Sunday, June 17, 2018

Very Personal Thoughts About Suicide and Depression

Mara here:

I need to start by putting in a trigger warning. People who are having a mental crisis or are easily triggered by thoughts and discussion about suicide or depression should not read this article.

For everyone, the National Suicide Hotline is: 1-800-273-8255. If you are having suicidal thoughts or feel you are at risk of hurting yourself, please reach out to someone for help.

I should also state that I am not a doctor. I have no medical training. So any thoughts I have about coping with depression are personal and should not be considered professional advice.

So now that everyone is probably sufficiently on high alert as to the topic of the blog, I will start with saying that I have never been on the brink of actually committing suicide. But as someone who has dealt with depression, sometimes severe, I can't say I've never thought about it.

With the recent high profile suicides of designer Kate Spade and chef Anthony Bourdain, a very public discussion about suicide erupted.

And sorting through the thoughts, both sympathetic and angry, it's clear that people generally fall into two groups: people who understand and people who don't.

I don't want to get into the religious debate about suicide. I don't follow a religious practice so I have nothing to offer to that argument.

I'm also not going to delve into the very real connection between addiction to drugs and alcohol and depression. Addiction is not something I've ever really struggled with so while I can logically explain why people mask their depression with addiction, I can't offer any personal experience with it.

What I can offer are some personal insights on depression as I've experienced it, and hopefully shed some light for people who can't understand how easily people who suffer from depression can decide that suicide is an option.

For people who don't suffer from clinical depression, suicide must be confusing and scary. In general, our society puts a stigma on death. It's something to be feared and avoided at all costs. Just growing older has become something that we try to fight off with plastic surgery, exercise, supplements—even just our mindset. We are told to think of sixty as the new forty, because we are told that we should want to be younger. We should want to live forever.

But from my own personal experience, what depression has created for me is a world that feels difficult to live in. Depression makes everything about living feel complicated and it's as if I can physically feel the weight of the world on my shoulders. All my senses get heightened to the point where the only way to survive is to shut them off—to try and numb myself to my feelings as much as possible. But once I am numb, then the idea of living altogether becomes distant. Joy is numbed. Hope is numbed. The panic is numbed, but the feelings of sadness and hopelessness are still there.

When I am in a state of deep depression, I become my own worst enemy. My mind becomes a weapon that it uses against itself. Every moment of my life past, present, and future are broken down into little bombs that are used to break down memories of happiness, achievement, or hope.

And then my instincts of survival kick in and I start to try and fight my negative thoughts with positive thoughts. But that requires even more energy. I can find myself semi-comatose for hours simply trying to survive the battle that is being waged inside my mind.

The weight of my thoughts become so heavy that it requires all my energy to simply survive them. There's very little energy left to do things like get out of bed.

And during the times in my life when I have been severely depressed and still had to function, I have had to force myself to pretend to be a regular human being. I do things mechanically, using my ability to numb all my feelings to simply survive day to day.

But all that does is give my brain another weapon to use against me, reminding me that I am pretending, and that nothing I'm doing is being done very well. And the numbing effect can lead to detachment, where I feel as if I'm watching myself live my life. I can almost see myself outside my body doing things. But it doesn't feel real. And if nothing I do feels real, what am I doing?

Life becomes very confusing. And there is the constant push and pull of my brain telling me that nothing I'm doing matters, and the part of my heart that tells me that my husband and my daughter need me.

When I've been in the worst of my depression, my thoughts tell me that all I am doing is making people around me unhappy. It tells me that no matter what I do, nothing will make me feel better. There are times my brain convinces me that I'm not capable of doing anything. My brain tells me that no matter what I do, nothing will feel good and nobody around me will be able to be happy because I'm not happy.

And when I am in that place, then my existence feels pointless.

And if my existence is pointless, then my life is pointless. And if my life is pointless, then my death isn't significant.

And even more importantly, the mind decides that death would be a relief. Death is the only lasting way to escape myself. And death is the only way to release those who love me from the pain of having to deal with me.

In those darkest of moments, I truly do believe that my family would be happier without me.

And for those people who can't understand how people who are successful could be suicidal, you have to understand that depression makes everything a burden. Achievements become burdens. Success becomes a burden. Success means people expect more of you—there is more pressure to continue to be successful. Success means there are more people depending on you to continue to be the successful version of you. Success means that there is even more likelihood of failure.

I have been very fortunate to have discovered early on in my life that being a high achiever in a conventional sense wasn't going to be sustainable for me. I pushed myself to the brink of destruction when I was younger, and nearly burned myself out. It was only the love and support of my family that allowed me to step back. It's only now with the benefit of hindsight that I see I was on a path of self-destruction.  But I didn't recognize it at the time because it seemed like being a high achiever meant I was a success.

But for people with depression, success can be destructive. Success adds to the feelings of failure because our successes don't bring us lasting happiness. Success brings more pressure to continue to succeed.

But when I was young, I didn't know what I was feeling. All I knew was that starting at around 15 or 16 years old, I was having difficulty getting out of bed. I was riddled with self-doubt—and I was exhausted. I felt as if I'd already lived three lifetimes. Because mentally I had lived beyond my years. Mentally I felt a thousand years old.

