Monday, September 26, 2016

Who Am I: The Problem With Self-Definition

I find myself thinking a lot lately about who I am and what determines how I answer that question.  On the face of things, I am a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a friend, a therapist, an American, a human, a female.... None of that seems overly descriptive. I am also a person who has an underactive thyroid and a set of sinuses that appear to have some sort of vendetta. What does that say about me?  I am also a person who struggles with depression and anxiety and the attending issues of self-esteem, motivation, and self-confidence.

Interesting, isn't it, that I find myself the most anxious about the last sentence?  Why is it that, of all the characteristics listed above, my mental health issues are somehow more shameful?  In general, I am pretty open with my clients that I have dealt with these issues, but I think I still fear that I will be judged and seen as less capable, less stable, or less trustworthy.

It seems funny that we are quick to define ourselves by those labels. People will introduce themselves to me and say "I'm bipolar" or "I'm ADHD."  While I understand their meaning, I find it interesting that people never walk up and say, "I'm diabetes" or "I'm intestinal cancer."  We would think it really strange if someone did, but yet we don't think twice when people identify themselves by their mental illness.  People in the therapy world tend to focus on "person-first" language. That is, you are not bipolar; rather, you are a person who is dealing with bipolar disorder.  You are not ADHD. You are a person who struggles with focus, prioritization, and task completion.  It may sound like silly semantics, but it makes a difference.

I think, because mental illness affects thinking, mood, and functioning, it feels like it changes who we are. I believe it does not change who we are, but it may inhibit our access to the parts of ourselves that we prefer. It is, however, something that occurs because of something we are dealing with medically, not just something "in our heads."  Just because I can't find PTSD on an x-ray doesn't mean it is any less valid than a broken leg.  We expect people, however,  just to "get over" their mental health issues. Have you ever told anyone to "get over" their high blood pressure?  Probably not. I try to describe mental health issues as defining what you deal with rather than who you are.  Depression does not care if you are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Athiest, Hindu, or Agnostic.  Schizophrenia does not care what financial class you represent or how many volunteer hours you put in last quarter.  Addiction does not care what language you speak. These things happen to people of every description all over the world.

So, if I do not define myself by my mental health, how do I define myself? I guess I define myself by what I care about and what I am willing to do about what I care about. I define myself by my interests, my talents, and my quirks.  I define myself by my morals and my values.  I love people, and I enjoy helping them learn to see and appreciate themselves differently.  I enjoy reading, writing, cooking, and swing-dancing. I love words, ideas, metaphor, and philosophy.  I am great at starting projects and not so good about finishing them.  I am remarkably unathletic and out of shape and, unfortunately, very messy at home. I have a dry sense of humor but I hate being made to laugh when I am not in the mood.  I try never to hurt people unnecessarily, I try to be authentic, and I try to leave people and places in a better state than they were when I encountered them.

All of these things are true about me more or less no matter where I am or who I am with.  When I am feeling more depressed and anxious, some of those things are harder to acknowledge or connect with, but they are still me. It is hard not to define myself by others' perceptions and expectations, but if I am to be authentic, I have to be true to myself.

Who might you see yourself to be if you did not evaluate yourself by your situation or your struggles? What can you hold on to about yourself even when things appear bleak or hopeless? We all need support and reassurance, and there is no shame in that. We can all lose our way when times get difficult.  I encourage you, however, to try to take a different view of yourself than just what you are experiencing now.  If you struggle with that, I hope you will come find me.  I'd love to help you reconnect with you.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Purpose of the Pain

Most of my clients know that I hate exercising.  Let me be clear -- I love the idea of exercising. I know the benefits, and I hear tell that the endorphins are amazing.  Exercise and I, however, do not get along.  I refer to myself as having all the coordination of a three-legged elephant with a short leg. Think about it... get the visual... let it sink in.  See? Not pleasant.  I am, in fact, so uncoordinated that I was pulled out of regular classes in elementary school and put in remedial P.E.  I bet most of you didn't know that existed.  I have the report cards to prove it.

Anyway,  I was running with my daughter in her stroller today, and somehow the weight was wrong.  The stroller sank backwards, and I went flying.  Don't worry.  My daughter was fine. She was buckled in with a five-point harness and just ended up looking at the sky. Me? I scratched up my left hand a bit and bunged up both knees (poor knees).  Fortunately, I was wearing pants, so I did not donate as much skin and blood as I might have.  I managed to get the both of us home (slowly) and made a date with my old friends Bactine and Band-Aid.  I'm fine.  More bruised dignity than anything else... But there was a bit of pain, to be sure.

