle so far.

This is only our second year with a real pine tree, which takes more planning than retrieving the cardboard coffin of our since deceased artificial one from the basement. As always the weekends spool away from us toward the holiday at an alarming rate and we haven’t made it to the tree farm. Not to mention, we don’t have tons of extra green of the other kind lying around these days. After two years of failing to decorate that pine tree in direct line of sight from our back door, we finally decided we should chop it down and use it as our indoor Christmas tree. To which the kids balked saying it is too small. They fail to remember the merits of a Charlie Brown Christmas tree or the top third we had to slice off last year due to our overzealous choice. BUT in any event, the ensuing chaos and discord has kept us tree-free for a couple of weeks now.

Which is totally fine by me.

One day when only one of my elves was home from school, I dragged out the bin of wreaths and garlands and hung those up, deposited the empty bin downstairs, and enjoyed the view. Another day, I set up the bin with the nativity and related items. And quit for that day. A third day, I retrieved the mamma-jamma bin longer than I am tall – and which usually makes me want to lay down inside and cry because the kids fling stuff out of it with reckless abandon – and opened it. That’s all. It’s still sitting in the corner, lid askew. The kids pick a few things out here and there, but we haven’t set it all out yet.

And still no sign of a tree.

I know it’s my anxiety and perfectionism and ability to get easily overwhelmed and controlling tendencies that made opening that Christmas box of decorations so hellish. I know I may be missing the point by not letting my girls pull it all out with reckless abandon. But it doesn’t come from some deep-seated desire to be like Martha Stewart. It comes from my tendency to move like a snail and being pushed through the steps heightens my anxiety like the Abdominable Snowman’s toothache. A previously joyous activity becomes hell on a holly branch.

So low and slow is my speed this year.

It seems as if the absence of the tree lets us focus on other beautiful parts of the season, too. Our advent wreath. The nativity. The soft glow of candlelight. Christmas stories and cuddling.

The slow dissemination of decorations from storage bins is not a foolproof solution for all people struggling during the holiday season, though.

How can we all lower our expectations and be at peace with ourselves? How can you keep it low and slow? How can you help your loved ones cope?

It Just Makes Me Sad

News broke late last week that a California mother had taken the lives of her three children.  Conduct a man-on-the-street interview and you’d likely hear outrage, vile epithets directed at the monster who would kill her own offspring.  My own husband brought it up to me in a pained tone of voice.  He was disgusted.  It IS disgusting when such a thing happens.

But I’m not angry at her.

Horrible events like this make me sad.

Sad that three lives on the cusp were snuffed out.  Sad that poor defenseless, innocent babes were terminated.  Sad that the father had to watch his bloodied babies be carried from his home; that his partner in life, in giving life, was the one responsible.

Sad that no one connected to this woman perceived any threat of dangerous behavior. Sad that perhaps she felt she couldn’t express such feelings before it was too late for fear of judgment, backlash.  Sad that she didn’t know how to get help.  Or perhaps didn’t have such resources available.

Sad that things like this continue to happen needlessly.

We live in a society with a different-hued ribbon for everything – and things like this still happen.

And woman like this are still labelled as crazy.  I found ONE account that handled this story sensitively.  (Read here)

In the anger and outrage that follow such an event, it’s easy to point fingers.  Why was she left alone with the children?  Why didn’t anyone ensure she got treatment? Thankfully, I never experienced postpartum psychosis (nor has it been substantiated that this woman did); even still, I hid my negative feelings for fear of judgement as a bad mother.  I never asked for help because my struggles were so far out of the realm of a competent mother.  Would I have been more likely, then, to admit to homicidal thoughts toward my children?  Not something someone who loves and cares for their children – which all postpartum mothers do on some level – would readily admit.  Therefore, there may not have been warning signs of this impending tragedy.  Many postpartum mothers are uncannily adept at masking the turmoil inside.

So here’s the lowdown:

  • For all its awareness, we still live in a society where women are compelled to hide their unhealthy mental symptoms.
  • For all the coverage of tragedies such as these, a lot of people still cannot recognize or suss out the warning signs and symptoms of the mentally ill to prevent future scenarios.
  • For all the resources available, the paths to these therapeutic and rehabilitative programs are still unclear and/or blocked.
  • For a species that values nurturing, we are quick to throw a troubled and needy person under the bus.

There is work to be done, people.  It is sad that we cannot look each other in the eye and see the need in that person.  It is sad that we look away for fear that the beast inside us will be awakened by the raw reminder in front of us.  It is sad that, instead, we cannot look and see a solution, a way to lift up the depressed and rise together.

