Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Monday Music

So I thought I knew exactly which song I was going to use today, but at the eleventh hour, I've changed my mind and am going in a totally different direction with this post.

I have Gaga fever.  Sorry U2... Maybe next week.

Now, I know people typically fit into one of two camps: love her or hate her.  Lady Gaga is nothing if not polarizing.  I, for one, am utterly fascinated by her.  I've seen her in concert, downloaded her albums, put her music on repeat, and read every Gaga article and interview and "exposé" I can get my hands on.  But interestingly enough, the more you know about Lady Gaga, the more of an enigma she becomes.

People accuse her of being a fraud and a sell-out.  Some say she's nothing more than a puppet being strung around by her label as a money-making machine.  She's weird, sure.  Really weird.  And no doubt absurdly rich by now.  But I think under the bizarre exterior and dizzying success of Lady Gaga is a lot of heart.  From what I've read, she seems incredibly hard-working, devoted to her art, and truly passionate about what she does.  I find that pretty admirable.

Still from the "Born This Way" video

OK, I'll get off my soap box now.  Why, you ask, are you subjecting me to this Lady Gaga op-ed on a blog that's supposed to be about depression and emotions and stuff?  Well, I've been listening to her new album Born This Way for the last few days, and if I could sum it up in one word, it would be this: positive.  Really, really positive.  So unabashedly positive, in fact, that many critics have given her flak for singing such cheesy, over-the-top, preachy lyrics.  The themes of self-love and acceptance, independence, and freedom in many of the songs are not even a little bit subtle, nor are the lyrics particularly insightful or poignant.  Listening to songs like the eponymous "Born This Way" is like getting a flashing neon sign shoved in your face that says "LOVE YOURSELF!".

But you know what?  I think it works.

Haven't you ever heard that if you're in a bad mood and you just force yourself to smile, as fake and ridiculous as it may seem, your mood will actually improve?  This album is seriously like the auditory version of that strategy.  Corny but effective.

And I haven't even gotten to the actual music yet... Those hooks!  Those beats!  Pure, delicious pop.  Almost every song on the album is upbeat and ridiculously catchy.  You would have to be comatose not to want to sing along and strut around and dance -- even if only in the privacy of your own apartment, à la Wemmy.

So here's one of my favorite songs from the album, "Marry the Night," for your listening pleasure, and a few choice lyrics:

I'm gonna marry the night
I won't give up on my life
I'm a warrior queen
Live passionately tonight

I'm a soldier to my own emptiness
I'm a winner

I'm gonna marry the night
I'm not gonna cry anymore
I'm gonna marry the night
Leave nothin' on these streets to explore

Love is the new
Denim or black

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Back on the Wagon

I apologize for being MIA lately.  My fledgling little blog definitely hasn't just "slipped my mind"; to the contrary, I've been quite aware that I missed both of my scheduled posts this week.  I know that if I ever want to build a successful blog I have to be consistent.  (By the way, to my four new/first followers, thanks!  I'm truly honored that you've found my posts so far to be interesting enough to follow.)

Truth is, I've slipped into a bit of... a funk, I guess.  Not a depression... At least, I don't think so?  Depression is tricky in that it's so NOT black and white.  Between "being depressed" and "not being depressed" lies a huge emotionally gray area.  I guess the label isn't all that important.  What's important is recognizing that things aren't going well and resolving to do something about it.

I celebrated my graduation from UVa on the Sunday before last and had a fantastic weekend with my family.  The weather was beautiful, the food was delicious, and logistically, it ended up not being nearly as chaotic as I had anticipated.  Initially I felt pretty ambivalent about attending the ceremonies and planned to forgo the pomp and circumstance altogether, but my family seemed so excited about coming to cheer me on that I decided, what the hell, why not celebrate.  And in retrospect, I'm glad that I chose to savor the accomplishment (as imperfectly as I accomplished it) instead of minimizing it away.

Grads ascending the Rotunda to process down UVa's Lawn

Grad portrait of me, by me

Unfortunately, in the days after graduation I found myself seemingly inexplicably on the verge of tears all the time.  My therapist told me it seemed like I was experiencing an "amplified day after Christmas" effect -- that empty "now what?" feeling you have when you look around after a whirlwind of excitement and everyone is packed up and gone and all you're left with are pictures and a few gifts and a longing for the good times to go on forever.  I think that was part of it.  I think the other part of it was that graduation was like the symbolic "end of an era" -- it finally really, really sunk in that the college chapter of my life was over and that I have to face the demands of a new, even more challenging chapter.  And that big, mean, negative voice inside that I'm constantly fighting keeps telling me: "You're not ready, you're going to fail, you're inadequate, you won't make it in the world."

