I have intractable epilepsy so it wasn’t a big surprise when I realized I was having a pretty big partial complex seizure while flipping pancakes this morning. When my teenage daughter saw what was happening, she came to me and put her arms around me to help me get grounded. The feeling of her arms around me unleashed something unexpected and I began to sob uncontrollably. I tried to push the emotions away but that only caused a panic attack and I was left holding onto my daughter for dear life while the sobs erupted from me like a wave that would drown me if I didn’t let them flow through me and recede. I felt like falling to the floor and letting the sobs overtake me but my daughter made me sit down in a chair and go through a guided imagery in which I let the emotions flow through me and then down into the ground where they would be absorbed by the collective consciousness. Once I did this everything resolved pretty quickly and I was back to making pancakes a few minutes later.

While waiting for the pancakes to cook, I began to think about the seizure and the feelings it unleashed. This wasn’t the first time this week my body did something completely unexpected and I felt the need to be curious about it. A few days ago I woke up with really intense hot flashes and nausea. I felt waves of heat rush over me and leave me sweaty, cold and shaky. I felt empty inside and nauseous. Seizures, panic attacks, sobbing, and hot flashes.

My body is trying to get my attention and it seems pretty obvious what it’s all about. Last week one of my daughter’s classmates (also my husband’s student) went missing. Within twenty-four hours the police found her body. She had jumped off a cliff in a mountainous area very near town. My daughter goes to a small high school so everyone knew this young woman. If this were any other time, I would have felt very sad, shocked and a lot of empathy for the parents. But this isn’t any other time. Two months ago my daughter told us she wanted to be put into an psychiatric inpatient facility because she’d been cutting uncontrollably and had very detailed plans of how she was going to kill herself. We immediately took her to the ER and she was admitted to a crisis center for 8 days.

I felt like falling apart and wallowing in my fears, my grief and memories of my own teenage struggle with depression and suicidal ideation. But I have two little boys to care for and we had to make trips two and from the crisis center every day and figure out how we were going to get her the care she needed once she was discharged. I wouldn’t send her back to the county mental health facility where she’d been going for two years without making any progress. So I trudged through all of this, breaking down here and there for a few minutes and then pulling myself back together.

In the end, we raised enough money to send my daughter to a very good therapist who would help her process her trauma from being bullied and then teach her tools for living a meaningful life without being overwhelmed by depression. The weeks went by and I began to see small changes; she was singing again, playing her ukelele and drawing, and her panic attacks seemed less frequent and more manageable. But I continued to feel like I was holding my breath and waiting for the worst to happen.

I began to cry at random moments. I felt like crying all the time. I lost interest in my sewing projects. I started feeling low level anxiety as I went through my daily activities. I couldn’t fall asleep easily and once I did, I woke frequently feeling really anxious and worried. Everything I did became rote and dull. I kept thinking that I felt like I had when I was postpartum with my youngest son. I recognized the symptoms of depression, started taking an anti-depressent and seeing a psychologist for the purpose of holding me accountable for using my coping skills. The heaviness of depression gradually lifted as the medication began to work and as I began to implement my emotion regulation and distress tolerance skills. But I still felt this nagging sensation that there was something I wasn’t addressing. Deep feelings of sadness persisted. I felt like I was grieving but I couldn’t figure out why. My daughter had planned to kill herself and that was incredibly frightening but she wasn’t suicidal anymore and she was getting the help she needed. So what was there to grieve?

When my daughter’s classmate went missing I felt intense panic. I hadn’t known her but my experience of almost losing my daughter was so fresh and raw. When the girl’s body was found and it was determined she had committed suicide I began having intrusive thoughts and feelings about what she must have been feeling when she walked up the road to the mountains, what she may have felt standing at the edge of the cliff, how much emotional pain she must have felt to have the will to jump off the cliff. I started thinking about what the girl’s parents must be thinking and feeling. And I would cry and pace around.

Of course it all leads back to my daughter and how very close she came to taking her life. My mind keeps telling me that she’s going to be ok now but my heart knows we could lose her and the death of her classmate has given credence to my heart’s warning. So that’s what’s hanging over me: the fear and panic that my daughter could once again be so depressed and hopeless that she would attempt suicide and we would lose her forever. And I’m terrified to let myself feel those feelings. So I’ve been avoiding them and am stuck with the feeling of something heavy hovering over me.

Iron & Wine wrote a song called ‘Waiting for a Superman’ and it sums up my state of being right now:

I asked you a question and I didn’t need you to reply
Is it getting heavy?
But then I realize, is it getting heavy
Well, I thought it was already as heavy as can be

It’s as heavy as can be. And these feelings I’m avoiding will not just dissolve. It’s like being postpartum. You have this miracle of life who is infinitely helpless and fragile and it’s your job to protect it from all the dangers of the world. And you know from giving birth that the line between life and death is sometimes tenuous. My daughter’s brush with death reminds me, in a very visceral way, of how impermanent life can be and the feelings that knowledge elicits are huge and overwhelming.

