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Joan Jessup

"There is no such thing as a bipolar moment. It is simply every moment of every day."

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Childhood Sexual Abuse: Resurrection of the little girl I used to be

Guest blog for Bobbi picChildhood is supposed to be a simple thing. Young children enjoy the fun in all the things we as adults don’t see. Kids find the beauty in imagination and see what others don’t. That is supposed to be the best thing about being a kid right? So what happens when you no longer enjoy those things? When closing your eyes brings fear and heart break? I survived my sexual abuse as a child by quickly becoming a tiny adult. I no longer felt like a kid. I knew I didn’t feel the way I did before “he” found me. The world lost some of its beauty and I stopped finding joy in my imagination. I no longer imagined fairies and unicorns. Gone were the days that I was a princess waiting for my prince. Instead, I sought out hiding places and went to the deepest parts of my mind where everything was dark and I was alone.

               I know I am alive. I am breathing and writing this blog. I made it. Right? I survived? But did I survive in one piece? That’s the questions I try to answer now. Part of trying to piece together these memories and become whole again has been about what I lost. I have had to really dive head first into all the things I fought all these years to disconnect from. It has always been a fear of mine. Just when I think I have successfully pushed it all down, I am proven wrong. It is usually a smell that will transport me to a place I fear the most. The smallest little trigger on an otherwise wonderful day. I shake out of my head the unwanted visions and the flood of emotions and push it all right back down again.

               I have learned a lot by talking to others who have “survived” the same sexual abuse. It brings me comfort to know I am not alone. It also brings me sadness knowing I am not alone. This is definitely a situation where misery wishes there were no company. So here goes the dissection of Joan. What did I lose? What all did “he” take from me and how the hell do I get it back? For me to really face the past, to really call myself a survivor I have to get back as much as I can.

I know I can’t get back my full innocence. I know “he” took things that can’t be rebuilt but I am damn well going to get everything I can. I am starting with my appreciation of the little things. I want to see the world in color again instead the dark and gray that “he” left me with. I want to use my imagination and still dream the sweet dreams I barely remember. I know I had to have had that once. I want it back.

               I had my son outside the other day. He was blowing bubbles and running to catch them before they popped. I just watched him and smiled for a few moments. I was so in awe of how much fun he found in something so simple. I wanted to be that kind of happy again. I made a choice, I stood up. I was taking back the love of bubbles that “he” had TRIED to take from me. I ran around the yard with my son just blowing bubbles. The bubbles were now imaginary balloons of color and whoever was covered with the most colors would win. I looked at my son and I saw a rainbow of colors. I could see the balloons full of color where bubbles were floating. I took back a piece I lost as a little girl. In that moment I was with my son as a child, a playmate with an imagination as big as his. There were no chores to do, no job to clock in for, no dogs to walk; just 2 kids having fun.

               That playtime in the front yard had really got me fired up to get all of that little girl back. I started writing down all the things that I missed. Not the normal adult wishes like no bills, no dirty dishes, and no dirty laundry. I wanted the fun stuff back. I wanted to imagine being a hunter chasing big game. I was going to lay on my back in the grass and see shapes in the clouds. I would be the ballerina taking a bow on stage and holding a huge bouquet of roses.  “He” tried to kill all of that and now at 42, I was going to get it back. For me to survive I felt like I had to get back the little girl he tried to break. It has been scary and I have questioned if it was a silly notion. The adult in me had doubts but the little girl in me was smiling. The smile was because I was finally feeling brave.

               A 6-year-old couldn’t find the bravery in living through sexual abuse but I know how brave she was. I will stand up for her while I process the anger I have because no one else took that stand. I can feel that the imagination and desire for simple joy still inside me. Suppressing it was the only way I was able to survive. How I stay alive now is by letting that little girl live in the woman I am today. Everyone since “him” has been seen through the eyes of pain and mistrust. I have to see through the eyes of the little girl I was before. Only then can I truly accept a relationship without a preconceived notion. I really want that. I really long for the day when the touch of someone doesn’t cause me to pull away. I want “touch” to be a nice thing when it is coming from the person I love. I have to resurrect the little girl inside of me to have that.

               This process will never really end. Of that I am fairly certain. I may be afraid and the memories may cause me tears but I am fighting now. I am fighting for the little girl I was and the woman I am today. I want to say more than I am just surviving. I want to feel like a survivor. My nights feel a lot brighter now. I have found my imagination again. I can come out of my dark hiding place and see the beauty in the light. It has taken so many years but facing those memories isn’t as scary now. I can talk about what happened because I know it wasn’t my fault. The shame has faded and in its place is a feeling of calm. The little girl in me is no longer afraid because the woman I am now is protecting her. Her and I have found our way back from what “he” did. I wish that for all survivors of sexual abuse. I urge woman and men who suffered sexual abuse as a child to recognize the bravery you had. Allow yourself to feel like you did once before. It is still possible to see the world through the eyes of a child while holding the wisdom as an adult.

