I will keep the tie that binds us ~ Johnny and June Carter Cash (‘Cause I Love You)

So, I’ve struggled with losing ma and am beginning to cognitively realize the finality of her being gone…but it’s something that I simply can’t emotionally accept yet. It’s been a bit over 3 months and I know I should be facing things better yet I feel like I haven’t really even started the actual grieving process yet.

As always I decided to research all of this and after digging through mountains of material have come to understand that navigating grief when you have bipolar is a bit more difficult and can often lead to complicated grief…something I didn’t know anything about.

Honestly, I really hadn’t thought about bipolar affecting how one grieves and once I came across some articles I saw myself in them more and more…it actually makes me feel better just in the sense that what I’m going through is normal for my abnormal brain (hmmmm…confusing statement, huh?😳).

A wonderful article helped me understand that those with mental illness (or anyone!) often experience delayed grief which is basically when people postpone coping with the loss and not being able to grieve or actively suppress any emotion that begins to rise. (Repression and suppression are often used synonymously but repression is unconscious and suppression is conscious). Bipolar itself can force this delay simply because there is little space in our emotional world – it’s already filled. I never thought about this but I relate.

Depression is a huge part of complicated grieving anyway but exacerbated in those of us who deal with it regularly. Verywellmind.com lists signs that indicate complicated grief and although I have these now, actually diagnosing this states that the loss has to have been at least 6 months ago…so maybe I won’t experience this seriously since it’s only been 3:

  • Excessively avoiding reminders of the loss – definitely…although I have a lot of pics of ma around, it’s hard for me to actually look at them. O gave me a digital frame for Christmas last year and it’s on my kitchen table. I always used to have it on all day to see my fam, but now I just leave it off since ma is in so many of the stored images.
  • Obsessively thinking about the person – Hmmm…I don’t have this since I’m repressing every attempt to think about it…
  • Intense longing for the person – yep.
  • Feeling a loss of purpose in life – you know, this is a toughie. School has been amazing this semester and has given me a routine and a reason to get up everyday. But honestly, I’ve been teaching for a total of 32 years (including elementary) and had been thinking seriously about retiring. Now I’m not so sure…teaching is so much of my purpose and even though I love it so so so so much, I’m getting tired of the bureaucracy that’s inherent in any public institution. Decisions are made and edicts fall from the top when us faculty actually know how to do our jobs pretty durn well. I don’t need yet another meeting talking about syllabi or calendars…after 3 decades, I think I have it down pat. When ma was here, retiring was more enticing since I had her as a social support/best friend/travel buddy, etc. Now I feel like I’m just floating and if I don’t continue to teach, I don’t know what my life would look like.
  • Seeing proximity and reminders of things from the person – ma’s living room furniture fills my house now and it really does make me feel closer to her.
  • Suicidal thoughts – no.
  • Unable to accept the loss – yep.
  • Experiencing instrusive/persistent thoughts about the person – yep…when I’m least expecting to, I often find myself just thunderstruck by her…I never know when it’s going to happen.

The causes resound with me (and Terri as well) –

  • Unexpected death – ma was fine in June, hospitalized in July, and gone Aug. 2nd
  • History of mental disorders 🙄
  • Experience of more than 1 death within a short period – in fact, Terri lost the boy she was a private nurse for and who she considered a son while our aunt died 18 days before ma. Then, Terri’s mother in law died just a few weeks ago and is grieving that loss as well. She’s been through so much.
  • Not being present when the death occurred or being a witness to it – Terri was there when ma died and even though she’s a nurse, it was so traumatic for her. I wasn’t at the hospital that early morning (we took shifts) and although I didn’t want to see her actually pass, it’s almost unreal that she did. Yes, I saw her in the funeral home, but that was more surreal…doesn’t really make sense, does it?
  • Older females – well hell, that’s us. 🙄

Anyhoot, reading about all of this actually helped me a lot since it gave me some answers regarding this process and helped me understand how my mind is processing all of this. I totally understand that there is no ‘normal’ way to grieve and I also understand that everyone grieves at times in their lives. Terri and I talked about that the other day and said that we wouldn’t be able to stand this if it were one of our sons. And although we know we’re lucky that ma was very happy her last 12 years and didn’t suffer for an extended time, it doesn’t take the pain away from our own hearts. Yes, it could be worse. Yes, we were lucky to have her 76 years. But in the end, she was still our ma.

I’ve been wanting to post for a while but it’s so hard to motivate myself to just do it. It’s the same with running or getting some painting done around the house. Four months ago I was zipping around…so excited about all there was to do…and now I just dread having yet another task to complete.

I know this won’t last forever. I know that I’ll eventually work through this. I know I shouldn’t feel guilty when talking about this to others simply because I assume people are getting tired of my sadness. That’s actually a tough one for me. I have a couple of people I chat with outside of Terri and O, but I always feel like I’m burdening them if I’m down and need to talk…I hate feeling like that…I want to be the one to relieve others of their burdens.

And Terri and I also know this: we were so fucking (sorry, ma 🌞) lucky to have the mom we did. She was so so good to us and her love, support, care, kindness, unconditional acceptance, and the list could go on and on, is something we know not everyone has. We truly were blessed.

Love you ma. Love you more.

Kristi xoxo

“Regret is useless in life” ~ Marlon Brando

So, the worst thing about not being able to blog much this semester is that I have so many ideas that when I do get time, I don’t know which to choose. In fact, I regret I have less time for this outlet than I’d like. Ooooo…I have a regret. Hmmmm.

I’ve been thinking about a lot about regrets lately. A few weeks ago, one of my friend’s daughters called me and said her mom had died…she had simply laid down for a nap and never woke up. I was gobsmacked. Linda was a really genuine, down to earth, sweet woman and it didn’t matter how much time went between seeing each other; she was the type of friend you could pick right back up with as if a day had never passed. She’ll be missed.

You know, I think I’ve always just ‘assumed’ that I’ve got a lot more time to live. Ma and pop are both in their late 70’s and one grandma lived well into her 90’s. Ma’s parents died young…at age 63 for both of them…but they also lived a very sedentary life. Grandma was a chain-smoker and had been for decades and grandpa died of cirrhosis of the liver because of life-long alcoholism. So, their young deaths were definitely tied to these lifestyles (but, they were the BEST…most of my happiest memories are with them 🙂) and since I’m fit, eat well, don’t smoke or drink, and otherwise take pretty good care of myself, I tend to think I have years and years left. But…that’s not guaranteed, is it?

Car accidents, cancer (which there is a family history of on both sides…ma is a breast cancer survivor!🌞 ), Alzheimer’s (which my older grandma died of…it is such a horrifying disease and broke all of our hearts), falls (like from my roof when I’m dancing a jig while cleaning out my gutters just to make my bestie across the street laugh 😬), and simply being bipolar. Yep…that’s one I think about more than I probably should. The National Library of Medicine reports that studies show female bipolar ‘patients’ have about a 10.6-8.3 years lesser life-span (while men lose 12.0-8.7 years) than the general population. This is even a bit higher than the 10 year reduction in life-span for chronic smokers. Charmed.

And suicide: again, the National Library of Medicine found that the rate of suicide among bipolar patients is approximately 10–30% higher than the corresponding rate in the general population. Research has also found that up to 20% of (mostly untreated) those with bipolar will end their life by suicide, while 20–60% of ‘us’ will attempt suicide at least one in our lifetime.  In other words, being bipolar ain’t so great. Go figure.

