Recently, I was standing at the check out line at my not necessarily so friendly local 7-11. I usually giggle at the Hollywood tabloid headlines: ‘Oprah Delivers North America’s First Alien Baby’ or ‘Brad Pitt Is Really a Girl’. But what happens? Nothing. Instead, I cop an attitude; surreptitiously buy 4 jumbo-sized Snickers bars and a family sized bag of Doritos so I can lay into a self-induced carbohydrate coma.

Then worse: I’m watching my favorite rerun of ‘Friends’ – the one where Joey screams and scrams because Monica’s dancing with a frozen turkey on her head. And I don’t laugh. I always laugh when Monica has her head in a frozen turkey. Crap…I laugh if anyone has their head in a turkey. Or I thought I would.

My shrinking sense of humor is the canary in the coalmine – the alarm signaling clinical depression is slithering around me.

I have to get to work. Find humor in something, anything or risk falling into the ‘no laugh, no color, everything tastes like cardboard, not just chicken and who cares anyway’ kind of zone. Because humor is my lifeline to my vitality, to hope, to the idea tomorrow will be better or at least not worse.

Interestingly, it’s the foraging and fighting for my sense of humor that’s the remedy. Not necessarily finding it. Rediscovering my sense of humor is a by-product of my willingness to look for it. Something about looking for ‘the funny’, that act of faith there is some, somewhere, though I can’t sense it, expels bits of cemented depression from within. The rummaging around allows a little light in, and slowly, very slowly, my funny bone moves back into place.

First? Seek out what I call ‘memory or phantom laughs’. Those times when I know normally I’d be giggling but instead, I’m just remembering I would; that ‘if I weren’t so depressed I’d be laughing’ feeling. Bittersweet insights, but helpful ones. Memories of laughing are better than no laughing at all.

Second? Size doesn’t matter. I don’t worry about the BIG guffaws. I’m on the lookout for anything making me remotely smile, just want to smile. What makes the corners of my mouth stir slightly; my cheeks subtly lift?

That’s my body telling me I’m near my funny bone. And bones don’t disappear; they just get weak. The solution? Fortify them, anyway I can.

So I rent my favorite movie: ‘Big’, watch ‘Two and a Half Men’, flip through People magazine’s issue of ‘Worst Dressed Stars in Hollywood’. (How can anybody with that much money, dress badly – don’t they all have stylists?)

When I do this, it doesn’t mean things all of a sudden seem hilarious, but it’s a distinct advantage over curling up on the sofa, listening to weepy Vince Gill songs about a cowboy who looses his woman, job and dog. That’s definitely not a humor ‘honer’.

When I feel inklings of depression or even when I’m deep in its clutches, I set aside time every couple days to give myself a chance not to laugh outright, but to witness things I know are funny to me. Eventually the lighter side gets the better of me. Not right away, not for long, but it’s a start.

Implementing this ‘laugh-able’ strategy doesn’t eradicate depression of course; I’m not that naïve but it can make it more bearable.

Once I’m out of the darkness, I fortify that funny bone with some kind of humor every day. It may sound simplistic. But to this day, my relentless pursuit to find something, even marginally humorous everyday is one of my best coping tools to date. My sense of humor is as valuable to me as the medication I take and the therapy I do to stay well.

I am not so naïve as to believe a Pollyanna quote can perk me up when the dogs of depression are hounding me or the tremors of anxiety are shaking my foundation. What I do know is the act of reading a quote says even though I feel like crap I have a morsel of faith I might feel less crappy in the future.

And that says a lot. Taking any action when in the midst of a crisis, minor or major, is enormously significant. Reading a quote in a book, glancing at one on twitter or googling for inspiration on-line may be a small step, but it IS a step and one towards health.

As recently as a couple weeks ago, I sat with mild depression. An oxymoron at best; depression no matter how mild, feels really bad and extremely scary when you know what it can become. So before my head hit the pillow, I grabbed one of my favourite writers, flipped to ear marked pages and scoured for the underlined and the highlighted. I swallowed Pema Chodron’s (an American Buddhist nun) words whole: “we consciously train in gentleness…developing a nonjudgmental attitude. One of loving-kindness…an unconditional friendliness toward whatever arises in our mind.” Difficult to imagine as I sat twisting uncomfortably in my heaviness. Friendliness is not the first quality that comes to mind when I feel depressed. But even so as I read the words, I felt ever so slightly less dead, slightly less alone. Still afraid, still rather lost and sad, but somehow more relaxed in my awkwardness of blue.

Quotes are odd things. What resonates with one person may not with another. But regardless, they can make us feel less alone. For me it’s because I see that somehow, somewhere, at some time, someone else felt similarly to me and got through it. It gives me permission to feel overwhelmed, but encourages me to go on. So I do. A quote may not save a life, but it can make suffering momentarily easier.

I also have to be careful though, because sometimes my self-talk is so malicious it turns these effervescent quotes into wet leaves with which I flog myself.  ‘Oh yeah, Victoria – you think you’ve got it so bad – what about that Viktor Frankl guy who lived through a concentration camp. Don’t be such a wimp. What are you complaining about, huh?’