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The Awakening of the Mind: Finding Your Way to Stability

Enlightenment waking up blog pic

My journey to stability in the face of my mental illness has been both a blessing and a curse. I have sat and wondered for many years how it would feel to just fucking be normal. I had no idea what “normal” was but I longed for some peace and release of the chaos within me.

I was an avalanche of destruction. The speed and force of how I moved made it impossible for me to see or think about what I was doing. How the hell do you stop and avalanche when you don’t see it coming? To this day I think about what I failed to see. I let it start to consume me until the headache shuts the swirl of questions down.

The medicine I was prescribed had for me become, “optional” for too many years. In a moment of clarity I made a decision. I would be healthy. I would take the pills, see the doctor, and I would take control. Sitting here now I can say that clarity of a stable mind comes with a price.

The beauty of a chaotic mind is that you don’t give two shits about consequences. There is no forethought as to the outcome on yourself or those around you. Spontaneity is fun, is easy, and lacks any hesitation. There is a simplicity that comes with oblivious euphoria. What is that old saying? Oh yeah, “What goes up must come down.” The crash has been far worse than the fall.

As the chaos in my head has cleared I have seen the complexity of my bad decisions. There is no denying that I became someone I now cannot recognize. I allowed others to use my mental illness as a weapon against me. I became a puppet of sorts with strings pulled in obscure directions.

With the silence that comes with my med compliance I feel an ache in my chest thinking of all the sacrifice that I allowed. This place, this space has been a prison and finding the key has led to emptiness. Enlightenment is not the as easy as I imagined it to be. There are no damn shining lights and trumpets sounding off in my victory. Instead I am given a play by-play hindsight vision of all the mistakes . I am now left to find my way out.

First things first: Get the hell away from all the people who chose to utilize what they saw as a weapon. This means that I have to get a divorce. The person who vowed to love and cherish me for all eternity has find fault in my new-found sanity. Spontaneity has been replaced by caution and grown up thinking.  Gone are the days when I felt afraid. I am strong. I have gained acceptance of my mind and awareness of how to feel myself in ways I never thought possible.

     It’s funny how people liked me better when I didn’t value myself to see what assholes they were for using their ignorance as a way of stigmatizing me. That shit is OVER! I have managed to make it 42 years. I have survived all the things that could have put me over the edge. I have come out of the darkness of my mind and I have stopped my avalanche. So for those people I say: “Kiss my ass.”

     I am not a size 4 anymore and I don’t care. If my ass had to get larger because the pills made me better than so be it. I won’t allow anyone to tell me I looked better before because I love myself now. I will embrace who I am now and let go of the person I was shaped to be. I am in control of where I go from here and I am happy to go it alone. Now I can be with myself. It fucking feels amazing!!!! To be ok being alone is what all of us should be able to do.

I am now ready to delve into all the feelings I have been unable to feel for all these year. No one should have to pretend to be what they are not. Walking on egg shells because you feel the eyes of judgment on you is no way to live. If we as individuals  living with a mental illness can see ourselves for who we can be, life can be better.

Stigmas are made to be dissolved. It has happened throughout our history because people stood up as one. We lend our voice to those who have yet to find theirs. We are a voice of millions and we can be heard. Our illness is not a weapon to be used against us as to break our will. We are not weak. Everyday we wake up and go through the hell of our minds we prove how strong we truly are.

The weight is heavy. Facing the mistakes that we were unable to stop is suffocating. That leap of faith in our true strength needs to be made. The road is hard and painful and comes with knowledge that we have to accept. What I can tell you is that we are in it together. No matter who has told you that you are alone, you are crazy, you are a piece of shit, or that you don’t matter. I am telling you that you DO matter.

You matter to me and to every person who needs you to use your voice to help them find yours. My life is my own now. I have been disappointed in myself for bad decisions I have made but I have made peace with what I cannot change. There are no do-overs but you CAN take control of where you go from here.

What are you waiting for???? Go on…be a BAD ASS!

Bipolar Goggles

cropped-bipolar-goggles-cover-pic2.jpgBipolar Goggles

Amazing ways animals help people wih PTSD and mental illness

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The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is conducting a $12 million study to determine whether service dogs can be an effective treatment for PTSD. The VA currently does not fund or support the use of service dogs for veterans with PTSD, claiming no evidence exists whether service dogs “help PTSD sufferers get better or just feel better.” I have to say, as a person with PTSD, either of those options sounds good to me. I don’t really care if I “get better” or just “feel better,” especially considering many of the standard treatment options for PTSD at the VA do neither, and in fact, can make things worse.

