Lemons to Lemonade

This past week someone commented on my ability to turn a negative into a positive.  I guess I haven’t thought about this for awhile, but in contemplating it after the conversation ended, I realized that it is a learned behavior that through time and practice has become hard wired.

I come from a long line of positive thinkers.  My mother, who was by no means saccharine, could add a teaspoon of sugar to any sour situation, making the medicine go down as well as Mary Poppins herself.  When disaster prevailed, her solution was to have a good cry, preferably wrapped in her arms and held close to her heart, followed by, “That’s enough now.  Dry your tears, buck up, and let’s get to work to fix this.”

My grandmother, Helen Dow, was a bit more stoic, but infinitely kind and gentle.  She had eyes that danced with laughter, and she approached life much like making cookies.  If you spill in too much salt, just increase the flour, sugar, butter and vanilla until you double the batch.  You’ll end up with twice the fun.

I adored these two women and learned much from their grace under pressure.  If plans fell to pieces, serendipity abounded.  It’s all in how you define success.  I guess I picked it up by osmosis, or at least by careful observance and modeling.  However, in thinking more carefully, there are steps to follow.  Here are 10 basic beliefs to get you started.  (And yes, there are more of food metaphors.)

  1.  Remember you have options.  If you are handed a bowl full of lemons, you can lemonslet them sit on the table, just as they are.  They won’t be anything but lemons.  They’ll look like lemons, smell like lemons, and taste like lemons as long as they are left untouched.  Or until they rot. Then, they’ll turn brown, smell awful, seep into the bowl, grow mold, and lose their shape.  You can enjoy- even relish fresh lemons, just as you can bask in the sadness of life’s disappointments.  But only for a season.  It’s up to you to determine how long that season is.  Just know that the longer the season, the less fresh the fruit.
  2. It’s okay to cry over spilled milk.  Positive thinking is not ignoring the reality of a tough situation, or pretending that we aren’t daunted by disaster.  When faced with sadness or disappointment, it’s important to recognize and validate those feelings.  After all, the elephant is never going to leave the room until you acknowledge him, name him, and even nurture him for awhile.   Have a good cry.  Emotional tears release endorphins. They release stress.  They clear your sinuses.  And a good cry makes you look as miserable as you feel, so you are no longer bound to hide behind a false smile.
  3. Share the wealth.  Admittedly, this is something that I preach much better than I practice.   I have a tendency to “forget” to mention if something is amiss in my life, so when life events- like my divorce, or a major surgery- arose, people were stunned.  I heard a lot of “Why-didn’t-you-tell me?” and “I-had-no-idea!”  Loved ones were actually hurt that I had not kept them in the loop.  So although I still prefer to silently shed my tears in the shower, I try to be a little more open about my personal challenges.  I’m not saying that we need to post every little issue on Facebook, but sharing disappointments, fears, and challenges with a trusted family member or friend can garner support, encouragement and a fresh perspective.
  4. Don’t give up.  I am a practical Yankee at heart, who believes in mending, gluing and repairing as much as possible before calling it quits.  When my children struggled to find a solution to a problem, their father often urged them to “Find another way.”  These were wise words.  Most torn relationships can be sewn back together.  They may bear the scars of the stitches, but given the correct attention, scars become badges of honor.  And some things just take perseverance. When I trained to be a smoking cessation coach, I learned that most people make several quit attempts before they succeed.  We learn a little every time we fail, so the next attempt may just be the winner.
  5. When all else fails, let it go.  One evening when I was around twelve years old, I new-year-broken-dishesbegan to set the table for dinner.  The plates were stacked on a shelf that was just above my shoulders, and in my attempt to juggle enough for our family of ten, the stack began to slip from my grasp.  One by one, the plates fell to the floor, smashing to ceramic shards, until there was one lone plate in my hand.  I turned to my horror-stricken mother.  Her eyes were wide and her mouth open, but no sound escaped.  I knew the next moments were not going to be pretty.  I looked at the lone plate in my arms and without a word, let it fall too.  Some things are not salvagable. When you meet the end of the road, call it quits and find another route.
  6. Look for the silver lining.  This may be the most important step, as it’s the key to turning a negative to a positive.  I’m not Pollyanna-ish, but really, some of the best things in life result from trials.   As a child, my daughter Elizabeth was often in the hospital.  I often wondered if all the tests, prodding,  IVs and blood draws would make her feel as if she lost part of her youth.  Now an adult, she assures me that her life was in many ways richer.  She met incredible doctors and nurses.  She learned a lot about her body.  And what touched me most is she says that the time she and I spent in hospital rooms together strengthened our relationship.  Even though she often felt sick and scared, she believed that she and I were an invincible team, and she never doubted that together we could overcome any obstacle.
  7. Separate needs from wants, and appreciate what you have.  When disaster strikes, assess the situation.  Are your loved ones still alive?  Are your relationships intact?  Remind yourself that “stuff” can be replaced, and evaluate whether it is something you really needed anyway.  Chances are, losing “things” will matter less to you once you categorize according to needs and wants.  And when the worst happens and you lose someone you love, bask in the memories of the time you did have.   Recall a conversation.  Tell the story of a particularly memorable occasion.  Let your mind wander back to a time when you were both happy, and allow yourself to bask in that sunlight for a bit.  Then, take a look at the people who are still with you.  These are your treasures.  Cherish today with them.
  8. Prepare by making every little moment as special as possible.  When my kids were growing up, we often did things together, but I also tried to spend one-on-one time with each of them every week.  My son tells me that his self esteem soared after taking a long walk on the beach together, or going out for pizza.  As parents we often think that the best times of our kids’ lives will be the trips to Disney or the huge birthday parties.  But now I know that the most precious moments were those laughing over silly illustrations in a book, or listening to a mix tape together.  It is these moments that build the armor to withstand the winds of disaster.
  9. The cookie will crumble, but know that this too shall pass.  No poor situation lasts for ever.  Sometimes you just have to get through it.
  10. Look up.  I would be a liar if I pretended that my faith has nothing to do with mysky-22116_960_720 ability to turn negatives to positives.  We don’t always understand why, and it’s not that trials won’t come.  But we are never alone.  And in the end, it all comes out in the wash.
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Out of the Shadows and Into the Starry Night