So, because of my friend and the suddenness of her death, I’ve been thinking about my life and ruminating over regrets that I have. Regretting something is really wishing it never happened…in fact, regret is often called a useless emotion since you can only regret what has already taken place which makes it too late to change things. All that’s left is the sorrow of that , which leads to guilt, shame, remorse, etc.

Daniel Pink (author of The Power of Regret) says there are 4 major types of regret: 

  • Foundation Regrets: these are failures to be responsible or conscientious which can center around money and health.
  • Boldness Regrets: not taking the action you wanted…being INACTIVE in terms of going after a job or reaching out to someone you want to get to know. In other words, passing up chances that could have changed your life. Pink’s study found that these inaction regrets outnumber action regrets. So, what we don’t do makes us more sorrowful than what we do do. Interesting, isn’t it?
  • Moral Regrets: pretty self explanatory but let me phrase this in my Kristi language: those times when you fucked up royally. Pink found that although these tend to be the fewest of all our regrets, they are actually the most painful ones for us.
  • Connection Regrets: neglecting the people that you should be connecting with more.

Bronnie Ware, an Australian palliative carer and author of The Top Five Regrets of the Dying says that the 6 most common regrets those with serious illness have are:

  • I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. 
  • I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  • I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  • I wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends.
  • I wish I had let myself be happier.

Hmmm…is there anyone of us that can’t relate to these? Good Lord, as I look back on my regrets, I see them in all of these categories and in this list of common ones. Before I even started reading Ware’s work, I actually had thought of these very ones. The worst for me? Not living my life authentically…and actually, still not doing so in many ways.

We’ve talked about masks and how those of us with mental illness hide behind them out of shame, embarrassment, pressure, expectation, etc. I did for most of my adult life. Who wants to admit they have a mental illness that is so stigmatized? So misunderstood? Has so many myths circling around it like vultures who want us to believe we’re ‘crazy’ and violent? How can anyone in their right mind (yes, that pun was intentional 😳) want that rosy attitude directed towards them? The solution? Hide. Pretend. Be who others want you to be. Expect you to be. Demand that you be. That’s a tough thing to do and in fact, many of us know that it’s fucking (sorry, ma) exhausting and really does nothing at all in the long run anyway. Masks fall off…they disintegrate…they shift and budge. They are simply unsustainable. And when the elastic does break on them people say things like “You used to be so ‘normal.” Or, “You never used to speak up like that.” Or, “Ummmm…no…I don’t think I can do lunch with you today…ummmm…something came up.” Or, “Of course Kristi is to blame for that, she’s bipolar…you know, they’re all nuts.” Is it any wonder we put them on in the first place?

But then I think about WHO I put them on for and realize they can all fuck off anyway (not gonna apologize for that one ma, since you say the same too 😐). Those I pretended for were really going to love me forever? Or be my best friend? The assholes (I’m on a profanity roll here…) who wouldn’t accept someone mentally ill in their midst were really worth me being someone I wasn’t? Well no…they weren’t. And believe me, the only regret I have with this one is just how recently I learned it.

Another one I’m still working a lot on is a boldness regret…one of inaction. Look, I’ve been bullied a lot in my life…as have many of my sweet peeps. My sister is a badass and this is why: she isn’t rude or mean or a fight-picker, but by golly she’ll stand up for herself with absolutely nothing held back! In fact, she still does it for me in place of the times I can’t! My inaction regarding standing up to people was more understandable when I was young and sickly and skinny, but still doing it at 55? No…it’s pretty much bullshit by now. After all, I’m in my 50’s (yeeeeesh…) and shouldn’t be so hesitant to say what I really want and need to say. Right? I can do this for my son…in fact, sticking up for him has always been easy no matter what his age. I’m quite the mama bear! But to do it for myself? Hmmm…perhaps I need to harness that bear for myself as well.

But, I don’t. I think it’s why the other people have usually blamed me for their actions: cheated on me…my fault. Yelled at me…my fault. Accused me of things…my fault. You get the point. And why do I acquiesce to this? Hmmm…maybe in some part because I had to be more timid and accommodating around ma’s bastard of an ex. If I stood up to him…didn’t agree with him…didn’t nod my head and smile no matter what he said, ma was the one in danger. Period. So, that ‘I’m sorry’ became a sort of mantra for me. And now? Bipolar is to blame. No matter what I say or do or feel, it can be easily turned around to the fact that since I have bipolar, I must be the one in the wrong. It’s a great scapegoat for anyone to use against me when they need someone outside of themselves to blame. Blech.

And of course there are all of the other regrets too: I do work too much at times…let friendships get pushed aside in all the busyness of the week…not spend the time I should with those that mean the most to me. But the good news is this: regrets are things that have their origins in the past…and don’t have to be our futures. So, my pledge to myself? Be me with no excuses. Reach out and make time for those I love and if papers don’t get graded that day, the world won’t end. Stand up for myself and say “Hey! Lay off!” Nurture the friendships I’ve built over these last couple of years. Take a bit more care with my moolah so there won’t be regret with that later in life when I’ll be looking into what old folks home I want to spend my golden years in. And not be scared to be happy…whatever that happy may look like.

But one thing I don’t regret? Starting this blog, getting to know all of you, and making some pretty awesome friends along the way. Thanks, peeps.

Kristi xoxo

Good Lord, I wanted Billy Ray’s hair so badly (along with a few other ‘things’ too😳) !

“This is our life, this is our song” ~ Twisted Sister

So, I absolutely hate not having time to blog! You know, I love that you readers are spending time with me and reading my stuff but honestly, I actually do this for myself as well. Sometimes probably more so than others (see…I’m not lying…I don’t want my already point nose to grow anymore than it currently is 😳). For me, writing is therapeutic and let’s me work through things that I’m mulling or feeling or experiencing. When I try to keep a personal journal, I’m all gung ho for the first 2 days and then nothing. Writing here kind of keeps me doing it since ma likes reading these while consuming her quarter cup of Grapenuts but doesn’t open this until the Jumble and Wordle puzzles in the newspaper have been solved. I know where I stand.

Anyhoot, I get articles from PsychCentral delivered to my inbox and one came through the other day entitled: “Bipolar Eyes: Myth or Fact” and I was intrigued (took me 4 tries to spell that right 😐). I had absolutely no idea there was research confirming that those with bipolar actually have eyes with unique physiological features. I went to the actual scientific study to read more but after terms like ” inner plexiform layer” and “peripapillary RNFL thickness was reduced in all temporal sectors (P < 0.005)” I went with the summary from PC.