Did the VA forget the 10 empirical studies done in the last 10 years on the usefulness of service dogs in child abuse survivors and military veterans? The most prevalent outcomes were reduced depression, PTSD, and anxiety when the patient was involved in training the dog themselves, connected with the dog by telling it about their trauma, used their interaction with the dog as a metaphor for interacting with their usual social partners, and brought the dog to therapy sessions. That worked. But the VA study is doing something very different:

“Dogs in the study are being trained to sweep a room for threats before the veteran enters. They’re also required to block—keeping people away from the vet.”

 

That is not a service dog. That is a guard dog. One of the most devastating symptoms of PTSD is emotional numbness and feeling disconnected from other people—something that a service dog can help remedy, but not if they’re trained to keep everyone away.

“Training a dog to watch your back, and sweep, and block, is supporting those symptoms and those thoughts,” warns animal-assisted therapist Rick Yount.

 

In a congressional hearing last week, “The VA contends that there is insufficient evidence that service dogs help those with PTS[D].” To give the VA the benefit of the doubt, they are extending their study to go through 2019 based on “ample scientific findings and ongoing research suggest that the VA is wrong.” But whatever the outcome of this flawed study, nothing should discourage the use of animal-assisted therapy, as animals can and are helping people right now cope with PTSD, depression, anxiety, OCD, Alzehiemer’s disease, and schizophrenia—and those benefits don’t even necessarily have to come from trained service dogs.

So what’s the difference between a service dog, a therapy dog, and a pet dog? First of all, dogs aren’t the only animals used in animal-assisted therapy, which is the term for any type of therapy that involves the use of an animal—horses, birds, elephants, rabbits, fish, and all sorts of other animals have been successfully used in therapeutic interventions for physical and psychiatric impairments. But we know a lot more about training dogs, and they have some unique abilities that make them ideal therapy animals.

The Americans with Disabilities Act defines service dogs as any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability. These service animals can be trained to pull wheelchairs, sense changes in blood sugar for people with diabetes, sense the onset of seizure activity in people with epilepsy, bring their owner medication at certain times of the day, provide balance on stairs, and aid people with visual impairments. Obtaining and training service dogs can be quite expensive, as they are specifically trained to accommodate a person’s unique disability needs, but the benefits can be life-saving. Psychiatric service dogs and emotional support animals, trained to help people with life-limiting psychiatric disabilities, fall under the service dog category and must be prescribed by a licensed mental health professional. The good news is that for many psychiatric disorders, a therapy dog is sufficient to provide assistance.

Unlike service dogs, therapy dogs can be considered pets and a person doesn’t have to obtain a specially trained animal. In fact, training the animal yourself has been shown to be part of the bonding in the healing partnership that can develop with a therapy animal. A therapy animal, commonly a dog, is obedience trained and screened to interact favorably with people. Therapy dogs can provide support to their owners, but they can also be brought to hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and disaster relief areas to support people in individual visits. Therapy dog visits to hospitals and other patient care centers have been shown to improve mood and pain in patients with fibromyalgia, promote a more rapid recovery in children after surgery, reduce depression and anxiety in hospitalized mental health patients, reduce anxiety in women with high-risk pregnancies, and improve memory and socialization in Alzheimer’s patients.

Having a dog has been shown to facilitate positive human-human interaction in both people with psychiatric disorders and healthy individuals. Children with autism, who can have difficulties interacting with people, interact more with other people and have greater use of language skills in the presence of a dog. This effect, called the “social catalyst” effect, has been shown in children, adults, and the elderly with other psychiatric diagnoses as well. The presence of a friendly animal has also been shown to increase trust toward other people and decrease aggression. Animal assisted therapy consistently reduces depression and anxiety. Direct evidence shows that interacting with a companion animal positively affects hormonal stress responses including those involving cortisol and adrenaline—the presence of a dog can lower blood pressure and promote a healthier heart rate. These changes are even greater in the presence of a dog than they are in the presence of a friend or spouse!

My area of expertise is in the effects of trauma on the brain—particularly post-traumatic stress disorder—so this is where most of my knowledge about animal-assisted therapy lies. Despite what the VA says, animal assisted-therapy has been shown to reduce PTSD symptoms. One of the big problems with PTSD is reconciling the past with the present and knowing that the past trauma is no longer happening. Having an animal present can act as a reminder that danger is no longer present (by bringing one out of intrusive memories) and can act as focal point for mindfulness experiences in the present. Emotional numbing is one of the key symptoms of PTSD and animals have been shown to increase emotional capacity in humans. Another key aspect of PTSD is hyperarousal, which is promoted by increases in cortisol and adrenaline, both of which animal interactions can decrease. When living with service dogs, veterans with PTSD reported having better sleep and fewer nightmares. Children who have been sexually abused show decreases in anxiety, depression, anger, PTSD, and dissociation when participating in animal-assisted therapy. I have experienced all of these things with my PTSD after getting my own dog.

After getting my dog, Lady, I was able to go for walks/runs outside without feeling scared for the first time in 10 years! I felt safer in my home and slept better. I found that caring for Lady made me more willing to care for myself. The sense of purpose and responsibility in caring for Lady has helped me stay sober (3 years and counting) after a decade of alcohol dependency and has helped me process through fears of abandonment. If I’m anxious or scared, she comes to my side and I feel an immediate surge of relief that everything will be okay.

