New Year Optimism: Happy 2018!

I love New Year’s Day. I wish that I could boil this feeling down into concentrated drops and place one under my tongue every morning, so that each day starts with this page-turning feeling full of possibility and hope and freshness. There’s no reason it shouldn’t. My intention for 2018 is to make that a practice.

2017 was a very difficult year for me, as it was for many people. Beyond the state of the nation and the daily onslaught of horrible news, I went through some personal crap that really hurt me. I became obsessed with those events and the feelings they triggered, my brain repeating and magnifying the pain on a non-stop loop that would literally wake me up at night. That negativity became a sort of involuntary, wordless mantra that crept into all aspects of my life.

The good news is that I’m old enough and self-aware enough to realize that this is not okay and furthermore, this is not ME. I have learned, after years of managing depression, to separate the part of my brain that beats me up from the part that is worth protecting, and I can intervene. (Worth noting: if you cannot see that separation or you can’t muster the will to intervene, that’s when you need professional help.) So I fought it, but it’s been a tough battle that I’ve been fighting for the better part of a year.

Apparently, as every podcast, self-help book and spiritual tradition in the world will tell you, the solution to this swamp of negativity is gratitude. Over the last month, I’ve received that message in a hundred different ways: notice the good. Be grateful. Celebrate what’s right, what’s working, what you have. Direct your focus to the positive things.

So, that’s the plan for 2018: to be more deliberate about noticing the good, being grateful and celebrating. This applies to everything: my job, my home, and especially myself. I want to keep a gratitude journal but I also want to pause several times a day to quickly inventory what’s good in the moment. I want to develop a new pattern in my brain.

In that spirit, I sat down this morning and made a list of good things that happened in the generally craptastic year of 2017.

GOOD THINGS THAT HAPPENED IN 2017

The Women’s March: I walked in the Women’s March in Orange County last January and it was incredibly uplifting. Throughout all the ugly political news of the year, I could close my eyes and remember what 20,000 people marching in solidarity looks like, and know they are just tiny sliver of people in this world who will stand up for good.

Murphy’s Surgery:  In 2016 I found and fell in love with an injured stray dog who needed an expensive knee surgery. In February 2017 I was able to get him that surgery, thanks to donations from friends and a charitable grant. A couple weeks ago, we watched this little guy running on the beach in blissful abandon: four solid knees and one huge pit bull smile.

Our garden:  My daughter and I removed some ugly old shrubs in our tiny back yard and replaced them with a bed of interesting plants and a raised vegetable garden. Some of our plants were more successful than others, but the process was a pleasure, and we ate food that we grew ourselves, so we’ll call that a win.

Reconnecting with an old friend: This was a twofer. My dear friend from high school, Christina, is also a writing coach and all-around wise woman. We went for years without talking, then years when we’d talk once or twice. In 2017 we began regularly scheduled calls where we’d have a long talk, then do a writing prompt together. From those calls, I got writing practice, some desperately needed human connection and a reminder of who I am from someone who knows me better than almost anyone. (A threefer, I guess.)

New Job: I started a new job in 2017 that pays much better than my old one and offers better opportunity for professional growth. It also brought new friends, a new area of SoCal to explore and an hour-long commute, which seemed like a minus until I started thinking of it like this: each day, my commute affords me a couple hours of solitude in which to listen to audiobooks, music and podcasts…which brings me to…

Podcasts: I found some podcasts that I love. Thank Oprah for Super Soul Conversations which has featured some of my heroes including Elizabeth Gilbert, Cheryl Strayed, and my new guy, Shawn Achor, whose book The Happiness Advantage is first on my reading list for 2018.

The Story Intensive: Christina recommended an online writing course called The Story Intensive that I completed in the fall. It was difficult and uncomfortable, and I learned a lot about my writing and myself. I also wound up with new writing friends around the world, a draft of a short story of which I’m fairly proud, and a renewed relationship with writing.

Morro Bay Girls: Out of the blue, I got an invitation to spend the weekend at a beach house in Morro Bay (on the Central California coast) with three cool women, none of whom I knew well (outside of Facebook) before that weekend. Just hanging around those girls in that sleepy, beautiful place was a balm to my heart. We’re having a replay this weekend and I can’t wait.

