I’ve spent more time in therapy than I care to think about. More hours on that bloody couch than I’ve spent in the shower, brushing my teeth, or on the phone with telemarketers, because let’s face it, when I’m home, there really are no decision makers at my house. If I calculate one hour a week for 12 years, that’s 600 hours, which is 25 DAYS. What do I have to show for it? Lots of wisdom and advice. Journals and journals of it. But for your sake, I’ll just list 12. And after you get done reading my shrink insights, I want you to tell me yours, because I’m compiling such pearls for a writing project.
1. Know your triggers.
From the first year of therapy: know your triggers. If a conversation about global warming, consumerism, or the trash crisis in the U.S. is overwhelming you, simply excuse yourself. If you’re noise-sensitive and the scene at Toys-R-Us makes you want to throw whistling Elmo and his buddies across the store, tell your kids you need a time-out. (Bring along your husband or a friend so you can leave them safely, if need be.) For me it’s best if I don’t hang out in a bar with a crowd of drinkers, you know, if I don’t want to drink myself.
2. Count to four.
I can’t remember if I learned this pearl in therapy or in first grade. All I know is that breathing is the foundation of sanity, because it is the way we provide our brain and every other vital organ in our body with the oxygen needed for us to survive. Breathing also eliminates toxins from our systems.
Years ago, I learned the “Four Square” method of breathing to reduce anxiety:
•Breathe in slowly to a count of four.
•Hold the breath for a count of four.
•Exhale slowly through pursed lips to a count of four.
•Rest for a count of four (without taking any breaths).
•Take two normal breaths.
•Start over again with number one.
3. Hunt down unrealistic expectations.
Yep, I identify those bad boys every week. I record them on a sheet of paper or (on a good day) in my head and then revise them about 2,035 times during the day. Cataloged are things like: “penning a New York Times bestseller in my half-hour of free time in the evening,” “being homeroom mom to 31 kids and chaperoning every field trip,” and “training for a triathlon with a busted hip.” Listing the more realistic possibilities of actions I can take to inch toward my broad goals (being a good mom, an adequate blogger, and a healthy person) can be extremely liberating.
4. Celebrate your mistakes.
Alright, celebrate is an awfully strong word. Start, then, with accept your mistakes. But I do think each big blunder deserves a round of toasts. Because almost all of them teach us precious, rare lessons that can’t be acquired by success. Nope, the embarrassment, humiliation, self-disgust … all those are tools with which to unearth the gold. Just like Leonard Cohen writes in his song, “Anthem” that a friend of mine tapes to his computer as a reminder to ignore the perfectionist in him:
Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.
5. Add some color.
My therapist often points out that I am color blind. I see the world in black and white. Example: either I am the best blogger in the entire blogosphere or I should throw my iMac into the Chesapeake Bay and become a water taxi driver. Either I am the most involved mom in David’s school or I am a slacker parent who should let a more capable mom adopt her son. Does this kind of thinking sound familiar? In order to get a pair of glasses on my inner zebra, then, my therapist helps me add a few hues to every relationship, event, and goal so that I become a tad more tolerant of life’s messiness, unresolved issues, and complicated situations that can’t be neatly boxed up.
6. Believe in redemption.
Redemption is an odd thing. Because identifying the broken places in your heart and in your life can be one of the scariest exercises you ever do, and yet only then can you recognize the grace that comes buried with every hole. If the journey to the Black Hole of despair and back has taught me anything, it’s this: everything is made whole in time … if you can just hang on to the faith, hope, and love in the people and places around you long enough to see the sun rise yourself. Absolutely nothing is forsaken, not even those relationships and memories and persons that you think are lost forever. Most things are made right in time. So you don’t always have to get it right on the first try.
7. Compare and despair.
The last thing you should do when you’re stressed–which I always do when I’m stressed–is start looking around at other people’s package (job, family support, balanced brain) and pine for some of that. I grow especially jealous of non-addict friends who can enjoy a glass of wine with dinner or those with moms nearby that offer to take the kids for sleepovers. But I don’t have all the information. The mom who takes the kids for the night might also have an opinion for every piece of furniture in your house and her own spare key to your home so she can pop in whenever. So comparing my insides to someone else’s outsides is a fruitless and dangerous game to play, especially when I’m stressed.
8. Learn how to recharge.
Many folks know how to have fun and recharge their batteries. Mentally-ill addicts like myself have to learn this from scratch. With the help of their therapist. After some experimentation I know that spending quiet time by the water (kayaking, running, biking in warmer months), reading spiritual literature, and watching a movie with a friend are all ways that will nurture me so that I can better tolerate stress.
9. Team up.
Think of the buddy system from Boy Scouts. Teaming up with someone means that you have to be accountable. You have to report to someone. Which brings down your percentage of cheating by 60 percent, or something like that. Especially if you’re a people-pleaser like me. You want to be good, and get an A, so make sure someone is passing out such reviews.
Also, there is power in numbers, which is why the pairing system is used in many different capacities today: in the workplace, to insure quality control and promote better morale; in twelve-step groups to foster support and mentorship; in exercise programs to get your butt outside on a dark, wintry morning when you’d rather enjoy coffee and sweet rolls with your walking partner.
10. Categorize your problems.
My therapist is an organizer, so she likes to sort my problems into categories. The effect is fascinating: you feel like you have less of them. When we agree to tackle a class of problems—say “boundaries issues”—then a few tweaks here or there can be applied to a variety of situations. I don’t have to spent time with each hiccup along the way.
11. Make a self-esteem file and read it.
It was my therapist who first told me to ask some friends to list some positive qualities about me, and to keep those lists in a folder that I could read when my self-esteem was below sea-level. Today that folder is the first thing I’d grab in a fire (alright, after the kids). It serves as my security blanket on many afternoons.
12. Look backwards.
Another great exercise my therapist taught me is to look backwards and cull from my past the strengths I used in certain situations. This means that on the afternoons my depressed brain believes death is preferable to life, I say to myself something like: “Self, you have been sober for 20 years!! Weaklings can’t pull off a stunt like that. You’ve got the right stuff, girlfriend. Just hold on.” (The soundtrack to “Rocky” is playing in the background, of course.)
What have you learned?