Suicide: A Personal Loss

Yesterday morning I was sitting at the breakfast table, sipping chai tea when I received a text message from my mother saying, “Let me know when you’re up and around.” A pang of fear punched me in the stomach for a moment. I thought, “Grandma must have passed away.” She’s been sick for a long time, my grandmother, and we’ve all expected her to pass at any moment. I sat with the thought for a moment, and decided that it was OK if she was gone–it was time.

I texted my mother back saying, “I’m up and having breakfast.” A moment or two later my phone rang. I picked up.

“Good morning, Mom,” I said.

My mother’s voice was grave, “I have some bad news,” she said.

“OK,” I replied.

“It’s really bad,” she said.

That pang in my stomach was back. Maybe it wasn’t about my grandmother. “What is it?” I asked.

“Ian killed himself,” she said.

My lungs forgot how to take in air for a moment. Ian was my cousin. I’d grown up with him. My eyes welled up with tears and I sobbed in a breath. Tears ran down my cheeks. A moment later I recovered myself enough to ask for details, but everything I learned made me feel worse.

I thought of my aunt, Ian’s mother, and of Ian’s brother. Their hearts must be broken. I cried for them. I thought about how much pain my cousin must have been in that he felt that death was the only escape, and I cried for his pain. I thought of the rift in our family caused by suicides–this is not the first one–and I cried for that great gaping hole of loss. I thought about what it must feel like to lose a sibling, and felt a surge of love for my brother and my sister, and sent them a message telling them how important they are to me. I don’t say it enough.

I called my friend, Jessica, and she listened to me while I cried, and then suggested we meet at the mall. So, I took my feelings shopping. I’m not ashamed. Later on, I met up with another friend for wine and conversation. I am so grateful for my support system. I love you so much.

I have experienced suicide from all angles, and possess a knowledge of it’s intricacies that few people do.

As a therapist, every day I ask the question, “Are you having thoughts of killing yourself?” It is a question that most people fear to speak out loud, but it has lost its power over me. I say it without even thinking–like most people ask about the weather. Much of the time people say no when I ask this question. But they say yes more often than you might think. An unexpectedly large portion of the population walk around thinking that they would prefer to be dead. I believe this is a symptom of just how sick our society truly is. We need to be kinder to each other. We need to show each other more compassion. We need to learn to love ourselves more. I do my best to guide people towards love.

What I don’t tell these people is that I truly understand their pain and their hopelessness, because I have been there myself. During the worst part of my illness, a neurologist told me that there was nothing more to be done for me, and that I would, “just get better with time.” I was so ill that I was completely unable to function. I couldn’t eat, keep food down, sleep, think straight. Over the course of a few months I had gone from a vibrant and self-reliant woman who loved to dance to the kind of person that the nurses recognized as a frequent flyer in the emergency room. I didn’t have time. I was dying and it was taking too long, and hearing that there was nothing more to be done nearly put me over the edge.

I had a plan. I would go to the beach, take a handful of the random pills doctors had prescribed to me and swim out into the ocean, never to return to land. I even drove to the beach and parked there a few times, but I didn’t get out of the car. I kept thinking about what it would do to my mother. I thought, “Let’s give it a month and see if I feel better.”

Miraculously, I did feel better. Only a little bit, but enough to give me hope. And then the next month I felt still better, and so on. I am healthy again, and living a full life.

While I wish I never had to go through that hopelessness, I’m glad that I gained that insight into suicidal thoughts. It makes me a better therapist. I can truly empathize with the feeling that death is the only way out.

Usually, however, it’s not true. Usually, there is another way.

When people are in the depths of severe depression, their minds tell them things that aren’t true. These thoughts are symptoms of severe depression in just the same way that fever and chills are symptoms of the flu. These thoughts do not reflect reality or truth, but they feel like they do, and people are so uninformed about the symptoms of depression that they often mistake these thoughts as truth when they are really just symptoms.

One of the things that Depression says is, “Death is the only way out of this pain.” Unless you are terminally ill, this thought is a lie. If you wait, the pain passes. This thought is a symptom of depression and nothing more. Don’t believe it. Get help.

Another thing that Depression says is, “The people in your life will be better off without you. You are a burden to them.” This is also a lie. The people in your life love you and want you to be in the world. They would rather help and support you through a depression than lose you to suicide. I promise you that.

Lastly, Depression likes to say, “The people in your life will be OK with your suicide. They might be sad for a bit, but they’ll get over it and go on with their lives as before.” I have had intimate therapeutic conversations with the family members of people who have suicided, and I know that they mourn the loss for the rest of their lives.

Depression lies. Do not believe it.

If you have been having suicidal thoughts, please get help. Go to your nearest emergency room, call 911, make an appointment with a therapist, or call a suicide hotline. There are many, but the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 24 hours per day, and the number is 800-273-8255.

If you are the family member of a suicidal person, please take their suicidal thoughts seriously. You would be shocked by how many suicidal clients have shared that they told a family member about their suicidal thoughts in an effort to get help, only to have their family member tell them “to just do it already,” or that they are “just trying to get attention.” I promise this is not true. It may make you feel safer to believe that it’s just an attention-seeking behavior, but it’s not.

If someone you love tells you that they are having suicidal thoughts, take them seriously. Help them to get to the emergency room, call 911 for a welfare check, help them make a therapy appointment, or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline number above. It is better to be safe than very, very sorry.

My heart is heavy with loss, but I’m sending love and healing out into the world. If you need it, I hope that you feel it. Take care of each other.

Active Listening Skills: How to Make People Feel Heard

People often have no idea what it actually means when I tell them that I’m a therapist. Some people seem to think that being a therapist is akin to being a psychic or a mind reader. They say, “Oh. Are you psychoanalyzing me right now?” Aside from this question being annoying, it shows a clear misunderstanding of how therapy works. It takes time to build a relationship between client and therapist, and clients answer multiple questions–willingly sharing stories about their lives–before therapists can make inferences about what is going on psychologically.

Other people seem to think that being a therapist is like being an advice columnist, and that I spend my time telling people what to do. I can understand why they think that. Shows like Dr. Phil and Dr. Laura Schlessinger give the impression that therapists spend all day telling people that they are stupid and how to act right. We definitely don’t do that. In fact, one of the most basic rules of therapy is to avoid telling people what to do at all costs. Why? Well, because if they take our advice and it goes horribly wrong, we get blamed. Instead, we help people to weigh their options and look at possible consequences to choices that they make. Even when people specifically ask me to tell them what to do, I refuse. They need to learn to make choices for themselves instead of relying on their therapists.