Now, with many years of experience, and with the help of medication, I find that I am able to manage my depression. I still have bad episodes, but there is that little bit of room between the depression and my heart that allows me to survive.

And I have learned to take it day by day. It's similar to the experience I have heard some alcoholics speak about their addiction. They never stop wanting to have a drink. Or smokers, who never lose the desire to smoke a cigarette. My depression is always there, lurking. I'm never free of the weight that depression adds to my life. I have learned to acknowledge that it's part of me.

And I've learned to not hide it. I've learned to not be ashamed of it.

By not hiding it, it takes some of its power over me away. The pressure to pretend like I'm not depressed made being depressed exponentially more difficult to survive. And I'm not embarrassed by my depression anymore. In fact, I've learned that by being open about my depression, it makes it easier for my close friends to understand me.

Because of my depression, I know my attitude towards being alive is not the same as it is for other people. I feel old and worn out. If I mentally felt a thousand over twenty years ago, you can imagine how old I feel now.

Simply being alive does often feel like a burden for me. But I work every day to acknowledge the joys I have. And I get pleasure from the joys that my friends and loved ones have. And I survive. I live.

I hope nobody reading this article feels sad for me. Honestly, I don't feel sad about my life. I think if I felt sad about my life, I wouldn't be able to write about it. I am extremely fortunate. I truly feel fortunate. I have an incredible family and I have had incredible opportunities during my life. Being depressed doesn't mean I don't ever feel happiness.

I life a very good life. And I recognize I live a very good life. For people who don't know me, my life looks incredible. And from my point of view, my life is incredible. But I do struggle with depression. It's just part of who I am.

And that's why I felt it was important to write about this topic.

Depression is not a logical thing. It strikes people of all ages, races, economic levels, success levels, so there's no way to know who is suffering. And everyone deals with their depression differently.

I'm hoping that sharing some of my experiences and feelings will help other people who may have had similar feelings feel less stigmatized by them. Or perhaps it can help people who don't suffer from depression understand the experiences of friends and loved ones who do.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

What Does Compromise in Relationships Mean?

Mara here.

I met a new friend last week. She's about a decade younger than I am and in a completely different place in her life from me.

She's 33, unmarried, a successful business woman with no kids, living on her own—bi-coastally—in Los Angeles and New York. But she's starting to feel open to slowing her life down. She's thinking about finding a relationship and possibly starting a family.

I'm 43 and living a snail's-pace life, happily married for over 20 years with one child who's pretty much grown up.

So we were chatting about starting relationships, and my first piece of advice for anyone, whenever the subject comes up, is, "Don't pretend to be something you're not just because you want someone to like you."

I feel as if our natural instincts to be on our best behavior when we meet new people can sometimes turn into a problem in a long-term relationship. Because the reality is, we need to be honest with the people we are going to spend a lot of time with. It's hard to develop a true friendship and relationship if the person you're presenting as yourself is not who you really are.

She agreed, saying, "I definitely have a very set way I like to live."

And at some point I said, "Well, relationships do require a lot of compromise."

And she replied, "Well, what's the difference between compromising and not being true to yourself?"

Hmmm. I had to think about that. At that moment, she was getting into her car and I think I quickly said something about needing to pick your battles. You have to prioritize what is important to you because in relationships you don't always get to have everything your own way.

At that point, we went our separate ways.

But I kept thinking about what she had asked me because I've been in a relationship for so long; I was pretty much a child when I met my husband and we were lucky enough to grow up together and not grow apart. But being young, I didn't enter the relationship with a lifestyle already formed.

So, on my two-mile walk home (because I still do not have a car), I thought about how to describe compromise.

Compromise is definitely a very important component to relationships. So what does that mean? And how is compromising different from not being true to yourself? Thinking back on all my relationships—friends, spouse, child—I know I definitely do things that I don't want to do. I definitely feel as if I am not always "true to myself" because a lot of the time being true to myself is laying huddled under a pile of blankets reading books and eating candy corn.

So what's the balance?

By the time I got home, I decided that the important thing about compromise is that it has to be equal between the people in the relationship. And it has to be done willingly. The person who is doing something a way they might not have done on their own has to understand why they're changing their behavior and agreed to making the change.

And you can't have compromise where only one person does everything the way the other person wants. Both parties have to be willing to acknowledge that "their way" is not the "right way."

Everyone does things differently.

As my daughter liked to yell at me when she was around 3 years old, "Your mind is not my mind!"

And that's really what it boils down to. We have to recognize that everyone has their own preferences. And that each person's preferences are valid. And in a relationship, both people have to be willing to decide what's most important to them, and then acknowledge when they understand something is important to their partner. And then, depending on the people, as a couple you work out how you do things together.

And it's not about everything being literally equal. It's not about having an equal number of decisions made by each person.

There's no right or wrong way to figure out the balance for each couple. Some people are more easy-going (like my husband Brad), so if you looked at how we live our day to day life, you would probably think that I get my way a lot more than Brad does. And I do. But that's because he's not bothered by it. But when things are important to him, I know that I need to really pay attention and try to be as accommodating as possible because that's what creates the balance for us. He's okay with letting me be eccentric and puts up with my quirky behaviors because he knows that when he tells me something is important to him, I am accommodating.

