Monday, October 31, 2016

Four Lighthouses (or Why You Matter)

Many thanks to Teresa Romain/Access Abundance for the inspiration.

Have you ever thought about what it's like to be a lighthouse? I have. Of course, I am a lighthouse, so I guess it's only natural. I'm nothing special. Wide and a little on the short side, I'm not even 100 feet tall, though I do sit on the bluffs overlooking a very large lake. The lake gets a lot of marine traffic, most of it well to my west. I'm on the eastern coast, where a few ships glide by and storms rarely hit. The main marine channel is along the west side of the lake, and that's where the bad weather tends to be the nastiest.

There are three lighthouses on that side of the lake. On the northernmost point is a famous lighthouse that people travel from all over the world to see. It's everything a lighthouse should be: tall (181 feet), strong, with a very bright light. It's survived every storm without appearing to age a day. In fact, on the rare occasions that tourists come to visit me, I hear things about this lighthouse. That it almost never needs repair. That it is one of the most picturesque lighthouses in the world, part of it painted in a sleek black paint that almost looks like leather. That if you had a lighthouse fetish, just looking at it would make you weak in the knees. It even has a foghorn, loud and low. If there was such as thing as a badass lighthouse, this one would be it.

The lighthouse just south of that is the tallest lighthouse on the lake, a whopping 204 feet tall. People love to visit it, and I hear that tourists can even climb the lighthouse, to see the view from so high up. It also is a picturesque lighthouse, a gorgeous tan color that never seems to fade or get dirty, topped with a brown cupola and gallery that make it look almost like it has long hair, which tourists say is adorable. But what I hear most about this lighthouse is that its light is so gentle and warm, nearly everyone who's ever seen it says it's like being smiled upon by the sun. This ginormous lighthouse has survived the strongest storms, including some straight-line winds that came through nearly ten years ago. The winds cracked part of the tower, but it never failed to light the way, and after only a little repair, it was even stronger than before.

To the south, the third lighthouse is an enigma. It's not especially tall, about 160 feet, but it attracts tourists from all over just because it's nearly everything one would never expect from a lighthouse. Instead of a bright white light shining over the lake, its light is a bright blue, almost glowing in its intensity. And it is painted the most bizarre of colors, multi-colored polka dots visible along one strip of its tower, contrasting zig-zags along another, some sort of random paint splotches on a third, and, from what people have said, another strip is always something different. No one ever sees anyone out there painting, yet whenever locals revisit the lighthouse, it's always new. Tourists love to take photos in front of this lighthouse, and often find themselves letting loose and having fun, taking goofy photos of themselves and each other, often making new friends in the process.

It's hard, quite honestly, to be a short, unremarkable lighthouse on the other side of the lake from these three other lighthouses. Most nights, I shine my unremarkable light onto water that is shipless. I wonder, more often than I'd like to admit, why I was even built here. It seems I'm never needed, while it's clear that the three lighthouses on the other side of the lake are both needed and wanted.

I begin to dream about what it would be like to be wanted and needed as they are. I'd have to be taller—much taller—and brighter, and somehow stronger or more beautiful or weirder. I'd have to be different, something that both ships and tourists alike would appreciate. This thought consumes me and sometimes my light sputters. But that's okay, because it's not like it's actually needed, anyway.

And so one night, I lose myself in a dream about having a lighthouse makeover. In the dream, I have moved to the western coast of the lake, grown nearly 100 feet, and am trying out different paint colors and patterns. I've tried changing my light color too, even experimenting with a rotating rainbow of colors. I'm so engrossed with exploring all the variations between stately and silly that I don't notice at first that the wind has picked up. It isn't until I hear the howling that I realize a storm has arrived, but that makes sense, because I'm on the west coast now. I wonder if it's possible to be beautiful and strong and courageous and fun.

I'm trying to figure out how to do that when a large branch hits my tower and I'm suddenly back in my place on the eastern coast, wind howling around me, trees bent almost to breaking. Hail arrives, making visibility almost nonexistent. I am so disappointed that I'm back to being unremarkable, not-beautiful, not-strong, not-courageous, and most definitely not-fun, and I let my light grow dim and hunker down to sit out the storm.

And then I sense it: a ship on the lake, very much in trouble. And it's headed my way. This is not good. The reason the western coast is the main marine channel is because the lake is deeper there. Where I am, it's much shallower. Ships know not to come this way. But this ship is being driven by the wind, unable to see through the hail and rain, and it will crash on the shoal if it's not warned away.

