Hot tips for keeping your cool during the holidays.
Hey, did you feel that? I did. Wham. Like a snowball in the back of the head, Jack Frost and the Spirit of Mall Shopping is in full swing. But don’t let the festive season drive you ’round the Xmas tree, over the dreidel or into the Solstice fire.
I don’t know about you, but I think the holidays put a strain on everyone. Those of us dealing with a mental illness (which includes myself) can be particularly vulnerable. Family can be a source of support and enjoyment during these harried times. Or they can be the source of harried times.
As a child, my parents did their very best. They loved me, doted on me even. But the tension between them could be cut with a knife, especially during the holidays. We were a diminutive unit. Ours wasn’t a family circle as such. More of a family…err… teeny triangle: Mother, Father, Me.
I had no nearby relatives to dilute my parent’s marital Molotov cocktails. It made for small, but rather charged gatherings. If you could call the presence of three people a gathering. There was nowhere to run if someone was arguing. Do the math. It takes two to tango, so that leaves one poor soul caught in the middle. And that soul was usually me.
It wasn’t until far into my adulthood and years of therapy later that I learned effective coping strategies to reduce the likelihood of spiraling into a black mist, an anxious whirlpool or hyper highs during the holidays. Not to say that I don’t dip, peak or scramble, I do. But it’s much less severe and much more manageable.
Now that dad has passed away and I’m married, it’s me, my mom and my husband. But the taut dynamic of a trio remains looming. So each holiday season I keep these 5 seasonal strategies top of mind to ensure I stay within my ‘sanity clause’ (groan – sorry I can’t help myself).
5 hot tips for keeping your cool and holding your own over the holidays:
1. Know your limits and assert them with kindness and firmness. Don’t feel pressured to say ‘yes’ to every family event. Even the Holiday Spirit needs her down time.
If you need inspiration, or a definition for that matter of ‘boundaries’ watch this great video by one of my heroines Brene Brown. I didn’t even know what my therapist meant by ‘boundary’ until about 6 months ago. Seriously, I’m not kidding.
“Know your limits and assert them.”
2. Get a reality check from trusted sources to support self-care. Solitude to recharge, running in trails and naps are a large part of my daily self-care regime. But I sometimes feel guilty and torn doing it. When this happens I enlist the help of objective allies to remind me that self-care isn’t a luxury but a necessity if I want to stay mentally well over the holidays (or anytime for that matter).
I have close friends who know me, my limits and my mom and are refreshingly frank with me. So when they affirm that these ‘time outs’ are called for, and that my situation is extremely challenging, not just my imagination or me shirking my daughterly responsibilities, I have vowed to listen to them and follow their advice. Find one or two ‘truth-sayers’ whose word you promise to respect.
If you feel sideways, Dr. Anthony Storr’s ‘Solitude: A Return to the Self’ may lift you up and affirm your right to alone time. It’s a classic on why solitude (not isolating) is essential and healing.
“Self-care isn’t a luxury but a necessity.”
3. Do not isolate, When the wounds of ‘Decembers’ past come knocking, often all I want to do is rip my duvet from my bed and crawl under a table with said comforter until all festivities are finished and February is well underway. Do not do this! Even in the depths of your worst depression, do not and I repeat do not evaporate from sight. We need you, even if you can’t imagine why.
“Do not isolate – we need you.”
4. Spend time with cherished friends. We can’t choose our family (I mean often when I’m depressed I can’t even choose what flavour of potato chips to binge on). But we can choose our friends. Your family gatherings may not be like a Norman Rockwell painting or a Gap commercial (and whose are?), but your friends can be a pool of peace and pleasure.
The company of friends doesn’t make my depressions magically disappear, but it does remind me I am worthy of having friends. Something I don’t believe when I am at the bottom of the depression pit looking up. Be selective with whom you spend your time.
Choose friends who make you feel all warm and fuzzy. This doesn’t mean refusing to see your relatives all together, but rather balancing your time with friends and family with more awareness.
