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connected

9/11, Depression, and the Meaning of Life


Many people are remembering 9/11 today. It's hard not to remember. So many of us can recall exactly what we were doing when we first heard the devastating news - for me it was that a plane crashed into a building in New York City. I remember a group of students gathered around a TV screen in one of the Social Work buildings. It was one of our first day of classes. I wasn't sure what they were watching, but I cruised right by already late to class.

We moved our desks into a circle. There were a few people frantically pushing numbers on their cell phones. The instructor had the affect of someone trying to maintain calm. It turned out that several of my classmates' families were in New York and my classmates were trying to reach them. As the beginnings of the story of 9/11 unfolded, we exchanged looks of shock. Our professor asked that we stay for the full 2.5 hours of class. We thought she was crazy.

I remember going home and watching the news all day long. I remember going to bed terrified. I couldn't snuggle in close enough to my husband and I finally fell asleep wondering what kind of world I was bringing my firstborn into as I thought about him sprouting from a little seed inside my belly. Earlier in the day I had wondered if our new insurance plan would cover my pregnancy - we had just moved to Michigan from Arlington, Virginia. That seemed like a non-issue at bedtime. I couldn't stop thinking about how I had driven past the Pentagon every day on my way to work when we lived in Arlington. I couldn't begin to make sense of what had happened in our country - the land of the free and home of the brave - that day. Nobody could.

It is National Suicide Prevention Week. I saw a post on Facebook yesterday about a group call To Write Love On Her Arms. According to their mission statement, this is a  "movement is dedicated to presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury, and suicide..."

Yesterday's call was to write the word "LOVE" on your arm to help raise awareness. So I did that, knowing that finding hope and help for these issues specifically is a cause that I hold close to my heart.


When I woke this morning to stories of 9/11 and LOVE on my arm, I began to think about graduate school and how I had diagnosed myself with almost every mood disorder I learned about in class. It was actually quite liberating to learn that there was an entire vocabulary for the feelings I had struggled with my entire life.

In a different Facebook post yesterday, someone I know shared a picture of LOVE on her arm. She included a note to her dad - I gathered he had committed suicide. I thought about my dad's sudden death about 3.5 years ago. He didn't commit suicide, but before we knew the cause of his death, the possibility that he did commit suicide wasn't out of the question. With drugs and alcohol, he certainly found other less severe ways to escape the pain he felt in his life.

After his death, I pretty much fell apart. With three little people to care for and my husband back at work, I knew I needed help. I decided to take anti-anxiety medication. While my grief intensified my anxiety and symptoms of depression, it is true that living with anxiety was something I had been doing my whole life. I didn't have words for the constant feeling that something could go wrong at any second until I learned more about anxiety and depression in graduate school. I thought I was "too sensitive" while the truth was I felt things really deeply. Maybe more deeply than other people. When the pain was too much bear, I looked for ways to hide it or dull it. 

When I finally decided to take medication for my anxiety it was in part because I remembered a friend saying to me "Anna, you don't have to live this way" referring to my constant state of anxiety. I never wanted to take medication, but at that point - after my dad died - I didn't think I had time for therapy and I knew from my studies that it would help me. It was a very small dose, just enough to take the edge off and not enough to keep me from crying my way through a year's worth of contacts in way less than a year's time.

The thing about living with anxiety and depression that is so hard, and can be debilitating even, is that you feel so alone. So hopeless. So isolated. And on top of all that, you can feel ashamed of feeling that way. You think the only way out of the pain is to stop it. People try stopping the pain in all kinds of ways.

I would never, ever tell anyone that the key to happiness is to take medication. That is a choice you have to make for yourself based on your own history and your own present situation. What I would do is to say what my friend said to me - "You don't have to live like this." You have options.

See, I have come to realize that while there is immense pain and suffering in this world - and while I am not immune to any of it - we are not here on Earth to suffer. We are here to enjoy our lives and to live them peacefully. I don't know what that means for everyone, but I know that it is true. I don't have any proof, you'll just have to trust me.

Sometimes I wish my medication would numb me to the pain I feel, and that's when I know that it is time to take it up a notch in other areas of my life. When I want to escape what I'm feeling, I have found that writing helps me to feel more grounded. Yoga reminds me to breathe and helps me to stay present. Meditation helps me to quiet my "monkey mind" - the what-ifs that can spin out of control if I don't stop them. Being outside soothes my soul. Taking walks and running (or trying to run...) helps me to clear my mind. Spending time with people I love helps me remember who I am - not a condition, but a soul doing its best to enjoy this human experience. When I can return to myself and what is most important to me, I can better handle whatever life throws my way. 

For me, art is a cure-all. Creating connects me to my core, the Creator, and all things created. I try to create something every single day. Sometimes it's just dinner (usually it's not dinner...). I have been keeping a Blessings journal for a while now and I love it because I can do just a little bit of creating very easily every day AND reflect on the things and people for which I am grateful. 







