This is a piece from my daily writing practice that I cleaned up a bit and submitted to this magazine.
You can find it here.
This is one of my 15 minute writing practices. Pen never leaving the page, and no editing allowed.
There are no sides to take. There is only us. Each of us. The together of us. The ocean of us. How you can’t sort an individual cup of water from the substance that covers most of the globe. The salt in the water. The whales in the water. The seals, sea lions, manta rays, dolphins. The barnacles on the seashells. The coral reefs. The blue fish, yellow fish, oysters, crabs. The sand dollars. The starfish. All of us. The climate is changing, and together, we can stop using so many plastics: water bottles, shampoo containers, straws, cups, and bags. We can drive less and live in smaller spaces. We can buy fewer new things. We can upcycle, recycle, reuse. We can make the best things second-hand things. We can buy things that last not a few years but one hundred years. Bookcases, desks, beds. There are no sides to take. There is only we. Divided not by skin color or religion or lines drawn on maps. One. All aboard the same train. We are all going in the same direction. I love the saying we are each walking each other home. Each of us holding the hand of the other, therefore ourselves. Gently saying out loud, “It will all be okay.” We will all be okay. We can do this together for each other for ourselves. I have heard that the trees have their own language. They sort of sing as they bend toward the sun. We are like trees, only we live shorter lives, so we aren’t as wise. We haven’t seen as much, and maybe we don’t hear each voice calling out to us to join the parade. To join the circle. To come together and resist the urge to tug at what won’t break. We are all of each other. The same substance, soil, blood, bones, cartridge, and tendon. We are weak and strong. We are brave and fearful. We are at one pole or the other, but we belong like an instrument. One string high-pitched another low. Let’s sing. Let’s dance. Let’s carry each other on our backs or shoulders. Let’s do all the things for one another. Doing them for ourselves.
All-day, it continues. Little blessings like a cool breeze coming through the open window. The light as it shines and brightens the whole room. I enjoy the fresh banana and nonfat yogurt with a cup of tea. The guided journals are encouraging gratitude, gratitude, gratitude. I receive a kiss from my husband, a soft word, some days a love note placed in the red mailbox we bought in the dollar section at Target.
All-day, it continues. A phone call to my parents still alive and doing well even with chronic conditions like Parkinson’s and leukemia. A snack of hummus and pita bread or Ritz crackers out of the box.
All-day, it continues an e-mail from a student saying, “Thank you.” A paycheck from a class I taught arrives in the mail. A text from one of my brothers or a friend. Plans to share a brunch date over Zoom to celebrate a friend’s birthday.
All-day, it continues. The smell of a tree with white flowers blooming just outside my window. A swarm of bees pollinating the plants. A dog barking as its owner plays fetch with it on the grass patch across the street.
All-day, it continues. My favorite pair of sweatpants and a worn-out t-shirt with soft cotton plush socks. A poem that I think is profound or beautiful or both. A photograph on Instagram of trees turning orange, red, yellow. The air pollution calculator is on green indicating the quality is good today.
All-day, it continues. Something sweet like oatmeal and chocolate chip cookies or a piece of dark chocolate with mint. My husband’s and my guilty pleasure of Red Vines while watching our favorite comedy series.
All-day, it continues. These little blessings. One pound less on the scale, making my BMI in the normal category. The sight of my toenails painted pink. My husband puts my hair up in rag curls. I finish a workout on the stationary bike. I stretch my body for thirty minutes easing some of the aches and pains.
All-day, it continues. I smell bread baking or the scent of a vanilla candle. I feel fabrics so soft on my skin or the touch of my husband. I see the bay out of the dining room window. I hear music from Pandora or YouTube. I taste fresh food like watermelon, apples, or beets.
All-day, it continues these little blessings that spring up everywhere along with each breath making me want to reach up and grab ahold of the sky.
Let’s not forget that, along with a year that many call a dumpster fire, there is still the ocean. Sharks and whales and orcas. I heard that a white orca was off the coast of Alaska. Remember, the orca that carried her dead calf around for two weeks or more? That orca has a new calf. I try to imagine her grief not entirely lifted, but the joy of swimming in the pod with her new baby very much in need of her, and very much alive.
Let’s not forget that chocolate is still delicious or vanilla if you prefer that. Last night we froze pumpkin pie to take out slice by slice whenever we need the comfort of the taste of Fall.
