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Monday, October 31, 2016

A Quick Timeout

Sometimes, when I am feeling horribly overwhelmed and exhausted with life, a simple timeout is all it takes to get myself re-grounded. During these timeouts, I try to take ten minutes or so sitting alone in a quiet, peaceful place without my phone in my hand or other distractions, and I focus on simply breathing and admiring the space around me.

My two favorite timeout places are the love seat in my bedroom and my back patio, which I find extremely peaceful with the help of this zenned-out guy and his colorful mushrooms.

Gnomie McZen and His Magical Mushrooms

I have had visitors for the last several days. Although I enjoy spending time with them, a timeout is definitely in order.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

A Trick That *Sometimes* Works

I have a life-long relationship with insomnia and other poor sleeping habits. Almost always, it's because my brain refuses to turn off, thoughts and scenarios and ideas babbling through the nooks and crannies of my stubborn mind. I have tried all the tricks the experts love to write articles about, but they simply don't work for me.

As a young child, I remember lying awake, frustrated, because the clock would indicate that it was approaching midnight and I was still awake. I complained about it all the time, but my parents never had a good answer. "Just relax and go to sleep," they'd tell me. I tried, but it never worked. I could never relax.

After my second daughter was born and postpartum depression slammed me like an avalanche, my sleep habits became even worse. Both my girls were fat, healthy babies and great sleepers. In fact, at a few months old, they both slept through the night regularly. Me? Everyone told me to sleep when the baby sleeps. But no, not me. I was wide awake, the exhaustion turning into adrenal fatigue. It was nature's little joke on me - the beautifully sleeping newborns and the dysphoric, manic mind. I felt like my skin was crawling every time I tried to close my eyes and fall asleep. I simply couldn't sleep and often went days on end with no sleep at all or a meager two hours here and there. The less I slept, the less capable I was of actually falling asleep. 

I have a hypothesis that my inability to sleep is what knocked me over the cliff into the abyss of psychosis. I believed, truly, that everyone would be okay and that it was no big deal if I slit my wrists. I would finally sleep, and everyone could move forward with life. I tried explaining my reasoning to my husband amongst a babble of god-knows-what else, who of course responded by taking me to a mental health crisis center. Obviously, I realize how insane that all sounds now, but I wasn't well at the time.

Many years later, I am a much better sleeper in general than I used to be for a few reasons, though I admit fully that some nights I still struggle. First, I learned I have food allergies that cause intestinal inflammation. I had dealt with the discomfort and pain for so long that I no longer recognized that I was uncomfortable. Eliminating the allergens from my diet and losing the pain was one of the most amazing feelings I have ever experienced. As it turns out, abdominal pain had spent many nights waking me up and not allowing me to sleep deeply. 

I also try to get just the right amount of weekly exercise. Too much and I struggle with physical fatigue that makes it difficult for me to relax; too little and I feel down and struggle with anxiety that keeps me awake. Along with a well-balanced diet, I feel healthy and sufficiently tired at the end of the day if I can hit that exercise sweet spot.

I have tried using melatonin, but it unfortunately makes my mind race, which can lead to anxiety attacks. So, when I am feeling fairly stressed before bedtime, I take an all-natural sleep aid called "Alteril". It gets mixed reviews, but it does a pretty good job quieting my restless mind when all else fails.

Finally, my most recent reason for better sleep is a trick that works more often than not: meditation. Hold on - don't roll your eyes. I know it sounds new-age and like I should be holding a crystal over my forehead, but hear me out. Before going to bed, I spend fifteen minutes lying on my back in Savasana on the floor while I listen to meditative music. During those fifteen minutes, I focus on relaxing every part of my body using my breath to release tension starting at my head and ending with my toes. Or sometimes I can't focus on that, so I allow my mind to create a peaceful picture and I imagine being in that place. I admit I completely suck at meditation because it is extremely difficult for me to lie still, but I swear it helps a lot. When I finally do go to bed, I feel much more peaceful and my mind usually ceases to run a marathon. 

Do you have any favorite sleep tricks?

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Emotional Health 101

When I'm having a particularly tough time and I need to battle negative thinking, gain perspective, or find motivation to do something healthy for myself, I have two fail-safe resources. The first is my therapist, an amazing woman who has helped me see the light during some of my darkest moments and helped me navigate some of the most difficult changes and self-discovery I have encountered. The second is an incredible online resource you have likely heard of: TED Talks.

