Hunker Down, Ride Out the Storm

I gaze out at the beautiful, blue Gulf of Mexico, the water is as calm as a lake and the almost non-existent waves are merely ripples.  Wading out waist deep I can see tiny fish as they zip past me and a long, thin parrot fish gliding behind them as if he is lazily checking out the buffet. The peacefulness of the water is alluring, but I have seen it look much different. 

I remember walking that same beach as a hurricane was barreling toward us but was still some distance away.  The waves were furious and relentless in their attack on the shore.  The only feet wading into those waves belonged to daring surfers determined to catch a wave or two before they were ordered them from the water.

Same beach, same body of water different days.  Life is like that.  Some parts of my life have been calm, peaceful and I can see clearly.  Some parts of my life have been storms, with waves crashing around me, making me fearful to take a step in any direction, certain that the waves would overpower me, and unsure of which direction to go.

Like the hurricane, the storms in life pass.  When in the middle of the fury, it is hard to believe that they will, but they do.  Sometimes all that can be done is to hunker down and know that the storm will end.  That is the time to allow the quietness in you to remind you that you will make it through.

Life storms come in all shapes and sizes, some more severe than other.  Storms can be catastrophic when loved ones die or when someone you love is battling a terrible illness.  Storms can be within relationships, or be due to the loss of a job, or financial difficulties.  Every person faces different storms, but it is certain that everyone will have storms in their life.  Learning how to weather them is the key.

Anger, frustration, worry and fear don’t decrease the intensity of the storm.  Demanding that life storms stop is about as successful as demanding that the hurricane stop blowing.  Both storms will continue until they are over.  And sometimes we don’t know when that is going to be. So, you ride it out – with as much peace as possible.

One of the biggest life storms in my life came when my daughter was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer. The storm terrified me.  As she went through surgeries and chemotherapy, sometimes I was angry.  How could something like this happen to my vibrant, beautiful, health conscious daughter!  I yelled at the storm, but it didn’t help. 

For me this storm raged strongest when I would awaken in the middle of the night and the storm would engulf me as my thoughts took me to terrifying places.  I knew enough to know that it was my thoughts that were causing me the pain in the moment.  Knowing that, I would remind myself that in that moment she was alright.  At that time, she was getting the medical attention she needed, and at that moment my worry was not changing a single outcome, all it was doing was causing me pain.  I had to hunker down and wait out the storm.

It was a long storm.  But she survived and so did I.  It was a major storm.  If it had been a hurricane, its name would have been retired.  That life storm hit hard, and weathering it left me changed in some ways, but not in bad ways.  I have a greater respect for life in general.  I appreciate health more.  I value time with my family more.  And I really, really appreciate the times of calm, when there is no life storm on my immediate horizon.

Appreciating the calm, clear Gulf of Mexico doesn’t mean that a hurricane will never come again.  Valuing and enjoying the times of calm in my life doesn’t mean that I will never have life storms again.  I know hurricanes and life storms will come again, but I won’t waste my time worrying about when they will arrive or how long they will last.  Those are things I can’t control.  What I know is that I can hunker down and find peace inside while I ride out the storms.  And storms don’t last forever.

Facing the Realities of Suicide

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With these latest celebrity suicides and the ongoing discussions about depression and anxiety issues that trouble so many people, I will share a bit of my story and possibly offer hope to some who feel hopeless.

My maternal grandmother suffered from severe depression and from what my mom described, my grandmother probably had a good bit of what would now be diagnosed as obsessive-compulsive disorder. Back all those many years ago there was very little help for those having mental health issues.

My grandmother was hospitalized and treated with electroshock therapy more than once, and back then it was a pretty barbaric treatment. After my grandmother's last hospitalization, she was discharged home with a warning to the family to watch her because the doctors knew she was still very depressed.

No one can be supervised every second, so my grandmother waited for her opportunity, slipped away and walked into the river and drowned herself. This happened when my mom was just 17 years old, and she was the oldest of 3 children. The pain of that suicide was felt through the generations.

I spent a lot of time in my younger years wondering if my grandmother's mental health issues were hereditary and something that I would have or could pass down to my children. This history is what led me to the mental health profession, in an attempt to understand this whole process of mental health issues and suicide.

Out of all of the classes I took, accumulating three mental health degrees, guess how many classes actually taught mental health? Zero! Not a single one.

I learned about mental disorders and how to diagnose, and various modes of treatment, but nothing was taught about mental health.

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I was extremely lucky about 15 years ago to happen upon an understanding that is very simple and common sense. It points people back toward their own health and well-being and teaches that we all have that healthy part that we were born with that can never be damaged or destroyed, despite what we might have experienced in our life or inherited from our families. It was the best thing that I ever learned.

I have had the honor of sharing it in settings that range from businesses and universities, to correctional programs and substance abuse centers, and one-on-one counseling. I have seen people who believed they could never be happy reclaim their innate well-being and live peaceful, happy, contented lives.

I no longer fear mental health issues because I know they can be overcome. Part of the severity of mental health issues is the fear and the hopelessness. Another part is the ownership that people often claim when given a mental health diagnosis by a mental health professional.  Many see their diagnosis as permanent.  I don’t.  Just as you heal from a broken bone, you recover from depression, or anxiety or whatever label you have accepted.  It doesn’t have to be a forever thing, unless you claim it as a forever thing.