I need to be cautious and kind when I read quotes, reminding myself that my suffering is as valid and that to deny how much I am hurting only perpetuates the self-violence I am wanting to move through. It is through the acceptance of my pain and the willingness to see how we all suffer (but for different reasons) is what brings me closer to feeling more at peace.

So it is with this hope I offer some of my other favourite ‘strings of life’ from some of my favorite players (and even one from yours truly). These are from those who managed to escape graggy rock faces and re-entered fields of, not happiness, but ‘human-ness’. When that frightening feeling of depression descends, I don’t want to feel happy, I want to feel myself. I want to feel part of humanity again. These warm words seem to point me to the place of hope (and at times, humor) and hold me there even if only a second.

1. Even from a dark night, songs of beauty can be born. – Mary Anne Radmacher

2. Every oak tree started out as a couple of nuts who stood their ground. – Anonymous

3. Once we make our decision, all things will come to us. Auspicious signs are not a superstition, but a confirmation. They are a response.  – Deng Ming-Dao

4. And the day came when the risk it took to remain tight inside the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom. – Anais Nin

5. We are not to blame for our illness, but we are responsible for our health.- Victoria Maxwell, BPP (Bipolar Princess)

6. Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers, ‘Grow, grow.’ – The Talmud

7. Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.  – Viktor E. Frankl

8. My only advice: stay aware, listen carefully, and yell for help if you need it. -Judy Blume

9. The Truth shall set you free…but first it’ll piss you off. – Gloria Steinem

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

11. Action is the antidote to despair. – Joan Baez

12. Try to love and live the question itself. Don’t search for the answer. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer. – Rainer Maria Rilke

13. When you follow your bliss… doors will open where you would not have thought there would be doors; and where there wouldn’t be a door for anyone else. – Joseph Campbell

14. Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.      – Kahlil Gibran

15. I try to take one day at a time, but sometimes, several attack me all at once. -Ashleigh Brilliant

16. Life is the art of living with uncertainty, without being paralyzed by fear. – Dr. W. Dillon

17. Oh great, here comes AFPGO: Another Freaking (or f#!king) Personal Growth Opportunity. – Unknown

18. Never underestimate a person’s potential for recovery – Victoria Maxwell, BPP

What are quotes that help you get through when you feel like you’re going under? Email me or leave a comment here or on Facebook. I can always use more. Like great (well-fitting, comfortable and snappy) shoes, you can never have enough great quotes!

How do you help your child without hurting yourself?

One of the most painful experiences can be watching your adult child reject the help you know they need. What can you do when your son or daughter refuses to accept they have a mental illness or need medication? I asked my dad about it because I was one of those adult children.

It was a spring afternoon and my dad and I were listening to one of his favourite classical CDs. I asked him what advice he would give to other parents of adult children who have mental illness. He prefaced his thoughts with this: it probably isn’t what parents want to hear, but it’s what we went through and what helped.

1. It’s going to be a long difficult journey, so hang on. If you’re prepared for an arduous lengthy process it helps to manage unrealistic expectations. Paradoxically it will be a little easier to endure the trek. Don’t be discouraged. Just because it’s taking a long time, doesn’t mean recovery won’t happen.

2. Stay in contact with your adult child no matter what, even if they don’t want to be in contact with you. My parents tried to stay in contact with me by phone. When I wouldn’t return their calls (which was usually the case), they would drive by my house to see if a light was on. When they didn’t know where I was living (because couch surfing was common for me), they attempted to keep in touch through my friends. This might seem extreme, even invasive. But my behavior had been so erratic and perilous it was crucial to have some communication, to have some way to intervene if a crisis occurred.

Reflections on what my father said and what my parents did:

3. The more my parents offered help, the more I pushed them away. But having them stay in touch with me, no matter how intrusive it felt, kept me safe (or as safe as possible at the time). Even when our encounters were filled with yelling, swearing, the slamming of car doors, it didn’t matter. What was pivotal was that they had contact with me.

4. Although I fought the support my parents extended to me for over 5 years, their unconditional love always reached me, even when we were arguing. When the time came and I finally realized I needed help, the unwavering acceptance they had shown allowed me to reach out to them for that help. I knew they were my safe place to fall even though I had pushed and pushed and pushed them away so many times.

5. My parents were clear: they were open and accepting of my diagnosis. They didn’t have any judgement about mental illness. So if I chose to reach out for help, they would be there with open arms. This approach provided fertile ground for my own acceptance.

The timetable for recovery is different for everyone. And the definition of recovery needs to be flexible and fluid. If you, as a parent, are feeling overwhelmed, exhausted and frightened, this is natural. This IS an overwhelming, scary and tiring experience.

Get support from other family members going through the same ordeal. Contact your local mental health group* for family support groups. Knowing that you are not alone in this journey can be life saving. And you may find you are more on track that you realize.

What are suggestions you would tell to families trying to support a loved one with a mental illness?

© Victoria Maxwell