How do dogs do all this? One early hypothesis suggests that humans used to be partially dependent on signals from animals for signs of threats, so being with an animal that is in a peaceful state may make us feel more safe. Several recent studies have documented increases in oxytocin in people after petting a friendly dog or gazing into its eyes—oxytocin is a chemical produced in the brain that is released directly into the bloodstream to decrease stress hormones and aggression and promote social interaction, empathy, and trust (lots of oxytocin is released during romantic attraction or “pair bonding”). This oxytocin release is greater when the interaction is with one’s own dog compared to an unfamiliar dog, so the quality of the human-animal relationship is important.

I’m not suggesting that a service dog or therapy dog can cure PTSD or any other mental illness, but I think they can help create the environment of stability and safety that is required for other therapeutic interventions to work in healing or coping. Plus, animals don’t judge you for what you’re wearing, they don’t abandon you or say mean things, and they don’t kick you out of a restroom because you don’t look like a “real woman” (although they may sit next to you while you pee). Animals can show you what unconditional love looks like, and that is something everybody deserves.

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Apryl Pooley is a scientist by training, a writer by practice, and an artist by nature who strives to make sense of the world around her and help others do the same. She is a neuroscientist at Michigan State University where she researches the effects of traumatic stress on the brain and is author of Fortitude: A PTSD Memoir. Apryl lives in Michigan with her beautiful wife and two rambunctious dogs, Lady and Bean. Read more about her at http://www.aprylpooley.com. You can also find Apryl on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

me and Lady

Self Harm and Cutting: Chaotic Mind of a Painful Vice

self harm picThe razor blade sits next to the knife on the coffee table. They are beckoning me as a shot of whiskey would for an alcoholic or a dime bag to a drug addict. Addiction does not discriminate against those who inevitably are using it as a coping mechanism, some method of escape from the pain that consumes their heart and soul. Any distraction from the savage thoughts that deteriorate what little is left of a sense of self is embraced like a warm hug from an old friend. Regardless of what we tell ourselves, the rational mind knows these means of escapism are only a temporary distraction, however, when you are in intense emotional pain and consumed by loss and hurt, any reprise is welcome regardless of the length of time. If we can’t control the suffering inside, we can control the pain on the outside. We cut into our skin because we are angry and sad; we are hurting, broken and lost. We self-punish, we even cut to remind us we are alive while drifting through the world as a shadow of ourselves. We kill the pain with pain.

The first moment that you press the blade into your skin, your eyes become fixated on the blood. The depth of the cut is irrelevant as it is not about suicide, it is an attempt at relief. You watch the blood build up and start to drip in all directions, down an arm, a leg, maybe a stomach. The wound burns, the surrounding area pulsates and your heartbeat rises from the rush of adrenaline. Your mind is instantly drawn from the depths of depression to feeling the relief this physical pain induces. You don’t think about the abuse, the emotional torment or the constant sense of emptiness and self-hatred. There is no longer a concern of whose words hold truths, who loves you, who is leaving you, who is actually a friend and who is not. Every possible negative thought vanishes as you still can’t remove your eyes from the incision that you made. The one thing you feel you can control when your world is torn apart.

Physiologically it’s not all that complicated. Self-harm releases dopamine and other feel-good endorphins in the brain, so you actually feel relieved after cutting. The endorphins released, literally make you high. It’s the same reason some people find exercise, tattoos or even sex addictive, which thereby contributes to the addictive quality of self-harm. Expecting someone to just quit would be the same as asking a smoker to stop cold turkey, or a heroin addict to flush his stash. Addiction is addiction. All that differs is the means.

Physical pain is temporary. The body starts to repair itself almost instantly, the adrenaline rush wears off and the thoughts flood back with the force of a tidal wave. The guilt, the shame, the embarrassment, the self- loathing starts to build back up, and before we know it we are immersed and drowning, just like we were at the start. Physically we heal from the inside out. The tissue and skin grows and heals underneath as if it was never separated, and we are left with a scar; the only small reminder of that rare moment of relief. The scars on the inside still holding the raw pain, never seeming to close.

Cutting has nothing to do with intellectual ability, social or financial situations. Almost every person who self-harms has experienced one or more traumas that are so tragic and harmful that the mind self protects, repressing the memories and surrounding emotions as a means of survival. Something so overwhelmingly painful happened that we may or may not ever be able to identify or deal with it. Actually stop for a minute and think about how much someone has to hurt and hate themselves in order to slice a blade into their skin; to trade blood for reprise.

So if you ask me why I cut myself, it is for the exact same reasons that you fall into your own vices.

Can You Embrace Your Anxiety?

