Tag Archives: Mental Health

Focuses on a wide range of mental health topics including medicine compliance, therapy, and treatments

On Being Present

Previously published on my Tumblr page, http://a-woman-apart.tumblr.com

I briefly mentioned the book “Presence” by Amy Cuddy in my last blog post. I know that in that one I focused on the fact that I felt bad for “needing” to read a book like this to feel better about myself, but that wasn’t fair because it overlooked all of the great insights in the book. I learned a lot, and actually enjoyed it so much that I finished it off in less than a week.

In the notes that I wrote after I was finished, I summarized presence as “bringing your authentic self to a a situation”. In the first chapter Cuddy describes the struggles she endured after suffering a traumatic brain injury in a car accident, and how afterwards her difficulty with learning undermined her self-confidence. She talks about the times when she was so afraid about presenting her research that she clammed up and wasn’t able to express herself effectively. That is because, she said, that negative emotions like fear and anxiety cause us to become inward focused- we are not longer able to “be present” and really be focused on the ideas or message that we are trying to convey. Instead, we become hyper-focused on our own nervousness and sense of discomfort.

She also shares about how important authenticity is to people who are hiring other people or negotiating various business deals. People who are making decisions on whether to invest in a particular project stated that it was important for them to feel as though the person presenting the project really believed in what they were putting forth. In other words, they needed to show genuine enthusiasm for the idea. They also didn’t like to see people who seemed to be “trying too hard” or were pushy or aggressive. Interestingly enough, they said they didn’t mind if the person was a little nervous because “they’re doing something big, something that matters to them” so it makes sense if they feel a little nervous.

Throughout the rest of the book, Amy Cuddy expresses how we can reclaim our personal power and “bring your boldest self to your biggest challenges”. We can do things like practicing yoga and “power posing”, which is scientifically proven to increase testosterone (the hormone associated with greater risk taking and initiative) and decrease cortisol (the “stress hormone”). Even doing simple things like sitting up straighter and using more open, relaxed posture can increase our sense of confidence and feelings of being grounded. We can also use imagery techniques like picturing ourselves flying or just imagining ourselves performing difficult tasks with pride and enthusiasm before we go out and actually do them.

With this year coming to a close, it is common for people to be considering what kinds of “New Years’ Resolutions” that they will be making. Miss Cuddy explains why this doesn’t actually work too well for us. The goals we set are too lofty and ambitious. For example if we plan to “exercise three days a week” and we aren’t able to fully meet this goal (we only go once or twice) it tends to lead to us abandoning the goal altogether. She says that instead- and she uses herself with running as an example- that we should give ourselves small “nudges”. We should say, “Today, I’ll eat healthy” or “I’ll stretch for 15 minutes”. Those incremental changes can in the end lead to big results, without us feeling like we have resolutions hanging over our heads like a threat.

I’ve noticed that as I’ve been reading the book and trying to implement some of the principles, I’ve been experiencing less depression and more confidence. There’s a chapter in there that’s titled “I Don’t Deserve to Be Here” that goes over “imposter syndrome”. It explains how people in all sorts of careers and fields often have a pervasive feeling that they are “fake”, or that their positions in life have more to do with “luck” than with their own talents. These feelings of “being an imposter” tend to increase- rather than decrease- with every new achievement. I can definitely relate to having these feelings. Even though objectively I’m doing well in school and I’m handling my life well, the sense of “wrongness” persists. I find myself asking myself “what now?” every time that I achieve something good. The better the grade, the more I think that the teacher may have given it to me in error. Knowing that other people are struggling with these emotions- and that they have nothing to do with objective reality- I can reject these feelings and instead begin to celebrate my accomplishments. I can tell myself, “Actually, you do deserve to be here.

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No Regrets?

Previously published on my Tumblr page, http://a-woman-apart.tumblr.com/

I wrote at the end of my last entry that I “have no regrets” about moving away from Christianity, and I realize that that isn’t totally true. I don’t actually feel like I’ve made the wrong choice, but there are some unfortunate things that have come into my life from making this choice.

#1: Isolation

I’ll be the first to say that the sense of alienation is probably mainly caused by me. My family and Christians in my life who know about my situation haven’t tried to push me away, but I’ve found myself feeling somewhat distant from them. The most typical reactions from my Christian friends who’ve found out about my doubts, is to offer to pray for me or just to imply that this is simply something that I’m “going through” and I will come out on the other side with renewed faith and a better relationship with God. There is no denying that there is a certain dismissiveness- and in some cases condescension- in these statements, but I understand that they do not at all come from a place of malice or judgement.

Anyway, despite everyone being relatively welcoming- and as supportive as they can be- I’ve chosen not to attend any more Christian groups and to limit my attendance at Sunday service. This has been really hard, because church has always been a safe, comfortable environment for me to socialize with people. I’ve tried looking into other groups but I haven’t been able to make a lot of progress with my search so far. Trying to find a new social circle to be involved with is really hard, especially for me as a relatively introverted person who has a lot of anxiety about driving to new places.

