There are many reasons why people don’t accept a diagnosis of mental illness.

I received an email the other month from someone whose spouse had psychotic experiences and was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder. However, the spouse believes they had a powerful spiritual experience.

The spouse has agreed to see a psychiatrist, and continues to see their counsellor, but won’t take medication.

I’ve been in that very position, refusing both the diagnosis and medication. Understandably. The experiences I’ve had (two, quite recently) from a science approach typically are called psychosis. I like to call it non-shared reality. Regardless how you describe them, elements of these experiences are profound for me.

I’ve always had difficulty with the ‘either/or’ perspective. Either my experience is an illness as seen through the medical model OR it’s strictly a spiritual experience as seen through alternative perspectives such as the anti-psychiatry movement or transpersonal psychology.

What I experienced was more nuanced. To cavalierly categorize it as either only alienates me from potential help.

But what to do?

In my case, I encountered a brilliant psychiatrist who helped me understand what I experienced could be both. Or, more accurately, they could exist simultaneously.

I had undergone (and continue to undergo) spiritual experiences meaningful to me. While at the same time I have a mental illness that would benefit from some medical assistance.

I’ve come to understand the diagnosis of bipolar disorder, anxiety and psychosis does not diminish the importance of these personally transformative events. Mental illness and spiritual awakening are not mutually exclusive.

This was life-changing for me. It allowed me to embrace the spiritual path I held so dearly while also accepting much needed treatment for psychiatric disorders which were, in no uncertain terms, ravaging my life and relationships.

I am of the belief, for some people, we need to blend both approaches, spiritual and medical. If either one excludes or denigrates the other, it won’t be helpful. For me, the litmus test is this: does the person have the quality of life they want? Is the approach they are using causing them more suffering or less?

I wanted to be someone who didn’t need to take medications. But I’m not that kind of person. Some people don’t need to or can manage without. For me, I needed to be open to the possibility of needing meds and not needing them. I needed my support circle to be on board with that too. Or to be honest with me about any bias they had. That built trust. Trust in the end is the best bridge to help build a life worth living.

Allowing for ‘Both’ rather than forcing an ‘Either/Or’ stance made getting better, well…better. I am able to comfortably hold both my spiritual and medical model perspectives. It’s a fine line, but that’s fine with me.

The following are resources to help those of you grappling with the ‘either/or’ situation. Whether you are supporting someone who identifies only with the spiritual, even to their detriment, or for those of you given a psychiatric diagnosis and trying to reconcile it with your profound experiences, I hope these shed some light and offer insight.

1. Visions Magazine – This edition focuses on spirituality and how it related to mental illness. Visions is an award-winning magazine that brings together many views on mental health and substance use.

https://cmha.bc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/visions_sprirituality.pdf

The following I wrote or created in partnership with others. Each describe in different ways my journey integrating both a spiritual perspective and medical model approach to help my life come into balance so I could begin to flourish.

2. Bridging Science and Spirit – a 7-minute documentary https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sXq9B9a3sOI

3. Does God* Have A Place In Psychiatric Treatment Plans? – blog

https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/crazy-life/200910/does-god-have-place-in-psychiatric-treatment-plans

Note: I use the word ‘God’ but don’t mean it in the strictly religious sense, per say. I use it interchangeably with Love, the Divine, Universe, Spirit, Goodness, what-have-you. Please replace it with what you are most comfortable with.

4. I Went Off my Meds to be More Spiritual: Spiritual Growth and Psychiatric Medication – an oxymoron?  http://victoriamaxwell.com/i-went-off-my-meds-to-be-more-spiritual/

5. Crazy for Life – My theatrical keynote (aka one-person stage show) focusing on my struggle to reconcile the mental illness diagnosis with profound spiritual experiences. In it, I describe how medication, for me at least, needs to be part of my wellness tool box. Not the only one, but one nonetheless. View a clip from the show here (watch at 1min 25sec): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-CU5DaOl74&t=7s  Also available for download purchase. http://victoriamaxwell.com/product/crazy-for-life-a-story-about-accepting-help-for-mental-illness/

Have you had spiritual experiences within your mental illness? Do you think it is one or the other? I’d love to hear from you to learn about how you made sense of it.  