“Spend time with cherished friends.“
5. Exercise. Ok let’s rephrase that to make it more palatable: move your body. Now I know it’s not what you want to hear. But wait. It’s not for the reason you think I am telling you to work up a sweat. Exercise provides the perfect, and actually very legitimate ‘excuse’ to take time for you.
Exercise has long been known to be a great mood booster and stabilizer. So how can any concerned relative who is driving you around the Christmas tree or over the dreidel refuse you the liberty of taking care of your health?
So even if you don’t work up a sweat – find something to do, on your own or with a good buddy that gets your blood moving (before your blood starts to boil). The time away from family AND the increased heart rate will fare you well.
“Move your body.”
Family can be a place of warmth and comfort over the holidays, but for some of us, probably many of us, it can be a source of stress too. As I’m learning what my healthy boundaries are and setting them without incessant apologies or indignation, I’m enjoying my time with the family ‘speck’ more.
And I’m pretty sure I’m more enjoyable to be around. It couldn’t have been much fun for them to hang out with me when I offered so little of myself and instead offered disdain. Ironically, it is through the process of healthy individual definition and separation that creates hearty family connections.
Remember the 5 Ways to Prevent Holiday Meltdown:
- Set boundaries
- Practice self-care
- Don’t isolate
- Spend time with cherished friends
- Move your body
From my home to yours I wish you the very best of the season and an abundantly peaceful New Year for now and always.
Pain. Muscle aches. Neck sore. Always thirsty. Oversleeping. Carbo craving. Guilt ridden. Fatigue. No comprehension. Anxiety riddled. Yup – I am a walking cliché of depressive symptoms. I wish I could say I wasn’t. But I’m not special. And just because I have a lot of ‘good’ days strung together does not exempt me from the black dog nipping at my heels. Oh who am I kidding? The black dog is biting my ass right now and isn’t letting go. Yeah – depression sucks.
I know turning back the clock can bother all of us. But I didn’t know those of us with a vulnerability for depression are hit even harder. A recent study just published explains it. Interestingly, the researchers found that it wasn’t the shorter days that cause the biggest disruption, but the time change. Knowing about this study doesn’t make the black dog go away, but it’s oddly comforting.
To be sure, this depression will pass IF I get my butt (which apparently has a black dog dangling from it) in gear. Easier said than done of course. Because the very nature of depression is well… not caring, apathy and emptiness. Those aren’t really elements that inspire action. So I’m taking to Facebook for some accountability and support.
My plan is called Depression Smack Down! It’s 7 days of Operation Depression be Damned 2.0. This sucky seasonal depression hit me last year – so this plan of attack is the next iteration with new media and everything. Social media can quickly become anti-social media and reinforce isolation (poison to us trying to tread above mucky minds). But FB live actually helps me feel connected, get support and keep me accountable in the gentlest sort of way. I’m calling it ‘FB love’ right now ‘cause of all the positive comments and cheerleading.
For the past 6 day, I’ve been going for a run (one of my go-to anti-depressant tools) and afterwards posting a FB live video about where I’m at and what I’m doing to shake the black dog off my butt. I end each Smack Down video with a throw down for all who are watching. Day #2: Get outside, move your body, smell fresh air. Day #3: reach out and connect with someone safe and be honest about how you feel. Day #5: Build up your bank of wellness by continuing to do what works.
Wellness warriors, this is my smack down directive to you: what creative way can you grab your depression and throw it for a loop and onto the mat? If you aren’t experiencing depression, what are you doing to make a good thing better.
The last and seventh smack down day is tomorrow. I’ll let you know the outcome. Let me know yours! Feel free to friend me on FB!
© Victoria Maxwell
One of the most common questions I get after my presentations and shows is ‘How can I help my loved one when they don’t think they need help to begin with?’ So common in fact I’ve written previous PT posts: How to Help Your Adult Child if They Have a Mental Illness and When Adult Children Don’t Want Help. There are many reason for not wanting help. Denial, shame, anosognosia (lack of insight – a symptoms of psychosis itself).
Regardless of the reason, as a family member or friend, it can feel powerless. But there are steps you can take. Here are a few to help you help your loved one move forward on the journey to recovery and wellness.