When people ask me what a therapist actually does, I usually say, “We listen.” The fact is that I am a professional listener. I spent 2 years getting a master’s degree, and 5 years as an intern to learn how to listen. I know I’ve done my job well when a client says, “Thank you. I feel like you really listened and understood me.”

That sense of being understood is sorely missing from most people’s lives. We’re all so busy and distracted. To sit face to face with someone and truly hear what they’re saying without judgment seems like an exhausting and time consuming prospect. Many people even find the listening process to be uncomfortable and foreign. They dread the words, “We need to talk.” Talking seems like a threat instead of an invitation to listen and understand.

Yet isn’t being heard something most of us deeply crave? Truly being understood feels wonderful, and being ignored is terribly frustrating. As I write this, I’m having a memory of trying to express a need to an ex-boyfriend while he played on his phone. I pointed out to him that he wasn’t paying attention to me, and he put down his phone, but then immediately looked right through me at the television that was on behind me. I gave up. And after a sequence of similar situations, I gave up on him. I needed a partner who would listen to me.

If you’re reading this and recognizing that you need to do some work on your listening skills, don’t worry. I’m going to give you some great tips. However, listening is like an under-used muscle that needs to be worked, and only you can do that. It’s going to take practice to get your listening muscle strengthened.

  1. Pay attention: This one may seem painfully obvious, but it’s actually where most people fail. When someone is trying to communicate with you, put your phone away. Turn off the television. Face the person and make eye contact. When you find your attention drifting, bring it back to the conversation. Take in what the person is saying without judgment and don’t formulate your response or rebuttal in the middle of the message. Pay attention to the person’s body language in order to get the full meaning.
  2. Show that you’re listening: Do things that give the other person the message that you’re with them. Nod, ask questions, say things like “uh huh,” “yes,” or “that makes sense,” to show that you’re understanding. Saying these things doesn’t mean agreement. It only means that you’re listening. Summarize the person’s message periodically.
  3. Ask open ended questions: These are questions that encourage the person to elaborate instead of giving “yes” or “no” answers. I like “what” and “how” questions and avoid “why” questions if possible. “Why” questions tend to make the speaker defensive. Questions like, “What was it like for you when. . . .,” and “How do you feel about . . .,” are great open ended questions to use.
  4. Use reflections: Reflection is a technique where you repeat back what someone has said to you in your own words. This shows that you don’t just hear the person, but are trying to understand them. Starting your reflections with statements like “I hear you saying that . . .,” or “It sounds like you’re telling me that . . .,” can be helpful.
  5. Witness the emotions: Weirdly, I didn’t see this one in any of the articles I read in preparation for writing this piece, but I think it’s probably the most important one. Before you can make any progress in whatever issue you’re dealing with, you must witness the emotions. When people say that they don’t feel heard, it’s usually because their emotions have not been witnessed. What does that mean? Well, it means that you need to verbally acknowledge how that person is feeling. There is incredible power in saying, “Wow. That must be so frustrating,” or “You must be feeling very sad about that.” Listen for the emotions and then say what they are. Verbally acknowledging the feelings might feel scary at first, but it’s an incredibly powerful way to show the kind of understanding that can move a conversation forward.
  6. Defer judgment: Don’t interrupt the person with counter arguments or comments until you have heard the entire message. Interrupting is a waste of time. The person will feel that you haven’t heard or understood and will likely start all over again. Wait and pay attention until the full message has been communicated. Then, if you don’t know how to respond, simply ask for time to absorb. Something like, “Give me a second to take that in,” works great.
  7. Strive to understand: Your job is to understand the speaker’s point of view. It doesn’t matter whether or not you agree. Attempt to put your own reactions aside as you work to understand the speaker’s message. All people have reasons for their beliefs, needs and feelings. Their experiences in life are different from yours and those experiences have informed their viewpoints–just as yours have. To truly communicate, you must work to understand these different experiences and attitudes. This is hard work, but so very worth it. The more that you can understand different ways of looking at the world, the more well-rounded a person you become.
  8. Respond appropriately: Active listening is meant to foster respect and understanding, so when you respond please assert yourself respectfully. Do no attack or put the other person down. Do not minimize the message. Please remember–this person wouldn’t be talking to you if the message wasn’t important.

This may seem like a lot, but mastering these skills can truly change your life and relationships for the better. And while listening is work, being heard feels wonderful–like eating chocolate. So, remember this–when you listen to other people, they are more likely to listen to you. You have to give to get.

For more information, please check out these links: https://www.mindtools.com/CommSkll/ActiveListening.htm

https://www.therapistaid.com/worksheets/active-listening.pdf

https://www.therapistaid.com/worksheets/reflections-communication.pdf

Gratitude–Taking Neuroscience to the Next Level

As the year draws to a close, I find myself wondering what the heck just happened to us all and how on earth we can move forward into a new year. 2020 was a rather boring wild ride. How does that even work? I have no idea.

All I know is that I am flooded with gratitude when I think about 2020 being over and starting over with a fresh new year. I hope that we will not mess 2021 up as badly as we did 2020. It’s wonderful to have a chance to do better.

The depth of gratitude that I feel for the opportunity for a fresh start has me thinking about gratitude in general, and how we can use it to improve our mental health.

Human brains are created with a built-in negativity bias. We are hard-wired to see things in the worst possible light. There’s a great reason for this. As people evolved, the ones who remembered the scary stuff lived to procreate. As a cave person, it helped you stay alive to remember where the tiger lived. Over time, our brains became more and more prone to remembering our worst experiences.

While this was genetically advantageous to cave people, for modern humans it’s a mental health nightmare. Research shows that it takes five positive experiences to emotionally outweigh a negative one. Just think about the ramifications of that in day to day life. If something negative happens in a relationship, five good things have to happen for things to get back on an even keel. Over time the negative experiences tend to overwhelm the positive ones. No wonder relationships often end badly.

It’s not just relationships that are impacted by the negativity bias. Traumatic and hurtful experiences of any kind can fill people’s minds with negative thinking to the point that they can’t even see the good things that they have in their lives, which leads to mental health conditions like depression and post traumatic stress disorder.

This is where gratitude comes in. Practicing gratitude on a regular basis can help you to intentionally overcome the hard-wired negativity bias, leading to a happier and healthier life.

It’s not difficult, but it does take a little bit of effort. All that is required is that you bring up something positive that happened and allow yourself to absorb the experience and the feelings that go with it. Take your time with the positive emotions and really take them in. The more often that you practice gratitude, the more your brain will create new neuropathways that notice positive experiences–meaning that you will see more things to be grateful for, leading to a happier life.

In order for gratitude to work, it really does need to be a practice–something that you do on a regular basis. I’ve had clients who have a list of things in their lives that they’re grateful for that they read to themselves daily. I’ve also had clients who keep gratitude journals, where they write down two to three positive experiences per day in order to absorb the good emotions. How wonderful it must be to re-read a journal full of beautiful experiences that you’re grateful for!