Apparently, these changes include:

  • Pupils tend to dilate during times of emotional arousal during both unusually high or low moods. This dilation can cause more sensitivity to light and that is usually during a manic episode.
    • This happens to me! I usually am pretty manic in the summer and last year was a doozie (it was BL – before Lamotragine). Working in the sun was causing me some headaches which are rare for me and I could feel myself squinting more and more despite having clip-on sunglasses (🤓). However, the other downside to this is my squint wrinkles are deepening.
  • The excitement from a manic episode might cause the eyes to look more ‘energetic’ or even wider.
    • Ma has said this to me so many times! Last summer she kept asking me if I was ok since she saw more and more rooms painted everyday when she stopped by (ma lives 2 miles from me and 8 from Terri…Terri is the smart one – and the pretty one 😎 ). I’d tell her I was fine because she worries enough about me and sissy…and I put her through hell 4 years ago. Anyways, when I would say “Ma, I swear on my original sociology text that I’m OK” she’d look at my eyes and say “Bullshit.” Yes, ma has a mouth on her. That’s where me and Terri get it.
  • Bipolar impacts eye movement and there’s slower reaction times in these during a depression. It also affects ‘vergence movements’ which allows for depth perception since the eyes are moving toward and away from things.
    • Well…this would have been keen to know since I was scampering around on my roof last summer while my neighbors laughed and took pics of me. 😬
  • Research is also showing that it’s more difficult for someone with bipolar to discern different colors. This is said to be due to thinning retinas and the rods and cones (something I know absolutely nothing about 😐).
    • This is so weird: The other day, I took down a plant hanger from my kitchen wall and patched the holes. I didn’t have any left over paint to touch it up so I took some of my cabinet paint…which is very similar…and doctored it up with some black, white, and any other color I thought would work just to make it a tad darker and a tad bluer. I was convinced it was a perfect match when I looked at my finished product. But when I used it, it was very very BRIGHT BLUE when I needed a soft BLUE GRAY. Now I know why!

When I read through all of this, I was amazed because I do complain about my eyes at times. Some researchers are saying that by looking at some of the physiology of the eye could help determine if that person has a higher chance of developing bipolar. Wow.

After reading all of this fodder-all, I searched for more physiological differences in terms of bipolar and found this in TechnologyNetwork: “In the largest MRI study to date on patients with bipolar disorder, a global consortium published new research showing that people with the condition have differences in the brain regions that control inhibition and emotion.”

I also found this from Pronhorpsych: Studies have shown that bipolar disorder reduces the amount of gray matter in your brain which affects processing info, thoughts and feelings; controlling impulses and sensory info; and regulating motor skills. The authors of the article state this: “This may explain why manic episodes often seem impulsive, careless, and thoughtless. Less gray matter might also lead to feelings of sluggishness and frustration, as well as trouble doing simple tasks when you have a depressive bipolar episode.” Charmed, I’m sure.

And genes play such a role:  “Research has identified 64 regions of the genome that are associated with an increased risk of bipolar disorder which is more than double the number of genes previously identified.” (Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News). This explains why we see it passed down throughout generations.

Finally, Frontiers in Psychology report that those with bipolar tend to have an attraction for negative emotions and focus more on threatening images than positive ones. You know, I like to think of myself as being a positive person and I really am with others. But, often times when I’m alone I do ruminate over negative things I’ve done or seen or have experienced. Maybe that’s why I sometimes hold on to anger more than I need too. Hmmmmm.

So, ya’ll are probably yawning now (like some of my students 😦) but all of this info that I slugged through did something very powerful for me: it validated that my emotion, behavior, impulses and struggles are real. Really real. Not just me ‘acting up’ or ‘allowing myself to get so down’ or ‘being way too out-there.’ It’s the disease (the term used by many researchers) that’s affecting my life. My way of being. My actions. I take meds to counter-act this and for stabilization but no medicine can take all of this away. No medicine can change brain structure or genetic make-up.

But this information can maybe change the stigma that’s associated with bipolar and other mental disorders. Just understanding what underlies bipolar and then the physiological underpinnings of other disorders such as depression and anxiety can maybe help people look at ‘us’ through a different lens. A lens that recognizes that who we are is greatly affected by what we have. No one asks for mental illness. You’d be a fool if you did. The fault lies in our brain, not personal weakness. And you know, my realization of these things normalizes my condition in my eyes. I hope this lessens how hard I am on myself. How guilty I feel when I’m cycling. How less than I feel as a person.

And more than anything, I hope it changes how all mental illnesses are seen. As ‘real’ illnesses that need to be treated as such and not to be ashamed of.

Kristi xoxo

P.S. Best 80’s video ever! 😉

‘Cause it makes me that much stronger’ ~ Christina Aguilera

So, this has been such a BUSY semester and I hate that I’m not blogging! I’m re-vamping all of my online classes along with videoing (is that a word? 😳) full lectures for each chapter in depth. It’s a crap load of work but worth it…the students are giving me some great feedback. Yea! (However I will admit this: I do my hair before that webcam goes on and when I’m recording, I do my best to channel Katie Couric 😃).

Anyhoot, another project that’s keeping me busy is that I’m a team lead in bringing the JED program to our campus! This non-profit works with high schools and colleges in helping them recognize the specific needs of the school and students and then helping them implement mental health resources and such. We need it so bad on our campus…so many students come to me to talk about their depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues and just today, a student talked to me about the time she attempted suicide. Our teens are really suffering right now and I worry about them.

Why are they struggling so much right now? According to The Light Program: “…there are multiple factors involved, including pressure to succeed in academics, financial stress, uncertainty about which major or career path to choose, increased social media use, and less stigma around seeking help.” In terms of the reduced stigma (which is still not where it should be 😐), it may be that students have always had these issues but are now feeling more open about seeking help for them. Hmmmmm.

The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds says that the mental health among college students is a crisis and backs up this claim with reporting this:

  • Almost half of college students had a psychiatric disorder in the past year
  • 73% of students experience some sort of mental health crisis during college
  • Almost 1/3 of college students report having felt so depressed that they had trouble functioning
  • Mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders and substance use are associated with lower GPA and higher probability of dropping out of college
  • More than 80% of college students felt overwhelmed by all they had to do in the past year and 45% have felt things were hopeless
  • 20% of female students report sexual assault or threatened sexual assault according to the Center for Disease Control
  • Only 25% of students with a mental health problem seek help

In addition they state that there is a tremendous lack of services in colleges and universities with the ratio of certified counselors to students overall being about 1:1000 – 2000 for small to moderate size schools.

At any rate, research has recognized the 5 biggest mental health challenges that college students face and having the resources in place to help address these is needed so badly. (In fact, studies clearly show that these issues greatly affects student success).

  • Depression: the American College Health Association found that 40% of students experienced at least 1 depressive episode during the 2018 school year and this was pre-pandemic. We know depression is even more of an issue now. In addition, severe depression rates have doubled in college students between 2007-2018.
  • Anxiety: A study from Pennsylvania State University (I know a GREAT blogger from Pennsylvania 😃) published a study in 2016 that found 61% of survey respondents (100,000 of them!) said anxiety was a ‘leading student mental health issue.’ In fact, The American College Health Association’s (ACHA) 2015 Finally, the National College Health Assessment survey, reported that nearly one in six college students (15.8%) had been diagnosed with, or treated for, anxiety. The same survey found that 21.9% of students said that within the last 12 months, anxiety had affected their academic performance, defined as receiving a lower grade on an exam or important project, receiving an incomplete, or dropping a course.
  • Eating Disorders: Sadly, the National Eating Disorders Association reports that 10-20% of female college students and 4-10% of males have an eating disorder which can include anorexia nervosa, bulimia and binge eating. In fact, anorexia is the most deadly psychiatric diagnosis with a mortality rate of 5.86 which means those who suffer from it have almost a 6x greater chance of dying (both suicide and physical issues stemming from the self-imposed starvation) than others in the general population.
  • Addiction: Stats from 2019 show that alcohol plays a leading role in the more than 1,500 annual deaths on college campuses. 35% of students have or do binge drink and 25% abuse other drugs including prescription painkillers, cocaine and ecstasy.
  • Suicide: this is the 2nd leading cause of death among college students and the suicide rate among people 10 to 24 rose 57% from 2007 to 2018 (CDC). Around 11% of college age respondents in a June, 2020 study  said they had seriously considered suicide over the past 30  days with people aged 18 to 24 being significantly more likely to  report this and 25.5% said they had seriously  considered suicide. That’s 1:4 of our young people having considered suicide. Honestly? That scares the shit out of me.