© Victoria Maxwell

I do it. You do it. Even birds do it. No, not that. I’m talking about sleep.

Anyone with depression or bipolar disorder, including loved ones of those with the conditions, knows how important consistent good night sleeps are to staying well1. They cultivate equilibrium in mood, mind and heart. Sleep is important for everybody. But, doubly so for anyone with a mood disorder.

Lack of sleep (or irregular sleep patterns) can both trigger a mania or be a warning sign of one.2

With Spring, worm moons, new moons, time changes, and solar flares, along with everyday ups and downs, good nights rests have been hard to come by for me lately. Not a good thing.

When I’m hypomanic (I prefer my personal term: the “Spazzy-McGuinty”* phase) I sleep only five or six hours a night. and still I wake up all bright eyed and bushy tailed. But if that goes on for too many days (more than three) it’s a red flag. Luckily, Spazzy McGuinty usually calms down on her own accord within a couple days. *The exact origins of “Spazzy McGuinty” remains unknown. However, I do know it is a ‘special’ term of manic endearment created by my husband Gordon and I.

When dank depression hits me, I sleep too much. I easily log (not necessarily sawing logs) 10, 12 even, 13 hours of sleep each night but still awake leaden and lost. It’s awful. Sleeping too much is part of atypical depression, which ironically, isn’t atypical at all. It’s actually very common. For others, insomnia is the beast of burden when their depression descends.

So how can sleep become a balm, instead of a bomb in your life when you’re living with a mood disorder?

Commonly referred to as “sleep hygiene” (good sleep habits), below are some of my tricks for consistently getting a good nights’ rest. For the record, I never thought my sleep was all that dirty. Who knew? Okay, well maybe the occasional dream, but still…

 Tips to change your sleeping from a bomb to a balm:

 1) Go to bed and wake up approximately at the same time every night and morning. I usually turn out my lights at 9:00 or 9:30 P.M.(sometimes even 8:30 P.M.). Yes, I proudly embrace my inner grandma. I wake up around 5 or 6 A.M. 8 – 9 hours is ideal for me. I can manage on 7 hours but only for a few days. This may seem like a luxury to sleep that long. But, trust me, it’s a necessity. I also don’t have kids – so it’s actually realistic.

 2) Create a pre-sleep ritual. As is the nature of rituals, I do mine in much the same order every night. These cues tell the brain that sleep is coming and accordingly, the brain begins to wind down.

 This is my pre-sleep ritual. Around 8:00 P.M.:

I change into my jammies, take out my contacts, take off my make-up (on a good night), put on my glasses, floss then brush my teeth and take my medication (mood stabilizer and anti-depressant). Then I snuggle into bed with my hubby. I write tomorrow’s to do list, jotting down anything I need to remember or do the next day so I don’t have it in my head to prevent me from falling asleep. I read for about an hour. Then I turn out the lights around 9:30 P.M. If I’m lucky, and I usually am, Gord gently strokes my forehead or arm as I fall asleep. My hubby probably doesn’t know this but he’s the most important and best part of my sleep hygiene.

 3) Keep the room cooler than normal. We keep a window open, just a crack, even in winter.

 4) Block out as much light as possible. Even light from under a door or from a clock radio can make going to sleep more difficult.

5) Use ear plugs and/or an eye mask. Put them on before you turn out the lights or if you wake up in the early morning when you need to get back to sleep. In hotels when I travel, I turn the clock away from me so the glare doesn’t disturb me and unplug the bar fridge so it’s as quiet as possible.

 6) Make it a TV/cell phone/computer free bedroom. This is a hard one from some people. But believe me. It works wonders to not have any electronics in the room. Some say even reading in bed is a no-no. But I’ve found it relaxes me.

 7) Don’t drink caffeinated beverages (if you drink them at all) in the evening. This includes black tea, soda like Coke and energy drinks. I rarely drink soda but do drink decaf coffee, rooibus or peppermint tea. I usually have only one cup per day. If I have more, I don’t have it any later than 5:30 P.M.