These good experiences don’t need to be anything newsworthy. Someone smiling at you on the street, a tasty breakfast, a good night’s sleep, or the chance to start a fresh new day could all be examples of things you could write in your gratitude journal.

Here’s where we can take neuroscience to the next level. Every time that you pull up a memory, your current situation changes it. This is why memories feel sadder when you’re depressed, or happier when you’re in love. By pairing a negative memory with a positive experience, you can literally re-write the negative one to feel better, or at least more neutral.

This phenomenon is why therapy works. When you bring up difficult experiences in an environment that feels safe, with a person who is non-judgmental, you change the memory in your brain. Traumatic memories feel a little safer, hurtful memories feel a little kinder, and so forth.

You can do this on your own by intentionally pairing a difficult memory with a positive one, or with gratitude. Be sure that good feelings in the positive experience outweigh the negative ones in the bad experience. Then, bring up the good feelings, experience them, enhance them, and link them with the negative experience. Suddenly you’ll find that the negative experience doesn’t feel quite so difficult anymore.

It takes some practice, but it works.

As you go through the last few days of 2020, I encourage you to do your best to take note of the small, everyday things that happen, and take the time to be grateful for them. I think it will help us to make the end of 2020 as good as it can possibly be.

For more information, I suggest Rick Hanson, PhD and his TED Talk, Hardwiring Happiness, which you can find at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jpuDyGgIeh0.

Happy New Year to you and your family.

Families of Choice

To say 2020 has been a rough year feels like a laughable understatement. While I sheltered in place and worked from home, trying to avoid adding to those infected with a deadly disease, it felt like the world around me did its best to make up for my personal inaction. When people ask me how I would describe 2020, I say, “It’s the year when everything and nothing happened.” Ben Folds describes it best in his song, 2020, which I highly recommend. Here’s an excerpt:

"How many years will we try to cram into one?
Who thought we'd be living 1918 again?
But we messed that up so bad, God had to toss 1930 in!
As the sun rose on 1968 this morning . . .
Please let's not add the Civil War!
How many years will we cram into one?"

As the world seems to be trying to do all the terrible things at once, we’re left trying to cope on our own. Not only have we been physically isolated by quarantine, many of us have been estranged from each other by political differences. So many of my patients have stopped speaking with friends and loved ones over politics that I’ve lost count, and it breaks my heart that ideologies could have such a devastating impact on relationships between people who have loved each other for their entire lives. I hope that we can all start to remember that disagreeing is OK and accept each other as the diverse creatures that we are.

The holidays can be a difficult time for people under the best of circumstances, but 2020 is introducing problems that many of us had never considered before. People are trying to decide if going to see family is a good idea–weighting risk of infection versus the pain of being alone. Loneliness during the holidays can contribute to depression by highlighting just how wrong the alone-ness is in a way that doesn’t happen at other times of the year.

If you’re falling into the category of isolation during the holidays–whether due to relationship or COVID problems, I would encourage you not to compare your life to the ideal. That Hollywood movie perfect Christmas is pretty unrealistic no matter what’s going on in the world, and it’s going to be even more out of reach this year. Radically accepting this fact will help.

Another thing that can help is surrounding yourself with your Family of Choice. Also referred to as Chosen Family. This term gained prominence in the LGBTQ+ community due to family rejections after coming out. Shunned by their biological families, LGBTQ+ people began surrounding themselves with people that they felt safe with in order to be accepted for their true selves, resulting in Families of Choice.

Linda Bloom, in her article “Family of Choice: Borrowing Relatives from Other Families,” describes her approach this way, “My biological family wasn’t always able to provide the kind of modeling that I needed to become a more conscious and loving person, so I decided to supplement them with members of my family of choice, a collection of surrogate relatives.”

I think Families of Choice are useful to adopt regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation. An overwhelming number of people feel unsafe with their biological families. Pre-COVID, dealing with family during holiday visits was a frequent topic of therapy conversations. I did a lot of work with people on accepting their loved ones as they are, setting healthy boundaries, and coping with anger.

In addition to these skills, I often suggest that people think about who they do feel safe with, and how they can incorporate those people into their holiday festivities. In doing so, they don’t end up feeling like their holidays were nothing but stress and difficult family members, and they can have periods of feeling the warmth of belonging that we all fundamentally need. During COVID times, I think that gathering your Family of Choice around you may actually be a life saver.

You may be thinking, “but what about quarantine? I can’t have a group of friends together right now,” and you would be right. So, it’s time to get creative. Perhaps you can meet individuals from your Family of Choice outside, and one at a time. Perhaps you can do what my friend suggested to me today, and park in the same parking lot, windows facing each other, and talk on the phone so you can see in-person faces. Masked outside gift exchanges could be a thing. Do whatever you need to do to fill that need for community, but also stay safe. Yes, it’s a lot of effort, but it’s worth it. Community and belonging is a basic human need.

If you are alone this holiday season, please know that you still matter. The world is a better place because you are in it. If you find yourself feeling depressed and unsafe in your loneliness, please know that there is always help and support available. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24 hours per day any day of the year at 800-273-8255, or you can simply call 911. There are also multiple online support groups available so that you can start creating a Family of Choice that understands what you’re going through. I highly recommend the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) at http://www.dbsalliance.org. They offer peer led support groups nationwide as well as education and tools on coping with depression and bipolar.

Above all, please take care of each other.

Blessed are the Assholes

Hi everyone! Thank you for being patient with me over the past two weeks while I went through a major re-write on my book and my book proposal. I attended the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference and had the opportunity to pitch my book to literary agents. Four of them asked me to send them my book proposal and sample chapters, and I was so excited and nervous at the same time that I put in a week of work on re-writing and editing everything to try to look as polished and professional as possible. I sent everything off on Sunday and now I’m trying not to obsessively check my e-mail for responses.

Hopped up on adrenaline, I spent every waking moment for a week trying to get my work to a standard that I felt good about, and somewhere in the middle of all of that work I had an epiphany–none of this would have happened if it weren’t for two of the worst experiences of my life.

The first of those two terrible experiences was my own illness. I focus on healthcare and mental health in my blog and podcast because my book is the true story of my own terrible illness, which was brought on by a whiplash injury. I was in the middle of dancing with a partner, when he forcibly dipped me and seriously injured my neck. For reasons that are only now becoming clear, this injury led to a year and a half of severe migraine symptoms.

That was bad enough, but as I sought help from the medical system, doctors kept telling me that my problem was just anxiety. As a licensed and practicing psychotherapist, I knew that wasn’t true and found a way to heal myself through alternative means. Now I want to share this story in order to provide a road map for others who are struggling through illnesses and can’t get the help that they need.