It's those negative, maladaptive automatic thoughts that bring me down.  I've really only been able to identify and challenge them in the last few years, which is a powerful thing to practice, but it's hard.  Sometimes I feel like I'm literally having a mental tug of war.  For example, when I was walking down the Lawn in my cap and gown, with thousands of happy people cheering all around me, there were some incredibly intrusive thoughts running around my brain: "Look at you, walking the Lawn all by yourself, you don't have anyone to sit with because you sucked at college and all of your friends already graduated, you look like such a loser..."  And the more reasonable part of me would interrupt: "So what if I graduated a semester late, so what if I had to re-take a few classes, I earned this just as much as anyone else here, no one even notices that I'm not with a group..."  If thoughts like these weren't so potentially damaging to my mood, it would seriously be comical sometimes what goes on up there.

Another example: Last night I was reading this blog, Hyperbole and a Half, which I personally find hysterical (as do 52,725 other people, apparently).  The girl who writes and illustrates the blog is clearly talented (I mean, she has a book deal now), and I couldn't help but feel a tinge of jealousy that I couldn't come up with such a fun, off-beat, unique blog idea, and so the negative thoughts began: "This is what people want to read, not boring depression crap, you need to lighten up and stop taking everything so seriously, why can't you have a better sense of humor and be more charismatic, you will never be successful..."  And on and on, until I finally squashed that voice (for now) by convincing myself: "I am who I am, and that's all I can ever be.  If I'm authentic and true to myself, things will work out and I'll feel successful, regardless of stats or followers or other people's opinions in any area of my life."

Illustration from Hyperbole and a Half, and how I feel sometimes when I consider my future...

This has definitely been my most personal blog post to date, and I'm hesitant to share all of this (especially now that I know real, live people might actually read it, haha), but I've made a commitment to fight the stigma of mental illness so here I am, putting all of my "crazy" out there.  Writing this has actually been cathartic, in a way.  I feel like I'm "back on the wagon," ready to push past this God-forsaken inertia that I've been stuck in for days and continue on in my quest to live the best life I can.  Are you with me?

Friday, May 27, 2011

Makes You Think

I don't even remember how or when I first stumbled across this little YouTube gem, but I just re-found it and wanted to share:

So true, isn't it?  We really are shuffled into the rat race at such a young age, reminded constantly that each exam we pass, each grade we finish, each commencement ceremony we attend, is merely a step toward obtaining our dream life.  And this becomes such an ingrained piece of our psyche that we look back and suddenly all of those years spent preparing for the future seem like one big blur.

Well, maybe we didn't all experience that, but I sure did.

I told myself throughout high school and college that if I wasn't happy then, well, it's OK, because once I have my Master's degree and teaching license I will have arrived.  It all seemed like some shining mecca in my future, a place where I'd wake up every morning and feel confident, at peace, and like I knew exactly what I was doing.  Well, I have those pieces of paper now, and here's the thing: I'm still the same person I was all along, complete with all of my fears and insecurities and baggage.  I've reached that shining mecca, and come to the realization that all the credentials in the world won't make life any less complicated.

Because now... The real work begins.  The painstaking résumé revisions.  The terrifying job search process.  The anxiety-provoking interviews.  And if I'm lucky, the day-to-day stress of managing a classroom of students and getting through to each and every one of them and being evaluated on a high-stakes and regular basis.

The sad reality of my future career?  Yikes.

Don't get me wrong -- I still want to be a teacher.  I've wanted to be a teacher for almost as long as I can remember, and I firmly believe that despite the stress, teaching will be fulfilling and rewarding for me.  And let's be real -- some amount of stress would be an inevitability of any job worth having.  I'm just no longer naïve enough to think that obtaining anything - a job, a husband, a baby, a flatter stomach, etc. - will suddenly flip a switch, bring everything into focus, and give me that perfect dream life I always assumed was on the horizon.  Life is messy, unpredictable, and scary - regardless of where you are in your life - but it is certainly punctuated with beautiful moments.  What I've learned is that if you're constantly waiting for some event or person or piece of paper to change your life, you'll be disappointed, disillusioned, and miss out on all of the wonderful things that happen along the way.  I wish I knew long ago that the best way to ensure happiness for myself was to live mindfully and savor the process, instead of wishing that I could get it over with and get on with my life.  What I failed to comprehend at the time was that every imperfect day I was living... That was - and is - my life.

