Today was rough. Anxiety was an 11 most of the day and I found myself overstimulated and overwhelmed to a significant degree. My sympathetic nervous system really had me believing a saber toothed tiger was at my heels all day.
Enter movement. I’m a dancer, yogi, Pilates enthusiast and have been for many years as well as dabbled with other fitness styles and even a Brazilian martial arts called Capoeira. My body has a lot in its repertoire to move from. For my strength training today, I offered myself only one prompt, “feel every muscle work intentionally.” A wonderful idea I shall return to again. The day did not improve but I had 32 glorious minutes of improving functional strength with only my own guidance.
My plan was to do yoga before bed. Settle down after the day, maybe choose a nice grounding soothing practice. But when I descended upon the mat, I decided to continue my exploration of intuitive movement from earlier with a new prompt of “follow where the energy goes and breathe through every sensation intentionally.”
I found myself returning to improvisation cues from dance class and integrating yogic breath work seamlessly into my movement exploration. The air coming into my lungs started to feel more nourishing and expansive. It was a bit of a Yin Yoga, restorative, pranayama, Bartenneiff, improvisation mix and it was exactly what my nervous system needed to slough off the day. Truly I feel my nervous system has just been exfoliated. I am ready for sleep and grateful for the reminder of how nourishing and nurturing intuitive movement can be.
So yeah. This is what has been taking my free time. As well as makeup tutorials because having purple hair freed me from my worries of looking too old. I couldn’t figure out how to dress comfortably for my age (read: business casual and muted) to avoid the “you’re too old for that” until one day I said to myself, “you have purple hair; you can do anything you want.”
Being in private practice gives me some creative freedoms when it comes to attire anyway so jeans are my everyday look. Pair em with some Vans and I’m good to go with my purple hair and whatever slightly muted spunky makeup I do for the day. I have never been particularly concerned about the latest fashion but I’ll wear what’s in if I like it. Otherwise it very well is an expression of me.
I referenced the mirror in a previous poem and it is with regret I admit I continue to be harassed by it. Certainly progress has been made, but I still suffer the endless committee meeting in my head discussing all the things wrong with my body.
Strangely (or perhaps not) aging while bringing its own difficulties has lessened the battle somewhat. I am nearing 40 and I have 2 teenagers. I workout 5 days a week and walk my 10000 steps everyday. I eat generally whole, clean foods with mostly balanced macros for my activity level. There’s really nothing more I can do that does not fall into eating disorder land. It is easier to accept my imperfections as I’m not supposed to look 20 anymore – not without plastic surgery anyway. So, acceptance is the answer to my problems today. Courage to accept what I cannot change.
The mental battle is fatiguing though, I will admit. I do slip into old patterns particularly when I’m very stressed but very quickly my cognitive functioning is impacted and it makes working difficult. As a therapist, I cannot be mentally tuned out during session. It’s very interesting indeed how important nutrition is to cognitive functioning. Consider that the next time you skip breakfast ☺️
I often forget the general population isn’t well versed in mental wellness, never mind mental illness. I am well versed on either end of the spectrum, both professionally and personally. In fact, during college and graduate school where many of my cohort were learning things for the first time, my response was more along the lines of “oh that has a name?!”
In medical school as well as training to be a therapist, there is the tendency to diagnose oneself with every disorder learned. I had already had a moderate handful of diagnoses before studying them academically so I skipped right into imposter syndrome by my second semester of graduate school. The critical voices in my head had a new sneer, “how can you help others when you’re a mess yourself?”
Indeed, in my third semester of grad school I found myself reluctantly agreeing with my therapist to enter treatment for my eating disorder following a collapse in dance class. I felt ashamed but also incredibly grateful to my dance professor who required clearance from treatment before she would allow me to dance again. Bless her everyday for setting that boundary.
So I forget that the whole world isn’t constantly engaged in coping with and studying mental illness. When my instinct with friends or family discussing their bad day is to use words like processing, stabilizing, grounding and phrases like “ask yourself if” or “what are you aware of in your body right now?” And they look at me as if I have a grown a second head. Granted they know I’m a therapist so maybe they chalk it up to “psychobabble” but I hate that term because it implies lack of sincerity on my part and I can assure you, I couldn’t be more genuine.
I wouldn’t know how to be any other way at this point. It is my job but it is also why I have a job and a family and a home.
I do not wish to philosophize about the possibilities that exist, but my intellectual capabilities make it impossible for my brain not to fire in that way. My anxiety ensures these unwanted mental meanderings cause me great discomfort – for anxiety does not like to float freely; it prefers an anchor. And what better an anchor than the rabbit hole that is philosophy?
We are raised with certain belief systems, borne out of our caregivers’ bestowing. At some point, we have the option to choose a different value structure. If it does not align with our family traditions it can cause angst. This is where I often find myself. Sitting in the middle of historic teachings, my own experience, and the ability to see multiple perspectives. I joke that things were simpler when I had the checklist of religion and the prescribed wife and mother role from the 50s that I readily adopted. “Married with 2 under 2 by 22.” Life was neat and organized by childcare, housecleaning, and meal prep.
Now my kids are teens, I rarely cook, prefer to call myself a partner rather than a wife, and the only codified activity I participate in regularly is Pilates. Despite my existential angst, how I function in the world today is far more congruent to my authentic self than the identity I put on in my twenties. Important people in my life experience a bit of confusion, however, when I act in ways that seem to contradict their concept of me. It would be simpler for them if I retreated to a more predictable identity.