The second of those two terrible experiences was a breakup that I went through two years ago. I thought I’d finally met the man that I was going to spend the rest of my life with, but after 10 months of the easiest relationship I’d ever had, he suddenly broke up with me. He said that he’d never loved me and wanted to go back to his ex-wife. I was devastated, and I’ve been struggling to move on ever since. But as I struggled through that intensive re-write last week, the thought popped into my mind, “I wouldn’t be on the verge of publishing a book if he hadn’t broken up with me. I would never have gotten this close to my life-long dream of becoming a published author if he hadn’t broken my heart. I’d gotten too comfortable to keep seeking.”

As I shared this thought with my own therapist in our most recent appointment, she nodded and said, “You know, I used to have a framed print of the words ‘Blessed are the Assholes’ over my desk. When people treat you badly, it often leads to the best parts of life.'”

Blessed are the assholes.

Hearing this line brought up so many memories. All of the times that life went sideways and I couldn’t figure out why. All of the times when doors kept slamming in my face and I felt that all of my choices had dried up. The former supervisor who ran me out of the company. The ex-husband who cheated. The friendships that suddenly ended over nothing. So much pain.

And yet, those parts of my life needed to die in order for new parts of my life to be born. I was clinging to things that felt incredibly important to hold on to at the time, but now I’m nothing but happy that they’re gone because better things came to take their places. I didn’t understand at the time that room was being prepared for what was to come next.

Please don’t misunderstand me. This isn’t an “everything happens for a reason” blog post. I hate that platitude so much. Nothing makes me feel more invalidated than, “Well, remember that everything happens for a reason,” when my heart is broken.

When life is messy and cruel, don’t invalidate the pain by anticipating that something wonderful will come out of it. It might. It might not. What’s important at the time is to acknowledge how much it hurts and allow yourself to grieve. It’s only when you come through to the other side of the healing process that you will start to see what came into your life as a result of the loss. Only then will you be able to bless the assholes for wrecking what you thought you wanted in order to show you that you could have more.

If I ran into my former boss who ran me out of the company, I would thank her for being such a jerk to me. If she hadn’t, I would probably still be working as an insurance agent. The idea makes me shudder.

If I ran into my former husband, I might thank him for leaving me, because if he hadn’t I would probably still be married to him (what a horrible thought!), and I would never have become a therapist.

And now I’m realizing that if I ran into my ex-boyfriend, who I thought I was going to marry, I might just thank him for breaking my heart. If he hadn’t I wouldn’t be here on the verge of becoming a published author.

Often it is through pain that we become our best selves. Blessed are the assholes.

Aligning with the Cycles of Life

Yesterday was Halloween, and even here in Southern California, I can feel a shift in the earth. While the days are still warm, the evenings are cooler. I’ve even needed a sweater a few times. The produce at the grocery store has shifted from summer to fall fruits and vegetables and instead of the happy heads of daisies, I see the yellows and oranges of marigolds and chrysanthemums. Earth is letting go of the fecundity of summer, and getting ready for the cold, quiet rest of winter.

Multiple traditions recognize this time of year as special for honoring and remembering the ancestors–people we have let go of from our lives. Yesterday, in honor of this tradition, I sat for a time and remembered family members who have passed, and I said their names out loud to honor them. It made me feel close to deceased loved ones even though they are gone.

Western society has an uncomfortable relationship with death and letting go. We tend to value youth, beauty, fertility, productivity and accomplishment. We tend to devalue and even ignore age, wisdom, infirmity, rest, and death. I would argue that this emphasis on burgeoning productivity is unhealthy. It makes us value silly things that don’t matter like the size of our waistbands and the amount of hair on our heads instead of valuing the experience of a long life or the need to unplug and let our minds have a break.

A shocking amount of people don’t allow themselves to rest. They feel that if they aren’t producing something at any given time, then they are being lazy. They push themselves to accomplish, to multitask, to show results at all times. Then, if they didn’t get everything on the list completed, they mentally beat themselves up about it. In order to maximize productivity, they start cutting things out of their lives that give them rest and pleasure because they feel those things are a waste of time. As a result their lives feel empty and not worth living. Their bodies are over-taxed and not well cared for. And their relationships die from lack of nurturing.

This is an extremely stressful and unhealthy way to live.

We need to start managing stress in more healthy ways. Instead of admiring people that spend all of their time producing, foregoing rest, and never taking vacations, we need to recognize that people like that are setting themselves up for a heart attack. Literally. Stress changes the way that our bodies distribute and store fat, clogging our arteries and creating heavy bellies. Stress also leads to depression. Our nervous systems aren’t set up for a constant state of go. Eventually they will shut down in order to make us rest–a state we call depression.

We need to get more in sync with the cycles of life in all areas. Instead of pushing Earth to produce even out of season, we need to allow her to rest, just as we need to allow ourselves that same grace. We need to value all of the stages of life, not just youth and beauty, but also the onset of middle and older age, a time when our experiences begin to converge into a wonderful state of wisdom and balance.

We also need to get more comfortable with death and letting go. As painful as it is, we can’t keep all of the people in our lives forever. In a discussion of letting go, I was once asked to imagine if everyone I had ever known or been close to was living in my house. I imagined my exes all living with me–all of my former friends and colleagues, and my stomach churned with the stress of having all of those people around me all of the time. I understood that in order to move forward in my life, I’d had to let those people go, just as they had let me go in order to move forward with their lives.

Just as the Earth has to shed the leaves and fruits of summer in order to rest and regroup for the next season’s rebirth, we have to shed our old selves, our old relationships and our old beliefs in order to move forward. We need times of rest and reflection in order to feel into what needs to change in our lives for our own rebirth. We need times of pleasure, just for the sake of pleasure, in order to feel alive and like all of the hard times are worth it.

I encourage you to ask yourself, what can I let go of today in order to get more aligned with the cycles of life, death and rebirth? Maybe there are material objects that you need to get rid of. Maybe there are people that are holding you back. Maybe there is a way of viewing yourself or the people around you that is out of date. Maybe you need to let go of your belief that productivity is the most important thing in life, and that rest equals laziness.

Change is an important part of being alive. Instead of holding on to the way that things have always been or the way you have always thought, I encourage you allow a time of rest, reflection and letting go in order to move into a brighter and fresher you, just as Earth rests in the winter in order to store up the energy she needs to burst into flower in the spring.