1. Remember the journey to accept there is a problem to deal with is theirs alone. Though you can help prep the ground, by having discussions and listening with an open heart, by setting clear boundaries, by offering information when appropriate. For anyone who’s been in this position, you’re aware it takes more than one conversation. It takes many. It’s about voicing your concern with compassion. While at the same time it’s about setting boundaries for your own well-being, recognizing you are not responsible for their health and happiness. If you’re a parent of an adult child, this is one that is most heart breaking to learn and understand. Letting go, is tough even when the adult child is well and thriving. The video and resources of Dr. Komrad has some concrete suggestions.
2. Ask your loved one to humor you and go to see the doctor together. When family members ask me how to help their loved one, the issue has been going on for a quite some time. And in that time entrenched power struggles have developed and mistrust on both sides have been established.
3. Rebuild trust and rapport. Your adult son or daughter, brother or parent may continue to get angry when you suggest anything. The trick is for you to NOT get angry back. Easier said than done. But the goal is to have them be willing to see someone for a general check up. In that appointment have a mental health check up too. References from Dr. Xavier Amador below are excellent about how to listen without creating power struggles and rebuild trust essential for healing.
4. Evaluate whether you really are the best person to talk to your loved right now. Be honest. If conversations almost always end with tempers flying, another person who has his/her best interests at heart and can communicate more easily is a better option – at least for now.
~ If you need help immediately, please search this list of crisis lines and centers and contact one of them right away.
~ This video from Dr. Mark Komrad has some good points. I wouldn’t watch the first part but from 49:30 minutes he describes when, how to talk to someone, some do’s and don’ts. Some of his approach is a little paternalistic, but I like the tips.
~ Dr. Komard’s book: “You Need Help!: A Step-by-Step Plan to Convince a Loved One to Get Counseling” may be a helpful read. I can’t vouch for the info as I haven’t read it yet, but it comes recommended.
~ His website is: www.komradmd.com He does evaluations, but the cost is extremely high. He also has an extensive book list.
~ Check Dr. Amador’s book and technique “I don’t need Help, I’m Not Sick”. He describes his LEAP (listen, empathize, agree, partner) approach.
~ This post gives a great summary of his LEAP program.
~ Check Dr. Amador’s referrals page for clinicians who work with his method.
~ If you find these resources helpful and would like additional support and guidance, I offer mental health coaching sessions with a free initial consult for family and individuals.
~ Practical tips for family and friends on the “Living with Mental Illness: A Guide for Family and Friends” website.
~ My previous PT post list US support groups for family and friends as well as individuals living with mental illness (such as NAMI).
I hope these resources help. Let me know if they are or if you have your own that I haven’t listed here.
© Victoria Maxwell
I was just at the Shoppers Drug Mart Ride Don’t Hide – Greater Vancouver event. 1200 cyclists ready to ride to support mental illness awareness. 1200 cyclists riding to support someone they know or ride for themselves.
It was something I had never seen before. Not for mental illness. I kept wanting to poke these people on bikes and say ‘You know this event is for mental illness, right?’
Mental illness has never been as sexy or cool as some of the other causes that are out there. Not that I want to pit pathologies against one another. But getting people out to show their support for mental health isn’t second nature as it is for say, breast cancer or AIDS. But things are changing. 1200 bikes at one ride, 29 rides across Canada and raising $1.3 million kind of changing! That’s pedal power for you!
I was at the event because I was fortunate enough to be nominated as a mental health champion, became a finalist, then the winner of the Shopper’s Drug Mart Ride Don’t Hide LOVE.YOU. Contest in BC.
I’ve lived with bipolar disorder, anxiety and psychosis for almost 25 years. I’ve lived well with these conditions for about 15. I’m also an outspoken advocate. For close to 13 years, I’ve been touring my one-person shows about my experience with mental illness and recovery.
I started talking about mental illness, my mental illness in particular, for two reasons. One, because I thought my story of running through Point Grey naked in a manic psychosis looking for God had a certain entertaining ring to it. Two, and most importantly, I wanted to know I wasn’t alone, that I belonged. I wanted to find my tribe.