I can’t retrace my steps. I can’t unring the bell. I can’t pretend I don’t know what I do know. If I do, I betray myself.
For some reason it’s been easier to write poetry here than anything else. Which is quite odd because before this blog, I hadn’t written poetry in 20+ years. Amateur hour right here.
Writing painful and complex experiences through poetry is a way to distance myself from the raw vulnerability to an audience. Oh the vulnerability is there – plain to see. But the vulnerability exists as a work of art rather than I am standing naked in front of you, sharing my heart. Although both are true. Maybe it’s an illusion.
I return to work tomorrow as the therapist. What started as a vacation ended in bereavement so I don’t feel refreshed going back. Indeed, I feel weary. It can be quite helpful, however, to “get out of your own head.” Many people use this as their number one coping skill. That friend who never talks about her life, but is always by your side while you cry – she might be avoiding her own feelings. I’m not that person. I avoid my feelings in other ways 😏 but when I am faced with the raw emotion of another, it does trigger my own particularly if my self care game is not on point. (Which was the reason for the vacation in the first place).
I am confident I will be present for my clients as the warm therapist they are used to. My confidence wanes, however when I imagine how I will feel emotionally at the end of the day. I worry I will feel depleted. It is already a rough time of year for me, now compounded by fresh grief.
Mindfulness is a good tool here and the old adage of not getting ahead of oneself. We’re going to put one foot in front of the other, moment by moment, holding steadfast to years of experience telling me everything is always eventually ok. The world will not collapse. I will be successful as a clinician and I will take extra care of me in the moments I’m not actively a therapist.
Psst. You don’t have to be a therapist to use the above tools to cope during your workday. Or your family gathering. Or your doctor’s appointment. Or your long commute. Take good care of yourself, one moment at a time. Don’t know how? Ask a friend, a mentor, or ya know.. find a therapist. ☺️
Yes indeed the last few days’ posts have been a reflection of my mental state. We call this a mixed state here in Bipolar land and it seems to have eased. It’s more than a little exhausting. I was reflecting yesterday how before therapy and medication this last week might have ended quite differently. This time, I dyed my hair purple. Big deal. Some years ago, however…
Any number of things might have punctuated the week. All unhealthy and destructive. Some perhaps devastating. I have wandered the wreckage before without knowledge or support, descending into the blackness of depression, the irritability and anxiousness of mixed states and the euphoria of hypomania. How in the world did I survive? I’ve mentioned previously it is likely due to intellect. (This is what my therapist says at any rate). Even locked in the savagery of my mind, I was able to grasp some semblance of insight. Not enough to look for therapy, mind you. But enough to have some healthy conversations in my head as well as a deep commitment to personal growth.
I did not know these things, I followed (some) of my instincts. I couldn’t have told you I was working on personal development, nothing so eloquent as that. Truthfully, it was more a result of assessing my surroundings and attempting to match the status quo (via harsh self criticism) than any conscious effort on my part to grow into a better person. This creative adjustment (as we call it in Gestalt therapy) began in childhood as a means to not break the rules (which were forever changing so you can see my childhood predicament – big job for a kiddo).
Enter adulthood and this survival technique became less useful in that I didn’t have a general whole sense of self (aside from striving toward perfection) and that brought its own difficulties. Cue hypomania when I sometimes believed I was awesome and made less than insightful decisions – ultimately leading me back to self hatred in the wake of embarrassment.
And thus the cycle continued. More on that another time. Today I dye my hair purple because I have attended to my self care in a very intentional way – an adaptive adjustment brought to you by the letter T. (For therapy – cheesy, I know).
I didn’t come up with the title but it’s funny how all my friends of Dr. Bob and Bill W will know exactly where it came from. I could list a bunch more but my fellows know what I’m referring to.
And if you don’t, it doesn’t matter. For it is but one way to say “I have struggled and have found a better way.” We can all relate to that sentiment. Unless you haven’t found your way yet. If this is you, I encourage you to keep searching.
It took me a long time to catch hold of that previously elusive anchor. I peered into the bottle for it. I thought June Cleaver could show me it. I clung to toxic people in hopes they might have it. I starved to achieve it. I thought when I made the Dean’s List, it would be next to it.
I finally learned “it” is the journey. It is tolerating ambiguity and distress, being my own cheerleader, and opening myself to healthy relationships with people who champion my personal development. It is removing internal and external destruction of myself. And using skills to manage the inevitable waves that come with human experience.
I’m not free from struggle, not even free from hopelessness. I am armed with knowledge and experience reminding me to take everything one day – sometimes one breath – at a time.
Maybe you have heard it, maybe you haven’t. Mindfulness is simply the act of being in the present moment. I had a dance professor who would constantly tell me to be in the moment and I had no idea what she was talking about. Turns out the language didn’t quite hit my brain. She was referring to being fully embodied and not lost in the clouds, the past, or the future. A novel concept for me at the time.
So how does one “get in the present moment?” A simple way and a way that really assists in calming anxiety is by focusing on making your breathing rhythmic. Make the inhale as long as the exhale. And then use your senses. What do you see right around you? What do you hear? What do you smell? What sensations are you aware of in your body at this moment? Ask yourself one or two of these questions and then stay with them and explore the answers. Your mind will wander – that’s ok, just call it gently back to the senses without judgment.
That’s the other key feature of mindfulness. Experiencing without judging – negative or positive. Try to describe your present moment without using judging words. Talk about textures and details and not about value words such as like, pretty, ugly, dislike.
There is a reason this is called mindfulness PRACTICE. It takes time, it’s a process and it definitely takes practice to improve your skills.