So what’s my point? I believe college’s number 1 job is education and that’s what I do…teach my curriculum as best I can. BUT I also believe that in order to ensure student success in terms of academics, we need to address these mental health issues as well.

You know, when I was struggling so much 4 years ago and had a break-down, I could barely function. Luckily, the worst time was in the summer and my online classes are always completely ready to go when a semester begins. I have all of the work, lectures, etc. posted as well as the modules I use set up to open and close automatically each week. In other words, they pretty much run themselves in terms of the nuts and bolts and I spend my time grading, communicating, discussing, etc. I was able to get by that summer…although I know I wasn’t at my best by any means. And now? Despite the stability I enjoy, I still have issues with having bipolar everyday. No medication is going to ‘erase’ this brain illness: I still have ups and downs (and am in a bit of a depression right now for various reasons 😕), still have to force an effort to be the Professor K I’m expected to be each day, still have heightened emotions that are just part and parcel of bipolar, still ruminate over things and beat myself up easily, and the list goes on (and on and on…charming).

Students and their ability to work and function is the same. Had someone reached out to me in college and recognized what I was refusing to address in the way I needed too, my life could have been very different. Actually, I think that even with no resources offered at that time, just being ‘seen’ for who I was and what I had would have been a relief. A validation. Someone outside of ma or pop who would have said “What you’re dealing with is important to me and I’m concerned” and validating my struggle.”

All of us want to be seen. All of us want to be heard. Not everyone struggling needs intervention…after all, doesn’t everyone struggle at various times in their lives? However, we all need to feel support and know that no matter what, there is a place that we matter. For so many students that I see everyday, that somewhere is here. On my campus. And it’s up to us to make sure we are ready for that task.

Kristi xoxo

“Lean on Me” ~ Bill Withers

Dear Terri,

So, I know you don’t get quite as mushy as I do, but bear with me because I promise to make this as painless as possible! Anyhoot, I don’t know if you realize this but you are a great sister to me and always have been…right from the start.

Remember when I couldn’t talk at first before I spent a few years with the Speech Pathologist and no one could understand me well…including ma and pop? The thing is that you always could; so from the very beginning you had to help me by being my translator and my voice. I wonder why you could get my words when others couldn’t? Maybe because it’s just a ‘sister’ thing? Or maybe because as much as we’re different, we’re so similar too (except in the ‘chest’ department where you were blessed more than me 🤨)?

There’s that arm!

Almost every single picture I have of us as kids, you have your arm around me. Not just casual like, but grippy…possessive…like you were broadcasting to everyone that not only were you my big sis (remember, you are significantly older than me 😐) but my protector too. And you had a job with that, huh? Both of us were bullied in elementary school…especially by that kid ‘B’ who would not only taunt us at school but also follow us home while making our lives hellish for that 2 block walk. But honestly, you remember that better than I do because you shielded me from so much of it. You took the majority of the bullying and pushed me aside. That was such a selfless thing to do, particularly for a kid whose instinct is often to protect themselves first.

I loved it when we would go to gramma and grampas. Getting on the floor with gramma while playing triple solitaire and squawking when we beat her. Running errands with her in the VW bug and arguing over who got to sit in front. I know…I won most of the time since I got carsick so easily. It was either win or have you see me puke. I honestly think you dodged a bullet in that case. And then we’d spend the night and grampa would make us something special and always had teen magazines for us to read. I think we both felt so cozy and loved and sharing those memories of all 4 of us together makes me smile every time. They both would be so so proud of you for the grandma you are today and your grandkids are just as lucky to have you as we were to have our own.

Thanks for the fashionable dresses, ma.

Did you know I started getting jealous of you when you hit Jr. High? You got to go to a HUGE school and have a locker and have more than 1 teacher and ride the bus (which come to find out sucked balls😬 ) and then the best part: go to dances and get calls from boys and have secrets behind closed doors with your best friends. I wanted to be a part of that so badly! And, you were beautiful too! I know you’re shaking your head or rolling your eyes or retching right now, but I’m being honest. You were…and still are! Being the first to try make-up made me long to be older and acting as the guinea pig for your hair styling skills was fun…but to a point. That damn nozzle on your hairdryer would whack me in the nose everytime…and I know it wasn’t YOUR fault…it was the dryer itself…right (🙄)? You know, I just realized that may have been the cause of my deviated septum, and not the broken nose I had years ago. Hmmmmm…

(Did you know I saved all of the letters you wrote to me when I was at summer camp those 2 summers? I saved every one!) 🧡

I loved talking to your boyfriends and even keeping them company while you finished getting ready for dates. I remember when Ben and you were an item and had an argument: he called and I was so pissed he was fighting with you that I yelled at him and called him a ‘hoodlum’…the worst word I could think of at the time. You were gobsmacked I’d do this but here’s why: it was my turn to stand up for you! And a secret? I always had a HUGE crush on Jack. HUGE! I pictured you dumping him and then him looking at me, scooping me up, and carrying me off into the sunset like a prince. A prince in a cowboy hat no less. Did it matter that I was 12 and he was 16? Nope. I figured that would work itself out in time.

And for a couple of years, I was your voice too! Calling into the high school, pretending to be ma, and telling the secretary you were too sick for classes that day. How I wanted to play hooky with you and your friends! When I’d be sitting through yet another lesson on biology which I had absolutely no chance of understanding, I’d wonder what you guys were doing. Make overs? Talking about boys? Sneaking a smoke? Exciting stuff to a younger sister!

You and your cute boys!

When you got married and left home, I missed you so much. The house seemed so empty. It was just ma and me and the vibe changed…the energy. That’s because you had brought it in. But it was exciting when A was born and I was an aunt. I could finally drive and loved visiting you in the country and playing with him. I can still see him on the walkway to your front door, riding his trike with his curly blonde curls bobbing up and down. Then when D was born and I was a bit older, I finally was comfortable changing his diapers and taking more care of him…that was so much fun for me and gave me the even bigger desire I had to be a mom myself. You are a great one.

Does this all sound too Pollyanna-ish up to this point? Like we never fought? Of course but these good memories stick out much better than the bad.

Showoff!

We fought like cats and dogs sometimes…we said things we didn’t mean…we did things we shouldn’t have to one another…and we sometimes couldn’t stand each other and made that clear. In other words, we were sisters. And yes, this sometimes still happens. But we always work through whatever it is and come out stronger on the other side. It makes these fights worth it just for that. BTW, the maddest I’ve ever been at you in my life was when you won the twisted balloons at the Mueller Christmas Party and you REFUSED to let me wear them. It still gets me going. 😬

I know you hear a lot about me being bipolar, especially since you read this and hear me talk about it with others. But I also know you battle so much with your own disorders too…after all, mental illness runs in our family and were both blessed to continue the tradition. Charmed, I’m sure.

The anxiety and depression you experience is horrible and I know your life has been affected by it in so many ways. We didn’t know much about mental illness when we were kids/teens…it just wasn’t talked about or recognized in younger kids. But our struggles were real…even if not always validated. I know these issues can cripple you at times and when they do and you reach out, I often don’t know what to say…because there’s no words that can truly help. It makes me feel powerless to protect you from this like you used to protect me from things. So we both listen to each other…commiserate with one another…and know that no matter what or when, we’re both there to listen. No matter what.

