Arc of Life

Reach • Grow • Evolve

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Coming to Grips With Mental Illness

Five years ago I thought my youngest son Sam was going to sail through high school, and go off to college on a full scholarship. Whip smart, he seemed to succeed at nearly everything he attempted. School came easily to him, earning all A’s. A natural athlete, Sam excelled at his chosen sports, soccer and track. When he tried out for the school play he landed the lead and he possessed a marked musical ability creating amazing pieces of original music with his keyboard and guitar. Fierce confidence was phrase that I came to associate with this kid.

Then his sophomore year arrived. From January to May Sam fell off an emotional cliff and it was painful to watch. At first I wasn’t sure what was going on, had he started using drugs, or did he just stop caring?

I had been through the teen years with his older brother and was quite familiar with the typical teen behavior of pulling awaNeurofeedback Brain Trainingy, individuating and spending an inordinate number of hours alone in one’s bedroom. But gradually I had to open my eyes to the truth; my child was seriously depressed and he needed help.

Five years earlier Sam had experienced a brief bout of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). The psychiatrist I took him to said his OCD was not serious enough to warrant medication. He thought cognitive behavioral therapy would be adequate. So that’s what we did and within months Sam’s symptoms seemed to have disappeared. Ahhh, mental illness averted, or so I wanted to believe. This was just blip. And life went on.

But not really. I have a sister with bipolar disorder. For more than 30 years I have watched this disease play out for her and it has been a long painful ride. Could my child have a serious mental health disorder? Am I seeing the early signs of bipolar disorder in him?

If denial could will it away, I was ready to try. But when you’ve seen mental illness up close and personal, you really can’t. If it sounds like I’m contradicting myself, that is exactly what I did. It was too painful to imagine a child of mine living a life with so much mental anguish, with mental illness and yet I knew that sweeping it under the rug would not do him any good.

Sam started therapy which provided him with an outlet to talk but no real relief from the depression. During this time I discovered that he was in fact smoking pot and I made it clear that self-medicating was not an option. This was something my sister had done to deal with her depression in her twenties and it most likely triggered her first psychotic break.

Sam was dead set against medication and I was pretty much with him on this decision. We were both concerned with the side effects and questioned its effectiveness. As the summer drew to a close I began doing some research on Neurofeedback (NFB) therapy or Neurotherapy. NFB is a type of biofeedback that uses real-time displays of brain activity—most commonly electroencephalography (EEG), to teach self-regulation of brain function. Sensors are placed on the scalp to measure activity, with measurements displayed using video displays or sound. Neurofeedback basically retrains the brain, harnessing our own brains ability to self-correct.


CNN video on Neurofeedback

I shared the idea with Sam and he was eager to try it. Seven months later, after bi-weekly sessions he felt and we saw a marked improvement in his symptoms. And that’s a very good thing. But NFB is not a silver bullet. When it comes to mental illness there is no silver bullet. There is awareness and willingness to engage in treatment, and an absolute necessity to try and leave the stigma out of the equation.

Today my perspective on this 17 year old boy has totally changed: I am not so concerned with Sam’s grades or whether or not he even goes to college, although I suspect he will. And while he has resumed track, it doesn’t matter what his times are on his best event, the fact that he is engaged in something physical that he enjoys is enough.

But perhaps the most important thing that has changed from a year ago is Sam’s own perspective, and his awareness of his mental health. He has taken ownership of the fact that this disease is something he will have to deal with for the rest of his life.

I have and will continue to have frank conversations with all three of my children about their mental health and the fact that they need to take responsibility for it, just as they do their physical health.

Focused Intensity

Focused-IntensityWork for me, any kind of work, whether it be school, a job, whatever – has never been something I have been able to take on in a casual or laid back manner. When I’ve got a job to do, there is an intensity and pressure that takes over. It is pretty much all self-inflicted. And if there is a deadline, forget it – I go into high adrenaline mode. I would rather die than miss a deadline.

Now some may say this is a good thing and I think that in the past I felt this way as well. It is no doubt a driver. However I am beginning to think that this overdrive mode may not actually be as productive as I had previously thought.

I am at the beginning of a new writing project. It is work I enjoy and the schedule is reasonable. I have not entered the panic mode at this point and I feel fairly productive and creative. Hmmm. This is interesting, a little scary, but interesting. Could it be that letting up on the gas has allowed me some space to breathe and perhaps think a little more clearly? I think this may be entirely possible.

Of course there is the hard driver that still lurks within – she is somewhat submerged – but she is still there. I keep hearing her whisper, “What are you doing? You need to get busy, you need to feel crazy – snap out of it girl!” Yes, I hear you but I really think I am doing just fine, thank you very much.

Beauty Beneath

true-self-core-connectionEvery time I hear about a female being raped, molested or sexually abused, I feel a deep sadness for her because I know that something vital has been altered within her being. Initially I wanted to say that something was destroyed but I am not sure it is destroyed. Buried, altered, transfigured, morphed…I’m not sure, but absolutely changed. Perhaps it is different for every woman.