I put everything I have into my light, yelling as loud as I can through my rarely-used foghorn. I'm not used to the exertion and the effort tires me, but I know that I cannot allow this ship to sink. One of the bulbs in my light flickers and threatens to blow, but I can redirect some of the energy and keep it from overloading. I keep scanning the horizon, looking for some sign of the ship itself, but can barely see through the weather. I cannot tell if the ship is still coming closer or heading back toward the marine channel.

I keep my light shining and my horn blowing throughout the storm, unable to think beyond the next moment, keeping my focus solely on light/horn/light/horn/light/horn, until the storm finally abates near dawn. Finally I can rest, and I do, drained.

For weeks after that, there are no more storms on my side of the lake, and I am back to thinking about the three amazing lighthouses across the water from me. And then one day a bus pulls up and dozens of people get out, standing around me and taking photos. I am confused. Don't they know that the picturesque lighthouses are on the other side of the lake?

As I stand there, I catch pieces of their conversation.

"I thought for sure this lighthouse would be taller."

"Have you ever seen a light that bright come from a lighthouse?"

"I can't believe this little lighthouse out here all alone saved our lives."

And then I understand. This is the crew of that ship standing around. They are here and not dead or injured because of me.

The thought is stunning and I have a hard time believing it. I argue against it, listing again all the things I am not. How many lives have the other three lighthouses saved? It must be thousands, hundreds of thousands.

One of the ship's crew comes over to my tower and puts a hand against me. "You keep that light shining, you hear?" he says softly. "We've traveled this lake hundreds of times and never knew you were here. And then the one time we really needed you, you were there for us. I was able to make it home in time to be there when my wife gave birth. I may see those other three lighthouses more often, but you're the one I'm going to think about." With that, he pats his hand on the side of my tower and walks away, hands in his pockets.

And then, as I watch the bus pull away, I think that maybe, just maybe, it was kind of a badass thing that stormy night for me to keep going until dawn. Maybe, just maybe, I was stronger than I thought. There's no doubt in my mind now that knowing one of the crew got to be with his wife while she gave birth is a thing of beauty.

And maybe, just maybe I don't need to be an odd lighthouse. Maybe I just need to be me. Where I am. As I am.

Though a few new colors on my tower could be fun.

Shine on.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

To Fight or Not to Fight #AKF

Everyone goes through depression differently. There's no one cause, no one experience, and no one solution. But there are some commonalities.

Aside from the typical symptoms of depression (lack of interest in usual activities, sleep disturbances, feelings of hopelessness or that one has let others down, changes in appetite, thoughts of self-harm or worse, etc.), there are some other commonalities:

  • Worsening of self-esteem
  • Tendency to always see self in a negative way
  • Feeling at fault for everything
  • Belief that one deserves this depression as punishment for being at fault for everything
  • Certainty that one is a burden on friends and family
  • Belief that others will be happier if one is not there to drag them down 
  • Thinking that one is only ever taking from others and never giving
  • Feeling ugly, unloved, unwanted, alone
These are clearly untrue beliefs and thoughts, and I know that with every cell in my being. When I'm not depressed, that is.

Somehow, the depression shifts even "provable fact" and twists it to its own end, which seems to be solely to hurt the one afflicted. It's a kind of mental invasion. And what do we do with invaders?

We fight back. Of course we do.

Back in 2007, when I was blogging anonymously as Rivka through a severe depression, I likened the depression to my own personal, internal adversary (unlike the more hopeful metaphor of wing molt from earlier today).

In that adversary post, I wrote:
  • it breaks me down and consumes me and spits out what's left, and
  • I have this black cloud over my head or in my head and I can't see (both from here)
  • [it] takes that and twists it all around, that I don't deserve success, that my faults are too many, that I'm simply not good enough (from here)
  • I'm ... under the influence of my unstable emotions (from here)
  • It left me questioning my contribution to my marriage, my contribution to anyone, my value to the world (from here)
  • It's that I just feel less. Less everything that is meaningful to me, and
  • It diminishes everything important. It corrodes what makes my life meaningful and powerful and profound. It eats away at what makes me me (both from here)
And yeah, I want to fight that. Fight it and win. Fight it and hope it never comes back, and if it does, fight it again. And again.

