‘Learn-how-to-meditate-January’

I think the whole country, the entire U.S. of A., should take up meditation. I had this epiphany the other day after I finished the 20th of a 30-day class – each session is only 10 minutes –  offered through an app called Calm. I realize this is an impossibility on so many levels, but I’d like to make the case.

Much of the divisions in our country are caused by people feeling aggrieved. Some folks believe they are unseen or unheard by our government or by the rich and powerful. Some are bitter because of sour relationships. Others are angry because they think many in this country have been swallowed by a cult causing us to drift (speedily swim?) toward authoritarianism. Whatever the source of the grievance, I think the practice of meditation can help because it requires that you become more neutral, you need to adopt a stance of equanimity to sit quietly for ten minutes. I don’t mean to simplify something that is quite complex. Both the problems that have led so many to feel alienated/angry and the practice of meditation are complicated. But, they are simple, too.

Sitting quietly and breathing slowly and deeply for ten minutes each day is both the easiest thing in the world and the hardest. Quieting your mind, allowing emotions to flow through you but not possess you, takes practice. I am a novice, but I see the benefit of having done it for about a month (and, full disclosure, I missed some days during the month). Some people did a ‘dry January,’ I did a ‘how to meditate January.’

I was motivated to try this because during these last couple of years during the pandemic, I have found myself easily riled. I go from zero to sixty emotionally in seconds. I felt agitated much of the time. I read a headline and feel my stomach churn. I can’t say that my meditation practice has changed all of that, but there is noticeable improvement. I still get anxious at the prospect of taking Mom to the doctor, and I still feel my blood pressure start to rise when I read about Donald Trump’s latest rally, but I feel more in control. If it can do this for me, I can imagine what it would do for all the people out there who are living on the edge.

The practice allows you to acknowledge feelings that you might prefer to push down. Generally, I am pretty self-aware. I think for others who are not so blessed to be in touch with their emotions, it might be uncomfortable at first, but it would be a step in the right direction. When you don’t acknowledge what you are feeling it comes out in unexpected and unpleasant ways.

Another positive is that there are no religious aspects to meditation, unless one wanted there to be. I think it is harmonious with all faith traditions.

We are fixated with solving societal problems from the outside in – we enact new laws, fund programs, do research, require others to take action, and talk issues to death. Many of those steps, other than talking things to death, are admirable, and necessary. But, maybe, we need another approach as well. One that starts from the inside of each individual. Maybe if more people took 10 minutes a day to sit quietly and breathe deeply, there would be less hostility and better mental health. Just an idea.

I plan to extend my practice beyond ‘learn-how-to-meditate’ January.

Words of Comfort

Once again, the Covid pandemic is on my mind. Aside from wearying of the limitations it has placed on my life, it feels like the virus is closing in on me. It feels unavoidable. It has hit close to home as family members and friends have been diagnosed in recent weeks. While omicron seems to be less deadly than prior variants and results in less serious illness, it is still no joke.  And, until we are over the peak and on the other side, we don’t really know its impact.

People continue to make different choices in how they cope with the pandemic. Some reasonable folks have concluded that, while wearing masks in public spaces, they are resuming activities and living their lives. My husband is not comfortable with that approach, perhaps as a physician who is in the office seeing patients every day, he thinks the risk is too high until we clearly pass the peak of this surge. He goes to work masked and goggled, washing and sterilizing his hands relentlessly, but then declines most social activities. He would like me to make the same choice. For the most part I have, refraining from most things except I continue to play tennis once every other week. Since I am not working and we are now in the depth of winter, my life is quite limited. It leaves too much time to think, too much time to worry.

In the midst of my angst, I read some helpful words in the form of a poem that came across my Facebook feed:

I am no longer waiting for the other shoe to drop; it already did, and I survived.

I am no longer waiting for the time to be right; the time is always now.

I am no longer waiting to do something great; being awake to carry my grain of sand is enough.

