Monthly Archives: February 2014

Starbucks: Where Everybody Knows My Name

Do you know people who, when they walk into a restaurant, coffee shop, or store, is like Norm from the ’80s TV show “Cheers?” They walk in and everyone knows their name? I know a couple of people like that, and I’ll admit I’ve been half-embarrassed and half-envious being with them.

I’m not like that everywhere, but I have become a regular at my neighborhood Starbucks. I know the names of most of the morning staff, and I’m starting to get to know some of the other customers who come in regularly.

I just bought a portable wireless router so I can start writing at the local library instead, but as I write this at 9:30 am, the library STILL isn’t open yet. I know that if I start writing at the library instead of Starbucks, I’ll eat less junk food (those cheese danishes at Starbucks are super-delish), and I’ll spend less money.

After all, I do get distracted easily at my local Starbucks. Besides chatting with the other regulars, many of the moms I know in the neighborhood or moms of kids my son goes to school with stop by. One day I spent two hours talking to one of the moms.

These interactions decrease my productivity, but increase my happiness exponentially. There’s something about sitting down to talk to someone where it’s spontaneous. We didn’t have to labor over our schedules to fit each other in.

I’ve learned that one of the baristas is also a songwriter, another is a professional painter (check out her work, she’s good). The painter says she works at Starbucks for the insurance coverage. Makes sense.

I had earlier ideas for a blog post titled “My Love/Hate Relationship with Starbucks” because I really do spend too much money there, and I eat too many empty calories, but I still really love my Starbucks. I’ve taken to calling it “my office” because I do write there a few times per week. I can’t write at home because I’m distracted by the pile after pile of stuff that needs to be taken care of (laundry, bills, filing, toys, etc.).

My "office" at Starbucks

My “office” at Starbucks

I will try to write more at the library, but I’m quite sure I’ll still visit my local Starbucks at least once or twice per week. I gotta spend my dollars there, keeping the place in business, I need to keep up with my peeps there, and I’ve been known to get a discount now and then for followup beverage orders. Being a regular has its perks.

What are some of your local haunts?

How I Stop Myself from Thinking about Suicide

I used to think that because I take an antidepressant, and I did 16 months of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), I wouldn’t think about suicide anymore. That’s simply not the case.

A man covering his face

When I feel overwhelmed, exhausted, and stressed out, I still think about suicide. For a moment, I imagine a way I could make an attempt. It’s an extremely unhealthy way of coping with my anxiety. I feel so afraid that I’ll never get everything done, that I’m failing the people in my life in so many ways, that I’m drowning under the weight of all the responsibilities I have, and that I’ll never amount to anything.

What the antidepressant and DBT training do help me with is stopping the thoughts of suicide and regaining perspective.

Practicing Mindfulness
The first step is to become aware of my thoughts and my feelings. I “pause” my stream of worried thoughts by focusing on my breathing. I notice what sensations I’m feeling in my body (tight throat, quickened pulse, knot in my stomach) and try to identify what emotion I’m feeling.

Emotion Regulation
Once I’ve named the emotion I’m feeling, I assess what it’s trying to tell me. If I’m feeling guilty, it usually means I need to apologize. If I’m feeling angry, it’s usually because I feel I’ve been wronged somehow, and if that’s true, I need to forgive. If it’s not, I need to let go of my perfectionism which is setting unrealistic expectations of other people.

When I’m feeling anxious, it’s usually about having unrealistic expectations for myself. I try to notice what “stories” I’m telling myself, about having too much to do, of having to do everything RIGHT NOW, and how everything is falling apart. When I mentally look at these stories, I remember they’re not true. There is a lot to do, but I’m getting things done, one at a time, and nothing terrible is going to happen if something has to wait until tomorrow, or the next day, or next week.

Sometimes I feel very sad that I’m not able to do all the things I want to do, to be the person I wish I could be. In those moments, it’s important to let the sadness in. To let my heart feel heavy, to feel my brow furrow, to notice the urge to hug something and be hugged. Even though I’m surrounded by my loved ones, life can still feel lonely.