But compromising again boils down to everyone involved being honest with each other. If you are compromising, but you are secretly harboring constant resentment, then it's not a compromise. Or if compromise isn't happening because your partner doesn't realize what you want because you haven't been honest with them about your true feelings, then that's also problematic.

The bottom line is that relationships are complicated. And compromise is vital to successful relationships. But compromise is ambiguous. There's no set way to compromise. Both people involved in the relationship have to feel as if they have a voice. Both people have to feel as if their wants and feelings are valid. And both people have to care enough about the other person in the relationship to be willing to put the other person's wants and needs above their own sometimes.

All relationships are different. Much like raising children, it's hard to just tell someone what they should do to have a successful relationship because different things work for different people. And it takes some time. People are going to make mistakes. People are going to be jerks. And couples will probably have to get through a fair number of fights as they figure out how to communicate.

But when you are in the right place mentally, and you find the right person, then any compromises you feel you are making for the relationship won't feel like a burden. The compromises you make to your life for the success of the relationship will hopefully feel more like growth instead of sacrifice. The benefits of the relationship will outweigh anything you feel you are giving up. 

I asked my mother, who has also been married for many years and was also married at a young age, how she would describe compromise.

How would you describe the difference between compromise and just giving in to someone in a relationship?

Mara, I couldn't have described the difference better than you have! You have to find the balance that works, given each partner's personality. This means there should be no scorecard, as in: "I compromised yesterday so you owe me a compromise today." That's not wise because, as you said, one of the partners may find compromising easier than the other. Commit to talking about conflicts instead of holding them inside because otherwise resentment will raise its ugly head. Communication is the key—you can't compromise if neither of you knows what is important to the other one.

From a Buddhist perspective, is there a teaching about balancing your own desires with the desires of people around you?

From my Buddhist perspective, I'd say balancing desires is about being compassionate. By that I mean making a commitment to alleviate suffering in your life and in that of others. Alleviating suffering refers to mental suffering of course. Physical suffering is often not something we can control.

And by mental suffering, I'm referring to a range of emotions, from mild disappointment to full-blown anger and hurt and unhappiness. If you always insist on getting your way, others in your life will suffer. If you always give in to what others want, you're likely to suffer. Learning to compromise and not mind doing it is a good way to cultivate compassion for others and for yourself. In my relationship with your Dad, I don't no longer consciously think "I'm compromising." It just comes naturally...and it seems to come naturally to him to—and that makes life easier for both of us.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Walking and Watching in Los Angeles, the City of Cars

Mara here:

So, if you read the blog post from a couple of weeks ago, you already know that my daughter's car was hit and is now in the repair shop.

A quick update on that: the good news is that the car was not totaled—it is being repaired; the bad news is that for some reason it is taking them six weeks to repair the car.


That's craziness.

Fortunately, my car goes relatively unused. I mainly use it to run errands. So my daughter has basically taken over my car so she can drive herself to and from school every day. You might wonder why I don't drive her. The simple answer is that she goes to school far away and it takes up a huge amount of time for me to drive to her school and back. I spent a year and a half doing that. I'm not doing it again unless I have no choice.

The not-so-simple answer is that during that year and a half, more often than not, our morning drives to school would end up with us fighting. (Neither of us is particularly in a good mood early in the morning.) So it's just easier on everyone if we're not forced into a confined space before noon.

So I essentially have been living without a car.

And while I think of myself as someone who doesn't drive very much, it's surprising how many things come up where I need to get somewhere. We fortunately live in an area where I can walk to a lot of places. And with driving services like Uber and Lyft, I'm never stuck without a way to get wherever I need to go.

So I have found myself walking around Los Angeles.


If you don't live in Los Angeles, you don't understand how weird this is. People don't just walk places here. You drive. Unless you are walking in a mall from store to store, if you need to transport yourself in Los Angeles—you drive. Unless you are speed walking and trying to get your steps in on your Fitbit—you drive.

And if you can't drive, you Uber.

There's a great scene from a Steve Martin movie titled, "L.A. Story" where he says he has to go to the neighbor's house, so he gets into his car, drives about 20 feet, and gets out and walks up to his neighbor's house. It's so L.A. My daughter is like that.

But I'm not like that. I've lived in cities like Washington, D.C. and London, where I did a lot of walking and used public transportation all the time.

So I've refused to get a rental car. I've been walking. I walked to the dentist. I walked to the metro hub and took the bus to the doctor's office about fifteen miles away. I had a meeting that I walked to. I walked to the dance studio to take a ballet class.

I've been walking through the city.

And I jog everyday, so it's not as if I'm not used to being outside.

But there's something very different about walking in a leisurely way. When I'm jogging, I'm usually focused on just getting through my jog. And I jog the same circuit every day, so it feels very automated.

Walking to new and different locations has allowed me to take notice of my surroundings. Being exposed to people and the environment around me is very different than just sitting in my insulated vehicle separated by metal and glass from everything around me.

Choosing to walk through the streets and neighborhoods has really given me the opportunity to notice all the different shops and plants and architecture around me that I'd never noticed as I zipped by in my car. I notice the different people; I hear all the sounds; I see the ugliness of the litter; I marvel at the beauty of the sky; I feel the weather as I'm outside in close contact with the world.

