FINEST DAY OF THE WEEK, DEPENDING ON HOW YOU LOOK AT IT – Marilyn Armstrong

FOWC with Fandango — Finest

Duke did not steal it. I blamed him, although he was noticeably unruffled by being blamed since he does not consider stealing small plastic objects he can chew as something shameful. It’s just delightfully crunchy. Pill bottles (empty), DVD covers, other miscellaneous containers — and two pairs of kitchen scissors plus Garry’s red mouse. I knew it was him. It had fang marks. Garry may chew, but he has no fangs, at least that I know about.


We had errands to run today. It’s May 2nd or (depending on the day) late winter. I put on my sweat pants, turtleneck sweater, wool socks, shoes, and my peacoat. I should have also worn a hat because — yes — it was raining.

How unusual.

Garry asked if I was ready to go, so I closed my computer, grabbed my little camera and tucked it into my bag and off we went. We had to sign papers at the insurance company, mail some stuff to the Town of Uxbridge (to prove we still live here), and go grocery shopping.

All of which we did. When we got home and I unpacked the groceries and put everything where it belonged, I called Owen to tell him to pick up his mail — and by then it was past the dog’s dinner time and a little past ours, too, I took out my computer and turned it on. I had a few bills to pay. Nothing big, which is why I had to pay them. It’s the little ones I forget.

But I couldn’t do anything because my mouse had vanished. Both Garry and I stared at The Duke who appeared to wonder what the problem was. He has previously stolen two pairs of kitchen scissors and had eaten Garry’s mouse. So who wouldn’t assume he’d also eaten mine? Any dog owner would have assumed the same thing, right?

With a flashlight, we examined the underside of all the furniture (dirt, all that dirt), the dog crate (where we had previously found both pairs of scissors and Garry’s mouse). Nothing.

The Duke

And then, looked at my end table where I keep the computer, my big external drive and about a dozen chargers for miscellaneous camera batteries. My little camera was sitting there, in its case.

But. I put my camera in my bag, lest there be a picture to take. IF my little camera was on the end table — what did I put in my bag?

Suddenly, I knew. It was my mouse.

Totally humiliated, I extracted my mouse, mumbled about getting REALLY old and moved on with life.

Out of the whole week — and it was one hell of a week — this was my finest day. It was perfect.  This was possibly the finest hour of my finest day. I had both of us crawling around the floor looking for the mouse that I’d put in my bag because I thought it was my camera. It looks nothing like my camera. It’s not in a case, for one thing. It weighs a few ounces while the camera is almost a pound.

Camera and mouse

My body did something completely different than my brain was perceiving. This worries me. How many other things am I doing that I don’t know I’m doing? Until they call me and tell me I didn’t pay the bill, I really don’t know.

You can’t make this stuff up. Even if you try. (And why would you try?)

My doctor says I am not sinking into dementia. I know because I asked him. I believe he replied by saying, “Not a chance!” As if I had was hoping for a cure from life and he was giving me the bad news with which I would have to cope.

The dog really did not do it. I done it. Myself.

Sorry, Duke. You did eat Garry’s mouse. You left DNA with the fang marks.

A BIPOLAR LIFE – BY ELLIN CURLEY

My first husband, Larry, was bipolar, but he wasn’t diagnosed until thirteen years into our 25-year marriage. However, the ups and downs were a part of my life from the beginning. Larry could be fun, smart and affectionate. He had a wicked sense of humor (including clever puns), tremendous energy (sometimes too much, manic energy), a great “joie” and endless enthusiasm.

Larry in a jocular mood

He loved to read and was interested in a wide variety of subjects, ranging from physics and biology to history and sociology, to law and mysteries. He also loved the arts, particularly the theater and at one point we had five theater subscriptions at the same time. In addition, we also went to Broadway shows quite often, which kept us very busy and very up to date on the theater scene of the day.

One of Larry’s passions was shopping and when manic, he was a true shopaholic. He couldn’t resist buying anything that tickled his fancy, which was a lot of stuff. On the other hand, I loved it when Larry would shop with me in my favorite stores; craft shops, art galleries and jewelry and clothes stores. He would even come into the dressing room with me and help me pick out what clothes to buy. He had wonderful and sophisticated taste, though his taste was often a lot bolder and flashier than mine.

I really shouldn’t complain, because Larry loved to buy things for me. However, when he was manic, he would overspend and buy everything in sight. I was in charge of the budget and it was frustrating to see all my budgeting and saving go out the window with Larry’s shopping sprees. It got to the point that I would pretend that I didn’t like things we looked at because if I said I liked it, it would be mine in no time flat!

Two pendants with matching earrings Larry bought for me on trips out West

Once my son, David, then around twelve, went to an electronics store with Larry. Before they left, I pulled David aside and instructed him to try to keep his father’s purchases down. They returned with not one, but two VCR’s and I asked David why he had failed to rein in his dad. “Hey!” he said. “I talked him down from three, so don’t complain!”

Another positive side to Larry’s love of shopping was that he was always an active partner with me in decorating our homes, helping me choose everything from wallpapers and fabrics, to furniture and window treatments to bathroom fixtures and door knobs. We also designed our house in Easton, Connecticut together with the help of an architect. It was a wonderful, shared experience and the house meant so much more to both of us for the experience we had in creating every nook and cranny and picking every design element. I remember jumping out of bed late one night to draw out a new plan I had just thought of for the kitchen/breakfast room area. It was a wild idea and it was the design we eventually used in the house. I still love it 30 years later!

The kitchen design – with rounded eating area and round sunroom off of kitchen island area

Larry exhibited his sense of humor and fun one Christmas when he and David, like many other Jews, went to the movies on Christmas day. Before the show started, as a joke, Larry stood up and started singing the Jewish classic “Havanegela”. To his delight, the rest of the audience joined in and Larry acted as conductor for the group sing-along!

Larry didn’t sleep much and was always on the go. I needed a lot of sleep and ample amounts of downtime, which created much conflict between us. On weekends, he would get up early and want to go out and do something, get something to eat or just window shop. David was also not a morning person so we would take turns appeasing a very persistent, and often annoying and inconsiderate Larry.

Larry playing with David, 6 and Sarah, 1

One day, when Sarah was about eighteen months old and couldn’t talk yet, Larry got up and started pestering David, who was six and a half, and me to go out with him. Suddenly, our toddler ran into her bedroom, grabbed her coat and then ran to the front door. It was her way of saying “Take me, Daddy! I want to play with you!” Now Larry had a new playmate for his early weekend excursions and David and I were thrilled! When Sarah could talk, she’d say to Larry, “Let’s go sopping!”

Larry and Sarah continued their ‘sopping’ trips for the rest of Larry’s life (he died shortly before Sarah’s 21st birthday). He and Sarah also traveled and went to lots of shows and movies together from early in Sarah’s life and it was something wonderful she shared with her dad. Those memories are important and comforting to her now.

But there was a dark side to Larry’s bipolar disorder. When he cycled manic, as he did every year or so, he became volatile, paranoid, angry and agitated. He would fly into rages about the slightest thing, real or imagined and he would become verbally abusive. To our frustration, he would often ‘forget’ these episodes as soon as he calmed down. He was what is called a “rapid cycler.”

A classic example of that syndrome happened one Thanksgiving when we were supposed to drive from New York to Larry’s sister in New Jersey. In the morning, Larry was curled up in a ball on the bed, refusing to even get up. I eventually got him up and we started to drive to New Jersey when he suddenly went berserk over something.

I don’t remember what it was on that occasion, but once the kids were making too much noise in the back seat of the car and once I left the dirty dishes in the sink. To Larry, that proved that I didn’t care about him, that he didn’t matter, that he wasn’t important to me and that I was a bitch.