Acceptance is not the same as approval or resignation. I accept that my life isn’t ideal, but it is as it is, and it is good. Accepting my experience for what it is enables me to do something about it. I get to choose whether to change things, to appreciate them, or reach out to someone to help me.

Connection and Gratitude
When I’m thinking about suicide, or in general just feeling overwhelmed, I usually feel totally alone. I fear that I have to do everything myself and that everyone else is depending on me.

It helps me to remember that I want to be there for my husband, my kids, and my friends, but also that they’re there for me too. My husband helps out a lot with the house and kids, and he’s always willing to listen and comfort me. My kids of course need me most of the time, but especially my six-year-old son will give me a hug if I ask him to. I try so hard to be the “rock” for them, I’m realizing it’s important to let them support me too. I don’t need to be invincible or infallible for them.

My friends will happily drop off food, go for a walk, or let me rant on the phone. I remember how much they have done for me, and I know that I want to stick around because I love paying it back and forward with them. I am blessed to be part of such a great community, and for all of my faults, I still have much to contribute and receive.

If you ever need someone to talk to, please call a helpline (1-800-273-TALK [8255]). They’re there to support you, whether you’re about to commit suicide or just need someone to listen.

How do you pull yourself out of the darkness?

A Few Tips on How to Meditate

A girl meditating

I’ve been spotty on how often I meditate, but I know when I do meditate, I function much better the next day. There are so many different ways to meditate, and in some ways that makes it easier to practice. You can try a few different ways to find what works for you, and if you feel the desire to change things up a little, there are plenty of new things to try.

Warm Your Body Up First
One of the most important things for me is what I do before I meditate. I walk around my house for a few minutes, stretching my shoulder blades back, and rotating my arms to loosen my muscles. Then I stretch as tall as I can, reaching my hands to the ceiling. I bend down and stretch as much as I comfortably can towards the floor.

Stretching and walking help get my blood flowing and ease some of the tension in my body. If I try to sit and meditate “cold,” I find it much more difficult to focus. A yoga teacher once told me that one reason yoga was invented was to help people strengthen their bodies so they could comfortably sit for long periods of time in meditation.

Maintain a Relaxed Posture
I sit cross-legged on the floor with my back lightly resting on my bed. I place my hands palm up on my knees, but you can put your hands and arms anyway that feels comfortable. I sit as straight and tall as I comfortably can, and pull my belly button in so my back doesn’t have to work as hard.

Breath slowly and deeply
I breathe as slowly and deeply as I can. I imagine my throat opening as I inhale and lift my rib cage. When I exhale, I let my rib cage fall and pull my belly button in even more, pushing every last bit of breath out so that I can take an even deeper, fuller in-breath.

Repeat a Mantra (or two)
A mantra is a repeated word or phrase that can help you focus your mind. While I’m inhaling, I think, “I’m inhaling.” While I’m exhaling, I think, “I’m exhaling,” and I count the breaths. I think, “I’m inhaling, I’m exhaling, one, I’m inhaling, I’m exhaling, two,” etc. until I get to 10. If you lose track of the counting, start over at one. After that I think, “one” every time I inhale or exhale.

The inhaling, exhaling, and counting thoughts help me focus on what I am doing in the moment. Repeating “one” over and over gives my mind something boring to think about so my mind is busy but relaxed. When other thoughts or feelings come up, I notice them, and then I go back to thinking, “one.”

I try to remember that there is just one universe, and we are all part of it. I try to think of myself as one whole being, not the fractured thoughts and worries that I have.

While I sit thinking “one” over and over and breathing slowly and deeply, I also imagine a rope runs through the crown of my head and gently pulls my spine taller and straighter.

I usually meditate for 20-30 minutes at night. If you’re just starting out at meditating, I’d suggest trying just one focusing practice. You can meditate for as little as two to five minutes when you first start. It’s less important how long it is than that you take a few minutes away from the busyness of your day and just let your body and mind relax. It’s an important practice to let everything else wait just a few minutes and remember that nothing catastrophic happens when you take short breaks for yourself.

