Saturday, June 30, 2018

For a very depressed person, it can feel impossible to "ask" or "reach out" for help. Give them your words instead.

Maybe if we changed the name.

Maybe, not "mentally ill" anymore, which, in the minds of very sheltered, unenlightened people still conjures grainy images of abandoned brick buildings and barred windows, vacant, aimless hall walkers, and wards of untreatable outcasts shouting at ghosts in the overhead lights. 

Not helpfully, in my town, our former "state hospital" (you know what that means) still looks like this on one unattended side----->

And, yes, those are bars.

We can't correct the terms of the past. We can't retro-label those lost souls who did wander halls and battle with overhead lights as mentally more-than-just-ill. 

But we can distance from the old associations with the words mental illness; a scar on the psyche - easy to cover up, but you know, there just the same. 

It is these perceptions that lodge like splinters in the minds of sufferers who are not crazy, or damaged or doomed, but are as nice and earnest and hard-working and kind as anyone, with one exception: 

However they got there, they've found themselves at the bottom of a hole feeling so deeply, impossibly, and hopelessly sad and disoriented, they sometimes don't have the energy to cry. 

For a person who is in that hole, this does not feel like a setback or a lack of energy. It feels like the new truth of their life. It feels beyond the reach of a friend's encouragement, or counseling, or chemical intervention, or a change in diet or location or career. 

It feels like forever. 

As a co-worker used to say before showing me how to avoid a disastrous mistake: "Ask me how I know." 

My first experience with depression came with a move to the opposite coast, one day after marrying my husband. I left my friends and family and job behind, not to mention a sweet, single-girl apartment which offered a view of the water if you carried a chair to the roof, stood on it, and looked through the trees in February with binoculars. 

The second came after the birth of one of our children. Every morning, I woke tired. Every day felt dense with fog until I stopped expecting sunny weather at all. I was exhausted of course, but oh my God, the guilt, because, oh my God, look at this gorgeous baby. And yet, there I was with a brain full of this: 

I knew I'd moved from an early to later stage when I couldn't shake the frightening feeling  that this would not get better.  For weeks, I scrutinized my mood. Is it better? Is it better yet?  

I was lucky. In both cases, my depression lifted spontaneously; in the first case ,with intensive contact with my family and friends back home, and in the second, with a hormonal makeover almost three months to the day of its onset.

Depression used to be explained in terms of a person's fit with their life; their ability to cope with setbacks, or their negative self-talk, or, in the minds of the sheltered and unenlightened, their weakness or strength. It is no wonder that sufferers are reluctant to ask for help; the most remote possibility that they will be accused of failing themselves, or not helping themselves hard enough is unbearable. 

Please hold while I feel my full contempt for sheltered, unenlightened thinking.



We know better, now. We know we can be mentally healthy, develop a problem, become mentally unhealthy or "stalled", but regain our health with attention, intervention, and action and become stronger than we ever might have been otherwise. More and more we are seeing this recovery the way we see people take exercise to heart after a serious not-mental-illness, and wind up running marathons, or teaching others to honor their own bodies.

And, you'd think we'd be blasé now, nonchalant about someone struggling with a mental health issue, the way we would be if Karen in Accounting had bronchitis, another not-to-be-screwed with ailment which is highly treatable with medication or other treatment. 

You wouldn't tell Barry from HR about Karen's bronchitis in hushed tones by the coffee maker, but that's how a lot of people talk about someone who is coping with depression or some other disorder. Worse, it's how a lot of people fighting it think about it.

Even with celebrities coming forward and nice people saying, "it's okay, it's okay," people suffering their own mental health disorder often will not - without swift and meaningful attention - see themselves in those shoes. 

Their shoes are different. They aren't even shoes. They're slippers. Nobody talks about slippers. 

Very depressed people often have given up and simply want to avoid scaring others, shaming themselves, or discovering the worst thing of all: that they can't be helped like the ones who wear shoes.

This is what they do, before they are saved.

Before they are saved.

And that is the way to think about people who are struggling with mental health problems, whether fleeting, chronic, or hidden.

They are stranded, in their dark holes, wearing their slippers-not-shoes.

Struggling with a mental health issue alone is the loneliest thing in the world and it breaks my heart to know there are people who would do anything for someone in their kind of pain, but won't do it for themselves.

So, I plan to be brave enough to approach someone who might be underwater. If it's too hard for them to converse, I'll write them a card, or pass them a note.

I plan to make noise about this. I've got some words and I know how to use them. I hope you will, too.

Monday, June 11, 2018

I want to check a new box. Wish me luck.