And it's a nice reminder of the fact that there are a lot of people who don't have cars. Living in Los Angeles, you forget that many people have to rely on the bus system and walking to get to their jobs. Public transportation in Los Angeles is terrible. It's cumbersome and will often take three to four times the amount of time it would take to drive.

But driving in Los Angeles is expensive. And the lucky people who don't have to worry about the cost of driving forget that not everyone has that luxury.

For me, walking has been a choice. I've been fortune to be able to enjoy my experiences walking instead of feeling burdened by it.

And it's been a nice change of perspective.

It's nice to be reconnected to the city and my neighborhood.

Trust me, I'll be happy when I get my car back from my daughter. I love my car. But I am definitely going to be more open-minded about walking to places when I have the time.

My mom grew up in Los Angeles, so I asked her a question about driving and busing and walking.

You grew up in Los Angeles. Was it always a driving obsessed city? Did you ever take public transportation?

L.A. was just as driving obsessed when I was growing up. I didn't have a car though. And parents didn't drive us places unless it was a long distance. And so I walked to and from junior high for three years. It was a long walk, up and down hills (yes, L.A. has hills). Then, in high school, I took the public transportation—a city bus.

Looking back on it, it's hard for me to believe I took the bus since I haven't been on one in more years than I can remember. I lived in West L.A. and my high school, University High, was almost in Santa Monica, maybe 10 miles away. Every morning, I walked four blocks from my house to Wilshire Blvd. where I caught the westbound bus, got off after a 20 minute ride or so, and walked another four blocks to my high school. Going home, I reversed that route.

When I was out and about during off-school hours, I almost always rode a bike. By the way, I love that scene in Steve Martin's "L.A. Story" too! In fact, my best friend in grammar school, Janey Lakes (who later became Congresswomen Jane Harman), lived a block away and I rarely walked to her house. I rode my bike. 

After reading your piece and all the discoveries you've made, I wished I'd walked more. 

Oh and, P.S., I'm still trying to get used to Uber as a verb!

Sunday, May 27, 2018

A Promposal...What in the World is That?

Mara here:

It's spring. Spring means warmer weather and longer days. If you're school-aged, it means finals. And if you're in high school, it also means it's prom season.

Yes, prom's a thing.

Prom. The iconic high school formal dance that for seniors wraps up their high school career. Kids get to dress up and play adult for the evening. It's a time to celebrate the end of the year. Pictures are taken to memorialize the event. 

Prom is so important for some people that movies have been made, books have been written, blogs are dedicated to it. There are entire sections of department stores devoted in the months of March and April to displaying hundreds of sparkly, puffy dresses for girls to wear for one night.

And now, as if prom wasn't already dramatic enough, there is a thing called a "promposal."

If you're over 30, you might not even be aware that promposals exist. I was vaguely aware of them from a few social media posts I'd seen. It's no longer enough for there to be angst and stress about whether or not someone will ask someone to prom. Now there's a whole ceremony involved.

And some promposals are a huge deal: jewelry is purchased, signs are made, flowers are bought, and friends are enlisted to help create a whole event to simply ask someone to prom. In Los Angeles, there are promposals that rival engagement proposals.

But it's basically a whole production to simply ask a girl or a boy to a high school dance.

If you read this blog regularly, it will come as no surprise that I don't get it. Whaaaaat? A promposal? Another prom-related thing that requires stress and money? Yes.

I guess it's cute. But high school seems stressful enough without adding a whole additional level of stress. And even if you are dating someone and you know you're going to the prom with them, a promposal is expected. In fact, it's probably supposed to be even more romantic and extravagant.

And in truth, apparently promposals only happen if you already know that the person you're promposing to will agree to go. Which makes sense, because who wants to go through all that time and money—and exposure to the humiliation of a public rejection—if you don't know the girl is going to happily say yes and you can post the cute promposal pictures on social media.

But if you already know the person will agree to go, then why go through the whole promposal??

I don't know. I don't get it.

Full disclosure, I did not go to any of my high school proms. I wasn't particularly social. I did get asked my senior year but I was doing a theater production on the night of prom, so I declined. There were other kids involved in the show who did go to prom. They raced out of the theater, hastily dressed in whatever glittery gown they'd purchased and met their prom dates for the end of the dance. I didn't want to do that. I'm sure there are many psychological factors that were involved in my prom going-or-not going decision. But when I look back on it, I don't have regrets about not going...but maybe it's because I don't know what I missed.

So I'm willing to admit that perhaps I'm just not sentimental enough. 

And to be clear, I'm not anti-promposal. I'm not so bothered that I actively discourage it in any way. I just don't get it. I'm chalking it up to be old. I don't really get the whole baby gender reveal parties that seem to be the new thing either.

I don't know. Life seems complicated enough without adding additional expectations to things that already have a lot going on with them.

But for the newer generations, I guess it's not an additional expectation. It's just how things are done, just like I had a baby shower without thinking about it because that's what was done. I'm assuming there haven't always been baby showers. At some point someone decided that it would be the fashionable way to celebrate having a baby.

I have already been informed by my daughter that (when the time comes) she will be doing a gender reveal party that involves the cake color, and I've been instructed that I need to be supportive and participate fully.

Okay. I can do that.

