Sunday, June 24, 2018

What's Your Escape from Reality?

Mara here:

So after last weeks rather weighty article, I thought this week we would lighten the mood and focus on what gives us pleasure.

What do you do to do for fun? What do you enjoy that allows you to escape the everyday world?

There are a lot of things I enjoy doing, like jogging or reading, but I don't consider them escapes. Jogging is usually a time for me to sort through some of the thoughts that get clogged up in my brain and, while I love reading, I don't usually get completely lost in my experience because I'm easily distracted by my surroundings.

For me, the most reliable way for me to escape for a couple hours is to go to movies. And it has to be going to movies at the movie theater. I love watching movies at home, but it's not the same. For me, there's something magical about sitting in a dark room with a bunch of strangers and we all go on an adventure together for a couple of hours. The screen is big and the volume is loud; all thoughts of whatever is going on outside the theater disappear, and you just get to sit back and enjoy the show.

I'm a fidgety person, so if given the chance, I tend to get easily distracted. Watching movies at home, I get up and get drinks or go to the bathroom a lot. But in the theater, I'm trapped into sitting and letting go of what my immediate wants are and allowing the experience to happen.

And going to the movies still feels like a treat to me. After over 30 years of movie-going, it still feels special to go to the movie theater, buy some popcorn and sit in the big theater and get engulfed by the story.

And while I love all types of movies, for just pure escape and fun I usually like action films, like the Marvel superhero ones. I also really like action/adventure movies like the Jurassic Park franchise. And I always love a good comedy. Some scary movies fall under the escape category for me, but if they're too gory then I find them too stressful to watch.

And while I do appreciate movies that tackle complicated subjects or that are masterpieces of filmmaking, I don't always consider them an escape. I've watched a lot of movies that were considered "good" movies, but they weren't "fun" to watch. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri is an example of that kind of movie. It was a great movie. And it was very well made—the acting and directing were outstanding. But it was a weighty subject and coming out of the theater, I felt mentally worn out watching it. Schindler's List is another example. It's probably one of my favorite movies, but I can't say it was an escape to go see.

For fun, I want a story I can just simply enjoy without my anxious mind getting weighted down with worries.

Some movies that come to mind for me that provided that perfect escape as I watched them were: Elf, Wonder Woman, Oceans 11 (the Steven Soderburgh version), Trainwreck, Anchorman, Bridesmaids, the Harry Potter franchise, Edge of Seventeen, Mission Impossible (any of the ones with Tom Cruise), The Conjuring, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Sherlock Holmes movies with Robert Downey, Jr., and most recently, Hereditary.

So you can see that a pretty wide variety of movies fall under my escape and fun category. It's not as much about the genre but it's the feeling I have when I walk out of the movie. If I can walk out of the movie and feel happier than when I walked in, then it was escape.

And again, it's not about what my "favorite" movies are. A lot of my favorites were movies that were very thought provoking or sad. And while those movies are experiences that I think are important, they aren't escape.

Toni here: 

Because I'm mostly housebound, I escape with movies that I watch on TV (I used to love going to the movies!) and I escape with one particular audiobook series.

One favorite "escape" was watching a great romantic comedy, but they don't seem to make ones I like anymore. It feels as if they find two attractive stars and think that's all they need for good box-office sales, and so they don't bother with finding a good script; so mostly I find them dumb to watch. 

Here are some oldie but goodie romantic comedies that I'm always willing to escape with: French Kiss, Groundhog Day, You've Got Mail, Green Card, Sense and Sensibility. I also love the "mockumentaries" (as they're called) made by Christopher Guest: Waiting for GuffmanBest in Show, A Mighty Wind, For Your Consideration

And there are some Woody Allen movies (not all of which are comedies...and not of which are the critic's favorites) that I've probably watched a dozen times each over the years. I'm willing to escape from my day-to-day troubles with these movies anytime: Radio Days, Annie Hall, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Bullets Over BroadwayHannah and Her Sisters, Small Time Crooks, Scoop, Blue JazmineMatch Point, Midnight in Paris. And that's just a partial list. Finally, I like to escape with some silly thrillers, such as What Lies Beneath and even some serious movies such as Remains of the Day (which I could watch once a week).

My other escape from reality is listening to the audiobooks by Alexander McCall-Smith in his series called 44 Scotland Street set in Edinburgh. Each book was put together after originally appearing in serialized form in The Scotsman. (I like his other two series's too: The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series set in Botswana, and the Sunday Philosophy Club series set in Edinburgh). 

But 44 Scotland Street is my favorite. It has a rich cast of characters, some of whom live in the boarding house at that address. How I'd like to have a word or two with the insufferable Irene, mother of poor little six-year old Bertie. Bertie wants to play like other kids his age, but instead he must always be furthering Irene's "Bertie project." She does things like paint his room pink so that he won't fall into boy-girl stereotypes, and she makes him wear crushed strawberry overalls when all he wants is a pair of jeans. And she keeps him busy all the time, taking him to yoga, the flotarium, saxophone lessons, Italian lessons, and worst-of-all for him unnecessary psychotherapy with the dense Dr. Fairburn. (I'm guessing at the spelling of names because I only listen to the books). Please, Alexander McCall Smith, save our Bertie! 

The books in the series follow the same cast of characters. I feel as if they're old friends: the anthropologist Dominica; the portrait painter Angus (and his dog Cyril of course); the narcissistic Bruce; the coffee-bar owner Big Lou...and many more. He tells their stories with humor and insight—and also puts that humor and insight to work as he reflects on all of our human foibles. Finally, the books have a great narrator—Ian MacKenzie. He has a distinctive voice for each character. I could listen to him all day! 

I think most people consider McCall-Smith to be light reading, but I think he's a great humorist in the Mark Twain tradition.

So that's escapism for me: movies on TV and an audiobook series with a cast of unforgettable characters in a city I've never been to!

What about you? What do you do that allows you to completely escape from the world for a while?

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!