And I did. When I share my story, without exception people always come up to me and say ‘you just told my story’ or ‘my loved one has mental illness’. It’s like we’re an invisible community that only comes out when others speak about the topic.
Shopper’s Drug Mart and Ride Don’t Hide are leading the way so our invisible community no longer needs to stay in the shadows.
Exercise, therapy, medication, good sleep, eating well, meaningful work all helped me get well. But support from family, friends and community were most pivotal. Connection is one of the best antidotes to despair, depression and hopelessness.
Seeing those cyclists lined up, cyclists ranging from small tykes to elders, with smiles on their faces ready to ride and not hide – made my day. 25 years ago this wouldn’t have happened. I’m glad it is happening today.
Psychiatric medication is controversial at the best of times. I would never suggest it as a first choice, but when the suffering is relentless and the diagnosis is clinical and severe, it can be a welcomed option.
After I had finally accepted I needed help, and accepted said help, one task of many in front of me was to find the ‘right’ medication. The correct type or types, the most effective amount. And obviously, what’s ‘right’ for one person, isn’t for another.
With the help of a psychiatrist, I endeavored to find the right combination of medication and right dosage. Low enough dose to feel my feelings, not feel dampened and not have bothersome side effects. But…not so low that I was too agitated or hyper that I wasn’t functioning well.
This was no easy undertaking. It took two ½ years. Some people it takes no time. Bang – the first go around and they find relief. Lucky sods (and rather rare too). Others it can take years and years. I feel fortunate – I was somewhere in the middle, like most people.
Now before you go all nuclear on me and I get bombarded with ‘what’s with the pro-medication’ emails – I am not saying to recover from mental illness a person needs to take medication. Nope. Some people do, some people don’t. I happen to be one of the ‘do’ people. And I am aware that meds are often too quickly prescribed, over-prescribed and people are over-medicated. But that’s a whole other post.
When I did finally find the right combo (I take a mood stabilizer and anti-depressant) and dosage, something strange happened that I never expected.
Living with depression when it was moderate (and not life chokingly severe – that’s another story- and metaphor) was like walking wrapped in a wet sleeping bag all the time. A sleeping bag I couldn’t escape. It was a depression where I felt perpetually shielded from the sun. A heavy hat with large visor on my head, and dark heavy rimmed sunglasses on my eyes. The cap and glasses blocked the brightness; the sleeping bag blocked out any warmth.
When the meds started taking effect along with the wellness tools I started practicing, I felt something physical change. The damp, mouldy sleeping bag fell away, the ball cap and sunglasses gently evaporated from my head and face.
It felt like I was stretched out in the sun on a warm rock with a beautiful vista of forest and ocean in front of me. Anyone who has gone camping where your tent leaks, knows the glory of a dry morning with warm sun. Well that’s what it was like for me. Over the course of several weeks – this lifting of dampness, the return of myself, return of meaning gradually occurred.
With that physical shift, creativity and joy returned. Not all at once, but drip by drip. I know it wasn’t just the meds that did this. I still had to work hard at changing my lifestyle, go to talk therapy and consciously cultivate joy, meaning and self-awareness. But the right meds made it a fair fight so to speak.
What Can You Do?
1. Work with a doctor, or ask for a referral to a psychiatrist who specializes in your particular condition to help you tweak your meds. I could never have done it alone. I needed a good health provider.
2. Don’t give up until you’re satisfied with the results.
3. Enlist a person to advocate with you. Have someone help you set the bar – someone who has a bigger, better vision than you can hold at the moment.
My dad was that someone for me. He helped me explain to my doctors that sure I wasn’t manic anymore and I was out of the hospital, but I was still too low. I didn’t know where I should set my expectations. I assumed if I was in psychosis and if I could manage to drag myself out of bed– well that’s pretty good. Nuh-uh. Not according to him. It was his vision that helped me have a greater vision for myself. It was my dad who said to “this isn’t as good as it gets – you can find better.” Then he went with me to an appointment to talk to said psychiatrist.