And last week, when my daughter told me about her promposal, I was very excited for her, because it had made her very happy. I watched the video and ooh'd and ahh'd. And I will do it again next year for her senior year.

(But we'll all know that inside my head, I'll be puzzled by it.)

Here are some questions I asked my mom about this:

Did you go to your high school prom?

No...and I was sad about it. I did go to parties with my girlfriends during the school year, but I didn't seem to be "date material" in high school. It's as if I was reborn when I went to college because, for the first time, boys started asking me out all the time!

Are there any new cultural ways to celebrate that didn't exist when you were young?

You've covered everything I can thing of. I'd never heard of either the promposal or the gender reveal party before I heard about them from you. The latter intrigues me. I wonder if that's in addition to the baby shower and whether people bring gifts and, if so, if the gifts are gender neutral since, well, the "gender reveal" hasn't taken place yet. 

All I recall from high school was that the girls had sweet sixteen parties. Even I had one of those!

As you get older, do you find the new fads jarring? Or do you enjoy how things evolve?

A few years ago, I went through a period of feeling negative about all the new fads and how things were evolving, especially in the digital age with texting, etc. But then I heard in my attitude the same one I'd heard when I was young and thought that older people were so out of touch and judgmental, so I changed my attitude completely. Now I don't mind that things are evolving. After all, impermanence is a universal law!

This means that I've given in to the digital age. First email started replacing phone calls; now texting has to some extent. I'm sure this isn't true in all families because kids know their parents will get upset, but this Mother's Day, I wasn't surprised or bothered that, instead of a card or a phone call, for the first time, I got a "Happy Mother's Day" text from you and then from your brother. I'm sure some moms would be put off by that, but life is too short for it to matter to me. I know you and Jamal love me and would help me if I needed it...and that's enough for me. 

[Mara here: Just noting that Mother's Day cards didn't happen this year for either you or Linda, Brad's mom, because Brad was overwhelmed with work and he usually does Mother's Day card buying and I do the Father's Day card buying. So that's why there was no card...but I didn't get cards either. I did get Mother's Day bacon so all is good.]

I know people who make guests (grandkids, especially) leave their digital devices at the door when they come to visit, but I don't. The other day, a friend took a phone call while we were chatting in my living room. When her cell phone rang, she said, "I'm going to take this" and got up and left the room for 15 minutes. 

I admit that I thought it was rude at the time and I started spinning stories about how much better things were when people didn't do that kind of thing when you were visiting with them. But when my friend returned to the living room, she told me that it was the daughter of a close friend of hers and that the friend was dying and the daughter needed help dealing with it. Once again I learned that it's better not to judge or jump to conclusions. All it did on that occasion was raise my stress level and I certainly don't need that.

Change, change, change. Everyday, I work on making peace with it.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

"Gray Day...Everything is Gray," —Dr. Suess

Mara here:

There was a book I used to read to Malia when she was a baby. It's a poem by Dr. Seuss that was turned into a book called "My Many Colored Days."

When she was a baby, even before she understood words, we were always looking for books that would help Malia learn practical things like numbers and colors. The illustrations are fun. And the book was short, which is always a plus when you have a child who requests that books be read over and over in one sitting.

But the real reason the book was one of my favorites was because, like many of Dr. Seuss' books, beneath the whimsical prose were insights into human nature. There was the surface level, which was fun and beautifully colored. But underneath, if you looked for it, there was truth about feelings that weren't always as fun as they initially seemed.

The poems use the different colors of the rainbow to describe different feelings. Pink is fun, and yellow is busy. And there are days with many colors; he calls them mixed up days. I think we have all experienced mixed up days.

But the one that always stuck with me was gray. Gray was a picture of owls eyes that just stared, open and unflinching, with the words, "Gray Day....Everything is gray. I watch. But nothing moves today."

It always struck me with such sadness because, as a sufferer of depression, I often have gray days. I often find myself watching the world, but it seems as if nothing is moving. Or it seems as if everything is moving but me.

And you might wonder why I share this? I share it because I want other people who might have gray days to know they're not alone. I share this because there have been so many times when I've read self-help books and come to the end feeling discouraged because so often there seems to be a "happy ending." People who write books often seem to have unlocked something that has transformed their lives.

And I'm worried that my writing sounds like that as well.

So I just wanted to share with everyone, especially those who also experience many gray days, that I'm still struggling with things. I have learned so much about myself over my lifetime, as much as I've lived so far, and I feel like I've figured a lot of things out.

But knowing things doesn't change that there's something about myself that puts me in a funk a lot of the time. I'm depressed. And even though I'm medicated, that doesn't "cure" me.

So I've been going through some gray days lately.

And having a gray day doesn't mean that I don't know how lucky I am to have all the blessings in my life. It doesn't mean I don't appreciate things. There's not even an easy way to describe how I feel, but everything feels more difficult. Everything about life seems heavy.

And what do I do? I do what I can. I try to follow routines that I know will make me, if not feel better, at least not make me feel worse. I get up and jog. I write in my journal. I read books. I take naps.

I'm fortunate to have an understanding husband who allows me to withdraw a little when I need to.

And so far, I have yet to encounter a gray period when I didn't find myself suddenly faced with a pink (happy) day or a yellow (busy) day that knocks me out of the gray zone. Life is a force outside of my control—which is good. It keeps going.