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SmART meets heART

When I was teaching, an art teacher in my building approached me with an opportunity to attend an institute on integrating the arts across the curriculum.  Being an English/Language Arts teacher professionally and a creative person personally, I jumped at the chance.

SmART Schools, the brainchild of Eileen Mackin, Ed.M, offered intensive multiple day workshops for educators of all genres showing hands-on ways to access all manner of information and curricula.  Ideally, an entire community or school system would ‘buy-in’ for the optimum effect.  At the very least, a team of teachers (one from each discipline, all assigned to a core group of kids) could attend together to align their methods.  That first year, one of three I attended, I was the sole participant from my team, only one of four total from my building.  Another year, two team teachers I worked very closely with came along.  Once, I convinced my entire team to come along.  While complete buy-in is ideal, even one practicioner of this method benefits children immensely.

While reading a novel together as a class, we created tableaus of images from the book with our bodies.  We acted out salient scenes.  We created dioramas, collages, 3-D sculptures.  We played ‘games’ that built community.  We ‘became’ emotions.  We fostered understanding in a non-threatening way.  Students who would never raise their hands used their arms and legs, their stance to make a statement about a theme of a book that would bring tears to my eyes.

Through art, they became the book.  They interfaced with the material in a way not possible by simply seeing the words on the page.  And they expressed themselves in ways that writing or speaking may not have made possible for them.  The text-to-self and text-to-world connections were now concrete, though they shook me to the core.

The PeaceLove Studio

The PeaceLove Studio

Fast-forward six years.  I no longer teach, though I value education and the arts as much as I ever did.  Now, however, my goals for education have entered the realm of mental health.  I discovered PeaceLove Studios, an organization I am fortunate enough to call local.  Their goal is to bring peace and love to the world through expressive arts, thereby eliminating the stigma attached to mental illness.  I’ve been following and applauding their work for over a year now.  A friend, lucky enough to work in a building that houses a mini-art gallery, told me of a PeaceLove exhibition there.  That was my first real-world experience with the organization.  But I’d been longing for a tactile experience with them, to see their space, see them in action.  Last night, with that same friend along for the ride, I had that chance.

PeaceLove offered a workshop called, “Story Shoes”.  Through decorating a shoe, you would represent the path you’ve taken; by inscribing a ‘footprint’, you would tell your story.  First, we engaged in an introductory discussion to get to know the other participants and to get us thinking on what story we’d like to tell.  I had flashbacks of teaching middle school again when we had to count off by twos for this activity 😉 but it gave us that sense of community and safe environment crucial for such an activity.  It also afforded us the mental preparation and space to enter into the introspection we’d need.

My shoe-sterpiece!

My shoe-sterpiece!

As usual, my mind processes surpassed my ability to articulate the many metaphors I laid out.  Surprisingly, my story came about more organically than I expected.  Instead of telling my entire life story, the items and way I chose to decorate my shoe more accurately represented my aura than one specific line of personal plot.  And I think that’s the perfect point to make about mental illness moving toward mental health and its acceptance.  Ultimately, it’s not about the details.  It is about the essence of the person and acceptance of him or her as a whole.

I think I learned more from the other participants sharing of their shoes and stories than I did in creating my own, too.  We set our shoes on a pathway of black paper that wound its way across the slatted wood floor of the old mill building, the flat footprints interspersed in relief with the dimensional shoes.  We walked that path together, with our varied experiences, our varied states of suffering or salvation.  I realized the power of getting outside the rutted paths of our brain to make true discovery; how a totally different use of our minds, our hands can give us that.  Glitter glue and feather and paintbrushes can free the emotions from the fear that dams them.  It happened subconsciously in a nonthreatening medium.

"On the inside, we may feel empty, but we've left our mark nevertheless."

“On the inside, we may feel empty, but we’ve left our mark nevertheless.”

I saw the same looks of pride and empowerment as participants explained their pieces and shared their stories as I did when my students opened up the world of the texts through their movements and creations.  I felt the same well of emotion, the same nod of the head affirmation of “Yes, exactly, I know exactly what you mean.  I hear you.  I feel you.  I am with you.”

I left with that same heady feeling of hope and peace and joy that only a truly transcendental experience with the arts (or nature or God) can give you.  Anything that helps people, especially those weighed down by mental illness, transcend their limitations and expectations is truly smart and a work of heart.

If you walked in my shoes . . .

If you walked in my shoes . . .

How Did They (Do We) Do It?

I often wonder how mothers of our mothers did it. In the age of keeping up appearances and, in the generation before that, of simply surviving.

There were no therapists, no LICSWs, no yoga retreats and meditation circles. There was no opportunity for a facial and hot stone massage. There was no medication to make the pain go away – except for those self-prescribed.