#2: Self-doubt/anxiety

Even as a I grow more comfortable in my “state of disbelief”, there are still moments when I wonder if I’m really wrong. I wonder if there’s a loving, all-powerful Creator-God of heaven whose kind embrace I am withholding myself from, or if alternatively, there is an omnipotent tyrant in the sky whose wrath I am inciting by my actions. Often the benevolent and fearful God are described as being one and the same, and at any rate, I feel that I must be displeasing Him. In doing so, I am also displeasing his followers- and that includes close members of my family.

At best I feel like a disappointment- at worst I feel that I may be in peril of “gaining the whole world and losing my soul” as Jesus was said to have said. I have to often remind myself that the idea of being cast into a burning lake of fire for eternity on the basis of mere belief or disbelief, is frankly absurd. If there is an afterlife, surely, our lives would be judged on the basis of our actions, and even if our actions were truly reprehensible they could not merit eternal punishment.

In some religions, being a truly horrible person just means that at some point your soul would be destroyed and you would no longer be reincarnated. Even though this is also a permanent punishment, the one punished does not in effect suffer for all eternity- they simply cease to be. That may be frightening as well, but, in the end, it’s all speculation. No one really knows what happens to us after this life- and that means that any number of things could be true, or none of them. Basing my entire life on any one assumption by itself sounds a lot like putting my eggs into one basket.

That being said, even though I’ve reasoned this all out quite neatly, hearing sermons about “losing this life” or even just offhand comments from Christians about hell and eternity can trigger all sorts of low-key nervous feelings in me. Sometimes, even without hearing these statements, the feelings can be triggered indirectly by random flashbacks to messages that have been drilled into my head for years. Even after separating oneself from the religion, one can still feel lingering feelings of guilt, shame, or “wrongness” that don’t seem to have any specific point of origin.

#3: Feeling lost

I used to pray a lot for strength and guidance, and sometimes, I still do. Now, though, I don’t have a very specific idea of who I’m praying to, and what it all means. In the past, praying to God for help with something also meant “putting it in His hands” which meant willfully choosing not to worry or be concerned with it. It meant quoting scriptures that detailed his “promises”, “meditating on the word” and choosing to praise, worship, and trust Him for the desired result. There was a certain element of “spiritual warfare” which included praying together with other people, and speaking out against any thoughts of doubt that might enter my mind.

If that sounds like a lot of work, in some cases it was. The draw of it all was that I felt that someone was listening- I felt that a Higher power was going to intervene on my behalf. Sometimes I felt literally refreshed and felt a sense of inner peace when praying. Even though I would still experience indecision, I used to believe that God was going to “work everything together for good.”

Now, I still believe in a higher power, but I believe that his/her/its role in human life is somewhat limited. I feel that I can seek guidance from this Force, but in the end a lot of the forward motion in my life is left up to me. This is both empowering and sobering. I now believe that I can’t just pray for things to be better, but I have to be the change that I want to see in the world. I believe that the Divine works through frail human lives to bring about good on this earth. I don’t believe that God has any sort of physical form, but rather is the life-giving force that exists in all of us. So in that sense, he/she/it isn’t really a “person” that we can implore to do this or that.

Another thing I now believe is in my own insignificance. I am not better or more deserving than anyone in this world, and being extremely devout isn’t going to stop bad things from happening to me. I also don’t believe that good or bad events are being orchestrated by some Divine Being. God was silent during the massacres in Sudan and Rwanda, the Holocaust, and havoc that occurred from the “Holy Wars” of the medieval times. There were- and are- times when peoples’ faith/religious convictions implored them to help others. Many Christians helped to hide Jews, but on the other hand, after it was over, the Catholic church was hiding Nazis and aiding in their escape. Religion is neither good nor bad, but good or bad people alike use it to justify their actions. What does that really say about it all?

It’s easy to get lost in this world. It’s easy for me to wonder if anything I do in life really matters. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the possibility that this life really is the only one that we have- that there’s no do-overs, that there’s no heaven for the righteous, no hell for the sinners, that we all simply get put in the ground and then we’re either remembered or forgotten. When I think about it like that, I have to ask myself if I’m really living the life that I want to live. It’s easy to wonder- “what are they going to say about me after I’ve died?” What legacy am I going to leave?

Not having any idea about any of it, or any romantic paradigm in which to frame things, is really hard. This is my reality, though, and I have to face it. So yes, there have been some regrets- but there’s no turning back now. I feel like I’ve seen a glimpse at the truth, and I don’t want fairy tales anymore. I’ve had some incredible good fortune in my life, and as great as it would be to think that that was due to my personally assigned guardian angel, I don’t know if I can tell myself that I’m that special.

I’m not special. I’m just me.

Achievement Exhaustion

Previously published on my Tumblr page, http://a-woman-apart.tumblr.com/

I’m going to be reviewing some of the ideas that I explored in my blog post entitled “Just Do It” in which I discussed why raw grit and determination alone aren’t always enough to push you to success. I actually started thinking more about this concept after watching some motivational/inspirational videos on Youtube (I’ve been watching these videos on and off for about a month now).

These videos usually encourage you to look deeper within yourself for the inspiration to push yourself forward. They talk about things such as examining your motives, eliminating time wasters and distractions, crafting clear goals, utilizing systems of reward and punishment, and tracking your progress. I can’t deny that all of this is really good advice, but there’s just one little problem- and that is that sometimes despite doing all the “right” things you just can’t seem to stay on the track that you’ve set for yourself.

