MY DIRTY LITTLE SECRET


secretI have a dirty little secret.

I suffer from depression.

Not the blues.  Not feeling down in the dumps.  Full on depression.  The kind that takes me to a very dark place.  And, apparently, I share this disorder with 14,999,999 other Americans – a vast majority of them women.  I don’t necessarily keep this fact a secret but it is not typically my lead-in when I meet people.  Oddly, I don’t actually think of myself as someone who gets depressed but, as part of my efforts to live authentically, I have had to come to terms with what I refer to as my “dark periods.”  These periods do not pop up that frequently.  In fact, I can go years without having any type of serious depressive episode but, like earthquakes, it is not about the frequency, it is about the magnitude.

I suppose it was my birth right.  My mother suffered from depression most of her life.  She attempted to take her own life on two separate occasions when I was a young child.  Both times she downed an excessive amount of pills (likely aspirin because we didn’t have too many medications in our house) and I remember being in the ER at the hospital wondering what was wrong with her.  Despite the fact that she was often going to therapy, she never seemed to be able to treat her depression and, I suspect, it is because she desperately needed to be medicated.  Her depression was only one one of her many mental ailments.  My father struggled with alcoholism his entire life.  My brother is bipolar and my sister, like me, lives with depression and, likely, other forms of mental illness.  Our family legacy is both biological and environmental.  There is severe mental illness in my mother’s family and my parents, fighting with their own demons, inflicted a significant amount of trauma on my siblings and myself which, according to science, likely created a chemical imbalance and a form of PTSD that we each confront in our own unique ways.

Over the years, I have become skilled at dealing with my depression, from looking for the warning signs and fortifying myself, using exercise and diet as a minimizer, as well as treating it with antidepressants.  One of my challenges, however, is that my depression typically creeps up on me when I have either run out of things to distract my attention from it or when crushing stress becomes too much for me to bear.  Sometimes there are specific incidents that bring it on like negative interactions with people that leave me empty, wasted or diminished.  But, in most cases, I don’t see it coming and once it is upon me, I can’t find a way out of it.

I recently researched symptoms of depression to help me understand it a bit further.  I wanted to determine if what I was experiencing was truly depression or just some low periods.  I compared my feelings to the list:

  • persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood – check
  • loss of interest or pleasure in activities, including sex – check
  • restlessness, irritability, or excessive crying – check
  • feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness, hopelessness, pessimism – check, check
  • sleeping too much or too little, early-morning awakening – check
  • thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts – check
  • difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions – check

People often think that those of us who suffer from depression are downers who have difficulty functioning in everyday life.  These are just some of the myths that create stigmas and often prevent people from being honest about their own mental illness.  For me, the truth is I function very well and, most often, I am pretty upbeat – typically the life of the party.  And no, I am not bipolar.  I simply am not depressed every single day.  But when I go down, I go down hard.  And once I am down, it is very hard to get back up.

Recently, I went through an extremely dark period.  It felt like it came out of nowhere but, upon reflection and analysis, there were many triggers including work stress, holidays, and some challenging personal relationships.  I realized it was chasing me down and I was running from it like an animal being hunted as prey.  I just didn’t consciously realize I was scurrying from capture until it caught me and pummeled me.  When I saw the face of my demon, I recognized instantly that it had been sneaking up on me for a while.  Unfortunately, once I thought I got rid of the beast, I relaxed a bit and was shocked when it quickly reappeared and lingered  like a stalled-out hurricane.  It blew in, did some destruction and then seemed like it was moving out to sea.  Much to my surprise and severe disappointment, it changed direction and ended up blowing back in, this time much stronger and hanging on for a much longer period of time.  I was absolutely certain I was having a nervous breakdown. The darkness was so severe and so intense that I could not see my way to clarity.  I did not think the clouds would ever pass, that the winds would ever let up or that the rain would stop pouring down.  But, as is always the case with storms, they do pass and the sun shines through the clouds offering the hope for a brighter tomorrow.