Last night, I was ranting about what a terrible year it was; how glad I was to see it go…and this morning, after making this list, I realized that there was a lot to be grateful for. I want to notice the good things in real time and not let the pain of life cancel out all the joy. So, more lists, I say! Lists every day! Notice the good things, document them, celebrate them. Train my brain to be constantly on the lookout for what’s positive.

Happy New Year—regardless of what kind of year it turns out to be—let’s be happy in 2018.

Butthead Chatterbox: The Very Worst Word

When my son was very small, the worst word he could think of was “butthead.” Mo was shockingly articulate even as a preschooler. He had quite a vocabulary, but his arsenal of insults was still pretty childish. “Butthead” was his big gun. I don’t know where he picked it up, but can still picture him, about four years old and furious. He paused mid-rant to muster the courage to use it, or maybe he paused for dramatic impact—but I remember that hesitation and then his angry little face as he spat the word: BUTTHEAD.

Children are so literal. I can imagine why my son found that word so offensive. Picture a butt in place of a head–awful! Ugly, freakish… and if you are a butthead, whatever comes out of your face is poop, right? Taken literally, “butthead” is downright disturbing.

With my daughter, the worst word was “chatterbox.” Maddy is a born talker. It’s in her genes. Every time someone called her a chatterbox, she was crushed. “Aw, honey,” I’d soothe, “It’s not a mean word; it just means you talk a lot. Our whole family does. Don’t feel bad.” But she did feel bad; she felt gravely insulted whenever someone used that word to describe her.

Finally, I got it out of her: when Maddy was little, she equated the word “chatterbox” with the term “litter box.” No wonder she was offended. Is there anything more disgusting than a litter box? A stinky, messy box full of dirt and poop? (Again with the poop. It’s a recurring theme with children.) For some reason, her childhood brain overlapped those two concepts and every time someone teased her about talking too much, she felt like she was disgusting. Poor kid.

Despite my rich and varied repertoire of curses and insults, for me, the worst word is “worthless.” I’m not sure why that one hurts so much. I can’t recall anyone ever calling me worthless. No, the only person who ever uses that word about me is me. “Worthless” is a word that creeps into my head when my depression is acting up. In fact, that’s how I recognize that it’s depression. I really, really hate that word and I don’t use it….but my depression does.

If you’ve never struggled with depression, that may not make sense to you. Depression is not the same as being sad. If I tell someone I’m depressed, and they ask what’s wrong, I know they don’t get it. Nothing is wrong except my brain chemistry, which is telling me that everything is wrong. It tells me repeatedly and aggressively that EVERYTHING IS WRONG and there’s no hope of it getting better. There are no voices in my head—nothing that dramatic—it’s just my own thinking gone askew. I know it’s false; I know it’s chemical. But it still really, really sucks.

You know when you have PMS and you fly off the handle for some stupid reason, and you know it’s stupid but you can’t stop? Or you start crying and you realize it’s just your hormones but you’re not any less sad? Same idea. I have dealt with depression for most of my adult life. I usually recognize it as biochemical nonsense, but that doesn’t always make it easier.

“Worthless,” I’ll hear myself thinking. “This is all worthless. Why even bother? Nothing is going to change. Nothing is getting better. This is a hopeless waste of time.”

Truth be told, this is why I haven’t posted in weeks. I’ve been fighting with my moods. I have written a few posts, but I always abandon them when those vicious thoughts begin. If I write about depression, I sound whiny. If I pretend everything is fine and blog about something else, I sound false.

When I’m depressed, the critic in my head is blown all out of proportion and nothing gets past it. Everything is worthless: blogging, Weight Watchers, trying to save money, trying to be good mom…all my productive, healthy impulses are subject to attack.

When I was in therapy, they referred to this as “cognitive distortions,” which basically are flawed thinking patterns. They taught me how to counter those thoughts with more realistic, sensible ones. That helps—recognize the falsehood and replace it with something truthful.