So I just keep moving forward. I keep doing the things I do. I get up. I allow myself to feel gray when I can and when I can't be gray (like at work or a party), I do my best to pretend. I do what I have to do.

And having gone through many cycles of gray days, pink days, yellow days, mixed up days, I know that none of them lasts forever. So I just face each day as best as I can.

For today, it's a gray day. And that's ok. Tomorrow could be different.

Here are some questions I asked my mom about gray days.

Are there Buddhist teachings about the different moods and how transitory they are?

One of the Buddha's principal teachings is on impermanence and all it implies, such as unpredictability (a good word to remember when thinking about moods). People often think of impermanence in a negative way, but it can also be our friend. And so, on days when I'm in a down mood, I take solace in impermanence, knowing that it means I won't feel this way forever. As the poet Rumi said, "No feeling is final." 

The metaphor I use in my books for impermanence is the weather. I came up with what I call Weather Practice. Moods are unpredictable, like the weather. They blow in, they blow out and, at times, they blow all over the place. But, like the weather, moods are impermanent so we can learn to wait them out, being kind to ourselves as we do. A full description of Weather Practice is in chapter 4 of my book, How to Be Sick.

This constant change in the weather and in our moods is also helpful to me because it reminds me that no one can feel happy and "up" all the time, and to expect that of myself is unrealistic and unfair to myself. The other day, in fact, I realized that when I think I should be happy all the time, it makes me feel worse because it adds a burden to my life—the burden to be happy. As soon as I realized that, my mood improved because I'd dropped that burden. Every burden dropped is a good thing!

I know that you're not a person who is generally depressed, but when you have a day where you feel in a funk, are you able to recognize it?

I have plenty of days when I'm in a funk, so many that I've written a lot of pieces for Psychology Today with suggestions for what to do. I'll put the links for three of them here in case anyone wants to read them: "Six Strategies for Coping with the Blues"; "A Secret for Surviving a Rough Day"; and my latest one, "The First Step to Take When You're Having a Rough Day."

And, yes, I recognize those funky days right away. Odd though it may seem, I try to treat them as old friends, having dropped in for an uninvited visit. I find this helps me because if I treat those funky blue days with aversion, they just seem to get worse. But treating them as old friends disarms them and takes away a lot of their sting.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Attitude of Gratitude

Mara here:

"Attitude of gratitude."

I think this is a phrase that I first heard from author Wayne Dyer. In my neverending search for explanations for why we feel the way we feel, I read a lot of self-help books. And Wayne Dyer's are among those I enjoy. I don't agree with everything he writes, but I find his general philosophy on life appealing.

And he's funny. I'm always a sucker for some self-deprecating humor.

His idea of having an attitude of gratitude resonated with me. Because for most of my life I had an attitude of "why is this happening?" I often felt like the universe was very hard on me. I think most young people feel this way. My 17-year-old daughter definitely feels this way.

So when my daughter's car was crashed into while parked in her school's parking lot, the words, "why me?" came out of her mouth several times that day.

The car was hit hard. She had stayed late after school for a study session and got a phone call from a friend saying, "your car was just totaled."

She rushed to the parking lot, and indeed, her car had been hit very hard from the back side. It was hit so hard that it was pushed into the car next to it, doing extensive damage to that car.

I won't go into how stupid it was that some teenage kid was driving recklessly in a parking lot full of high schoolers walking to their cars. If nothing else, it was a miracle that nobody got hurt.

But while the two other cars involved in the accident (the one that was at fault and the one that was hit by my daughter's car) were both drivable, my daughter's car had to be towed. The damage was pretty extensive. The entire back of the car had been destroyed and there was possible structural damage.

Was the car totaled? We don't know. It's at the repair shop and we will find out soon.

But it was shocking.

I drove out to the school (about a forty minute drive) as soon as I heard what happened. I called a tow truck on the way and about an hour later I had my daughter safely in the car next to me as we headed home.

And then the flood of emotions hit her. And she was distraught. It wasn't just her car, but being the spotlight of the spectacle had drained her emotionally. Later that evening, she had fits of anger and frustration. And she felt victimized. She felt as if the whole thing was unfair. She was worried that the car was totaled which would put into question how we would pay for a new car.

Not having ever had a car totaled, neither my husband nor I could really answer any of her questions about what would happen. The only thing I know is that insurance doesn't just replace your car.

This news angered her. Her car was her 16th birthday present. And it was exactly the kind of car she had planned for. The thought that we might somehow not be able to replace her car was too much for her already drained emotions.

She spiraled into a fit of "why me?" And when I didn't respond the way she wanted me to, she got angry at me.

I knew most of her frustration and anger was just her venting the pent up steam from the day. And I also knew that she was simply too young and inexperienced with actual hardship to have perspective.

I'm sure there are many kids who would have had a more reasonable reaction. But my daughter is, um, fiery. I don't know how else to explain it. She is passionate. And she feels very strongly about things. Right or wrong, however it is she feels, she feels it 100%.

And the fact her car was damaged and that we might have to actually partially pay to replace the car made her livid. And the fact that the whole event had not made me livid was making her even more upset.

But I just couldn't get myself worked up.