The Four Agreements and How They Can Set You Free

I’ve been struggling all day with a terrible case of writer’s block. Most weeks my blog post will simply form in my head based on something that I experienced, read or thought a lot about during the week. This week, however, I sat in front of my computer with nothing. My world felt heavy and uninspiring and the words refused to come. After staring at the blank computer screen for a while, I went and watched The Trial of the Chicago Seven on Netflix (excellent, by the way). After the movie, I still couldn’t think of anything to say, so I started scrolling through Facebook. That’s when I saw a post sharing information from don Miguel Ruiz’s book The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom, and I thought, “Wow. I’ve never written about The Four Agreements, and that book is basically my guidebook for living. I’ve got my topic!”

Ruiz opens the book by describing what he calls “the domestication of the human.” He says that little children are completely wild. They do whatever they want and they don’t worry about what anyone thinks of them. Then, society (parents, teachers, etc.) introduces the concept of “no.” Children are told not to do things that come naturally to them, and they are told that they are bad when they do those things, or that they’re good when they do what society wants. They are rewarded with praise or attention when they do what society deems to be “good,” and they are punished when they do something society sees as “bad.” Over time the child internalizes these concepts of good and bad, and the system of beliefs about what is right and wrong becomes the adult person’s agreements with life.

Most people never question these agreements, but many of them are damaging. Ruiz suggests that by adopting four different agreements, the person can obtain personal freedom.

The First agreement is “be impeccable with your word.” Ruiz discusses how most people have an ongoing negative and self-critical internal dialogue. He calls this negative self talk “The Judge.” He says that The Judge is very ready and willing to point out and shame the person for any minor violation against their agreements. For instance, perhaps you have an agreement with life that it’s not OK fail. If you have this agreement, you might avoid trying new things because the risk of failure is just too high. However, we all have to do new things sometimes, and when you inevitably make mistakes, your internal Judge tells you that you are “stupid,” or “a loser.” You internally say things to yourself that you would likely be quite hesitant to say to other people. This internal harshness reinforces your agreement and makes it even more terrifying for you to do new things that might lead to failure.

Clearly this is a damaging process. In order to overcome it, you can adopt the agreement to be impeccable with your word, which means that instead of judging yourself harshly for any infraction, you instead agree to avoid self criticism–you agree not to say things that go against yourself. Over time this new agreement takes over and clears up the old agreement that you had not to ever make mistakes. Can you imagine how much freedom this would bring into your life?

The second agreement is “don’t take anything personally.” The great truth that Ruiz reveals here is that what other people do or say has nothing to do with you. I believe that this is 100% true. Other people’s actions are a product of their own agreements with life, and you have no control over those. If you think about it, when people apologize they say things like “I’m sorry. I was having a bad day.” They admit that it was never about you in the first place. You have no idea what that other person has been taught, the agreements they may have, or what pain they have endured. If they hurt you, it’s as a result of their own agreements with life, not a result of your unworthiness.

Now, it’s important to say here that not taking it personally does not mean that you put up with being mistreated. If someone is treating you badly, know that it’s not about you, and walk away. Think about how much pain this agreement could spare you. If someone behaves hurtfully to you, instead of taking it on, or trying to prove them wrong, you can simply know that it’s not about you at all and move on from it.

The third agreement is “don’t make assumptions.” It is my belief that most of the pain that people endure in life is due to making assumptions about other people’s thoughts, feelings, or motivations. For example, you’re walking down the hallway at work and you wave hello to your coworker, who seems to look at you and then walk away without returning your greeting. Since you don’t know why your coworker apparently ignored you, your mind starts coming up with stories to explain it. Our minds love explanations for things that don’t make sense to us, even if those explanations are not actually true.

Unfortunately, the explanations our minds tend to come up with are worst case scenario, so maybe your mind decides that your coworker is angry with you about something. You don’t know what it is that you’ve done to anger your coworker, but now you’re behaving defensively around that person, which actually results in that person disliking you. However, what you don’t know is that your coworker is near-sighted and didn’t have their glasses with them. It’s not that they were angry with you. They simply couldn’t see you.

Instead of making assumptions about other people’s behaviors, simply remind yourself that you don’t know what their motivations were. Then ask yourself how important it is that you find out. If it’s truly important to you, then go and ask the other person what happened. If it’s not, then drop it completely.

The fourth agreement is “always do your best.” This is probably my favorite one. Ruiz says that in every situation simply do the best that you can. Don’t do any more or any less than your best. The idea of doing more than your best had never occurred to me before, but it’s extremely important because I think that many people are spending their time doing more than their best and burning themselves out. That’s not healthy.

I also love this little tidbit from Ruiz. He says that if you’ve done your best, then when someone criticizes your performance, you have your answer, “I did my best.” It’s so true! And if someone says, “your best isn’t good enough,” please go back to agreement number two, don’t take anything personally. Clearly that person needs to reassess some of their own agreements. Doing your best is always something that you should be proud of.

Remember that your best will vary over time. Your best will be different when you are healthy and when you are sick. It will be different when you are rested and when you are tired. And your best is always going to be different from someone else’s best. That’s OK. If you truly did your best, then give yourself the credit that you deserve.

For more information, please check out don Miguel Ruiz’s book, The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom, or any of the Toltec Wisdom books by the Ruizes (don Miguel or his sons), HeatherAsh Amara, or Carlos Castaneda. These writings have changed my life for the better in many ways, and I think that they can do the same for you.

Embracing Struggle

One of my all time favorite movies is The Princess Bride. It’s full of excellent quotes, incredible satire, and wonderful acting. In the past I’ve had a few Princess Bride quoting duels with friends that eventually dissolve into giggling to the point of tears. Recently I followed Cary Elwes (who plays Westley/Dread Pirate Roberts in the movie) on Twitter, and he has been posting some of his best lines from Princess Bride. Yesterdays was, “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

After a chuckle where I remembered the scene from the movie where Westley performs this witticism, I started thinking about struggle. Often, it seems that people are living life to minimize struggle and maximize pleasure. Advertising campaigns center around presenting a problem that people might identify with, and then showing how their product can solve it. Overweight? Well, try this pill. Dirty floor? Well, try this cleaning product. Frizzy hair? Buy this hair product and your problem is solved.

When hard times hit, as they definitely have in 2020, people tend to look forward to a time when the struggle ends and life goes back to being easier. When there is illness, people look for cures. When relationships get rocky, people look for ways to smooth them out.

Clearly, avoiding struggle is part of human nature. Often, I hear parents saying that they don’t want to their children to struggle the way that they did, and then they do their utmost to make life as easy as possible for their children.

While I understand the instinct to protect, and to seek ease, I wonder about the wisdom of this philosophy. Having had my share of hard times, I can tell you that struggle has led to the most growth in my life, the most self-reflection, the most fruitful changes.