4. Reflect honestly on what things are helping and not helping in terms of mood management.
Medication is only one small but important part of the solution. I needed to be very honest with myself about my lifestyle and self-management tools. I needed to scrupulously reflect on what things were helping and not helping in terms of mood management. I needed to admit what things I knew would help, but that I wasn’t doing. And then I needed to make a choice.
5. That place of choice is the most powerful position you can ever stand in. THAT is your power, your sacred ground: the place of choice. In the moment of choice, choose to move towards health and wellness.
Resources: You might want to check out the Bipolar Wellness Centre. Even if you don’t have bipolar disorder there are some great tools and evidence based resources. Check out the quality of life tool too. All them are free.
To receive personalized resources and guidance book at consultation appointment. Sessions are based on a sliding scale.
*This content is not meant to be a substitute for medical advice. Do not change or stop your course of treatment or medication without the consulting your doctor or health provider.
© Victoria Maxwell
This following is a guest post by Andrew Woods.
I have never met Andrew in person. I ‘met’ him via email. I met him because he emailed me to see if he could nominate me for a recent award the CMHA & Shopper’s Drug Mart was giving out. I learned through our correspondence that he too blogged. And then I read one of his posts. I haven’t focused on addiction much, if at all, in my blog. I’ve dealt with compulsive overeating (food addiction) and wrote about it. But I haven’t dealt with or written about alcohol or drug abuse. When I read this post of his, I thought people need to hear what the inside experience is like of withdrawal. Knowledge is power and his post, in my opinion is powerful.
It’s easier to believe in this sweet madness
Oh, this glorious sadness
That brings me to my knees ~ Sarah McLachlan – “Angel”
When I returned home from the pharmacy, I immediately popped six Loperamide (Immodium) and six Diphenhydramine (Benadryl). I washed the pills down with a tall glass of tonic water. There’s a special circle of hell reserved for those who make light of addiction. But I need to remember, I’m no longer an active addict. I’m in recovery, again. And I’ve only just begun the withdrawal phase.
Over-the-counter comfort meds are an absolute necessity when it comes to enduring withdrawals. Benadryl, to put me to sleep (I managed to sleep just 3 hours last night). And Immodium? Call it a trick of the trade – a secret remedy for opiate withdrawal.
Fun fact: Immodium, a powerful opioid agonist, binds to opioid receptors in the gut, but fails to effectively cross the blood-brain barrier (BBB). However, when combined with quinine, an ingredient in tonic water, the drug penetrates the BBB and calms the central nervous system. While there is no “high”, the combination of Immodium and tonic water relieves many of the symptoms associated with opiate withdrawal.
Last night (day 2 clean and sober), I visited my parents for dinner.
“Should we have peas or carrots for dinner, Andrew?” asked my mother as I plopped down on the couch. I needed to rest. Walking the short distance from my car to the living room had been a tremendous effort.
“I don’t know…. whatever,” I mumbled.
My father eagerly piped up, “I want carrots.”
“But peas would go so well with the chicken!” my mother insisted.
Compromise has never been my father’s strong suit. So he shot back, “Nope, I definitely want carrots.”
The conflict over peas or carrots continued. I kept silent. I didn’t have the patience to intervene.
“Well, I think we should have peas.”
I wanted to scream. JUST MAKE A F*$#king DECISION ALREADY! I was tense. The shakes were intensifying and beads of sweat were beginning to drip from my creased forehead. I ached for a hit, a shot, a bump, a toke… anything that would skyrocket me to heaven. But I resisted temptation, and joined my family for dinner. We had both peas and carrots.
Going through withdrawals is like flying through restricted airspace. There’s a chance you’ll make it out in one piece, but then again, there’s also the possibility of going down in flames. Crashing and burning is a terrible ordeal. But I’m familiar with this territory. After all, I went through similar withdrawals nearly three years ago. I suppose I was a tad naïve to believe relapse wouldn’t eventually come knocking at my door.