Because I have not been facing these feelings and touching in with them, my body is in a state of revolution and is finding its own outlets for them. And I’m left with the question “how do I grieve for my daughter when she’s still here?” I believe that’s the work I must do, I just don’t know how to go about it yet.

Tomorrow, we go to the Celebration of Life for my daughter’s classmate. Perhaps I’ll find answers there.

When I heard the news of Michael Jackson’s death yesterday, I thought I would be the last person on earth to write about it.  I have not been a fan of his music since Thriller ( I was ten when that album was released) and have felt deeply critical and resentful of his actions as a father, especially since he was such a celebrity and had so much influence in the world.  I was not happy that he died, rather I felt almost nothing.  This lack of feeling prompted me to ask myself, “where is my compassion, my empathy for a fellow human being?”  After all, I am a psychotherapist and much of what I do with and for clients involves feeling compassion for them when they are too full of self-judgement to feel it for themselves.  It is easy to see why I felt disturbed by my lack of compassion for Michael Jackson, a man who was known to have suffered abuse as a child and who so obviously wanted the approval of many, if not the whole world.

I think this lack of compassion occurs in all of us.  Instead of compassion we feel judgment.  Why?  Maybe because it’s more comfortable to feel judgment than compassion.  Having compassion opens us up to the pain and suffering of another human being.  Judgment on the other hand, can tempt us into the illusion of feeling superior and powerful.  I am not a child-molester.  I am not addicted to pain killers.  Therefore, I must be better than him.  Why should I feel compassion for someone who has hurt others? I believe that judgment, while being less obviously painful, is more damaging to our soul.  It separates us from others and when we are separate we are less connected to life. 

If it’s easier and less painful to feel judgmental, however, then how do we get from judgment to compassion?  Psychologist and author, Daniel Goleman, has this to say:

“The act of compassion begins with full attention, just as rapport does. You have to really see the person. If you see the person, then naturally, empathy arises. If you tune into the other person, you feel with them. If empathy arises, and if that person is in dire need, then empathic concern can come. You want to help them, and then that begins a compassionate act. So I’d say that compassion begins with attention.”

This is how I suddenly discovered my compassion for Michael Jackson.  A friend passed along a link to this article written by Rabbi Schmuley Boteach, who was one of Michael’s friends.  For some reason I felt compelled to read this particular commentary on Michael’s life.  And the result was unlooked-for compassion.  To peer into Michael’s life through the lense of someone who knew and loved him allowed me to open up to his pain and the longing he felt to be loved and accepted.   How sad that he was taught at such an impressionable age to equate love with the admiration of strangers.  How tragic that this lesson was beaten into him by his own father.

So I now feel compassion for a man I previously felt only disdain for.  It doesn’t change the facts, as I see them, that he was responsible for hurting others and for setting a bad example.   And that’s the really tricky part about feeling compassion for others; it can be painful to witness another’s suffering AND they are still responsible for the injuries they inflict on themselves and others.  Compassion can inspire us to help someone, as it seems it did Rabbi Schmuley, but the burden of accepting the challenge to change rests on the individual who is suffering.

In the end, I don’t feel better now that I feel compassion for Michael Jackson, I merely feel humbled.  That seems somehow more human that judgment.

Disclaimer: I would like to make it very clear that the following entry is no way intended to be a Judaic teaching.  It is my hope that my experience is merely the vehicle through which I am able to share something I believe to be important for every one, regardless of their belief system.

After a long bout with serious illness and several weeks of recovery, I’m finally back to blogging.  In the last four months I’ve learned a lot about the importance of rest, good food and other things that support healing.  Last week, at the monthly Rosh Chodesh women’s group I attend, I was reminded that each individual has the potential to support health and healing in others.  Since then I’ve given quite a lot of thought to this and have decided to share what I learned because even if we’ve all heard it before, it’s one of those basic truths that bears repeating.

The sliver of the moon just after it was new

The sliver of the moon just after it was new

This Rosh Chodesh we learned about the month of Iyar, the second month and the month that the recently freed Isrealites began to recieve manna* from the heavens. After a brief teaching we each pondered what would be the perfect nourishment for us in that moment.  Then we took turns asking to receive that nourishment from each other.  Since the group is a sacred space I will not share other women’s experiences but I can say that the requests varied from being massaged to simply being listened to.

My unique form of nourishment in that moment was to lie in child’s pose and have each woman place their hands somewhere on my body and remain perfectly still for five minutes.  What sounds like a simple request became very powerful and healing when put into practice.  Five minutes is a long time to lie perfectly still, especially in the presence of others.   In that time I relaxed and enjoyed the experience of simply breathing and being held and supported by other women.  Each woman gave herself completely to the exercise and I could feel the love and kindness of their intentions.

