When the foundation of your entire life dissolves in an instant how will you react? Each of us has pillars in our lives that are the foundation for our identity and what gives most of our actions meaning. But when that pillar becomes unstable or disappears entirely, what action will you take? It can be a career or business change,the loss of a family member, diagnosis of a serious illness, or dissolving of a romantic relationship. There may be times when we may even allow ourselves to attempt to develop some insight into that moment, while immediately peeling back from the intensity of the sheer thought with a comment like “I cannot even imagine” what that would feel like. We obviously all react differently to traumatic events, however in my case, the reactions my body and mind experienced were echoed by others who had experienced something similar. This was a welcoming thought in hindsight, but in the moment it felt like I was having a completely unique experience. Here is what I can remember. If any of these feelings strike a chord with any experience you have had or are having, perhaps the tools that helped me hang on during those times will be of help to you.
I wake up. The room may still be dark or the sun may have begun to shine, time has lost meaning at this point except as a placeholder for appointments. Have the kids to school by a certain time, get to work by a certain time etc. For a glorious split second as your consciousness begins to awaken you are just thankful that you were able to fall asleep. What a curious thought? Why would someone be thankful that they fell asleep? This simple question engages your memory and from there the pain begins. Your memory releases every terrible element attacking your reality. It rushes through your bloodstream and immediately fills your body with an extreme caffeine like rush of toxic emotions. You start to remember where you are at, where you are sleeping, what the circumstances are that brought you to this place, what did go wrong, what can still go wrong. Pain, Fear, and Anger just start swirling in a constant cycle that will be seemingly endless. Endless until the next moment your mind reaches the same level of exhaustion where it literally can no longer operate and you surrender to sleep. Then finally a pause. Not exactly resting, just a pause, until you reawaken in a few hours and ask yourself : “Why am I thankful I fell asleep?” and the living nightmare begins again.
However now you are awake and in full understanding of the pressures that have overwhelmed you. It may be 3AM with hours before any unnecessary alarms will ring or 9AM with alarms all snoozed and disabled since you have nothing left to give. Your body is pumping with negative adrenaline, however you are unable to move. The thought of having to get dressed, say hello to a human being, simply standing up seem completely insurmountable. So you lay there, mind revving through emotional patterns. Crying with disbelief of your situation. Fear at thoughts about what the present and the future hold. Anger at whoever or whatever you perceive as the culprit for this situation. Each stage of this cycle can vary in length and intensity, but the sheer speed of thought is unbelievable. For me these 3 stages would complete their process between 2 and 8 mins on average, continuously. At times there might be a pleasant pause lasting a few seconds, to the point where you fool yourself into thinking the pattern has finally broken down and your body and mind are regaining control over themselves.However this is an illusion- it is the ascension of the roller coaster and all of a sudden you are filled with the terror as the clicking stops and you plummet back into a free fall followed by twists and turns that whip your sense of self until you are completely disoriented of your existence. Does it ever end? You have no idea. You assume it must because you are neither the first nor the last to survive this circumstance. However your experience is utterly unique. Your psyche is attempting to process emotions at a speed and intensity that is most likely impossible. Eventually the engine runs out of fuel and you collapse into a period of utter mental exhaustion. Your brain finally burns out and it must sleep. It is not peaceful nor will you feel rested, but it is however a break from this carousel. With it comes the slight hope that perhaps tomorrow will be the day when your psyche regains control.
A Friday life challenge. One of the heaviest (and frankly most frustrating) aspects of not feeling your best is that you have to spend a tremendous amount of time and energy focusing on yourself. In the end, you can get burnt out from feeling like the main character of a movie you are not enjoying (or anyone in a DC superhero movie).
There is a way to flip the lens and put yourself behind the camera. That is to shine the spotlight on others by thanking them, even when you are not in the best place. Here is an exercise that I suggest to anyone looking to give. Even when we feel low, we have tremendous value as a human and there are ways to share that aspect of life.
During this past year, I was lucky to receive a few surprise gifts from some incredibly special souls in my life. They always seemed to be perfectly planned and came when I desperately needed a boost. They were so simple: a bag of coffee, a great card, an old dvd. The excitement of having something unexpected in the mail was such a mini thrill. Can you even fathom how excited someone in the wild west must have felt when the pony express came by with a letter that was already 4 months old?!?!
