Saturday, January 28, 2017

Don't Tell Me How To Feel: What Not to Say: Mental Health Edition

"Of course it is happening in your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?"
-Albus Dumbledore

A few months ago, I wrote a blog post about what not to say to people with chronic illness. You can go read that here if you missed it, but here, I want to talk about mental illness more specifically. Now I'm not a psychologist, but I've been living with mental illness for a quite a few years now, and I have a couple of things to say(and not to say).

1. Don't Say:  "That doesn't make sense; your meeting/presentation will go fine. Don't worry about it"
Anxiety is a green little monster (why green I have no idea) that claws its way around my body especially during times of transition or anticipation. It doesn't matter how many times the logical part of my brain tells the monster that nothing is wrong. I don't need you to tell me that nothing is actually wrong or that I will get my work done because I know that. I am very well aware that I am freaking out over nothing, but that doesn't change the fact that I'm freaking out. Also, I'm going to hazard a guess that the person hat you are talking to knows that even if they don't finish the research paper or embarrass themselves at a meeting, things will turn out okay in the end. The problem is convince the green little monster of that.
Say: "Your feelings are valid. I know that the anticipation is the hardest part."
Anxiety and depression are mean. They are monsters inside of your body, controlling your thoughts, coopting your brain as you try to fight them back with every coping skill that you have. Anxiety also feeds on uncertainty, so the certainty of having a friend/mentor/colleague who is validating is unbelievable helpful. It is positively terrifying to feel as if you are not in control of your own brain; if fact, it makes you feel like you belong in an insane asylum. Recognizing the validity of someone's feelings can make all the difference.

2. Don't Say: "Wow, you really have it all. There's no way you could have depression/anxiety/panic disorder. "
I might be too good at hiding the fact that I struggle with mental illness. So good in fact that a lot of people don't believe me when I talk about, and this may be because I tend to talk about it with a smile on my face, but I AM NOT SUPERWOMAN. Noone is. On the outside, I work very hard, but some of that hard work is fueled by anxiety and insomnia. Everyone including the one with the sparkly eyeshadow and beautiful planner can still be hurting inside. Telling someone that they "have it all" takes away their ability to have a "bad day" and feel okay about staying home from work.
Say: "Great job on that program/presentation. I'm really impressed with how you got so much done."
Complimenting one tangible thing is nice, and it removes the pressure of every part of me having to be "pretty to the public." I can run a great program, and then go home and cry for no reason. Sure, that's not the most pleasant experience, but it's better than feeling like a fraud because everyone thinks that you are perfect.

3. Don't Say: "I don't think I can handle talking to you about this. Are you talking to a professional about this?"
First of all, I know that this one almost always comes from someone who loves me. I assume that it is said out of fear of losing me or whoever you are talking to. These things are scary to talk about, but even scarier to feel. And yes, if the person is a danger to themselves or others, by all means, get them professional help. But, if the person who you were talking to felt alone beforehand (which, spoiler alert, they probably did because mental illness tends to do that), you just made them feel even more isolated. This one especially irks me when it is said by those in caring professions or who have offered to "be there no matter what."
Note: This one can also be communicated in uncomfortable looks or body language. These things are just as bad.
Say: "I don't know how to be most helpful in this situation. What would be best for you?"
Professional help is important, for me as well as many people who struggle with mental illness; non-professional help or help in a different context is also super important because it makes me feel like you care. Having these kinds of people in my life is what has kept me here. They are the ones who were shoulders for me to cry on or sounding boards at the end of a crappy day.

It's okay to not know what to do. It's just not okay to make me, or anyone else who is struggling feel more alone. So ask. It's as simple as that. Maybe all the person needs is a cup of coffee or a hug, or someone to sit there and tell them that they made it this far and they should be proud of themselves.

4. Don't Say: "That happened weeks ago. Why are you still thinking about it?"
Have you ever tried to control your thoughts? It's freaking hard, and if I could, I would. Now imagine doing so with little monsters running around trying to make you think about all of your mistakes or losses or problems that happened in the past. Pain is pain. It takes time, and you can never know what underlying issues the person has that are affecting how they are feeling. There is no timer on feelings--although oh my goodness, that would be amazing.
Say: "I know it still hurts. I'm here for you with whatever you need."
It hurts because it mattered. I can't change how I feel about whatever happened. It still hurts. The validation of my feelings is really helpful in and of itself. Additionally, some mental illness characterizes itself with repetitive thinking patterns, so I will have the same thoughts over and over again against my will, no matter how hard I try to stop them.