“But I could have told you Vincent,

This world was never made for one as beautiful as you.”

               ~Don McLean, “Starry Starry Night”

 

March 30 is the anniversary of Vincent van Gogh’s birthday.  It is also (and not coincidentally) Bipolar Awareness Day.

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“The Scream”-Edvard Munch

I grew up in an era where the mentally ill were tucked away in institutions whose empty halls reeked of urine and echoed with the cries of wretched souls hidden within their shadowed cells.  We were told that the man who suffered from  PTSD after the war suffered from “shell shock” and instructed to politely smile when he waved from his hangout by the drug store.  Definitions like “schizophrenia” and “manic depressive” were labels for those who were unseen and unheard.  We avoided those who made us uncomfortable.  We joked about their conditions, as if making a game of their suffering would cause them to fade away.

But as true as the night is dark, dawn slowly spreads its light upon the shadows, illuminating those who have been hidden by ignorance and lies.  We now know that many mental illnesses are merely a misfiring of electrical impulses in the complex jumble of nerves in our brains.  Be it from chemical imbalances, injury or some other cause yet unknown to man, people who suffer from mental illness are not obscurities to be ignored. They are parents. They are sisters and brothers. They are sons. They are daughters.

My daughter Elizabeth is bright and breathtakingly beautiful.  Her eyes are pools of gray elizand turquoise where men lose their souls.  Her laughter is contagious; her gentle hands soothing.   She pens poetic verses that twist my heart until tears trickle down my cheeks.   She owns and operates a barbershop where men wait for hours for her to sculpt their hair and listen to their stories.   Elizabeth- my youngest child- suffers from Bipolar disorder.