The four of us when David was 13 and Sarah was 8

On this Thanksgiving drive, Larry pulled the car over to the side of the street and stormed off, refusing to come back to the car. David finally talked him down and got him back into the car, because, as usual, Larry refused to even talk to me. We eventually made it to New Jersey, but Larry had gone from paralyzing depression to raging mania in the course of one day.

Another holiday in New Jersey ended badly because of Larry’s manic overreactions. He stormed out of a lot of rooms, houses and cars over the years, often on major holidays with family. But this one was special, even for Larry.

We were playing a game with Larry’s sister, Robin and her family, my kids and Larry. Larry was being hyper-competitive and was trash talking everyone constantly, which I think he thought was funny. After asking him to stop several times, Robin finally got exasperated and told him to shut up and Larry snapped.

The four of us when David was 16 and Sarah was 11

He stormed out of the house, but this time he took our car and disappeared. We eventually got a call saying he was at the train station and was taking a train back to New York, even though he was supposed to be going back to Connecticut with me and the kids for the long holiday weekend. Robin had to drive David to the train station so he could drive our car back to Robin’s so I could drive back to Connecticut with the kids. Robin talked to Larry at the station and they patched things up, but Larry still insisted on taking the train to New York, disrupting and appalling everyone. I was mortified and everyone else was shaken and upset. This was not an uncommon situation for me, but each time it happened, it was like a punch to the gut.

In some ways, it would have been easier for me if Larry had always been abusive and impossible to live with, but he wasn’t. He was eventually put on Lithium, which worked well and contained his mania, but he kept going off the meds.

I loved the non-manic Larry, so the hope that Larry would get help, and then that he would stay on his meds, kept me with him for 25 years.

IF THE SHOE PINCHES, YOU MAY WANT TO KEEP WALKING – Marilyn Armstrong

I just read another post on the power of positive thinking. I was glad to hear one more time how I can conquer pain and make my problems go away by believing they will. Are blessings reserved only for those with a positive attitude? If you don’t smile, will the Powers-That-Be fail to love you?

I don’t think there’s a malevolent deity or evil destiny stalking me or anyone else. Life just is. It’s not omens and portents: it’s stuff that happens.

Positive thinking is not bad.  It’s just that positive thinkers have a way of forgetting how suffering people don’t necessarily want a pep talk. They want to be in less, preferably no, pain. They want love, comfort, and sympathy.

My suggestion? Listen. Find out what they want and do your best to give it to them. Your positivity may cure your problems and you are welcome to use it to make yourself feel better. Just don’t impose it on me or anyone else. Don’t force anyone to smile when they want to cry just so you can feel okay.

I’ve got a few problems that are hard to manage. I have bad days. I want to avoid dragging others down, but I have given up trying to make everyone else feel better by internalizing everything.

It’s unfair to tell people to relax, be happy, smile and that will make everything fine.

It’s not true.

Internalizing pain and sadness increase stress. In the long-term, swallowing your pains makes them worse. Don’t stop hoping or searching for help, but don’t assume that whatever you just read in a book or magazine article is sure to work for you. I personally think “positive thinking” is wildly overrated. No single solution, attitude, or way of thinking will fit most people, much less everyone.

It is said you cannot know anyone until you’ve walked in their moccasins and those moccasins can pinch something fierce.

QUICK AND EASY STRESS CONTROL – PART 4

This is the final part of a four-part series. You can read the others here: Part I, Part 2, Part 3.


Stress

Everyday stress is a killer. Literally.

The greatest damage from stress is caused by excessive triggering of the fight-or flight (stress) response. These throw your entire system into high gear on a chemical and biological level. Your system is designed to handle no more than a few fight-or-flight responses a week.

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Instead, our modern world bombards us with more than fifty such (brief) episodes each day. Over time, this unrelenting stress wears down and damages every part of your body in some way.

Your body can’t distinguish between minor, everyday stress and those which threaten life and loved ones. So we respond to all stressors as if they were charging tigers.

Moreover, your body doesn’t distinguish between physical threats which require action, and psychological threats which require thought or a verbal response — or potential threats which are worries about the future and don’t even yet (or maybe ever) exist.

Thoughts alone can trigger a full blown, physiological stress reaction throughout your body. Your body “believes” your thoughts are real.

If you think about a fight you recently had or might have, your system reacts as if you were having the fight now! The good news is you can trick your unconscious, internal systems into thinking you are sitting on the beach with a tall, cold drink in hand.

This is what gives visualization and mindfulness such power.

The key is visualizing in detail. To demonstrate the power of thoughts and images on your body, close your eyes and imagine, in vivid detail, that you are eating a lemon. Soon your mouth will begin to pucker. You will start to salivate. Your stomach will start secreting the fluids to digest a lemon. Your mind will have tricked your body into thinking you were eating a lemon.

Visualization

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This is a visualization you can tailor to your mood and whatever time you have available:

  1. Close your eyes.
  2. Imagine yourself in a place you love — the woods, the beach, or some place which holds special meaning for you.
  3. Make sure it’s a place where you feel secure, safe, comfortable, and happy.
  4. Focus on the details of your imagined scene.
  5. Work with each of your senses, one at a time. Focus on everything you see. Colors. Shapes. Light. Shadows.
  6. Work from the ground up.
  7. Focus on the sounds around you, including the silence.
  8. Take a few deep breaths, then tune into the smells. Allow scents to trigger positive emotions.
  9. Focus on the variety of textures around you. Imagine yourself touching the items in your environment – smooth, rough, hard, soft, and so on.
  10. Focus on any movement in the scene you have created for yourself. Clouds in the sky, waves in the ocean.
  11. Finally imagine doing something you love in your mental oasis. Put your feet in a lake. Ski down a mountain. Play with a pet.
  12. Continue the experience until you feel a sense of peace and well-being.

Gradually ease yourself back into your day focusing on your breath, then the sensations in the room. When you’re ready, slowly open your eyes and take another deep, abdominal breath.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a slightly different way to focus on the present moment. Focusing on the present decreases tension and stress. It increases your enjoyment of life. You can give your body and mind a mini-vacation from worry about the past and the future, and reduce the damage stress can do over time.

Schubert Theater boston night

You can practice mindfulness while you are doing anything from washing dishes or folding laundry, to walking upstairs or even eating.

All you need do is spend a few minutes focusing on the details and sensations of the moment. Use all of your senses, one at a time.

Mindful eating is a good exercise for beginners. For example, while eating an orange you can focus on the color and roughness of the skin and the different colors and shapes of the segments. Then focus on the feel of the rind, pulp and juice on your hands, face, lips and tongue and the sensations in your mouth, throat and stomach as you bite, chew and swallow. Then turn to the smell and the taste of each bite and how they change as you go through the process of eating. Come back to the real world slowly and focus on abdominal breathing for a few moments before you get on with your day.

Aggravation

Life is aggravating. It just is. You can’t completely eliminate everyday annoyances or anxiety, so be prepared to change how your body reacts to them. I’ve explained abdominal breathing, Progressive Muscle Relaxation, mindful walking, visualization, and mindfulness. All these techniques can reduce the level of stress stored up in your body and mind. Using these can dramatically improve the quality of your life.

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Do what you can, whenever you can for as long as you can. Just … do something. No matter how small, anything you do will protect you and help heal your mind and body. In the process, you’ll develop skills which will serve you well in the future by allowing you to take control of your responses to the stress life inevitably brings.

QUICK AND EASY STRESS CONTROL – PART 3

I ‘ve talked about breathing and visualization as relaxation techniques. This week, I’d like to add a third element – movement.