I believe:
The more you've gone through, the more you can teach others. The less you've gone through, the more you should let people teach you.

I don't how many times I have looked at a person's situation that I would not want in my own life and speculated on what I'd do if I were them.

It's my favorite thing that I don't do anymore.

But I do know how many times I've looked at a person's situation that I would like very much to have in my life and have had not the first idea of how to get it.

I don't want to do that anymore.

Recently, I posted this observation on Facebook:   For everything I don't do or say anymore, there is something I haven't learned yet.

A few months ago, in that spirit, I decided to finish my degree in Psychology. I will start in the fall. I will attend full-time and on campus. It will take a year.

This unset jello of an idea formed while I sat in the Mass General lobby waiting to visit a friend. I watched these young, dynamic surgeons floating around, and remembered when I went to college there in Boston, completely unprepared to see it through which I didn't.

I recall that lack of resolve with difficulty, the way you hear a song you know by heart, without remembering why it once moved you.

I have that resolve now.

I have watched my four children receive their bachelor's degrees, and one her master's. I have been stung by the experience of failing to secure a job beneath my ability because I didn't push myself harder when it was me floating around the city, and should have. 

I don't want any more should have.

One very early morning in January I thought about that stay or go juncture, what it represented, and what I couldn't do for a long time because of the choice I made. I thought about how exponentially hard subsequent attempts were after children came, and, I thought about what I couldn't have in common with them.

Couldn't say from where I graduated, but only where I "attended."

Couldn't check off the BA box, but only the "some college" one.

Couldn't secure an interview for a recruiter's position in a small hospital after I'd supervised the benefits department at a major hospital for three years.

Couldn't share stories with my son of crossing the same stage, degree in hand.

I don't want any more couldn't.

What if, I thought at first, that morning. With  some musing, imagining, visualizing, loose planning, it became

Why not?

And then:

Seriously. Why not?

I guarded this idea while it was still unset jello. I was fragile enough over the size of it  that had anyone echoed my own doubts with a "Really? Why now? You seem to be doing well without it," I might  have bailed.

I don't want to bail any more.

But the reaction to this from everyone – my  husband, kids, friends, family – was sweet in the way it formed. First, a pause, a startled look, and then an expression which showed me how this idea looked through the eyes of people who care for me. 

And, their words: 

Thaaaaat's soooooooo awesome. – THAT is SO AWESOME!
You'll kill it, you will.
Oh my God, I am so proud of you  
Oh wowwwwww.
This won't end with a BA. You'll be Dr. Bonifant before it's over.
You're doing that. Okay. Good. I always hoped you would.

The reactions shouldn't have surprised me. Unlike I will, these people will not think more of me just because I moved to the next box.  

But it came well after I'd already decided to commit and been accepted, and it came after I'd prepared a good three word response to the "Really? Why now?" reaction, even though later, I wondered why I'd even dignify with a response, a thing that only a perfect ass would say. But here it is anyway:

I need to.

Wish me luck.

I'm a little unsure.

I don't want to be unsure anymore.

I want to check a new box.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Life's thank you card

Every late spring-early summer, after the trees leaf, I try to go out in the morning and catch the day as it blooms. I watch the sun blink through the leaves like tiny headlights,  I smell the lilacs, and hear the black capped chickadees

I start to think about eating outdoors, and putting the top down on my car and changing my closet over and getting a tan. I get giddy about making plans, and seeing friends and watching nine o'clock sunsets. I can only describe it as a feeling of possibility that comes with this luxurious treat for the senses.

In those moments, I remember that a year ago was just like this, as was the year before that. And the year before that.

It is hard to remember ever wishing such a beautiful thing away because you were eager for what was coming next. 

It reminds me of being five or six, and knowing that when those pumpkin cut outs went up on the window, never mind Halloween, Christmas was coming. 

But there it is, life's thank you card for appreciating it:

Dear person, 

Allow me to present this perfect spring-summer day with my thanks in advance for being in the moment enough to see it as if for the first time. 

May I encourage you to remain firmly enough in the moment to believe everything you feel because everything you feel is coming from everything you see and hear before you? 

And, may I invite you to remember that when it rains, when the leaves fall and when the snow flies and the temperature drops, you should not blame me, but seek the shelter of your own strength, and trust that I will always send you the days of hope that will sustain you. I promise, they will look exactly like this one. 

Year after year. 


Your friend, 


Friday, May 4, 2018

Fear is not information. Unless it's April.

 April always seems to 
come with one of these.

Every April, about a month before my birthday, I have what I like to call "birthday anxiety," but what my doctor prefers to call "health anxiety."