Do you meditate? How do you help yourself relax and focus on the present moment?

Teaching My Kids to Be Fit, Not Skinny

Kids Swimming

Photo by Kim Silkebækken

Although my kids are only 3.5 and 6.5 years old, I already worry about their perceptions of body image. My son has asked, “Does this make me look fat?” When I asked him where he heard that, he said Jamie Hyneman from The Mythbusters once said it. He’s also learned to say, “I feel sexy!” from Jamie. He doesn’t understand yet what these phrases mean, and it seems innocuous, but I know that before I know it, they’re going to be in middle school, and they will be much more aware of and more concerned about their appearance.

I want to kick myself every time I tell my daughter that she looks “pretty.” Then I wonder if I’m overreacting. I find myself telling her, “You know, princesses aren’t just pretty. They’re courageous, kind, and generous.” She’s usually too busy dancing around to pay any attention though.

Although Kaylee does enjoy wearing poofy dresses, I’m grateful she also still wears pants and T-shirts with them. She is willing to get dirty, which is a big relief to me. It would bother me a lot if she refused to do some activities because she didn’t want to get her dress dirty. To me, that kind of “princess” is much worse than dressing like a Disney princess. Kaylee at least is still active, and not trying to act like a porcelain doll or something.

I’ve noticed that Kaylee only has one pair of pants with pockets. Is that a “girl” thing, or is it just that preschoolers’ clothes don’t have pockets?

I’m very careful not to remark that I feel fat or that I feel bad about my body. I try to remind my kids that people’s bodies come in many different shapes and sizes, and they’re all okay.

Zach has already said that he thought his uncle was “lazy” because he has a big belly, and he’s always napping. My brother-in-law is a pretty active guy, and he does tend to nod off when he’s just hanging out on the couch because it’s much less stimulating than when he’s working in his wood shop. When I asked Zach where he’d gotten the idea of being “lazy,” he said it was from some Thomas the Tank Engine episode. Clearly my kids watch too much TV.

I’m hoping that emphasizing eating healthy and exercising will teach my kids about the importance of being fit and strong rather than having a particular body shape, size, or weight.

I’m terrified of either or both of my kids developing an eating disorder when they’re teenagers, since so many teens do. If they develop depression or anxiety, which runs in my family, they’re probably more susceptible to having eating issues.

I don’t know how much of what I do now makes a difference later, but I’m hoping that I’m laying a solid foundation of body acceptance that will last into adulthood. Thankfully, both kids are quite active. Kaylee loves dance and gymnastics, Zach loves doing Wushu (a Chinese martial art), and they both enjoy swimming.

What do you do to encourage your kids to accept and love their bodies?

Have Minivan Will Babysit

Minivan shenanigans

Having a minivan can be a bit of a catch-22. We bought it for the long drive to southern California we do once or twice every year. It’s fun sometimes also to carpool with friends and their kids to the zoo or the science museum. When my kids have other kids to talk to in the car, they’re much less likely to bother me.

I still don’t understand why no one has come out with a minivan that includes a privacy screen like a limousine has. They’re strapped in, what possible need could they have to talk to me? There could be an intercom that’s active for one minute every twenty or thirty minutes.

But I digress.

The other consequence of having a minivan is that my friends sometimes ask me to watch their children. My friends are very gracious and respectful about this, they don’t abuse it. Today I will be watching two of my friends’ kids, both first-graders, because one of the kids’ fathers is having surgery, and the other child has an ice-skating lesson, and her sister is sick enough to need to stay home.

I’m honored of course that my friends trust me to watch their children. This goes above and beyond letting me come over when their homes are in various states of disarray and chaos.

Sometimes I wonder though, are they crazy? Trust me? I have told everyone I know that I suffer from depression and anxiety, and that I’ve been hospitalized for planning to commit suicide. Have they forgotten? Do they really not judge me for my mental illness?