Human-Body-Muscles

Coordinating breath and movement can calm you down, center you, clear your head, and focus your mind, and help the relaxation spread to the muscles throughout your body.

Another benefit is that the physical movement gives your mind a focal point that can not only deepen relaxation but can also allow you to relax when you’re too restless, fidgety, listless or unmotivated for the purely mental techniques.

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When you are concentrating on moving your body in a certain way, it is easier to keep your mind off stressful thoughts that creep into your mind. However, thoughts will invariably intervene at some point when they do, just acknowledge them and immediately click the remote and switch back to the breathing channel. Then refocus on your movements.

One classic exercise that combines breathing and movement is Progressive Muscle Relaxation or PMR. This can be done standing, sitting or when you are having trouble sleeping, in bed. Body focus techniques not only help insomnia but also improve headaches and stomach problems if done for a period of time when you’re having symptoms.

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In PMR, you first tighten and then release major muscles, starting with feet and moving up your body. Doing this helps you learn what your muscles feel like when they are tense versus relaxed. It may sound strange, but most people don’t realize their muscles are tense until the tension gets bad enough to hurt.

You may need to learn how and when to relax your muscles. PMR not only helps you relax, it increases your awareness of muscle tension. Soon you’ll be able to prevent muscle tension from building by stopping it before it gets serious.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Start by squeezing your toes together as if you were making fists with your feet. Hold the squeeze and feel the tension in every foot muscle. Then let everything go, all at once, as you exhale.

Try to feel the muscles in your feet relaxing and loosening up. Next squeeze your calves and thighs, hold the squeeze feel the tension and then release it quickly, always on an exhale. Feel all the tension evaporating from your legs.

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Focus on the contrasting sensations of tension and relaxation, tightness and openness. Continue up through your body tightening and releasing, sequentially, your buttocks then your chest and shoulders, scrunching your shoulders up to your ears. Then move onto your arms and hands, making fists and squeezing them tightly.

Hold and release the muscles in your throat and neck and then scrunch your face together and squeeze your eyes shut, hold, and then release. Open your mouth as wide as you can and stick your tongue out as far as you can. Hold and release. Then bring your focus back to your abdominal breathing, perhaps counting out an exhale that is twice as long as your inhale. Gradually transition back to your day.

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Short Form PMR

There is also a short form PMR when you are pressed for time. Divide your body into three sections, from your feet up to your face. Then tense all the muscles in each section, hold them and release all at once with an exhale, as you did above. Then move onto the next section. For example, feet, legs, thighs and buttocks are one section, chest arms and shoulders are another section and neck, throat, face and jaw are the last section.

Once you’re comfortable with PMR, you can try a Mental Body Scan. As with PMR you can do a detailed body scan, or use a short form. Like before, begin at your feet and work up your body. This time, though, just mentally scan for tension. When you find tightness in your muscles, mentally release it. I like to visualize the tension floating away from my body, like steam, evaporating into the air.

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You can also imagine the tight muscle opening up, spreading a warm, heavy feeling as it releases all its tension. Then let this sensation spread slowly up your body. Scan every part of your body in as much detail as you have time for. For example, you can divide the face into scalp, forehead, eyes, nose, lips, cheeks, jaw and tongue or you can treat the face as a whole. Either way, make sure your jaw is loose and your teeth are apart, not clenched!

Mindful Walking

Another exercise that combines breathing and movement is Mindful Walking, which you can do it whenever and wherever you are walking. Start Abdominal Breathing with a 3 or a 5 count inhale and the same count for the exhale. Then count the number of evenly paced steps you take per inhale and per exhale, using only odd numbers for your count. This insures that you start each inhale on a different foot.

For 3-count walking, this means:

  • Inhale – left, right, left
  • Exhale – right, left, right.

A 5-count walk would be:

  • Inhale – left, right, left, right, left
  • Exhale – right, left, right, left, right.

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If you want to increase your relaxation, elongate your exhale and increase the number of steps per exhale. So, for example, you could inhale to a count of 3 and exhale to a count of 5 or inhale to a count of 5 and exhale to a count of 9 (remember to only use odd numbers and keep your steps steady and even).

If you want to energize yourself, increase the length of your inhalation and the number of steps per inhale while shortening your exhalation and the number of steps on each exhale. You could, for example, inhale to the count of 5 and exhale to the count of 3.

I find when I walk like this, I don’t get as tired or winded. I end my walk feeling more relaxed and centered as well as refreshed.

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Now you know some techniques that can help you circumvent your body’s stress response, reduce muscle tension and quiet your mind. This should help you get through each day feeling more positive emotionally and more relaxed and energized physically.

You shouldn’t have to get more stressed trying to find time for stress control. Do what you can when you can and you’ll find whatever you do, there will be definite benefits.

QUICK AND EASY STRESS CONTROL – PART 2

Last week, I talked about using controlled breathing to turn off the “Fight or Flight Response” in your body and minimize the harmful effects of stress on your body. You can build on that to reduce stress even more.

Manchaug June 2015

MIND AND BODY

Reducing stress requires mind and body relaxing together. Mental relaxation is probably harder for most people — for good reason. Most of us think all the time. More than 50,000 thoughts flash through your mind every day. Buddhists call this mindless internal monologue “Chatter” or “Monkey Mind”.

Photo credit: Huffington Post

Photo credit: Huffington Post

Most “chatter” is negative. Brooding on the past, self-criticism, worries, to-do lists, and so on. This stuff has a powerful effect on your body and psyche.

A thought is reality to your body.

Worrying releases the same destructive hormones that would be released if the worried-about event were really happening. The goal of all relaxation techniques is to anchor your mind in the present, to shut out anxiety and negative thoughts, most of which are locked into the past or future.

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An intense focus on “now”, including how you are breathing, can override “Chatter.” It will give your mind a mini vacation,  a brief, therapeutic — and probably much-needed — break.

Abdominal breathing is a form of meditation. It can help alleviate symptoms of ADD, reduce fidgeting and short attention span.

When you’re in a stressed breathing pattern, you can shift to abdominal breathing. This will pretty much instantly reduce tension, focus your mind, and increase your energy level. It do the same thing to your mind if you feel yourself going into a particularly toxic session of “Monkey Mind” negativity.

VISUALIZATION

Start taking slow, steady abdominal breaths until you feel your body relax. You can start a counting exercise as you breathe. Or you can go directly into a mini visualization, as follows:

  •  Imagine, with each inhalation, you’re breathing peace, calm, and well-being in to every part of your body. With each exhalation, imagine you’re blowing the tension and negativity out.
  • Try saying “peace in” each time you inhale — and “tension out” each time you exhale.

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  • Picture a giant wave of relaxation and tranquility pouring over you with each breath you take, soaking through your body from the top down as you complete inhaling and exhaling.
  • Feel the tension melt away from the muscles in your head and neck. Then feel it flow down your shoulders, arms, torso — finally your pelvis, legs and feet.
  • When a wave has saturated your body with relaxation, visualize another coming in with your next breath. You can add color and light to each wave — your favorite color or a bright light.
  • When you feel loose and mellow, refocus on your breath, then gradually transition back to your day.

It turns out that the process of learning stress control techniques can ease tension and anxiety.

Research shows that feeling helpless creates as much — or more — physiological damage as would the thing or event you fear. Feeling in control reduces stress. All by itself. If you know you can do something to help yourself cope, you won’t feel overwhelmed or helpless. Stress will have less control over you.

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An old but still relevant example is an Air Force study made during World War II. The study showed that co-pilots suffered from more stress during combat missions than pilots. Pilots were in control of the plane; co-pilots were not.

It’s reassuring to know that one of the reasons mind-body techniques work is that they enhance your sense of control over yourself — and therefore your life.

