I've written about how I got into speaking on mental health, but never so much why. So why did I decide to put myself out there for others to get to know something that many consider a deep, dark secret?
I've always been somewhat of a confessional writer. In the early 2000s I published my horrible poetry and free-ranging rants on my music website, Action Attack Helicopter. I knew I wanted to share thoughts and ideas with others--I thought it might help someone although I'm not sure why. I suppose at some point I got some encouragement here or there from a friend and a few positive words of feedback. That was enough to keep me going.
Over the years I've had some zines and blogs and they also received very limited but honest praise. And I also didn't know what else to do--I felt there was a need to express myself. It's part of being a writer; that idea implanted in one's mind that one must share their thoughts.
It didn't seem too awkward, then, to transition into being more direct and honest about my mental health issues. No longer did I need to mask it in poorly written poetry or adequate prose. I wrote not only of my struggles but also of answers. I spent hours of time online and researched solutions to issues related to loneliness, anxiety, and bipolar disorder.
It's not only about writing, though. It's easy to do that behind a computer, tucked away in my apartment. Yet, I want to speak about loneliness and depression. There are a few reasons why I actually get in front of crowds and speak.
1) I like the immediate reactions. It's wonderful to see people smile or laugh at what you say. Or it's an acknowledgment through a nod that they understand what you're saying. The ability to try and connect with others--and to know you're connecting--is a rewarding feeling.
2) It's a rush. Speaking makes me nervous and I imagine it always will. Yet when you know your topic and can channel it into energy when you speak, it's quite a high.
3) I can see the direct effect of lives changed. It's encouraging and rewarding to have that immediate validation afterward. It's awesome when someone tells you that what you said spoke to them and they can identify with it. That confirmation of what you did and that it had a positive impact on others signals to me that it was a job well done.
I'm not going to lie: it's validating to know I'm changing lives and affecting people. It makes me feel good. But that's something we all seek in our lives. We want to be happy about our existence. So yes, some of this is about what I get out of it. But if I'm going to feel good, I can't think of any better reason than because I'm helping others with my words and speaking.
How does one go from feeling nervous about public speaking to presenting a 35 minute talk on loneliness? Should you accept the challenge of becoming a public speaker your experience will vary, but here are the steps I took.
In high school I was in a couple of plays but always had small roles—just a few lines. I sang for my friends’ hardcore punk band on occasion, too. It was a real rush to feel so many people with their eyes on me. After that my performing life went dormant for a long while.
In graduate school in 2009 and 2010 I began to present at academic conferences on my masters thesis subject—1970s Christian scare films. Despite small audiences (as is the case at almost all such events), I discovered I enjoyed being in front of others. I liked sharing information about a subject in which I had an interest.
In 2014 I decided to break myself out of a depressive spell by taking a stand-up comedy class. I have always enjoyed watching stand-up and thought that I could do it. I performed at about 15-20 open mics and did a showcase for my class, too. While I didn't take to the comedy scene, I did know I liked being on stage with people watching me. In such a situation, I found it created a nervous ball of energy and anxiety that pushed me to perform with great passion.
The next year, 2015, I looked into giving historical tours. I took a class through a non-profit that offers such tours and learned a bit more about the history of Boston. After six weeks I graduated a docent and began practicing. And practicing. And practicing. I walked my tour route in Boston's North End many times. I practiced out loud in my room. I followed nine different guides on their tours so I could see what they did. I gave three practice tours to friends. When my time finally came I did all right. It wasn't the best thing ever but I enjoyed it. As long as I felt comfortable with the material, it went okay.
After doing that tour for three years I started working for another company giving a different tour. I learned to handle horrible situations: down-pouring rain, bratty children, fist fights, and drug addicts around me as I tried to tell tales. These situations built character and resilience.
I started going to Toastmasters about this time, learning the fundamentals of giving speeches. I realized I already had most things down well. I used Toastmasters to try out some ideas, though, including my first speech on loneliness. After about a year I left, knowing that I had gotten what I could out of it.
During this same time I made a goal to enter one storytelling event. I practiced my story to my cat and my mirror a dozen times or more. And when it came to my first story slam, I won the audience choice award. For the second event, I entered I won the entire story slam! It's taken me years to work on my self-esteem but I can finally say that this is something at which I excel.
When it came to learning how to understand the speaking business and find gigs, I listened to The Speaker Lab. It's a podcast for speakers and those who want to speak. I also read a lot of articles. I took a copious amount of notes.
I've learned that moving in a stair-step approach—taking on things one at a time—is also helpful. I can't imagine going from no public speaking to giving a 35-minute presentation. But adding one challenge and then another enabled me to build confidence. I may not be the best public speaker but I'm doing what I can to share ideas and help some people along the way. It didn't happen over night but the journey has been well worth it.
Being depressed sucks all around, but there is one aspect of it that I despise more than any other: irritability. With all other aspects of depression I am the only one who feels bad. Yes, it can affect others when they see me feeling sad or withdrawn, but it’s not a feeling of being under attack. It’s a passive feeling.
Yet my irritability affects not only me but also the individuals around me because I often lash out at them over minor things. I grow frustrated when things don’t go my way or aren’t how I planned them to be. For example, on a recent Sunday I wanted to do my laundry and then go to the public library and work on some writing. But my partner and a family member asked me to come to brunch with them. We discussed this idea earlier in the week but I hadn’t heard anything so I assumed the plan wasn’t happening. Based on that assumption I came up with another idea of what I was to do with my day. I knew I had agreed earlier to do the brunch but the change in plans left me irritable.