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What I learned fifteen years ago is that my health and peace of mind come from me and I don’t have to do anything other than allow it to happen.  Low moods pass away if you don’t fight them or fear they will last forever, just as when there is a thunderstorm, you know that the sun isn’t gone forever, it will shine again.  Low moods pass, and you will feel good again.  It is possible to live a life of peace and happiness and survive those thunderstorms life sends our way.

Dealing with Suicidal Thoughts

A couple of big names were in the news this past week. Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain committed suicide days apart. People are talking about it. I began wondering about the other 850+ non-famous people who’ve committed suicide this week alone. I’d like to know their names. I’d like to remember them, too.

The CDC says that the suicide rate in the US has increased more than 25% since 1999. 1999 was my darkest year. Suicide had become a viable option for me. In February of 2000, I went to the brink and ended up in the ER, then intensive care. I know what it’s like to feel hopeless. I know what it’s like to believe that there is no way out of the despair. I know what it’s like to be consumed by shame and fear. If only I had known that the desperate thoughts and feelings would pass. If only I had known that I was resilient and whole despite how it all seemed. If only Kate, Anthony, and countless other people had known.

This is why I do the work I do. I want people to know. I want them to know that desperate thoughts and feelings pass. I want them to know that they are not those thoughts and feelings. I want them to know their own wellbeing and resilience.

You see, no matter how it may seem at this very moment, you are whole. You have innate wellbeing and resiliency. It may be that no one has ever told you. It may be that you’ve been told all your life that you are broken. It may be that you’ve come to believe it. I believed it. That belief was devastating. No matter how it looks to you at this moment, you are not broken; you only believe that you are. That belief is causing you tremendous suffering. Your essence cannot be broken. If you listen deeply, you may feel the truth of this, if only for a nanosecond. It’s no less true if you can’t.

Listen, it’s OK if you don’t believe it. I’ll believe it for you until you can. I believe it with all my heart. I believe in you. I see your light. I see your wholeness. If you can’t, it’s OK. It makes it no less true. You’ve only forgotten. You could remember at any moment. These desperate thoughts and feelings will pass. They will. That’s what thoughts and feelings do. They are not you. They are not permanent.

When we are in the throes of the devasting thoughts and emotions, they feel utterly and overwhelmingly real. They are supposed to feel real, that’s how this human system works. I get it. I understand. I’ve been there. All the way down. Sometimes it’s at the very bottom that we get a taste of who we really are, of our divinity. Over the Rhine has a line in their song, Nobody Number One, that I love: “I’m so far down, I’m beginning to breathe”. That’s what happened to me. I went all the way down and it was there that I found I could breathe. It was there that I touched my essence.

Sydney Banks, a philosopher and writer, said: “If the only thing people learned was not to be afraid of their experience, that alone would change the world.” I believe it. I was so afraid of feeling down. I was so afraid of feeling shame. I was so afraid of feeling alone. I was so afraid of feeling afraid. I did not know that I could have touched it all more lightly. I did not know that I could have taken them less seriously and personally. I did not know that they were not me. I did not know that they would pass. Despite not knowing, they passed anyway but I kept them alive for much longer than necessary and I suffered greatly as a result. Now I know that thoughts, feelings, and circumstances pass. Now I know that I don’t have to take them so very personally and seriously. Now I know that I can find my way through. This is possible for you, too. It is.

If you are feeling suicidal:

  1. Reach out for support. I’d be happy to have a conversation with you or you could call the suicide hotline at 1-800-273-8255
  2.  Remind yourself, whether or not you can feel it, that you are whole. You are resilient. You are made of star-stuff. You are divinity. If you can't remind yourself, find someone who can.
  3. Remember that thoughts and feelings want to move through you. That’s what they do. They are not permanent. They are not you. Imagine watching them pass without attaching to them. They cannot hurt you. You could think of them as a dream that you will wake up from or a fantastically immersive movie that will end.
  4. Instead of adding to the desperate thoughts and feelings with more thought and analysis, you could bring your attention back into the present moment. Feel your body in your chair. Feel how that chair supports you. Notice your breath, the inhale, the exhale. You are created for this present moment, not a future or past moment. Bring your attention back to this very moment. 
  5. You could notice that even in the midst of the despair, a puppy, an unexpected smile from a stranger, the wind caressing your skin can still make you smile at times. That could be a reminder to you that thoughts and feelings come and go. Notice it or you may miss it.
  6. Remind yourself that countless people have found their way through. You can, too. I could never have imagined 20 years ago how good life could be for me and how much like a distant and fading dream those desperate years feel to me now. Don’t give up. You are resilient. There is a way through this.
  7. Reach out for support. Yes, some things need to be said twice. Humans are relational beings. If no one around you is supportive then call the hotline or contact me. There are those who want to help.

As you wake up to who you truly are, you will find your way. Get support from someone who knows you have innate well-being and who will point you back to your essence, to your own light. That's where you will find your resilience, clarity, and peace. There is hope. There is hope.

Love,
Carla