Focusing on mental wellness

I had a conversation today that stuck with me. It’s got my brain focused on the concept of mental wellness and how this April it will have been seven years since my last psychiatric hospitalization. On one hand the cold metal of the handcuffs around my wrists and the click of the officer tightening them to escort me to the psych ward feels like a lifetime ago, but on the other, my choppy memories remain vivid enough to remember like it was yesterday.

I’m so proud of this path I’ve been on. I’m proud of my husband and my parents who fought like hell for me when I could only see gray. I’m proud of how I learned to advocate for myself, and how I didn’t listen to my psychiatrist who told me I should keep my bipolar diagnosis a secret when I shared my desire to write openly to fight stigma. I don’t want to think about where I’d be today had I listened to her advice.

Over these past seven years I’ve learned how to control my mental health disorder so that I have the upper hand. I’ve invested time and energy into focusing on my mental health, rather than allowing a diagnosis rule my life.

I’m becoming more aware of the fact that what we surround ourselves with has a huge impact on our well being. And I’m attracted to people, products, services, books and even clothing that helps me focus on cultivating a healthy lifestyle.

We’re only here for such a short time. Yes, there will be struggles. Yes, there will be times when we’ll fail. But we all deserve to be happy and healthy.

Today I choose to cultivate my mental health. Sharing my story has played a big part in my mental wellness because I needed to let go of the shame associated with the trauma of being hospitalized against my will, and once I began blogging, the shame, isolation and embarrassment melted away. In large part because so many people appreciated my openness and then shared their story with me. When we find the courage to be vulnerable, others feel they have permission to also share.

IMG_7544Through blogging I found info on healthy eating which lead me to make shifts in my eating patterns. I began feeling better and then became more active. Thanks to my brother’s encouragement, I found a workout program that I was able to stick with. Exercising regularly has kept me physically healthy. I can’t remember the last time I was very sick (knock on wood).

And recently I found a meditation app that I love and I’ve been making time to meditate every day. It’s amazing what a quick 10 or 15-minute meditation can do for the mind and body. I definitely feel my creativity starting to flow again, and overall my mind feels more at ease and calm.

Mental health is something that we’re all living with. Taking care of our mental health and nurturing our body so that our minds can stay healthy is so important. We only have one mind, one body, one chance at life. Mental illness may be something that you or a family member or friend may encounter. But it doesn’t have to mean that life is over.

It means there is a different path ahead, and you can get through it. Trust me. I’ve been there.

Returning to my writing practice

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It’s been a long time since my writing has been regular here. Priorities keep leaning heavier towards my nonprofit work, which is so rewarding it never feels like work. And I do my best to strike a balance between work, family, and taking good care of myself. Lately my self-care routine involves a lot of bubble baths and reading, while my writing practice has pretty much been non-existent.

But I need that to change. I want to get back into writing. I want to find my voice again.

Over the past two years I’ve found a way to make physical exercise part of my daily schedule. For the most part, I’d say 6 days out of the week, I find the time to fit in at least 30 minutes of exercise. The trick was to make working out a priority, and for me, to be able to check some type of box to show that I’d completed it. I took up space on our family chalkboard wall in the kitchen, and wrote out a calendar each month. Then each day I completed my workout, I’d check it off. Finding that motivation – being able to mark off a workout – worked for me. After a few months, exercising each day became second nature. Now I even crave a workout most days. It’s odd how that works.

I’d like to get to that point with writing. If anyone has any tips out there, I’d love to hear them. Sometimes my brain says, “Ah, just wait for that inspiration.” But when month after month passes, and inspiration hasn’t hit, it’s apparent that I need to find a better way.

I like prompts sometimes, but not all the time. I do like the challenge of having written every day, so maybe I’ll try that and then make a commitment to myself to share at least a piece a week here on the blog.

A writing class to kick me into gear

This past weekend I attended, thanks to the persistent encouragement from a dear friend, a writing workshop by The Op-Ed Project. It was fantastic. Sure, I was overwhelmed and intimidated at times (the room was full of brilliant, accomplished, outspoken women and men), but the atmosphere bubbled with encouragement and support.

