“Tips From the Surface” 05.24.24

Depression is a close friend of mine. Now, it is only an occasional visitor due to medication, therapy, and family support. When it occurs (for me), I have absolutely no desire to get out of bed and live an adult life. It causes lethargy, physical aching, low mood. Watch out! I am irritable and push others away instead of holding them close. The Little Mermaid wanted to be where the people are, but when I am feeling so low, I want to be where the people aren’t. I have so little energy that a smile (even a fake one) is almost impossible to conjure. While depression is an unwelcome state of mind, it is closely followed by anxiety. I am attached to that fishing line, striving in vain to free myself from the pull of the rod.

I am anxious more often than depressed or manic. Through my own experience, I have discovered helpful tips for coping with these feelings. You are not alone in your boat, though these waves crash onto your deck.

Helpful Tips For Depression and Anxiety:

*Go outside. Touch the ground. Sit on the grass and breathe slowly and deeply.

*Garden. Get muddy on purpose.

*Swim. Hold your hand under the sink faucet. Let the water ground you.

*Purchase a weighted blanket. Before you buy one, research. Measure the dimensions and the weight in proportion to your size and weight. When you are anxious and cannot fall asleep, cover yourself with the blanket. Sleep underneath it if you feel the need (I do). A cheaper option is to pile heavy objects on your chest, such as books to weigh you down. It will bring momentary peace during a difficult time.

*Lay a stuffed animal or soft object such as a pillow, on your chest and stroke it slowly. The light weight and sense of touch stimulate calm feelings. I have a large plush bat. I situate its wings across my chest like a hug, then pet the fur on its back. Try lounging, not even leaving the bedroom while performing this task.

*Drink more water and less coffee (easier said than done).

*Force yourself out of bed and go for a short/long walk outside. This activity is the last you want to experience when you are feeling low, but the fresh air, sunshine, and exercise produce endorphins. Endorphins lead to high energy and an abundance of serotonin in your brain, inspiring happiness.

*Resist triggers whenever possible. These are typically outside forces which cause us to fall into despair. When I experienced my first bout with depression, I was in bed for several days eating nothing and drinking solely apple juice. I can no longer drink the juice without negative emotions. When I was hospitalized I ate oatmeal with butter and brown sugar every morning at breakfast. Having left that horrible event in my past, I still cannot eat oatmeal without dragging myself back to a cell. There are songs and books that trigger me as well. Best to stay away from these memory induced stimuli.

*Spend time with animals. Consider training an emotional support dog.

*Hugs are encouraged.

*Talk therapy has been helpful for me. Many people call this “visiting the shrink,” and it has a negative connotation. Speaking to a person about how you feel and what happens in your life, especially a person who legally cannot voice your concerns to anyone else, can be beneficial. If you are opposed to this method or cannot feasibly take part in this relationship, find someone you know you can trust. Pain is a huge burden to keep inside. Talking about your personal issues can be relieving. One piece of advice from my therapist stands out. For years I thought that not being “in the mood” meant being lazy and procrastinating. She assured me that with a mood disorder, being “in or out of the mood” is natural.

*If you have no energy or drive to take a shower, and definitely no desire to wash your hair, there is this great product called dry shampoo. Stock up!

*Dance like no one is watching when no one is watching. It is stress-relieving to be open and honest with yourself. You have nothing to hide, but I am such a terrible dancer, that I do make sure no one is watching before I crank up my tunes. I feel silly, but that’s part of my process.

I hope these tips are helpful. If you have any questions, I am open to answer them as I am able. Email me privately if you do not wish to comment. I am here for you and want to clarify that you are not alone in this struggle. My email address is listed on my site, but in case you do not wish to search for it:

[email protected]

If you require help I cannot provide, additional aid is available on the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website.

If you are in serious trouble or fear for a loved one, the suicide prevention hotline is open 24/7 and the number is: 988

Please do not hesitate to reach out.