I hope that I can find some way to teach that to my students.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Wednesday Wisdom

Along the same lines as my "Monday Music" feature, I've decided to start a new weekly feature spotlighting some of my favorite quotations.  I truly believe that acquiring a collection of meaningful music and quotations is a great way to build up a layer of defense against depression.  In fact, I have a whole playlist on iTunes simply called "Happy," from which I've handpicked all of the songs I've featured so far on this blog.  Similarly, I have a Word document tucked away on my laptop containing quotations that I've come across that I find inspiring, motivating, and uplifting.  I always get a little thrill when I find a quotation that really speaks to me.  Taking a few moments to ponder snippets of wisdom amidst the demands and rush of everyday life allows me to center myself and ask: Am I living this?

So without further ado, I give you the first of (hopefully) many bits of Wemmy's Wednesday Wisdom, straight from a magnet on my fridge:

Via Quotable Cards

This quote is comforting for someone like me, who has struggled with excessively demanding and counterproductive perfectionism for as long as I can remember.  When I perceive that I've failed in some way - and this could be as stupid and trivial as not completing a scheduled workout, or not washing my face before I go to bed - it's unbelievably hard for me to start anew, to put it behind me and not let said "failure" bog me down.  The internal dialogue that ensues often borders on the absurd (a fact that I'm typically only able to discern later): "Ew, I didn't wash my face last night, now I feel disgusting... I'll have to spend an extra long time in the shower this morning scrubbing my face and I just don't have the energy... Ugh, I look terrible... I can't risk seeing someone I know at Teeter so forget running errands..."  And if this is the mental haranguing I endure for something as insignificant as not washing my face one night, imagine how I feel when I haven't exercised in months, or when I've put off applying for that job for weeks.  (Not trying to drum up sympathy here; just attempting to illustrate the inner workings of my dysfunctional mind.) 

I'm definitely still learning how NOT to constantly be at the mercy of my automatic thoughts -- how to command that obnoxiously large, stubborn "elephant."  Today's quote helps me shut those thoughts up, or at least become more aware of how silly they are.  No one, myself included, can live a perfect day-to-day existence, so why should I hold myself to some impossibly high standard?  What I can do is live mindfully and in the moment.  I can do my best today while forgiving myself for yesterday's "old nonsense."

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Monday (Er, Tuesday) Music

Sorry for the delay in posting... I know all of my loyal fans out there have been anxiously anticipating this week's edition of feel-good music.  Ha!  On a serious note, though, I gotta say... My blog's lack of readership really doesn't bother me at this point, because I know that that's something I have to cultivate... And I haven't quite had the courage yet to advertise my musings.  I'm still kind of testing the blogosphere waters, so to speak.  Putting myself out there slowly but surely.  Part of why I started this blog is because I passionately believe that those of us who struggle with mental health issues shouldn't feel ashamed.  I was hell-bent for years on hiding my issues with depression.  Simply starting this blog, displaying my picture, and allowing it to be accessible to anyone who stumbles upon it has been a pretty big step for me.  Actively letting people know about it?  That can come later.

Anyway... On to the purpose of today's post: happy music!  If you check out my first three "Monday Music" posts, you'll notice that the artists I featured all happened to be British (which was totally unintentional on my part).  Now it seems that I'm stuck in a country music phase.  Last week was Keith Urban, week before that was Martina McBride, and this week I want to spotlight a pretty little song by Kenny Chesney: "I'm Alive."  (At least it features Dave Matthews, right?)

This song is so soothing it's almost like a lullaby, and the lyrics are a poignant reminder to be grateful.  If you're reading this blog, chances are you're incredibly lucky compared to the millions of nameless, faceless people we all know exist in this world without food, clean water, adequate clothing and shelter, access to health care, a safe/stable living environment... I could go on.  When I'm distraught over something that seems like a very real problem to me at the time (awful traffic, broken cell phone, five-pound weight gain) I try to remember to put it into perspective.  I couldn't say it better than Mr. Chesney: "Today, you know, that's good enough for me... Breathing in and out's a blessing can't you see... Today's the first day of the rest of my life... I'm alive and well."  The rest of the lyrics are just as lovely and insightful:

So damn easy to say that life’s so hard
Everybody’s got their share of battle scars
As for me I’d like to thank my lucky stars that
I’m alive and well

It'd be easy to add up all the pain
And all the dreams you sat and watched go up in flames
Dwell on the wreckage as it smolders in the rain
But not me, I’m alive

Stars are dancin’ on the water here tonight
It’s good for the soul when there’s not a soul in sight
This boat has caught its wind and brought me back to life
Now I’m alive and well

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Taming the Elephant

Robert Pattinson & Reese Witherspoon with the real star of Water for Elephants: Tai, the beautiful Asian elephant!