I know you’re hard on yourself for having anxiety and depression…in fact, we were talking about it this week. You said how you feel guilty for letting your grandkids see it…that you want to be ‘perfect’ like gramma and grampa were to us. But the thing is, you are. Your sweeties love you like no other and here’s what you’re teaching them by being who you are: that it’s ok to struggle…ok to express feelings…ok to say you need help. In other words, you are providing the example that being perfect isn’t possible, but being honest and true to yourself is. Think about how valuable of a lesson that truly is.

And today? You are still protecting me. Still keeping me in your grip. Still standing up for me and believing in me and loving me. In other words, you are still the sister I’m so blessed to have and my life would have been so lonely without you. I know this is getting long…and starting to get mushy…so I’ll stop here. But, just know that I love you. YOU. Imperfect, mentally ill, emotional YOU. Because just like you see the real me…I see the real you. And the vision that I see is wonderful.

Kristi xoxo

“Experience is one thing you can’t get for nothing.” ~ Oscar Wilde

So, I’m a big believer in experiential learning and incorporate it as much as I can in my classes, except for my Human Sexuality class! 😏 Anyhoot, I was watching a video on YouTube where college students in California ‘lived’ in a cardboard box for 1 night in order to experience homelessness. Then the next day they had just a couple of dollars and had to eat their meals on the streets. Now, this sounds like a great idea…or it must to some since other colleges have done the same exercise…but honestly, I was disgusted by some of the students reactions in this particular case.

LOS ANGELES, CA – Entire blocks are packed with homeless encampments on skid row in downtown Los Angeles. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

First off, part of the group of students complained throughout the night. They were hot. They were cold. They were hungry. They didn’t like using a Porta Potty. They wished they wouldn’t have signed up…you get the picture. During the next day, some of the students were followed by cameras and made remarks along these lines: “The bugs are horrible…I just want to go home.” “The heat is too hot (ya think 🙄) and I’m sweaty.” “I’m so hungry that I’m getting weak.” This last comment was made in the early morning (after having food just hours before) by a young woman who didn’t want to go to a Good Samaritan or the like since she wasn’t sure the food they would be serving would be fit to eat. To be frank, I wanted to reach through the screen and shake this girl because what she had as a ‘homeless’ person for a day was far more than the homeless do for weeks, months, and often years.

So why did this piss me off? Because this is NOT experiential learning…it’s making a mockery of those people that are truly homeless and have to…gasp…deal with hot, cold, rain, snow, bugs, animals, cruel people, lack of food, lack of electricity, lack of heat and air conditioning, lack of water, lack of roofs, lack of Porta Potties…you get the point.

The feet of Mr. Murphy, who had been on Skid Row for a year in 2018. He is one of thousands who are part of California’s homelessness crisis. Photo by Dan Morain for CALmatters

I can’t even begin to imagine what it would be like to have to pee in the street. To have to sleep under tattered blankets on sidewalks. To have people jeer at you and condemn you for your situation. To not know if you are even going to eat one day. To be able to shower or clean up only sporadically. To live on streets that I wouldn’t want to walk down any time of the day. To not have a warm coat…shoes…socks…underwear.

I’m sorry, but staying in a cardboard box for 8 hours in a safe area on campus where there is security along with the knowledge you can simply walk away and go to your cozy dorm room anytime is not experiencing homelessness. Maybe some of you remember me writing about my nephew who was homeless for a period of time. He’s a paranoid schizophrenic who refused to take meds and was simply in another world. I watched him climb out of dumpsters, sit on corners and eat hamburgers others bought him (bless their hearts…truly ❤), get berated by people who called him scum along with other words I’d prefer not to remember. When he was missing for a period of time, people said how the community shouldn’t use resources to track down trash like him. A couple of times a week, he’d come over for showers, food, clean underwear, burner phones, etc. and talked to me about the cruelty he and his ‘people’ (his words…there’s a bit of a brotherhood in the homeless community where he felt he fit in better than anywhere else) suffered daily. So, to think that this student exercise encapsulates what it feels like to be homeless is an insult to those who are.

Yes, people need to be empathic and try to understand what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes. Of course they do because that’s what makes people more aware of the issues others face. However, how can any simulation be called ‘living’ the issue when it’s so contrived? So…well…fake?

When I was in undergraduate school studying Psychology and Education, I was taking a class on special needs children and we had to walk around campus with a blindfold on and a partner guiding us in order to experience blindness, and then traipse around campus with ear plugs in to simulate deafness. This entire exercise took the entirety of 50 minutes and afterwards, when the professor asked us what we had learned by experiencing this loss of sight and hearing, other students said how beneficial it was and could really understand now what such individuals go through.

Heh? I didn’t get that at all. I had a guide throughout the ‘experience’ and could rip off my eye cover or pop out my earplugs whenever I wanted with only a C grade as a consequence. Truthfully, it made me feel guilty strutting around the campus while pretending to have these impairments. This really came back to me years later when I had a totally blind student in my first few community college classes I taught in Kansas. I was told I’d have Suze in class so I prepared my info to have visual materials accessible but that’s all I prepared for. For some reason, it didn’t dawn on me to prepare for Suze herself. When I first saw her outside my door, I touched her arm to say hello. She swung on me and shouted: “Don’t ever touch me without asking!” I was truly taken aback and felt she had been rude. But as the semester progressed, we started chatting more and more and as she told me about her life living alone with only her guide dog as a companion and I started to understand how scary the world is for her. How every touch can mean something sinister. How someone can hurt her without fear of retribution because of her inability to identify them. How not being able to scan your surroundings made you wary. She told me that everyday things caused stress…just being in a new room with furniture could be a hazard. I realized why she snapped at me the first day we met and I also understood how I fucked up (sorry, ma…but I really did 😔). I was encroaching in her dark bubble where she needed verbal warnings for touch and the like. We ended up being really good friends and I learned more from her than she ever learned from me. Hands down.

But don’t you often hear people claim that they really do understand the plight of others? “Oh, I know what it must be like to be black because I was discriminated against once and it hurt.” Or, “I know what it would be like to have a physical disability since I broke my leg a few years back.” Or, one of my favorites, “I know what depression is like. When I flunked my first test, I was down for a week.” OOOOOKKKKKAAAAAYYYYY! For fuck sakes, I’m sure these incidents are truly reminiscent of what people experience as a part of their lives. Grrrr.

Thank you, Allie.

My advice is this: If you want to experience what it’s like to be schizophrenic or bipolar or depressed or have panic attacks, have doctors give you electrical shocks in your brains so you’ll actually have these mental illnesses. And if these California students really want to experience homelessness, have the professor take them down to Skid Row in L.A. and sleep there. Eat there. Watch people prostitute themselves to get money for drugs…a habit that started in childhood to escape abuse they were experiencing.

Yes, I know this is harsh but my point is this: Go to your local homeless shelter and talk to some of the people…hear their stories and then with what you might spend on Starbucks every week, get them clean socks and underwear and a coat. Or, go to the organization in your area that works with the blind and read to them. Seek permission to visit a residential unit that houses the mentally ill and play a game of checkers or just watch TV with the people. In other words, help. And yes, we all need to do this, don’t we? Me very much included. Further, making this one of the resolutions we all promise to fulfill would be a great first step this coming year. I am promising myself…and my community, that I’m going to do it.