I am no longer waiting to be recognized; I know that I dance in a holy circle.

Author: Mary Anne Perrone

The above lines are part of a longer piece, but these were words I needed to read right now. I’m not so sure about that last phrase – I don’t dance in a holy circle (I’m not sure I even understand what she means by that), but the idea that I don’t need recognition to find value in what I create is a thought I need to be reminded of. The belief that I am enough is something I continue to work on.

The first lines of this piece speak to the major challenge posed by the pandemic – the fear that the other shoe will drop. What am I worried about? The health of the ones I love. I want to know that family members who have Covid or another a health scare are okay, that they will recover quickly and suffer no ill effect. Unfortunately, I can’t know that.

Worry can always be around the corner. If I allow it, it can rule my life. I find comfort in those lines above – the shoe has dropped – at times. It is true that the worst has not happened – I am still here, as are Gary and my children, thankfully – but bad things have occurred, and I have survived. I have managed.

The other day I had a long conversation with a friend who is battling colon cancer. Her husband took the diagnosis hard, understandably. It is scary, though her prognosis is good. Her husband was depressed and after a time she confronted him, saying that she needed him to stop being so down, she needed a more positive attitude. He confessed that he was terrified of losing her. She reminded him that she is here now. When something scary and unknown hangs over you it is hard to be in the present.

Though I am not faced with the same situation as my friend, I related to the challenge they faced. The meditation app I started using a few weeks ago offered helpful insight into the scenario where you might imagine the worst. During one of the exercises, the guide pointed out that thoughts are not reality – thinking something doesn’t make it so. Worrying about future health complications has little to do with the reality of the here and now. It is easy to go down the rabbit hole of ‘what if,’ but it leads nowhere and accomplishes nothing. We can’t put our head in the sand, we need to plan when we have real information about what the future holds, but we can’t live in anticipation of the worst. It is a choice we can make. I can control my thoughts. What a revolutionary idea! It doesn’t come easy to me, but it is empowering to realize that I can redirect my mental energy.

I don’t think I used to have to work so hard to quell the worry. I didn’t worry so much before. Why am I now?

Maybe being inundated with bad news – people losing their homes to fire, people dying of Covid, a friend losing her husband to pancreatic cancer – has made it harder to cope. Bad things were always happening and will always happen. I think social media heightens the sense of disaster all around us. Did they always report when a retired third string quarterback for an obscure NFL team died? My Twitter and Facebook feed is filled with those stories. When someone as famous as Betty White died in the past, of course it made the news. But now it is hard to know what to do with all this information, especially all the losses. How can we process these deaths (whether related to Covid or not)? It is hard not to be overwhelmed.

Some periods of time seem more perilous than others. This is one of those times. I want to put the people I love in a bubble. But I can’t, nor would they want to live there. I need instead to focus on the joys, the beauty and the love today.

Serenity now! View from a walk at Five Rivers – another coping-with-the-pandemic strategy

Is This the Right Time?

           I picked an interesting time to stop taking my antidepressant! About two months ago I started the process of weaning off Zoloft. Two weeks ago, I completed the process. I was on it for years – certainly more than a decade. I began to consider stopping about a year ago. I noticed that I felt ‘flat;’ I wasn’t experiencing pleasure in moments that I expected to, like being with my granddaughter or going on vacation. That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy those things; I did but I wasn’t fully engaged. I wanted to feel more, even sadness. I understood that Zoloft was likely protecting me from real lows, but I wasn’t sure it was worth the tradeoff anymore.

            The reason I started taking medication in the first place was not because of depression, per se. I am fortunate in that I have never experienced the debilitating effects of clinical depression. My problem was that I would ruminate – I lived in my head, and I was tired of it. I remember telling my therapist that I felt stuck. I would ruminate about unsatisfying social interactions or relationship problems. Sometimes I would get stuck on fears, even silly ones. A low point was when I was on the teacup ride at Disney with Leah and instead of enjoying it – she was – I was imagining the headlines when it crashed. Anxiety was more of an issue for me than depression.