–SJB

“Change” 05.17.24

Years ago, a little girl said to her mother that she would “Run and run and run, and never stop.” So I ran that day, the next, and almost every day after; but one day, I was forced to stop.

Growing up, my favorite activity was running. In my earliest moments, it seems I ran before I walked. Running was breathing. When I reached elementary school, none of the other children would race me across the football field at recess because they knew they would fail. I am exceedingly competitive, so this was a bit of a disappointment. Running came naturally to me; it was my special gift and I treasured it. I could never imagine the end, but years later the Sandman caught up to me.

Soccer was popular in middle school, so I played the midfield where I covered the most ground. In my sophomore year of high school, upon discovering that running was a competitive sport, I eagerly joined the cross country team. In my first season, I was the fastest team member. After basking in the glory of all my races won, my life turned upside down.

In June of 2004, I was diagnosed with Bipolar 1 Disorder. Most of the days that followed were full of questions, lethargy, weight gain, medication combinations, side-effects, and great disappointment. I could run, but all I wanted to do was sleep. I suffered great pain watching other girls run faster than me. I was slow, one of the slowest. My coach was supportive and encouraging. He knew I would make a come-back, though I had significant doubt. The Sandman kept my eyes closed and my limbs heavy.

The following summer, I attended a running camp where I regained my strength. Despite my obstacles, it seemed I was back on track. I was captain of the cross country team that year; just as my coach had been certain, I was the fastest girl again. Could this runner’s high last forever?

No.

I developed a rare side-effect called “ocular gyro crisis.” It was extremely difficult to explain, so it continued much further without definition. I lost control of my eyes. I could not focus on the path in front of me. My eyes continued to travel up, no matter how hard I tried to focus. My coach suggested I drink more Gatorade. When I was able to voice this concern with the appropriate language, my psychiatrist recognized this condition; it was rare, and he had never seen a case. He contacted a neurologist, who determined that this was an accurate diagnosis. He had never seen a case himself. The neurologist reached out to a specialist in eye movement, who confirmed and had only seen nine cases in his whole career. Fortunately, there was treatment available, though there was no cure. This phenomenon occurred most frequently when I was running.

In my senior year, our team achieved the opportunity to race at the regional cross country meet in Jekyll Island. Just before the finish line, when I was sure to win second place, my eyes betrayed me and a member of my own team passed me and took second position. This is still one of my biggest regrets, though I was without control of the situation. This memory haunts me.

I can no longer run without an ocular gyro crisis, knee pain, or voices in my head. My mental illness failed that little girl.

I ran and ran and ran, but one day I had to stop.

Now, my dad drags me to the gym, where I ride the stationary bike like it’s going out of style. I feel my heart rate rise and my face fill with color. I recognize the adrenaline rush and push myself to the point where pain becomes pleasure. While I ride the bike, I think about that little girl inside me, knowing she is proud.

–SJB

“Oxygen” 05.03.24

Once Upon a Time…a two-year-old girl in a car seat watched as a logging truck passed by her window. Around her pacifier, she said,

“Put those trees back, right now!”

Several weeks ago, I was startled on my morning walk. I reached the top of a familiar hill and discovered that the trees along this side of the trail had been murdered. They were “in the way” of a new housing development. I had been harboring the delusion that when I surmounted this hill, the trees provided a much needed breath of fresh air. Their oxygen encouraged me to push forward, also affording me a bit of shade before carrying on. I realize this was a delusion, but the happiness was delicious. Upon my arrival that morning, I burst into tears.

We live in a world we take for granted. Humans have ravaged our natural resources and produced too many mouths to feed. Trees provide an abundance of protection, solace, and oxygen. It seems their numbers are depleting. Trees are habitats for wild creatures and playgrounds for imaginative children. Today, many children are without imaginations and believe that others will solve their problems. There are computers, phones, and tablets. Parents are encouraged to limit “screen time.” When I was younger, limited “screen time” meant limited television episodes of Scooby Doo and Power Rangers. My sisters and I ran through the woods in our childhood. We played in mud, climbed trees, swam in cold rivers. Structures were built out of large tree branches. Now, pieces of wood derived from trees are built into commercial properties and private residences on land that once inhabited natural trees.