Can You Embrace Your Anxiety?

woman alone by michael hull
Can You Embrace Your Anxiety

 

I’m not sure when I first heard the word anxiety, but I think it was in church. Raised Catholic, I began attending Mass before I could speak. Therefore, as my ability to process language developed, I also became accustomed to the weekly ritual, and the prayers sank into my head like song lyrics.

 

“…and protect us from all anxiety, as we wait in joyful hope…” That was one of the prayers I heard regularly. It was a plea, asking God for peace of mind. But as a child with limited vocabulary, I thought anxiety was some sort of beast. (It is, of course, but I imagined a literal beast, as opposed to a figurative one.)

 

In fact, by the time I began to understand the actual meaning of anxiety, I was unwittingly suffering from it. I didn’t discuss it with family or friends, but I slept poorly, and typically spent at least an hour each night with my head at the foot of the bed, watching the hallway in case some evil stranger came charging up the stairs to attack my family. What could I have done had that happened? Well, nothing. I guess my hope was to avoid being murdered in my sleep, and maybe screaming loudly enough to save some family members.

 

I also had an irrational fear of house fires; any smell of smoke during the night would send me flying out of bed and into my parents’ room, convinced that the house was burning. And I was constantly worried about my father being killed in a car accident. That also interfered with my sleep, because my dad’s job at the phone company often required him go out and deal with emergencies in the middle of the night.

 

Of course, this anxiety didn’t vanish as I grew older; it simply changed form. I was anxious in social situations—so much so that I’d often wish the car I was riding in would get a flat tire on the way to a party—and about raising my hand in class. I was anxious about dating, anxious about boys in general, and so anxious about my appearance that I became bulimic as a teenager and stayed that way for over fifteen years.

 

So yes, anxiety led to serious health problems. But the word anxiety? Well, for some reason, I didn’t want to believe I had it. Maybe it was because of that initial negative association—the dreaded beast from church—or maybe I just didn’t want to believe there was something wrong with my brain. I knew I had a problem with eating and food, and would sometimes read articles about bulimia. But if the article mentioned bulimia being a psychotic disorder, or said it was linked to anxiety, I’d shut down. I wanted my problem to be simple. I didn’t want a diagnosis. I didn’t want therapy. I just wanted to wake up one day free from binging and purging.

 

Everything changed when I finally accepted the truth. You can read more about that here, but the help I received—in the form of excellent therapy—made me understand that I have a ton of anxiety. I learned ways of keeping it in check, I stopped vomiting, and life got much better. And yet, for many years, I resented my anxiety. It was, perhaps, the thing I liked least about myself.

 

Then, when my children were young, an elderly neighbor asked me to care for her dog and cat while she was in the hospital. She and I became friendly, and it quickly became apparent that she also suffered from anxiety. One day, the two of us ended up discussing that, and I told her how much I hated being anxious. But she surprised me by saying she didn’t mind it, and actually didn’t trust people who weren’t anxious. “They don’t care about anything,” she said. “Who wants to be around people like that?”

 

At the time, I just smiled and shrugged, but I’ve thought about that conversation many times since. I’ve also learned more about why humans have anxiety in the first place: it’s an evolutionary protective device that prevents us from taking too many risks. So it’s not all bad. In fact, having a healthy amount of anxiety is a positive thing.

 

But just as some people have a surplus in the anxiety department, there are others with a deficit. I was quite surprised to discover that those individuals tend to live shorter-than-average lives because they engage in riskier behaviors, and may not seek medical attention as quickly as more anxious people. Another thing I’ve read is that people who don’t experience much anxiety can have difficulty maintaining friendships and romantic relationships, because they don’t always worry about hurt feelings and things like that. So even though anxious folks may sometimes ask questions like, “Are you sure you’re not mad at me?” a bit too often, that can be better than the alternative.

 

Do I still wish I could turn off my anxiety most of the time? Absolutely. I’ve had panic attacks that have literally brought me to my knees on busy city streets, and others that have made me pull over on the highway, convinced I was having a heart attack. In certain situations, I can be extremely shy, and over the course of my life have allowed miscommunications to happen and opportunities to slip by because of that shyness. I can also be an overprotective mother; just ask my kids.

 

But I’m working on it. I still go to therapy, and continue trying to distinguish between legitimate fears and irrational ones. The secret, I guess, is knowing when—and how—to lock up the beast, and when to take it out for a walk.

 

 

Mary Rowen is an award-winning writer and blogger who often writes about women of various ages growing up and/or figuring out what they want from this world. She was raised in the Massachusetts Merrimack Valley, graduated from Providence College, and has worked as a teacher, marketing writer, and political canvasser. She currently lives in the Boston area with her husband, two teenage children, dog and cat. Her blog can be found at http://www.maryrowen.com

 

Mary’s novels, Leaving the Beach and Living by Ear are available in many places, including Amazon. Leaving the Beach won a bronze medal for Northeast Regional Fiction in the 2016 IPPY Awards.