As I rode the bus to meet my partner and her family member, I grew annoyed and frustrated. Beneath that, though, was a level of concern: would I have the opportunity to do my laundry? I wanted to work on my writing because I set a deadline for myself for edits on a book I’m working on. But these were both self-imposed deadlines. There was nothing wrong if I did these things in the time schedule I had given myself. The world would not end, no one would find themselves disappointed.
I tried to walk myself through this line of thought to calm myself down. I wanted to get to the point where I wouldn’t find myself annoyed at my girlfriend or her family member. This time I was able to do so, although it did leave me depressed. While I exchanged one emotion for another, I was able to get my laundry done and I still have time to finish the writing. My irritability didn’t help anything—it didn’t allow me to be more productive or make anyone happy.
Irritability is still something I struggle with, more than anything else with my depression. It’s a side effect rarely discussed in mental health circles. But it’s something I want to focus on more as I move along in my mental health journey. I wish to do so both for myself and the family, co-workers, and friends who are on the end of my occasional foul mood.
It’s so easy for me to stay in a rut. For weeks on end my life may consist of work, the gym, grocery shopping, watching dumb videos online, sleeping, eating, and then repeating that sequence. I often don’t realize I was in that repetitive place until I’m out of it.
What can often snap me out of that funk is travel. It doesn’t matter where I go: it could be a day trip visiting friends in the suburbs, or a vacation to a foreign country. Experiencing different things and seeing new, or even familiar, things in a place that’s not my usual routine is transformative.
Often times, though, the ability of travel to readjust my mind can do more than get me out of repetitive daily actions. Travel can help with my mental health. When I get away from home I go outside of myself. I’m forced to interact with others and look at new things and people. I observe what’s happening around me as it’s different than what I’m used to.
Even the times when I go to places I’ve often been, such as my hometown, it’s not the paths I trod on a regular basis and that’s important. When I go places I have a connection with in the past, it gives me perspective in that I can see how much that place and the people I know there have changed. That, in turn, causes me to realize how much I’ve changed as well.
Traveling to new places has been important to me as it provides a means by which to see how others live. In doing so, I am forced out of my brain and into realizing that there are others who deal with the same issues as I do, as well as many different ones. I can place my anxieties and problems in perspective. They’re not as fierce as what many people are going through. Or, I’m dealing with things many others are also dealing with. This can help build empathy in my life.
I do find that my return home provides me with a new perspective and renewed energy to see situations that may have been problematic. It’s like a reboot of my emotional and mental state and one I welcome each time. It’s also something I recommend to do as often as you can.
I’ve been fortunate to travel all over the United States (but not as much overseas as I would like) and meet some great people and see some beautiful sights. In doing so, I’ve found incredible benefits for my mental health. It’s important to attempt to make travel a priority to get that reboot one can use with their own mental health.
So, if you have the opportunity to get out of your regular routine, go! Challenge yourself with new people and situations. You may be surprised how it can help with your mood and mental state. It doesn’t solve all my problems, but it certainly can put them in perspective and create new ways of me to look at them. In doing so, it can often lead to solutions to both momentary problems and those I’ve been working on for some time.
Over the past few years I've engaged in mental health advocacy. During that time I’ve noticed there are two avenues by which to tackle issues associated with mental illness.
First, there are steps involving awareness. This includes using our experiences with mental health issues to let others know they’re not alone and that life can get better. Also, awareness can include a discussion of how to deal with making mental health a priority in the community and in our lives. This is primarily what I’ve done and continue to do.
The second way to spread the word of issues with mental illness is in regards to making changes in our society to better assist those in need. This may include working on passage of legislation to provide better coverage of the mentally ill. It may also mean being a therapist and working in the field. Or it could be that you start a foundation or organization to develop better mental health.
I’ve seen a few organizations that focus on the entire package (National Alliance on Mental Illness). But it seems many groups and individuals take on one or the other. It’s difficult to combine both in a way that is coherent and effective. For most people and groups, it’s far too large to both spread awareness of an issue and fight for economic and legislative concerns related to it.
I have done my share of speaking out for good mental health. It’s important to spread the awareness of hope for those in dire straits. When lives are on the line, we need to move.
Yet the lack of affordable insurance coverage, the price of medications, and the need for greater mental health services in many areas are all representative of foundational issues that need attention. The handling of these struggles are best done at a larger societal and governmental level. It’s this lack of change on these issues that amounts to placing a band aid over a much larger wound.
While I’m aware of the need to save lives, it takes individuals with knowledge of this system to fight for the rights of the mentally ill at governmental levels. At this point in my life as a mental health advocate, these skills are something I haven’t attained or spoken up about much. Yet they’re key if we want to move forward and stop with temporary means to grand problems.
There are simple ways we can, as a society and as individuals, act to make systematic changes. We can start by challenging our legislators. We can ask them where they stand on issues related to mental health, and more importantly, what they’re going to do about it. We can ask them to support and propose legislation that will fight for the mentally ill.
We also need to not hesitate to elect legislators who are open about their mental illness or have close connections with the mentally ill. Unfortunately, for many politicians, it’s only when they have personal experiences with an issue that they are prone to act.
It’s a tough fight for the mentally ill, but it’s only through this combined effort of awareness and action that we will see gains made for our community.
After any incident of suicide in our society, a common refrain is, “Get help.” But beyond calling a mental health hotline (800-273-TALK), what’s one to do?