Kristi xoxo

Here are 7 charities we can all give what we can too that fight homelessness in the United States. 🙂

Normal is just a setting on the dryer.

So, can you tell me the definition of ‘normal’, my sweet peeps? I ask because as I was doing my dishes today (after my routine peanut butter and jelly sandwich🤨), I thought to myself: I’m feeling normal!

Hmmmm. If you look this word up in the dictionary, here’s what you get (courtesy of Oxford Languages): sane, of sound mind, and right in the head. Oooookkkkkkaaaaayyyyy…

Then, thesaurus.com says that synonyms include healthy, reasonable and whole.

As much as I respect these 2 sources, I am still scratching my head regarding what ‘normal’ really is. If I’m healthy, I’m normal? If I’m sane, I’m normal? Wasn’t Ted Bundy both of these? He was physically healthy, had a bachelors degree in psychology (go figure), was admitted to law school in Utah courtesy of a letter from the Governor of Washington for whom Ted worked during this guys re-election, and completely sane in that he knew what he was doing and was able to act as his own attorney (even with only a year of law school under his belt) in a well spoken way. Sssoo…Ted Bundy was normal. Right?

On the flip side, what about when ma had cancer? She wasn’t healthy…but was still ‘whole’…still ma…still reasonable and of sound mind. But if you go by these definitions, she wasn’t ‘normal.’

My point is this: how do we define what normal is? To me, it’s like trying to define ‘love’ or ‘evil’ or ‘happiness’…it’s simply impossible to do in terms of a global consensus because these words are so personal and unique for everyone.

So, back to me feeling normal. I’ve been on my mood stabilizer, Lamotragine, for 12 weeks now and realized today that I’m feeling more ‘normal’ than I’ve felt in years. YEARS! I feel grounded and calm without depression and mania getting in the way of my life! I’m making a ton of things for Christmas presents and instead of feeling manic and rushed and anxious and stressed, I’m taking my time and enjoying the process of the work. When I see dirty dishes or a rug that needs vacuumed or paw marks on my floors, I don’t fret; when I feel like it, I simply clean things up without the urgency that once ruled me. This is a HUGE step for me! This past summer, while going through a really bad manic stage, I worked on my basement for 12 hours straight, 7 days a week with a frenzy that was horrendous…not just for me, but for anyone else around me as well. My mind was running as fast as my body and it was hellish to say the least.

I definitely wasn’t ‘normal’ at that point but with this 180° turn around I’ve had, I feel like I’m finally experiencing what I always pictured normal as being. I used to rush through the store or take hours even getting up the strength to go. I used to make things because of a need of ‘have too’ instead of ‘want too’. I had pretty much believed that normal was being so down one day that I saw nothing good, or so high that I saw nothing bad.

Now? I’m simply enjoying the pace of my life. In addition to the med, I also am utilizing what I learned in the meditation/mindfulness class I took this fall and have learned to be much more mindful and present in all that I do. I’m more mindful when I eat and enjoy the textures and flavors more than I ever have. I’m more mindful when cuddling my pets and take in their feel and smell and love. I’m more mindful when running and hiking, and even cleaning which is still a chore but one I’m happy to do since I love my house so much.

To wake up and feel good and excited while still taking things 1 step at a time is my ‘normal’ which I’m loving…and am so grateful for. Sometimes it’s scary to think about the power of psychotropic medication since it’s working on your brain chemistry, but to experience such a change in my mood and emotions and behavior illustrates how mental illness is truly an ILLNESS. An illness that needs treatment and care. It’s not a moral failing…an arbitrary stereotype…or a label we’ve internalized. Mental illness is real and it’s like the title of my blog says: It’s all in your head. Literally.

Kristi xoxo

“The Times They Are A-Changin” ~ Bob Dylan

So, I’m changing the focus of this blog after thinking long and hard about it. You know, my sissy and I spent Sunday together (making macrame’ leaves…we can’t show them to you…they were pretty bad 🙄) and we did a meditation together and really talked about some things. She made a point I’ve really been thinking about and couple that with what I’m learning in my mindfulness/meditation class, I’m ready for a change.

First, T said: “Kristi, you over-analyze things too much.” And…drum roll please…I do! Part of that is being bipolar and having a ___ brain (I was going to say the f-word but restrained myself 😬) that fires differently…I ruminate, worry, go over things again and again in my head while beating myself up. I’m tired of that! Plus, I studied Psychology for years and have taught it for almost 30…analyzing is what we do! So together, I am either in the past, in the future, or trying to force everything to mean something. It’s too much. And, more importantly, there’s no longer a reason to do it.

In mindfulness, you live in the present…the here and now. I’m going to be 55 this week (holy shit that sounds old 😐) and don’t want to spend the next 55 years of my life not being aware of my time now. My pets and my students and my home and my friends and my family and my colleagues and my runs and my walks and my activities…the list goes on. I want to be in each of these moments as they are happening…because I’ve come to understand it’s that moment that really matters. Or almost all that matters!

When I started this blawg, I did it for a few reasons: I wanted to have a place to work out some things which writing helps me to do. I also wanted to show that those of us with mental illness have the same problems and love and work and family stuff that everyone else does. We aren’t weirdos or curiosities. We’re people struggling in life like everyone else with one added ‘thing’.

Finally, I started this right at the beginning of the pandemic when I was stuck at home with Ed and Dottie and going a little bonkers with all the quiet. This gave me something outside of school and I love it.

But, I’m putting a lot to bed today. Like, the past. I’ve made so many mistakes in my life and screwed up so many things…and continually beating myself up over them or thinking I can make things different by typing about them isn’t what I want to do anymore. The past…it’s over. I can celebrate the good from it…make peace with the bad…and work to be mindful of my life right now.

My Shelf!

T and I talked about ‘putting it on a shelf’…you know, like you ‘shelve’ something to think about later. But what if you put something on the shelf and let it collect dust? Why would that matter? So, I actually got a shelf and have a jar and paper. When I get upset or need to vent or need to say something that no one else needs to hear, I’m writing it down and putting it on the shelf. Literally. This visual really helps me to understand that what’s behind me is ‘there’ but no longer affecting me like it has.

I’ve written a lot about the men that have been in my life and I haven’t always been kind and that’s not fair. I have never been in a committed relationship where I didn’t love the guy more than anything at that moment and all are special to me. I have had 3 marriages and 2 serious relationships that all have given me so much…my son, laughter, love, passion. Whatever problems we had, I was just as much to blame and probably even more so a lot of the time! I never want to leave the impression that I was the victim…because I wasn’t. And I apologize if things looked that way. I could fill up a fucking football field with little pieces of paper noting my mistakes and it wouldn’t be enough.

In my class this week, we learned that we need to view mistakes as part of our learning process and to see them as getting us closer to our goals. Further, our mistakes help us to make better choices and decisions next time (Shauna Shapiro”Good Morning, I Love You”). Isn’t that a neat way to look at them?

So, from this point on my blog is going to change a bit. I’m going to write about current issues, my life TODAY, things I’m doing in my classes, outings with ma and sis, etc. And I’m excited about it. 😃

I’m mostly delighted about this though: letting go of all of this is freeing. It truly is. Forgiving myself for all of my mistakes is also needed and I think I’m almost there. You know, it sounds so silly or cliche’ but meditating and relaxing and learning to be mindful are all making me see my life so much more clearly. That I need to embrace today. Love people today. Learn something today.