 

You can also visit Mary on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest

 

 

 

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A Zoo Full of Happiness

A few weeks ago, my husband had work commitments during the day and the weather was lousy. It was just warm enough to make all the beautiful Wisconsin snow melt into piles of muddy soup, yet just cold enough that playing outdoors for too long was unappealing. As I looked at my kids across the breakfast table, I realized that we could either spend all day inside and bicker, or find an alternative activity that everyone would enjoy.
“Kids,” I started, after I grabbed their attention for a fleeting nanosecond. “I know it still feels like winter but today let’s go to the Milwaukee County Zoo.”
“HOOOOOORRAYYYYY” the room erupted in raucous screams. “I’ve been wanting to go to the zoo forever!” my oldest son, Alex, announced. (he tends to speak in hyperbole.)
“OK guys, I know it’s cold and the ride will be long, but we can make a day of it,” I explained. The zoo was about an hour from our house. “We can see all the indoor exhibits and have lunch when we get to the zoo.”
What ensued was a flurry of activity where I could only see three blond mops of hair flying through the house as my children ran in circles filling their backpacks full of toys and books that they thought that they might need during the short commute to the zoo. My daughter collected her largest blanket, three plastic ponies, a Barbie, four books, almost a whole box of raisins, a sippy cup of water, two purses, a stuffed turtle, one dolly, and a small monkey. Apparently she thought that we needed to bring a zoo to the zoo.
My sons brought a few books and their iPads, begrudgingly acknowledging that I wouldn’t let them “plug in” for the full 2 hours that we were in the car.
After we got in our sweaters and pants and coats and warmest outerwear, we got in the car and were on the way. We didn’t leave the house until noon, but the kids were excited to eat lunch as soon as we arrived at the zoo. Once the radio was playing and two of three children drifted off to sleep, I relaxed and hoped that we would have a fantastic day.
But shortly after arriving at our destination, things didn’t turn out as planned. When we walked through the zoo’s main welcome center, we noticed that all of the restaurants and concession stands were closed, including the ice-laden sidewalk vendors. As soon as we saw this, an immediate chorus of “Mom, I’m hungry!” rose from the bellies of my children.
The animals, as well, seemed to be hiding from the cold. The first exhibit we passed – which should have housed the penguins – was completely empty. Apparently Wisconsin’s version of cold air isn’t adequate for Arctic creatures. The Children’s Zoo was a desolate collection of jungle gyms and empty animal cages with one indoor enclosure with a few lonely cows. Though we waited, the planned milking exhibit didn’t happen at the specified time because of lack of participants.
As we ran from indoor enclosure to indoor enclosure (looking for sources of food the whole time) we caught glimpses of the animals that were still brave enough to linger outdoors: the lion, an elephant, a leopard, and a polar bear. Even the moose were huddling together near the stone wall of the faux mountain. When we finally found the tall house where the giraffes live for the winter, I was thrilled to see a vending machine so we could at least get a snack to tide us over until dinner. Alex and Will ran up to the glowing “M&M” sign as if they had found Mecca. With a huge smile on my face, I opened my purse and pulled out. . . a twenty. And about fifty pennies. I started to break out in a sweat as I searched every pocket and finally found a crumpled $1 bill in the recesses of my back jean pocket, which was enough to buy 1 packet of M&Ms for four of us to share.
Eventually we made it to see several other animals and then back to the car with frozen fingers, tingling toes, and rumbling stomachs. Although we were cold, tired, and hungry (excluding the 8 chocolate candies apiece) I thought we had a relatively successful afternoon. The kids seemed happy and engaged and we would have something to laugh about later.
But when we got home, I heard my children recounting the day to my husband:
“. . . and we didn’t get to see the African elephant!”
“. . . and there wasn’t even anything at the children’s zoo!”
“. . . I am soooooo hungry! We didn’t get any lunch!”
“. . . .the car ride was so long!”
As I listened to the chorus of complaints, I realized that I had spent all day trying to make my kids happy and I had failed miserably. Despite two hours in the car, my best efforts, and now a dull headache, they were still in their chronic state of dissatisfaction that seems to accompany almost anything that isn’t electronic. I realized that instead of being a mommy-entertainment-factory, I needed to teach my kids to be happy on their own.
As Abraham Lincoln prophetically said, “People are just as happy as they make up their minds to be.”
So I did a little research. How could we teach our kids to be happy? I knew that these early years where habits are forming and personalities are blossoming are crucial to the development of lifelong traits. I was glad to learn that two of the things that we were working on teaching the kids – a healthy sense of gratitude and generosity – were associated with increased lifelong happiness. But I saw a lot of areas where we could improve things as well. For example, cultivating a sense of optimism is important to teaching happiness. If we celebrate our children’s successes while also allowing them to learn from their failures, they will be more likely to grow into self-confident and optimistic adults. Also, I could do a lot better job modeling positive self-talk. My kids need to hear me say a lot more of “I did a great job today” instead of “these jeans make my butt look fat.” By being a more positive example, I can help their own inner voices speak to them in a more reassuring, positive, and happy way.
Finally, we can teach them to find joy in the little things, even when everything isn’t perfect.
As I was putting the kids to bed that evening, I asked them about their favorite part about the zoo. They reliably told me about the monkeys, bats, and the scary lion. When my son asked me what my favorite part of the trip was, my answer wasn’t as simple:
“Remember the part when we were in the giraffe house eating M&Ms? Alex was sitting on one side of me, Will was sitting on the other, and Kalli was sitting on my lap. Our stomachs were all grumbling but you were being really sweet and making sure that everyone got the same amount of M&Ms. The giraffes that we were watching were tall, graceful, beautiful creatures. It was cold outside but the warmth I felt with the three of you surrounding me was better than any blanket that I could ever buy. The whole trip was crazy, but it was worth it to be there that moment with you.”
It’s the little things that cultivate happiness, and I could feel another sprout blossoming in my heart in the giraffe house that day. Despite the lessons we learned, next time I think I’ll carry some small change and snacks in my purse.
Or maybe we’ll just go to the pet store.