It isn’t easy to find resources to help with mental health. Therapy is expensive and it’s become more frequent that therapists don’t take any insurance. That’s not always the case but it is alarming. Even when therapists work with sliding scale, it’s rare they will go down to levels that are affordable for many clients.
This is distressing in light of the many cases of mental illness playing out amongst celebrities and in crime statistics. Too, there is a great deal of reporting about how rates of depression and suicide are rising in the United States and many other parts of the world.
So say you can’t afford therapy and are in need of mental health help. What are some good resources to turn to?
NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) – There are lots of groups out there working on mental health, but NAMI is the most well-known in the United States. Their website has all kinds of resources to guide you to find help and understand issues related to mental illness.
Mind Over Mood – This workbook helped me out a great deal during my beginning years of my depression. It teaches cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). At its’ root this form of therapy is about changing the way your mind works when confronted with unpleasant situations. If you’re dedicated to practicing CBT, this book can help.
Feeling Good – If Mind Over Mood doesn’t work for you, you may want to try this book by David Burns. It also deals with CBT, but is considered the classic on the subject.
The Mindful Way Through Depression – This book taught me a lot about mindfulness. Being aware of what’s going on around us (and in our head) can make a big difference on how we approach life and the struggles we face. For so long I tried to snap out of my depression and then felt guilt when I couldn’t. This book showed me there was another way to handle these situations.
Also, doing a search for the words “depression self-help books” (not as a quote) can yield some positive results. It may seem there are prohibitions that money may cause in our journey to better address our mental health. But, there are still options out there if we’re dedicated to finding them.
When your thoughts are out of control or you feel very harsh toward yourself, it’s easy to let fears run amuck in your brain. But these often don’t come to fruition. Yet, it’s still hard to let things go and think positive. Still, given the time to stop and reflect I admit that my worst fears about my mental health didn’t come about.
Before my hospitalizations in 2011, I feared placement in a hospital was amongst the worst thing that could happen to me. I worried that I would get put in there and never let out. After being in the hospital twice I’ve come to understand that this isn’t the case. In fact, my second time in the hospital was a positive, helpful experience. The idea of finding myself locked in a psychiatric facility and never let out is a throwback to times past, when such fears may have been possible. If this happens today, it’s a minute percentage. In a world of insurance and too few beds for too many people, you’ll be lucky if you spend a week in a psychiatric facility.
My point is that this fear—the worst I could imagine—didn’t come to fruition. And that is true for so many of my fears: being stuck in a job I hate, failing a test, or not reaching a goal I’ve set for myself. The fact of the matter is, we’re adaptive creatures. Even if our fears do come true (and they rarely do), there are positive ways to cope with these occurrences. Depending on the situation, it may even turn out that our worst fears coming to fruition can actually end up being a good thing. For example, I felt scared to go to the hospital and what that would mean for me, but it turned out to be quite helpful and positive.
Through confronting my fears I’ve learned that it’s good to take a step back, put things in perspective, and educate myself on the reality of a situation. More often than not, these mental health fears don’t come about how we expect. And on occasion they end up placing us in a position far better than we imagine.
Battling depression and clawing your way up from the deepest points doesn't always come with one breakthrough moment. One might think after my suicide attempt when I was 21 I would've had a clarifying thought. But I didn't. I was still stuck in the doldrums for over a decade after that.
While there wasn't one thing that happened after my second suicide attempt in 2011, the change came sometime after that. And it wasn't a skull-crushing one. Instead it was a number of things occurring over the course of years. The change in my life included a healthy dating relationship and financial stability. Also, a comfortable living situation, and direction on what I wanted to do with my life were helpful. And, in a basic way, general maturity and understanding of who I was. That said, I don't know everything but I do know enough to get me by.
If there's anything that has been a breakthrough, it's the thought that for the most part, I want to live. I can see the point in living and more days than not, life is pretty good and it's worth being here. This thought didn't occur overnight but instead took a few years. And then the thought came to mind: “Hey, this isn't so bad. I have some good things going on here. Perhaps it's worth sticking around.”
Speaking out about mental health has been influential in regards to finding clarity of thought and what my goals are. It took me a long time but recognizing what I enjoy, how I want to make a difference in this world, and what to do to keep me alive have been so helpful.
In the end, it doesn't matter when or how a breakthrough came, what's important is that it happened. If you're looking for a breakthrough with regards to your mental health, the best advice I can give is to find the tools that best help you to survive and then give life time until that breakthrough comes.
There has been a great deal written on loneliness in the workplace. According to some business experts, it is a plague affecting the American worker. Much of this has to do with the increase in telecommuting.
My problem with loneliness at work is feeling disconnected from my co-workers. One reason is because I work solitary jobs (tour guide, writer, solo librarian at a reference desk). Too, I have little in common with my peers: they are parents with long commutes or much older than myself.
At only one job since graduating college did I have a connection with others and that was when I worked at a record label. We all shared a passion for similar music and getting others interested in it. Yet, even then things seemed strained as I dealt with my depression and anxiety. Mental illness can easily cause one to feel lonely.
Still, the majority of the places I’ve worked I dealt with casual relationships. We joke with one another, talk about our families, share our thoughts on social and political issues, and at the end of the day we go our separate ways. I’ve always wished for closer connections yet they don’t develop. Without moving around to different jobs, it has caused me to not make as many friends as I’d like to.