I suppose I should be including males in this meditation, but I’m not. I can only speak from the female perspective.

I have spent countless hours pondering the lost parts of myself. And then there are the parts of myself that overcompensated, overreacted, acted out. The misplaced anger, the deep need to punish relentlessly and disassociate from the ugliness within myself. As a defense, I grew up too quickly, taking on an adult persona long before I should have. The carefree young girl went deep undercover.

Last summer my daughter posted a photo of me on Facebook. The photo was taken while I was camping; it was the end of a hot beach day, my hair was oily and clipped up and the only thing on my face was sunscreen and sand. I was standing on the small private beach next to our campsite, the water and the setting sun behind me. I must have been feeling very good at that moment because my daughter captured a decent shot of me. A decent shot is a very rare thing for me indeed. The camera is not my friend.

Within a few hours a friend made this comment: “You are really beautiful.”  I was shocked and my immediate thought was, No I’m not. But then I looked at the photo again and saw a confident happy woman looking back at me – perhaps there is a smidgen of beauty in there,  perhaps my true self had emerged on that carefree summer day.

I am hopeful that undamaged beautiful soul still lives in me. And I would like her come forward more and play a larger role in my life. Because she is smart, intuitive, playful, forgiving, imaginative and she believes in the possibilities of life.

She is my true self and she is beautiful.

The Narcissist In Me Sees the Narcissist In You

images-2For years I felt I had been treated unfairly. You did this so me, you destroyed my life, you destroyed our family. I was all about blame. Blaming the other person absolved me from any wrong doing. Blaming the other person kept me stuck in neutral. Blaming the other person made me both the victim and the hero in my own mind.

After years of losing money, stuff, a cohesive family, my self-esteem, I finally said enough and began to move away from the problem – my husband. I knew something was wrong but I could never put my finger on it. There was no real diagnosis. I was not married to an alcoholic or a wife beater. But life kept spiraling downward. Where does it end? How many times do I need to feel the floor fall drop out from under me?

So I began to strike out on my own and separated from my husband. And it felt like the right thing to do. I was saving my family, I was saving myself. I was the hero. Recently our family therapist informed me that my husband exhibited narcissistic behaviors. Not the typical grandiose “Donald Trump” type of narcissism, but the shy/covert type narcissism. I had no idea narcissism came in a variety of flavors.

Shy/Covert Narcissist is characterized by vulnerability and sensitivity which manifest itself in defensiveness and hostility, and is characterized by worry, ineffective functioning, unfulfilled expectations, and vulnerability to stress.

Ah ha! There it is! This was the validation I had been seeking for so many years. This was the man I was married to. I desperately needed to point to something, to assign blame for the mess that my life had become. And I did and I felt some relief… for a bit.

And then life took another swing at me. It knocked me down hard. It was the kind of hit that rearranges one’s perspective. When I finally got up, the mirror was waiting for me and I finally saw the narcissistic in myself. I was not blameless. I had been selfish, self-centered and self-absorbed. I too had contributed to the demise of my marriage. Taking an honest look in the mirror has been painful, maybe one of the most painful things I’ve ever done.

But with that pain came growth and isn’t that what life is all about?


Stuck. I so wish I could wave a magic wand and magically be transported to a new life, a life where I am not tethered to my husband, a life where I have learned to stand on my own and achieved true independence.

The decision to split was made a little over a year ago and now we are marking time together, waiting for our youngest son to finish high school. But I know in my heart that a dysfunctional dependency exist between us that will make the final break incredibly difficult.

To be honest, I simply do not want to go through all the messy work of dividing assets, dealing with lawyers and mediators. I want to keep my family intact. In other words, I want to have my cake and eat it too.

Ideally I would like this to all go smoothly. I would like to forgive and forget the past. But I am not there yet. And I am beginning to wonder if it is possible to get there while still living under the same roof with this man.

We have both made mistakes, we have both contributed to the demise of our marriage. And while he thinks he has taken ownership of his mistakes, I don’t believe he really has. He has committed major financial infidelity. While he acknowledges he has made mistakes, he has not changed his ways. I believe he lacks the ability to learn from his mistakes.

I also feel a responsibility towards this man, I feel I need to take care of him. And I believe he in turn wants to be taken care of. A family therapist informed me last December that he can indeed take care of himself. So perhaps I am enabling him.

As for me, I raged on and on about money for years, allowing every trigger to send me into a panic. Fear has been my constant companion when it comes to money and that fear has totally exacerbated our situation. And try as I might to change the tapes in my head, some of them still continue to play, especially when I am left with minimal financial resources. In the past, my husband has been my scapegoat. I have blamed him for my inability to move forward to change myself, to change my thinking. By blaming him, I have kept myself stuck. I need to take full responsibility for my actions, my words and my thoughts if I am to truly move forward with my life.

I am determined to make peace with money. I have experienced the power of changing my thinking. By focusing on what I want to bring into my life instead of on what is missing, I have brought about significant changes. I know this is possible.

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