One particular piece of mail really made me stop in my tracks. One day I came home from a day where the world had given me a half decent bruising. I was questioning myself, my abilities, my past, present, and future. Waiting for me in the mail was a small package. Inside was a card from one of my former students who was graduating from Naval Civil Engineers Corps Officer School. It included a commemorative pin from his graduating class and a note with kind words about his appreciation for guidance I had given him(supposedly- I learned more from him I think). I have been lucky to have special connections with several of my former students(colleagues). In particular when they tell me they are going to serve in some capacity in our military, a very complex emotion comes over me. It is a strange brew of extreme pride mixed with a parental worry about the state of the world and the troubles that exist. It is always a special surprise to hear from them. However in this case I was shocked and overwhelmed by this gesture. I thought how could I have influenced him enough to think of me at a moment as monumental as his military graduation? It helped me realize how profound our effect can be on each other. I was filled with gratitude and a genuine desire to reach out. But a normal thank you did not feel like enough, so I decided to begin an exercise fueled by his act of kindness.
I began writing a thank you card each night for the rest of the month. In the beginning, I had a loose list of the people I wanted and needed to thank. So my final act of each day before going to bed was to write a thank you card. I would never decide who it was for until that moment, and I never reread them. Write and seal, that was the system. Within a few days it became the highlight of my day and it changed my perspective entirely. Seeing who my brain felt like writing to that day was an incredibly joyous experience. As the days went on, it became so much easier to express my thanks and to identify new candidates for my mental list. Putting myself in a position to give when I had been in a long ‘need’ phase was a completely different life energy. It made me feel like a contributor to the human race again. My mind began focusing on gratitude all around me. Things that I appreciated, from a perfect willow tree to a great exchange while getting a cup of coffee, stood out in my daily memories. Life had highlights.
This exercise was complete. I was so appreciative for the new thoughts and perspectives it had helped emerge. However it still had more to give. This desire to give thanks to others was done completely with the intention that nothing would be given in return. A thank you for a thank you? That can get out of control quickly.
However I started receiving a few messages and phone calls from my friends telling me that it was such a perfectly timed boost for them. My cards arrived right when they were having a bad day and questioning different aspects of their lives. It is so easy to forget that all of us have aspects of our days that are frustrating and filled with all the challenges of being a person. Even those who may seem to have their lives together or have a positive outlook on social media. (Nobody would only present the good parts of their lives on facebook right?!?!?!)
The mail was delivering the same emotion I had received. We had built a network of thanks. It became the starting point for some real meaningful conversations with family and friends. I began to see the cards displayed on shelves in their homes or suspended on their refrigerator. It was clear that it had a personal value that I did not expect from my small piece of paper and ink.
So my challenge to you is this. Try to show thanks to someone once a week. Something deliberate with thought. It doesn’t need to be expensive or cost anything at all. A special text, ordering them funny socks, a small card with a heartfelt message. Let your feelings be a small alert message for this act. When you feel like your life is too hard, take a breath and look for a way to give. It is impossible to feel self- pity and gratitude at the same time.
Support can and will come from many different places. For thoughts on how to build a support network, check out: https://brainbelay.com/2017/10/18/building-your-support-team/ Hopefully you are bringing people in: friends, family, personal connections that obviously want to help and provide some ease to your discomfort. However these lovely humans are filled with all of the beautiful biases that make them your friends and family. In my case I am very thankful that my mind decided “You need a pro.” Although I am graced to have friends that are caring, intelligent, and resourceful, this was not a DIY job. These are the people I would call if I needed to redo my kitchen, or figure out how to. If we burst a pipe in the kitchen it would be a Tim ‘the Tool Man’ Taylor moment, but we would figure it out together, and probably laugh our way to the solution. However my mind, body, and life were flooded. Even the most handy among us would hopefully realize that as the water in the basement is rising towards the electrical box, we should call a professional.
In the theme of a now timeless classic, Pulp Fiction, you may need to send in the wolf- someone who has studied, read, and written for years about the situations you are going through and the symptoms you are experiencing. Therapists are not miracle workers, but they are better informed than you or I.