Read an interesting article on WebMD today called "Choosing to be Happy -- Strategies for Happiness: 7 Steps to Becoming a Happier Person."  Sometimes I think WebMD articles can be a bit bland, but this one was actually pretty insightful -- and featured a psychologist from my very own alma mater, UVa!  Basically, the premise of the article is that - despite the oft-repeated adage that happiness is like a butterfly that will "come and sit softly on your shoulder" if you stop chasing it - happiness is better described as a goal that some of us can only achieve if we actively make it a priority in our lives.  Here are the main points of the article, not all of which are no-brainers:

1. Each of us has a baseline level of happiness, which means that some people are naturally happier than others.  All is not lost, however, because despite a low level of innate happiness, each of us has the power to raise our happiness level if we're willing to put in a little work.

2. Once you've set an intention to be happy, it's a good idea to start thinking more about what you're grateful for.  Cultivating an attitude of gratitude has been shown to be a powerful anti-depressant.

3. Stop ruminating!  Rumination - which I think of as an automatic cycle of bad thoughts - is described in the article as the "mental health bad boy."  One way to quell rumination is to force yourself to stop holding grudges and to actively try to become a more forgiving person.

4. Remind yourself that money/material possessions will NOT make you happy.  You'd think this one is obvious, but during particularly unhappy and stressful periods of my life I have often been obsessed with buying anything and everything -- because I think at a subconscious level I assumed that acquiring new things would make me feel better.  Self-medicating at its most expensive and credit-hurting.

5. Take time to strengthen old friendships and foster new ones.  Close friendships have been shown to be one of the very best antidotes to depression.  It always amazes me that despite my initial resistance toward being social - and having to overcome that ever-persistent inertia - when I get together with close friends I almost always leave feeling 10x happier than I was when I got there. 

6. Engage in meaningful activities, otherwise known as "active leisure" (i.e. NOT watching TV).   This is a tough one for me.  I've spent sooo much time napping/mindlessly internet-ing over the years I sometimes feels like I've forgotten what really makes me tick, what makes me feel like I'm "in the flow."  According to the article, it is important to cultivate these activities.

7. My favorite, courtesy of UVa professor Jon Haidt: Think of controlling your mind as riding an elephant.  The elephant represents the extremely powerful thoughts and feelings that drive your behavior.  Although you are much smaller and weaker than the elephant, it is still within your power to control it -- if you train it well.  You can learn to control your mind - and more importantly, your depression - by first becoming keenly aware of your thoughts, which are surprisingly often on auto-pilot.  The article recommends practicing meditation or yoga to help you become more in-touch with your thoughts.  Then, once you become better at identifying negative thoughts - which can quickly spiral out of control into destructive rumination - you can challenge and counteract them, nipping them in the bud.  I've done a little work with this in the past, and I truly think it's an incredibly powerful way to lift your mood on a continual basis.

Now, all of this is certainly easier said than done, but I think the article does a good job of providing starting points for achieving each of these steps toward happiness.  Although this is only the most current wave of thought regarding happiness, I tend to agree with everything that was said here.  I've said it before and I'll say it again: Anyone who struggles regularly with depression will only find happiness through action.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Monday Music

My happy song for today, "Days Go By," comes from country artist Keith Urban.  This song truly makes me wish I were driving down a country road in the summertime with the top down (of my imaginary convertible, haha).  It's a fun, upbeat reminder to live mindfully and in the moment instead of focusing on what has already happened or what will happen.  We need to make sure that we're not overlooking and rushing through the most important part of our lives: right now.  I think he says it best in this line: "We think about tomorrow, then it slips away... We talk about forever, but we've only got today."  Here are some of the other particularly good lyrics:

I'm changin' lanes and talkin' on the phone
Drivin' way too fast

The interstate's jammed with gunners like me
Afraid of comin' in last

But somewhere in the race we run
We're coming undone

Days go by
I can feel 'em flyin'
Like a hand out the window in the wind

The cars go by
Yeah, it's all we've been given
So you better start livin' right now

Out on the roof just the other night
I watched the world flash by

Headlights, tail lights
Runnin' through a river of neon signs
But somewhere in the rush I felt
We're losing ourselves

So take 'em by the hand
They're yours and mine
Take 'em by the hand
And live your life
Take 'em by the hand
Don't let 'em all fly by