QUICK AND EASY STRESS CONTROL – PART 1

I was a Yoga teacher for eight years.

My training taught me a lot about the interrelationship between the mind and the body, on a physiological, scientifically explainable level. Using that knowledge, I compiled some quick and easy stress control techniques for my students I call “On The Go Stress Control”. These are small things you can do during your day to reduce stress and alleviate its negative consequences.

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STRESS AND YOUR BODY

Stress is a condition which causes psychological and physical damage. The most insidious and dangerous form of stress is the everyday kind. Traffic, being late, dealing with difficult situations, and other people. This kind of stuff bombards you constantly. The damage it causes is consistent and cumulative. Ironically, while there are no “quick fixes” for most things in life, there are quick fixes for stress-related symptoms. Called Relaxation Techniques, you can do them for a few minutes, any time, even during your most hectic days. These are easy to learn, pleasant to do, and are amazingly effective at curbing your body’s harmful reactions to stress.


There’s a saying, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” These techniques can allow you to surf in the often turbulent seas of life.

In this first piece, I’d like to concentrate on breathing, which is the simplest and most powerful of the relaxation techniques.

Breathing is important in two different ways. Breathing involves two different systems in your body – respiratory and the nervous systems. I’ll only talk about the latter here because most people already have a rudimentary understanding of the respiratory system.

Breathing forms a bridge between your body and mind. It’s the key to preventing or minimizing stress reactions. It acts as the messenger service by which the mind communicates with the body – and visa versa. Your breathing is the only thing you can consciously control which lets you turn off the stress response.

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When your mind perceives or even imagines a threat or impending stress — big or small — your breathing changes. It triggers what’s called the “Fight or Flight Response” which automatically releases over 1500 chemicals into your system to prepare you to fight for your life — or run like hell.

Heart and breathing rates increase dramatically, as does blood pressure, muscle tension, and the amount of cholesterol in your bloodstream, along with many other toxic reactions.

Constant stress slowly poisons you and over time, this wear and tear can injure almost every system in your body.

The problem is that this system evolved to protect early humans from infrequently real threats to life and limb. It doesn’t differentiate the more subtle stresses of modern life. The fight or flight response is on or off. There’s no dimmer switch to deal with the stressful but non life threatening situations which make up most of our lives.

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Rapid, shallow breathing triggers the alarm and initiates the survival mechanism of your body. Slow, deep breathing — called abdominal breathing — is the “all clear” signal. It turns off your body’s red alert and reverses the fight or flight sequence. It stops the release of stress hormones that initiate physical stress reactions.

When you learn to control your breathing, you also control your stress response.

Relaxation works on tension the way aspirin works on headaches. You can do breathing exercises (or other relaxation techniques) anywhere, anytime. You can do it while you’re stuck in traffic, waiting in line, sorting laundry, sitting in a dentist’s chair, or at your desk. The more practice, the more effective they are and the more relaxed you will be. You can use them to deal with a specific stressful situation more calmly and rationally — without being thrown into a panic state.

ABDOMINAL BREATHING

Breathe through your nose (unless I tell you otherwise).
Put one hand on your belly, one on your chest. Start by taking a take a slow, deep breath. Feel your belly rise, then as you breathe deeper, feel your chest rise.

Feel the breath going into your throat.

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As you exhale, reverse the process. Feel your chest falling, then your belly as you tighten your abdominal muscles and squeeze out that last bit of breath before you inhale again. It may take a while before this feels natural. This is the way you should be breathing all the time, to keep your system in equilibrium. Most people don’t, hence high stress levels.

COUNTING

After you’ve mastered abdominal breathing, you can go to the next level and add counting. You foster relaxation when your exhale is longer than your inhale. You energize yourself when your inhale is longer than your exhale. If you want to relax or stay calm, inhale to a slow count of 3, then exhale to a slow count of 6. Next, inhale to a slow count of 4, then exhale to a slow count of 8.Two to one is the best ratio for breathing.

Experiment until you find the count which works best for you. Continue doing it as long as you can — at least a few minutes.

If you find yourself getting sluggish during the day and need a pick-me-up, instead of grabbing an energy drink or another cup of coffee, get a shot of natural energy. Inhale to a slow count of 4, 6 or 8. Then expel your breath rapidly through your mouth, making a whooshing sound — or saying “Haaaa”. If you don’t want to draw attention to yourself, just do a quiet exhale to the count of 2, 3 or 4 while keeping the 2 to 1 ratio (if possible).

72-Mountain-Bi-Tonal-MAR-Sunday-011016_008

Abdominal breathing is not only a stress relieving exercise. You can combine it with all the other forms of relaxation. It allows other techniques to work and can help you fall asleep, even if you have insomnia.

In subsequent pieces I’ll teach you other techniques, like Progressive Muscle Relaxation, Visualization, and Mindful Walking.

LIVING WITH MENTAL ILLNESS – BY ELLIN CURLEY

Carrie Fisher was Bi-polar. To her credit, she talked about her condition openly and honestly. She brought attention to the disorder and tried to reduce the stigma associated with this, as well as other, mental illnesses. It’s sad that we need celebrities with diseases to increase public awareness about their given malady. But mental illnesses are inherently hard to diagnose, treat and talk about. So as long as people get educated about them, I guess it doesn’t matter how or why.

Carrie Fisher

I have an unwanted and involuntary expertise in Bi-Polar Disorder. Both my ex-husband and my son had/have the disease (my ex is deceased). Each of them manifested the condition differently – my ex was mostly manic and my son was mostly depressed. One of the most difficult aspects of this disorder is the fact that it can look so different in different people. This makes it much harder to diagnose because there is no one size fits all set of symptoms to identify.

This makes it harder on the families too, who don’t always get the support they need from the medical community. It also makes it easier for the Bi-polar person to deny that they have an identifiable syndrome that requires treatment. This denial is very common in Bi-Polar Disease. Also common is the refusal to stay on medication. These factors just add to the difficulties and pain of the family members.

The families of Bi-polar sufferers feel different from other families. We know that other families’ lives are not fraught with the unpredictability, volatility and often violence (emotional if not physical) that ours are. We seem to be the only ones living on a roller coaster. We feel inferior, ashamed and isolated. Family members, me included, try to ‘cover up’ the problem and cover for the often inappropriate behavior of the bi-polar loved one. I made countless excuses for the actions and absences of my ex. My daughter tried to avoid the issue altogether by going to friends’ houses and never having friends come to ours when Daddy was ‘off’ or ‘acting up’.

When you live with a bi-polar person, you wonder what’s wrong with you that you live like this. You wonder why you aren’t like other people. Your ego and self- esteem suffer. This is particularly devastating for kids. My kids are in their 30’s and are still dealing with these issues. They are moving on from some questionable relationship choices they made in the past because of their lingering psychological demons.

On the other hand, denial and defending are also big parts of life with a B-polar person. While married to my ex, after one of his particularly bad manic episodes, I was advised by psychiatrists to go to a program for abused spouses. I thought that they were crazy. I was in therapy already and I was clearly not in that pathetic category! That label did not apply to me! Of course I didn’t go. I often wonder what would have been different in my life if I had received the support and empowerment I needed at that point in time. I now realize that the whole family needs support and treatment specifically designed to deal with the mentally ill family member. My individual therapy was not enough.

Today, there are claims that too many people are being labeled ADHD or Bi-Polar; that it’s become a psychiatric fad to assign mental illness labels to people and ply them with drugs. To me, it’s better to spread a wide net to catch all the people with serious issues and get them the treatment they need. You’re not going to be misdiagnosed if your behavior is perfectly within the range of normal. Something is going on if a doctor thinks you might be Bi-polar! If it’s not manic depression, then it certainly is something else that needs attention and possibly medication! Sometimes the only way to come up with an effective treatment is by experimenting.