Depression is even more complicated in my life because it is magnified by the echoes of the traumas of my childhood – the scars of which layer on top of my depression and validate many of my dark thoughts.  When I sink into worthlessness, my memories of words or experiences that traumatized me as a child, come to the surface and haunt me, giving credence to every distorted feeling I experience during these episodes.  It’s as if I am an alcoholic and, despite my efforts at recovery, there is always an open bar or a  friend standing by with a bottle to prevent me from ever achieving sobriety.  I have enough ammunition to keep me down for decades and, during some of these dark periods, I am rather confident that the sun will never shine again and that all of my worst experiences are my truth and personify who I am and what my life is meant to be.

The scariest part of depression, however, is not the admission of my illness nor is it the actual experience of going through the dark periods.  The scariest piece comes in the aftermath when, with a clear head, you realize just how low you have fallen.  When you realize just how easy it is for your mind to take you to places that seem unfathomable when you are rational and have your senses intact.  You realize that, in a split second, the pain that you are experiencing will take hold and you are captive to its powers and incapable of freeing yourself, left only with futile attempts to defend yourself and preserve some level of sanity so as not to have devastating outcomes.  I recently had a conversation with a close friend who had spent some time with me while I was in the middle of this recent episode and he shared with me his and his wife’s experiences and concerns for me.  It was humbling and, to some extent, overwhelming and humiliating.  He was kind and thoughtful in his comments and shared his fears in a compassionate and loving way.  But, it was in that moment that I realized how far away I go during those periods and how far removed from reality I am.  That is frightening and makes me feel vulnerable in the worst possible way.

Ultimately, my depression does not make me a bad person.  It does not prevent me from engaging in intimate and meaningful relationships.  It does not inhibit my ability to live a productive and successful life.  It does, however, force me to be acutely aware of the triggers and make choices differently than others who might not endure the same struggles.  It is like any other disease.  If I were diabetic, sugar would be my enemy.  If I had a heart condition, cardio would be a danger for me.  My medical ailment, caused by chemical imbalances in my brain (and, possibly, exacerbated by the hormonal disruption caused by the onset of menopause) forces me to think very seriously about how I interact with people, situations I put myself in, and how I deal with stress and anxiety.  I am neither ashamed nor afraid to share my truth but I realize that many will never understand this dimension of my life.  I need not be pitied or treated any differently.  It is just part of my truth.  And, fortunately, severe depression is something that rarely strikes me but, I acknowledge, that even if it happens once every five or ten years, it is real and it is dangerous.

So, I share my dirty little secret for the millions of Americans who are afraid to share their truth for fear that they will be stigmatized or ostracized.  I am not afraid because I am fortunate enough to have a small, intimate group of friends and family to whom I can turn for support during my dark periods and who understand my struggles and provide me with the love and nurturing that I need to get through the haze.  I also have an amazing therapist who works with me during dark days and, more importantly, during the bright ones to keep me focused on tackling the demons that bring me down and keep me down.  But, for many, they don’t have such luxuries and cannot be honest with themselves or anyone else because they feel shameful or afraid of the consequences of revealing their truth.  And, for some, like my own mother, they simply are not capable of seeing the truth in themselves and spend their lives living in denial, inflicting pain on those around them.

If you struggle with depression or know someone who does, take a moment to learn more and create a safe environment for yourself and others to live honestly and authentically.

MISSING


“Only when we’re brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” – Brene Brown

I am currently working on a very meaningful project – coaching someone to help them uncover their story.  I love this for so many reasons but mainly because I am helping them find their story to authentically and passionately share with others the importance of the work that they are doing.  It is an exciting journey for them because they are being pushed to explore aspects of themselves in ways they may not have before and it is interesting for me because I am challenging myself to be present on their ride and partake in the same activities.  Part of my role is to provide journal prompts each day to encourage them to write.  The prompts are often benign and are intended to simply get them to explore some thoughts and put them down on paper.  I’m not particularly interested in what they write.  I simply want them to write.  But, of course, the mere exploration of thought creates pathways to information and the act of scribing creates further connections and suddenly stories are unfolding right in front of you.