For me, the problem is that I used to just be tired. I’m not talking about ordinary levels of exhaustion that can be cured by a good meal and a nice nap. I’m talking about bone-tired, skeleton-stiff, brain-clouding migraine levels of fatigue that won’t go away no matter how much rest you seem to get. Like in another post I quoted the lyrics “Wake Up Exhausted” and that’s exactly what happens- you “just woke up like this.”

This can be a sign of a number of things, but the main message is this- you’re probably doing way too much. The threat of burnout is very real in a number of fields and you have to make sure you are setting appropriate priorities, instead of just trying to do everything all at once.

Let’s say, though, that you aren’t experiencing that type of fatigue, but your whole life is sticking to a strict schedule, always making lists, constantly tracking your goals, staying on a particular diet, etc., and maybe you’re just bored. You may be making progress, but there is absolutely no variation or spontaneity in your routine. You have to make room for play in your life. It seems like an oversimplified suggestion, but you have to remember to actually have fun.

I think this actually goes double for people who are working, studying, or just generally doing this thing called life and dealing with a mental illness. Remembering to take time for yourself doesn’t mean that you’re losing sight of your purpose and your intent. Iyanla Vanzant actually pointed out in her book, entitled, “The Value in the Valley” that your purpose is bigger than just the individual goals that you might set for yourself. There is no specific prescribed method for success. There is still work involved, but you should be able to progress naturally- you should allow your passion to lead you. If some of that is fizzling out, you might want to re-examine what’s going on with you.

When I first decided to drop out of my theory class, I felt so torn. I felt like I was taking the “easy way out”. I believed that I owed it to myself to push myself to the absolute limits of my endurance, and I thought that being under constant pressure was somehow beneficial to my growth as a student and musician. It turns out, that the opposite may be true. Of course, I need to work hard, but having some free tme again has unlocked some of the creativity that was quick disappearing from my work. Another bonus is that I don’t feel achy, fatigued, and “cloudy” all the time. I actually feel like I’m an active participator in my life again.

So everything has its place. A relentless pursuit of achievement may seem good on the surface, but it isn’t always helpful to have tunnel vision. Sure, be focused, be mindful, but remember that there’s “more to life than chasing out every temporary high”. If you see life as just a staircase that you are constantly climbing you might not be aware of the bigger picture. Spend time with your friends, participate in hobbies that you enjoy, and know that you’re valuable as a human being- regardless of what achievements you have unlocked.

Talking a Good Game

Previously published on my Tumblr page, http://a-woman-apart.tumblr.com/

I know that when it comes to writing about spiritual growth on here, I “talk a good talk”. “Walking the walk”, however, is actually the bigger component to actual growth and that’s something that I really struggle with.

To this day, when things don’t seem to be going exactly as I’ve planned them, my default reaction is to panic. When things become difficult, my first impulse is to doubt myself and wonder if I’m really qualified to be doing whatever it is that I’m doing. I also tend to have a stronger impression that things in general are going to culminate in the worst possible outcome for me, instead of considering the possibility of them improving or ending favorably.

I think at the root of this behavior, is the false belief that if I picture the worst possible scenarios that it helps me to prepare for these imaginary disasters. I sometimes tell myself that I’m “just being realistic” and that this is actually the best way to approach things. I know that it isn’t true- I’m just giving into pessimistic attitudes that do not serve me. Also, these attitudes do not line up with the evidence that I’ve been presented with. Most of the times, what I’ve feared has never come to pass. So then, what is the point of being afraid?

I still think that the fear gives me power somehow. I believe that if I flinch before receiving the blows that I expect life to rain on me, that I’m somehow able to make them hurt less. When the blows don’t come, I am left with all of the bodily tension and stress of anticipating and preparing for them. This reaction also becomes an ingrained habit that makes it difficult for me to relax even when I am not being threatened.

I told my friend that I think I know what is the root of this desperate need for “control.” My theory is that it comes from living in a very restrictive household as a child. I had little control over my life’s circumstances, so my reaction has been to try to maintain strict control of my life in other ways. Of course, the idea of “control” is an illusion. We are ultimately responsible for how we handle the things that happen to us in life, but there is so much that happens in life that we do not have any influence over. We can choose to be a careful driver, but we don’t have control over a sudden rainstorm that may pass over and causes the truck in front of us to slide out of its lane and hit us. The best thing we can do is just to make sure we are wearing our seatbelts.

“Wearing your seatbelt” does not amount to living life terrified of accidents or misfortune. It’s more like a mental attitude of choosing to just be prepared for bad things that could happen without constantly dwelling on them. After all, how often do you consciously put on your seatbelt with the thought “I could get thrown out of the car today if I’m hit and I don’t wear this”? Some of us only wears seatbelts because the law says to. Most of us, though, just know that it’s safer, so we put it on out of habit. We’re not ruminating on all the grim possibilities. That’s how I eventually want to feel about preparedness in life; I want to come to a balanced state of mind where I am prepared but I am not afraid.