So, how do we deal with these situations? How do we make friends when that all-too-often avenue of work doesn’t make itself available to adding new relationships where we find connection? There are other means available.
I haven’t felt the acute solitude in my career described in some of the articles about work and loneliness. A big reason is because I don’t telecommute and I have co-workers in my office. Yet the loneliness I feel is much more subdued and it’s possible I’ve internalized it by this point. I’ve accepted that I will only have superficial contact with others at my jobs.
As I recently started a new job I hope to change this, though. It’s through being open and expecting the best that I will try to make this happen. I hope you can do the same should you find yourself feeling lonely at your job.
I've rarely had a job I enjoy. Sad to say, but my favorite job was the one I had when I was 17 and 18. I worked in a record store by myself, got to do whatever I wanted (usually my homework), and listen to whatever music I cared to. This was in the golden age of CDs in the mid-'90s and business wasn't bad. My friends came by and spoke with me and I met some cool people, too. Yet the things I liked about that job then wouldn't be what I want today.
I find that my mental health often suffers at a job. For most of my life, I've had a difficult time with work. I've found it makes me depressed to have a job I don't enjoy. It weighs upon me to do mindless work. I'm most productive and successful when I'm on my own. I also work best when I do something that gives me meaning. It's taken me a long time (much longer than I would have preferred) to realize what I desire to do is to help others dealing with mental health issues. I want to do this through writing and speaking on my issues with mental health.
It's important that we do things that make us happy in our lives. I know it's not always possible that our work is in our dream field. Life has complications: health issues, family concerns, or geographical impediments. (If you want to be an actor but are stuck living in Alaska, it's hard to achieve that dream of the silver screen).
Yet, if I've learned much of anything from suicide attempts and mental illness, it's that life is short. Far too short. So I've been willing to set aside what may have been a "traditional" life to achieve my goals as they come to me. Attempting to find happiness and meaning is such an important desire. So much so that I was happy to forego a typical career, stability, and a regular relationship in the hopes I could find them.
It's hard for me to rest if it means that I am not close to my career goals. It means that every minute I'm at a job that doesn't bring me satisfaction is another moment I'm away from something that provides me with some meaning.
It's not always easy to find the energy to take up the struggle to meet my goals. Some days I would rather watch Netflix and sleep. But I keep pushing on because I yearn for something where I come away from my work day feeling happy and upbeat about what I've done. Which, in my case, means making a difference in the lives of others.
My hope is that if you are not doing work you enjoy, you will find ways to get to a place where you can. Sacrifices, moves, and time spent trying out a myriad of possibilities are worth it when you find the thing that makes your heart beat a little faster. They're worth it when you find happiness knowing that you're doing work that brings you meaning.
1. No one is going to save you from your loneliness; you're going to have to put the work in
In 2005 and 2006, during my first bout of extreme loneliness, I wallowed in it. I wished for interactions with others but didn't make any effort to establish them. I made a lot of excuses due to my schedule (I worked evenings) but did very little to try and connect with others. Making these connections was more difficult for me given where I lived. (At that time I lived in South Bend, Indiana, which didn't have a lot to offer) I was often depressed, too. Still, there were options for me but I didn't advocate for myself to pursue them.
2. When you do reach out to find connections, you may have to try a long time and a lot of places
I've tried many ways to meet people: volunteer at organizations, connect with co-workers, meet friends of friends and join their circle. You name it, there's a good chance I've done it. I did pick up friends along the way, though. It doesn't always happen in one fell swoop. You may find a connection from a friend of a friend and another relationship through a job. There's rarely one moment where you find your best friends and that's it. It can take a while and require tackling your loneliness from many angles.
3. Loneliness can teach you things that are beneficial, i.e. it can be good for you (for a time)
For more on that you can see my post here or my video here. But suffice it to say, there are lessons of strength, resilience, and confidence that one can take away from extended periods of loneliness. That doesn't mean it's something we should strive for. Yet considering it will likely happen to us at some point in our lives, we may as well find some things to appreciate about it.
4. You will make it through your loneliness
For every time I've spent feeling lonely, I have come out the other side. When I lived in South Bend and was lonely, I found alleviation when I moved to Seattle and had a bunch of friends. When I was lonely upon moving to Boston, it lessened by finding a good partner who provides me with most of the companionship I need. The times when one is lonely can seem to last forever. Life can stagger and pass in deep pauses, but those periods of loneliness can be overcome. Those pauses will once again give rise to a murmur of connection with other human beings. It's a type of connection that brings some reassurance and meaning. While you're in those time devoid of connection, use them to your advantage to better yourself and make those attempts to reach out. You will make it through.
I have one last resort when things go wrong. When I am suicidal or incapable of doing anything, and want to give up, I turn to this document that I keep on a shelf by my bed.
Thankfully, I don’t have to turn to it very often, but it’s become my lifeline for when I feel horrible. I tend to work my way down the left side of the page and have found that, for the most part, by the time I get to the fifth or sixth question I’m feeling better. Your experience may vary and there’s nothing wrong with jumping around with the questions or doing some and not others.
This document isn’t a rulebook, but if you feel at the end of your rope, if you do enough of these, chances are you’ll feel better after a while. Your problems won't stop, but this document pulled me through a handful of dark times.