One of the biggest issues my clients face with me is why their pain must be there and why they can't just ignore it. It is unpleasant, disruptive, distracting, and overwhelming.  Why must it be part of life? Why can't we just shove it away and ignore it?

People attempt to avoid pain in various ways.  We rationalize, we distract, we tell ourselves it doesn't exist and/or we don't have time to deal with it right now.  Some of us drink, use drugs, or engage in other addictive behaviors.  Those who have been through traumatic experiences may cope by avoidance of triggers or by dissociating to some extent or the other.  We go to great lengths to avoid pain.

There is a medical condition known by various terms, including "Congenital Analgesia" and "Congenital Insensitivity to Pain."  What does this mean?  These people physically do not experience pain.  At first, this seems like a great way to live. Wow! No pain! No headaches, no earaches, no toothaches, no gas pains. no arthritis pain... It sounds like a dream.  But wait....

What would happen if you had a nail stuck in your foot and didn't notice? What if your appendix were rupturing? What if you had a massive infection and couldn't feel it?  Does that change your opinion of this diagnosis?

People with CIP must be vigilant.  They must check themselves constantly for injuries, from their gums to their toes.  They can't feel the pain from a fever, either, so they have to check their temperatures regularly. They can't detect temperature,  so they can scald themselves with their food or experience frostbite with no knowledge.  Their bodies don't detect temperature problems, so they don't sweat or shiver.  In essence, they are limited in their ability to recognize problems and to manage them in the natural ways most of us are able to do.

Similarly, emotional pain is also necessary.  The pain draws attention to things we need to address to stay healthy and make wise decisions.  If we did not feel emotional pain, we might stay in abusive relationships, harm others, and limit our own growth.  If we do not have discomfort, we do not make change.  Pain can let us know that we have lost something we value. Pain can alert us that we are not safe in a particular situation. Pain can show us that we are growing. Pain can inform us that we need to change something.  Pain is an invaluable resource of information.

That said, I think there needs to be a balance.  I am a believer in Tylenol, Advil, and Aspirin in moderation.  Next time I need a root canal, I will certainly opt for the Novocain.  If I need my appendix removed, I will expect and accept anesthesia.  Pain for the sake of pain is not healthy for anyone.

We don't have to live in the pain all the time.  If I am having an appendectomy, I would rather my surgeon not choose that time to give in to her grief in losing her mother. I don't want my Uber driver chasing another car with road rage for cutting him off in traffic.  If I am with a client, this is not the time for me to engage in my personal pain in whatever area of my life.  Those are appropriate times to put the pain to the side for a time and focus on something else.  If I can't put aside my pain, I need not to be seeing clients until I am in a better place.

When painful feelings come, however, the best option, usually, is to let the feeling be there. You likely won't need a canoe and oars to get out of the house if you let yourself cry.  Feeling anger doesn't mean you are going to burn the house down or kill the neighbor's dog.  If you can allow the feeling to be there and get the message it is giving you, it will go away on its own.  Emotions are usually fairly simple.  When we shove them away or tell ourselves we can't feel them, that's when things get complicated.

Instead of simply feeling sad, we add in guilt for being "weak," then we get mad at ourselves for beating ourselves up, then we criticize ourselves for being so messed up and for being such a burden on others, and then we can decide that we must be totally useless and take up too much space in the world.  That sure is a lot of stress to evolve from a simple feeling of sadness.  Wouldn't it just be easier to allow the sadness and accept that the sadness is there to help us recognize what is important to us?  It seems so to me. Emotions repressed or suppressed over a long period of time can lead to depression and anxiety.

We are designed to experience pain so that we can address problems when they come up.  Similarly, a lack of pain can help us recognize that we are safe to go on with what we are doing.  The experience of pain is subjective for each of us, and only you know when the pain is tolerable for you and when you need to stop or need assistance.  If we can accept pain as a messenger, then we can accept ourselves with that pain.

Someone with CIP who had my accident today might have significant issues that they were unaware of without the pain.  There might be infection, muscle damage, or even a broken bone that went unnoticed by them.  Fortunately, I experience pain, and I was able to recognize that I was healthy enough to walk home, practice a little first aid, and nurse my bruised dignity.

Next time you have an unpleasant feeling, try letting it be there and see what it has to tell you. You may be surprised how it resolves itself.  If the pain is too much or you are too scared to feel it, I hope you will come find me. We will work together to make it safer for you.  Be good to you...