Yoga, art, and meditation are some of the tools I use to get to break away from the every day and get back to what matters most to me. 

We all have those tools - those things that can help us to slow down and re-focus on what matters. For a lot of people prayer will do the trick. No matter how much pain you are in, you must remember that life is not about the pain. Life is about JOY and you have the right to live in peace.

So, how do we get back there? What will it take to get you back to the peace? Here are a few steps you can try to take...
  1. Breathe
  2. Think of one thing that brings you peace
  3. Take one step, make one stroke, write one word, recall one memory, or reach out to one friend at a time - whatever it is that will take you to peace
  4. Keep breathing
  5. Keep going
  6. Get there

The only way through anything is to go through it. Seriously. Sit in it for as long as you need to. Feel what comes up for you. Yell, scream, cry, stomp your feet. Get as angry or as sad as you need to be. 

And then remember that you don't have to live there. You don't have to stay in the darkness. Let it - whatever it is - flow through you, then you too can go with the flow. You can move through whatever it is. It might take hours or days or even years. Choose one thing that brings you joy or peace and take one little step in that direction whenever you can. You will make your way out of it. And, know you're not alone. If you need help, reach out for it. It's okay to ask for help.

This world - one where true heroes sacrifice their lives to save others, where slowly we are raising our voices around issues like depression and suicide, where communities come together in times of despair to help one another, and where we recognize that we are all connected - this is the world I brought my now eleven year-old son into. It is a world filled with war and hate and hunger and pain and suffering, and it is a world filled with beauty and peace and joy. We have to learn to live with the good and the bad. It's not an either/or proposition. 

When you are suffering, you don't have to stay there. You don't have to live like that. You have options. My hope is that we all choose PEACE and JOY and do whatever it takes to get there.

With all kinds of love and big Anna hugs... xoxoxo

The Cost of Comparison

I think this is what joy looks like.


Comparison is the thief of joy -Theodore Roosevelt

Comparison is the thief of joy.
Comparison is the thief of joy.
Comparison is the thief of joy.

This is one of my favorite quotes. When I see it though, I'm not filled with a warm and hopeful feeling, like I am when I read a lot of other quotes. Instead, it feels more like a mobster type guy came up out of the blue and pushed me against the wall. He isn't scary at all because I know, despite his rough exterior, he is a teddy bear on the inside. He grabs me by the shoulders and leans in so close that our noses are almost touching. He smells like Ivory soap and Altoids. He says, "Comparison is the thief of joy" in a tough guy voice. He doesn't add "Got it?" at the end, instead he searches my face, he lands on my eyes to make sure I got it.

My eyes say "Yes. I got it." He slaps me on my shoulder, like football coaches slap their players after a great play, and walks away.

Comparison is the thief of joy gives me goose bumps, but I love it because almost every single day I need that reminder.

I used to love taking my first baby to his well-baby exams. I was so proud of my healthy boy. I loved hearing how he had reached all the important milestones he needed to reach between then and the last visit. I left feeling like a superhero. It was blissful, really.

My second baby was very sick when he was born. We had no idea it was coming. Every little fantasy I had about nursing him right away and holding him close, skin to skin into the wee hours of the night, flew out the window when they whisked my purple baby boy away. I felt like a failure. Fortunately, he came through like a champion and it wasn't too long before the trauma of his birth didn't define him and his life here on earth. Soon, he was meeting all the milestones he was supposed to be meeting. It felt different though. I never felt like a superhero.

When I think about how we compare ourselves to one another, the first thing that comes to mind is those milestones. From BIRTH, before we even have a chance to prove ourselves, in our fresh little, sweet-smelling bodies we are compared to one another. It only makes sense that as parents we learn to determine how well our children are doing by how they compare to other children. And then it goes on. We get graded in school, we compete in sports, we interview for the same jobs as our peers. It never ends.

That's just on the outside. On the inside, we actually begin to tell ourselves we are not good enough because we don't measure up to the people around us. We are not healthy or strong or thin or athletic or smart or sweet or aggressive or pretty or handsome or rich or humble or generous or frugal enough. We are never enough. OR, we are too much - too sweet, too thin, and so on.

We can't win if we listen to what we hear, all around us, even when we think we're okay, because an "expert" will tell us that he can get us where we should be. Or, an advertisement will tell us there is a product that will help us get to where we could be. Slowly, over time, we begin to believe the messages all around us that tell us if we just had this or that, or did this or that, we would be happy. Even when we really are happy, we hear these messages and we have to decide whether or not to believe them.

It is helpful to gain insight into our growth and development by comparing where we are with other people in similar circumstances. It is completely natural to gather data about people and our environment by making comparisons between what we experience around us and in other people and who we are to ourselves. The thing is though, making comparisons rarely leads to feeling good. Even when our comparisons make us believe that we are actually better or stronger or thinner or prettier or smarter or more enlightened... than the person to whom we compare ourselves.