8) Exercise, even if only for 10 minutes a day. I do some form of movement every day. I practice yoga, go running or walk to the mailbox. Whatever I can muster depending on the day.

Experiment with these suggestions. See if any work for you. Put them into practice and do them consistently. When you do, your mood and energy levels will become more stable. If however, you’ve been struggling with insomnia or hypersomnia for some time without relief, please see your doctor. Remember: Poor sleep can wreak havoc in the life of someone who is trying to manage a mood disorder. More importantly though, is to remember that establishing regular sleep patterns can also be a heavenly balm.

© Victoria Maxwell

1. Kahn D., Printz, D., Ross, R., Sachs, G., Treatment of Bipolar Disorder: A Guide for Patients and Families; p. 6; Postgraduate Medicine Special Report, April 2000

2. Helmer, J. Slumber Solutions (add hyperlink: https://www.bphope.com/slumber-solutions/ ), bp Mag/ bpHope.com, Winter 2011

 

Feeling powerless over symptoms often goes with the territory when you live with mental illness. At least it can for me, particularly with anxiety and depression. This isn’t just the case for those of us diagnosed but also those who love and support us. They can feel at the mercy of these debilitating conditions when they’re at their peak.

Like a ragdoll in a tug-o-war between two kids or one in the washing machine (the ragdoll, not the kids) I can feel like I’m at the whim of my symptoms: negative self-talk, extreme fatigue, racing heartbeat, racing thoughts, incessant worry, rumination, lack of focus, aches and pains, hopelessness, emptiness – and those are just the pleasant ones. Kidding.

I enjoy feeling in charge of my mental health. Most weeks I am. But not always. Not by a long shot.

So what do I do? What can you do if you feel like this?

This is a strategy I’ve set up with my husband. It’s not a miracle solution, but it can help lessen the blows of bipolar disorder, psychosis and anxiety that I live with. It can help my husband better weather them too.

Let your loved ones help you. Enlist them into your wellness journey:

My husband knows me well. He catches signs of things shifting up or down better than (and before) I can sometimes. We all have our blind spots.

He’ll see me filling the Britta jug over the top line, or I’m getting up earlier (much earlier) than usual. Or like today, he’ll catch me making a grocery list and doing laundry at 5:00 in the morning. We’ve created a code word so to speak to signal I might be hypomanic. With kindness and enthusiasm, he’ll say ‘Oh. Spazzy Maginty is visiting us today!’

Another day, I fidget a lot in my favorite chair when we eat breakfast together. Or I won’t look him in the eyes when we talk. He might gently ask me ‘How are you doing?’ or more specifically ‘How’s your anxiety?’.

A different instance, he mentions my complexion looks grey and I’m sleeping longer than usual. Or he might recognize I haven’t run in a couple weeks. He’ll smile, look at me and ask if everything’s ok, knowing that likely it’s not.

His comments aren’t criticism but instead observation. Facts that I’ve changed from my baseline of wellness. It’s meant lovingly and delivered that way. It’s information I can use to my advantage. If I take steps to care for myself, I may prevent the anxiety, depression or hypomania from blossoming further. It’s not guaranteed, but it can reduce the intensity.

I’m not to blame for my conditions, and he’s not saying I am. I am however responsible for my health and reaching out for help when I need to.

My next steps are to be on the alert. Revisit and perhaps double up on my wellness tools. I check to make sure I’ve taken my meds and taken them properly. I’ll review and adjust my sleep patterns. Ask myself if I’m putting too much on my plate and if I need to, take things off. I’ll look at my exercise and aim to do a bit more, or do any if it’s fallen off the radar. I’ll call a friend and spend some quality time with them – phone or in person, doesn’t matter to me. As the incomparable Julie Andrews sings (sort of) these are some of my favorite (‘wellness’) things.

Ideally this will result in the levelling off of my symptoms. This isn’t rocket science. But it’s amazing how if I don’t see my warning signs early enough, and make the needed adjustment, how off course I can really go. And I’ve gone off course. Really off course in recent months. Think psychosis (twice) and major anxiety. But with the help and delicate diplomacy of my husband and my own willingness to accept assistance, getting back on more stable ground is possible.