During her C section birth, I heard the concern in my obstetrician’s voice as he noted how slender Elizabeth was.  But the pediatrician pronounced her fit, explaining that she was just long and skinny, and indeed, she quickly transformed into a sweet little butterball who was determined to keep up with her older brother and sister.  She was smart and athletic, and highly competitive.  But by the time she was four, it was evident that she was not well.  She had bouts of plummeting blood sugar where she was too weak to sit up in bed. She grew pale and painfully thin. The next several years were filled with doctor’s visits and tests. A host of diagnoses followed; adrenal insufficiency, hypothyroidism, asthma, SVT, migraines.  And with this came anxiety and depression. Crippling anxiety that made her pace until I came home from work.  Depression that made her hide in her room during family gatherings, afraid that someone might discover that behind her wide grin was a hidden monster that doused her joy with waves of unexplained grief.

And I- the mother who knew every hair on her head, the mother whose wet skin smelled just like hers, the mother who nursed her and rocked her to sleep and walked the halls of hospitals with her- did not know.

During college, Elizabeth became increasingly detached from her loved ones. She disappeared for days. She spent money she did not have.  She was ultra-sensitive and quick to anger.  Finally, broken finances and broken relationships forced her to come home to live.  She struggled to hold a job and spent long isolated hours in her room and finally, the monster inside grew so great she could not get out of bed.  She couldn’t cry. She couldn’t laugh. She laid in bed and stared at the white wall for weeks, paralyzed by her fear and depression.  So fragile that she could barely speak, she finally cried out for help.  And then the long journey toward the sun began.

Elizabeth carefully fills a medi-planner with pills every week. Mood stabilizers to limit the highs and lows. Antidepressants to keep dark days at bay.  Tablets that rescue her from the crippling anxiety that leaves her afraid to walk into the music store or call to refill a prescription.   She thinks that the pills erase her creative side.  She fears taking so much medication will hurt her brain.  Her memory is not as sharp.  Her ability to retain facts less than when she was younger.

For Elizabeth, every day is a challenge. She pushes through the dark days and charges toward the light with grace and courage and a determination to not become a faceless victim of her disease. She carefully balances in the seesaw’s fulcrum; too much sedation brings depression, not enough triggers endless nights of sleepless mania.  Every morning, she looks at a handful of pills and she chooses.  She chooses for her business because without medication she loses focus and commitment.   She chooses for her health, because she knows that every day the electrical misfiring in her brain is a death-march cadence luring her closer and closer to disaster. She chooses for her family because without medication she cannot sustain her relationships; cuddling her nephew and giggling with her siblings will fade into a distant memory.

It is interesting to me that we never blame people for their physical illness, although many of them could be prevented. We never shun people with cancer, even if they filled their lungs with a lifetime of cigarette smoke.  We don’t make fun of diabetics, although many can prevent their disease with proper diet and exercise.  There is no stigma attached to strep throat, or ear infections, or gall bladder disease, or arthritis.  Why then are we ashamed of the diseases with no known prevention-diseases that affect our cognition or cloud our judgment? And if we did not hide these secrets, perhaps those who suffered from them would have been able to live longer, create more freely and affect the world in a more powerful and beautiful way.  Abraham Lincoln, Virginia Wolf, Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, Tennessee Williams all suffered from mental illness.  Some of the most beautiful works of art were created by those with mental illness; Georgia O’Keefe, Ludwig van Beethoven, and of course, Vincent van Gogh.

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“Starry Night” Vincent van Gogh

So on Wednesday March 30, I am going to proudly wear a green ribbon for bipolar awareness.  I urge you to do the same.  Together, little by little, we may be able to stifle the stigma and free those who are trapped by the fear of rejection and disdain.  We must bring them out from the shadows and help them to brightly glitter as beautifully as van Gogh’s “Starry Night.”  They are not children of a lesser god. They are our own.

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