Comparison truly robs us of our joy. We cannot be joyful in a place where we are comparing ourselves to others, or even to our former selves. I could not be joyful in the birth of my second son, not only because of the sheer trauma of fearing for his life, but also because I couldn't stop comparing his birth to my first son's birth. I felt like the superhero mother I once was, was no longer.

In the process of comparing, we are looking for differences. As we identify differences between ourselves and those around us, and differences between who we are today, and who we once were, we forget about the qualities that remain the same. We forget about the ties that bind us. We forget about the ways in which we are connected.

At each of our cores, in our souls, or in the depths of our hearts, there is nothing but goodness. Were we to distill ourselves to the essence of who we really, truly are, we are all - each and every one of us - love. We all want to live well, in whatever form well takes for us. We all want what is best for our children. That we forget this in the course of comparison, that we fail to see the divine goodness in one another, is the biggest tragedy of all. True joy comes when we feel connected - to each other and to ourselves.


For me, I invite discontent when I compare my work to other people's work. I will always find better, more refined art and writing than mine. I will always find people who run more lucrative businesses than I do. As I focus on the ways I don't measure up to others and their accomplishments, I lose sight of one of the most exciting aspects of life, which to me, is that there are so many different ways to express oneself.  How wonderful to see how other people's inspiration takes form - to see and read and hear what moves other people. These discoveries can be so inspiring. I want to embrace that inspiration and that sense of community and connection that comes from understanding and even taking pride in the fact that we are all in this together. We may have our own individual lyrics and our own unique moves, but we are all dancing on this one stage called Earth together.


I invite us to make notes about one another, if we have to, to learn and to grow, and to celebrate our differences. After all, what would the world be without big, soft women to hug us? And thin women too? Boring. What would our lives look like if we were all the same color, with the same eyes and mouths and hair, and we spoke with the same voices? Dull. We can't all be athletes. Who would be left to cheer? We need to have different strengths and weaknesses. We were meant to have different gifts from one another. Differences are good. We are all exactly as we should be - different. And, while we hold space for our differences in one hand, at the very same time, I ask that we hold space in the other hand for all that is the same: the essence of what we really are - all goodness and pure love. I ask that we recognize, at the end of the day, we are all made from the same stuff. We are all bound by that which makes us human.

Nothing compares to the joy we experience when we embrace that we are connected.

xo

Trust

This morning I tackled a collection of piles I've been keeping in my bedroom. Every little piece of laundry put away and everything else relocated. I'm so proud of myself, I don't know what to do next! The day is flying by now and I'm feeling a little lost in the wind.

My eyes keep wandering back a little project I just finished, so I decided to tell you about it.

I have been practicing yoga on and off for years at a wonderful yoga studio in my town. The studio is run by one of the loveliest women in the world. When I first shared some of my art with her, not long ago, she graciously invited me to try selling a few things in the yoga center's boutique! I was completely blown away by the idea. Then, before we had even placed everything on the shelves, someone bought this sweet little piece...


I was so amazed that someone would buy something I created. I am still amazed. It is the most incredible feeling to know that something I made touched another person. I am trying to think of a good word to describe that feeling. I keep coming back to, surprise surprise... CONNECTED.

So, I didn't realize it at the time, but that same lovely someone contacted me the other day and asked me to do two custom pieces for her. Again, I was amazed. Then, scared. To. Death. As she told me what she wanted, I nodded and visions danced around in my head and slowly, I became so afraid of screwing it all up. I didn't want to disappoint her. I wanted her to love it. She seemed so confident in me though, I couldn't help but wonder if maybe she was right, and maybe, just maybe, I could pull it off. Then, she said she wanted me to incorporate the symbol for OM.

UM...

I didn't think I could do that.

But, guess what? I did.

 I started with a red background...



Then I used a stamp to embellish the background.

Eventually, I painted that OM sign! Painted. P-a-i-n-t-e-d. 



I know, right? I can't believe it either. I practiced quite a few times before I actually tried to paint it. I still can't believe I did it. Crazy.

And, now, it's all finished! Custom made art for a woman named Anna (great name, huh?)


I added some extra angel love, just for her. I hope she likes it!

Art is such a great metaphor for life. Art provides endless opportunities to try new things. To practice when you don't get it right the first time. To start over. To trust that IT, whatever IT is, is not about the outcome, but the process. Life is art, really. I do believe that. It's part of what I need to believe in order to support my belief that we are all artists. 

A year ago, I was still drawing the same stick people I began drawing when I was in kindergarten. No joke. Now, I'm painting angels. I'm excited thinking about how my angels might evolve, wondering what they might look like in another year, hoping they will reach out and touch even more people with their messages of love and hope and glitter, and all the while... I am trusting in the process.

xoxo