3 Step to Help Prevent Relapse of Mental Illness

Note: Do these steps with your loved ones while you’re well, not when you’re struggling with acute symptoms.

To set the stage ask yourself:

What are your cues? Be specific. Ask your friends and loved ones to chime in about the warning signs they see. Compare notes.

Who do you want to be your ‘cue companion’? How do you want your loved ones or friends to approach you? Decide who and what’s most comfortable for you. You don’t need a husband, or even someone who lives with you. Just someone who cares.

What will your next steps be when they mention something? Have a list of your most effective wellness tools that you’re willing to commit to. Then pick one and do it. Be honest and clear about what you’re willing to do when warning signs start to rear their heads. Set yourself up for success Think tiny adjustments.

Then:

  1. When warning signs arise, your ‘cue companion’ has permission to mention what they see.
  2. Review your wellness tool list (with your loved one if you like)
  3. Take action: add, adjust said tools as needed.

Sometimes I worry, even feel ashamed at times, how much focus it takes to ‘manage’ my mental illnesses; that I might be a burden with all my mental health problems. But Gord has told me when he’s asking me about them, he wants to know. It’s ok, more than ok to talk about my mental health. Go figure?!

I’ve come to realize that this little 3-step system is as much of a sanity saver for him as it is for me.

Try this out with your loved ones and let me know how it goes. Or, if you have a similar system already in place, let me know how that works for you!

© Victoria Maxwell

There is a vast difference between information and wisdom. I’m learning how to spot the difference. One fills my head and fuels my fears, the other feeds my heart and soothes my spirit.

I’ve made some pretty dumb mistakes. Don’t get me started about the time I became a frosted blonde – think ‘90’s – VERY 90’s, for an acting role. That I AUDITIONED for. But didn’t GET. So, as you might imagine, I could use as much help as possible to let go of stubborn patterns and to make the most of the present.

The following are ‘bon mots’ that I think are divine. I mean that literally. I believe words and their authors are often supernaturally (in the good sense) inspired when they’re writing and creating. When the words have wisdom you can feel they come from a place larger than the rational mind.

I discovered these quotes as I’ve done research, watched videos and read books. Some inspire me, while others help me cope.

My wish for you is that these unique strings of words cast magic in your life for now and always.

Let the ‘onslaught’ of insight begin! Umm… let’s soften things up a bit. How about: let the ‘onslaught of insight gently begin…yeah, that’s better. 

1. “Perfectionism didn’t lead to results. It led to peanut butter.” – Brene Brown (from her book ‘The Gifts of Imperfection’) talking about how ‘perfectionism diets’ led her to emotional eating.

2. “Violence isn’t a symptom of mental illness.” – Amy Willans, CBC radio interview 

3. “Let the good stuff in.” – Krystin Clark (from her book ‘The Grateful Jar Project’).

4. “While the world figures this all out, I’m going to continue holding doors for strangers, letting people merge in front of me in traffic, saying “please” and “thank you”, saying “good morning”, being patient with children, the elderly, the waiter, the customer service rep at the other end of the line, and smiling at strangers. I will not stand idly by and let children live in a world where unconditional love is invisible….. Find your own way to swing the pendulum in the direction of love. “ – Molly Strongheart (saw this first on a friend’s Facebook page – can’t remember who, but thank you!)

5. “To be successful you need to have a wishbone, a backbone and a funny bone.” –  Reba McEntire

6. “I believe that all behaviour serves a purpose. It just may be that we don’t understand what that purpose is.” – Dr. Lloyd Sederer (TEDx talk ‘When Mental Illness Enters the Family’) reflecting on how unhealthy actions are an attempt to cope. His is a great video with very practical tips for loved ones that emphasizes working WITH, not AGAINST the person who is unwell. (watch at 8 minutes 30 seconds).

7. “If you’re frightened of dying and you’re holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. If you’ve made your peace, than the devils are really angels freeing you from the earth.” – adaptation of Meister Eckhart teachings from the movie ‘Jacob’s Ladder’. Trigger warning: the movie is quite scary and intense (but also powerful). Viewer discretion is advised.

