Cartwheels across the room.

When I was little, I spent my weekday evenings in my parent’s room while my Dad lay on the bed reading. Usually his face was hiding behind a newspaper or magazine held up between his clutching hands. I tumbled around as he read, doing handstands at the foot of the bed and cartwheels across the room. I said silly things and asked questions every now and then to get his attention. This was how I spent most of my childhood with my Dad, desperately trying to get him to notice me and make a connection with him.

This yearning for his attention continued and has haunted me throughout my adulthood. As a child, I was able to playfully insert myself into his space, and I wasn’t developmentally aware enough to think to myself, “Hey, my dad’s not paying attention to me. That sucks. He’s my dad, he should be doing what parents are suppose to do!” As I grew into my teen years, my playfulness turned into an anger and frustration that my dad was neglectful and non-responsive. My mom was too, in a different way. Neither of my parents reflected back my feelings or asked what I thought or felt about something. Anything. It’s no wonder that, as a young adult, it was difficult to identify my emotions, much less describe or communicate them aloud.

Through years of therapy and learning Buddhist teachings, including mindfulness, I have explored my inner landscape. I have learned the language of emotion and learned to connect emotion to physical sensation and thought. I wonder how different my growth would have been if I had received therapy as a child. What if I had Cognitive Behavioral Therapy treatment? I would have started drawing my thoughts/emotions/physical sensations map at a much earlier age. In this way, I have been grieving my childhood. I developed a rage around what my life could have been.

I could have dealt with my depression and anxiety earlier in my life. I could have avoided the starts and stops in my life. It probably wouldn’t have taken me 10 years to earn my Bachelor’s degree. I would have applied to graduate school in my twenties instead of my thirties. I could have avoided all of those messy and painful relationships.

These are some thoughts that circled in my head for years. I held on to them, as I held on to my anger toward my parents for not connecting with me in the human way that every child needs from a parent or caregiver. Allowing these thoughts is fine, it’s good to let them flow, but, as Epstein (1998) wrote, “Isolated in our heads, we yearn for the kind of connection that our own thinking guards against” (p. 59). It’s the clinging to the thoughts and not working through the associated emotional and physical sensations bit that keeps us stuck in the mud. “This is…the heart of the Buddha’s teaching: that it is possible to cultivate a mind that neither clings nor rejects, and that in so doing we can alter the way in which we experience both time and our selves” (p. 62). This is also true of therapeutic work. By assisting clients with exploring, identifying, and describing their emotional experience, we guide them in literally changing their brain chemistry. We hold a space in which they can unfurl into themselves and feel more grounded in who they are.

This has been my experience. Through the combination of therapy and meditation and mindfulness practice, I have observed and felt my perspectives change. I have witnessed the growth I have made from emotional reactivity to an emotional regulation based on awareness. I have experienced the shift in relationships and how I view, understand, and connect with people, especially my parents.

I don’t talk with my parents very often and when I do, there is a specific purpose behind it, a question that needs to be answered. Also, I’m not a fan of talking on the phone but a couple of weeks ago I had the urge to call them just to say, “hi.” It was perhaps one of the best conversations I have had with them. I felt as though I talked to my parents for the first time as an adult and as myself. I didn’t trudge through the conversation distracted by the disappointment that my dad didn’t ask about me. I listened to him talk about his fishing and tennis playing. I really listened and I responded with curiosity and playfulness. And I interjected to tell him about my internship not because I was looking for a particular response from him or as a passive-aggressive way to tell him that he was a shitty dad for not asking about his daughter’s life. I told him because I was proud of myself. I am proud of myself. I know that I would not have gotten to this point if I had not tapped into and worked through the unpleasantness of my childhood. Getting in touch with that pain was difficult, torturous at times, but it also motivated me to work through it so that I could let it go. My pain was “an invitation to change” (C. Matsu-Pissot, personal communication, August 1, 2015). It’s an open invitation that I will continue to accept, as I know that this work is never done.

This is not a woe is me.

If you’ve been diagnosed with a mood disorder. If an inpatient stay has been scribbled in your record. If your suicide attempts have been clinically documented. It doesn’t matter how long ago these things happened. It doesn’t matter that you’re in a different space now. That you’ve been treated. That you’re in treatment. That those records don’t resemble your life now. That they are historical medical notes and a part of your history. They are your past.