There's an online campaign (initially launched as a t-shirt campaign for charity in 2015) started by Jared Padalecki, one of the stars of the long-running sci-fi show Supernatural, with the hashtag #AKF, standing for Always Keep Fighting. The t-shirt campaign raised money for three charities that all helped people dealing with mental illness (especially depression), self-harm, and suicide. Mr. Padalecki, who also shared his own bout with depression, stated the following on his personal interest in the cause:
"On New Years Eve, my dear friend lost his battle with depression. This, unfortunately, wasn’t the first time i lost a personal friend to suicide, and it hurt me deeply, in a way that only a personal experience with suicide can. Though he wasn't the first friend I’ve lost to suicide, I sure hope he’s the last. I wish i had the chance to go back and tell them what they meant to me. I wish I had the chance to beg them to seek help, to keep fighting. I wish they knew that they were surrounded by countless others who struggle on a daily basis.
I hope that this campaign, while raising money for a wonderful charity, can also raise awareness about issues that affect more people than we know. I hope it inspires people battling depression, addiction, mental illness and suicidal thoughts to be vocal about their struggles. I hope it helps people realize that they shouldn’t be ashamed of what they are going through, and I hope it helps people meet and find new friends that they can relate to. I hope it helps people take pride in the fight that they have been fighting, and gives them a push to never give up or give in. I hope it helps inspire people to keep fighting. no matter how hard it is.
For people who deal with mental illness, depression, addiction or suicidal thoughts, every day can bring about new struggles. Every hour and every minute can seem to bring insurmountable odds of happiness. I hope that the simple message of “always keep fighting” can help to bolster somebody through a tough time. I also hope this campaign can help alleviate some of the stigma that the terms “mental illness” and “depression” sometimes evokes.
Everybody has either dealt with these issues themselves, or had a loved one who deal with them. It’s time for us to put these issues front and center and not be ashamed of the path we are walking. If you’re out there and need help, please seek it. Be proud of your valiant day-to-day struggle. There is no shame in needing support. I hope this campaign will help you be vocal about your own struggles, or vocal in your support of those who might need a helping hand. Most of all, when life seems to want to beat you down, I hope you Always Keep Fighting."
 On the one hand, the warrior in me—the one who's been fighting for my life and identity since I was a child—loves this. Because it absolutely feels like a war, sometimes every minute.

And on the other hand, I don't want to fight anymore. Not that I want to give in—that's not where I'm going at all. But I've absolutely seen the effects of the adage, "What you focus on, you get more of" over the last 15 years, and I'd rather focus on hope and love and compassion and freedom and strength and beauty than on war and battles and being on the defensive and casualties and injuries and knowing that the next battle is just around the corner.

So I use the hashtag AKF because it connects me to others who find strength and hope in fighting their own personal demons, and at the same time, I look forward to a change in perspective when I can retire from fighting and wait for my feathers to grow in.


I took a shower today.

To most, that wouldn't seem like a big deal, but when in the depths of a depression it is a Very Big Deal indeed. If you're familiar with Spoon Theory, it took almost all of my allotted spoons for the day. If you're not, it means that it took just about all the energy—physical, emotional, spiritual—that I had.

Because taking a shower is not a single step. No, there's starting the water and undressing and getting used to the water (physical sensations on one's skin can be draining and painful during a depression) and selecting shampoo and the actual scrubbing (holding one's arms above one's head during a depression is tiring and can exacerbate feelings of vulnerability and weakness) and the rinsing and (for me) the same round with conditioner and then washing of the body (also sometimes emotionally problematic) and rinsing and turning the water off and adjusting to the room temperature and getting out of the shower/tub and drying (multiple steps here too) and dressing again, and it's SO MUCH. It's exhausting.

I tried to think of the depression as a thick, sticky goo that coated me, something I could wash off in the shower. Under the water spray, that visualization didn't seem to work. Some part of my brain went off in the direction of the thick, sticky goo (depression) being an oil slick and I was some sort of bird variant, covered in the stuff. And that kind of clicked. I was stuck here, at least temporarily, in the depression. I was grounded (not in a spiritual, good sort of way). I couldn't FLY.

But even then the oil slick seemed too easy to get out of, as if all I needed to do was find that magic anti-depression version of blue Dawn dish soap and I'd be all better. But depression doesn't work that way. Even with antidepressants. Or therapy. Or family and friends and loved ones.

In the dozens of depressions I've been through, most of them in the autumn, I've learned that it's a process. And I do usually come out the other side stronger and wiser, as if the depression brought with it a gift, buried under the self-loathing and overwhelming sadness and fatigue. And as I combed through my hair, and gathered up the loose strands, the visualization took a different turn.

I'm molting.

Joe Smith, in an article on bird molt, writes, "Bird owners know that the “mood” or “personality” of their bird — whether it be a chicken, parrot or darling starling — can change dramatically during molt. The birds often retreat to quiet spaces, reduce their activity and just want to be left alone."

Bald cardinal. Photo © John Benson/Flickr through a Creative Commons license
Since I was very young, I've always had some affinity with winged creatures. To me they represented freedom, beauty, compassion, strength. To fly was to have a kind of freedom I'd only dreamed of at that time: freedom of thought, of creativity, of expression. Freedom to love and be loved.