Obviously it isn’t possible to live a life totally free from fear. As I mentioned in another post, fear can be an important warning sign that something is not right with a certain situation. It is crucial in alerting you to danger. The fear that’s harmful for me personally- and I think for lots of other people as well- is the feeling of suspense or being “on edge” that can easily become a part of daily life. This is also probably a good description of certain clinical anxiety disorders (if you think you might need medicine or therapy to help with your anxiety you should definitely try to find a way to get that help).

In summary, I just want to be able to “practice what I preach” on here a little bit more. I wrote a lot about “The Value in the Valley” and I know that a lot of the principles in the book are at work in my life. Purpose and intent are guiding my actions. I am trying to follow the inward voice of my conscience a little better. I think it’s still the courage that I have trouble with- I have trouble maintaining the belief that everything is going to turn out just the way it’s supposed to, and that even if it isn’t the way that I would’ve chosen, that it’s ultimately for my benefit. My trust in the “process of life” is low.

I want to change that.

The Pathology of Happiness

Previously published on my Tumblr page, http://a-woman-apart.tumblr.com/

As someone who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I am well aware of the highs and lows that are associated with it. I have been so low and depressed that I wanted to do nothing but stay in bed all day, yet often found myself unable to sleep. I have been so “high” that I thought it was a good idea to spend rent money from my dad on a camera and later drive all the way to another state to see my friends (I used my credit card to pay for everything).

Bipolar disorder has been described as a “disease of feelings.” The problem with this is, that we cannot escape feelings- experiencing them is an essential part of the human experience. Depression is rarely soul-crushing immediately. It starts with a persistent inability to enjoy the things you are doing, and then magnifies as you slowly begin to leave off doing those things. In the same way, mania doesn’t start off with you being 100% impulsive or delusional. It begins with hypomania- and one of the symptoms of hypomania is “unusually elevated mood”. All of the sudden the world around looks a few shades brighter, you experience increased energy and focus and you feel like you can accomplish almost anything.

Managing my mood disorder means being highly aware of my feelings and whether or not they’re getting out of hand, and watching out for mania is one of the main things I practice.

Unfortunately, this sometimes results in being suspicious if out of the blue I wake up and I’m feeling better about things than usual. It means wondering if my excitement and enthusiasm when I’m talking about something new could be described as “pressured speech” or if my extra energy could lead to irritation or an angry outburst. It means wondering if when I splurged on that one thing I was moving into the impulsivity that is characteristic of mania.

In other words, I begin to study and look for the “pathology of happiness”- all of the negative things that can be associated with what just feels like “being happy.” Just like I don’t want to get “too sad” I don’t want to become “too happy”; I don’t want to become manic. This is because the mania is what leads to the poor decisions, the destructive behavior, and ultimately the hospitalizations (in my case). A sense of grandiosity is capable of persisting that can lead to a complete loss of touch from reality.

I do wonder sometimes, though, if my fear of mania is putting a damper on my ability to express happiness and joy. I’ve been hospital-free for almost five years, but I still look back on that dark time in my life and seek to make sure never to return. Even when I know I’m doing all of the right things- getting sleep at night, taking my medication daily, and sticking to a routine- I still feel afraid that my emotions are going to get “out of control.” If I feel under the weather, immediately my mind goes to the worst possible outcome, of me eventually being unable to get out of bed and go to work and therefore getting evicted. Or if I’m happy and having a good time, I wonder if I’m becoming “too excited” and may launch into regrettable behavior.

It is possible that my concerns are being exacerbated because this is traditionally the time of the year that I’ve been hospitalized, but I know that these concerns are always a low-grade hum in my mind at all times. I am always thinking at some lower level of consciousness, “don’t let your feelings get out of hand.”

The good part of this story is that I am not without support. I have my best friend, who, if I did start to launch into something that was abnormal, would notice immediately. I am still under the observation of case workers, even though it’s been years since I’ve had an episode. This was because the frequency and severity of my episodes- the last of which was a schizophrenic one that got my diagnosis changed to schizoaffective (bipolar type). Also, my last hospital stay was three months, which is a pretty long time.

I’m very grateful and happy that I’ve been episode-free for so long. I think I have relaxed from the level of worry I was at early into my recovery, so it’s possible that this low-level vigilance is something that I’ll have to experience for the rest of my life. I feel like I will never be in a position where I will feel fully comfortable, or fully confident that I will never again experience the devastating effects of mental illness. In my case, I don’t believe I will ever be “cured”. Instead, it will be something that I always manage and live with.

Purpose and Intent

Previously published on my Tumblr page, http://a-woman-apart.tumblr.com/

I wrote a post a few days ago about Iyanla Vanzant’s book, entitled, “The Value in the Valley: A Black Women’s Guide Through Life’s Dilemmas”. I gave a few examples about the types of valleys and the underlying principles discussed in the book. I wrote about how Iyanla emphasized introspection, self-examination, and prayer/meditation. She also taught the respect of the so-called “universal laws” like “the law of cause and effect” or “the law of attraction”. I went over the valleys only briefly, but there’s one that I would like to focus on right now- the “valley of purpose and intent”.

In the chapter on this valley, Iyanla says that purpose and intent should guide all that we do. She describes our purpose as being something we are divinely ordained to do and have a natural propensity for and liking to. When our purpose is clear, we are at peace. Intent describes how we intend to fulfill that purpose- it’s the positive energy that we put forth into the universe to show that we are indeed being serious. Our intent- or intention– could be described as our drive and focus to do the things that lead us toward the ultimate goal and meaning of our lives.