Health anxiety is the little mind troll that tells you, despite hard evidence to the contrary, that you're actually at death's door. It's job is to take your attention away from other problems that are harder to address.

The good thing about health anxiety is that eventually, you'll be assured that you're fine and can now attack that pile of issues you left lying on the floor like unfolded laundry.

How I handle April health anxiety:

Start the month with mixed feelings about my birthday next month.
Experience a symptom.
Feel confident that I've never experienced it before.
Experience the symptom more than once.

Google the symptom with a question like, "what does sharp pain in my calf mean?" 
Feel relieved that I only typed "what does sharp" before the search box filled in the rest which means other people wonder too.

Skim past usual causes in order to dwell on the outer possibilities: tumor, blood clot, impending heart attack, failure of some other major organ, or soft mass of something bad.

Look for suggested home cures like ice and Advil. 
Learn that home cures are not suggested.
Read suggestion to "see a doctor as soon as possible" to rule out a serious illness.

Decide which serious illness it probably is.

Consider who should know first about my serious illness. 
Decide to tell Larry, maybe friends, but hold off on kids and siblings.

Google again but with a friendlier question, like, "why does my leg hurt?"

Explain illness to Larry who suggests I call our family physician, Dr. Milligan.

Think about calling Dr. Milligan for two days and get anxious.

Call Dr. Milligan. Find out he's on vacation for a couple of days.
Opt to wait for him even though google suggests immediate attention.
Begin to wonder  how Dr. Milligan will tell me the bad news.
Think about that for two days and feel sad for both of us.

Sit in the examination room in a gown waiting for the nurse.
Learn from the nurse that my blood pressure is "alarmingly high."
Start crying when Dr. Milligan comes into the room because, now, on top of everything else, I have a blood pressure issue.
Tell him what I learned on google.
Find out from Dr. Milligan that I don't qualify for any of the google results. At all.

Agree with Dr. Milligan that Google is not a doctor.

Talk about what else is going on in my life, which is much.
Talk about mortality and losing my dad and watch Dr. Milligan squint while he connects the dots.
Consider pointing out to Dr. Milligan that he has incorrectly used the term "health anxiety" when he meant to say "birthday anxiety."
Consider instead, that they may be the same thing. 

Have an ultrasound which is negative.
Go home with instructions to ice and elevate and take Advil, and also monitor my blood pressure because it was "alarmingly high" during my visit.
Agree to see an orthopedic person if it doesn't improve.

Monitor blood pressure and get normal results twice a day for six days.
Think about googling "health anxiety" but decide against it.

Plan a special getaway for my birthday.
Pledge silently to look at life in a grateful way for the next eleven months.
Realize that the best things I've learned came after the hardest things I've been through.
Look to the sky and tell my dad I miss him.
Wait some more.Finally receive a response from the clouds that says:

For people like you and me fear is bigger than the things we actually have to deal with.

Know that I will remember that, and not just in April.

The end.

I have a week to go until my birthday.
The signs are that I'll make it.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Up close beauty

It used to be a better view
Years ago, we bought a densely wooded lot in our town and built the home where we raised our children.  

I visited the site the day they cleared, and found the builder standing alone at the edge of the area, arms crossed, eyes scanning the terrain and the stumps and stray limbs that lay everywhere. 

"It's so violent," he said quietly.

He was right. There's no other word for it. When healthy trees come down, there's no other word for the sight and sound of it.

Eight years ago, we sold that home and moved to a smaller, secluded property in the woods.

I had to get used to it – the trees on all sides were right there and I felt crowded.  But because I am also a solitary person who loves privacy, I loved the tranquility inside my circle of trees. For eight years, I have done my most thoughtful work and found the easiest connection with my soul looking into those trees.

Our neighbor wants a better view.

Two Sundays ago, he dropped by.  "Hey," he said, getting out of his pickup, "Just want to let you know, we'll be clearing some trees. Actually," he chuckled, eyeing his property line, "a lot of trees."

We are on a hillside which rises behind us to a ridge where three houses sit in a row, all with views out to mountains far in the distance. In front, our property slopes to the street below. One neighbor behind us has cleared everything down to our property line to enhance his view, leaving us with a skimpy barrier of only a few trees. His neighbor, our Sunday visitor, would follow suit, clearing  straight down to the road below.   

He had a few acres - birches, hemlocks and oaks. They'd all go. And like our barrier disappeared behind us, so would our barrier to the right be thinned to almost nothing.

"Happy to take some of yours too, if you want, I'd be willing," said our neighbor.