Water is for sale in plastic bottles that pollute the oceans, joining other garbage that robs many sea creatures of their oxygen. We are so selfish. One day, people will wake up from the denial of the earth’s demise and will have to purchase oxygen. Back-up plans are merely day dreams.

Everyone is at fault. Not a soul is exempt of this guilt. Hands should be busy. Many believe that they can do nothing to help. If everyone deems this a reality, there will be no change.

We must heed the words of Margaret Mead:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

One person creates a ripple. Imagine if we all decided to work together. We could all breathe deeply.

–SJB

“Belle” 04.19.24

Recently, I witnessed a theater production that conspicuously mocked the princesses I have known and loved since childhood. It was a roast, and for the most part, it was hysterical. I enjoyed almost every scene. The show was about the unrealistic “once upon a times” and the women who were overshadowed by knights in shining armor. These women were not “happily ever after,” and in this portrayal, they voiced their truths. The show was a musical; when my sister took the stage, tears brimmed my eyes. She was so beautiful and her voice was captivating. Each princess had a solo act. Obviously, she was my favorite princess of all time. She played Pocahontas.

For many years, Pocahontas was not recognized as a “princess,” though she was the daughter of the chief. She did not wear ball gowns. Her riches were found in the earth, when land was not for sale and people did not buy flowers or water. She did not fit the “perfect,” “lady-like” mold. Those traits are some of the reasons why I love her the most. She didn’t try to be anyone she wasn’t. Though she was a native to this country (and we are all immigrants), her face was not commercially plastered everywhere until society deemed her “technically” worthy of the princess title; she joined the club of animated plastic dolls on the shelves of little girl’s all over the world, a beloved movie star.

The character of “Belle” entered the stage being pushed in a wheelchair by the kind of orderlies I will never forget. She was wheeled in wearing a straight jacket. My jaw dropped. I retreated to the lobby-followed by my husband-and sat on the floor while he watched and waited with me until that part was over. I could not believe my ears as the crowd laughed and made light of a situation I will never find humorous. Unless you have worn a straight jacket yourself and been pushed around by nurses you loath, you cannot know the anger and loss of control you experience when your body no longer belongs to you. I understand that people are afraid of the unknown, and may be confused about psychiatric disorders. I am aware of the stigma, and feeling like an outcast, but humor? This is blatant disregard for someone else’s serious pain. It is disrespectful, and disgusts me. I will never laugh about a person in so much trouble. How is this funny?

According to the accounts I am familiar with, Belle and Pocahontas share the independence the other princesses do not experience. They created their own “happily ever afters,” without waiting for the strings attached to a man. These women chased their own dreams and saved the lives of those they cared about. They were not damsels in distress, but the heroes.

The agenda for this event was to recognize women as strong, capable and powerful. We do not need a prince, though we are free to want one. We are no longer damsels in distress. I understand and believe this message with my whole heart, though admittedly I prefer a happy ending with an uninterrupted kiss that I wait for an hour to witness (preceded by several frustrating interrupted ones).

It is unfair to label anyone as a permanent damsel in distress. Everyone experiences distress. Though damsels are sometimes in trouble, it doesn’t mean they need someone to rescue them. We are capable of freeing ourselves. Join me in removing your straight jacket.

–SJB

“Guilt” 04.12.24

Everyone experiences guilt. Oft times, blame is misplaced. It is natural when we are hurting to harbor ill will toward a tangible culprit. In some cases, however, the object of our frustrations is invisible. Psychiatric disorders can uproot lives, yet we cannot see them with our eyes. This causes confusion, doubt, and misunderstanding. In which direction should we point our fingers?

