Thursday, December 08, 2016

Repost: The Power of a Gratitude Practice

As a person who has struggled with anxiety and depression throughout her life, perhaps choosing a career as a writer wasn’t the best way to go. Writers, especially freelance writers, experience far more rejection than the average person.

Fortunately, during some intense research I was doing on adolescence and brain development, I discovered several studies on the power of gratitude. When I was really wrestling with darkness, mornings were the most challenging time for me. I woke up, opening one eye at a time to gauge whether that semi-truck of pain and longing was heading for me before I swung my feet out of bed onto the floor. Often, before I could get both eyes open, my mind would begin to race and my heart would pound as I anticipated what the day had in store for me. After reading about the way gratitude shifts our thinking patterns and affects our brain chemistry, I decided to start each day with a short list of things for which I was truly grateful. I envisioned it as a sort of shield against that truck hurtling toward me.

In the beginning, it was often hard to come up with a list; not because I don’t have many, many blessings in my life, but because I have an innate tendency to qualify them. As soon as I think of one, I either compare it to someone else and feel guilty that, say, my kids are healthy and I have a friend whose kids aren’t – which effectively soils the gratitude – or it feels trite and petty, like being grateful that I have enough money to pay my bills. Even in my gratitude practice, I found myself wanting – either for more ‘pure’ things like love (which feels a little too nebulous sometimes, to be honest) or for deep, profound items on my list that really resonated in my bones. I am nothing if not stubborn, though, and motivated by the fervent desire to keep my depression and anxiety at bay, I kept going despite the sometimes pathetic nature of my lists. Every day, I thought that maybe tomorrow I could come up with something beyond gratitude for my soft, warm bed, my kids, and my husband to be grateful for.

When my teenage daughter was struggling with anxiety upon starting high school, I encouraged her to start a gratitude practice to see if it could help her. Every night before bed, I would text her three things for which I was grateful and she would text me back right before falling asleep. My hope was that if the last thoughts she had every day were ones that filled her up rather than dragging her down, perhaps she would wake up with optimism for the coming day instead of dread. Her lists began much as mine had. She was grateful for a full belly and a soft pillow and a roof over her head. But over time, she was able to open up and recall specific things that had happened during the day that were positive – a friendly smile in the cafeteria, being picked by a classmate to partner on a project because she is so organized, to appreciating a trusting relationship with a special teacher. Her perspective shifted over a period of weeks and she went from finding excuses to stay in bed to getting up and tackling each new day and its challenges with a feeling of competence and groundedness.

Over time, my definition of gratitude has developed and I’ve come to understand what it is about this practice that has been so effective for me. In the beginning, I often attempted to come up with things by starting with, “at least I’m not….” What I discovered is that if I am comparing my life to someone else’s (as in, “at least I’m not part of this oppressed group or that oppressed group,” or thinking about all the ways my situation could be worse such as, “neither of my kids is terminally ill and I’m not homeless,”), I’m not really being grateful. That’s just another way my anxiety is telling me my life could run off the rails at some point, so I should really be cautious. Instead of helping me feel calm and centered, it is really reminding me that one or more of those things could potentially happen and, for now, I’m just dodging a bullet.

If I am making a mental note of the number of “good” things in my life as compared to the number of “bad” things, that is also not helpful gratitude. Weighing them against each other in a sort of balance sheet is not a positive step. The fact is, both things exist simultaneously (and are often intertwined with each other) in my life and in my mind, but gratitude is about the ones I consciously choose to pay attention to. It doesn’t make the challenges and difficulties in my life disappear, it simply allows me to notice that there are many positive things in my life, too.

The human brain is wired to look for deficiencies, expect sabotage, and find the things that need ‘fixing.’ This isn’t always a bad thing – often I am happy to know that there is something I can do to make things better. But unless I take the time to really engage in a gratitude practice, I won’t notice the things that are absolutely right and lovely in the world all around me. I might notice the pile of unfolded laundry lying on the couch, but I can also choose to see that the dishes are all clean and the dog is fed and happily snoozing in his bed and an essay I was working on this morning is coming along nicely.

I am loathe to imply that gratitude is a complicated thing, though, because when I am in the zone, it truly isn’t. When I am really tuned in to the goodness and abundance in my life, the list of things for which I am grateful grows quickly and easily. For me, the key to gratitude is to simplify things. When I am frustrated and irritable, the best thing for me to do is stop and look around. I see my computer and I am grateful for the ability to write and connect with people who are important to me online. I catch sight of a glass of water on the counter and appreciate clean water and a cupboard full of dishes. I note my sunglasses on the table next to me and close my eyes and thank goodness that I can so often feel the warm sun on my back. When I can keep myself from trying to create stories or context, I can find simple, pure gratitude and suddenly, there is more air in the room.