Yesterday, I offered up a prompt to write about someone that you miss, dead or alive.  I put no parameters around this topic because I wanted them to explore on their own who they missed and why and, perhaps, what it meant to miss someone.  Do you miss someone because they are no longer part of your life?  Do you miss someone because they have passed on?  Do you miss someone at that very moment even if you are going to see them the very next day?  The exercise was intended to allow them to journey along all those lines.  As I am trying to parallel the exercises and simultaneously write on the very same topics, I commissioned myself to tackle the same subject…and fell short.  With each journal prompt, I also ask that we write about something that we are grateful for and/or something we are disappointed about from our day and, last night, I got really hung up on the first part.  I focused on my lack of gratitude, which was, conversely, a source of disappointment for myself.

Ironically enough, I am not someone who enjoys journaling because, for me, it sometimes seems forced and I am often harshly critical of what I write.  Because I typically write with the intention of having others read it, I am extremely focused on my choice of words, the deeper messages and having compelling content.  And, of course, that is exactly what journaling is not and exactly why I should spend more time on that activity.  Journaling is most powerful as a tool to allow for a free stream of thought to enable you to find those pathways to your inner voices.  I recognize that it’s nuts that I resist it and, as a result, I am forcing myself to take advantage of this opportunity to embrace the art of journaling if only to have some connection and authenticity with this project.  What comes from it will only be the icing on the cake.

Last night when I set out to write about someone I miss, I struggled.  I could not really come up with anyone that I missed so much that I wanted to write about it.  There are a lot of people that have been a part of my life that I do not have any connection with anymore because of life circumstances.  I do miss some of them and, sometimes I feel badly about the role I played in our disconnection.  I miss what they used to mean to me and I feel sad about the fact that, in many cases, I allowed the person to slip out of my life.  There are also certainly people who are currently a part of my life who I do not see very often and I surely miss them.  In truth, some of the people that I am closest to live at a great distance from me so I am constantly missing them but that has become a regular, ordinary characteristic of my life.  I don’t like to write about it because it frustrates me and also makes me very sad.  So, ultimately, I avoided the topic entirely and I ended up spending my time writing about my own disappointment in myself for not feeling more grateful and for letting myself continually get caught up in malaise rather than focusing on the positive aspects of my life.  The subconscious thoughts about how missing people makes me feel bad surely inspired a whole lot of negativity towards myself and was a perfect platform to display my deep levels of disappointment in myself.

This morning, as often happens when I am returning from dropping my kids off at school, I took a few minutes for some self-reflection and started thinking about the exercise again (yes, this is how this stuff works.  A simple little prompt can permeate your thinking and just sit with you for days.  It’s pretty awesome).  With a somewhat clear head, the loud and resounding noise was that the person I missed most right now was me.

I’ve gone away.  I have allowed myself to get caught up with the messiness in my life.  I focus on all the things wrong and nothing that is right.  I have become blind to the beauty around me like the rich fall colors and the fragrant aromas of the season that so often make me feel whole and connected.  I feel disappointment in myself in regards to many areas of my life.  I am harshly judging myself and critical of my thinking and endeavors. I am, as the brilliant Brene Brown would say, caught up in a shame spiral.   She says that “shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”  That is a potent message and, when I reflect on my life right now, it truly represents how I feel and why I miss myself.  I miss the person who rises above and feels tremendous gratitude for all the richness and texture that makes up my life.  I miss the strength that I typically exhibit to work through the clutter and chaos and the pride I feel for having muddled through and come out the other end feeling confident and powerful.  I miss waking up every day looking forward to the challenges before me and going to bed at night feeling tired but inspired and excited about what comes next.