Last winter there was a snow day from work and I had a difficult time feeling motivated to do anything. I was disliking my job at the time quite a bit and was feeling hopeless and unmotivated with my life in general. Thoughts of suicide entered my mind. I had eaten and drank water. I had even showered. But I realized I hadn't been out of my apartment all day. So, once the snow eased up some I put on my boots and coat and trudged around my neighborhood. The lack of sound in the city made things quite eerie. Yet I found it very peaceful to see the snow lightly falling. I could tell the exercise and a change in environment were helpful. Things didn't change dramatically, but it was enough to pull me out of my severe doldrums.
I’m not exaggerating when I say if you deal with problems of suicidality, print this list out and put it by your bed. These items aren’t relegated to only the times you feel horrible—they’re good activities for general daily living. But they’re especially helpful if you find yourself at the end of your wits.
My actions are my only true belongings.
I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.
My actions are the ground upon which I stand.
In the past two entries I’ve explored things we can’t change: the way life works (illness, age, death) and other people and things. So where does that leave us? The last remembrance tells us that all we can control are our own actions.
Our response to life is the only thing we own. It’s the only thing we take with us everywhere we go at all times. Furthermore, our actions speak for us. How we act is what we fall back upon. It says who we are and what’s important to us.
What this remembrance means to me is that I have control over my actions. I can make that decision on how to respond to the things that happen to me. I wish I had control over more things, especially when life doesn’t seem fair.
There are often arrayed against us a plethora of cultural and personal barriers: racism, sexism, homophobia, mental illness, physical disability, etc. And they’re not fair. Yet, our response to them is all we can control. Part of that means we can choose to act by fighting against the systems and people that hold us back.
Our attitude can go a long way to determining how we view life and in turn our mental health. I acknowledge that even though we control our actions, it’s not always easy to be positive and optimistic. Life can suck and it’s up to us to get to the point with our mental health where it’s possible to see this remembrance as do-able.
It hasn’t always been simple for me to acknowledge that I have any control over my life. Often I have to fight against feeling helpless and hopeless. This happens especially when there are decisions to be made by others and I’m left waiting on their actions. But if I can confront and work on my mental illness, I find the remembrance that I only have control over my behavior to be a reasonable one to address.
Attempting to take on my own mental health and deal with it is an action in itself. It’s an action that says I’m trying and shows what I’m made of. This is a consequence that I’m willing to accept.
All that is dear to me and everyone I love are the nature to change.
There is no way to keep from being separated from them.
The remembrances of the Buddha shift with the fourth statement. They’re not facts of human existence (aging, illness, death), but rather an acknowledgement of the outward changes in our environment. With this statement we move away from the self and to speak of others.
I’m pretty good with accepting getting older, sicker, and dying. But it’s change with others and my situation that has often caused me the most trouble. Sudden, dramatic changes can throw me for a loop. The end of a relationship can especially do this. When my girlfriend dumped me in 2011 it hit me hard, especially considering we had only been going out for five months. So much so that I tried to kill myself. Looking back now I find it amazing this was my reaction, but I’ve learned that losing close connections to others is a triggering experience for me.
Nowadays I remind myself that when change occurs, it’s a matter of how the world works. I don’t always like it, but what can I do to stop it? Others’ actions caused change in my life that has disappointed and scared me. Just the same, I’m sure I’ve caused change in their lives that has made them uncomfortable.
But if I take a step back and look at the full scope of my life, I see that disruption and change are the nature of my existence. People move, you get laid off from a job, pets die. I’ve learned now that the fact of the matter is that most of your relationships will end, until there’s one that doesn’t. The closeness we have with our family and friends may change as we move and grow in our lives. These are inevitable. Look at not only your life, but the lives of others you know. No doubt major changes have occurred with all them.
It’s a daily struggle to accept that things don’t stay the same. With each new thought of frustration about things out of our control, we have to take up that struggle once again to come to some tolerance of our situation. Life isn’t always out of our hands, though. We do have a way to handle these frustrating experiences when they occur. The final remembrance of the Buddha has helped me a great deal and I’ll explore that in the next post.
I am of the nature to grow old.
There is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill health.
There is no way to escape ill health.
I am of the nature to die.
There is no way to escape death.
The first three remembrances of the Buddha come off as pretty big bummers. You get old, you get sick, and you die. I brought up the remembrances to some family members and they stared at me in disbelief. There was a long pause and then one of them said, "Wow. That is really depressing." I understood why they might think that, but since I discovered them years ago, I have come to find them freeing.
A certain level of acceptance is necessary to find peace with these first three remembrances. But let's face it: we can all agree we're going to age, become ill, and die, right? That's the nature of this life and there's no way around that. Once I learned that that was the way of things, I knew there was no reason to fight it. And I saw how much unhappiness arose not only in me, but others, when we can't be the young healthy people we desire.
I've come to peace that this is how my life is going to go. Does it mean that I like getting older, ill, or the thought that my loved ones (and I myself) will someday die? Not really. But what can I do about it? I can have empathy for those experiencing times of illness or who are going through the death of a loved one. And I can listen and love them when they're frustrated that the strength of their youth has gone from them.
Once there's an acknowledgment of the way life works (aging, illness, death) we can turn to accepting them. That acceptance is a daily struggle. It requires constant patience (which is one of my weak traits). But what does fighting against these constants in life get us? It can often cause us sadness, despair, and frustration, which doesn't help things.
I will be the first to acknowledge this isn't easy to accept. And that it comes off as a major downer. But I can also tell you that learning to accept that life operates this way has brought me a great deal of patience and humility.