I hesitated to speak up at first, but found some confidence after the first major exercise of the day where we learned the importance of recognizing our area of expertise and how to back that up with our credentials. Sounds so obvious, but as a group it took us some time to master this simple first step. Once we were able to articulate our area of knowledge, the rest of the course flew by. We learned every facet of building our argument, how to address critics, utilizing news hooks, and pitching. Anyone with an idea to change the world needs to take this course.

I met such incredible people. Each is working to use his or her voice to change the conversation surrounding the topic they are most passionate about. The energy in the room was inspiring and motivating. We can’t wait to see each other succeed.

My goal after taking this course is to pitch a piece in the next two weeks. I have more specific goals but want to keep them to myself for now. I feel confident I’ll be able to do this having taken the Op-Ed “Write to Change the World” course. Now, it’s a matter of carving out the time.

* If you’re interested in a $50 discount to the Op-Ed Project’s “Write to Change the World” workshop, shoot me an email and I’ll send you the code. They have them all over the US – San Francisco, Seattle, Atlanta, NYC, Los Angeles, Chicago and more. But hurry because the discount is only available through today (Monday, February 6th).

Floating for mental health

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I went floating for the first time Thursday night. Float therapy is sensory deprivation therapy and is used to help the body completely let go of stress while at the same time increase mental clarity and physical health.

After my Denver This Is My Brave Producer Lauren posted about how she had floated, I was thrilled to find out a place called OmFloat had opened in my town.

All I knew going into it as that it was like a bath tub with a lid, and the water was full of salt so you float effortlessly. Meditation is the goal while you’re floating in this pod. I’ve been trying to meditate off and on for the past few years, and this seemed like the ideal way to be completely isolated, in a way forcing myself to be still and quiet and unplugged. I signed up for a membership right away, my monthly appointment for selfcare.

I hoped on the driver over that I’d enjoy it because I was now locked into a 12-month contract. On the way home I was wishing how I could float weekly instead of monthly.

The owners Brooks and Amy are friendly and warm. They’ve been floating since 2003, so I knew I was with knowledgable folks; they weren’t in it because it’s a fad. Brooks took myself and the three others who were there to float at 7pm back to one of the rooms for an intro and some tips. Then we each made our way to our own private float room.

The room was about ten feet by twelve feet if I had to guess. Soft meditation music began playing the moment I closed and locked my door. The pod takes up most of the space in the room, with a wooden bench running alongside it. The floors are covered with the webbed flooring that you see in pool locker rooms, so the water drains through. I undressed, put in the play-doh-like wax ear plugs, and showered before opening the door to the pod.

I was surprised that there was no light on inside the pod, since I was expecting there to be a soft light that would fade off when the music faded after the first fifteen minutes, but there was no such light. The music was perfect and so soothing though, that I was able to step into the skin-temperature water, close the door to the pod, and lay back into a float. In the first moments of floating it’s a little scary. It felt like I was floating in outer space somewhere. Except for the first few minutes I’d float over to the side and my arm would bump the side of the pod. Once I found the center and was able to stay there, that’s when the fun started.

The feeling of weightlessness in a dark space is difficult to describe. The music helped me to relax. I found I had to tell myself, you are safe, several times to stay calm and relaxed. After fifteen minutes the music faded to silence and all I could hear was my own breath. Brooks had mentioned in his intro talk that we’d be able to hear our breath and our heartbeats, and to focus on them as we meditated. My heartbeat was like a whisper, so I tried to focus on the rhythm of my breathing. My breath was intensified by the earplugs which kept the saltwater out of my ears.

I floated with my arms up above my head for half the time, but when I felt a cramp form in my left arm which didn’t go away after focusing on it for awhile, I knew I had to shift position. I gently moved my arms to my side and began to settle back into the state of mindfulness I was in before the move. The rest of my time in the pod flew by because the next thing I knew my entire body was slowly brought back to reality from complete relaxation by the sounds of soft chimes. Soft lights came on within the pod and I opened my eyes and sat up.

I took my time getting out of the pod and showering. My body felt so light. It was as if all my stress was detangled and unwound.

I definitely need more practice at releasing my thoughts as they pop up while I’m meditating, but I hear you get better at that with practice. I can’t wait to float again.

If you’re local to the Ashburn, Virginia area and want to try OmFloat for $49 for your first float, email me at: jennifer(at)thisismybrave.org for a certificate. If I refer three people I will earn a free float. :)

Happy Floating!