Our society has for many years had certain stigmas around seeking mental health. I would encourage you to move past some of these inhibitions with these thoughts. #1 If you felt a constant pain in your right leg with every step you took, wouldn’t you eventually go see a doctor? I say eventually for the most stubborn out there who would spend the first 6 months learning to hop on the left. When would you finally cave in and get it checked out? When your friends start calling you ‘Hoppy”? #2 From an anatomical point of view, in any kind of accident or activity what is the number one part of your body you should be trying to protect? Hopefully you realize the answer is your brain (writes the human who once was getting an x- ray and used the small heavy vest they gave him to cover his genitals). You can live without a leg, arm, jaw, and yes even your privates, but you cannot live without your brain. So if it is the MOST important part of your body and you realize it is having trouble functioning, why would you hesitate on getting it checked out? #3 I am not going to get into the validity and possible setbacks of prescription anti-depressant and other mental health medications. I know they have helped many people while in some cases being a factor in serious setbacks. However from the perspective of seeing a LICENSED therapist or counselor, my only question is “why not’? Don’t you think EVERYONE in life would benefit from being able talk openly about their problems for one hour? How many hours do each of us waste a week? In cat videos alone, that is probably 27 sessions. Point is this a very low- risk, high-reward investment. Worst thing that happens is you spent an hour talking to a stranger who you will probably never see again.
Now here is where I was met with another challenge. How do you find a good professional? What about when you cannot get an appointment for 2 months? What if you get a terrible feeling from the first encounter? All of these are possible and likely. The main suggestion is to understand that this process takes time, but it is essential. Start with your health insurance company if you have one and ask if they cover counseling. This is confidential and you can be assured that this information does not go to your employer. However I found my insurer’s website to find providers awkward to use and incomplete. Instead I was directed by a family member to the therapist listings on psychology today’s website under ‘find a therapist’. https://therapists.psychologytoday.com/rmsutm_source=PT_Psych_Today&utm_medium=House_Link&utm_campaign=PT_HomeTopB_find
If you need a breakdown on the differences between therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists check out this link: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/couch-meets-world/201107/psychiatrist-psychotherapist-whos-who-in-mental-health
There I could search by zipcode, specialty, gender, therapist or psychologist, etc. It was an incredible resource. From there I would research the ones I was interested in. Honestly there were some that I would not even consider because of my own personal biases. Some of them just did not look like the kind of person I could open up to. Sure that involves prejudices, but you need to feel comfortable for this to even have a chance at being useful. I asked a friend of mine who was a graduate student in psychological services at the time if gender, nationality, etc mattered when choosing a therapist. To my surprise her answer was “absolutely”! To paraphrase her words:”I am a Dominican woman. If I am seeing a white American therapist, she is liable to think I’m loca when I’m acting normal.” In other words if your cultural or societal norms don’t have some common ground with that of the person listening to you, there might be some misinterpretation. That being said, I also think this is also a great opportunity to get a dramatically different point of view on your thinking. Maybe you need the support of your inner Latina right now. Perhaps it would be helpful for a man to get a woman’s input on his relationship situation and vice versa (he types while laughing at the thought that any woman would need MORE of a man’s point of view in her life).
In the end I think the biggest surprise will be that they actually do not give you too much feedback. A good therapist listens, helps you facilitate your understanding, and is mostly a guide in the process. He or she is not the person with the answer so they may actually say very little. Go with your gut so you can commit to opening up quickly and getting proper help. Once I found a few that were on my short list, I began calling them. Please note that most therapists are self employed or share office space without a receptionist. You will most likely not get a person who answers the phone. This is not a rejection it is the nature of their business. Leave a message with as much information as you feel comfortable sharing and your return phone number. You should get a call back within a day or two. If it is during the summer or holidays this can be way longer. If they don’t call just try someone else. Do not overthink this. The important thing is to see someone. From there you can search for someone else if you do not feel it is a good match. If nothing else, it is something productive to do with your time and that you can check off a list. Congratulate yourself for every accomplishment during this time. Looking up therapists and leaving voice messages should be enough for a small reward- whether it is a pat on the back, a few minutes of online searching, or a healthy snack break. You are learning to help yourself and that is a skill we could all use more of.