I suppose it helps that I have watched their children before, and the worst I ever do is yell at them to cut out behavior that they already well know they should not be doing. I know that I benefit from being with other people, whether it’s other adults or children. There’s something in that connection that makes me behave better, makes me feel part of a community, and reminds me of my responsibility and the blessings in my life.

When my husband and I took our kids to Disneyland with my niece and her family, we noticed that when we took off on our own and left the kids with only one adult, they behaved better. They literally all lined up, just like they do at school.

My friends and I have joked about swapping kids now and then because they usually behave better for any adult other than their parents. It could be a way of keeping them on their toes and giving us a break. Of course, they already work so hard to behave well at school, they do need to be able to let off steam at home. Sometimes.

I have my children call my friends Aunt and Uncle So-and-so. It’s how I was raised. My children don’t know most of their friends’ last names, so calling people Mrs. Richardson and Mr. Harrington seems difficult. They often just use the typical “So-and-so’s Mom” to talk about their friends’ parents.

The danger of being friends for six years though is that their kids are beginning to consider me family and thus more comfortable behaving like their true selves. That’s alright. I’m comfortable being the mean, strict aunt. I still have a tattoo, a black belt in aikido, and I’m going to learn to ride a motorcycle. They might not think that’s cool now, but they will.

How comfortable are you watching other people’s kids?

Changing Behavior Step 1: Mindfulness

A woman touching her face

Photo by Martina

I did 16 months of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) after I’d been hospitalized for depression.  I learned great strategies for dealing with my emotions, creating deeper relationships, and making it a priority to do things that bring my joy.  My life still isn’t perfect of course, but I feel so much more empowered knowing that I have strategies to help me get through challenging situations.

My recent increase in “cutting” or picking at my skin shows me that I need to review my skills and actively practice them.

Official disclaimer: Please be aware that my explanations of DBT skills are based on my limited experience and cannot act as a substitute for DBT group and individual therapy with a trained DBT therapist.

There are four modules in DBT, and the first one is Mindfulness. It makes sense because you can’t practice the other skills until you’ve practiced being fully aware and engaged in the present moment. Today I am focusing on practicing the “What Skills” of Mindfulness. These skills offer ways of “taking stock” of what thoughts and feelings I’m having right now. I can’t make informed choices about how to respond to a situation if I’m reacting impulsively.

This skill involves actively noticing what you’re experiencing. Pay attention especially to your five senses. What does your body feel like, as it touches the chair you’re sitting on, as your feet touch the ground? How is your breathing, fast, slow, shallow? Is there tension in your body?

Notice if you have thoughts, but don’t use words yet. Let go of actively thinking, and become fully aware of whatever is happening in the present moment.

Describe what you experience in objective terms. When you notice a feeling, think to yourself, “I feel sad/angry/scared.” When you notice a feeling, think it and picture the words, “I’m so tired and frustrated,” “I have too much to do,” etc. Describe the thoughts, sensations, and feelings without reacting to them.

Act in the present moment, without worrying about the future or regretting anything in the past. Concentrate on what action you’re taking right now. If possible, try to move a little more slowly and carefully than you normally would.

As I type this, I’m noticing the feel of the keys on my keyboard, the hardness of the chair I’m sitting on, the music playing in the coffee shop, one of my feet touching the floor, the other foot touching the base of a table, and I hear the murmur of other people’s voices.

I notice my breath is shallow and quick, and my pulse is faster than usual. I feel a tightness in my chest that often tells me that I’m feeling afraid. I’m thinking, “Ugh, no one is going to want to read this. It’s boring and super obvious.”

I’m closing my eyes, and slowing my breath, counting to three for a full in-breath, then counting to three for a full out-breath. I’m thinking, “Well, my blog posts don’t all have to be amazing. I just have to write them. As I write more and more, I’ll hopefully get better and better. It’s all in the journey, not the destination.”

While I did this mindfulness exercise, I did not feel any urge to pick at my skin. Noticing this makes me smile.

How do you get yourself to be completely in the moment?