It's also helped me avoid situations that might otherwise exasperate my depression and anxiety. There are times I’ve fallen ill with the flu or an injury from being physically active. Those situations leave me wondering if I’m at the beginning of some greater, more serious illness. It also leads me to sadness at not being able to do everything I want to do. Yet, when I reflect on the remembrances, I acknowledge that such events are a given in life. There’s nothing I can do but accept it and adjust my behavior accordingly.
So, I've addressed some of the bigger forces at work in our world—things that have been upon us since the dawn of humankind. But what about the nature of other humans? How do we deal with them and how freaking annoying they can be? That's material for the next blog post.
I’m not a Buddhist and have no intention of becoming one, but do appreciate many of the teachings and have found them useful. The one I return to daily is something called the Five Remembrances of the Buddha. There are many translations of it, but the one I like is by Thích Nhất Hạnh, a Buddhist monk:
I am of the nature to grow old.
There is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill health.
There is no way to escape ill health.
I am of the nature to die.
There is no way to escape death.
All that is dear to me and everyone I love are the nature to change.
There is no way to escape being separated from them.
My actions are my only true belongings.
I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.
My actions are the ground upon which I stand.
I shared these with some people recently and they found them to be very depressing. I can see how one might draw that conclusion. Looked at from a certain perspective it appears to be saying that life is a big bummer and then you die. Nothing is going to stay the same. Everyone and everything is going to change. Sounds shitty, doesn’t it?
Yet, I find that the Five Remembrances have cut down on my anxiety. I need facts in my life—foundational ideas that cannot change. I need to be able to know there’s something I can rely on. I’ve thought about these five things and realized that they are true and unchangeable. They will always be there. And thus, they’re something I can believe in.
The Five Remembrances also encourage me to live in the moment and get out of my head. And they’re important (and confusing) enough to be worthy of exploration in future posts.
On occasion I fear a relapse into depression. Other times I find myself in the depths of despair. The best thing I can do to help me then is to remind myself that whatever I’m feeling, it’s happened before and I survived.
I’ve worked horrible jobs that I hated and where management was atrocious, so I know that should work get bad I can get through that. I often struggle with impatience. But I've found it’s helpful to remember that there were occasions where time took. I wanted out of my situation badly enough that I made the necessary plans to escape and did so. Thus, I am pretty sure I can do it again.
Even with new situations, such as going to a mental hospital, there’s a first time with that. I had never been through that. But I reminded myself there had been times before where I felt as despondent as I did then. I also knew to rely on those around me, such as my therapist and psychiatrist, for support. With their help I was able to survive that situation and now I know it’s possible to get through a hospitalization.
I also find some comfort in seeing how others have made it through difficult times and know that I, too, am capable of making it. I may not always feel I am able to do great things. Yet my success in other areas shows me that I have the knowledge and understanding to do something as well as those around me. I try and take hope in that.
Still, the more years I have behind me, the more experiences I have. I also see that with some planning and help from those around me, whatever is happening, I can get through it.
I’m just shy of forty years old and I never thought I’d make it to this age. Since I was in middle school I’ve dealt with depression and anxiety and my goal back then was survival. I didn’t think about the future and so I had to make up things as I went along.
I didn’t know what I was doing as the years went by. I felt such anguish and pain at the inability to know what I was meant to do with my life. I saw so many others around me in relationships and on career paths. I felt lost and impatient at not having direction.
Now my picture is a bit clearer. I know I want to help those with mental health issues such as the ones I’ve experienced. I want to speak to groups and write about what has worked for me. I’m figuring out how to make that happen in a way that is sustainable.
It took me much longer than I would’ve preferred to get to where I am today. But I wanted to share four things I did that helped me get to where I have a better idea of what I want to do with my life.
1. Find work you can tolerate and that provides stability
I’ve worked in libraries for almost fifteen years. It wasn’t my calling; I actually went to library school because I needed to get out of my parents’ house. But after thinking it over I realized that going to grad school was about finding something I could enjoy enough to deal with every day as a job. I wasn’t sure that it was exactly what I wanted to do, but it has provided me with a steady career, a decent paycheck, and health insurance.
2. Try things
While you’re working a job that you can tolerate/enjoy, try to do as many new things as possible. Move to a different city, take a class, travel someplace that makes you uncomfortable, pick up new hobbies. The more things you try, the better you’ll get an idea for what you like and what you don’t like.
3. Read a lot
I picked up a lot of self-help books to educate myself on life. I read books on how to deal with depression and anxiety (Mind Over Mood), and creating the life you’ve always wanted (Four-Hour Work Week). I took many different career tests to figure out what type of work might be good for me. I followed recommendations from friends, family, and people in the self-help field whose work I respected. I picked up a lot of food for thought that pushed me in some new directions.
4. Put yourself out there
It’s scary to try new things. Fear of rejection held me back for so long. My self-esteem was pretty low. But asking for help and advice from people I respected gave me encouragement. And even though I faced some setbacks, I wouldn’t have made progress if I hadn’t tried.
Feeling depressed and lonely is a difficult place to be. Loneliness, especially, is a solitary trial, something that alienates us from others. We see those around us who appear happy and think, “What is wrong with me that I can’t be like them?”
It can bring some relief, though, to remember that I’m not alone in these struggles. And it’s not only friends or co-workers who deal with these feelings of loneliness or great sadness. Successful individuals, too, are trying to get by with these emotions. While I’m not happy others are suffering, knowing that there is a wide range of people dealing with what I’m undergoing can make me feel not quite as bad. I can say to myself, “If they’re dealing with this and achieving some of their goals, perhaps that’s possible for me, too. There’s no logical reason why that shouldn’t happen.”