One of my favorite types of movie magic formulas is when the protagonist decides he or she needs to form a team. We get a slick montage where all of the different elements are layered on- the muscle, the brains, the face, and not to be undervalued- the humorous yet slightly unstable member. I have always loved the concept of organizing a group of specialists to tackle a problem. Having others with abilities that fill the gaps in ours. With an elite super force you can vanquish any foe (we are talking internal here) or overcome any challenge. When you are assembling a support network- the same formula works. Get excited about the process. Chart it out. Use Dry erase boards, set up a situation room with maps, anything to make you feel like you are unveiling a master strategy.
When I began my first calls were to 2 friends. One who was my oldest friend in life, not necessarily closest at that time. However I knew he had been through a situation as challenging and similar as mine, and had values I could trust. My friend was sympathetic and immediately wanted to help. He tried to remember things that had helped him, promised to remember others, and was a confidant. Perhaps the most important feeling this provided me was that finally, someone knew I was in trouble. That I was in a situation that I did not know if I could fully deal with. Occasional check in calls became the norm, and they were always perfectly timed. Next was a college friend whom lived nowhere near me. This was vital because it was another connection I could open up with that was not in my immediate space or community. They could see it from a larger perspective, without having to be active participants in what I was dealing with daily.
Now with these initial contact being met with compassion and sympathy, I felt safer but was still for all intents and purposes alone. My sister became my truest source of stability. To be clear, she was the muscle, the B.A. Baracus of the team, who pities the fool who messed with her brother. Now this was trickier because she was more present in my life and community. Bringing her into my troubles had an interesting effect that I saw other times as well. Being good humans who care about you, they hate knowing you are in pain. This begins a process within them of discomfort, possible hurt, even rage at times. They are showing empathy, but it might be a lot for them to handle even if it is indirectly. By no means am I saying that you should not go to those close to you with your problems because it is too much for them. These individuals are hopefully people who love you and would in fact be more offended if you did not go to them for help. What I am implying, is that you need to recognize this can cause a shift in their realities and worlds so be compassionate. If they do not react the way you intended, understand that. Bring more people into your inner circle so that not only one person has to shoulder the emotional energy of supporting you. Have 3,6,9- however many you feel comfortable with and rotate your support among them.
This is your team and you need to MANAGE your support network. If you called your best friend to connect for 2 days in a row, now plan a day with a family member. Spent most of the weekend with a certain couple that supports you? Change gears and take a colleague up on the offer to take you out to lunch. Spread the support around so that your system stays fresh. Use their specialties. If someone in your network has a deeper understanding of addiction, go to them when you have feelings associated with that relationship. If someone else words in the medical field- go to them when you have health questions or concerns. People like being helpful. Identify their strengths and let them help you in the fields they feel comfortable in. If you know an educator, trainer – let them teach you; a lawyer- let them counsel you; an artist- let them help you express and create. Put them in the best position to help you. Don’t go to your stoic sibling and be surprised when he or she is sympathetic but unemotional about your situation. Have a few team members that are there to provide pure fun. However here is a caution. If you are going through a troubling time and reach out to a friend, even a great one, who solves his or her issues at the bar do not be surprised when they suggest helping you with their coping methods. This may be done with every good intention, However you need to be very aware of who or what you bring into your foundation when you are not at your peak. These are guidelines, however there is one monumentally important rule- be open to surprises. If that one friend who never opens up about anything surprises you with how deep they are willing to discuss emotions with you, accept it as a gift of humanity. Crisis creates change. For all the damage it can cause it also forces evolution. You will evolve as will those with you on the journey. Be open to what you see.