The most stellar of stellar letters of recommendation or opinions are weightless. Professional decrees of support don’t matter. A formulaic combination of notes in your record add up to shoving you in a box. A box of “you’re not capable”.

I’ve been denied opportunities because of my medical history. I’ve been denied the option of volunteering in a particular program as a result of my medical history.  I’ve been mistreated because of my medical history. I’ve been forced in to following a punitive system intended to address behavioral and performance issues. A system that runs under the guise of counsel and support. News flash: depression is not a voluntary behavior. The impact of depression on ‘performance’ is symptomatic. And temporary. They are not performance issues as defined by the system. Punishment is not support. Allowing no room for medical context in the conversation is not counsel. Corrective action is detrimental and does not foster improvement or compassion.

As PC as we strive to be, bureaucracy dictates who passes, who’s allowed, and who doesn’t fit in to the mold.   {one of these things is not like the other}   The majority of our public systems is rife with rules and policies fortified by judgement and discrimination. You’re not aware of this until you or someone you know has run up against it. You can’t understand the impact unless you’ve been cornered into deciding whether to retaliate and muscle through the consequences or jump in to the box and just get through it. To steer these injustices toward a system that truly supports, these conditions must be made visible. By fists with pens. By a phalanx of words. To snuff out the stigma suffocating our basic human rights.

 

Sticky messy dirty thing.

It’s tricky attempting to talk about depression in a matter-of-fact way. One’s own depression that is. Especially with people who don’t understand it. Phrases like, “I feel depressed” or, “it was so depressing” get thrown around willy-nilly. The experience of true depression is lost in colloquialisms. The reality of it drowns in the notion that depression is feeling sad and, you know, everyone feels that way sometimes. Not true.

But how do you express the way depression dances you into the ground? You’re grapes between heavy toes of its stomping feet. How do you demonstrate the obsessive and stubborn self-deprecating thoughts that swirl and swirl and swirl and tie you down from idiosyncrasies, from the basic regularities of living?

I don’t think about my depression or how it’s affected me as much these days but the thoughts and memories inevitably surface. Except now, instead of wallowing, I recall the experience of depression as something I’ve worked at shedding. I think of it and smile to myself because of how I live now. That I live in the world present tense. But I’m a realist. I know it won’t completely go away. It comes and it goes. Depression visits regularly. But I don’t let it swallow me and spit me out into the world. I’ve learned to stand my ground. Shut it down. Tell it to fuck off. Let it run its mouth. It tries to convince me that I can’t accomplish my aspirations. That overcoming my fears is hopeless and foolish. I let it sit on my shoulder and scream in my ear. I can hear it. But I don’t listen. It lies and lies. It isn’t looking out for me.

Depression doesn’t take care of you. It isn’t comforting. Or honest. Depression isn’t part of who you are. It isn’t you. It’s a thing. A sticky messy dirty thing.

 

Hidden pictures.

“Hidden Pictures,” a Mental Health Documentary, Confronts a Global Stigma

Sonal is in a private garden, tugging at her necklace; a weariness in her eyes, she tells us, “I sometimes think, Is there a monster in me?” She’s a young woman with thick black hair and a kind face softened by big brown eyes. She lives in New Delhi with her mom, who worries that her daughter won’t find a husband. Sonal leaves home only when her mom takes her — over two hours each way — to see her psychiatrist: Sonal has schizophrenia.

In Hidden Pictures, physician and Seattle filmmaker Delaney Ruston takes us around the world and introduces us to individuals like Sonal who live with mental illness. The film screened at STIFF in early May, and was voted “most moving documentary” by the festival’s judges. Ruston says it will air on PBS stations soon. (Her documentary,Unlisted: A Story of Schizophrenia, which recounted her experience of her father and his schizophrenia, also aired on PBS.)

Through her lens we travel to five countries: India, South Africa, China, France, and the United States. We see glimpses of what life is like with a mental disorder, and how mental illness is viewed and treated in different parts of the world. The film is a patchwork of people with varying illnesses in assorted cultures, and as the personal stories unfold, we see that stigma permeates all borders. In this pioneering documentary,Hidden Pictures exposes us to an intimate view of mental illness on a global level.

In South Africa we meet Buyisva who has been diagnosed with depression and bipolar disorder. Like Sonal, she isolates herself from her community. “Maybe they will laugh,” she says. On the other hand, in Beijing, Tang Lei (“Jeff”) has been institutionalized for eight years with a diagnosis of schizophrenia, though he doesn’t appear to have a mental disorder.