8. “Fall down 7 times, get up 8.” – Japanese proverb

9. “…have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” – Rainer Maria Rilke, 1903 from his book ‘Letters to a Young Poet’.

10. “Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll still get hit if you just sit there.” – Will Rogers

Comment below with YOUR favourite quotes. If I get enough, with your permission, I’ll compile them into a post. The more ‘bon mots’ the better. Don’t ya think?

© Victoria Maxwell

Some of you know my story. Many of you don’t. Every experience is unique and equally valuable.

Though our stories are ours and ours alone, it always amazes me how similar our journeys can be sometimes:

I’ve met more than a handful of people who have run down the street naked in a psychosis. Psychosis seems to prompt a shedding of clothes. Funny (or maybe not) depression doesn’t inspire the same behaviour.

Other shared experiences include traumatising incidents in the emergency room for both loved ones and those of us with mental illness. Damage done usually due to underfunded and understaffed hospitals, lack of services and overworked health professionals.

I also realize how lucky I have been and still am.

When I was diagnosed, it was the 90’s. I was a 20 something, middle class, white woman, living in one of the most affluent countries in the world boasting universal medical care – Canada.

There were treatments available: pharmaceutical and psychological. Though far from perfect, these treatments were more humane than anything that existed in the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and even the 70’s when my Mom was diagnosed.

I also wasn’t struggling with addiction along with bipolar disorder, anxiety and eating disorder.

Addiction complicates accessing help and achieving recovery.

Incomprehensible as it is to me, addiction treatment, is largely still siloed and separated from other mental illness help.

Now, I’m a middle-aged, middle class, white woman in Canada. I am still very lucky and that luck is part of the reason why I have fared so well.

Others are not so fortunate. The social and economic inequities many individuals face, have a powerfully negative effect on mental health. Long lasting and intractable at times.

It’s not a fair fight for them. As such recovery is more difficult. 

I’m also lucky because my conditions responded to treatment well – medication and different forms of therapies and lifestyle changes. Yes, I put effort into my recovery.

But, effort and trying alone does not determine if recovery happens. I know people who try really, really, REALLY hard and are very proactive in their mental health yet wellness eludes them, through no fault of their own. These illnesses are confounding.

Every person who has mental illness and everyone who loves someone with a mental illness has a story that is unique and important.

This is a very brief description of mine.

Warning: humour ahead. The humour I use is not to minimize the very real suffering that mental illness causes. Humour is one of my wellness tools. Feel free to laugh along with me and about me.

I was diagnosed with bipolar 1 disorder with psychosis, generalized anxiety disorder, mild temporal lobe epilepsy and an eating disorder when I was 25. Not really something you run and put on your resume under achievements. Well, actually, nowadays I do.

I didn’t initially embrace the idea of having a mental illness.

No, I flat out denied it, for 5 years. Even after four psych ward stays, multiple suicidal depressions, psychotic episodes, countless manias. Even after having to move in with my parents, losing my car, career, friends and money.

Even after running down the street naked in a psychosis, I wouldn’t accept I had a mental illness.

Eventually however, I did. With the guidance of caring (and extremely patient) parents and healthcare professionals and friends and support groups and peers, I did.

But it was still another journey of 5 more years to get back on my feet living independently, working,  enjoying the company of friends and in a loving relationship.

I laugh when I think of how life works. I would never have the career I do, had I not gone crazy in the first place!

I was originally trained as an actor. But my career derailed – untreated mental illness has a way of doing that. When I returned to work, I got a job as a receptionist. It was good, stable and healthy.

But, I craved more creativity in my life. I needed creativity in my life.

I started writing about my experiences. I submitted to a disability arts festival to “read from my book”. I was accepted. But, I didn’t a have a book. I didn’t even have excerpts.

So, I got to work, and wrote. Wrote not a book, but a monologue for the stage. Acting was what I knew. People liked it and asked “Is it part of a one-person stage show?” I said “Sure.” Ummm.. it wasn’t, but I know opportunity when it knocks.