As you start bringing people into your support network, understand that you are inviting more viewpoints and personalities into your life. Although it may be extremely helpful to share your thoughts and experiences with others, it also gives opportunities for others to question or judge your actions and reactions. Regardless of the temperament of the people I was speaking with, eventually we always had a form of this conversation. “You must be mad as hell! If it were me I would be losing it right now. Why aren’t you angrier? No really, you better make sure you are getting that stuff out, or you will explode!” Some variation of this exchange was had between me and my family members, friends, colleagues, professionals. I always found it so fascinating. Everyone seemed so hyper-focused on anger. They seemed genuinely confused and even more shocking UNEASY by my lack of overt aggression. Now don’t get me wrong, the anger was there and I could sense that it was incredibly strong. I could feel it there waiting for any crack in my composure to present itself. But there was something about it that just did not feel like it was there to help me. Most of all, there was something about it that seemed so powerful that I was not sure I would be able to harness it. I respected it as a force. I have never been an aggressive or violent individual. But so many people literally WANTED to see it. Even one step further, they NEEDED to see it. It was as if only then could they feel more comfortable with what I was experiencing. Until there was anger , we were speaking slightly different languages. As if me expressing it would give them the permission they wanted to express it as well. I needed to know more. Somewhere in the back, back, back of my consciousness, a voice was telling me that this was not going to get me and my family where we needed to go. However the seed had been planted. Were they right? Was I setting myself up to be an emotional powder keg that was going to one day explode on a person for cutting me off, or stepping on my shoe? I started researching and experimenting with anger in a variety of different ways and these are the points I found most helpful:
Experiencing change positive or negative is a five senses experience. Although smell is perhaps the sense most linked with memory, music became very pivotal to me during this time. Music historically can be a foundational element of building relationships and then can also equally be forever linked to their downfall. Each of us has certain songs that can make our heart flutter from a memory with a loved one. (Thank you Otis Redding!) We also have ones that hit us so hard they make us want to drop to one knee. (Damn you Otis Redding!) It became apparent to me during this time, that if I allowed certain artists or songs to become the soundtrack to this experience, there was a decent chance I would never want to listen to them again. This was a calculated risk based on the time I had to get a colonoscopy (yes we are going there). Colon cancer has a history in my family so I was being screened early during a blessed time with health insurance. When you reach that monumental threshold in life, surprisingly you get a choice. Before the exam you need to completely flush your system the night before. This happens by you drinking essentially a gallon of prescribed laxative in 1 minute intervals (the proctologist’s power hour). You will eventually be running, albeit with very short steps, back and forth throughout your house. Much to my surprise, the prescription you have to mix with the water comes with a variety of flavor packets. You can delightfully choose to bomb your intestines in cherry, grape, orange, lemon, or pina colada. I was about to go with my staple of cherry when I took a pause. A sudden rush of uncertainty filled me- as opposed to the sudden rush that was about to certainly unfill me. I had no idea how this was going to change my opinion of cherry. From lollipops, to icees, gatorades, etc it was too risky. In the end (pun intended), I said aloha (also means goodbye) to pina colada. I felt good about my choice and on vacation I pleasantly enjoy daiquiris. I used the same logic in this life crisis. I stayed away from my staples. There was no way I was going to lose Stevie, Bruce, or Dylan to this. (although Dylan actually held his own). Certain bands were also doomed, for better or for worse, to be sacrificed in this. Music that I enjoyed enough, but in the end I could live without. Good bye Dire Straits. You were money for nothin’, and your band name perfectly captured my situation.
You were a bargain vinyl.
A solid find.
Unfortunately for both of us
You came at a bad time.
I don’t feel like a sultan.
Definitely have no swing.
You will do for a few weeks,
But the trash will be your thing.
Have to be honest-
‘Romeo and Juliet’ was a bit much.
Although for certain moments,
It came through in the clutch.
“That ain’t workin that’s the way you do it”
You once famously said.
Sorry to see you go,
But you saved the Talking Heads.
READ- I was lost with no clue how to stop the spinning thoughts in my brain. Each day I began looking up an article topic that I thought applied to my situation. Each time hoping that one would feel like an answer to how I was supposed to get out of this mess. In the end I never found that answer, but I did find a tremendous amount of resources that helped give me some insight into what I was experiencing. Be very open-minded with your searches. You may think that articles about losing your job is what you need, but in the end you are relating more to articles about rejection. If you come across a term you do not really recognize in an article, search it. The more you can grow the vocabulary associated with your experience, the better you will be able to pinpoint it. Enjoy where that journey takes you. It could go from professional sites to ones on psychology, parenting, mindfulness, or even hobby based sites for surfing enthusiasts. Reading anything is better than letting your mind wander on its own right now, so trust your instincts. Also fun tip- be ready when all these searches start changing the suggested articles and products being advertised on your normal web pages. Nothing more fun then when your amazon page starts reminding you daily about the thing that is bothering you the most. “No I don’t need a private investigator Google!!”….or do I? In the universe of trolling and people being able to share hateful opinions about cute cat videos, surprisingly the most helpful input was from the comments section. Many people shared their stories, impressions, advice. It gave me a point of reference for my feelings. It also gave me a very unique perspective. I could see the current states of the people who had lived through what I was living. Some were so bitter, defeated, fighting their reality,refusing to accept their situation, filled with an anger that had consumed them. A few others had found some element of understanding, a productive perspective, a mild sense of peace. It was possible. We have a choice. A choice on how we want to live and who we want to be on the other side of change.