            All these years later, when it dawned on me that I was kind of numb, I thought maybe it was time to try life without Zoloft.  Even with the craziness of Covid, which has introduced another layer of challenge for our mental health, I wanted to give it a try.

            In one sense it was a good time to consider the possibility of going off the pills. When things started getting harder managing Mom and Aunt Clair’s health care about six months ago, I returned to therapy. After a few sessions I posed the question: Could the medicine be stifling my emotions? Was the dullness I felt caused by the drug? I wondered if, by virtue of being on Zoloft for so long, my brain had rewired itself. Maybe the pathways that led me continue to re-live the same conversation a hundred times had been rerouted – not to stretch the metaphor too far. She said that the flatness I was describing was a known side effect of medication and it was possible that my brain changed such that I would be less susceptible to ruminating. We discussed the process of discontinuing the medicine and what I should be on the lookout for in terms of side effects as I went forward. I also checked in with my primary care physician since my therapist is not a psychiatrist – my primary care doc actually prescribes the medicine. Having consulted with the two of them, having a plan in place, I decided to do it.

            With all that continues to go on with my mom and aunt (not to mention the relentlessly negative news from the world at large), it might not have been the wisest time to do this experiment. I think, though, it is also important for me to feel the pain of this part of the journey. Though I am only a couple of weeks into this, instinct tells me that it was the right step to take. I may change my mind – I haven’t disposed of the remainder of my pills – I reserve the right to go back on them. But, I think this feels more natural. I should feel sad that Mom is not herself. I should get angry and frustrated at the failures of our health care system. I should feel joy when my granddaughter runs at me to hug my knees, turning her bright, beautiful face up to mine, flashing a huge smile that melts my heart. I want to feel those emotions.

            It has been a dramatic welcome back to the world of emotion. People sometimes talk about oscillating between one feeling and another. My experience is more like the hour hand of a clock sweeping across an array of them – fortunately it isn’t the minute or second hand! That would be unsustainable. Anger, confusion, frustration, love, hope, despair, powerlessness, appreciation, grateful are all part of most days.

            As expected, anger is prominent. There is a lot to be angry about, and I have a shorter fuse now. I’m not sure that is a great development. Since Gary is often the one igniting the fuse, I have checked in with him to see if I’m being unreasonable. So far, we’re managing, or should I say he is. Isn’t he lucky! Seriously, though, I am working on handling my temper. It hasn’t been a problem, but I do notice a difference.

            Another expected emotion – sadness. Each time I am faced with the fact of my mom’s new limitations, I feel it. I am still not a crier. I wish sometimes I could get that release. Oddly, I find it comforting to be sad. Being numb to what is happening isn’t living. If I don’t dwell there too much of the time, I think it is healthy.

            If the last two weekends are any indication, the joy has ramped up, too. I spent time with my children and granddaughter two weekends in a row! One of those weekends was my birthday and we managed to combine all my favorite things: family, nature and art. I was more fully present. So far, so good.

My Gallery of Joy:

            I do notice some increase in anxiety. Stray thoughts about unlikely accidents (like my teacup ride) creep in, but they aren’t taking up residence. They aren’t getting in my way. At least not yet. I am hoping they won’t.

            Some may wonder why I am sharing all of this. It does feel a little weird to put this out there. But I want to ‘walk the walk’; I believe we need to destigmatize mental health issues and how can we do that if we don’t bring it out into the open? Maybe we’ll get to the point where it becomes a nonissue, then I’ll stop. We aren’t there yet. This is part of my journey, and I am choosing to share it. Hopefully it will help others who may be experiencing some of the same challenges. And, if not, maybe it illuminates what it feels like for those who have not been down this road.

Note: If any reader is considering stopping medication, please do so under the direction of a doctor and/or therapist. There can be serious side effects, especially if it is done abruptly, that need to be monitored.