Of course he would be. What's better than a better better view?

It began at once. From a bedroom window, I saw the glint of equipment through the branches, and felt the earth rumble with the vibration of treads. I heard the sound of saws and the whine of mammoth earth-clearing machines as they crawled up and over the hilly terrain.

It's hard to watch. Machines rumble through with extended arms that grasp the tree around the trunk like a brute seizing a victim's neck. Then, they yank, and finally rip the compromised tree from its roots.  When those trees are first torn from their place, a disturbing moment follows when the jaws of the equipment shake them free of any remaining connection to the earth.

Four days later, a forest was gone, and a fence of spindly survivor-trees stood swaying alone.  

It's his property, of course. It's his right.  

Little can be done to thwart the will of such people once they have the money and opportunity along with the legal right to do as they see fit. But there is only one kind of reasoning that grips people who remove real beauty to look at the picture of it, too far away to be real or flawed, and it is: because they feel like it.

It's so violent.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Dad in the armoire

Dad? Are you in there?
It's me, Susan.
Last week, I sat on my bed staring at a moss green fleece in my sweater closet, deep in thought about a book I've been writing since I was, let's say, much younger.

It's unfinished. It may stay unfinished because I feel about this book like I do about Burger King whoppers. I remember when I loved them but can't imagine wanting one now, and I can imagine anything.

And just like that, my dad's voice was in my head: 

What could you have done while you were finishing a story you don't care about? 

I wrote this down. It was mantra-quality.

"Is there more?" I asked this armoire-dad

There was a lot more, and I wrote that down, too. And I'll tell you what, it was like I was hearing the words of the Man Upstairs himself, instead of  his new friend, my dad.

Now. Does that mean I sit on my bed and open my armoire when I need advice?  

Yes, it does.  I've been back a few times.

Decide if you're trying to understand someone or make them understand you.  
---green cardigan-dad

Your words are a gift. Don't make them weapons.
---shell pink tank and cardigan-dad

Honesty and kindness are more important to you than having the last word.
---wheat v-neck-dad

Most opportunities to be suspicious are the same opportunities to trust. Choose trust.
---black v-neck-dad

Two things have to happen before you believe your closet is talking to you. First, you must be contemplative, reflective, and meditative. Second, you must have lost, and miss badly, a person who knew you so well, you'd never try to conceal an important emotion because he or she would detect it and describe it for you, and share a similar feeling that they had once.

That kind of missing won't kill you, but something of your missed one must remain in your life, maybe in the form of conversations with someone who knew your missed one as well as you did, or, if possible, your raspberry summer cardigan.   

It's become my belief that wherever we were when we allowed insight to settle the soul - the parking lot at Rite Aid, the bend in the road near my mailbox - or allowed a revelation to overwrite old ways of thinking - near exit two on route 89, looking at my neighbor's house from my kitchen window - we will expect more of the same on returning and probably get it.

Because expectation is half of receiving.
---Susan Bonifant.

Some people go to the ocean. Some go to their fireplace. And, some go to their furniture.

May no one ever be helpful enough to suggest to me that it is not my missed one I'm finding there, but my own counsel; that it isn't a kind of peace I'm left with, but a state of attunement to the deepest depths of grief,  that my moss fleece is just a moss fleece.
Conversations with my armoire-dad will never be like the lunches we used to stretch into two hour dates. But if I can't anymore say to his tilted, interested face, "Here's something I'm trying to figure out,"  I can pick a spot – or sleeve – to focus on, and before long my deepest issue, worry, or concern will wiggle its way to the front of my mind.

You've been taking your own advice and asking me to help you trust it. I was only holding your coat.
---burgundy tunic-dad

A couple of weeks ago, I struggled with my own judgment about something and was trying to decide how to respond, and noticed that while trying to be more candid I was only beginning to feel pious. There was no good response, any comment I might have made would have been superfluous. 

Don't act on anything while you don't like the way you are seeing yourself
--- new pullover which is some color between brown and charcoal and doesn't go with any of my shoes-dad

In the five months that have passed since I lost my dad, I've been feeling drawn to a "next book" which could be a new way of thinking or a new way of life. It's not something I'm building. It's a thing that is there and waiting for me to find it. 

Like Dad in the armoire.

It's already happening. I've made some small decisions about new things I need or old things I no longer want, and one big one to return to school in the fall and finish my degree work.  Go Wildcats.

It's counter-intuitive but healing, this time of personal retooling that has followed the loss of a go-to who kept me grounded.  It feels like I've taken off tight shoes to think about rewriting the decades ahead. 