Let’s not forget that we have people who care about our well-being and if we are okay. I’m not doing okay each moment, but I still see each morning I open my eyes as a miracle, a wonder, a gift. How did I make it to fifty-five? That young girl who once smoked a pack of cigarettes a day skipped school, got called into the principal’s office. Teachers were so frustrated they lost their composure and yelled at me in class because they knew I was ditching, and I forgot a pencil or pen to a shorthand class. “Who does that?” My mother-in-law would say. I do. I did. I was.
Let’s not forget that people still say I love you and mean it. People even buy each other coffee or pay for a stranger’s meal.
Let’s not forget that most Americans are kind hearted people who would stop and help someone struggling. Maybe they would assist the elderly with their groceries or help a lost child find their parent.
Let’s not forget we are a people who smile when walking past people on the street, a practice my in-laws from France think is foreign.
Let’s not forget all of this because it adds up, and it’s not nothing.
Our dining room window is floor to ceiling (a slider) and has a view of the bay if you are seated at the table, sitting in the recliner or standing near the window. It is a beautiful view. We often see the water dotted with sailboats, and the sunsets are spectacular when they are pink, or orange.
We have lived here since 2009, and the only window in our home with a good view has a treatment on it that is getting old and makes the glass foggy. It has been foggy since we moved in. So, our amazing view is hazy and unclear unless the window is open.
Today, a window company is replacing the glass in that window. Right now, I have a clear view of the bay. The fog or haze is gone, and I can see the deep blue of the water and the boats that are out sailing in the bay.
It took us over ten years to take the necessary steps to enjoy our water view completely, and it seems like a perfect metaphor for what we so often do in life. We allow the negative (fog, haze) to obstruct our view of the positive. If only we would replace the tapes in our heads that play the scenarios that tell us things are bad, are always going to be bad, or that the next shoe is going to drop, etc.
I am an expert at playing disaster tapes in my mind. I run every bad scenario through my head when I am waiting to hear the news about something, when someone doesn’t call, or when I try something new, or I am waiting for results, etc.
Today, we added value to our property and increased our enjoyment of our condo. The increased value can be something we enjoy several times every day. Today, I am also committing to adding the same value to my life by trying to get rid of the haze and fog of negative thoughts and see clearly to the good, the positive, the healing, the miraculous that happen all around me every day.
I am not going to spend another ten years with a cloudy view of my world. There is so much more positive than negative each day. The windows now reveal a million dollar view; one my mind can achieve too if I replace the negative talk.
I’m going to sit in my recliner and enjoy an unobstructed clear view of the waterfront, and while I’m there, I am going to run a list through my mind of every wonderful thing that I have in my life right now. The view of a happier future without the haze of negative thoughts is already starting to reveal itself.
I sit and look out over the San Diego Bay. What led me to this Southern tip of the United States involves a road trip to thirty-four states, selling all of my possessions, buying a seventeen –foot van, a decision to move to Abu Dhabi and a family drama that was so vicious and hateful I still have nightmares about it all these years later. Those details are just the small stuff, though. There is a before San Diego. There is a before my husband.
There is a bridge, three bottles of pills and two strangers. I didn’t do it for attention. I wasn’t saying, “Help me, look at me, notice me,” or anything like that. I wasn’t reaching out or thinking about a rescue. I was thinking about putting an end to a fractured mind.
On the bridge, a man gave me his hand and pulled me over the ledge to safety. On the interstate between Tacoma and Seattle, a man stopped after I passed out behind the wheel of my car. The details are blurry because by then the medication was pumping through my body with every heartbeat. The man waited for an ambulance. His last words before they closed the door, were, “Is she going to make it?”
I don’t know the exact day they rushed me to the hospital and spent all night monitoring my heart. I wish I did know the day so I could celebrate my anniversary, my second chance, the beginning of the new. I do know it it has been somewhere close to twenty years ago.
Twenty birthdays I came within minutes of not having. Twenty Christmas stockings that I would never have opened. A marriage to the love of my life where I would have never said, “I do.” There are approximately 7,300 mornings of kissing my husband. There are over 7,000 times I have heard the words, “I love you,” in the morning and before I go to sleep. It is the sunsets and sunrises. It is a morning cup of coffee.