I miss me.

The good news, I suppose, is that I can see myself in the distance and know that I am not far away.  And, chances are, it will likely not be too long before I return.  However, in the spirit of honoring this exercise, I will recognize that the person I miss is me and I will pine for myself and encourage myself to find my way back.  I will, like any good friend, extend a hand to help myself back up the hill, shout out directions as I traverse the rocks and catch myself if I slip.  And, until my return, I will keep on missing me and will remember another passage from Brene:

“Shame resilience [is] the ability to practice authenticity when we experience shame, to move through the experience without sacrificing our values, and to come out on the other side of the shame experience with more courage, compassion, and connection than we had going into it.”

She says, “shame derives its power from being unspeakable…language and story bring light to shame and destroy it.”  So, I guess this little exercise, this benign journal prompt is exactly what I need to help myself as only I can.

BREATHE


This morning I had the great pleasure of participating in something that has become a weekly ritual for me – Mindfulness Practice.  I kind of stumbled upon this group through a friend in my town and, admittedly, agreed to go only because I thought there was a business opportunity.  I was not at all thinking that it would have a personal impact for me. And, yes, I have said this before and then the piano fell on my head and I realized how blissfully ignorant I was.

The practice of mindfulness is something that has become more commonplace and mainstream in many aspects of life from mindful listening, mindful eating and now, even, mindful leadership.  In fact, mindful leadership was my particular area of interest when I joined the group because I believed there were some interesting applications of the mindfulness practice to the work I do with developing leaders, particularly women.

Mindfulness, rooted in Buddhist practice, is considered to be an essential step in the pathway to enlightenment.  In layman’s terms, it is about awareness.  It has been adopted in the Western world as a meditative practice and a way to alleviate stress and anxiety.  It has a much higher purpose, in my estimation, allowing us to be more present and intentional in everything we do and providing us with tools to allow us to be productive and joyful.

This morning, in our practice, we focused our attention on authenticity and looking at the masks we wear.  Needless to say, I love this topic.  The moment I realized we were going to be talking about authenticity, I started delighting in all of the beautiful riches that would emerge from the discussion.  The group, today, was comprised of about a dozen women — all of which are in different places in their journey for spiritual enlightenment but all of which have beautiful perspectives and powerful stories.  I surprised myself today because I expected to be spewing out all kinds of brilliant gems because I have spent significant time and mental energy exploring this topic of authenticity.  I failed to remember the power of the practice and was quickly derailed after our first meditation because, despite my great efforts to control my thinking, the release of power that results from a meaningful meditation, allows our minds to wander where they need to at that moment.

Along with the relief that came from being able to relax my mind and body in the meditation came an extraordinary realization that I had, in fact, stopped breathing.  I have just come off a very intense week of work, a busy weekend with family and friends and some unexpected (and surprisingly disruptive) turmoil.  As a result of all that, I had stopped my practice of breathing and being in the moment.  I was trying to control my thoughts, feelings and behaviors in order to, hopefully, impact outcomes.  Silly, silly me.  I realized that I was emotionally disconnecting from what was going on around me in order to regulate myself and control my emotions rather than allowing myself to experience what I was feeling and get comfortable with my feelings.  A-ha!  I wanted to roll back time and change my actions with this new sense of enlightenment about the root of my behaviors.  But, of course, that is not possible.  What was possible was to continue to think about the feelings I was experiencing throughout the past few days and understand how I force myself into a pattern of behavior to “protect” myself from my feelings.  When we discussed the masks that we wear in different aspects of our lives, I recognized the mask I wear with myself to try to pretend that I don’t feel what I feel in order to cope and move forward.  Sometimes it is just too hard to be uncomfortable and it hurts too much to feel pain and sadness.  And, I would argue with myself that, in order to truly find peace, you need to breathe through those moments, embrace what you are feeling, own it, live it, suffer through it and trust that you will come out the other end and be ok.