In our culture we think of healing in many ways: being treated by a medical provider with medicine or a procedure; receiving a massage; taking herbs or special tinctures; getting regular accupuncture treatments; having a healer give us an enegry treatment like Reiki.   All of these things require payment or at the least a trade of some sort.

While I believe they each of the above have their place and are important forms of healing, how many of us forget how powerful our loved ones are?  It can be difficult for some  of us, it is for me, to ask for what we need when we’re asking friends or a partner.  But asking is an important aspect of the healing we need.  When we ask we are acknowledging that we have a need.  We are also giving others the opportunity to help us.  Most of us, if asked, would be happy to help those we love in whatever way we can.  Why, then, is it so hard for us to ask those same people for what we need?

Whether we are the one asking for or the one giving nourishment, we are reminded that simply listening, being present, and touching another human being are powerful forms of healing that every one has the capacity for.  If you do one thing for yourself today, ask one person to give you the nourishment you need in that moment.

*Manna is thought to have been nourishment from the heavens.  It is said that manna was the perfect form of physical and spiritual sustenence for each person.

Most of what I muse about here at Windjourney’s Weblog is focused on nurturing a healthier body/mind/spirit.  In order to enjoy health in these ways, however, we have to live on a planet that will sustain us.  Some of you may have noticed that on the lower right hand side of this page there is a badge stating that this blog promotes climate change.  I got this badge from the folks at brighterplanet.com.  This site offers all sorts of helpful tools for reducing your carbon footprint and learning more about climate change.  Because I took part in their challenge to get 350 bloggers to post the badge on their websites, I earned the opportunity to help other people do their part in offsetting their carbon footprint.  There’s absolutely nothing required of you in the way of payment so if you’re interested please click on the link below.  Only the first 25 visitors will get to participate so do it now!

http://oneday.brighterplanet.com/users/4656/passes/public/WZG-JLI

Thanks all!!!

As a psychotherapist, and as someone who has experienced brief depressive episodes as well as the long term depression of a family member, it has often been my unhappy duty to explain depression to those who have no personal experience with it.  Anyone can go to the DSM and look up the diagnostic criteria for depression, but try explaining what this feels like.  That is a completely different jar of cookies.

Maybe you are depressed or have been depressed.  Chances are good that you know someone who has experienced depression.  The World Health Organization estimates that depression affects about 121 million people worldwide, and leads to 850,000 suicide deaths per year!  It is important that every one have a basic understanding of this serious condition because until the stigma around it (and other mental illnesses) is gone many people will continue to be alienated and go untreated.

My purpose here is to do my part (small though it is) in spreading awareness by presenting some descriptions of what depression feels like.  People who are depressed may be perceived as being lazy, self-involved or anti-social.  But in reality they tend to feel little interest or pleasure in anything, have low self-esteem and little energy, and experience their lives as meaningless.  Along with this, many people who are depressed also experience debilitating anxiety and find it hard to be around people. Some succumb to this while others fight tooth and nail to overcome depression or live with it in such a way that their lives are not ruled by it.

Perhaps the most courageous and vivid ongoing description of living with depression is found in an online blog I read quite often.  In this particular entry, the author aptly describes her experience this way:

“Can you ever run out of emotion? In trying to explain Depression the other day I said imagine that one day you found you’d run out of fun and pleasure. You woke up and those emotions had disappeared – your tank was empty and the car wouldn’t start. It just sputtered and spluttered until you finally gave up on it as a lost cause and kicked the tyres till you’d run out of energy too.”

Other ways I’ve heard it described:

“I wake up in the morning and I can’t think of a single reason to get out of bed.  Everything that used to have meaning has no substance for me anymore.”

“I once spent three days crying and I didn’t know why.  Everything, a broken dish, the sound of my baby crying, the mail in the post box, it all made me cry.”

“When I’m depressed it’s like all feeling is gone.  I can look at the sky and know intellectually that it’s beautiful but feel nothing.  My children laugh and I feel nothing.  I want to feel something but it’s like I’m in a bubble where everything, my emotions and desires, is on the outside of the barrier between me and life.”

If you or someone you know is depressed and not already getting help, please make a phone call today-right now-and get help.  Most counties have mental health hotlines and if you have insurance it probably covers a visit with a mental health professional.  At the least, call your primary doctor and schedule an appointment for a depression screening.  Depression is a serious illness but it can almost always be successfully treated with psychotherapy and/or medication.

Here is a resource for learning more about depression and how to get help.