But this also works the other way. When friends and family are working through issues of melancholy or feeling disconnected, we can support one another. Even if we’re both not feeling well, there can be attempts to hold one another accountable to do the things we need to do to work toward getting better. In the same way, having gone through difficult times and emerging on the other side means we can help those who need it.
For years (in fact, most of my teens and twenties) I never thought I’d emerge from the dark cave of depression in which I found myself. And yet, after a lot of therapy, medications, writing, and so many other attempts at mental wellness, I’ve found some calm (for the most part). And now I want to use that to help others and remind them that it is possible to get through unwanted times of emotional pressure. Whatever you’re going through, and no matter how bad it feels, other people have been there. We want to do our best to remind you you’re not alone and we’re here to help.
Transition can be a very difficult thing for me. Even when it’s something I put upon myself it can be hard. It’s the uncertainty and the fear of all that might go wrong that gets to me. But change can also be a good thing. Let's look at a few of those positive reasons below.
1. Change can inspire us
Change can be a good catalyst for getting a new perspective not only on the environment in which we find ourselves, but on ourselves. Travel inspires me to get a new vision of my life and serve as a reset. Change in what we’re doing in our lives as far as a big move or career change can do the same. It forces us to question what we want and who we are.
2. Change can show us a side of ourselves we may not otherwise know
In going through a change, especially in a new career, we can learn we are good at certain things we may not have otherwise thought. A few years ago I took a chance and became a tour guide. I had no idea if I’d be good at it but discovered that it was something at which I not only excelled but enjoyed. Who knew that I, an introvert, would enjoy being social? But if I hadn’t taken a chance at that change I would’ve missed out on something that has now become a livelihood.
3. It can expand our minds
If we’re willing to take a chance with change we can learn new things. And learning new things can make us wiser and more open-minded, which can only inspire more empathy and kindness toward others. (Or at least that’s the goal for me.) By taking a chance to move to Seattle back in 2006 I grew so much as an individual in only two years. I learned about what I believed, spiritually and intellectually. I also learned how to adapt to some of the most jarring change possible (new home, new friends, new job) all at once. But it was worth it and I’d do it again.
4. It’s a reminder to take care of ourselves
Moments of change are the most important occasions to do self-care. It should almost be a default setting in our minds: change = taking time to take care of me. That’s something important for me to remember as I start a new job. To stay healthy I need to hit the gym, get enough sleep, and not overtax myself with other responsibilities. All these things (and more) are good things to remember when you and I are going through changes.
I tuck myself away from people quite often—not the best way to deal with loneliness. But I do so not to escape socialization (at least not entirely), but rather to work. Yet, there’s a part of me that can’t deny that a lot of this is because it’s safer to work than to socialize and try and meet other people.
I write, edit that writing, and then write some more. It’s reviews for Razorcake, the punk music magazine I’ve been with since 2005, or entries for this here blog post. Sometimes I’m editing a book or longer piece I’m putting together for another publication.
With writing and giving talks, with the extra jobs I take on (I currently have four part-time jobs), it’s all about keeping busy. I do this for two reasons: when I’m occupied with work I don’t think about how lonely I am, and also because time is of the essence.
Work is reliable. It rarely lets me down and the only person I have to please is myself. When I am deep into my writing or editing I feel productive and accomplished and that is a wonderful feeling. I also don’t have to acknowledge my loneliness, which can often leave me depressed—a road down which I don’t wish to go.
The past few years I’ve recognized that I’m getting older (just shy of 40). There are still too many people to help and things I want to do in my life. This includes spending more time doing something I enjoy: speaking about my mental health. There’s something about having a few suicide attempts in my life that cause me to want to work even harder at living in the moment and do even more.
I try and find time to slow down. I do this by exercising at the gym or doing yoga. I read, although lately I find it more difficult to find a good book. I enjoy vacationing and seeing historical sites, museums, and the outdoors in all its splendor.
Yet I can’t seem to slow down. And I know I need to. I need to find time to make friends and get to know others. It’s easy to stay in what makes one comfortable, especially when I can mask it as helping others. I’m putting them before myself and that can feel like a more noble route to take. Yet I don’t always follow my own advice about loneliness because it takes time too long to implement those practices.
None of this is to say I’m going to stop with my writing and speaking. Yet I have become more aware as of late that it’s important for my health to make connections with others. That can bring me joy in a different manner. A well-rounded approach to happiness is something that we all can use. So I’m doing my best to begin to attempt to go from “can’t stop, won’t stop” to “maybe can stop, should probably stop from time to time.”
,There is a lot of stigma associated with the word “loneliness” or saying “I’m lonely.” But loneliness strikes everyone at some point in our lives. It's challenging to take one's self out of a comfort zone and be in situation where we may know few, if any, people. For college students, being a young adult is already a time of questioning one’s self, meaning we may not feel as though we belong. Yet that is what we’re all seeking, especially when we’re unsure of ourselves.
Setting up a system whereby students become informed of their need for belonging and how to find that presents a positive notion. It says: here’s this thing you want and now let’s talk about how you can get it. This is in opposition to the way that loneliness often comes across. It's often seen as a dreaded state to avoid and connected to depression and inadequacy.