Buying Dresses and a Skirt for My Son

I wrote recently about my six-and-a-half-year old son Zach asking for a dress. I took him and his friend shopping at Target, and it took all of about five minutes for him to choose one. He seemed uninterested in the brightly colored or frilly dresses. I spotted this dress, and he said he liked it, so I bought it for him. No one in the store even noticed these two boys giddily holding a dress as we brought it to the register.

A blue and black dress

I’ll be honest, I was really grateful that he chose a dress that’s not really loud or flamboyant. It’s still a dress, but it seems like it’s still his style somehow. I’m not sure what difference it makes, but I’d be more freaked out if he chose a dress that was hot pink or neon green. I still want my kids to dress tastefully.
My husband expressed concern when Zach said he wanted to wear the dress to school. He said he’d prefer to take things slowly, just start out by wearing the dress at play dates or the park first.

I was initially irritated when my husband talked about how he grew up in a more conservative time, and he’s not totally comfortable with this yet, but when he asked for taking a slow pace and easing into things, I realized that’s a really, really good idea. There’s no rush. Zach’s not begging to wear the dress to school. He said, “Okay, that’s fine.” My husband said that he wants to offer “a safe space to engage in what is a perfectly innocent activity, but protect [Zach], too.” He was worried I would be mad, but I’m really grateful that he’s open-minded about this and cautious at the same time. I think it’s important to be both.

I became aware that my instinct is to suppress my own needs or desires and put my children first. I want to do what’s best and “right” for them, sometimes not even stopping very long to figure out what that is. I’m nervous about how people will react to him wearing a dress at school. On one hand, it’s easier for him because his friend has already done it. On the other hand, having two boys wearing dresses at school might create a different bullying situation. Some kids may say, “Oh, you guys must be boyfriends because you both wear dresses.”

Zach said he wants to wear dresses because he doesn’t think it’s fair that girls get to wear skirts, shorts, dresses and pants, and boys only get to wear shorts and pants.

I looked on Quora, a site where people can post questions and other people, many of them experts in a particular field, can provide answers. I looked up, “Why do boys wear pants and girls wear dresses?” One person said that pants-wearing is strongly connected to riding horseback, which men primarily did for hunting or fighting in battle. He describes how ancient Roman and Greek infantry soldiers wore tunics while Roman cavalry wore braccae, which are basically trousers. In Japan, both men and women wear kimonos, but the warrior class would wear hakamas, which are a kind of split skirt (trousers under a skirt).

Men do wear skirts or kilts in Scotland and southeast Asia.
My husband suggested getting Zach a kilt. I realized the floor-length dress we’d bought was really impractical for playing outside. So, I went to Goodwill and found this skirt and dress. The skirt has shorts inside. Together they cost less than $9. I intend to have him wear pants underneath and probably a shirt under the dress as well.

A beige skirtA blue plaid dress

Zach tried them on and said he likes them. He also said it’s okay for me to return the dress we’d gotten from Target. It’s pretty, but really impractical.

Does this post change in any way your view of whether boys should be allowed to wear dresses? Why or why not?

I Confess: I’m Still Cutting Myself

As I wrote last August, I do a form of self-injury, involving squeezing my pores or picking at my skin to the point it bleeds.  I got better at not doing it as often, but last month was a bit stressful, and I started doing it more.


My first step in breaking this habit is becoming aware of when I’m doing it.  I mostly do it while I’m driving or when I’m writing.

I’ll be driving, doing one errand after another, and stressing out about getting it all done on time, and I’ll rub my fingertips across the skin on my face and start picking at it.  I’ve taken to sitting with my hand under one leg.  Sometimes I put both hands on the wheel and really become aware of what it feels like to have the skin on my hands in contact with the steering wheel.

When I’m writing, I notice the “itch” in my fingertips, wanting to pick at my skin, and I start to pay attention to my breath, trying to make it as slow and deep as possible.