So, bye bye past. You are on a shelf and I might glance at you now and then but I won’t let you control my life. I’ve learned that I’m the driver of it and I can’t wait to see where it goes.

I love you, peeps…thanks for joining me on this ride. 😍😍😍

Kristi xoxo

“So darlin’, darlin’, stand by me” ~ Ben E. King

So, one of my students and I always walk out to our cars together after my last class and today she said something no one has asked me before: “How do you take everything people put on you?” I looked at her quizzically and she went on to say this: “We are always sharing things with you and burdening you with our problems…doesn’t that get hard to deal with?” I told her that it didn’t and I was just the kind of person people open up too. But, as usual, I started thinking about this more and realized that it probably does affect me more than I let on…or that I even admit to myself.

As the Grand Poobah would attest too, teaching Psychology (and Sociology) puts you in a position of teaching topics/issues/concepts that are so personal. For example, in my Marriage and Family class (my area of expertise…I have enough experience 🙄) we talk about issues including domestic violence, child abuse with special emphasis on sexual abuse, rape, infidelity, divorce, alcoholism, mental disorders and their affect on relationships and the list goes on. Pretty heavy stuff, huh?

In my Theories of Personality class that my student is in we talk about attachment, parenting, various conceptions of personality development that can go awry, personality disorders, theories that explore our neurosis, Horney’s Tyrrany of the Shoulds, the Inferiority Complex (Adler), our Shadow archetype (Jung), anxiety and defense mechanisms (S. and A. Freud), identity formation (Erikson), issues relating to freedom (Fromm), love (Fromm), conformity, social belonging, narcissism, psychopathy, real self vs. ideal self (Horney and Rogers), self-esteem, self-worth, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, self-image and you get the point. ALL of these topics can bring things up in students and even though it sounds absolutely horrible to admit, tears are sometimes shed.

Today we talked about Humanistic theories and discussed Roger’s belief in phenomenology and how it’s OUR perceptions, based on OUR experiences, that need to be the focus of attention. We live in our own bubbles based on things we have gone though which skews perceptions…but those perceptions, though maybe not rational, are real and need to be validated. After all, they’re ours.

So one of my students is a recovering heroin addict who spent 6 years in prison and has been clean since. She lost custody and contact with her first 2 children because of this but has another little girl she’s raising with her partner. The little girl has special needs and acts out uncontrollably at times. She’s in the process of being evaluated, etc. but it’s really hard for my student to handle. When we started talking about how our experiences shape our perceptions, she started crying and said this: “I’m a horrible mom. I get so impatient and so frustrated and I’m giving her these experiences that are going to screw her up. Maybe I’m just not meant to be a mom.”

This broke my heart. This woman is one of the kindest, smartest, and most motivated person I know and she works and tries with her daughter so hard. But, she makes mistakes. She yells and gets upset and cries and is now beating herself up over these times her daughter is taking in. After she calmed down I asked her this: “Name a perfect parent.” She couldn’t. I said: “Name a parent who is 9.9/10.” and she said YOU and I started laughing. WHAT? I told her that you could write every single mistake I made with O on the huge walls of our lecture hall and would still need room for more. I even called O on speaker and asked him to rate my parenting…he said he would probably give me around a 7.5-8. So, in other words, I have degrees in Psych and Family Studies, have worked with ages from 2- 70, have certifications out the wazoo…and I’m a C parent 😳.

She started laughing and we talked about how we are all going to ‘give’ our kids negative experiences because we’re human…they’re human…and when you have 2 imperfect humans interacting, there’s gonna be issues. But that’s OK. It’s normal!

Throughout the same class, students have also talked about lack of self-worth stemming from an assault, growing up in an abusive home where there was never any acceptance or positive interaction, feeling inferior to everyone else, confronting their ‘shadows’ and things they have done that they regret, etc. And I listen, validate, comfort, and sometimes advise if I think it’s appropriate.

And you know, in all of my 28 years of teaching at the college level, I have NEVER once talked about domestic violence, sexual abuse, rape, alcoholism in families, or anything else without a handful of students in each class talking about their own experiences or coming to my office to share with me. It breaks my heart. So much. And it’s hard to not bring that home and have it haunt me. I just want to take these young people and wrap them all up in a blanket and schlep them off to a bubbled island where they won’t ever hurt again.

But I have my own issues too. Ever heard of ‘Imposter Syndrome’? This is when you feel like a fraud in what you do…that you really aren’t good enough for the position. I feel like this a lot! Here I am…someone who did shitty in high school…standing in front of future lawyers and counselors and executives and teaching them for a grade that will be on their transcript forever. Sometimes I think I should be in one of the seats…not out in front.

And today? We’re talking about DV in class and I always get choked up. How can I not when ma suffered 28 years at the hands of a batterer? And then we listen to a 911 call placed by a little girl, 7, who’s reaching out for help while her step-father beats her mom in the background. This resounds with me. I used to hear R beat mom when I was in bed. The fear and paralysis and sounds and powerlessness are still there in my head. The first time I heard it I couldn’t believe what was happening. It was the most awful night in my life and growing up in a home with that throughout my teen years has affected me. So when I hear the call, I can understand the girl’s anguish. (And yes, I called 911, my grandparents, my sissy, etc. and we all tried to help ma as much as we possibly could but ultimately, it’s the victim that has to take the help 😔).

When I lecture about sexual abuse, how can I not think of the 2 years I was abused by my psychologist? How can that wound not be re-opened every single semester in multiple classes? Then, when my sweetie students start to share their stories with me, it crushes me.

I never get through my lecture on divorce without choking up to where I sometimes need to take a breather. I hated my parents divorce…it was so hard on sissy and I, and I swore my kid would NEVER ever experience the break-up of their family. Yet he did and I remember his pain. His tears. His shouts. His haunted eyes. And I beat myself up again and again for that.

When we talk about mental illness and it’s stigmatization and how hard it is to live with, I get angry. Why is there still so much shame associated with illnesses no one wants or deserves or asks for? And then when my students message me and tell me they experience depression or anxiety but can’t ask for help because they’re scared people will look at them differently, I cry…because they’re right. You are looked at differently.

So I guess I take on other’s burdens because they need me too. They need someone to share with and talk too and learn from…something I didn’t have in school. They come to me because I’m open about things I’ve gone through…they know about ma (she has actually spoken to some of my classes), me having bipolar, me having been abused, etc. I share with them because they need to know there are people behind these statistics…text chapters…articles. When I say to them: “I understand” they know it’s true. Look, they’re there for me everyday…the huge family I never had and they let me live out my passion to teach and make me feel like I might be making a bit of a difference in their lives. I get back so much more than I give to them so if another student ever asks me why I take so much on, here’s what I’m going to say: “Because I love you all.” It’s as easy as that.

Kristi xoxo

“Ignorance is the enemy and it fills your head with lies.” ~ Rodney Crowell

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

So, the Grand Poobah (my office buddy 😃) and I were yacking yesterday while he was working on an assignment that he didn’t know was appropriate or not. In the chapter he teaches on depression, he wanted to focus attention on suicide with the students reading various articles and watching a documentary about it before writing a paper. He wondered if this would be too triggering for some and we had a discussion about this.

Here’s the thing about triggers: we all have them. After my nephew died in the Navy, every time I heard anything about the military, my heart would pound and my stomach would get a hollow feeling. Before I was open about being bipolar, I’d get nervous talking about mental illness and the importance of awareness, yet I was living a lie which made me so anxious. After I engaged in self-harm, I would get horribly defensive if anyone mentioned cutting or accused me of doing it until I was able to share what I had done. And yes, after I attempted suicide myself, I was extremely sensitive to the topic.