Enduring withdrawals requires more than over-the-counter medications. I listen to a lot of music. When I can’t sleep (common when withdrawing), I surrender to whatever tune suits my mood and state of mind. I mean, I really lose myself in music. The past few days, I’ve been revisiting some of my favorite recovery songs. I quoted Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” at the beginning of this post for a reason – it reminds me to follow the straight and narrow. It reminds me of the life I have chosen to leave behind.
Unbeknownst to many, the song “Angel” was inspired by the death of Jonathan Melvoin, a musician who died of a heroin overdose while touring with The Smashing Pumpkins. “Angel” is a daring and introspective peek into an addict’s search for inner peace. Conjuring heavenly imagery set against a bleak and dreary backdrop is no easy feat. Indeed, McLachlan deserves praise for her accurate insights into the highs and lows associated with addiction.
Living one day at a time is encouraged during the early stages of recovery, particularly during the withdrawal phase. Long term planning and goal setting simply add unnecessary stress to one’s rehabilitation. So, I live moment to moment, and try to get through one day at a time. Rest assured, I am determined. When I say I’m going to do something, I do it. Success is my only option. So I’m more than willing to plough through the mountains of shit that stand in my way of getting clean and sober.
This is day 3. I feel a bit better. But I’m nowhere near the finish line. This endurance race has just begun. I broke out in tears earlier today. I don’t know why I cried. I just did. But for the first time in quite a while, I didn’t numb the pain. And they say it’s better to feel pain than nothing at all. So I must be on the right track, again.
Andrew Woods currently resides in Coquitlam, BC, where he attends graduate school (completing a graduate diploma in Psychosocial Rehabilitation). He lives with schizoaffective disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and has struggled with substance abuse since the age of seventeen. Andrew strives to raise mental health awareness and promote hope for recovery by sharing his story of lived experience.
As some of you know, I’ve started holding a series of workshops, playshops to be exact. Catalyst for Creativity and Courage playshops. Why did I decide to focus on these two sometimes elusive particulars?
Because, as I scrabbled my life back together after getting hit with bipolar disorder and a spiritual emergency (and getting walloped is the only way I can describe it) I learned tools to manage my conditions. What I discovered was that creativity and courage had to be essential elements of my treatment plan and my life if I was to get and stay well. Creativity and courage stand on equal footing with my other pivotal tools. Medication, therapy, sleep, exercise, courage and creativity are all easy bedfellows in my life.
Maybe you have a psychiatric condition or maybe you don’t. But what you do want is your voice to be heard. Maybe you’ve always sensed your story needs to be told and you’re the one to tell it. Or for some vague reason but vivid feeling this is the time that your little light is meant to shine. ‘Oh, this little light of mine – I’m gonna let it shine’.
The world yearns for stories. For truth to be told; your truth to be told. But sometimes we need encouragement and reminders to spur ourselves on in the journey of telling our tales and trailblazing into our creative landscapes. I know I do.
Fear. Perfectionism. Resistance. To a greater or lesser degree, I wrestle daily with these symbiotic siblings. Each reeking a particular kind havoc upon my mental state and creative spirit.
Connecting with your creativity might feel daunting (or not) or like you’ll never find the time or maybe it feels lonely or any number of very reasonable explanations. But creativity and courage don’t live in the realm of rational thinking. They fly by you, swoop down, take you and let you go and then they come again by for another pass – if you let them. The steps you take towards creativity don’t need to be grand or even graceful, they just need to be taken.
“Courage stands on the shoulders of fear.”
The following is a list of books that can help lead you baby step by baby step into your creative corral. Books like these and the exercises within them helped me reclaim my creative spark along with my sanity and sense of self. Whether you are an alumni of the creative cosmos and have been off the radar and out of orbit or if you are just entering this magical stratosphere for the first time, you may find these books can fortify your mettle so you forge forward in your creativity and your life.
Not all will resonate of course. But take a peek – don’t judge these books by their covers (literally). See if what they hold between their paper arms, holds something for you.
“If we are alive, we are creative. Every choice we make is by nature creativity in action.“
And then, inspired by said texts, I invite you to give a respectful acknowledging nod to resistance, fear and perfectionism, and dive into a little more courage, a little more creativity so that we have a little more of YOU in this world.