Being in alignment with our purpose does not guarantee that our lives will be free of challenges. As Iyanla put it, the world doesn’t stop spinning so that we can go ahead and pursue our dreams. We have to be extremely intentional in everything that we do and make sure that we give priority to the things that are contributing to our purpose and to set aside the petty things that hold us back. She says that setting goals is a good thing, but that we have to be aware that the goals we set are often made from our very limited perspectives. She emphasized being more open- to just focus on our purpose, and have our minds be intent on moving towards it. Slowly opportunities will open up for us- opportunities that we may have missed if we hadn’t been paying attention.

Reading this chapter helped me to remember the importance of knowing what I really want out of life and consciously pursuing that thing. I know I want to write, and I know I want to compose and perform music, so I’ve prioritized my musical education above everything else. The rewards have been very apparent. Gradually I’ve gotten better grades, faced fears, and increased my knowledge and comfort with the subjects I’ve been studying. I’ve been able to handle a steadily increasing course load and I will soon be able to graduate. I’ve definitely had to make sacrifices- mostly financial ones- but also I’ve had to chase my dreams against the wishes of my father (I think that’s been pretty huge).

My purpose and intent haven’t just worked out with school, either- it’s worked out other aspects of my life, such as changing jobs and moving out on my own. I intended to do those things, but the how and the when I hadn’t figured out yet. It’s funny though, how you do really get the things you want even if you have to be pushed by outside forces to finally make your move. That was Iyanla’s emphasis when she wrote about “the valley of courage”- that life has a way of forcing you to face the very things that you fear the most.

Another valley that I identified with was “the valley of understanding”. You would think that such a valley would be about gaining understanding in an intellectual or academic sense, but it is actually about trusting the “knowing” and intuition that you already have inside. One of Iyanla’s frequently repeated sayings in that chapter was “you know when you know”. We all have a sense when we first meet a person whether they’re trustworthy or not, but we often dismiss those feelings, only to discover later that we should have trusted our first sense. (“Trust your first thought”) We all know when we’re starting a job we’re going to hate, and even after we’ve gritted our teeth through it for a while we know when it’s time to leave. Do we leave? Often times not. We know when a relationship is failing, when we’ve outgrown our city or neighborhood, or when our conscience is afflicting us because we’re biting our tongues when we should really speak. We know these things, but when we don’t act on them, we’re being disobedient.

Even when we do have the understanding, we aren’t going to be able to move until we are ready. That’s something that I’ve observed about myself, too, when I’ve reviewed my life. I have constantly moved through seasons of action and inaction. Sometimes I have been too eager, and made a horrible, destructive mess out of things (while still managing to accomplish nothing as far as personal progress). I’ve hesitated when I should’ve moved forward, but when my time to dawdle was up, life moved me forward whether I was “ready” or not. I could either keep hedging or move with it (I chose to move with it). Other times I’ve been in sync with the flow of life, but I’ve still had periods where things just stayed the same for a long time. That was life’s way of testing me, to see if I could continue to be faithful to what I was doing and have the patience required to fulfill the task at hand.

I’m sure I’ve quoted this before, but there’s a quote from the movie (500) Days of Summer. The narrator says, “Most days do not have any impact on the course of a life.” I have found this to be true. That being said, each day we’re either walking in our purpose or outside of it. Those days add up into weeks, months, and years, and before we know it we’re either looking back at our life in regret or we are looking back with a sense of fulfillment.

So in summary: be courageous, have faith, trust your instincts, and be true to yourself. Don’t let anyone silence your voice. Don’t let anyone undermine your authority or undervalue the gifts you bring into life. Live on purpose and act with intention. Don’t stand down for anyone, and when life seems overwhelming, take a deep breath and keep on going. You have everything you need to face this life and triumph, so don’t turn away.

Run your race to its completion, and claim your crown!

The Value In the Valley

Previously published on my Tumblr page, http://a-woman-apart.tumblr.com/

This blog post title comes from a book that I recently read by Iyanla Vanzant, titled “The Value in the Valley: A Black Woman’s Guide Through Life’s Dilemmas”. Even though she targets black women in the title, I think Iyanla could be speaking to any woman who is feeling burdened down by the problems of this world. After all, women of all races can be afflicted with the guilt that they’ve come to association with their gender, the oppression of “the patriarchy” and a constant craving for outside approval and validation.

Iyanla starts the book out with a solid introduction, and then quickly moved unto outlining the states of being she would be discussing through a chapter she titled “Anatomy of the Valley”. Here she gives a brief overview of each of the valleys. They all have different names like “The Valley of Light”, the “Valley of Courage” or “The Valley of Love”, for examples. She said that it was possible to be in multiple valleys, and that you will intuitively be able to identify which valley you’re in.

In fact, relying on your inward “intuition” is something that Ms. Vanzant emphasizes in her book. She talks about the importance of relying on your Higher self or your God self, which she also describes as a guiding force simply called “spirit.” She will tell you that spirit knows all that you need to know, that the answers are inside- to stop thinking so intellectually and to intuit and know through the feelings in your heart. She warns that if your gut tells you something is off, and you disobey it, you are bound to reap the consequences. If you are confused about which inward feelings you are receiving, then you should stop and pray and ask for guidance.