Thank you so much for reading. Please leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Monday, January 16, 2017

On Freedom: Thinking about Religion and Race

Every year, I struggle with what to think or do on MLK Day. This day is not about me. It has never been. Posting MLK quotes on Facebook seems inconsequential. So I do my best to listen to those around me, and to stand with Black Lives Matter and other organizations that are fighting for freedom. On Friday night, I listened to my Rabbi talk about the fight for freedom that MLK strived for. I listened to rabbis speak about social justice, but none of it felt right. But when I was cleaning my room when I came back to school, I happened upon my copy of Religion and Race, an essay by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, written in 1963. Before I even got to the essay, I saw a quote from Ruth Messinger that I had written at the top: "We cannot retreat to the convenience of being overwhelmed. " We do not have the luxury of being overwhelmed. I kept reading.

And as I reread this essay, having only looked at it a few months prior, I found greater meaning. Perhaps it is because we are about to swear in a president who was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan. Heschel speaks of the responsibility that we, as religious people, have to right racism which he equates to satanism. He asks the question of "How many disasters do we have to go through in order to realize that all of humanity has a stake in the liberty of one person; whenever one person is offended, we are all hurt." And I found myself asking, how many? How many shootings? How many have to die before we start paying attention and fighting for justice? We are taught in Judaism that we shall not stand idly by the blood of our neighbors, so why aren't we fighting? Heschel speaks about a "leap of action," a move in the exact opposite direction of what is easy to do what is right. We must push the arc of the world toward justice as much as we can.

I thought about empowerment and remembered something a rabbi said about telling people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps after they have lost faith in themselves and lost hope. I think about how to empower by listening, to empower in a way that is not patronizing or condescending. And in terms of this, I want other peoples' input. I am here. I am present, but I don't know what to do. Heschel was writing a long time ago, making his words about religion and race more and more potent. I will continue to pursue justice and to keep my eyes and ears open, and I will do my best, in a world that feels broken beyond repair, to build this world from love.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Wincing My Way Down Masada: Chronic Illness in Israel

Day 2 of the 10 day trip: I got up in the morning, screwed around on my phone because the kibbutz we were staying on at that point had good internet, took a shower, taped my feet to protect the sores on the bottoms of them, went to breakfast, stood up, felt a sharp pain in my left hip, sat back down, took Advil and continued with my day. When someone asked me if I was okay, all I said was this: "That's just what decided to hurt today." I did Birthright Israel, a ten day trip for Jewish 18-25 year olds, and I did it with chronic pain.

I want to make a point of saying this: I didn't have any pain-free days on this trip, although some were certainly easier than others. And I haven't had any pain-free days at any point in the past (that I can remember at least). I am not saying this to ask for your pity; I am saying this because I want to make it clear that I am writing this blog post to be open about my own life with the hope that this might make someone who is considering not going on Birthright due to a chronic illness reconsider their decision. It was by no means easy, but it was absolutely worth it.

Chronic illness, especially while traveling with a large group of people, is complicated. You don't have much time to yourself, meaning that it's very hard to hide how you are feeling, and you get a lot of questions if you wear any of the signs of pain on the outside. Additionally, there is a constant struggle between the desire to take in every experience and push yourself to have as much fun as possible in the limited time that you have and the need to take care of yourself and not end up crying on a park bench due to pain, mental or physical. And I am by no means an expert at balancing these two things, although I am a little bit proud that I didn't actually sit out of anything substantial on this trip due to pain. In some ways, I was lucky that I only had to deal with chronic pain. I know how to deal with chronic pain (at least that's what I tell myself), but a large amount of my trip did get the flu and have to sit out of things. I think it comes down to this: the pain you can deal with is also the pain that you have gotten used to. I don't like having to deal with chronic pain, but it's a fact of my life, and I now know, that if I can make it down Masada, I can make it through anything with my beautiful, broken body.

End Note: Thank you thank you thank you to Tamar Brendzel and Cindy Spungin, the chaperones on my trip for bearing with me when the pain was too bad to walk, for asking how I was doing at periodic intervals and just making sure that I felt supported and okay with how I was feeling for the whole trip. I can't thank either of you enough.