From there I wrote a full keynote show. I started presenting it at organizations and conferences locally, then across North America, then internationally.

Since then I’ve written four more theatrical keynotes. Now I have a career speaking about mental health, smashing stigma, and leading wellness and creativity workshops .

I love what I do. I get to talk openly about what I used to be ashamed of. People want to hear about it. People want to feel comfortable talking about mental health. When I share my story and I see faces in the audience nodding in agreement back, it’s like finding brothers and sisters I never knew I had. And for an only child, that’s pretty cool.

Staying well is an ongoing process. I don’t take my mental health for granted. I can’t. I need to do certain things everyday to stay well. Exercise, meditate, take medication, eat well, sleep enough – to name a few.

My life is very different from what it was when I struggled with severe depression, suicide, anxiety, psychosis and my eating disorder. It’s taken a long time but I’ve got pretty good at managing my conditions. But, I’m always learning.

Now my focus is on healing, creativity, flourishing and gratitude. It’s also about sharing those things with others.

What is your story? Send me an email or comment below and let me know.

© Victoria Maxwell

Happy 2019! I don’t know about you, but I have mixed emotions about the New Year.

Yes, yes, it’s a chance for redos, starting over, goals, the blank page spread out before us. But I also love the idea of doing absolutely nothing different for the coming year, except for one thing.

This one thing was inspired by  listening to one of my favorite podcasts: CBC Radio’s ‘Now or Never’.

This particular episode was all about New Years and resolutions. Let me be accurate, it was about saying NO to New Year’s resolutions. They posed this question: “January brings with it a lot of pressure to change. But what if the thing you need to do in 2019 is just… Be you?” I loved it immediately.

Just. Be. Me. O.M.G. Yeeeessss! What a relief! Relief. I could use me some of that. I think my husband, Gord, could use some of that. I was up and down and all around in 2018 and he was, well, a rock for me.

Not having to do anything, but be ourselves? What a great forkin’ concept! (TY to the TV show “The Good Place” for my new fave euphemism).

Being in recovery from mental illness (or life for that matter), living with mental illness, and managing my mental health, sometimes feels like I’m supposed to be doing more, better, different. Always growing. Also expanding. How exhausting!

We are inundated by messages from society and the media to focus on growth and personal development.

Whether it’s for a small business you run, a family you take care of, a job you have, a home you keep, a relationship you’re in, your fitness level and health, the quality of your friendships, the hobbies you partake in, your chakras, your yoga practice (ok wait maybe I’m taking this a bit far). But, generally, ours is a culture that has an insidious but pervasive bias on improvement.  

I’m not saying self-improvement is bad. I’ve read my library-sized share of self-help books and gone to counselling for years. And it helps. Most of the time.

What I AM saying is personal growth can backfire and do the exact opposite of what I’m trying to accomplish.

Uhem – like a couple months ago. I was trying so hard to find inner peace. But all the things I was doing, all the things I was trying to change about myself and my life, kept the goalpost of serenity moving further and further down the field. The more I TRIED to find peace, the less I had it. I was constantly seeking with no finding (so to speak).

I ended up feeling less happy, more worthless, really tired and combustibly anxious.

So when I heard the call to arms, or rather the call to lay down the arms, from the hosts I jumped at the chance!

TY CBC Now or Never and you fabulously honest hosts Trevor Dineen + Ify Chiwetelu!

I loved hearing on radio (that’s NATIONAL radio, folks) a host admitting he too has a (sometimes not so) little voice that says “I’m not enough”.

A radio segment that rings in the New Year by celebrating our unique messy lovely selves with a particular partiality on self-acceptance. That’s my kind of resolution.

My no-resolution resolution: the only thing I need to do this year is be me.

Write me and let me know how it relates to you and how it changes how you see this coming year.

© Victoria Maxwell

The attitude of gratitude – yes, yes, we’ve all heard how it’s a good thing. But what if it’s not always easy to feel, especially if you’re in the midst of a depression?