Parents and loved ones of those suffering with mental illness are also in pain. There are many stages of this illness, some more crippling than others, so how can the people in our lives help us?

First, you must understand that this is not your fault. These cases are not due to the “sins of the father.” We are not apples that fall too close to the tree, in every sense. I believe we dance off the tree in our own directions, to find our own way. It is necessary for the trees to grow with us. Support is key. Our illnesses do not define us, and you remind us of that every day. We are not broken, though it certainly feels that way sometimes. Knowing you are in our lives gives us energy to continue dancing. Listen, guide, but do not force.

Life is filled with trauma from which you cannot protect us. Life is not fair. Not to anyone. We can all stare into the faces of our worst fears; they do not always disappear, though sometimes confronting our darkest moments can lead us into the light. Lend us your ears, hands, shoulders, and hearts. Banish thoughts of blame and guilt, as we look to you for solidity. We may fight with you, get angry, try to push you away. Understand that we appreciate you and this is not always reflected in our behavior. Love is the most powerful gift you can bestow. We need you, though we may be unable to ask for your help. At times you will feel you are failing. This is not the truth, and no one is perfect. Thank you for your patience.

Let us all leave our guilt in the past and move forward together, one step at a time.

–SJB

Mom, I hope you are listening.

“Cinderella: When the Shoe Doesn’t Fit” 04.05.24

There are billions of shoes in this world. Different sizes, shapes, colors. Shoes are designed for every day wear, special occasions, sports, and weather. Some shoes have matches, much to the dismay of children who can’t decide which pair to wear and wish to settle for both. Shoes can be uncomfortable and sometimes we are forced to wear them even while we scream the entire time they are donned, the socks bunched up at the toe. They can put us in a bad mood. Favorite shoes can lift our spirits and brighten our day. There are those of us who prefer not to wear shoes at all.

Once, there was a little girl and a pair of shoes so glamorous that even though they did not fit right away, she waited patiently with the hope that one day they would. At the age of four, she anticipated the day when her feet could fill a Women’s Size 9. Tucked under an arm, the shoes snoozed while she slumbered.

She aged ever so slowly. She wore other shoes. She had favorites, but she coveted this particular pair. She tried them on every day when she woke up, hoping for change. “One day, any day now,” she thought. She turned five. She turned six. Her feet grew, but somehow they were never the perfect size.When she was in the fifth grade, her feet stopped growing.

The shoes never did fit this little Women’s Size 7 “Cinderella.” It was disappointing to discover that all of this waiting had been in vain. “How could these heels tease me for so many years?” “Maybe they were not meant to be mine.” “Am I an evil stepsister, attempting to shove my feet into an unattainable dream?” Is it worth achieving success if you cut off your toes in order to fit into a life not suited for you?

There are many paths in life, many shoes to choose. We wear the shoes we are given until we grow out of them. Sometimes we don’t grow into the pair of shoes we dream of, but we can run along the path barefoot while we chase another.

–SJB

“Robin” 03.29.24

In 2013, during my stay in the first psychiatric hospital I visited, I bestowed upon everyone a fairytale name. Somehow, this made it easier to remember their real ones. Now I only remember their false names, save for a few. I named my best friend “Robin.” That is not his real name, but out of respect I will not share it. I do remember his name, though. He was not an imaginary friend, but a true one.

Robin and I spent many hours together, drawing and coloring. We spoke about complicated issues in our lives; had similar obstacles. Masks were not necessary, and truth flowed freely between us. Above all, we were good company for one another. I found it new and exciting to be understood and touched by the absence of judgement. It can be lonely in the “real” world, surrounded by people who cannot possibly see through our eyes.

For the past few days, a robin has been visiting the same patch of grass outside my kitchen window. I believe he is checking on me. Or, he is catching an early worm. He reminded me of my Robin. A warm feeling spreads in my heart when I think about him, followed by heartache. I miss him.