An abusive marriage and ugly divorce led to my going back to school and becoming a psychotherapist. A terrible illness led to my journey into authorship, blogging and podcasting. A painful breakup led to intense spiritual growth and a desire to invest in learning about music and another language. When the fires of struggle show up, if we can embrace them instead of fight, they can forge us from a raw metal into a weapon of great strength and beauty.

On the other hand, we’ve all encountered people who are the product of too much ease and too little struggle. We joke that they were “born with a silver spoon in their mouths.” These people tend to be arrogant in their own ignorance of what it is to do hard work–what it is to truly struggle. Often they seem to look down on people who don’t have it as easy as they do, and seem to think it’s some kind of moral failing on their part that the world is harder on them. We call these people who haven’t struggled things like “entitled,” “immature,” and “green.”

Deep down we know that people need struggle to become fully-formed human beings, but we still do our best to dodge it at every turn, and to shield our children from it. We look at celebrities and wealthy people, who we imagine live a life of ease (although this is not actually true), and we think how wonderful it would be to live those lives, leading to even more discontent with the struggles of every-day living.

I would like to advocate for a change in attitude. Instead of looking down on people who are struggling and envying those who have a vapid and overly easy existence, I suggest that we embrace struggle as the transformational process that it is. I suggest that instead of thinking, “Aww . . . poor thing. She/He is really struggling right now,” we think “Wow. That person is really in the forge of the fires of struggle. I wonder what the finished product will be.”

It’s OK to be struggling. It’s a part of life. If your kid is having a hard time with distance learning, that’s OK. Working through that struggle, helps your child to learn how to deal with adversity. Most of us are struggling in some way with the pandemic. Perhaps the struggle is isolation, or joblessness, or fear of infection. Maybe it’s all of these together. And, yes, it is hard, but instead of denying or fighting the reality of your circumstances, I suggest that you ask yourself, “What are the lessons that I could learn from this time in my life?”

Now, I’m definitely not advocating for a “Pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality. That’s one of my top ten most hated phrases. What are bootstraps, anyway? And how am I supposed to pull myself up with them? No. Instead, treat yourself and others with compassion. Support the people in your life as they support you in return. We need each other, and there is no shame in that.

I’m saying that struggle is not something to hide from or be ashamed of. It is not something to apologize for. Each person’s individual struggle can be like a personal hero’s journey. Every hero starts out naive and untested, and then is strengthened by adversity. Nobody is born heroic.

I think it would be appropriate to end with a quote that was brought to my attention by Brene Brown in her book Daring Greatly. I think it captures this idea of embracing the formative quality of struggle perfectly: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat,” Theodore Roosevelt.

Gaslighting: What it is, and How to Recognize it

It wasn’t until after my first marriage that I first heard about the concept of “gaslighting,” and as soon as I understood what it meant, I thought, “Wow! I wish I’d known about that years ago. That perfectly describes my 6 years of marriage.” I’m hopeful that I can save you years of pain and frustration by sharing this information with you now.

The term comes from the 1944 black and white film, “Gaslight,” which I’ve actually taken the time to rent on Amazon and watch for myself. It’s dated, but still a wonderful psychological thriller, and I definitely recommend it. In the movie, the main character marries a man that seems perfect in every way. He’s charming, handsome, wealthy, and appears to be completely in love with her. After the wedding they move to his ancestral home where things slowly and insidiously start to unravel. The woman’s belongings keep going missing and appearing in strange places, and the gaslights (from which the movie gets its name) keep turning on and off at strange times.

When the woman tells her husband about these peculiar occurrences, he tells her that they aren’t actually happening and that she is losing her mind. He even goes so far as to get a psychiatrist to examine her and back up his claims of her insanity. His insistence on her mental instability is so pervasive that she actually starts to believe that she is going crazy until the big reveal in the end, when we find out what his devious plan was the whole time. I won’t spoil it for you.

“Gaslight” is a wonderful example of the slow, methodical and insidious nature of gaslighting. It’s a long game power play where the perpetrator slowly makes the victim question her/his own reality. The Psychology Today article, “11 Warning Signs of Gaslighting” by Stephanie A. Sarkis, PhD, describes gaslighting this way, “Gaslighting is a tactic in which a person or entity, in order to gain more power, makes a victim question their reality. It works much better than you may think. Anyone is susceptible to gaslighting, and it is a common technique of abusers, dictators, narcissists, and cult leaders. It is done slowly, so the victim doesn’t realize how much they’ve been brainwashed.” The slow and methodical nature of gaslighting is what gives it such power. Because of the steady and mounting message the victim receives that her/his senses can’t be trusted, it begins to feel like the truth.

11 Warning Signs of Gaslighting by Stephanie A. Sarkis Ph.D.

According to Sarkis, there are 11 warning signs of gaslighting to watch out for, and I’d like to explore them here.

  1. They tell blatant lies
  2. They deny they ever said something, even though you have proof.
  3. They use what is near and dear to you as ammunition.
  4. They wear you down over time.
  5. Their actions do not match their words.
  6. They throw in positive reinforcement to confuse you.
  7. They know confusion weakens people.
  8. They project.
  9. They try to align people against you.
  10. They tell you or others that you are crazy.
  11. They tell you everyone else is a liar.

Let’s explore these symptoms in more detail. I think that the first two make a good pairing. Gaslighters love to lie. They use it as a tool to confuse you. Even if you have a recording of them doing the thing that they’re lying about, they will continue to lie and tell you that it didn’t happen. They’ll do it with a straight face and belittle you for trying to stand up for yourself, truth and reality. Why do they do this? Well, because over time it makes you start to question the nature of truth and facts. It makes you think that maybe nothing in the world is certain, which is exactly what they want. When you no longer know the nature of truth, you are easily manipulated to believe whatever the gaslighter wants you to believe.

Number three, using what is near and dear to you as ammunition against you, is a potent tool. My ex-husband used to use my religion against me–attempting to control me based on religious beliefs about gender and relational power dynamics. I’ve worked with clients who intimidated their partners into staying with them by saying that they would take away their children if they left. Remember that this is a power and control tactic. It’s not based in reality, but because it touches on deep-seated fears, beliefs, or values it works to intimidate and control the victim.

Number four, “they wear you down over time,” is an important one. Gaslighters start out with a friendly and welcoming demeanor, and charm their victims into trusting them, and then over time begin to introduce their power and control tactics one subtle drop at a time. By slowly chipping away at the victim’s reality and relationship to truth, victims often don’t realize that their worlds have become more and more confusing until they don’t trust their own senses at all, which leaves them in the precarious position of looking to the gaslighter to tell them what to believe. This is exactly the outcome that the gaslighter wants.