Knowing that every time I actively look for things that are right in my life means I am activating the parts of my brain that produce serotonin and dopamine gives me hope. When I started that gratitude practice all those years ago out of desperation, I was beginning a process of rewiring my brain to more easily find happiness. Sticking with it, I realized that it does become easier over time to recognize and appreciate simple things that give me joy. While I still struggle with anxiety (and rejection), I am more able to see it as a part of this messy, glorious life I am living instead of letting it keep me from getting out of bed in the morning.

Friday, December 02, 2016

Treading New Ground

I had thought that, since I lost one parent already, there would be a sense of familiarity, of deja vu, of "been there, done that" when I lost the next one. Not in a dismissive way, just an "ok, I've got this, I know what to expect" kind of way.


Dad was diagnosed with lung cancer. He told me early on, I was there to listen, I went down when he had surgery to remove part of his left lung and some lymph nodes, I let him bounce ideas off of me for future treatments. We weren't certain of the timeline, but we knew he was sick and he was absolutely honest with me about how sick he was. It was excoriatingly, skin-flayingly, teeth-grindingly painful in the last week to watch him suffer. He knew me until the minute he died in my arms.

But Alzheimer's or dementia or whatever the hell this is that Mom has is a completely different animal. She isn't having some diseased cells cut away. She isn't calling me to tell me about the latest drugs or therapies her doctor has offered. She might live for six months or six years. She has no idea who I am.

This one-sided relationship is teeth-grindingly painful in a completely different way. When Dad took a turn for the worse, it was obvious. Over a period of several days, he began having pain in his legs and hips and when they took x-rays it was clear that the cancer had spread to his bones. An MRI showed it was in his brain, too - the cancer cells lit up like the night sky I once saw in the middle of nowhere, New Mexico. From that point forward, we knew there was no rallying, no bouncing back.

Mom's slide has been gradual except when it seems to leap forward, and there have been many times over the last year when she was almost able to snap out of it and recognize me and have a conversation. The cruelest part of that is that it gave me hope. It made me wonder how we could capture those lucid moments and prolong them, whether there was some magical drug that she could take that would clear the way for a return to herself. Those moments, when they are gone, are all I can hope for and envision, but they are much fewer and farther between and I know I won't get a signal that tells me I've seen the last one. I didn't get a sign the last time I spoke to Mom on the phone that said it wouldn't happen again. I didn't get a warning the last time she called me by name and knew I was her daughter so that I could savor it.

There is a part of me that wonders if I am a little bit narcissistic in my grief. A part that thinks maybe it shouldn't matter so much whether she knows who I am, that tells me to just get on with caring for her the best way I know how without worrying whether she remembers I'm hers. Because somehow, I want to be special. I don't want to be just one of another cast of characters who comes through to visit and smile at her. I want to be her daughter, not for any sort of recognition of my efforts, but because I mean something more. There is something about the reciprocity of a loving relationship that makes it feel whole. When I sat with Dad during his last days, holding his hand and telling him stories, even though he couldn't speak, there was a familiarity. He squeezed my hand and his eyes danced during the funny parts, and his rough, calloused thumb rubbed back and forth against mine when I was being serious. We had a history that was fully intact until the moment he took his last breath and when I grieved for him, I grieved for all of it simultaneously, the loss of his body, his Self, and our relationship.  

This time, I am grieving in stages. While there are parts of Mom's Self that are still fully intact - her sarcasm and playfulness comes out sometimes with her husband - I have lost the history of our relationship as mother and daughter. She knows I am familiar, but she doesn't know why. Our inside jokes now belong to me, even though she is physically still here. When we sit together, I can't tell her stories about my kids or my husband because it confuses her - she doesn't know these people, why am I talking about them? We can't reminisce or look forward to sharing family holidays together or significant moments in the future because she isn't coming to my girls' high school graduations or weddings. There is a quality of suspended animation to it all, a sense that I am walking without a foundation beneath me.

I wish I had a succinct ending to this post. I usually am able to close the loop with some sort of insight, but maybe the fact that I can't this time is an apt metaphor for how all of this feels right now - loose and unfinished.
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