The closest friends I have ever encountered are unreachable. We didn’t share contact information, so sometimes I feel a little lost. I don’t know if Robin is stable, in a hospital, alive, or living a beautiful life. I can only hope he is happy, wherever he dwells. I may never see him again, but in my forest of friends, the trees sway together.

–SJB

“Why Me?” 03.22.24

Many years ago, I learned that routine is important in the life of someone who cannot remember appointments, loses track of time, and generally lets the day slip away without bearing much fruit. Routine is beneficial for people who often say, “I will do that tomorrow,” but “tomorrow” never arrives. Yesterdays are empty. Delayed gratification does not exist without structure.

I am one of those people.

My evening routine includes a cup of calming tea. I start to relax, losing touch with reality as I am engrossed in the pages of a novel. I typically cannot finish my tea before an ear-splitting scream emits from my phone; my alarm commanding the consumption of my meds. Hot tea does not mix well with cold water, so my stomach is uneasy for a while after. Every night, when that alarm startles me I ask myself quietly, “Why me?” “Why did this happen to me?” I feel a touch of resentment, but also a drive to help others; a sense of purpose.

Life is more difficult for some than for others. There are homeless people on the streets speaking audibly to the voices in their heads. Cardboard boxes once full of refrigerators house starving individuals who cannot afford proper medical care. Communities are assembled under bridges in order to protect and shelter people without the ability to hold jobs due to mental instability. I know how fortunate I am, resting in a warm bed, my voices contained inside my head. I frequently wonder why my mind is so drastically unique. I may never know why the burden of mental illness has been draped across my shoulders. Carrying that weight has strengthened my core. I realize that though my life is a roller coaster, there aren’t any empty seats on this ride.

–SJB

“Mental Problem” 03.15.24

*In case you don’t recognize the little guy with magenta horns, his name is “Berman,” and he is the personification of my mental illness*

***

Upon my initial visit with a new general practitioner, a nurse calculated my blood pressure and weight. I was evaluated based on a series of questions about depression. Do I often feel anxious? Am I often lethargic? Do I have negative thoughts? Am I suicidal, or a danger to myself and others? I answered these inquiries truthfully. When I met the doctor, she asked similar questions. I entered the building expecting to be physically examined. Within the course of fifteen minutes, my file contained her diagnosis.

“Mental Problem.”

***

I grew up in an environment rich with kindness, encouragement, and unquestionable love. My dad taught me how to draw and my parents nourished my creative energy. As a young artist, I was easily frustrated when my artwork did not reflect the images in my mind, but I pushed past this problem and began to enjoy the process. Fortunately, my life began with family support. My parents taught me to be myself, inspired me to make friends, to love my neighbors as myself, to solve problems with words. When words did not solve my problems, I ran fast; my dad would cheer, “Run like the wind!” My mom called me a “gazelle.” I wasn’t running away. I was running through.

My sisters proved that love at first sight is true, as I gazed upon their faces in the earliest moments of life. I had not smiled as wide, or laughed as loud before they were born; my only disappointment was that they didn’t enter this world capable of playing immediately. Problems like that were resolved years later, much to my chagrin. My family tree grew and was not complete until everyone was wrapped around each other. Our unconditional love binds us together at the roots.

Problems can be solved. Living with five other people was irritating at times. We argued, but we love each other more than petty disagreements. Our problems were solvable. Psychiatric illnesses are not problems; they do not cease to exist. Mental illness survives medication and therapy, though these are helpful tools. “Berman” roams freely through my mind, fully confident that he can squat there for as long as he desires.

Problems suggest fault. Blame. Conflict. Words are powerful; they have the ability to drag us down or to lift us up. Where others see problems, I witness strength. Mental illness is not a problem, but a journey. Some may think that the words “illness” and “problem” could be interchangeable, like “crazy” or “mad.”

Loosely worded, I may be “crazy,” but I don’t have a problem.

–SJB