I became very pro-active psychiatrically. My daughter started to have panic attacks at age eleven and I got her on medication immediately. She is grateful to me that she never had to go through the torture of years of horrible anxiety symptoms. She would not have been able to function effectively through school and in jobs without her anxiety meds.

I couldn’t get my ex to stay on meds and get a stable life. But at least I got my daughter on medication early so she had fewer issues getting through life than she would have without my early intervention. At least I have one psychiatric success story to brag about!

I SENT MY HUSBAND AND MY MOM TO COUPLES’ COUNSELING – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I swear to God, I actually made my first husband, Larry, go with my mom to couples’ counseling. They were driving me crazy. They fought with each other. They each talked to me against the other. They both tried to get me to ‘side’ with them against the other. They each thought the other was bad for me.

Me, Mom and Larry in around 1979, about 5 years into our marriage

They were both very controlling. Each wanted to get me to do what they wanted, which was usually the opposite of what the other wanted. For example, one major issue was the amount of time we spent with my mom. Mom obviously wanted us to spend more time and Larry wanted us to spend less. After my father died, in 1981, my mother asked us to spend Saturday nights with her so she wouldn’t have to be alone. Larry wanted Saturday night as ‘date night’, and a night to see friends. I negotiated a settlement on this issue – we saw Mom on Friday or Sunday but Saturday was for Larry and me as a couple.

Other issues were not as easy to resolve. I often felt like a wish bone being pulled apart by Mom and Larry. The hostility level between them was off the charts. So was my stress level.

Me, Mom and Larry in 1984, when I was pregnant with our second child

I got really desperate at one point and consulted a family therapist. I explained the situation to him and he agreed to see my mom and Larry in couples’ therapy. He first met with all three of us, together. Then he met with each of us alone. Only then did he meet with Larry and Mom together. After two or three of their joint sessions, he called me.

He told me that there was no point wasting his time and my money on a lost cause. He said I had to give up the idea that either Mom or Larry would ever change – it wasn’t going to happen.

The doctor explained that Larry and Mom were both narcissists and borderline personalities. There is no reliable treatment or cure for either syndrome. In fact, a symptom of both is a total lack of self-awareness. Apparently Larry could see Mom’s issues very clearly and Mom could see Larry’s equally well. Their insight was 20/20 when it came to the other’s faults. But they were innocent victims in their own eyes. To each, I was being manipulated by the other and they were just trying to save me.

Me, Mom and Larry in 1987

I remember sitting on the floor of my bathroom with the door closed, crying on the phone with the doctor. I begged him to try again. But he insisted that I face reality. He was right.

Nothing changed through 25 years of marriage. But here’s the irony. After Larry and I separated and later divorced, Larry and Mom got along famously! They actually had a lot in common. In some ways, they had more in common with each other than either had with me. These similarities suddenly came to the fore once I was out of the picture.

All those years, they were obviously fighting over who would have the most influence and control over me. I’m amazed I survived, relatively intact. One other thing the therapist told me was that I could never be my own person and live my own life until both Larry AND Mom were out of my life. Hard to hear. But he was right about that too.

I separated from Larry in 1998. I met my current husband, Tom, in 1999. Mom died in 2002, a few months before Tom and I married. Since then, I have become a different person. I am more confident, more self-assured, more independent and more relaxed. Also happier.

I’m also sad to realize that two people I loved so dearly were so destructive to me for so long. That’s a very hard pill to swallow.

PSYCHIATRY LET ME DOWN – BY ELLIN CURLEY

My father was a well-known psychoanalyst and psychiatrist. My mother was a psychologist. I was like the shoemaker’s kids who goes without shoes. I was not well-served by the psychiatric profession. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. I was just born too early, ahead of the scientific curve. Solutions to my problems and my family’s problems were discovered decades after I needed them.

I was a delightful and outgoing child in some ways. But in others, I was anxious, fearful and timid. I developed learning problems in first grade. I had nervous ‘ticks’ and non-diagnosable ‘stomach problems’. In later years, my psychiatrists told me I was the poster child for childhood depression. I was practically jumping up and down and screaming that I was depressed, but in the 1950’s and 1960’s, no one understood children could even be depressed.

Me at around five or six years old

I was put into therapy. My therapist got pregnant and left. That went well.

With my childhood symptoms today, I’d have been on medication from the age of five or six. My life would have been totally different – much easier and certainly much better.

I got ‘sick’ in college. I got symptoms that looked like a hyper-active thyroid, but the tests didn’t confirm that diagnosis. So I was in limbo. For three years during college, I had a rapid pulse, palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness and extreme fatigue. I was barely functional. To meet me you’d never know anything was wrong. I put on a very good front when I was with other people.

Years later my psychiatrists figured out that I was having a severe depression which adversely affected my thyroid (not uncommon), But at the time, no one knew this was a ‘thing’. The medical doctors all said the problem was ‘in my head’. They were right. But the shrinks didn’t know how to deal with it. The medication I would need was not invented for decades.

Me during my difficult college years

So at 19 or 20, I went to another therapist. After a short while she dismissed me. There was very little going on in my life except sleeping, my struggle to get school work done and hanging out with my parents at home. She said I wasn’t bringing her enough ‘material’ from my life for her to work with. Basically, she was telling me that I was too dysfunctional for her to help me! There’s something very wrong here. And my parents accepted this state of affairs.

In the late 1970’s and into the 1980’s, when I was in my late twenties and into my thirties, my therapist told me that I was ‘chronically depressed’. Low grade depression, but depression none the less. At the time, medication was only used for life threatening depressions because the medications had such horrific side effects. The only tool psychiatrists had to deal with ‘chronic depression’, was talk therapy. That only took me so far.

It wasn’t until 1989, when I was 40, that Prozac came onto the market as the first anti-depressant for the general public. I had no overt side effects (the drug may have been responsible for my weight gain over the next few years). I became a different person and my life changed dramatically. All for the better. My anxieties were gone, my confidence and self-esteem were up, my ability to assert myself got a huge boost, my outlook was more positive and upbeat, and on and on. My life would have been totally different if I’d had Prozac — even ten years earlier, let alone twenty or thirty years sooner.

Me in 1989

Then there was my husband, Larry. He would periodically, or more accurately, cyclically, devolve into a less and less rational and more and more volatile, aggressive, paranoid and hostile state. Larry was in therapy. His therapist considered him deeply neurotic. There was still little known about the genetic, physiological mental diseases. Even though Larry’s dad had been diagnosed as bipolar, the therapist didn’t think Larry was bipolar too.

We went into marriage counseling. We spent time discussing what I was doing to bring on Larry’s unpredictable fits of rage and periods of sullenness. I knew I wasn’t perfect, but I also knew I wasn’t the problem. I could do something one day, like leaving dirty dishes in the sink, and he’d be understanding. The next day, the same event proved to him I didn’t care about him and was a terrible, inconsiderate wife. And there would be a major scene. Once he threw a pot at me.

Larry and me a few months before we were married

Thirteen years after we were married, in 1987, Larry was finally diagnosed as bipolar. Years later, psychiatrists told me that Larry’s behavior was then considered classic manic-depressive behavior. He would have been diagnosed immediately, at this later time. A tremendous amount has been learned about Bipolar Disorder in the last twenty or so years.

In reality, Larry’s bipolar diagnosis and medication regimen wasn’t the ‘cure’ for Larry that Prozac had been for me. Like many other manic-depressives, Larry refused to stay on his meds. The behavior problems recurred when he stopped taking Lithium which happened every year or two.

