Monday, June 23, 2014

Values, Roles, and Goals: A Strategy for Living

What matters to you? There are a lot of ways to answer that question. 

There are people who matter a lot to me: colleagues, clients, and class members at the Y; friends; family; the animals I know and love; strangers I meet. 

There are things that matter: bank account, car; running shoes, computer, favorite books. 

Activities I do matter to me: keeping in touch with people; going to work; exercising; acting; prayer and meditation.

Then there are the principles that I value. What are my principles? They are the answers to this question:
What kind of person do I want to be?


Steven Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People asks it this way: If you could go to your own funeral, what would you want to hear them say about you? I've mentioned my core values before, but as long as I'm imagining my own eulogy, please, indulge my repeating them one more time:

Courage: The will to take action that makes life full, rich, and meaningful
Strength: The ability to act
Compassion: Authentic connections to others
Joy: A spirit of celebration, gratitude, and delight

That's my list. Your values will almost certainly be different. You might say creativity, honor, love, security or duty. There is a whole universe of choices. The idea is to drill down to your foundations and to choose the primary cornerstones upon which you want to build your life.


Once you have a clear, simple list of the things that matter most to you, take a look at what you do each day. What are the roles you play? Some of mine are:

Cancer Warrior

You might have roles that I don't: 


 You can probably just look at your calender or think about your activities from the past week and come up with a dozen roles that you play. 

Now for the hard part. Prioritize them. Which roles engage you the most? Which are you passionate about? What are the three or four roles in which you could best embody your values? 


Next comes what may be the hardest question of all:
What ONE THING you could do to make the most positive impact in this role?
That ONE THING is your goal, and finding it can take a lot of thought. It might be something that's never occurred to you before, but I find that my own goals are often things I've considered and dismissed in the past because they were too hard, too time consuming, or too likely to fail. Some will pop right into your head. Some might require several days of contemplation. Here are the roles and goals that are in my windshield right now:
  1. Athlete: Raise $10,000 for LIVESTRONG at the YMCA by running a marathon in 2015.
  2. Artist: Earn $100 from my writing by the end of the year.
  3. Friend: Have meaningful (preferably face to face), contact with another human being every day.
  4. Cancer Warrior: Don't miss a single class or scheduled appointment because of depression.


I have smaller, more tactical short term goals that are milestones on the road toward my larger ones. I've actually been putting these into practice for the past few weeks: 
  1. Get down to 245 pounds 
  2. Read and write for an hour every day. 
  3. Get out of the house every day.
  4. Make LIVESTRONG at the YMCA my number one work priority.
We all have a lot of responsibilities: pay the bills; keep the car in good repair; wash the dishes; pay the taxes. All are important, some are even urgent, but keeping our primary goals always at the top of the list helps us to make daily choices that increase the fulfillment and richness of our lives.

Shall I stop for ice cream? Or call in sick? Or take a nap? Or ask this woman out on a date? When faced with choices, I can use this simple question to guide me: 
Will this action help me to embody my values, or will it lead me away from them?
In future posts, I'll talk more about how these principles are helping me to manage my mental health and increase the quality of my life. But I don't think this way of thinking is only for people with OCD, depression, anxiety, or other mental disorders. I think it is a strategy for living that can be helpful to anyone. 


Sunday, June 01, 2014

To The Shadowside And Back

Tra-laa, It's May...
Maybe next year, I'll just take the month of May off...

I had a scare this week. A bad one. I came close to returning to the mental hospital. While my response to life's events had me anxious and depressed, my feelings at the prospect of being locked up again brought me to a point of despair that was both frightening and painful.

What triggered all this? It isn't easy to pinpoint a single moment or event. Actually, it's been several weeks in the making. Maybe months. Maybe years. I suppose it depends on how far back in time I want to dig. The judge's signature on our divorce decree. Funerals for cancer warriors. Frustration with my acting. A lingering knee injury that's kept me from training hard for weeks. Disappointment about romantic false starts. The loneliness of single life. Financial trials. All the way back to separation from Mrs P. If I chose to dwell on it, I guess I could touch every descending tread on the stairway of depression all the way back to my childhood, but swilling the sour milk of history only leads to nausea.

Whatever the root cause, the results were agonizingly familiar. Harboring self-destructive thoughts and engaging in isolating behavior. Missing work. Skipping exercise. Eating garbage. Disrespecting myself and others. I embraced all the miserable drama of The Shadowside. That's the name I've given to the dark region where I travel when I allow my depression to define me.I was determined to put an end to it this time, one way or another.