Number 5 is probably the biggest give-away of a gaslighter. “Their actions don’t match their words.” They tell you that they are going to do something, and then they don’t do it. They tell you something was done, and you then find out that it wasn’t. They make promises that they don’t keep, and then they tell you that they never promised it in the first place. If you start to notice this trend, run!

Number 6, “They throw in positive reinforcement to confuse you” works like this. The gaslighter has told you that you’re crazy and don’t know anything one too many times, and you’re starting to think this person is a bully and you need to get out of the relationship, leave the company, or even the country. Then, suddenly the gaslighter does something nice for you, gives you a gift or a compliment, a tax break, etc. You think, “well, maybe they’re not so bad. Maybe I was over-reacting,” and then the gaslighting resumes even stronger than before.

As the victim’s confusion deepens, number 7 comes into play, “They know confusion weakens people.” Our ability to trust our own senses and interpretation of reality gives us a rootedness in life. By eroding your ability to trust that you know what is true and not true, the gaslighter is literally cutting you off at the root, leaving you weakened and dependent on them for support. That is the entire point of the gaslighting process.

Number 8, “They project.” This one is super weird when you experience it. You confront the gaslighter about bad behavior, and instead of taking responsibility, they accuse you of doing whatever it was that they did instead. For instance, my ex-husband used to accuse me of being bad with money when I would talk to him about the fact that he had just emptied our bank account. Gaslighters do this because it distracts you from the reality of what happened and makes you start defending yourself instead.

Number 9, “They try to align people against you.” This tactic may or may not be reality.
Gaslighters tell their victims that others are against them, and that the only person that the victim can trust is the gaslighter. Remember that they lie, so they may be making it up, but they may actually go so far as to poison people against you. I had an ex-boyfriend who called me “psycho-bitch” to anyone who would listen. By making people believe that I was crazy, he isolated me from my support system in an attempt to make me more dependent on him. This tactic also served to make people question the validity of my statements, especially about him and the way that he treated me.

Number 10, “They tell you or others that you are crazy.” I touched on this earlier, but this one is super important and bears repeating. I find that the operative word tends to be “psycho.” If anyone ever calls you psycho, run. If they call their exes psycho, run. If they call their family members psycho, run. Don’t look back. This person is very likely a gaslighter.

Number 11, “They tell you that everyone else is a liar.” Your world is already on shaky ground. You don’t know what is real and what isn’t anymore. You’re not sure that you can trust your own senses or that you’re mentally sound. Then, the gaslighter tells you that your family, the media, your friends, other countries, or some group are always lying to you. Since you don’t know what’s true anymore anyway, this gives the gaslighter the power to shape reality to his/her own benefit.

Anyone can fall victim to these tactics. This isn’t something that only happens gullible people. It happens to smart, educated and powerful people all of the time. If you’re reading this and recognizing that there is a gaslighter in your life, don’t blame yourself. It’s not your fault. Don’t try to change the gaslighter or reason with them. It won’t work. Just leave.

It will take time for the world to start to make sense again after being gaslit, and that’s OK. Give yourself the patience and gentleness that you were missing with the gaslighter while you heal and find your footing again. The important thing is to just be with yourself as long as it takes to get to the other side of healing.

The Healing Power of Yoga

It is my fervent belief that yoga saved me from a life of chronic illness, but when my neurologist at the time, Dr. Purcell, suggested it, I didn’t have any idea of the healing powers that yoga offered.  I was just so desperate to be well that I would have done anything that might actually help.  It was only later that I came to understand why yoga healed me the way that it did.  

It shocked me at the time that my nausea went away almost instantly after starting yoga classes.  I couldn’t account for it, but I was grateful for it beyond words.  The constant year-long nausea and vomiting had been the worst part of my illness, by far.  After that, I quickly re-gained the strength, stamina and motivation that had abandoned me, and I began to live again.

It took years to obtain the diagnosis that eventually led to a coherent treatment plan.  It wasn’t until well after I recovered that the label “spasmodic torticollis” came into my life.  I had to google it to understand exactly what it described, having never heard of it before.  It’s such an unusual and odd sounding term that when people ask for my diagnosis and I give it to them, they usually give me a blank look and say, “What was that again?”

In his book, Healing Yoga: Proven Postures to Treat Twenty Common Ailments—from Backache to Bone Loss, Shoulder Pain to Bunions, and More, Loren Fishman, MD has a fortuitous little blurb about my condition.  He writes, “A third condition that occurs in the neck isn’t as common, but if you’ve had it or even if you’ve seen it on someone else, you won’t forget it.  It’s called spastic torticollis—literally spasmodic turning of the neck.  It happens when one group of muscles gets really tight and turns the neck.  Sometimes the head turns in jerking motions, and sometimes it turns and stays in an unnatural place.” (Fishman 122-123).  

For some time after recovering from the worst of my illness, I had the jerking motions Dr. Fishman describes above.  My head would involuntarily turn to the right over and over.  It was embarrassing.  During the day, when I was in public, I would fight the head turning with everything that I had, and completely exhaust myself.  At home, when I was alone, I would relax and let my head do what it would, leading to half watched TV shows and great difficulty in keeping my place when reading.  Fishman writes, “This is a condition so painful and so intransigent that you may need a yoga therapist or a doctor who can give an injection that will alleviate it at least temporarily” (Fishman 122-123).  

Dr. Fishman’s assertion that spasmodic torticollis is extremely painful is, I think, the reason that my diagnosis and treatment took so incredibly long to obtain.  I don’t have much pain at all.  I have the odd headache, and my neck and shoulders tend to be a little bit sore, but I really don’t have significant pain.  In the very beginning of my illness, my ears and my scalp on the left side of my head hurt, making it difficult to sleep or wear a headset, but that pain went away fairly quickly.  

Doctors kept asking me about pain, and when I said I didn’t have much, they immediately dismissed me as a “hysterical woman” trying to get attention for something that wasn’t really very bad.  I would like to point out that pain is not the only thing that makes an illness terrible.  In fact, I probably would have preferred pain to the ongoing nausea and vomiting that I endured for a year and a half.  At least people that are in pain can eat, and they don’t starve to death.  

However, Dr. Fishman is right about the injections.  Every three months I go in to see my current neurologist, Dr. Matich, who is wonderful and warm and helpful, and she uses a machine to measure my involuntary muscle contractions.  She does this by inserting a probe into each affected muscle and listening to the sounds they create through a special machine.  Sometimes my muscles whoosh and growl like storms.  Dr. Matich then injects botox into the extra loud muscles to help them relax, and I can hear the muscle-storms grow calm.  Over time, this has been a helpful addition to my care, but I honestly don’t think it’s nearly as helpful as yoga.