Larry in 1987

Now it’s my son’s turn. He clearly had ADHD from his birth in 1980. Except no one in his New York City private schools seemed to know about the problem — or how to deal with it. David was seen as a ‘behavior problem’. He spent a lot of time sitting in the hallway so he wouldn’t disrupt the class.

David at seven

In 1990, when he was ten, David was diagnosed with ADHD. He was put on Ritalin, the only medication available at the time. It worked very well but had terrible side effects. We had to stop using the drug altogether. There wouldn’t be drugs to help him effectively until he was in his thirties.

The Special Ed departments of his public schools tried to help him deal with his ADHD, but with little success. It was still a new and unchartered illness. It wasn’t till he went to college that he began to learn to control his problems. He went to Landmark College, which is for kids with special needs and disabilities. They actually understood ADHD and helped David.

Landmark gave David tools to cope with his behavior issues. Above all, it gave him confidence and a history of successes instead of endless failures. He learned how to modify his behavior and work around his ADHD. He also learned how to maximize his productivity. This was the beginning of David’s ability to function in school and in life. The medications he has been on for the past four or five years have also helped tremendously.

David in the Landmark years

David is now a successful financial professional. He is in good control of his behavior and is in a wonderful, committed relationship. If he’d had the medication and the skills to deal with his ADHD from kindergarten on, he would have been spared a lot of pain, struggle, failure and ego deflation.

Over all, my family and I were all born decades too soon to be well served by the psychiatric profession. David and I are doing well now, so the story has a happy ending. But it was a tough beginning and middle!

THE YOGA YEARS – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I taught Yoga for eight years, from 1995-2003. Those were eight very happy years. After that, I developed severe sciatica and had to stop teaching. I still miss it.

I got into Yoga in a backhanded way. In 1994, my then 14-year-old son was struggling at school with, among other things, ADHD. I was trying anything and everything, including medication, to help him get through school in one piece. I had heard that Yoga could help with focus, so I decided we should give it a try.

The class was torture for David. He couldn’t even focus enough to follow the class and fell hopelessly behind. I, on the other hand, left the class feeling that my life had changed in some significant way.

By 1995, I was serious enough to enroll in a Kripalu Center Training Program that trained and certified Yoga instructors. Most training programs involved a one month, live in commitment. I don’t know who can ever disappear from their lives for a whole month. I certainly couldn’t.

Fortunately Kripalu offered a weekend program that covered, I think six weekends, somewhere in Pennsylvania. Hours away but doable. Perfect for me.

Me with a fellow student at the Kripalu Teacher Certification Program

I loved that program and I came to love the people. There was lots of reading and home practice so my family had to do with much less of me for those six weeks. The classes and the material were very much oriented to teaching us how to teach. I’m very grateful for that because I honed my teaching skills in those classes. I found it fascinating. I also found that I was good at it.

I’ve never been a spiritual person. I’m an atheist who believes in science and hard evidence above all else. Thankfully, this class also focused on explaining the science of Yoga. There are physiological reasons why every Yoga practice actually effects your body and mind on a cellular level. I learned that the breath is how we communicate between our mind and our body. I learned how muscles stretch and change  — gradually and in conjunction with the breath.

I learned how relaxation and breathing techniques can help promote focus, centeredness, self-confidence, inner calm and a positive perspective. It’s amazing to me that monks from thousands of years ago understood this sophisticated level of biology, physiology, physics and chemistry.

Me, on the left, my mentor in the center and another Yoga teacher

I loved teaching. My students liked me too, which was very gratifying. I really felt that I changed people’s lives. I helped people deal with chronic pain and chronic stress as well as injuries and family crises. It was much more than an exercise class.

I just found out that someone who got interested in Yoga through my class, has just opened her own studio in my area. I’m going to take her class to show her my support and to see how much I influenced her Yoga and teaching style. That should be a wonderful experience for me.

I taught in a variety of venues. I taught classes in wellness Centers, Yoga Centers and Fitness Centers. I taught private classes in people’s homes for anywhere from two to four people.

My official “instructor photo” at the Fitness Edge

I liked to teach my students how to use the Yoga they learned in their daily lives. So I collected and handed out articles on the practical application of Yoga principles in everyday life. Things like how to sit at a computer so as to reduce physical and mental stress. Stretching exercises to do in the shower, on line at the supermarket or at your desk to reduce muscle tension and other forms of physical and emotional stress. How to use your breath to diffuse your automatic and damaging physiological stress reaction to a stressful situation.

I ended up creating a whole booklet for my students called “On The Go Stress Control”. In 2016 I published a four-part blog of the same title, for Serendipity.

See ON THE GO STRESS CONTROL – PART 1;  ON THE GO STRESS CONTROL – PART 2ON THE GO STRESS CONTROL –  PART 3; and ON THE GO STRESS CONTROL – PART 4.

The cover of my student manual

I understood that most people don’t have twenty minutes every day to meditate or 40 minutes every day to do Yoga. I felt that people needed to be able to incorporate simple Yoga techniques into their everyday routines. My goal was to give my students one to two-minute mini breathing or relaxation exercises to use throughout their day. This would help them deal with the 24/7 stress of modern life, which can be physically as well as mentally toxic.

I tried to get my manual published but was initially told that the subject matter was too obscure. A few years later, Yoga began to become more mainstream and I tried again to get published. This time I was told that the quick and easy Yoga and stress relief market was already glutted. I couldn’t win.

I was teaching a Yoga class on the morning of September 11, 2001. The first plane had hit before class started but it wasn’t until class was over that we learned about the second plane and about the terrorist attack. We did some extra breathing and relaxation exercises. I hope that helped my students deal with the horrific reality that was unfolding as we left class and turned on our radios and TV’s.

Front page of a marketing flyer for my Stress Control Program

Although I can’t do the physical practice of Yoga regularly anymore because of my sciatica, I still use breathing and relaxation techniques all the time. I use one to help me sleep, one to make walks more productive and less tiring and many others to help stay centered and positive. I use stretching combined with breathing to keep my muscles tension and pain-free most of the time.

Both my body and my mind are different now then they were before Yoga. I am in a much happier and healthier place in my life, in part because of my immersion in Yoga. I highly recommend it for people at any stage of life. It’s never too late to grow and change for the better. And have fun along the way.

MY MOTHER COULD’VE BEEN MARILYN MONROE’S THERAPIST – BY ELLIN CURLEY

In 1962, Marilyn Monroe was working on her last movie, “Something’s Got to Give”, by 20th Century Fox. One of the producers on that film was a man named Henry Weinstein. He was brought into the production because it was thought that he could relate to and handle the very difficult Marilyn.

Henry was a long time friend of my parents. He was also married to one of my mother’s best friends. Because both my parents were psychologists and practicing therapists, Henry talked to them about Marilyn’s problems and often asked for advice about her.

Marilyn Monroe and Henry Weinstein

At the time, Marilyn was in particularly bad shape psychologically. Henry knew she was mentally very ill and thought she was becoming paranoid as well. She also had extreme stage fright. She cried on Henry’s shoulder often. Henry had already come to her aid after a barbiturate overdose.

Marilyn was creating high drama on Henry’s set. And Henry was tearing his hair out. She showed up late, sometimes very late. Other times, not at all. She couldn’t remember her lines. She was needy, emotional, and had meltdowns on a regular basis. She would walk off the sets in tears. Lonely and alone, Marilyn was allegedly having an affair with the script girl.

Marilyn Monroe on the set of her last movie

None of this was good for Henry’s bottom line. He had to try to get the movie made on time. So he called my mother a lot, asking for help in dealing with Marilyn and her issues. He eventually asked Mom to fly out to L.A. to be Marilyn’s on set therapist. Mom refused.