My son has a natural tendency towards negative self talk when he is stressed. Things are ‘never’ going to happen or he is ‘always the worst’. Working with him on these reactions, I became very conscious that all of us have positive and negative voices in our head trying to drown out the other. But we also have a power. The ability to identify and amplify. We have a microphone that we can chose to give to any of those voices to help them overtake the debate. In crisis, the negative voices are already louder than normal. This makes it even harder to hear some pivotal information that our minds and bodies may be trying to send us.
There are a few very pivotal moments throughout this year that I feel were life changing. Some were a necessity of the circumstances, some were conceived using calm sound judgement, and others were mini miracles of luck and the ability to follow my body’s natural instincts. This was the latter. The first morning that I experienced the internal alarm clock of dread it was 3:30 in the morning. No matter how hard I tried I could not get my brain to slow down. Just when I thought I could get some breathing under control, I felt all control release like a semi truck without brakes trying to navigate a curved steep decline. I was at the mercy of my emotions and thoughts. Neither one of them was my friend at this time. The hours passed until I was mercifully allowed to get out of bed and start my zombie like day. The next night after collapsing again from the mental odyssey, I awoke again. The levee that had temporarily held my emotions at bay while I slept disintegrated in an instant and flooded all of the synapses in my brain with every version of suffering feelings that exist. I knew I was going to relive the same living nightmare from the morning before, but then my brain found one shining light of an idea. It was a whisper at first. However in that moment I feel like my intuition found one break in the negative energy. Understanding that this may be its last chance to communicate with me it uncharacteristically shouted: “Get up” “Just get up”. Just as quickly the voice was gone. But the idea implanted itself in the cycle of my brain. How did this happen? What is wrong with me? How could I be so stupid? “Get Up” the voice said. Fuck everyone involved with this! God this hurts? What will happen to us? “Get up” it repeated. What did I do wrong? You are such a weak fool! “Get up” it finally demanded. My mind could catch this and it engaged my sense of reasoning. I knew what laying there was going to feel like and I could never go through that again. “If you are awake, just be awake” I told myself. It was 3AM. I went downstairs. It was quiet, peaceful. The madness and hurt was all around me but, for the first time in days, (perhaps it was years) I was listening to my body. Now I was awake, but so what? It was warm that May. I saw some running shoes that had never gotten the use they were intended for staring at me. That original voice popped back for another direct message, “Move. Just move.” So I grabbed my dog who was shocked but thrilled at this early morning appearance and went for a run. The sky was still dark, but I started running. I felt certain muscles in my legs begin to heat up. My arms began to sway and my shoulders loosen. I was actually running faster than normal. My heart rate began to match the pace of my brain cycles. Now please note that I am aware I was not in anyway solving my negative brain energy. All I was doing was making my body race as much as my mind. I was literally allowing the fight or flight energy to run its course. As I jogged through the park near me, all the feelings were still present. However now I started seeing similarities in my body functions and traditional emotional responses. Perhaps it was just my level of fitness( or lack thereof) but my running breath felt similar to crying. It felt good to have salty liquid around my face and eyes. Many times I wanted to stop, and in those moments I did slow down to a near walking pace, but I did not stop. Then something magical happened as my body and muscles began to tire, I felt my negative mental cycle begin to slow as well. Mind and body were becoming more in sync. I looked out along a grassy field and the sun was rising over the NYC skyline. I saw something that I felt was beautiful and I allowed myself to stare and experience it. When I returned to my house my body had tired , but my negative thoughts had already found their second wind. They were stronger and were soon right back to their overwhelming pace. I still had no answers, but for the first time in this whole experience I finally had something. I had one way to slow down this demon. Even if for a short time. It had a weakness and that gave me a chance.