It is hearing the voices of my parents and my brothers. It is doing things for the first time like baking biscuits or doing something the thousandth time like taking a long walk. It is trying new foods like kale or cauliflower pizza dough. It is a being a part of new trends. It is watching social media develop and the ability to send video and emojis on a smartphone.
It is watching my nieces and nephews grow from toddlers to adults. It is the incredible highs like a published article or poem in a prestigious magazine or journal. It is incredible lows and sadness as you watch your country fracture and fight. It is crying at car commercials and stories about lost pets. It is donating to a GoFundMe campaign. It is finishing a novel you are sure you would never forget (and then forgetting it). It is seeing artists express themselves in words, photographs, paint, clay, fabric, neon, and every other imaginable material and way.
It is putting on soft pajamas before bed or spending a day in those same pajamas. It is waking up every morning for over twenty years with the words, “Thank you,” on your lips as a cry, a sigh, and a prayer.
Last night I couldn’t sleep, but unlike most sleepless nights, I didn’t get out of bed. I decided to stay in the warmth of two layers of comforters and try to fall deep into the land of dreams. However, I didn’t. I started thinking about my gratitude practice.
Day after day, week after week and month after month, my list seemed to look familiar. I am always profoundly grateful for my husband, for his job, for the benefits of his job (healthcare), and for the care he takes in making sure our house runs smoothly, and I that I am okay. I am also grateful for things like our health (although not perfect), faith, joy.
Last night, I found myself asking, “What else are you thankful for?’ And my reply surprised me. I started listing things like the mattress topper that provides a layer of squishy softness that keeps my back and hips from hurting, the soft new flannel sheets we bought from Target, having a pillow cradle my head, the fact that we can sleep with our window open in January. I went on and on listing the things right around me that make my life what it is and provide me the level of comfort I am used to (so used to that I hardly see or notice it).
After going through dozens of things I am grateful for, I imagined myself in a room with one bowl, one spoon, one house dress, some rice, some beans, and a mat for a bed. I imagined if those were my only possessions, I would be deeply grateful and highly aware of each one. How much more is in my house, though? I have hundreds of books lining shelves and covering the tops of tables. I have Two televisions with Netflix and a Smartphone. The books alone open whole worlds for me, Netflix and the Smartphone connect me to almost every place on the planet.
All of this and I haven’t even given thanks or considered things like touch, hearing, sight, taste, smell. Almost giddy at this point, I say out loud to a dark room on a sleepless night, “Walking. Even though I have a significant limp, I love walking.” And then I realized since April of 2018 I have practiced gratitude on a daily basis, and all these months later that daily practice just exploded inside of me like a jacaranda tree in full purple boom. I knew for certain that in 2019 I would need much less and probably feel much better.
Enough. Grateful. Thankful. Overflowing. The list never ends.
The sun is shining through my window, and I’m going on no sleep but the palm branches swaying in the breeze look beautiful and calming. Overhead there is a hawk circling and probably hunting. I’ve been hunting too, for radical gratitude, which seems to have captured me in the middle of the night unaware and unexpecting.
I know I said I wasn’t going to make resolutions but to be completely transparent I spent three weeks before the New Year making them. Every other year, I have scratched a list out on New Year’s Eve, tossed it in a notebook and then dug it out late December to discover I hadn’t done a single thing on the list (or maybe, I had done one or two if I was lucky).
This year, I was fascinated by the process. I even started some of the resolutions as soon as I made them. For instance, I have been stretching (some would call it doing yoga) for twenty-five minutes every morning for two weeks now. I have also been walking forty minutes five days a week for a couple of weeks.
The thing I realized about all of my resolutions, is that they are all about trying to keep me healthy in mind, body, spirit. The other thing I realized, thanks to one of my guided journals, is that they are not a drag or punishment at all. They are a privilege. I don’t “have to” stretch every morning. I am healthy enough to “get to” stretch every morning. I don’t “have to” walk five times a week, I am healthy enough and have enough mobility to “get to” walk five times a week. The same is true of all my resolutions even the ones I set about writing and reading (I don’t get to read and write when I am experiencing psychosis).
Changing these two small words, “have to” to “get to” makes the difference in my attitude. It makes working on my resolutions a joy, an accomplishment, a privilege, an adventure. Unlike years before, I don’t see my list as a bunch of things I “should do” I see them as a bunch of things I “want to do.”