My Mother believed Marilyn was too emotionally unbalanced to be helped by ordinary therapy. Mom had a delicate ego herself. She didn’t want to be known as the therapist who was called in to rescue Marilyn Monroe — and failed. Mom was also afraid Marilyn was suicidal and terrified she might kill herself on my Mom’s watch.

Henry begged Mom to come to L.A. to help him. She still refused. Henry ended up firing Marilyn in June of 1962 for excessive absenteeism. Two months later, on August 5, 1962, Marilyn died of another barbiturate overdose. Some people think her death was a suicide. Others think it was accidental. Regardless, the film was scrapped.

Who knows whether or not my mother would have made a difference with Marilyn short-term. She might have been able to help her through this specific crisis, but a fatal overdose inevitable — intentional or accidental. I doubt anyone could have saved her from herself.

Marilyn on the set of Henry’s film, shortly before her death

Here is an interesting, unrelated theory about Marilyn Monroe’s death. It has to do with the Kennedys. I read an article that talked about a book dealing with Marilyn and the Kennedy family. Marilyn had affairs with both John and Robert Kennedy. She began to get clingy and demanding. Started discussing going public about the affairs, which had been kept completely under the radar and out of the news. The Kennedy ‘people’ felt Marilyn was becoming a dangerous liability. So they banned her from seeing or communicating with either brother. She was expelled, cold turkey, from the inner circle.

Marilyn Monroe and Bobby Kennedy

This happened just a few months before her death. There are those who believe this expulsion along with the movie firing, significantly contributed to her final downward spiral. As evidence, Marilyn made several phone calls after she took her fatal overdose. One call was to Bobby Kennedy. Why? Maybe she was trying to get back into the Kennedy boys’ good graces.

We’ll never know for sure. It’s part of the mystery that was Marilyn’s life and death.

REUNION ANGST – BY ELLIN CURLEY

Every ten years I face a major High School Reunion. 20 years, 30, 40, and now I’m up to 50 years in June of 2017. Whenever reunion time approaches, I go through a period of self-doubt and indecision. Do I really want to go? What can I say about my life? To be honest, I don’t feel I’ve “accomplished” much which leaves me feeling insecure talking to my High School classmates about our respective life trajectories.

I was one of the top students in my Fieldston High School Class of ’67. If we had done the “most likely to” labels in our senior yearbook, I’d probably have been one of the most likely to “succeed”.

Senior High School Yearbook Photo / 1967

However, I chose a path that was unusual for my generation of Baby Boomers. I practiced law for a mere three years before I gave up my legal career and opted to be a full-time, stay-at-home Mother and homemaker. After the kids left home, I taught Yoga and tried to start a small business from home. I never had another full-time job. I don’t regret the choices I made – except when High School reunions roll around.

Everyone else has probably had one or even two long-term careers to talk about, in addition to having families. Many may also have had individual achievements to brag about along the way. I don’t have much to talk about at all, at least concerning career and work.

Me and my two kids in 1985

I decided, for my own sanity, the best way to measure my life is in terms of experiences I’ve had – and survived. When you count negative, challenging, out of the norm experiences, the picture changes and suddenly, I’ve had a full life.

I spent much of my life dealing with some form of mental illness. My own anxiety and depression. My first husband’s bi-polar disorder, complete with long-lasting and severe manic episodes. My son’s depression, bi-polar disorder, and learning disabilities — all of which made getting him through school an ordeal for the whole family.

Then there are medical issues. My grandfather was hit by a truck and spent six-weeks, brain-dead in the hospital before he died. I nursed my grandmother, father, and mother through cancer. My son’s kidneys failed at the age of 24. Five years ago, I donated a kidney to keep him alive. He still struggles with kidney symptoms and medication side effects every day and will for the rest of his life.

I survived a lot of shit and I’ve come out in a good place. I’m in a wonderful second marriage, I have great friends and close relationships with my children. I have interesting hobbies. If you were to give out points for surviving with humor, decency and an upbeat attitude, then I deserve an award. That in itself is a major accomplishment.

I think it will be enough to get me through my High School reunion with my head held high.

LIVING WITH BI-POLAR PEOPLE by ELLIN CURLEY

Carrie Fisher was bi-polar. To her credit, she talked about her condition openly and honestly. She brought attention to the disorder and tried to reduce the stigma associated with this, as well as other, mental illnesses. It’s sad that we need celebrities with diseases to increase public awareness about their given malady. But mental illnesses are inherently hard to diagnose, treat and talk about. So as long as people get educated about them, I guess it doesn’t matter how or why.

I have an unwanted and involuntary expertise in Bi-Polar Disorder. Both my ex husband and my son had/have the disease (my ex is deceased). Each of them manifested the condition differently – my ex was mostly manic and my son was mostly depressed. One of the most difficult aspects of this disorder is the fact that it can look so different in different people. It makes it much harder to diagnose because there is no “one-size fits all” set of symptoms by which to identify the condition.

bi-polar-masks

It also makes it harder on the families, who don’t always get the support they need from the medical community. It also makes it easier for the bi-polar person to deny that they have an identifiable syndrome that requires treatment. This denial is very common in Bi-Polar Disease. Also common is the refusal to stay on medication. These factors just add to the difficulties and pain of the family members.

The families of bi-polar sufferers feel different from other families. We know that other families’ lives are not fraught with the unpredictability, volatility and often violence (emotional if not physical) that ours are. We seem to be the only ones living on a roller coaster. We feel inferior, ashamed and isolated. Family members, me included, try to ‘cover up’ the problem and cover for the often inappropriate behavior of the bi-polar loved one. I made countless excuses for the actions and absences of my ex. My daughter tried to avoid the issue altogether by going to friends’ houses and never having friends come to ours when Daddy was ‘off’ or ‘acting up’.

When you live with a bi-polar person, you wonder what’s wrong with you that you live like this. You wonder why you aren’t like other people. Your ego and self-esteem suffer. This is particularly devastating for kids. My kids are in their 30’s and are still dealing with these issues. They are moving on from some questionable relationship choices they made in the past because of their lingering psychological demons.

On the other hand, denial and defending are also big parts of life with a bi-polar person. While married to my ex, after one of his particularly bad manic episodes, I was advised by psychiatrists to go to a program for abused spouses. I thought that was ridiculous. I was in therapy already and I was clearly not in that pathetic category! That label did not apply to me! Of course I didn’t go. I often wonder what would have been different in my life if I had received the support and empowerment I needed at that point in time. I now realize that the whole family needs support and treatment specifically designed to deal with the mentally ill family member. My individual therapy was not enough.

The faces of comedy, tragedy and more in an ancient relief

The faces of comedy, tragedy and more in an ancient relief

Today, there are claims that too many people are being labeled ADHD or Bi-Polar, that it’s become a psychiatric fad to assign mental illness labels to people and ply them with drugs. To me, it’s better to spread a wide net to catch all the people with serious issues and get them the treatment they need. You’re not going to be misdiagnosed if your behavior is perfectly within the range of normal. Something is going on if a doctor thinks you might be bi-polar! If it’s not manic depression, then it certainly is something else that needs attention and possibly medication. Sometimes the only way to come up with an effective treatment is by experimenting.

I became very pro-active psychiatrically. My daughter started to have panic attacks at the age of eleven and I got her on medication immediately. She is grateful to me that she never had to go through the torture of years of horrible anxiety symptoms. She would not have been able to function effectively through school and in jobs without her anxiety meds. I couldn’t get my ex to stay on meds and get a stable life. But at least I got my daughter on medication early so she had fewer issues getting through life than she would have without my early intervention. At least I have one psychiatric success story to brag about!