Kristin Seaborg is a practicing pediatrician, parent of three rambunctious children, and author of The Sacred Disease: My Life with Epilepsy. Kristin writes about perspectives on pediatrics and parenting on her Common Sense Motherhood blog (link http://www.kristinseaborg.com/blog) and advocates for epilepsy awareness through speaking and teaching others about the impact of seizures.

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The Importance of Self-Care and Being a Mother

There is no escaping. They find you everywhere. You can try to lock a door but within seconds the doorknob is rattling and they’re pounding, calling your name. Yet, that’s not quite true because you don’t even remember your own name anymore. They’ve stripped you down to nothing. There’s no name, no privacy, no memory recall, nothing. The pounding on the door intensifies and now they’re screaming.

“MOM!”

“MOM! MOM! MOM!MOM!MOM!MOM!MOM!MOOOOOOOOOOM!!!!!”

There is literally nothing left to do but just sit on the floor and cry. That’s it, just sit there and let your snot blend in with the snot already left behind on your shirt by the baby.

By the end of the day, huddled in bed and completely exhausted, someone might mention the phrase “practice self-care” either in word or on Facebook and you may react in one of several ways: 1) shame or guilt because you did not use any self-care at all that day, 2) confusion because you don’t know what the hell self-care is, 3) skepticism because you don’t believe anyone has time to practice something called self-care at all, or 4) scorn because you think it’s stupid.

We’re all friends here; it’s okay to admit if you think self-care is stupid. You can’t even go to the bathroom to pee in privacy, right? How the hell are you going to be able to practice self-care? Maybe being able to pee in solitude can count as self-care. One can hope.

However, we are all living an extraordinarily fast-paced and, what I call, a mult-tabbed life. Just as we can’t seem to have only one tab open at a time on our computers, we can’t only do one thing at a time in life. Not only am I cooking dinner but I’m washing the dishes at the same time, I’m reading email, I’m helping my son memorize his poem in español and gluing the shoes on to my daughter’s Barbies – because my life is too complicated for finding lost Barbie shoes. Mothers need to practice self-care. And mothers who engage in multi-tab mothering need to practice self-care urgently. Why? Because our children might need us, but we need to be at our best selves more.

I struggle with mental illness just like the other estimated 22.1% of adults in the United States. I have depression and social anxiety, PTSD stemming from rape and sexual assault, agoraphobia and bipolar. So you know, I’m pretty much a regular gal. I operated on survival mode every single day of my life before I knew what was going on in my head. So much so that I began to wake up earlier and earlier every morning in order to get ready for work just so I could have enough time to fit in my daily panic attack. That’s right. I scheduled in my panic attacks after my shower but before my make-up. I was falling apart but didn’t know why. What I did know, however, was that I needed to look normal and put together for my son.

You see, I grew up with a mother who invested her whole life in her children but left nothing for herself. Once her children were grown she turned her investment into her mother-in-law, my grandmother, and then to my grandfather. Now, my mother feels lost with not having anyone to devote herself to and not knowing how to care for herself.

I’d put on my make-up, my panic attack subsiding, and obsessively worry that I was turning into my mother. At the same time, I couldn’t let my son see me “be crazy”.  Finally, even before I knew about my own mental illness, I learned about self-care. Self-care is the most loving and generous thing I could do for my children – completely opposite to what moms culturally trained to think. By taking time for myself I improve not only myself but also the time I spend with my children.

Practicing self-care does not have to be complicated and it does not have to take long each day. For those of you who have images (again, perpetuated somehow by social media or even well-meaning bloggers – ahem, not me) of weekend long retreats in the woods, hour long bubble baths, expensive spa days, or asking wood nymphs to talk to your vagina, none of these things need to happen for it be considered self-care. If this is the kind of stuff that rejuvenates and it fits your lifestyle, than awesome; go for it.