A Memorable First Day of School

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First Day of School

Today was my kids’ first day of school and although they were excited to meet their new teachers and see if any of their friends were in their classes, no one was more excited than me. I love back to school time. I had been dreaming of 7-hour, uninterrupted work days since they started preschool four years ago.

Don’t get me wrong, I love spending time with my kids. I love the fact that I’m able to work from home and my non-profit work is so flexible that I make my own schedule. But having worked in 15-minute, 1-hour, and 2-hour increments for the past 3 years, I was finally ready to have a regular workday. I envisioned seeing the kids off on the bus at 7:45am, working for 7 hours, then picking them up at the bus stop. My hope is that with our new schedule I’ll be able to have more work/life balance with those 7 hours of uninterrupted work time while they’re in school.

First Day of School Drama - chairWe had a great 1/2 week vacation at the beach with our friends, and returned home Sunday afternoon. To celebrate the start of school, and the fact that my tushy would be spending more time in my home office working, I made a trip to World Market to see about buying a new office chair. I found the perfect one – on sale, too! My new office is starting to look more and more like the productive workspace I was hoping it would become.

This morning was the big day. I got the kids up at 6:30am and made them and easy and fun breakfast (thank you frozen french toast sticks), packed their lunches, and took a few photos before my husband and I walked them to the bus stop. They were all smiles waiting for the bus and Owen agreed to walk his sister to her classroom since we had missed Meet the Teacher day last week while we were at the beach.

The bus arrived right on time and we sent them off to school with kisses and hugs. The bus driver gave us parents all a knowing wink and told us to enjoy our days. I couldn’t wait to get started in a nice, quiet house which was all mine for the next 7 hours.

Memorable First Day of School 1For a second I contemplated making myself a Bloody Mary to celebrate the occasion, as one of my best friends from high school had sent me a bottle of famous Natural Blonde Bloody Mary mix – a specialty product we had tried on our girls’ trip to Charleston back in April. Then my productive side kicked in and decided to save the drink for Sunday brunch instead. Good thing.Memorable First Day of School 5

Ben was packing for a quick business trip to Denver while I figured I’d use some of my time to bake some banana bread with our spotted bananas. The kids would have a nice after school treat for their first day. Got it into the oven and set the timer, grabbed a mug of coffee and sat down at my computer to start my first glorious full day of work.

Thirty minutes in, I got a call from school.

At first I was worried one of my kids was sick. But the nurse quickly assured me Vivian was fine, but that she couldn’t be in the classroom since they did not have her completed health forms.

F*@&#@&-A!

Parent of the year over here. I thought I was winning when I ordered their school supplies in June when we got the email from the PTA.

I nearly broke down in tears as I was talking to the school nurse. All I could think about was my little girl in tears because I was going to have to pick her up. I knew she’d be devastated and I’d feel like a terrible mother for ruining her first day of Kindergarten.

I asked the nurse if she could stay at the health office until I called the pediatrician to see if they could fax over her forms. (I was pretty sure her health records were up to date, and that I’d just forgotten to turn them into school, but I was freaking out a tiny bit that I missed the boat all together and she’d need a complete physical which could take who knows how long.) The nurse said that was fine and I assured her I’d call back as soon as I spoke to the secretary at the pediatrician’s office.

The hold time during that phone call seemed to take an hour.

Finally I got through and told the secretary I felt like the world’s most awful parent. I asked if she could please look up my daughter’s record because I forgot to turn in her forms and today was her first day of school.

Thankfully, her health record was complete, but the doctor who did her physical wasn’t in today and she’d need to sign the form before they could send it to school. So I’d have to wait until tomorrow. I pleaded and asked if there was anything they could do. She said I’d need to come in and fill out the top of the form and they’d see, but they couldn’t promise anything because they had patients to see, etc. I said I’d be over right away, and may have cursed (loudly) after making sure I had hung up.

I didn’t care anymore about having a day to myself to work. I didn’t want to disappoint my baby. I felt like such a failure. I screamed at my husband for not helping me remember things like stupid health forms. He said he didn’t even know they needed health forms. (Of course he didn’t, because it was always my responsibility. Moms are in charge of everything.)

Instead of turning into a sobbing mess, I decided to just do what I could do.

“Take the banana bread out of the oven or turn it off before you leave!” I yelled as I ran out the door.