HELP PARENTS HELP THEIR KIDS TO THRIVE by ELLIN CURLEY

There was an article in the Sunday New York times Opinion Section a few weeks ago that caught my attention. It was titled “To Help Kids Thrive, Coach Their Parents.” It was written by Paul Tough and was an excerpt from a book he had written called “Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why.”The article cited a long-term study that started in 1986 and has followed the subjects continually to the present.

The study proved that children who lived in poverty did substantially better than their peers, into adulthood, if one simple thing was changed in their homes during their first three years of life: Their parents received coaching from trained researchers who encouraged them to play with and stimulate their infants, for example, by reading to them, singing to them and playing peekaboo. The parents were taught the importance of these face to face exchanges in creating attachment, warmth and trust between parents and children. This, in turn, helped create a more stable, nurturing environment in the impoverished homes, which are usually plagued by stress, neglect and instability.

blocks

It’s hard to believe that some people don’t know that they should talk to and play with their infants and young children. But if no one ever did that with you when you were a child and no one later taught you how important it is, how would you know?

The impact of this easy and low-cost intervention was off the charts. The study showed that the children who had the play counseling had higher IQ’s, less aggressive behavior and better self-control than the control groups. They also had better ability to focus, follow directions, interact calmly with others and cope with disappointment and frustration. In other words, they improved intellectually, socially and emotionally. All this just by receiving the kind of attention that most of us take for granted every child automatically gets.

dad & baby

It turns out that adults can be taught to create an environment that fosters success for their children. Why isn’t this being done in every poor neighborhood in the world? Or at least in this country?

This is particularly frustrating for me because my father proposed the same type of in-home interventions in the 1960’s and no one listened to him. My father was a well-known psychoanalyst, anthropologist and sociologist who stressed the importance of the first 3 years of life. He also did a study that showed how little stimulation and affection a large number of black children living in poverty in Harlem, New York, in the 1950’s were receiving from their parents. He suggested doing exactly what the 1986 study did – send in trained professionals to teach the parents how to give their children the kind of nurturing they needed to thrive.

mom reading

Guess who shot my father’s idea down? The “liberals” of the day and the radical Black Panther movement. They said it was racist to assume that black people didn’t know how to be good parents. It was also considered paternalistic and condescending to send (often white) people into black homes to “tell them” how to deal with their own children. My father backed away from the conflict that surrounded his proposal.

smiles for Mom

Now, 50 years later, the idea is being proposed again. Think of all the kids who could have benefited in all these years! With so much poverty, even just in this country, you’d think this article would have been front page news. You’d think that politicians, as well as educators and mental health professionals would be jumping on the bandwagon and yelling from the rooftops. You’d hope that large numbers of “family counselors” would be amassing to go in and make a huge difference in the lives of millions of children.

I haven’t heard anything yet. But I’m still waiting and hoping.

mom & toddler

ON THE GO STRESS CONTROL – PART 3 – ELLIN CURLEY

I ‘ve talked about breathing and visualization as relaxation techniques. This week, I’d like to add a third element – movement.

Human-Body-Muscles

Coordinating breath and movement can calm you down, center you, clear your head, and focus your mind, and help the relaxation spread to the muscles throughout your body.

Another benefit is that the physical movement gives your mind a focal point that can not only deepen relaxation but can also allow you to relax when you’re too restless, fidgety, listless or unmotivated for the purely mental techniques.

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When you are concentrating on moving your body in a certain way, it is easier to keep your mind off stressful thoughts that creep into your mind. However, thoughts will invariably intervene at some point when they do, just acknowledge them and immediately click the remote and switch back to the breathing channel. Then refocus on your movements.

One classic exercise that combines breathing and movement is Progressive Muscle Relaxation or PMR. This can be done standing, sitting or when you are having trouble sleeping, in bed. Body focus techniques not only help insomnia but also improve headaches and stomach problems if done for a period of time when you’re having symptoms.

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In PMR, you first tighten and then release major muscles, starting with feet and moving up your body. Doing this helps you learn what your muscles feel like when they are tense versus relaxed. It may sound strange, but most people don’t realize their muscles are tense until the tension gets bad enough to hurt.

You may need to learn how and when to relax your muscles. PMR not only helps you relax, it increases your awareness of muscle tension. Soon you’ll be able to prevent muscle tension from building by stopping it before it gets serious.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Start by squeezing your toes together as if you were making fists with your feet. Hold the squeeze and feel the tension in every foot muscle. Then let everything go, all at once, as you exhale.

Try to feel the muscles in your feet relaxing and loosening up. Next squeeze your calves and thighs, hold the squeeze feel the tension and then release it quickly, always on an exhale. Feel all the tension evaporating from your legs.

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Focus on the contrasting sensations of tension and relaxation, tightness and openness. Continue up through your body tightening and releasing, sequentially, your buttocks then your chest and shoulders, scrunching your shoulders up to your ears. Then move onto your arms and hands, making fists and squeezing them tightly.

Hold and release the muscles in your throat and neck and then scrunch your face together and squeeze your eyes shut, hold, and then release. Open your mouth as wide as you can and stick your tongue out as far as you can. Hold and release. Then bring your focus back to your abdominal breathing, perhaps counting out an exhale that is twice as long as your inhale. Gradually transition back to your day.

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Short Form PMR

There is also a short form PMR when you are pressed for time. Divide your body into three sections, from your feet up to your face. Then tense all the muscles in each section, hold them and release all at once with an exhale, as you did above. Then move onto the next section. For example, feet, legs, thighs and buttocks are one section, chest arms and shoulders are another section and neck, throat, face and jaw are the last section.

Once you’re comfortable with PMR, you can try a Mental Body Scan. As with PMR you can do a detailed body scan, or use a short form. Like before, begin at your feet and work up your body. This time, though, just mentally scan for tension. When you find tightness in your muscles, mentally release it. I like to visualize the tension floating away from my body, like steam, evaporating into the air.

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You can also imagine the tight muscle opening up, spreading a warm, heavy feeling as it releases all its tension. Then let this sensation spread slowly up your body. Scan every part of your body in as much detail as you have time for. For example, you can divide the face into scalp, forehead, eyes, nose, lips, cheeks, jaw and tongue or you can treat the face as a whole. Either way, make sure your jaw is loose and your teeth are apart, not clenched!

Mindful Walking

Another exercise that combines breathing and movement is Mindful Walking, which you can do it whenever and wherever you are walking. Start Abdominal Breathing with a 3 or a 5 count inhale and the same count for the exhale. Then count the number of evenly paced steps you take per inhale and per exhale, using only odd numbers for your count. This insures that you start each inhale on a different foot.

For 3-count walking, this means:

  • Inhale – left, right, left
  • Exhale – right, left, right.

A 5-count walk would be:

  • Inhale – left, right, left, right, left
  • Exhale – right, left, right, left, right.

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If you want to increase your relaxation, elongate your exhale and increase the number of steps per exhale. So, for example, you could inhale to a count of 3 and exhale to a count of 5 or inhale to a count of 5 and exhale to a count of 9 (remember to only use odd numbers and keep your steps steady and even).

If you want to energize yourself, increase the length of your inhalation and the number of steps per inhale while shortening your exhalation and the number of steps on each exhale. You could, for example, inhale to the count of 5 and exhale to the count of 3.

I find when I walk like this, I don’t get as tired or winded. I end my walk feeling more relaxed and centered as well as refreshed.

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Now you know some techniques that can help you circumvent your body’s stress response, reduce muscle tension and quiet your mind. This should help you get through each day feeling more positive emotionally and more relaxed and energized physically.

You shouldn’t have to get more stressed trying to find time for stress control. Do what you can when you can and you’ll find whatever you do, there will be definite benefits.