I am more surprised than anyone at how dependent I have become on those moments when I can let myself go and just breathe,  allowing my mind to travel wherever it needs to go.  Yesterday, I was driving on the highway, in the car alone, and I noticed how much angst was taking place in my head.  I noticed all the chaos and confusion that was swirling around inside me and I acknowledged that there was little I could do to control it, manage it or even address it.  I needed to focus on the road to be present with my driving but the noise was screaming for attention.  I could not give it the attention and, clearly, this morning, the chaos was ready to resurface.  However, using the practice of breathing, I was able to allow it to have a rational and powerful voice rather than a chaotic, loud, screaming, whiny, shrill, thunderous scream.  Very calmly and quietly I heard that I needed to pay attention to my breath because I was not allowing myself to feel.  Ahhhhh……

There is more to tell on this.  So much more.  More to share on the topic of masks because it is a powerful topic, particularly for women, but we will save that for another day.  For now, a big shout out to my fellow practitioners.  Thanks for letting me facilitate a bit today.  That was fun and meaningful!  Thanks for sharing.  Thanks for being in the moment with me.  Thanks for inspiring me.  And, hopefully, by sharing this and continuing to breathe, I will follow through on my intention to inspire others this week.

EXPOSE YOURSELF


I am about to launch my very first company website. I boldly made the announcement on Facebook several days ago that I was going to get it done by the end of the day and I was then accountable to my virtual network who was (no doubt) waiting with anticipation for the finished product. After months of researching design tools, hosts and all the other assorted options associated with building a website, I settled on a platform that I felt was sufficient to communicate the message of my new company. I worked tirelessly, with the help of my village of colleagues, family members and friends, to develop content that would effectively communicate our mission and provide a good marketing tool for our services to our clients. And, finally, the site is done.

Holy cow!

When I thought about the website, it felt like a necessity that I had to deal with and I knew I wanted it to look good. I’ll admit it – aesthetics are important to me. And, while I am a staunch advocate of and believer in the power of social media, I was surprisingly reluctant to finish this project because I did not believe that it would make a hill of beans of difference to my business. After all, I do my best work face-to-face with the client and who is really going to look at that website anyway? So, despite my resistance, I just went with it. Well, mostly because my husband kept nagging me, relentlessly asking me at the end of every day that I complained about clients not returning my calls or expressed fears about not generating enough new business, “Did you finish your website today?”

I decided not to hire an outside firm to design the site because I knew I had the capability to handle this myself the same way I designed my beautiful logo and business cards. Besides, that is an enormous expense for a new business and I would rather spend the money on attending a conference where I can network with clients. I could do it but would I?

Finally, when push came to shove, I forged ahead and ripped the bandaid off really fast and just did it. I locked myself in my purple office (which was simply the perfect spot for me to do this work) and I worked and worked until I was done. I suffered through highs and lows, both loving and hating the site at various intervals. I ignored all the tips about not comparing your site to others and scoured the web for friends’ and competitors’ sites to set the bar and measure my site against theirs. Not surprisingly, in my state of feeling very anxious and vulnerable about my work, my site always fell short. But I persevered, called in my mafia to edit and review and was done!

I had my big big girl pants on and finally had a company website!!! I felt excited and accomplished and ready to take on the world…until it was time for me to share the site with the world. The minute I turned the site live (if a website goes live in the woods and no one knows about it, is it really live?), I felt anxious. Now anyone could see my work and I was exposed to the world. I was now available to anyone who might want to google me or type in my company name. Now, one might presume, after having this blog out there in cyberspace, I would not really worry about a company website that is professional and well-written but, in fact, I actually felt more vulnerable and more exposed by that website than I do with this blog. Intriguing.