Here’s my list of go-to books (in no particular order). May they help get the muse beside you, get your butt to the chair and fingers to the keyboard:
1. Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear (Elizabeth Gilbert) – Best-selling author of Eat Pray Love offers her own perspective on embracing creativity in life.
2. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (Anne Lamott) – With humor and practical advice, writer Anne Lamott addresses common questions most writers have.
3. The Art of Memoir (Mary Karr) – One of the foremost memoirists explores this popular literary form with wit, insight and sage advice.
4. The War of Art (Steven Pressfield) – An excellent guide to help creatives overcome resistance.
5. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Natalie Goldberg)
6. Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life (Natalie Goldberg) – The preceding two books offers Goldberg’s iconic ‘rules for writing practice’ & quintessential writing prompts.
7. The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity (Julia Cameron) – The seminal guidebook about the creative process and creative self-renewal. Cameron has written more than 30 books, both non-fiction and fiction. All offer helpful insight into the creative process.
8. 642 Tiny Things to Write About (San Francisco Writers’ Grotto) – Fun quick writing prompts. They have a series of books.
9. Now Write! Nonfiction (Sherry Ellis) – Essays on writing with helpful exercises.
10. The Arvon Book of Life Writing (Sally Cline & Carole Angier) – Writing tips and insights on all aspects of writing biography, autobiography & memoir
11. Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses ‘No, But’ Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration (K. Leonard / T. Yorton) – Executives of Chicago’s famed Second City improv troupe describe the 7 key elements of improv, and offer accompanying exercises to apply in daily life
12. 101 Improv Games for Children & Adults (Bob Bedore) – An excellent guide listing a wide variety of improv games for experience levels
Well ok – let me qualify that. I reduced my meds because I believed I would have more access to my spirituality and spiritual gifts. Now, I didn’t say this was a smart choice. And you’d think, since this ain’t my first rodeo with mental illness, I’d know better. I’ve lived (and lived quite well on the whole) with bipolar disorder, anxiety and psychosis for over 20 years and for most of those years I’ve taken medication.
Though this has been the case, there’s always been this niggling feeling that if I could just reduce (and eventually not take any) medication I would be better off for it. More spiritual – feel closer to the divine, more peaceful, more at one with the world, able to become more self-realized, liberated and enlightened. Who can blame me? I don’t know of any spiritual teachers on psychiatric medication. Dali Lama? Not that I know of – maybe meds for high cholesterol, but even that’s a guess. Ekhart Tolle? Doubt it. Bryon Katie? Not likely. Though they may be and I’m just projecting what I think spiritual celebrities are all about.
Regardless, stigma about mental illness in general and psychiatric medication in particular runs deeps. More accurately misinformation about it runs deep. Really deep: “threads-of-steel-around-the-roots-of-a-tree-and-into-the-magma-of-the-earth” kind of deep. Even for me, who has experienced relief by taking medication.
Somehow, I think medication stops me from being all of me, clogs up my energy systems, makes me foggy. When I or other are overmedicated, yes – that’s definitely the case. But I’m taking a dose that doesn’t do any of those things. Yet I still feel I could have more spiritual growth if I wasn’t on medication. Somehow though, in my mind this doesn’t apply to the birth control pills I’m taking. Hmmm?
So a few months ago with the guidance of my psychiatrist I began to reduce my meds. Over six weeks I began, very slowly, to decrease the amount of both my antidepressant and mood stabilizer.
I was honest about the reasons. I told him one: I have so many effective self-management tools maybe a lower dosage would be okay. Two: I would like to be on as little medication as possible due to potential negative effects of being on meds long term (though I never experienced any side effects from my meds). And three (most importantly): I had started a spiritual practice in earnest over the past four years and was concerned the meds might be interfering with my spiritual development and awareness.
He said okay. Yup, I know. Very progressive and very good he is. I thank my lucky stars I’ve had the privilege working with him.