Oh yeah, I can quickly rattle off a list things and people I’m grateful for. You know do the ‘Oprah Winfrey’ thing. Apparently, every night she lists 5 things she’s grateful for in a journal. By the way, if I was Oprah, I’d be grateful too.

What I’m saying is, it can be challenging to really feel and sustain the glow of gratefulness. What does it mean to feel grateful? Feeling being the operative word.

I know the things I’m grateful for. I know I’m fortunate (extremely so in comparison to the vast majority of people on the planet) to have enough food, housing, clothes, warmth, friends, to name a few. But knowing my blessings, is different than feeling blessed.

Real gratitude, what I call ‘affective gratitude’ (affect as in emotion) goes deeper than intellectualizing and moves into a physical experience of gratitude or, more accurately, into appreciation. So how can I get out of my head and into my body to experience appreciation? 

I did what most people do when they don’t know something. I ‘googled’ it. Guess what? There is scientific research on gratitude. Dr. Robert Emmons is the preeminent scientific expert on all things grateful.  Seriously – he’s like a gratitude scientist. That’s got to be an oxymoron. But no, he empirically studies gratitude: its benefits, power, how it’s cultivated. To watch one of his fascinating talks click here

His studies found that keeping a gratitude journal really does work. But for me, sometimes at least, it can fall flat. I wanted more than just the ability to list my blessings and redirect my thoughts. I wanted to learn ways into feeling more grateful.

Then I asked myself what does gratitude mean to me? What does it even feel like for me? Do I know how to recognize it?  

I allowed myself not to know what gratitude means, to have no idea what it even feels like and to go from there. The aim was to explore, not necessarily to find. I gave myself 100% permission to be completely inept at counting my blessings. And off I went.

First a note of hope: When I’m not feeling grateful, it’s like the switch to that cluster of gratitude kind of emotions has been turned off and the power to said switch has been hijacked. But that’s good. Really. Stay with me. Even though I’m not feeling grateful, the switch and the source to experiencing gratitude are still there. It means it’s not being accessed, not that it can’t be.

The following are the steps that help me find the actual experience of appreciation, even if only in small doses. See if they work for you:

1) Close your eyes. You probably already got this but don’t do this while you’re driving. Sit (or stand) somewhere when you have time on your own. It can be in your home, or while waiting for the bus even (I don’t recommend the grocery line, it can be a bit unnerving for the cashier and other shoppers). 

2) Take a deep breath in (and out in case you’re wondering). 

3) Say or visualize the word ‘gratitude’ or ‘appreciation’ in your mind. 

4) Focus on your body – watch, is there tension when you focus on one of those words? That’s ok. 

5) Breathe and relax a little deeper. 

6) Mentally review things, occurrences, people, places that you have experienced in the last 24 hours, the last week or two, or even the course of your life. Ask yourself, what or who do you feel gratitude for? This is the tricky and sneaky part: let your mind review items you ‘think’ you’re grateful for and then as you see the item in detail, see if that translates into inklings of gladness, some small bubble of positive emotions or sensations of comfort in your body. Note where those sensations are, what they are.

Example: My “affective gratitude point” is this canvas my husband recently painted for me. A block of pure orange that now hangs in my office. When I think about it, I feel thankful he painted it for me. I feel a little burble of joy, usually near my navel and spreading out to my ribs and chest, when I see it in my mind’s eye. I feel a goodness about it and my husband.  However, I also feel vulnerable. Vulnerability comes with offering thanks. I recognize I am cared for by him, which underscores my interdependence with him. I feel this fragility with him and with others in my life, if I am courageous enough to go there.  Vulnerability is one reason why feeling gratitude can be scary and a reason why we (okay I) sometimes avoid it. Envy, jealousy, bitterness – way easier.

7) If you can’t seem to put your finger on a sense of appreciation, keep going. Keep exploring. Continue gently reviewing. Notice any resistance in your body, take a breath, then return to nudging out appreciation possibilities.  Start with things that you like, that even might seem trivial – trust me they’re not. Could be as simple as a piece of music you heard. Even in the midst of dark depression, push yourself, just a little, to lean into the places you think you might feel appreciation. When I’m in the thick of a depression, when all things seem forever bleak, it’s the feel of my duvet against my skin that I’m grateful for. One, because I’m spending more time in bed and two, if I give thanks to a comforter, it won’t ask for anything in return. It’s a duvet after all. It’s doing what duvets do best, keeping me warm. 