I spent most of yesterday trying to understand my feelings while mustering up the courage to send out the email blast to my many contacts who I have known for many years to let them know that my site is live. It was time to put my company and myself on the market and, hopefully, generate some interest in the work that we do. And, I realized that it was a watershed moment for me. For the very first time in my life I was standing on my own two feet, not hiding behind anyone else, and putting myself out there. I was ready to be accepted, rejected, measured and critiqued. And while this all excited me a lot, just a small part of me was scared and wanted to run and hide behind someone who could serve as my armor and defense. But, as with many other aspects of my life, I no longer need to cover up or hide because I can step forward and take on whatever is being thrown my way. So, today we go live for real and anyone and everyone can take a look at my new website.

Even better, now this blog also lives on my corporate website so everyone can learn who I really am and understand the authenticity I bring to the work that I do. Now, I will just stand naked before the world and hope that nobody laughs too hard.

GETTING COMFORTABLE WITH BEING UNCOMFORTABLE


I have been thinking a lot lately about dealing with pain and grief. I have struggled with this for a lot of my life because I have definitely been one of those people who believe that pain is something to be pushed away and replaced with positive thoughts. However, recently, I been trying hard to be present with my pain or unhappiness and work through it rather than push it away.

This all sounds so obvious to me as I write it because, of course, we should try to work through our difficult moments rather than squash them and let them fester underground. But, that is a much easier concept to talk about than actually act on.  We become so mired in our feelings and many of us (read: me) have so much swirling around in our brains at any moment in time that it is difficult to isolate our painful feelings and just focus on them and get comfortable with them.

I recently attended a workshop where a facilitator friend of mine spent a chunk of time during a workshop talking to the women in the room about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.  We know that in business or in politics, leaders need to get comfortable with being in situations that make them uncomfortable and, on top of that, they need to be able to make rational decisions while they are in this state of discomfort. It really is a gift to be able to master the art of being comfortably uncomfortable.  In our lives, this translates into being able to accept those uncomfortable feelings that we want to immediately push away and make go away.  It is not surprising that most of us feel this way because we are taught from a very young age to not feel bad.  Our parents (well, not mine, but that is for another day…) would soothe us and try to comfort us when we were sad or in pain. They would ply us with food, toys, distractions from what was making us feel bad. As young adults when our friends were going through difficult periods with relationships or work, we would bring over a bottle of liquor, a quart of ice cream, or something else that would soothe their pain.  And, today, we continue to do this as grown adults with each other and our own children.  It is a natural instinct.  It is NOT natural to say “let’s sit with that pain you are feeling and go deeper into it to find the root of it” because that is relegated to the therapist’s couch. And, our loved ones would look at us like we were nuts thinking “Is this person trying to make me feel worse???”.  In fact, the unpleasant and uncomfortable work of tapping into those difficult feelings are actually going to get you a lot further than pushing them away with a bottle of wine or a good movie.

I was talking with a friend today who is going through some hard times and she had all kinds of emotions scrambled up in her head that were preventing her from feeling confident about moving forward with anything in her life.  My advice to her was to separate out all of the feelings she was feeling and take them on one at a time.  It is important for us to be in the moment with those feelings, sort them through, get to the root of them and then set them free.  Rather than force them out without doing the work that needs to be done to release them, we need to be in control and get comfortable (or at least less uncomfortable) with these feelings.

When I am struggling with painful moments in my life (and lord knows they come along far more often than I would like), I close my eyes and try to literally visualize all the components of what I am feeling. I try to distinguish each of them and familiarize myself with them separately so I can begin to tackle them each separately.  This allows me to get comfortable with each component rather than trying to tackle a huge, all-encompassing monster.

I have learned, through my journey, that the uncomfortable moments are the ones that feel worst when they are happening but are, invariably the moments that initiate the most significant growth in my life.  I don’t usually want to relive those moments but I can reflect and acknowledge all that they offered me.  So, while I am not sure if I am truly comfortable with being uncomfortable, I am definitely comfortable with what discomfort can bring to my life.