I was so enamored with flight that I bought and asked for books on flying airplanes and, at the age of 16 (the minimum age requirement), took and passed flight ground school. The next step was coming up with the $15,000 or so I needed at the time to start flying lessons. (My progress derailed from there.)

Something about this metaphor gave me hope. That maybe this was a natural process, and my responsibility is to make sure I have a safe "molt." That I eat enough to sustain my energy. That I rest as needed. That I take the time I need to be alone. That I accept I will be out of sorts and off my game. That I recognize that for this period of time, my freedom will be curtailed, my beauty in flux, my compassion needing to be more self-compassion, and my strength sorely tested. During this time, I'll feel unable to fly, helplessly grounded, but appreciating that freedom even more when I get it back.

And when my new metaphorical feathers grow in, they'll be even better than the old ones.

It's just a metaphor. But it gives me hope.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Healing Through Music

I wasn't going to post this at all, and then I realized that that flies in the face of what I've been trying to do for the past nine years -- break the silence and end the stigma around depression.

So here goes. My depression is back. Maybe only for a short stay. Maybe not. It's been here a week now. A devastating sadness -- "best friend died" sort of sadness. And nothing of the sort is going on in my life. My life is amazing right now, with more exciting things to come. And yet, my brain sometimes does its own thing.

I'm doing things that I find helpful and comforting in a depression, and I'm also limiting the things that lead to overwhelm. One of the things I've done is compiled a list -- in a specific order -- of music. My "Feel Better" playlist. And I thought I'd share an annotated version with you today, in case anyone else finds it helpful.

These songs are intentionally in this order, to be played straight through. I created it to form an arc, to start from where I often am, and gradually lead myself to a more powerful place.

1.      Crossroads” by Don MacLean
“Can you remember who I was/ can you feel it?/ Can you find my pain?/ Can you heal it?”

2.      Angel” by Sarah McLachlan
“There's always some reason/ To feel not good enough/ And it's hard, at the end of the day”

3.      Everybody Hurts” by R.E.M
“If you feel like letting go/ If you think you've had too much/ Of this life, well hang on”

4.      Try” by P!nk
“You gotta get up and try, and try, and try”

5.      Show Me the Way” by Styx
“Give me the strength and the courage/ To believe that I'll get there someday/ And please show me the way”

6.      Crawl” by Thisway
“Faces I remember, I'll still see/ And places in a memory, hold on to me/ I can't wait to crawl out of my shell”

7.      Making It Up As I Go Along” by Marie Wilson
“Don't want to be scared/ Don't want to be weak/ Don't want to be the last to speak/ I'm gonna be brave/ I'm gonna be strong/ I'm ready to take it all on/ Making it up as I go along”

8.      Brave” by Sara Bareilles
“Don't run, stop holding your tongue/ Maybe there's a way out of the cage where you live/ Maybe one of these days you can let the light in/ Show me how big your brave is/ Say what you wanna say/ And let the words fall out/ Honestly I wanna see you be brave”

9.      Come to Life” by Trent Dabbs
“Let it breathe/ It will be alright/ There's gold in the ground where we're walking tonight/ Just sit back/ And watch it come to life”

10.   Perfect” (Clean) by P!nk
“Pretty, pretty please/ if you ever, ever feel/ Like you're nothing/ you are perfect to me”

11.   With Your Face to the Wind” by Peter, Paul & Mary
“Sometimes it takes the dark to let us see the light/ You can't have that victory unless you've fought the fight/ Sometimes it takes a winding road to lead us home/ While you're windin' 'round my friend just don't go windin' 'round alone”

12.   Home” by Phillip Phillps
“Settle down, it'll all be clear/ Don't pay no mind to the demons/ They fill you with fear/ The trouble it might drag you down/ If you get lost, you can always be found/ Just know you're not alone/ 'Cause I'm gonna make this place your home”

13.   I’ve Gotta Be Me” by Sammy Davis, Jr. (Cover by Ryan Tedder & Contraband; Lyrics by Walter Marks) 
“I want to live, not merely survive/ And I won't give up this dream/ Of life that keeps me alive/ I gotta be me, I gotta be me/ The dream that I see makes me what I am”

14.   Just the Way You Are” by Bruno Mars
“And when you smile/ The whole world stops and stares for a while/ 'Cause girl, you're amazing/ Just the way you are”

15.   My Way” by Frank Sinatra
“To think I did all that/ And may I say - not in a shy way/ Oh no, oh no, not me/ I did it my way”