So what is self-care if it is not wood nymphs talking to your vagina? Self-care is any intentional action you take to care for your physical, emotional or mental health. That’s really it. And it can take as little as five minutes each day or as long as a whole night’s sleep.

Deciding to screen all your phone calls and only answering the phone from specific people who don’t drain you emotionally is an example of practicing self-care. Or, maybe deciding to not have your cell phone by your bed so you won’t answer text messages after a certain point in the evening and get a good night’s sleep could be another. I’ve learned that by opening my drapes and blinds to always have natural light in my home this helps fight my depression, and so this has been an easy way for me to practice self-care. I also eat an apple each morning so I eat a healthier breakfast and don’t begin my day nauseated – some of my medications can often upset my stomach.

As mothers, practicing self-care is incredibly important to help us get through each day when we are being tugged on, puked on, wiped on, screamed at, challenged by, sought out for, only to do it all the next day. Of course we love every single moment. And it’s okay to admit exhaustion and maybe even surrender. But it’s also okay to take five minutes and find the backyard wood nymph to talk to our vaginas.


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After writing and illustrating her first bestseller in second grade, “The Lovely Unicorn”,
C. Streetlights took twenty years to decide if she wanted to continue writing. In the time
known as growing up she became a teacher, a wife, and mother. Retired from teaching,
C. Streetlights now lives with her family in the mountains along with their dog that eats
Kleenex. Her new memoir, Tea and Madness is now available.
You can follow C. Streetlights on

 

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It’s Just A Day

     I need to remind myself often that its just a day. Good, bad, or indifferent it’s a day like all the ones before it. I made it through those days and I have every intention of making it through this one. We have “those days” that feel like bad days. Often we can’t find a reason it’s a bad day, It just feels bad. I search through my mind for some mental restart button. Maybe I can reset my way of thinking and it won’t be a bad day. I know, no such thing right? What if there is? What if inside of the chaotic swirling inside our minds is the switch to make the bad day a little less bad? I have found my restart button. Don’t laugh. I know it sounds like the ramblings of a blogger with nothing better to say but it’s a true story. It’s no great secret or some out of the ordinary talent.

     I think we all have the ability, you just have to want to. For me it’s sorting through the mess inside my head. Filtering through the past and shoving it aside so it isn’t affecting my present. It isn’t easy and it has taken practice and desire to change my mindset. It has been a survival tool for me. It’s one more thing I have learned so I feel I have more control of a mind that has often betrayed me. I am a pretty strong-willed person and I have fought my mental illness for years. Took as many years to realize I fighting against it instead of with it. I know that bad days are just days. I don’t pretend anymore, no fake smiles, no saying I’m fine when I am obviously not. That’s my mental restart button. It’s accepting bad days are bad sometimes for no damn reason. I push the past habits out-of-the-way and I just refocus on today. I get through THIS day. Forget the bad days before this one. Don’t bog yourself with it. Just do today!    

     Told you there was no great secret to it. Just a little practice and you can do that mental restart so you can deal with today. I am in this with everyone else trying to figure it out. I have just accepted I may never figure it out and I am just fine with that. I will leave the great questions of life and scientific underlying of the mysteries of the world to those a lot more qualified. Live today, be in today, and we can be there together.

 

 

Not A Bipolar Rant

 

Something really got under my skin today so I am doing what comes natural….I am writing about it. I have had a day…that day where everything that can trigger you does. Not triggers my mental illness or a mood swing but just normal everyday stuff that would bother people without a mental illness. Like leaving the toilet seat up or putting the toilet paper roll on with it under instead of over. It’s not like people haven’t wasted a lot of time with those debates. Now I complain about something and it is assumed that it is because I am bipolar. Well let me give you some shock and awe; I can react to something just because it pisses me off, gets on my nerves, or in general just bugs the hell out of me and it has NOTHING to do with my mental illness. TRUE STORY. It happens, I have the same reactions to stuff as someone who isn’t living with bipolar disorder. Just because I have a mental illness does NOT, I repeat, DOES NOT mean that everything that leaves my mouth is some symptomatic rant. I can not tell you how often it happens that speaking my mind is blamed on being bipolar. It can’t just be because I am a woman with an opinion or with expectations. It can’t just be because maybe I didn’t get enough sleep or hey…you tried talking to me before I had coffee. If you have EVER been around me then you know I am not nice before coffee. I make no apologizes for that, it is just who I am. It has nothing to do with having bipolar disorder. It has nothing to do with having Borderline Personality Disorder. It has nothing to do with my anxiety either. I just need my morning coffee. I sometimes just need to be alone. And yes, sometimes I am going to call you out on the bullshit stuff that gets on my nerves. Do everyone with a mental illness a favor and give us credit for being able to have what you(public in general) consider a “normal reaction.”

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