Yet everyone desires to connect and belong. Framing an attack on loneliness in this manner seems a more likely way to get students to interact with programs at universities. “How to find connection and a sense of belonging” versus “How to stop feeling lonely.” While the phrasing could be slightly different with each of those, the sentiment is the same. Having more people say “I’m lonely” along with rephrasing it as being about connection and belonging would find more success in aiding students who may be dealing with both loneliness and wanting to belong.
Recently I visited family and friends in the small city in Indiana where I grew up. As a teen I felt, for the first and last time in my life, real community. Sure, I’ve had friends here and there over the yeas, including a few very good ones. But I’ve never felt those tight friendships that I did in my teens.
There’s a tendency to wax nostalgic about times that seemed particularly good, but that’s not the case for me. During my high school years I was often quite depressed and anxious. I wasn’t in as good of a place with my mental health as I am now. And yet I knew people who stood by me during those times. They accepted me for all my faults.
Our ability to grow up and survive in the same environment and overcome some of the same mental health issues, as well as a boring, small city, bonded us. It’s something that caused a connection for me with others, even twenty years later. It’s these feelings of love and appreciation that cause me to wonder what it is I’m missing now which prevents me from finding those deeper connections.
I realize that a great part of developing that intimacy was because I saw people on a frequent basis—daily and sometimes on the weekends, too. I don’t have that luxury with many people beyond those with whom I work. Even then, I haven’t developed any connection like the one I felt with my high school peers. Due to hectic schedules, driving distances, and people having children, it’s more difficult to find the time to see one another.
My hometown has come a long way from when I was in high school. There used to be little to nothing to do. Now my peers from high school (and many people I don’t even know) have brought into town a great brewing company, lots of bars, a Neapolitan pizza restaurant, an Indian restaurant, a record store, and an excellent coffee shop. I often tell people it’s the kind of place I’d want to live if it wasn’t in Indiana.
As I get older I see the importance of community as a way to develop connections that make us feel wanted and cared for. They also are a way to combat the loneliness that I often feel in a big city.
After my recent visit I began thinking more about moving back. I don’t think I’d do it, because there’s a part of me that loves the hustle and bustle of a big city, and I appreciate the many opportunities of things to do in Boston. But I have no idea what I’d do for work in my hometown. And the politics in Indiana aren't always to my liking and that makes me frustrated. Besides, I love New England’s natural beauty and being near the ocean and hills.
Yet I can’t help but wonder at what point that desire for community and a closeness with friends will override all other things. That sense of belonging may end up drawing me back to a city to which I never thought I’d return.
In my times of loneliness I discovered some qualities about myself that I wasn’t expecting. One thing I learned is how creative I can be. When I dealt with my loneliness I knew I had to find things to keep me occupied. I started going places on my own—not only on vacation but around Boston, where I live. I started visiting historical sites and not allowing my lack of friends to keep me from living life. One semester of grad school I went to look for different breakfast places around the city to eat at on Saturday mornings. It gave me something to do and exposed me to new parts of the city. Another time, I looked for the best burritos in the city.
Through my loneliness I also learned more about myself, mentally. I realized when I needed to exercise and release my life of tension and stress. It also allowed me to be around others, even if I didn’t have conversations with them. I would often leave feeling better. I forced myself to meditate more often because even though I thought it was boring, I ended up often feeling better after that. After these experiences with my loneliness, I realized I was stronger than I ever thought I could be.
I first had experiences with loneliness in high school and between my low-self esteem and immaturity I was often crushed by it. Years later, after a growth in my confidence and maturity, I acknowledged I was stronger than I may have otherwise thought. And that was encouraging to me. I could see that it wasn’t only about loneliness. I had strength to tackle other big struggles in my life.
Loneliness isn't something I wish upon others. Yet at the same time I can’t imagine my life without it because it’s made me into the emotionally resilient person I am today. We know loneliness is going to hit us all at some point. But it’s reassuring to know that with the proper mindset and practices we can emerge from it as stronger individuals.
When one is lonely, it can often feel overwhelming and all-encompassing. Yet, surviving a period of loneliness can serve as further proof that one can do things once not thought possible.
When I moved to Boston (where I currently live) in 2008 I didn’t know anyone. I moved to the city for graduate school having never visited. I felt lonely quite often and spent a lot of time hanging out by myself. It seemed so difficult to make connections and I didn’t feel as though I could find anyone to befriend.
I’ve always felt like someone who didn’t quite fit in. I came to graduate school for a masters in American Studies. There I believed I would find activists, punks, anarchists, and others akin to where I stood, politically and socially. It was disappointing to discover that none of these descriptions fit my peers. I had a difficult time finding much of anyone with whom I could bond in such a big city, which seemed like adding insult to injury.
Graduate school and working part-time also sucked up a lot of my week, keeping me from being able to make new friends. Despite our differences, I gravitated toward my graduate peers but often felt loneliest when at parties with them. I was older than many of them and had difficulty sharing my past with them: punk rock shows and radical politics.
Yet, as time went on, I survived. I’ve picked up a few acquaintances and friends here and there and having a partner has gone a long way, too. I didn’t think I could survive those lonely experiences, but I made it.
I have more strength than I ever knew I had. I am resilient in the face of not just loneliness but now know that if loneliness doesn’t get me down there are other issues in life I am certain I can break through: depression and anxiety, for example. Besides, if I could get through such lonely times, I knew I could deal with loneliness should it hit me again.
This blog is an exploration of the subjects of belonging and loneliness. I also look at mental health issues. I seek to provide content to my readers that is informative and helpful. If you don't want to miss anything, sign up for my email list.