In Healing Yoga, Dr. Fishman describes how “Laboratory and clinical studies have confirmed that pain from upper cervical joints and muscles can be referred to the head” (Fishman, 121).  I think this was exactly the complicating factor in my own illness.  I believe that what happened to me goes something like this: the whiplash injury that I endured caused the upper cervical muscles in my neck to go into spasm, which irritated muscles and nerves in my head, leading to migraine symptoms, but no pain.  I had the visual disturbance, nausea, vomiting and cognition problems that go with severe migraine, but the pain never showed up, which confused everyone—including me.

If he had known about me and my illness, I believe that Dr. Fishman would have backed up my neurologist’s suggestion that I treat my symptoms with yoga.  Dr. Fishman writes, “Appropriate yoga is good for almost anything that ails the neck and for pain referred from the neck to the head. . .  It improves suppleness of the neck muscles and increases the versatility of the joints so they can move more easily in many different ways.  It refines the coordination of the various muscle groups, so muscles aren’t pulling against each other with such ferocity” (Fishman, 123).  I believe that these benefits are part of the reason that I began to feel much better quickly after beginning my yoga practice.  With my neck muscles in spasm, I needed something to interrupt the process of pulling muscles irritating the tissues in my head, and yoga miraculously did that for me.

However, I think there was another contributing factor.  I think that the muscles, nerves, and other tissues in my neck and my head were terribly inflamed by the whiplash injury, at least partially causing the migraine symptoms.  Multiple studies have shown that inflammation is a leading factor in many of the chronic illnesses that people suffer from, such as fibromyalgia and chronic back pain.  Treatments for pain often focus on decreasing inflammation using NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatories), such as over the counter ibuprofen, or stronger prescription versions, like Naprosyn.  Many people, including myself, take a daily turmeric pill, which is a spice used in some forms of cooking, because it’s been shown to have anti-inflammatory qualities. 

I didn’t know it at the time that I started my yoga practice, but yoga decreases inflammation too.  Dr. Fishman writes, “We physicians can’t do much apart from medication for swelling of joints; your body can do more by itself, using a molecule called PGC-1alpha. This is a potent endogenous anti-inflammatory that reduces swelling anywhere it occurs in the human body.  Gentle activities such as yoga and tai chi, and especially yoga done for long periods of time, encourage the body to release this miraculous substance from your muscles” (Fishman, 122).  The joints in my neck were certainly inflamed after the traumatic whiplash injury that I suffered, and I believe that getting involved in yoga significantly helped to reduce that swelling through the release of PGC-1alpha.  How miraculous!  

Because of its anti-inflammatory effect, I believe that yoga should be a frontline treatment for any physical ailment that is caused by inflammation.  Can you imagine the wellness that would result if doctors would prescribe yoga for arthritis, fibromyalgia, back pain, and any of the other ailments that they usually prescribe pain medication for?  I truly believe that the world would be a much healthier and happier place.

Speaking of happiness, I’d like to say a little about how chronic illness affects mood.  Dr. Fishman writes, “. . .chronic pain does more than cause people to lose days of work.  It’s depressing.  It produces anxiety.  It makes life so hard that sometimes it doesn’t feel worth living.  I think it’s extremely important to address pain that could be or is becoming chronic and end it as soon as possible” (Fishman, 86).  While Dr. Fishman talks about chronic pain being depressing, I would like to add that chronic illness is depressing whether pain is involved or not.  Before my injury and subsequent illness in 2011, I was the happiest I’d ever been.  I had found a group of people where I seemed to fit in completely for the first time in my life.  I was active and social and enjoying every minute of it.  Then, the whiplash injury happened, and my happy life became very small and extremely unpleasant.  

As I sought help, doctors kept telling me that my symptoms were the result of anxiety, and they kept pointing out how anxious I was in the appointments, and how sad and alone I was.  I argued that I was anxious because I kept seeking help from professionals who dismissed my symptoms, and I was depressed because I was terribly ill and unable to do the things that made my previous life so wonderful.  But the doctors continued to insist that my symptoms were the result of anxiety and depression, not the other way around.  I found this incredibly frustrating and demeaning, and it’s refreshing to have Dr. Fishman acknowledge that chronic illness leads to a life that doesn’t feel worth living, because it absolutely does.

However, it appears that the psychological effects of chronic pain and illness are even worse than I previously thought.  Dr. Fishman writes, “. . . there is a less-recognized reason: chronic pain that lasts more than a year seems to have negative effects that last much longer.  A study done at Northwestern University shows that a year of chronic back pain actually shrinks the gray matter in the brain by as much as 11 percent, the equivalent of ten to twenty years of normal aging, and that loss is directly related to the duration of the pain” (Fishman, 86).  Ten to twenty years of normal aging caused by one year of chronic illness!  Honestly, that blows my mind, but I’ve seen it happen.  

In my own case, after my illness went into remission, and I got treatment that made sense, it took a couple more years for me to be able to focus on reading a book, or to be able to write the way that I had prior to getting sick.  I’m sure that recovering from brain atrophy was one of the reasons that it took me almost 10 years to get my book project together.

My grandmother became ill within the past few years.  Within a year of getting sick, she went from a vibrant older woman who managed a home of her own and loved to sew quilts, to a woman who needed 24-hour care and couldn’t recognize her own grandchildren.  Now she’s living in a nursing home that specializes in dementia care, and I’m certain that her illness was a major contributing factor to her mental decline.

Truly, we must take chronic illness and chronic pain seriously.  It not only decreases life satisfaction, causes anxiety and depression, it actually causes brain damage.  The good news is that in addition to other wonderful effects we’ve already discussed, yoga can help with the terrible mood and brain problems brought on by illness.  Fishman writes, “Clinical trials confirm that yoga helps reduce distress and depression and promotes a sense of calm well-being” (Fishman, 191).  He also explains that yoga is being used to treat PTSD. “The Naval Medical Center in San Diego and other military VA hospitals are offering yoga to help Marines, soldiers, sailors and others wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.  Preliminary military studies have found that the calming effect of yoga can assist PTSD patients in dealing with hypervigilance, flashbacks, depression and anxiety” (Fishman, 201).  Honestly, I think yoga is the cure-all that people are looking for, but it is under-prescribed and under-utilized.

Please spread the word about the healing effects of yoga.  Even though it’s more work than taking a pill, I think it’s more than worth the effort.  It saved my life.  It could save yours too.  Dr. Fishman lists multiple ailments that he has personally and effectively treated with yoga, including: back pain (both neurological and musculoskeletal), rotator cuff syndrome, headache, weight control, bone health (osteoporosis), insomnia, scoliosis, premenstrual syndrome, depression, restless leg syndrome, bunion, and plantar fasciitis.  While this is an extensive list, I’m willing to bet that there are many more conditions that would respond positively to treatment through yoga, and I encourage you to give it a try.