Over the next month and half, little by little, I started reducing. Week one, things are going fine. Two week, the same. Week three, four, five – all good. Then week six – a bump, well more like a shadow – you know a black creepy blur fraying the sides of my life and the inside of my mind, turning my thoughts dark, melting my energy limpish, bruising my body purple. This wasn’t good. I stepped up my spiritual practice, exercised more, regulated my sleep. The gloomy lump lifted – for two days. Then it was back, in full force.
I was scared. The dark silhouette adhered to my shoulders, behind my eyes, on the bottom of my feet. It didn’t matter how much exercise, how much sleep or how much light I got into my eyes, it didn’t budge.
I didn’t feel spiritual, I felt wretched.
I meditated, practiced Chi Kung, prayed, ran everyday for short spurts but still depression wedged in every cavity it could. I didn’t even know between my fingers could ache so much.
I went back to my psychiatrist.
“Isn’t it true, even if I go back to my old dose, the meds might not work? I’ve heard that. It’s true, right? Right? My old meds aren’t going to be effective. I’ve f%*ked myself.” Why didn’t he stop me before I tried this inane experiment?
“Nooo…,” he said slowly shaking his head, “that’s not true.”
“Oh,” was all I could say.
So that same day, back at home, sitting at my vanity table, I opened up my two pill bottles. I picked out the dose of pills I had taken before said spiritual experiment and washed them down with water in the hopes with the health habits I was still practicing I might regain that feeling of wellness.
I did. Over the next couple weeks I slowly started to feel myself again. After taking my medication (medicine really) and continuing to practice my wellness tools, I started to feel back to my good ol’ Victoria: grounded, clear seeing, content and at ease with the natural ebb and flow of emotions that just a few weeks ago seemed locked away forever and doused with dollops a severe depression. Taking the right dose, I actually felt more spiritual, not less.
What did I learn? It was something I remembered actually about my journey with creativity.
Years ago, when psychiatric medication was suggested (very strongly) as an additional support to my recovery, I was afraid it would take away my creative spark. I was an actor, a writer – creativity was my life blood. I couldn’t afford to live without the passion that kept me alive and added meaning to my life.
At first I was prescribed lithium. It had worked wonders for my mom. Yup, bipolar disorder is a family affair. Me, I felt like a walking piece of chalk. Not dampened emotions, just NO emotions. The only thing worse than feeling suicidal, is not feeling anything at all.
But then 2 years of sampling different medications, I was given something else to try – and lo’ and behold, this particular combination of anti-depressant and mood stabiliser helped raise my bottom and gave me a roof to curb dangerous stratospheric spikes in my emotions.
I didn’t feel medicated. I didn’t feel high. I feel like me. Me.
And what happened to my creativity? It soared. My creative output was sustainable, of good quality and I flowed with it instead of being led hurly burly by it.
When I wasn’t on the right medication, the right dosage – my creativity was squelched, lost to the pharmaceutical stew of overmedication. When I wasn’t on medication at all, I THOUGHT I was creative. I actually was prolific. I was writing copious amounts of poetry…but of really really BAD poetry.
When I wasn’t on medicine to reign in the fire that touched my brain, the creativity I had ran amok and was awful.
Surprisingly (at least to me) the same course of events happened with my spirituality. When on the wrong kind, wrong dose or no medication at all, my access to spirituality and sense of the divine was warped and draped in a painful fog or hysterical mania. The depth of despair was not a ‘dark night of the soul’ it was a cemented state of being that wouldn’t budge. My manias were not wisdom unleashed but euphoria skyrocketing into heights of dangerous behaviour.
But when I am on the right medication (as I am now), the right dosage (as low as possible, but enough to help), I am connected and aligned to what I define as spirit and the divine. I feel the joyful (not manic) flow of life and I rest in trust and ease. Seriously. This is how I feel when I have the correct dose of medicine as well as consistently practice my many self-management wellness tools.
I can’t shirk any of them. I am adamantly, furiously committed to enacting my wellness tools daily (which includes taking my trusty anti-depressant and mood stabilizer). I can’t afford not to.
Both my creative and spiritual life depend on it.
© 2016 Victoria Maxwell
It started when a writing friend told me of an exercise her teacher gave her. Write your life story, but write it in 3-word sentences. Here’s the long and the short of it.