I love TED Talks because of the diverse range of information presented. Want to learn a thing or two about teaching children? It's on there. Ever wonder what happens when a neuroanatomist has a stroke? Wonder no longer; the stroke survivor and brilliant mind of an amazing women is alive and well to tell you about it. Interested in orgasms? Having trouble dealing with a breakup? Looking to change careers? Struggling with infidelity? Fascinated by urban gardening? Seriously, it's all on there and beautifully presented by some of the most intelligent minds on this planet.

This morning a TED Talk article by psychologist Guy Winch popped up in my Facebook feed that I highly recommend reading: Why Rejection Hurts So Much and What to do About It. After reading his words of wisdom, suck it up and spend seventeen minutes of your life watching the video at the bottom of the article: Why We All Need to Practice Emotional First Aid

Having always been the annoyingly studious type (and I say this jokingly because I actually like this about myself), I jotted down a couple of notes as I listened to the talk:
  1. Change your responses to failure and battle negative thinking. Easier said than done, but an important reminder to fight the urge of the negative self-talk loop that I frequently find myself navigating. This is what Dr. Winch had to say about it:

    "Our mind is hard to change once we become convinced. So it might be very natural to feel demoralized and defeated after you fail. But you cannot allow yourself to become convinced you can't succeed. You have to fight feelings of helplessness. You have to gain control over the situation. And you have to break this kind of negative cycle before it begins." 
  2. When you find yourself ruminating on something negative, spend two minutes distracting yourself to break the cycle. My homework for the week is to force myself to think about something entirely different, preferably positive, when I inevitably find myself playing a negative memory or scene over and over in my mind. Again, this is what Dr. Winch stated:

    "When you're in emotional pain, treat yourself with the same compassion you would expect from a truly good friend. We have to catch our unhealthy psychological habits and change them. One of unhealthiest and most common is called rumination. To ruminate means to chew over. It's when your boss yells at you, or your professor makes you feel stupid in class, or you have [a] big fight with a friend and you just can't stop replaying the scene in your head for days, sometimes for weeks on end. Ruminating about upsetting events in this way can easily become a habit, and it's a very costly one... Studies tell us that even a two-minute distraction is sufficient to break the urge to ruminate in that moment."
One of my greatest mental health challenges has always been stopping the voice within myself telling me that I am not good enough, that I am a failure, that I am somehow undeserving of love and compassion. I found this particular TED Talk uplifting and a reminder to focus on being kind to myself every day regardless of whether I feel good or bad. If I am kind to myself when I feel down, I am instantly comforted because I know I care about myself enough to treat myself with compassion. When I feel content, I try to be kind to myself as a reminder that I am allowed to feel happy and at peace. Negativity becomes a habit, and it is easy to inadvertently believe that it should be my normal state of being. 

For the last several years, I have spoken openly about my personal battle with mental health issues. Why? Because I was taught not to. The rebel deep inside my soul knows that keeping this part of ourselves hidden is the worst way to find a sense of contentment and peace. We should allow ourselves to be loved as whole beings, not just the parts we are taught to show. If the people teaching me weren't going to break the stigma of depression and other mental struggles, then dammit, I was going to shed some light on the taboo topic and prove that one can be well and live a positive, enriching life despite a so-called "negative" mental health diagnosis. 

While I have indeed faced some truly ugly criticism from the occasional fellow human (Get over it! It's all in your head! Or worse: You shouldn't talk about that kind of thing.), the vast majority of people willing to open up in response to my unabashed honesty have admitted to struggling with depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive behavior, etc. Through therapy and discussions with the multitude of health professionals I have seen over the years, it has been made abundantly clear to me that taking care of my mental wellbeing is just as important as eating well, exercising, and getting enough sleep. With this in mind, my favorite part of Dr. Winch's presentation was his final point:
"By taking action when you're lonely, by changing your responses to failure, by protecting your self-esteem, by battling negative thinking, you won't just heal your psychological wounds, you will build emotional resilience, you will thrive. A hundred years ago, people began practicing personal hygiene, and life expectancy rates rose by over 50 percent in just a matter of decades. I believe our quality of life could rise just as dramatically if we all began practicing emotional hygiene. 
16:42Can you imagine what the world would be like if everyone was psychologically healthier? If there were less loneliness and less depression? If people knew how to overcome failure? If they felt better about themselves and more empowered? If they were happier and more fulfilled?... And if you just become informed and change a few simple habits, well, that's the world we can all live in."
I could not agree more.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Beginning of a Good Thing

Four years ago, I was in the worst shape of my life. Due to a random favor of genetics stemming from the line of tall, lean humanoids in my family, I was not overweight. My 5'6" body, however, was soft and somewhat flabby in all the wrong places, my energy level comparable to that of a sloth's, my exercise and eating habits at an all-time low. I walked somewhat regularly and enjoyed hiking, but that was the extent of my physical activity.