There was alcohol sipped in secret. There was valium – and laudanum in the early days. There might be lashing out at the children when the husband or society did the same to them.  Catholics might find solace in confession – if the guilt of their perceived shortcomings and ungrateful attitude didn’t keep them away.

I wonder how many women thought they were flawed because they didn’t love the life handed to them.  That they were failures because they didn’t find rearing children and keeping house easy.

But that’s not even the point.

Mothers today still flounder with the many resources available to them.

How the hell did women of previous generations keep it together?

Was it the lack of a pervasive media that kept us from hearing about children murdered by their own mother’s hand? Did bubbling anger dissipate through more readily accepted floggings? Were extended family and neighbors more readily available and willing to step in and pick up slack?

Did women suffer in silence?

I wonder how many women devolved into mental illness from the stress of responsibility, relentless duty, stifled desires. I wonder how many Academy Award worthy actresses were forged in the face of an uninterested audience.

And what do we do for them now? How do we celebrate the uncelebrated?

By feeling guilty as hell that we don’t like this comparatively golden portion we’ve been dealt?

Or by saturating the dry earth of hopelessness with resources for women struggling with themselves, with motherhood, with life?

Part of me yearns for the ironclad persona of the women and mothers of my thrice-removed family. But another more unwilling part realizes that armor came at a merciless price. Not only are these women I cannot question because of space and time, but because they would never answer. Perhaps one small admittance would open the chink that would crumble the entire suit. They would never take that chance. Nor would society let them. They did what they had to because there was no other choice. Their own mothers had it hard and so, then, would they.

I wonder if in this age of modern convenience we have too much time on our hands to ponder our existence. However, I’d like to think, even amidst the stirring of lye and slaying of chickens, our female forebears wondered the same things. They probably wouldn’t have lived so fiercely if they hadn’t.

How do we live fiercely in their honor while fighting for what we all need?

Maybe

At the beginning of May, I set out on a mental health mission.  May being Mental Health Month, I wanted to dedicate a daily post to a condition of, treatment for, and/or living with mental illness.  While my life is influenced by my own struggle with depression, and all of my posts are therefore colored by it, I wanted these series of posts to address mental illness and health dead on.  And with the exception of one day, I did it!  And learned some interesting things in the process.

What a month of blogging about mental illness and health will teach you:

  • Focusing on your depression and what it does to you everyday makes you even more depressed
  • I may have exhausted not only myself, but also those around me.
  • Daily blogging (I had previously blogged approximately two times a week) made this ‘stay-at-home mom’ feel like I had a purpose, a vocation, a “real” job.  I had set that schedule for myself and had to stick to it.  I made writing – something I truly enjoy – a priority.
  • Daily blogging made my house look like a pit.  Making my writing a priority pushed nearly everything else to the wayside.
  • I need to work on time management 😉
  • If you write it, they will come – eventually
  • There are a lot of super-supportive people who write incredibly thoughtful comments.
  • I feel your pain’, though overused, is not a pile of horseshit.  It is extremely powerful to connect with someone who has, indeed, felt your pain.
  • That I over-catastrophize (yes, I may be making up words again).  I missed one day in my blog-a-day-a-month challenge and a bushel basket of chopped potatoes did not come crashing down upon my head.
  • That given the chance to slack, I will.  June 1 rolled around and I let the rest of life come rushing back in.
  • That, sometimes to a fault, I engage both sides of an argument, an issue, etc.  I’m forever writing that big pro/con list in the sky, which may make me come across as wishy-washy, fickle, not knowing my @## from my elbow (compare the two previous points!)
  • That achieving balance is to continually adjust on the tightrope of life.  Urgh.
  • That telling your deepest, darkest fears and foibles makes you incredibly vulnerable – or at least feeling that way.
  • That people like to know they’re not the only one feeling that way.
  • That one month of posts is not enough to explore all there is to know about mental health and illness.
  • That although I started the month of May thinking these posts would be a departure from my usual in that they directly addressed mental health and illness, there really is no separating out depression from everyday life.  It’s the constant mantle on our shoulders, sometimes blowing lightly in the wind, sometimes soaking wet with rain.

So, now it’s back to operation ‘normal’, whatever the hell that is.  I did miss writing about my crazy adventures and travails as a mom.  I did miss writing something “positive” or life affirming (I tried during May, but felt like most of it was heavy).  I’ll be glad to write something that doesn’t make you think I loathe my children and the life I lead.  But I guess I won’t be giving up writing about mental health and illness; that is woven into the fiber of my being for better or worse.  Maybe I’m finally learning to live with that.

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