To whom or to what you’re praying to is a little vague. Before each chapter where she discusses a specific valley in detail, Iyanla has a few paragraphs of what she called “Meditations with the Mother” in which she addresses the reader from the perspective of a divine Mother speaking to her daughters. She gently chastises and admonitions them to return to Her, to trust in Her love, and to know that She and “Father” created them in Love and for a purpose. With Iyanla’s yoruba background, it’s appropriate to assume that by the Father she means the Creator-God of the faith- but she doesn’t mention Him, or any other gods and goddesses by name in the book. I think that she sought to make her religious expression as inclusive as possible.

Another thing that Iyanla discusses, which I have a little bit of trouble with, are certain “spiritual laws.” She quotes the Biblical expression, “What you sow, you reap”. She often suggests that if someone is having trouble in a particular area of her life, that she examine how she might’ve misbehaved in the past. For example, if she has financial trouble, or people borrow from her and don’t repay, then she should look back and see if she borrowed from anyone and neglected to pay back. Or she should see if maybe by negative thoughts and words- like constantly talking about being broke or worrying about how to make ends meet- that she is encouraging the “spirit of lack” to take root in her life.

This ties in pretty strongly to what I’ve talked about with regards to “hidden agency” in previous blog posts. I think that seeing what our part is in a problem or situation is very important, and choosing to stop contributing to something in a way that causes negative results is crucial. I think the problem enters in when we believe that some unseen power- be that “the universe” or “God” or “the law of cause and effect” is arranging things to suit people who are “good” and doling out punishments to those who are “bad”.

To her credit, Iyanla did admit that the “universal laws” don’t always seem to be exactly tit for tat. Being a thief doesn’t necessarily mean that someone will rob you- but maybe you’ll lose something important in another area of your life. Also, she “Doing the right thing for the wrong reason” is still wrong and has its own consequences. She also argued that the Universal laws cannot be manipulated. You might try to be positive, try to talk a good talk, but if your heart and spirit don’t believe it the Universe will take note.

So my problem is this idea that all of these forces outside your control are all “holding you accountable” in one way or another. I feel that believing this may lead to paranoia and self-blame. Also, it may just be plain old untruth and superstition.

That being said, I think her emphasis on introspection, getting still and meditating, positive purpose and intent, and even prayer are all very valuable. Also, with regards to prayer, she was the first person I heard that said just saying things out loud to yourself may be a good thing to do as well- and it’s something I practice.

i think though, with the way I discovered this book, you’d think that I’d have a little more faith in unseen forces than I do. When I saw it I was at work, and I knew that I just had to take it home with me. I can’t describe how I knew- I just knew. It’s that kind of intuition that Iyanla praises in her book- but we can’t really prove that it’s a divine or spiritual thing. It may one day be explainable through science. For now though- spiritual or not- what I experienced was valid. I did indeed enjoy the book. I read through the whole thing in three days and excitedly shared insights with my friend. Its message of peace, of having faith in yourself, and in looking inward were invaluable to me at that time.

I’ve been focusing a lot on spiritual things lately in my effort to manage my depression. The current theme that’s I’m discovering is that life is a series of rhythms. I started thinking more deeply about it after watching a Youtuber named Brandon Gilbert. Birth and death, hunger and satisfaction, day and night, the changing seasons- all are a testament to the rhythmic nature of life. Like Solomon said, there is a time to all things- a time to mourn, and a time to laugh, a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing. Change is the nature of life. Stagnant water is usually not life-supporting- unless you’re breeding mold or mosquitoes.

There is value in the valley, and there are things to be learned from the heights of joy and peace to the depths of despair. There is a  lesson to be learned in every situation- it’s not so much about outward success as it is about inward spiritual growth. It’s not about how much I have, but it’s about how much light, life, and love am I willing to receive. Do I think that I am worthy of these things, or do I doubt my value as a person?

Back to the “change” bit. Accepting the changeability of life releases me from being overly concerned with outward outcomes. This doesn’t mean that I never strive to improve my position in society, my financial status, etc. It just means that if something happens that trips me up, I rise up and dust myself off, because “that’s life.” A favorite saying of a friend of mine is “this too shall pass.” That includes good things as well as bad.

The Apostle Paul wrote,

“For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” -1 Corinthians 13:12

Everything is revealed in time. For now, all we have to do is wait, be at peace, and do the next right thing until the answers come to us.

The Praying Deist?

Previously published on my Tumblr page, http://a-woman-apart.tumblr.com/

I’ve made it pretty clear in the past that I’ve been having a really hard time with things, with my depression creeping up. Also things are going to be a little bit tight for me financially for the next several weeks, so it’s very important that I do certain things to get everything in order.

I’m being forced to take some time off of my job, because I have too many hours for the year. I requested for my boss to concentrate that time around when I’ll be resuming classes (end of August, early September) and she agreed to my request. So thankfully I won’t have to work for the first week of school and that gives me some time to get acclimated to my school schedule. The bad part is that it will make my paycheck take a big hit, but luckily around that time I should be receiving some financial aid.