Grief is a funny thing.  And I obviously don’t mean in a ‘ha-ha’ way.  Most of us expect to feel intense grief in the time just following a loved one’s death but we also tend to expect that the age old saying about time healing all wounds is literal and that some day we’ll wake up and we won’t feel all the feelings related to grieving that loved one.  It’s true that if healthy grieving work has been done we will eventually come to accept that loved one’s death and may even feel peace around it–most of the time.  In my experience, however, that does not mean that we will stop missing our loved one or that we won’t occasionally experience a flare up of anger, disappointment or intense loss.

In the time just after a loved one dies we are overwhelmed by a myriad of feelings.  We may: be in shock or feel numb; feel relief if a long illness preceded death; find that we are crying uncontrollably; and/or experience intense rage.  These possibilities represent only a few reactions to death; people’s experience of grieving can be as unique as they are.  There are recognized stages of grief but the order in which we pass through these stages varies.  As time goes by we navigate back into our everyday lives and our thoughts slowly turn less often to our loved one and more frequently towards the life we are living.  This needs to happen in order for us to avoid becoming consumed with grief to the extent that we abandon our own life and the loved ones who are still with us.

Even once the initial grieving has been done, feelings related to grief can show up unexpectedly for the rest of our lives.  That’s because when a loved one dies we do not stop loving them.  Months or years may pass and you see a person who resembles your loved one, begin to reminisce and suddenly find yourself in tears because you miss their presence in your life.  I recently saw a dog who looked very much like the dog I lost several months ago.  I went to pet her and was overcome by sadness and spent the rest of the evening feeling deep grief.  You may go to fix a leaky faucet and remember that your loved one used to attend to these kinds of tasks and feel angry that they are no longer around to help.  People have been known to dream of a loved one for years after their death.  These dreams can be comforting and may bring the feelings of deep grief back to the surface.  

This is all very normal and we should treat ourselves gently when these feelings surface.  They are a testament to our ability to love someone even after they have long departed.  When these feelings come up be curious about them and allow yourself the time and space to feel them.  They will pass and can sometimes turn into a fond remembering or laughter when we allow ourselves to fully experience them. After all, the person or animal we miss was a part of our life and the joy we felt in their presence can continue after they have left this physical world.

One of the most common complaints I hear from women is that they feel disconnected from their intuition and they don’t know what to do to recover this most precious of senses.  It’s easy in this busy world, with all it demands of us, to lose touch with the voice inside that warns us when a situation or person is inappropriate for us and guides us towards what will be fulfilling for our soul life.  It’s similar to losing touch with a trusted old friend because of a move or life change.  Sometimes, and this is frequently the case with our relationship to intuition, we never invested enough energy into the relationship in the first place, and when we remember its value it seems too late to go back and fix it.  In relationships with people, time away may render the lapse impossible to mend, but our intuition can only recede from consciousness for a time.  Intuition is a birthright and is only waiting to be re-membered and engaged with.

I recently began teaching a workshop designed to help women connect with intuition through a deep exploration of the folk tale, Vasilisa the Brave, and the creation of a hand crafted doll.  I have written briefly about how conscious examination of stories can increase mental health (refer to this post) so I won’t go too deeply into it here.  In brief, stories can serve as maps to personal development.  The key to understanding these maps are the symbols and archetypes that make up the backbones of the stories.

The story of Vasilisa and her journey to the witch, Baba Yaga, gives clear instruction on how to nurture and utilize a relationship with deep wisdom and intuition.  A handmade doll given to Vasilisa by her dying mother symbolizes the powerful roll the intuition can play as a messenger from the inner realm of deep wisdom.  It is clearly illustrated that in order to establish an ongoing relationship with intuition we have to nourish it, listen to it, and trust it to guide us even when we cannot consciously foresee where the indicated direction, endeavor, or relationship may lead.

In the workshop, the telling of the story of Vasilisa forms the bones of understanding and the exploration of the symbols and archetypes becomes the flesh.  But, as if often true of learning on a soul level, there is no breath or life until we translate the knowing into physical experience and form.  This is where the doll creation comes in.  Several years ago I learned to make needle felted dolls.  Here is a photograph of the doll I made for the purpose of working with intuition:

Intuition doll

The creation of the doll serves two purposes.  First, while students are listening to the story of Vasilisa and working with the symbols and archetypes they are also crafting the doll.  Their hands are engaged in a simple and repetitive motion, thus freeing up mind and soul to aborb the wisdom in an itegrated way.  Second, the finished doll takes on the energy of a talisman.  The doll as talisman is a physical reminder of their developing relationship to intuition.  One woman who recently took the class spoke of her doll as representing a powerful protective force.  I found this very interesting because the word intuition has its roots in old French and Latin and can be translated as not only “to look at or consider” but “to watch over.”  This understanding of the word sums up the purpose of connecting to intuition: as we build a relationship to our intuitive selves we engage with a force within us that carefully considers everything around and inside of us and thus allows us to make decisions that will ensure our development.