Driving over to the pediatrician’s office I told myself that there are worse things that could have happened, and that if she has to come home today and start school tomorrow, it’s not the end of the world. I could figure out something to make it up to her.

To make a long story short, the secretary said she’d do her best to get another doctor to sign the form and she’d fax it over during the morning. As I handed over my credit card to pay the $15 administrative fee I told her to charge me extra for messing up. She laughed. I took that as a good sign that she’d take pity on me and help me out.

On the phone again to school, I told the nurse they’d be faxing over the forms. Within 20 minutes I had a call back saying they got the forms and she was walking Vivian back to her classroom.

Parenting crisis averted.

 

They both had awesome first days of school and Vivi didn’t even mind missing “morning work” in class since she did it while she was waiting in the nurse’s office. The first thing she noticed when they walked in the house was the smell of banana bread. It turned out to be an eventful and memorable first day of school. Here’s to a full day of work (and school) tomorrow. Cheers!

 

How I Wish My Doctor Would Have Explained My Bipolar Diagnosis

How I Wish My Doctor Would Have Handled My Bipolar Diagnosis

{Ben and I on a vacation in St Thomas, 2 months after my illness emerged.}

Looking back on my bipolar diagnosis nearly eleven years ago, there are many ways my doctor(s) could have handled explaining the news to me. Only now am I able to clearly see the advice and encouragement which would have made my recovery journey a little easier.

A diagnosis of mental illness is not a life sentence.

When I first heard the words “Generalized Anxiety Disorder” and “Bipolar Disorder” I was devastated. The doctor may have well handed me a slip of paper that said: BROKEN BRAIN and MENTAL PATIENT, because that’s how those labels made me feel. Instead, I was given a diagnosis and left to figure out what that meant. I wish my doctor would have taken the time to assure me that yes, I may have bipolar for the rest of my life, but that it was treatable and manageable and that I’d be able to have a full and rewarding life despite my diagnosis.

Keeping a journal or mood chart would help me reach a recovery path sooner.

I wasn’t introduced to the concept of the mood chart until several months into my diagnosis. My dad was the one who from the beginning encouraged me to keep a small journal where I could jot down the date, the meds I took (and dosages), how I felt that day, and any side effects I experienced from the meds. It was a simple activity that helped me to get a handle on my illness and I encourage everyone to utilize it no matter what type of diagnosis you encounter. Looking back at my old journals sometimes makes me sad because I remember how sick I was back then, but I also realize how far I’ve come.

You may have bipolar disorder, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have children.

One of the things that most devastated me when my mental illness first emerged was an intense fear of not being able to fulfill my dream of one day becoming a mother. I don’t remember many of the doctors I saw during the first year following my diagnosis ever broaching the topic of motherhood, except for one. The consultation with the doctor who listened to my concerns over not being able to have children provided me hope for the future. He assured me that wasn’t the case, and that by working closely with my doctors and putting a support system in place, a family was indeed something I could have. Within eighteen months after that consultation I was pregnant with my first child.

Learning to protect your sleep will be your greatest advantage next to your medicine, for managing your condition.

I am a night owl. I’ve tried to flip my preferences, by forcing myself to go to bed earlier in order to wake up before the sun. But I just love the way the house gets quiet after the little ones have been tucked in. There are plenty of nights when I have the motivation to keep burning the midnight oil, but experience has taught me that I will only pay for the lack of sleep in the days that follow in the form of erratic moods. Maintaining a regular sleep/wake pattern has been crucial to my long-term recovery and I wish I would have known this earlier.

The sooner you begin talking openly about your struggle, the sooner your true healing will begin.

I hid my struggle for many years because I felt so isolated and embarrassed. I was convinced that none of my friends or extended family members would understand. I thought everyone would think I was “crazy” for having suffered the number of manic episodes I had endured. The feelings of shame were so intense that I began searching for stories of other people who had made it out of the darkness. I told my psychiatrist that I wanted to start blogging about my experience and then write a book, and she immediately discouraged me from disclosing. I’m glad I didn’t listen to her advice. The point at which I made the decision to write openly about my mental illness was the beginning of a better life. One in which I didn’t need to feel ashamed about a condition that affected my brain.

 

What do you wish your doctors would have told you when you were first diagnosed?