When I was driving home today, for some reason, I thought about how I used to just sit in my car and pray before work. I felt so overwhelmed, everything seemed so big to me- and it wasn’t because of depression. I truly didn’t feel equal to the task of any job that I was first starting. Those times were so refreshing and so intimate for me, but when I thought of praying for current events, I deliberately quelled the impulse. After all, what use was prayer to a person like me, who believed more or less that God gave life to the world but may have left us on our own? Or even if he/she/it didn’t, that maybe They were concerned with bigger problems- or that maybe They expected me to look inward for the answer to my difficulties- inward to the gift They’d already given me? So I just gripped the steering wheel and said, “I got this”.

Somehow, though, that wasn’t very satisfying. So as I was sitting here, facing what I have to face in the weeks to come, and feeling very insecure about it, I decided to go look up a post that I’d written a long time ago about praying as “an unbeliever.” It was called “I believe…”.

The truth is, that despite my changed beliefs, I still feel the presence of my God when I pray. I can’t explain it- maybe it shows that my relationship with the Divine had nothing to do with religion. Maybe in a way I believe that God transcends religion.

Here is an excerpt of what I wrote;

I know, I’ve mentioned before that “recovering from religion” didn’t have to mean a total loss of faith but I think I was just trying to say it just to make myself believe it. Now, it’s real to me. I’m not a Christian anymore. I don’t believe in a seven day creation, partings of the Red Sea, an Israeli Exodus from Egypt, the virgin birth, the deity of Christ, the Resurrection, the Final Judgment or the Second Coming but I sure as heck do believe in a god. I believe that some Benevolent Force has intervened in my life for the better. I believe that Something gave me strength when I had totally given up. I also believe that this “something” isn’t going to let me down.

So where did I go about forgetting that even though I’m not a Christian anymore, that I’m still “allowed” to pray? (I think that was actually a separate entry, but I can’t find it) Where did I go about forgetting that my faith in “something” can still be firm and unshakeable? Of course, feelings are subjective, but our perception of the world is all that we really have. If I choose to believe that a Benevolent Force is guiding me and giving me strength, then why can’t that be as valid as other peoples’ highly subjective beliefs?

I know I did just write about not being sure if I could trust in the idea of hidden agency anymore, but that’s not a completely exclusive idea. I’m willing to accept that if there is hidden agency, that we have no way of actually verifying it with any of the methods that we now have at our disposal. So the idea of the existence of hidden agency can be viewed skeptically, but not totally ruled out- until we can gain more evidence. With that in mind, it’s important for me to realize that my beliefs will continue to change as I learn more and as I continue to grow as a person. It could be true that I have not reached my final destination as far as faith and religion is concerned.

For now, though, I’m going to keep praying. I’m going to keep “talking to the ceiling” whenever I’m in a crisis. It may be a sign of weakness or denial, and I may just be doing it because I’m used to doing so. I do remember, however, several times when things were horrible and I didn’t pray, because I just wanted to die and for my pain to end that way. Fortunately, I’m not at that point anymore- I still have a lot of hope.

If this is what it takes to keep going, then so be it.

“Just Do It”

Previously published on my Tumblr page, http://a-woman-apart.tumblr.com/

I’ve been thinking a lot about a specific concept with regards to the idea that when it comes to changing aspects of our lives, that we should “just do it.” I usually find myself thinking about this when there’s some news story about someone overcoming struggles through what seems to be raw grit and determination. I think of the man who walked miles to Wal-Mart every time he wanted a meal and lost like 500 lbs; or, the man who walked 3000 miles across the country and lost like 300 lbs. and gained a new perspective on life. I think of people- like Taraji P. Henson- who’ve moved to new places with barely any money so that they could pursue their dreams.

These are inspiring stories, and they usually get me to thinking “Could I really do something like that?” I look at some of my habits- eating habits, spending habits, etc.- and I am well aware that there are things that I would like to change. Ideally I would lose weight, save money for travel, exercise more, explore new hobbies and talents, and so on. When I look at my life, I ask myself “What’s stopping me?”

In a way, it’s fortunate that I turned this criticism inward, because before I did it was very easy to just look at other people and say “Well why don’t they just do x, y, and z and work towards changing their lives?” and then when I look at my own life I see that I could ask myself the same kinds of questions.

The truth is, that I don’t exist in someone else’s reality- I don’t live their Truth. It’s possible to be so beaten down by life, or just by the chemicals being imbalanced in our brains, that forward motion seems like it is almost impossible. Even though it’s true that every big goal- like losing weight can be broken down into a series of smaller goals- daily exercise, dietary changes- it can be incredibly difficult to stay on track.

When it comes to money-related goals, poverty is very consuming and cyclical. You can put away small amounts of money in savings and gradually build it up- but it isn’t uncommon for one small emergency to wipe you out and force you to start from scratch. If you don’t have money to pay your bills, you are punished with yet more bills in the form of late fees and overdraft charges. If you borrow money to cover your costs, you then have to worry about paying back interest.

I think if it was easy for people to “just do it” then they would- but for a lot of us it isn’t that easy. Sometimes it’s mainly fear that is holding us back, and other times it’s circumstances that are outside of our control.