I have started to use the same language for my chores and other things I find difficult or not necessarily pleasant. I don’t “have to” do the dishes, I “get to” do the dishes because I am well enough to see that they need cleaning.
I know many of you struggle with your mental health in one way or another, and I know it isn’t always possible to talk yourself into a shower or to get out of bed. (Oh how I know these things), but on the days that you are functioning enough to try a task or two, try changing the two words, “have to” to “get to.”
I hope changing these words will change your perspective and help you accomplish new and better things. I have high hopes for 2019, and I think two simple words are going to help me make it a great year instead of just the status quo.
My husband and I were flipping through New Year’s Eve shows last night, and we missed the ball dropping in New York because at that very moment we were reading my blood pressure and pulse because the doctor asked me to monitor my numbers at home. (My anxiety disorder is on full display whenever I visit the doctor’s office, and my pulse usually registers somewhere around 120 plus so I was asked to take my vitals at home to make sure that I wasn’t always running that high).
The good news is that at midnight, East Coast time as the ball was dropping my blood pressure was 117 over 72, and my pulse rate was 75. Those are great numbers for me. That is the lowest I can remember my pulse being since I started monitoring it.
If I were superstitious, I would be concerned about the meaning of missing a New Year’s Eve tradition because I was monitoring my vitals, worrying a little bit about the quality of my health for the next year. I’m not superstitious though, but I do try to think positively and choose to see it that health will be a priority for me in 2019. I wish I could say that wellness will be the benefit and result of my efforts, but as all of us with chronic illness know too well is that even our best efforts are no guarantee of a good or great outcome.
I will say that it’s not just my blood pressure and pulse that I hope remain in healthy territory this year. I hope this is a year of health for all of us – you as well as me. You as well. Me as well. Try reading those last two statements again. They have a nice healthy ring to them, don’t they?
Happy Happy New Year!
For those of you who know me, or who have interacted with me in life outside of this blog, you know that I will support you in your endeavors (by buying your books, reading your work, buying your art, etc.) and the other thing I will do with almost everyone I meet is share resources. I love to network and help people out. And I always try to leave competition out of any social situation that isn’t a friendly game of Scrabble, or Bananagrams. So although I recently published a book, I do not hesitate to recommend a fellow advocate’s book to you for your consideration (there is enough space under the Christmas tree for dozens of books this year).
I know many of you who read this blog also suffer from anxiety or bipolar disorder, both of which the author and speaker, Gabe Howard, has. Gabe just released his book, Mental Illness is an Asshole and Other Observations, and it is a monster of a book with over three hundred pages (Gabe wanted to make sure you get your money’s worth). The book is a compilation of three years of Gabe’s essays, and blog posts for Psych Central, Bipolar Magazine, and other online publications.
I thought there was a possibility that the book would be so specific to bipolar disorder that it wouldn’t interest people with schizophrenia, but remember doctors thought I had bipolar disorder for almost twenty years before accurately diagnosing me with chronic paranoid schizophrenia. In other words, one mental illness can look a lot like another mental illness and be hard for even experts to differentiate.
Don’t let the title of the book; Mental Illness is an Asshole and Other Observations, throw you off from the practical advice the book has to offer. One reason the book is so timely is the advice it includes on maneuvering the holidays, and the tips and tricks section is relevant to those with any mental illness, not just bipolar disorder.
The two words that I would use to describe the book are educational (dispelling myths) and helpful (full of advice on everything from handling social situations when you suffer from social anxiety to boosting your self-esteem). Gabe has a clear, and direct writing style that is easy to read and contains plenty of anecdotes to help illustrate points and make the reading more lively than a point by point discussion.
I had two favorite parts to this book one was letters from Gabe’s readers and his responses to their questions and concerns, and the other one was Gabe’s “annual birthday post.” at the end of the book. In the birthday post, Gabe reveals the real impact mental illness can have on all of us and how that impact can challenge our sense of self, our accomplishments and our confidence in our abilities.
This book is suitable as a gift to those people in your life that you might want to understand better what living with a mental illness is like, and those of us with a mental illness who want to live our best life. Gabe isn’t a doctor, but there are times when the lived experience is a better teacher than the ones we find in books, but in this case, you get a book of lived experience, and it’s a good one. I recommend it to you without hesitation.