All I could feel was grateful that she hadn't been hurt. And the circumstances surrounding the whole event filled me with gratitude. I was definitely having an attitude of gratitude moment.

Is it incredibly frustrating that a kid rammed into my daughter's car and her car might be totaled while his car was relatively undamaged? Yes. Is it frustrating that the kid who was being reckless is incredibly wealthy, so there will likely be little or no consequences for him? Yes.

But there's so much for me to feel grateful for. My daughter wasn't in the car. Nobody was injured. There were school faculty and campus police quickly on site to gather witness statements and control the scene. We have AAA and insurance, so getting the car taken care of is not a hardship. When I arrived on the scene, my daughter had some wonderful friends who had stayed with her until I got there to make sure she was okay. I don't have to work, so I was home and able to get to quickly get to my daughter. I don't have to work so my car is available for my daughter to drive while her car is being fixed. If her car is not fixable, we will be able to deal with it.

And I reminded her that "bad' things happen to people all the time. A truck hit my car while I was literally not moving, waiting at a stoplight, and the insurance company wasn't able to prove it wasn't somehow partly my fault. My husband was once rear-ended twice in one day. The man who hung a door for us had his house burn down in the fires last fall.

Unfortunate things happen all the time to people.

All in all, for me, it was a reminder of how lucky we are. And it wasn't a feeling that took time to ponder. I just simply felt it when I heard she hadn't been in the car.

And, no, maybe she won't end up with the car she started with. But she will have a car. We can afford to make sure she gets something nice. And in the meantime, even though she doesn't like driving my car, she can drive it as much as she needs.

We are so lucky. I am so grateful.

Here are some questions I asked my mom about this:

I'm sure there must be Buddhist lessons that directly relate to being grateful during times that seem like a hardship.

The Buddha didn't talk directly about gratitude, but in the first noble truth, he did talk about some of the hardships we face in life, They include, aging, illness, not getting what we want, getting what we don't want, and losing what we cherish.

When I reflect on this list, I see that all of us will, indeed, have to go through these unpleasant experiences. Your family definitely did not get what you wanted when that kid hit Malia's car...and she may have lost something she cherished if it can't be fixed. 

This list of the Buddha's contains hardships that come with the human condition. That being the case, it's wise to do what you did—put this particular hardship in perspective. That left you with a feeling of gratitude, mostly for all the terrible things that didn't happen (like kids getting hurt).

There's a story I tell in my book, How to Be Sick, that I think would be helpful here.

Country music singer and songwriter Rosanne Cash was being interviewed on NPR's Terry Gross. Cash had been forced to put her career on hold for several years because she had to have brain surgery for a rare but benign condition. Terry Gross asked her if she ever found herself asking "Why me?" Cash said no, that, in fact, she found herself saying, Why not me? since she had health insurance, no nine-to-five job that she might lose during her long recuperation, and a spouse who was a wonderful caregiver.

That's the story. It's helped me to stop asking "Why me?" all the time. What happened to Malia and your family could happen to anyone. Like you, I'm so grateful that no one was hurt. I'm so sorry about the hassle you have to go because of it though.

Have you had moments like mine, where on the face of it things seemed very bad, but you were able to feel gratitude regardless of the misfortune?

I've had this happen many times, especially when you and your brother were growing up and an incident such as just happened to you took place.

I work on developing this attitude of gratitude in regards to my chronic illness. I've even posted pieces where I make a list of things to be grateful for even though, if I had my choice, I wouldn't be housebound. I can be grateful that, because of being at home, I don't get stuck in traffic jams. And I'm grateful that I don't answer to an alarm clock. These are little things, but they make me feel better about the limitations in my life.

What is your advice for people, like your granddaughter, who generally default to feeling angry when they feel like things "aren't fair"?

The Rosanne Cash story from my book could just as easily have gone here as an answer to this question. 

One of the most helpful things I've learned is that life isn't always fair. Life just happens. Sometimes it feels fair to us and sometimes it doesn't. Getting angry when it doesn't isn't going to make it fair. It's only going to make us feel worse.  

Accepting that life isn't fair has relieved me of a tremendous burden—the burden to expect it to be fair. When I dropped that expectation, most of my anger went along with it. The result is that I feel so much better and so much calmer about my life.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Happiness Myth

Mara here:

"You should do whatever makes you happy."

It seems like this was the mantra for my generation. My parents generation was still saddled with traditional expectations. Some, like my parents rebelled against the mainstream. Others did what previous generations had done, which was do what their parents had expected of them.

But my generation, Generation X, was different. We were the generation being raised by hippies. We were the generation being raised by parents who had experienced Vietnam, the assassination of King and of the Kennedy brothers. We were the generation being raised by parents who lived through Watergate.

My parents didn't want to impose their expectations on their kids. My parents read books on psychology and were more open to different philosophies of life. I could be wrong, but I feel as if my generation was the first one who was told they could be anything.

It wasn't just my parents (who I firmly believe thought I could be anything I wanted), it was people on television and in books. Everyone said we shouldn't limit ourselves. We shouldn't settle for anything less that what made us happy.

We were told we shouldn't just have jobs. We should find our passion. We were told we should do whatever made us happy. We were told that we if we found that magical thing that made us happy, then it wouldn't be work—it would be a passion.

And that sounds fantastic.