Comparatively, France has one of the best health care systems in the world. All mental health care costs are covered, including therapy sessions for family members, but despite tremendous federal support, societal stigma remains. To treat his depression and anxiety, Steve spends six months at an inpatient hospital on the government’s dime, but after his recovery, he feels he has to hide his mental illness to find work. Steve’s mom doesn’t know what to tell people about her son so she avoids social events. The barnacle of shame that clings to mental illness affects more than the afflicted.

Anecdotally at least, it’s apparent that stigma against mental illness runs rampant. Regardless of culture, the shame associated with mental disorders exists in all demographics. Ruston “found it nearly impossible to find someone affected by mental illness — even leaders in mental health activist groups” she told Global Pulse, who was “willing to appear on-camera.” Stigma, Ruston concludes in her film, is found in “poor countries, rich countries, and countries known for strong family ties.”

Over 450 million people across the globe have a mental illness, but this number only represents incidences that have been reported, notes the World Health Organization. Almost half of those reported to have a mental disorder live in a country where there is one psychiatrist or less to serve 200,000 people. That’s like eight psychiatrists serving the 1.6 million people living in Manhattan, explains Global Pulse’s Emily Judem: “Worldwide spending on mental health is less than US$2 per person, per year. In low-income countries, that number drops to less than 25 cents per person, per year.”

In fact, claims mental health advocate Vikram Patel, “the treatment gap between developing and developed countries is 90%, and 50% of people in Europe don’t get care.”

If you see Hidden Pictures, it will be hard to ignore the role that stigma plays in the dire state of global mental health care. The degree of support that can be provided hinges on how high the stigma barrier climbs. Ruston aims to arm viewers with the knowledge and awareness needed to continue to break down the stigma barrier. The shame and misunderstanding surrounding mental illness must be dispelled, she argues, for effective progress to be made worldwide.

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Original article published on The SunBreak is here.

Know you will.

The length and frequency of depressive episodes, phases, bouts. Are different for every body. And the nature and course of these episodes, phases, bouts. Change over time. (Just to keep things spicy.)

Of the 15+ years I’ve had depression, I have not experienced the quick and frequent transitions between ‘depressed’ and ‘not depressed’ states as I have over the past year or so (note: just so you know, the experience of depression is not binary, though it may seem that way to the depressed person at times):

2 weeks: OK. 4 days: not OK. in bed. SLEEP. 8 days: Great! showering. brushing teeth. hanging with friends. 2 days: Heavy limbs. heavy eyelids. heavy blinds. dark dark dark. don’t speak. SLEEP… Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

Making these transitions. Adjusting to the social waking life after days of sleep in an isolated cotton sarcophagus. Up/down. Down/up. Physically/mentally/emotionally. Down/up. Down/up. Over and over again.
It’s tiring. It can be disheartening. It’s f*cking frustrating! But it’s doable. And worth it. It’s worth it to keep fighting until you get to a place where – you know you will. and believe you can – always pull through. You put that stronger-then-hope in your pocket. and you keep fighting the good fight.

A couple of my writings to illustrate these f*cking frustrating and worth it experiences.

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Is this a slow slithery descent toward depression? My feeling tank an empty canister. They’re silo-ed somewhere for my feelings to feel again. Why do they play hide-and-seek with me? I want to play hide-and-seek with the world. I want to keep my mouth shut from words and smiles. When I’m like this, they don’t make sense. They’re phony and lacquered in obvious forcefulness [everyone can see]. What do we do? Among consistently consistent social beings? What do we do in times like these?

Written Wednesday, August 8th, 2012 @ Smith.

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It’s a good thing that I don’t remember the feeling of waking multiple times throughout the day. To drawn blinds. Sounds of daily life outside. and sheets and clothes dampened by days of sleepy sedentary sweat.
I’m glad for walking sidewalks at night, but especially when I need sunglasses drawn to cut the sun from my daily activity. It’s me. Upright. And walking.
There are point A’s and point B’s. There are deadlines and other sides of conversations to retrieve. There are tasks to knock out or add to the list. check boxes that breath until after my wakeful mind and pen-ready hand lasso them in and grasp them by their boxy necks.

Check. Done. Check.

Written Thursday, September 13th, 2012 @ Smith. 
(Edited 9.20.12 and 11.29.12.)

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