My research and writing set off on two separate journeys. On one path, I began seeking out the thoughts of others who knew the hills and valleys of The Shadowside: people whose pain led them to take desperate measures against themselves. On the second path, I explored alternatives to the therapeutic course I had taken so far. Drugs didn't cure me; therapy didn't cure me; was there another coruse that might lead me to freedom from my depression? As I picked my way along these two divergent paths, it became clear to me that I did not really want to end my life; I wanted freedom; I wanted to live without the chains of mental disorder. Hopeful research led me to something called ECT: Electroconvulsive Therapy.

One flew east and one flew west...
I remembered the scene in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, where Jack Nicholson has the electrodes clamped around his temples and is shocked into convulsions and stupor. My research taught me that the procedure has changed a lot since then. It is safer. There are fewer side effects. The seizures are only in the brain; there are no full scale convulsions.The patient is sedated. ECT can even be performed as an out-patient procedure. I latched onto the hope that treatment might be the cure I longed for. I scheduled an appointment with my psychiatrist, determined to convince him that my condition was serious enough to justify this dramatic measure.

I may have been a little too convincing.

After hearing about my mood, my actions, and my thoughts, he instructed me to check myself into the hospital at once. "Impossible," I replied. I have classes to teach. I have a play opening in five days. I can't simply fall off the map for a week. My reputation, which I have spent the past year rebuilding, will be destroyed forever.

"Come on, be serious," the doctor urged. He outlined the reasons I needed immediate hospitalization. "I will order the ECT. You can start tomorrow." Then he said he had no choice but to contact either an ambulance or the police to transport me.

I pleaded. "Let me talk to my therapist. Let me find another solution." The doctor agreed, and I went next door to make my case. In exchange for my freedom, I agreed to stay on my meds, schedule extra meetings, and to contact the shrinks if I felt any kind of crisis coming on.

Dinner, Balagula Theatre, May 2014
The next few days were torment. I missed all but one of the classes I was schedule to teach. I went days without eating. I stopped writing and reading. I stopped posting on Facebook. Rather than dwell on the voices torturing my mind, I slept. Two things kept me going: walking and the play I was rehearsing. I walked for hours each day, forcing myself out into the sunshine where I could at least see other people.I walked to the theatre and back home each night. I felt numb; emotionless. I didn't want to die; I didn't want anything. I only wanted to take the next step. To keep moving. To stay alive.

Even as I was struggling to save myself, God was sending ministers to me. A dear friend invited me to coffee. Mrs P wrote and phoned to check on me. Mom called, and sent me an email with information about how my insurance could help with treatment. I heard from someone whose friendship I thought I had lost forever. And finally, the play opened to wonderful audience response and received a very positive review in the paper. Even as I was preparing myself for the follow-up appointment with the doctor; the one that might very well send me into the hospital; God was flooding me with reasons for hope.

When I met the doc, I asked him to educate me about ECT. He gave me a lot of information. The most persuasive thing he said was that the procedure addresses only the biological causes of depression. It could not change my thoughts. It could not change my character. In other words, it could not change the way I respond to the trigger events that steer me toward The Shadowside. I made the decision. ECT electrodes were not the magic wand I was hoping for. I would not submit to the procedure. The doc affirmed my judgment, and we made a plan. Continue with the new meds. Continue with therapy. Check back in a month.

Since making the decision not to have ECT, I have experienced relief. I think I was afraid of side effects. ECT often results in memory loss, and I was worried that it would amplify the "chemo-brain' effect that I still have, years after my cisplatin treatments. But more than that, I think I was afraid that it might not work; that even after submitting to such a dramatic treatment, I might still be sick. I wondered how I might respond if the Magic Pill didn't work.

Along with the relief, I have experienced a renewed resolve. #reboot2014 continues. Until now, I have been focused on my physical health and weight loss. I have experienced great success and have lost 46 pounds as of this morning. Now I need to expand my attention to my mental health as well. The food I eat doesn't only affect physical energy and body composition; it also affects my brain's health and ability to function. More than that, the choices I make about nutrition, exercise, work, and leisure time affect the way I think about myself; they are expressions of my self respect. Like my commitment to my therapy, my life choices are expressions of my resolve to heal.

The Shadowside will always be out there, ready to welcome me back to the dark. And there will be times when I know I will stumble my way back into its dismal confines. The voice of my inner critic, the Toxic Passenger on my life's bus will always be around, whispering negativity and warning in my ear. Just as I had to renew my resolve to lose weight and run another marathon, I am now resolved to learn how to accept the hard times and to choose love instead of fear when they come along. I am resolved to express my core values, (Courage, Strength, Compassion, and Joy,) in my mental health as well as my physical being. I know I will fail sometimes. But I will succeed as well.

The sirens of The Shadowside have been tempting me for almost 54 years. They haven't killed me yet. Today, more than ever, I am determined that when Death comes, he will find me running in the sunshine, not hiding in the dark. #reboot2014 goes on.