When it comes to change being facilitated in my life, I’ve noticed that there are usually two catalysts- outside circumstances and inward motivation. For a lot of the bigger changes that occurred in my life I have needed an outside push. The first of those came when my dad moved me out of his home into the recovery residence. I needed the change of circumstances, but I wouldn’t have been able to make it out on my own. I was stuck. The second came when I needed to move out of the recovery residence into my own apartment- I had really stayed longer than I needed to and I wasn’t exactly “in recovery” but if I hadn’t been given a deadline I might still be there today.

Looking back, though, there have been times when inward motivation- the kind of “just do it”ness has been influential in moving me forward. I used this when I started going to college. I applied for financial aid right after I turned 24, and starting going to classes with almost no encouragement from anyone else (while waiting for financial aid I had to pay for classes out of pocket). I was in developmental courses for about a year (and I also had to take a summer of computer literacy) and then moved on to my music courses. I slowly stacked more and more on my schedule. I’ll be taking 11-13 credit hrs in the Fall.

In a book I like to read called “Boundaries” (by Dr. Henry Cloud), he reminds us that boundaries are not built in a vacuum. This includes the boundaries that we make with ourselves. The truth is that even though we may be able to get through on grit and determination alone, a lot of the times that isn’t the case. I’ve needed people in my life to challenge me- even people that were only appearing in my life for that very limited space of time. They’ve come in the form of parents, teachers, and even the head of the recovery residence. Different caseworkers and therapists have also been important for me in reaching my goals.

If I’m not able to be the person that I want to be, it may be that I require a little bit of assistance. There’s nothing weak or shameful about needing help. Sometimes it is as simple as just breaking down big goals into smaller ones, listing out what I need to do, gritting my teeth and doing it. I may have to do things by myself if there are only a few- or not any- people rooting for me. Other times I will have the help and support of other people and it will be the missing link for me in attaining success. Either way it will require a lot of hard work and I’ll have to dig deep for the strength I need.

I haven’t reached all my goals yet, but I won’t give up. I’m also aware that once I reach the goals that I have, there will just be new goals to take the place of the old ones. So in that sense, I’ll never ever “arrive” at any place- I’ll just keep moving.

The Past

Previously published on my Tumblr page, http://a-woman-apart.tumblr.com/

My mom asked me what I do with all of my free time before work now that I’m not in class, and I rattled off a list of [legitimate] things, like running errands and meeting with my caseworker. I wasn’t being dishonest, but the truth is that I do spend an awful lot of my “free time” that isn’t occupied by other things here on Tumblr. 76% of the time I don’t find anything particularly thought-provoking, but on occasion I do find something that has me wanting to think- and I spend a lot of time just thinking about things.

I’ve written about my childhood on here frequently, and it is to be remembered that even the worst of childhoods has some happy moments in it. In a couple of my posts I held a really optimistic, sunny view of things- reminiscing to times of playing outside with my younger brothers. I can also remember how I would read stories to my younger sisters. Also, my youngest sister would just sit on my bed when I was lying around and we’d talk about things, like anime and just silly stuff.

There’s never only one side to things. Actually, because of life experience and being able to see life outside the religious lens, I think that I’ve actually broadened my perspective quite a bit. I no longer have to be self-deprecating when I attempt to cite the ways that being raised hyperreligiously has damaged me. I no longer have to be angry and sad and not really understand why. I no longer have to be at the mercy of a mental illness that created so much distance between me and my loved ones; my mental illness was always there, even in the happy times- and if I “surrendered to God” it was supposed to cure it- but now it no longer has the hold on me that it used to.

At the same time, I can look at the past with more than just contempt. I could just go ahead and say, “If I didn’t go through X I wouldn’t be the person that I am today” but I think that’s just a way of sugar-coating tragedy. It’s true that I wouldn’t be the person I am today- I might be a person with more self-confidence, stronger friendships, and healthier relationships (you never know). I can embrace the past objectively and in a healthy way, without “painting it black” or “sugar-coating” it. It wasn’t all bad, but it wasn’t “great” either and that’s perfectly all right.

I think there’s a saying, “I may not be where I wanna be, but I’m right where I’m supposed to be” and I think I can just apply that saying here- even though it might spawn its own set of questions as to whether or not “fate”, “destiny”, “synchronicities”, or “serendipity” are actually valid parts of our experience of life on earth. The idea that I’m “supposed” to be at a certain place or “supposed” to do a certain thing, that I have a “calling” and all of that can be equal parts romantic and equal parts horrifying, depending on whether or not we’ve “missed out on our calling” or not.

For now, I think I will go with the idealistic notion that my past and current suffering are part of a grander purpose- the betterment of myself and others. I will do this without pretending that God, the Fates, or some other force “simply knows best” and is directing my life accordingly. I am starting to believe that I have more freedom and agency in how my life turns out than I could’ve believed possible before- taking into consideration time, chance, “luck” and privilege, of course.

I now believe that I am in control of me- that it’s up to me how to view the past and how best to apply that knowledge to how I live my life. The past doesn’t have to control me, even though it’s undeniably a part of who I am.

It really is possible to rise above your circumstances. I’m doing it every day.