I had lost all the baby weight gained from growing and birthing two giant infants, but I had never returned to my previous early-twenties professional ballroom dancer physique. While I did not expect my body to appear identical to my pre-baby state, I did expect to eventually feel strong and healthy again. Much to my despair, neither attribute reappeared willingly. Mental illness, prescription medication, and a stressful career involving sitting on my rump in front of a computer several hours a day did not help my physical state, either. What a shocker, right?

At the height of my unhealthiness, I backpacked the Grand Canyon for the second time in my life. Yes, I realize that I had to be in somewhat decent shape to handle that kind of rigorous activity, but trust me, I was miserable. Not evident in the photo below was my belly bulging over the top of my pants - I really should have sized up, but I had ordered them online and did not have time nor the money to purchase a new pair before the trip. I remember hoping they would stretch out over the few days I would be wearing them - they didn't - and discreetly unbuttoning them to sit comfortably. Also not shown was the fact that a bipolar trigger had me pondering the very real possibility of stepping off over a cliff and putting an end to it all. Don't let the lovely red rock behind me and cute headband fool you. That smirk on my face says it all. I was not well, physically or mentally, when this photo was taken.

Stuffing my face with an energy bar while backpacking in 2012.

When we returned home from that trip, we were faced with some of the most stressful months of our lives as we sold a house that had been built in 1900 and moved our family to a new home in a much safer neighborhood. I am fairly certain I gained a few pounds and was in even worse shape after that, but there appears to be a lack of photographic evidence; probably because I shied away from the camera knowing I was going to feel bad about what I saw. That wasn't who I wanted to be, and I was miserable.

In hindsight, the move to our new house was where my journey to health began.

So what changed? Almost everything. I switched to primarily eating a whole-foods, plant-based diet, began exercising several times per week, made some great friends, and most importantly, I decided I wanted to live a healthy life. Sounds easy, right? No, I'm kidding. I know that none of the life choices I made were easy. They took years to incorporate, and they are a constant work in progress. But they were essential, and they eventually became habit to my state of being.

It all started with diet. Having been raised in a health-conscious family, I was well aware that frequent eating out, loads of carbohydrates and sugar, and highly processed foods blah blah blah were, in general, a bad idea. With an hour-long commute into Seattle, two young daughters, and full-time jobs, cooking dinner daily seemed impossible. It wasn't, but it took some time to figure out how to meal plan and do the shopping on the weekends to ensure we didn't pick up crap from a drive-through on our way home.

Next, I made a wonderful friend who lives only two doors down. Usually too reserved to seek out new friendships, I happened to get into a long conversation with her over wine at another neighbor's fire pit get-together one night. We had a ton in common with young children, similar upbringings, type A personalities, and instantly became good friends. One day several months after moving to the neighborhood, we had a text conversation that went like this:
A:    Want to come to a hot yoga class with me?
Me:  No.
A:    You should really come with me.
Me:  OMG no. Not happening.
A:     Please? You would LOVE it! Your body feels AMAZING afterwards!
Me:  Okay fine. I'll do one class with you. ONE CLASS.
Three years later, I am still hooked on hot yoga, particularly the power vinyasa classes. It's all my friend's fault, and I am forever grateful that she convinced my unwilling, stubborn (flabby) ass to leave the house and sweat miserably, all limbs shaking pathetically, in 105-degree heat. That week following my first yoga class, I experienced whole-body muscle soreness that rivaled the intensity of birthing my second daughter in the middle of my living room (true story).

I started slowly, taking one class a week for a few months. When recovering from the muscle soreness in between classes limited itself to only a couple days, then I started going twice per week. I have kept that habit for nearly three years now, and I went from struggling to hold Downward Dog for more than a few breaths to enjoying all kinds of crazy poses that I never thought I would be able to do.

Amazing capris and top from INKnBURN.
And yes, my walls really are painted like that.
October 2016 - Pasty White Girl Yoga Skillz
Months after beginning yoga, my friend once again convinced me to do something I considered borderline insane. That conversation went something like this:
A:    I want you to run a half marathon with me.
Me:  No. I hate running. 
A:    You should really run a half marathon with me. You would LOVE it.
Me:  In the event of a zombie apocalypse, I'd willingly be eaten first just so I don't have to run. 
A:    Please? It's not until June, so you have plenty of time to train.
Me:  Ugh... I'll think about it.
Eighteen weeks later, I crossed the finish line of that race having run the entire 13.1 miles. It was tough and I may have cried a little along the way, but I did it.