When I was religious, they said those thoughts are the voice of The Enemy (yep, that means Satan) trying to bring you down. I know it sounds loopy, but it’s one of the more helpful lessons Christianity taught me: you don’t have to own every thought that comes into your head. You can reject the bad thoughts because they aren’t coming from you. Again, recognize the falsehood and replace it with something truthful.

One of the most useful techniques for fighting depression is a sort of hybrid of those two concepts. I can’t remember where I learned this—possibly from a David Burns book? The idea is that you reject those negative thoughts and refuse to own them—in fact, you give that ugly voice in your head a name. You give it a separate identity from yourself, and then you tell it to shut up. You tell it it’s wrong, and you tell it why, and you take a stand in your own head against the crazy talk.

I know, sounds like goofy psychobabble…whatever. Try it next time you’re beating yourself up. It’s pretty effective.

As I’ve been working on this post, I thought of a perfect name for my ugly depression voice: Butthead Chatterbox. So appropriate! That’s what I’m going to call it when I tell it off, like this:

Depression: This post is worthless. Trite…hackneyed…worthless. It’s also embarrassing. Do you think anyone reads this? And if they do, they’re just going to know what a mess you are. Why bother?

Meg: Shut up, BUTTHEAD CHATTERBOX. I don’t care if anyone reads it and besides, they do read it. They told me they miss my posts. You talk too much and you’re full of poop.

See how that works? It’s absurd enough to make me laugh, but it’s also a reminder of how hurtful words can be—even the ones that seem silly. When I think of my angry little boy and my vulnerable little girl, my protective instincts come out swinging…just what I need to fight the Butthead Chatterbox.

P.S: For an entertaining but oh-so-accurate picture of depression, check out this post by genius blogger Allie Brosh. In fact, read all her stuff; she’s hilarious.

The Marvelous Moods of Midlife Meg

Moods moods moods. Moody mornings, moody Monday, moody Mom.  Moody Mom on Monday Morning. I am like a depressive Berenstain Bears book.

Sometimes the moods are fun, zippy moods, where everything cracks me up and I’m friendly to strangers and downright goofy with my daughter.

Sometimes the mood is just a black cloud hovering over my head, Charlie Brown-style.

I used to take mood medication, but I quit. I took it on and off for about 15 years. No, I’m not embarrassed to share that with you.  Half the population is on anti-depressants, and if we’d all just admit it, there’d be a lot less secret shame in this world.  (Secret shame feeds the collective bad mood.)

Since I quit the mood medication—and by the way, I’m not advocating that anyone else quit; that is between you and your doctor—I have noticed that I have to re-learn self-control. I feel that bad mood coming and I feel the big giant anger and I want to kick and scream and shout ugly things, but I’m a grownup, and I’m well, so I CAN stop that behavior.

That doesn’t mean I always do. I lose it when I’m driving, when the dog pees on the carpet, when my boss loses it first (he started it!) and worse, I lose it in front of the kids. Sigh. Sorry, kids.

But, for the most part, I manage. I reel in the rage and the f-bombs and I don’t explode…but I’m left with the mood. I get to work with my crappy mood and I log into Facebook (so productive!) and see all the fun you had this weekend, with your cute, skinny friends and your cocktails…or you, on your vacation with your well-established husband, and I think CRIMINY, what’s wrong with me? Where’s MY cocktail? Where’s MY husband?  A few minutes down that path, the Charlie Brown cloud threatens to crack wide open and become a full-fledged, non-cartoon, tornado-type storm, with flash flooding and cows in the air and EVERYTHING crashing down.

I can stop this behavior, too.  Reach for the gratitude, Meg. Some days it’s a gratitude umbrella, some days it’s a gratitude life raft, but either way, it looks like this:

  • Two healthy children
  • Best family ever
  • Super awesome co-worker
  • Job with a paycheck
  • Car still starts
  • And so forth…

Sometimes I don’t actually feel grateful; I still feel grumpy. But the process of stopping and counting my blessings interrupts the mood spiral and gives me enough space to change my focus.

If that doesn’t work, there’s painting. I’ll tell you about that in another post.

What do you do to dispel a bad mood?  If anyone is actually reading this, let me know.