It sounds so fantastic that I took it to heart. I really thought that if I worked hard enough, if I kept searching I would find something—that thing—that would make me happy.

As the years went on, I kept thinking that somehow I just hadn't found the right thing. I wasn't happy. I had moments of happiness, but it didn't seem like the kind of happy everyone talked about. 

Then I started to wonder if happiness was just not something I could achieve. It was clear that there wasn't some thing out there that was just going to make me happy. I had tried several different jobs. I had tried different hobbies. I was married to a wonderful man. We had lived in many different cities. I had worked a lot. I had had the freedom not to work.

I wasn't happy.

And I wasn't the only one. I was noticing that many of my peers weren't happy either. In fact, there seem to be a lot Gen X'ers who have struggled to find peace with their lives. Friends were following their "dreams" and opening their own businesses or succeeding in projects that they had long worked for, but they were still struggling with many of the same issues I was struggling with. They felt stressed and tired. They felt disheartened that they didn't feel fulfilled. It felt like they were feeling a lot of pressure to be happy.

For myself, I assumed it was something about me. I assumed there was something wrong with me. I assumed that I was somehow not doing something right.

But as I'm getting older, I'm wondering if it's simply that while everyone talks about happiness...nobody talks about what being happy actually is.

I think this is possibly because, much like raising children, it's a different experience for everyone. I'm not sure "happy" can be described in a universal way. And it's not constant. There are grades of happiness—from not happy to very happy. 

And really, as most books will now tell you, people who self-describe themselves as happy find their happiness in whatever circumstance they're in. It's not something external. It's internal.

Honestly though, as a parent, this is a sucky thing to have to try and explain to a child.

Most parents give the same spiel to their kids: "You can be whatever you set your mind to." And "You should do what makes you "'happy.'"

But I have trouble saying those things to my daughter. The problem is that the alternative is to say to her, "Well, you might do all these things and you might still be unhappy." It sounds like I'm the villain in a Disney movie.

I just don't want her to grow up thinking that happiness is something that you can somehow attain by following certain steps. I can't promise if she gets all A's, goes to college, goes to graduate school, marries someone nice, and gets a great job that at the end of it all is a happy ending.

I think "happy" as a state of being is a myth. It's not a constant. I think if we could let go of the ideal of happiness, a lot of people would feel less pressure to be something that maybe doesn't exist. We would feel less like we've failed just because we don't feel happy.

And before people get all up in arms telling me they're happy, I'm not saying there's no such thing as happiness. I feel a lot of happiness in my life. If I think back, I can think of countless happy moments in my life.

But they're moments. Some moments last longer than others, but it's not like when my hair grows long and it's just long until I cut it. Happiness is not solid. It's not something that is easily measured. It ebbs and flows.

And happiness requires some effort. Happiness isn't something that's thrust upon us. For me at least, it's something I have to choose. I have to tend to it, like a flower in a garden. I need to remember to seek happiness out instead of defaulting to gloom and doom.

I suspect some people probably default to happiness. And if you're like that, you're so lucky.

When I did finally realized that happiness was something I actually had a little bit of control over, my life changed. In most ways, it changed for the better. It made me realize that I wasn't just a passive mass of skin and bones waiting for something be bestowed upon me by the universe.

Knowing that I could decide to feel positive, even if I wasn't always successful, made achieving happiness more consistently possible.

But it was a little bit like finding out there was no Santa Claus. There was not going to be one magical event that would suddenly transform my life to become "happy." Losing weight would not make me happy. Getting a cat would not make me happy. Having a beautiful baby girl would not make me happy. Buying a house would not make me happy.

I had to find happiness in what I had.

So that's what I try to tell my daughter, in the least villain-like way. I tell her that she needs to try and be happy with what she already has. That it's always good to be excited about what's to come, and if she works hard she can achieve the things she wants. But that happiness is not necessarily a reward that comes with any particular thing.

And I try to tell her that it's okay to do things, even if they don't always make you happy. I make sure she knows that whatever profession she chooses, there will be moments, days, weeks, when she doesn't enjoy whatever it is she's doing—because that's life. We aren't always happy.

And that's okay. It's nice to be happy. But it's fine if we're not happy. And in the moments when we're not feeling particularly happy, we can feel confident that the feelings of happiness will come back around.

My goal for my daughter is for her to know that happy exists, but that it's not the only goal. I want her to know that she should find a job she enjoys, but it doesn't have to be something that makes her feel like singing and dancing every day. And that she should find a man she loves, but it's fine if he sometimes irritates her. I want her to experience and recognize happiness, but not covet it. Because happiness is a shape shifter. You think you have it, so you cling to it, but it turns into something else, and then you realize you're clinging to something that doesn't make you happy anymore.

Happiness for me now is something I am grateful for when I feel it. And there are times when I feel it more, so I gravitate towards those things and people.

But I don't expect it anymore. And I don't feel like a failure anymore when I don't feel it. I feel more freedom to be happy.


Toni here. Mara was going to ask me some questions about Buddhist teachings related to happiness, but after I read this, I declined because this is the best piece on happiness I've read.

I did agree to answer this question:

When we were growing up, did it ever occur to you that we might not be happy?

No, Mara, it didn't, and the reason is that you're so much more perceptive a parent than I was!