Regret is worse than guilt and nothing is sadder than the words "I should have."  
---gray sweater jacket-dad

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Therapy envy: when people want help, know they can get it, and still won't go.

Here is a picture of someone who looks like
she found the right therapist the first time.

I want to talk about therapists  again, and not just because I talked with three people last week who need one (in their opinion, not mine).  

When I was in my mid-twenties and bad at "life," I wondered what it would be like to see a therapist instead of pretending to be other people all the time.

You readers who need a therapist right now know what I'm talking about. 

It was at a time when pretty much everyone was recovering from eating disorders in college, binge-drinking in college, bad relationships in college, grades that disappointed their parents in college, and perfectionism that they brought with them to college like little portable jails of "not good enough."

It was not unusual in those years to hear someone offhandedly refer to what "my therapist says." It was confusing though, because it always came from people who seemed to have their act together; like they were mental health-slumming, probably-okay people with issues of conflict-envy, as opposed to others of us who wanted to be okay but weren't, and had therapy-envy.

You readers who have ever had the question rolling around in your head,  Do I want to see a therapist?, if you find yourself envying other people who are in therapy, the answer is yes, you do.

I've seen therapists at different points in my life over mostly transitional issues, from becoming an adult to becoming a mother to becoming somebody else that I didn't know yet. Some had issues that rivaled my own. But the first and last ones changed my life.

I found the first one in the phone book, left a message and a number and lost twenty pounds while I waited for a return call.

I'm not kidding when I say that taking that call when it came was one of the bravest things I've ever done.

I answered mercifully few questions over the phone ("Um,,, C-O-O-K")  and made an appointment. I didn't tell anyone, because as soon as I made the appointment, the other side of my brain stepped forward to remind me that only messed up people who can't handle life seek therapy.

"Actually, only strong people who know they deserve to be happier seek therapy," said my therapist about that.

He was about ten years older than I was. He was energetic, like runners are when they aren't running, with an overtly positive attitude, cheerful eyes and an easy smile. It took seconds to trust him. 

At the end of the visit, when I was already elated over this find, he said, "And by the way? You're not messed up. Not by a long shot."

I got into my car and cried.

I saw him once a month until I moved away. Not once during that time did I say to someone, "my therapist says," because, to me, the work of learning to live as just me all the time was sacred. 

Here are some things to expect if you've made the decision to try therapy and have moved to the next step of shopping for one.

First, you may meet the wrong one first.

I was lucky. But here are some examples of therapists who are the reason people say, "Nah. I tried that, not for me."

One suffered chronic health issues and injuries and showed up each week splinted, bandaged, or in the grip of some allergy crisis. He was more miserable than I was. "So," he'd sniff and say. "How was your week?"  Once, he blew his nose when I answered.

One struggled with hot flashes. "God. Hold on, I've got another one," she'd say, waving her hand back and forth in front of her face.

One constantly interrupted to paraphrase. "Okay, so what you're saying is..." and constantly missed the point.

One kept losing  track of her own comparisons of  people to countries. "Okay. So he's Germany and let's say you're...Spain! Okay? So. You're Spain and you don't speak"  

Second, you may fear being changed, or forced to reveal something, or judged.

Know that therapy isn't about being changed. It's about being heard. Change may result from the experience of talking without filters, and being heard without judgment, but it will be your idea to change your life, or accept it as you gain clarity. It won't be forced on you.

Third, you may feel inarticulate, torn between issues. 

When big problems can't be fixed easily, some of us make small problems bigger so that we can at least solve something. I stopped writing the year my brother was dying. My job was making me unhappy, my husband was away all the time,  my fourteen-year-old cat had passed away in the night and in a few months, my last two kids would be leaving home. I decided to give therapy a last shot.  She was my age, smart, and to the point. She listened to my laundry list of woe and said, "You said you used to be a writer. Aren't you still one?"  Bingo.

A good therapist won't fix your problems, but they will help you pull them out and put them in order.

Fourth, people who need therapy, but don't think it will help, sometimes just need to be miserable for a little while longer. Frustration and disappointment and anxiety aren't happy states, but as powerful as these forces are apart, when they meet and make a braid, they can fire the will to change. That change can start in a therapist's office where you no longer doubt it will help, but expect it to. 

I want to make this point more than any other:

People who think therapy is for crybabies or navel-gazers or spoiled people who don't know how good they have it, need to think about the last time they sat with a good friend who listened, didn't interrupt, and didn't judge while they described a problem, trauma, dilemma, or massive life change. They need to know that the good feeling that came from the experience, maybe one that made them cry in the car,  is also known as "healing."