2014 Seattle Rock 'n' Roll Half Marathon Finish Line

And thus began the start of an incredible few-year journey to where I am today. I am in the best shape of my life, and yet, I have so many more physical and mental health goals to achieve. None of it has been easy, but if I have learned anything in the last four years, it is that health is definitely worth the uphill battle.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Partner in Crime

Twelve years and one day ago, I married a tall, skinny, dark-haired guy. We were young, fairly stupid, and stubborn as hell.

Two kids, a couple of mental breakdowns, a move across the country, a lot of therapy, countless miles run, and a ton of good humor later, here we are. In love. Madly. And still just stupid enough to spend our anniversary climbing a tall, rickety ladder, taking a leap of faith as we jumped off a platform, and trusting some stranger to catch us when we let go of the bar.

I am not going to lie - I was terrified to give the flying trapeze a try, but like our marriage, taking the plunge was worth the shaking hands. As soon as I jumped, there was nothing but the bar and my own body to trust to complete the tricks we were performing. And you know what? Like marrying that smiling cutie twelve years ago, it was an exhilarating and wild ride. I am glad I wasn't too afraid to take that risk. 

Saturday Morning Treat

I have a bad habit, and you are welcome to judge me harshly. On Saturday morning, I often enjoy one of these bad boys from a family-owned donut shop a mile from my house as I sip a full mug of steamy black coffee.

Yes, I realize that my deep-fried and glazed blueberry donut appears counterintuitive to the concept of health blogging, but humor me for a moment. I am a firm believer that moderation is the key to my own personal health, both physical and mental. I also sometimes eat a donut on Sunday as well *gasp*, but only after running six to ten miles. And on half marathon days, I eat ALL OF THE THINGS.

I am a big fan of the podcast Happier with Gretchen Rubin. If you have never read her books or listened to her podcast, I highly recommend giving her work some attention. Her second episode posed a fascinating question: "Are you a Moderator or an Abstainer?" Like many of her "get to know yourself better" questions, I was intrigued by the inquiry. Am I the kind of person who, despite best intentions to take only a few bites of a chocolate bar, eats the whole thing in one sitting, or can I enjoy just one square a day and feel satisfied? After pondering this for part of my morning commute (distracted driving = BAD), I realized that the dark chocolate bar actually sitting in the second drawer of my desk was the perfect indicator of my tendency. I can enjoy the chocolate bar over the course of a couple of weeks, which makes me a moderator. If I were an abstainer, my weekly donut indulgence would likely lead to a few-times-per-week or even daily habit. Thus, I would need to abstain from eating donuts all together lest I turn into one myself. Hey, you are what you eat, right?

It was through this realization that I was able to define why an occasional "bad" habit does not send me down a slippery slope of butter ending in a pile of sugar and lard that follow me throughout the rest of the week. I have no struggle enjoying treats in moderation, and my Saturday morning donut provides me ten to fifteen minutes of enjoyment and satisfaction that I feel I deserve after a week of intense activities and healthy foods.

I am curious about the eating habits of other runner/yogi/dancer/swimmer/active types. Do you prefer to follow a healthy diet 99.9% of the time, or are you comfortable enjoying an occasional treat?

Friday, October 21, 2016

Blog Version 2.0

I wish I could remember how I started my last blog, but the specifics have slipped into the deep abyss of forgotten memories along with many of the details from the days when mental illness consumed my life. It was a blog saturated with blunt and often painful honesty of what day-to-day battles tormented the mess of a young woman struggling with the changing diagnoses of postpartum depression, psychosis, severe anxiety, obsessive-compulsive behavior, and finally, bipolar disorder.

Following the years of manic energy involving moving to a different state, buying an old house I had never actually seen, and a consistent barrage of poor life choices, I stopped writing publicly as part of my ultimate decision to combat my mental health issues. In the several years since, I went back to school, landed a professional day job, moved to a new house in a safe neighborhood, fought to become the mother and wife I have always aspired to be, and finally managed to get my mental health and life to a much more balanced place.

Maybe my story isn't all that special or interesting, but I managed to climb my way out of rock bottom when I made the choice to keep living, and I am unabashedly proud of that accomplishment. I'm still here, and I have learned to love running along the less beaten path of my beautiful life.

Welcome to My Blog Version 2.0, and hang on. It's going to be an energetic (and hopefully uplifting) ride.
My Happy Place