8) When you do hit upon something that gives you a sense of gratitude, notice what it is like: the emotion, sensations, the changes in your body. Do you relax a bit, or feel a sense of comfort? Do you notice your stream of negative thoughts stop for a split second? Be with that, for as long as you like or as long as you can tolerate.  

9) Take a breath, wiggle your toes (to get your bearings) and open your eyes. And give yourself a pat on the back. You just went into unknown territory – alone.  

I do this little practice either in the morning or as I tuck in to go to sleep, sometimes both and sometimes in the middle of the day. Because, even when it comes to something as ‘spiritual’ as gratitude, I need to make it concrete too. I need to make it a practice. I aim to find 5 things that I FEEL grateful for, not just know I’m grateful for. I started with 1, then 2, now 5 – give or take. Oprah can’t be all bad, right?

Like any other skill, it takes practice and a bit of effort to develop it. So that’s what I’ve been doing. And I’ve discovered, surprise of all surprises, when I focus (for 5 minutes even) on finding the feeling of grateful (‘affective’ gratitude) for one person, or thing or happenstance, my world shifts, just a tiny bit and I feel better, even if momentarily.   

Try it and see what happens. Leave a comment below to let me know. I need to hear other people’s experiences, or non-experiences as the case may be with gratitude. Thank-you! No really. I mean that. Thanks.   

© Victoria Maxwell

Before you go all nuclear on me saying ‘how dare you make fun of people with psychiatric disorders!’, check my two previous posts about my rules for finding the humor in mental illness: rules for finding the humour in mental illness and 13 One-Liners About Being Crazy. Mean-spiritedness, degradation are NOT my M.O.s

The two most important tenets in my rulebook:

    1. If you don’t have mental illness, it ain’t your rodeo to ride in. I live with multiple mental health issues. It’s up to me if I want to joke about them or not. If you have mental illness, you have the same choice.
    2. I don’t make fun of people with mental illness. Yes, I may make fun of myself, but mostly I discover the humor in the situations I find myself in because I have mental illness.

Why bother finding the comedy in pain? The overarching reason: for me, it is healing.  I hope you have some giggles as you read these and as you giggle I hope you heal (just a smidgen).

Ok here goes. Warning: some corny, really corny jokes ahead.

  1. Mental illness runs in my family. Which is sort of weird, because my parents weren’t very athletic.
  2. I’ve never had paranoid delusions. Somebody told me I did, but I know they’re lying.
  3. I’m lucky, I have very little side effects from my medications. They can fit right into my pocket.
  4. In the beginning my eating disorder meant I had dessert before my entrée. But then it got serious and developed into compulsive overeating – as opposed to apathetic overeating.
  5. Hallucinations are when people see things that aren’t there. I totally understand that.  An ex-psychiatrist of mine had them. I know for a fact, she never saw me. I don’t know what she was seeing, but she definitely didn’t see me!
  6. I’m on Zoloft and Epival and many other planets.
  7. I have psychotic breaks – my car stops at all delusions.
  8. I have an anxiety disorder…which means my anxiety orders dis and dat.
  9. I’ve faced mental illness. Stuck my tongue out at it, shook my fist at it and finally gave it the finger.
  10. What does it mean when people say “I don’t believe in drugs for mental illness”?  ‘Cause they seem pretty real to me. I think those people might have a delusional disorder.
  11. It makes perfect sense mental illness runs in my family. I’d run too if I had a family like mine.
  12. Where do they get these names for psychiatric drugs? No wonder we don’t like taking them. They sound like a bad storyline from a Star Trek sequel. You know: Captain Zoloft and his commander in chief Colonel Paxil are involved in negotiations with the Prozac Nation and the Lithium Liberation Army.
  13. I still have psychotic breaks from time to time – which are very different than coffee breaks. You don’t get paid for psychotic breaks.

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© Victoria Maxwell