But being a prof of Psychology and Sociology, I can’t back away from these issues because I talk about them in most of my classes. I’ll admit that the first time I taught about suicide after my attempt, I started crying…right in front of my class. I was so embarrassed because that has only happened a couple of times in my entire 3 decades of teaching, but the incident was still fresh in my mind. When I started crying, I quickly thought of lying to my students and telling them I wasn’t feeling well, etc. but then went back to how hypocritical I had been covering up being bipolar for most of my life. I lecture to my students how you have to live authentically and how there is no shame in having a mental illness or having attempted suicide. With that in mind and after a deep breath, I shared that I had attempted suicide myself and explained where I had been in my life at that time.

As I was talking, I couldn’t believe the reactions of the class…some shed tears and some nodded so genuinely that I knew they had had suicidal ideation themselves. After the lecture was over and resources perused, papers were turned in and this is some of what was written to me (with any identifying info taken out but all words of the students as they were written):

“I think the reason it was so hard for me to watch this film is because I have a history with depression. I will not lie and say I have never had a suicidal thought because I have. I used to be in a dark place with my mind and I am not ashamed of that because of how much I have grown. My chest started to get tight while watching the film because it took me back to that time in my life when I was really unhappy. I paused the film and took a break and it helped me. I thought this documentary was very sad and it shows a part of human life that is not shown that much. Suicide is not talked about as much as it should be. There should be more awareness and conversation.”

“This week was a very hard week for me when going over the material. I personally have battled with thoughts of suicide but never had the courage try anything. I grew up with a bipolar mother and struggled with my own anxiety and depression.”

“This topic is tough for me to discuss. I have lost multiple friends due to suicide. I was also almost a suicide victim myself. I struggled my entire life with depression and anxiety. To fully understand the impact of mental health and suicide, I will lay out my story. This is hard for me to do, but I feel it is essential to speak about it.”

“Lastly , I am a survivor of depression and attempting suicide as well. I chose article one because it really touches my life in the last year. My son was self harming by cutting himself on the legs and arms. The day I was told I stopped at nothing trying to find my son’s help. It went from that to last month I found out my son tried x-pills, 2 years of alcohol misuse, becoming withdrawn, rebellious, and just 2 months ago he attempted fighting my daughter and I , he would go from saying he wanted to kill himself, to nobody loving him, to breaking down crying. Glass shattered everywhere, holes in my wall that I’m still trying to get fixed, me trying to console him and my daughter, finally having to call for assistance and watching my son leave by the ambulance screaming he loves me.”

“I can relate to those who express suicidal thoughts, as its something I myself have struggled with. The best way to describe it, is a voice inside your head telling you that no one cares, and your life doesn’t really matter.”

The saddest thing about these comments is that I only picked out these 5 out of the 20 students I had; however, EVERY one of them wrote about their own personal struggles with suicide (the majority) or having a friend or sibling that has attempted or completed. That boggles my mind.

There is so much pain out there. So much loneliness. So much neediness in terms of connection. How horrible that for my students that this has already touched their lives. And from comments in other classes, I also know this class wasn’t an anomaly at all.

Now we talk about triggers which is something I hadn’t heard of or been cautioned about until a few years ago. Us professors are told to tell students when we’ll be studying a subject matter that could be triggering to them and to offer them alternatives. On the surface, this sounds like a good idea. However, the research begs to differ.

Take a look at findings published in Clinical Psychology Article:

“The consensus, based on 17 studies using a range of media, including literature passages, photographs, and film clips: Trigger warnings do not alleviate emotional distress. They do not significantly reduce negative affect or minimize intrusive thoughts, two hallmarks of PTSD. Notably, these findings hold for individuals with and without a history of trauma.”

Also, Forbes magazine reported this:

“Across all the variations in the studies, trigger warnings had trivial effects. In the words of Mevagh Sanson, senior author of the study, “The results suggest a trigger warning is neither meaningfully helpful nor harmful.” “The format of the presumably upsetting content, whether in text or on video, did not matter. Neither did a personal history of trauma; participants who reported they had experienced actual trauma in their lives responded to the distressing material similarly, regardless of whether it was preceded by a trigger warning or not.”

Finally, the Chronicle of Higher Education says this:

“We are not aware of a single experimental study that has found significant benefits of using trigger warnings. Looking specifically at trauma survivors, including those with a diagnosis of PTSD, the Jones et al. study found that trigger warnings “were not helpful even when they warned about content that closely matched survivors’ traumas.””

What do psychologists think? Let’s take a look-see at an article in Psychological Science:

“Specifically, we found that trigger warnings did not help trauma survivors brace themselves to face potentially upsetting content,” said Payton Jones, a researcher at Harvard University and lead author on the study. “In some cases, they made things worse.” Worryingly, the researchers discovered that trigger warnings seem to increase the extent to which people see trauma as central to their identity, which can worsen the impact of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the long run.”

So, this sheds all new light in terms of triggers. Not only do they don’t seem to work, but they can also increase the distress of a student.

Now, what are usually seen as triggers? Suicide, eating disorders, sexual assault, domestic violence, mental illness, sex, murder, death and anything else the professor deems might be triggering to a student.

There’s absolutely no doubt these are very difficult subjects to learn about, but they are very important to understand. Every 11 seconds, another American takes their own life while there’s also 14 people being hurt by their intimate partner. One in 5 Americans live with a mental illness (51+ million people) and someone is raped every 68 seconds.

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Look, these are serious numbers and obviously going to touch all of our lives in one way or another. I once had someone tell me, after a difficult lecture, that ignorance is bliss. Heh? IGNORANCE is bliss? NOT understanding and being oblivious and uninformed is better? For who exactly? You? Us? Me?

If we don’t address these issues…talk about these issues…and learn all we can about them, how in the hell are we going to work at turning these numbers around?

You know, I was really distressed over the sexual abuse I experienced from my psychologist and I’ll be honest: anytime I heard about sexual abuse or rape, I would break out in a sweat and feel like my stomach dropped 10 floors down an elevator. Worse, I started working on a psychology degree and guess what I had to learn all about? I was really nervous when the topic was being presented but the way the professor taught it, I was able to look at it academically and there was truly a comfort in knowing I wasn’t alone. That what I was going through was normal. I learned about sexual abuse and realized that if I always turned my head away from it, I would never be able to use what I’d been through to help others. And that’s what I try to do now.

So here’s the answer to the Grand Poobah who is going to be reading this: keep your assignment on suicide. Students can take breaks when reading articles or watching videos but the information is vital. Suicide (as well as so many other topics I mentioned) is an epidemic and NOT talking about it and teaching about it only keeps it hidden away. I want my students to understand why people want to kill themselves…what signs they can look for…how to talk to someone who is suicidal. I want them to know what early signs of domestic violence are and to understand the pathology of mental illnesses. I want them to be educated in the issues that Americans face every day of their lives.

Unfortunately, I’ve had students come to me days after being raped and I would never ever expect them to complete a unit on sexual assault so soon after the traumatic experience…so there’s obvious exceptions to this. But, ignorance is not bliss and the info we teach isn’t always easy, but it is necessary. Until we face things and help students to understand that their own experiences can be talked about and explored and validated, we are doing them an injustice. We’re simply keeping everyone in the dark.

Kristi xoxo

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