I’ve started filling out a diary card like I used to while I was doing dialectical behavior therapy (DBT).  It helps bring some awareness about my day, how I was feeling, how I reacted to the feelings, and what coping skills I used to manage my feelings.  You can make your own diary card, just keeping track of what happened during the day, how you felt, and what effective strategies you can use to cope.

I’m choosing at this time to manage this behavior on my own, rather than schedule an appointment with my therapist.  This is a very personal choice, and I think there are plenty of situations where a person can benefit from seeing a professional therapist.  For one thing, I have training in skills that can help me.  I just need to practice them.  Writing about it here is a first step in being accountable for it.

A new thing I’m trying is adopting a new behavior.  When I feel the urge to pick at my skin, I’m pressing my fingers together, a bit like an evil mastermind, and stretching them.  It gives me the feeling of connection and wholeness.

A lot of my anxiety stems from not believing in myself.  I fear that I’m going to screw up, do something stupid, hurt someone’s feelings, or just generally epically fail.  Being mindful of my urge to scrape up my skin is a way to remind myself that, “I’m okay.  Everything is okay.”  Certainly life’s not perfect, and there’s a lot of work to do, but adopting an attitude of helplessness will not help me take care of myself, my family, or my community.

This blog isn’t just about building a community, but it’s also about empowering ourselves.  It’s so easy to focus on what we aren’t doing that we wish we were or regretting things we are doing.  It’s important to remember all the ways we are being authentic and the things we do do well.

What strategies do you use to cope when you feel negative emotions?

To find help for self-injury, eating disorders, and other challenges, check out To Write Love on Her Arms.

The Ultimate Blog Challenge Recap

Last month, I published 31 posts as part of the Ultimate Blog Challenge. I had felt in a bit of a writing slump, and I thought it might be a good way to motivate myself to write more. I wasn’t sure I was really going to be able to publish a post every day, but I managed to get it done, and I feel pretty proud of that.

I feel extremely grateful to the people who wrote guest blog posts:
Mara Migraineur: Good Parenting Means Accepting Help Sometimes
Gretchen Schiller: “I Still Love You”
Mike Laursen: “You Confounding Kids!”

They’re all pressed for time as it is, so I really appreciated them making time to write for me. It gave me three days where I only had to edit posts instead of writing them from scratch.

I used to post only once per week, and I felt a lot of pressure for it to be a “big topic” each time. Posting every day let me publish more fluffy, somewhat “filler” posts. I’ve realized it’s good to mix things up a bit. It’s nice to have lighter material sometimes. It’s less taxing on my emotionally, and I’d like to make readers smile a bit in addition to thinking about things they might not otherwise have considered.

I learned it’s pretty easy to get post ideas and content just by asking my readers. It’s nice to have such an intelligent, funny, and generous group community to call on. I’m going to pester more of them to write guest blog posts. As much as I like to hear myself talk, I prefer to hear what other people have to say. My favorite part of blogging is reading what other people add to the conversation.

I had a couple of blog posts featured on BlogHer, and I kind of thought they were flukes because they were far apart. In January, they featured three more blog posts (When Sexual Fantasies Get…Complicated, Ridiculous Conversations from a Marriage, and My Son Wants to Buy a Dress). It feels really validating to have professional editors choose to promote my writing.

A bunch of people have come up to me in person to tell me that they’re reading my blog. That means so much to me. I know people are busy, so I really appreciate them taking time to sit down and read my blog. Even my mother read one of my blog posts. It was “Things My Father Taught / Didn’t Teach Me.” It started an interesting discussion about how we each felt about my relationship with my dad.

One person told me she made an appointment to get treatment for her chronic pain and resulting depression after reading “What My Depression Looks Like.” I’m glad she was able to find hope here, and I pray that her medical team helps her get effective treatment.

I am so grateful to my writers’ group for cheering me on, and I’m especially grateful to my husband for his support. I’m not making any money at this, it could be easy for him to dismiss it as a “hobby” that I shouldn’t be dedicating so many hours to, but he gets that I’m helping some people, and it’s extremely therapeutic for me.

What suggestions do you have for me to write about for February?