Balancing act, part one of many

It’s pretty common for women to talk about the tricky proposition of balancing the many elements of their lives. In fact, I know few women who don’t worry about getting a proper balance, let alone maintaining it. But having mental health issues just makes that balancing act that much more difficult. I can say from years of experience that it’s a razor-thin line; right on one side I might feel a little overwhelmed but still OK; on the other side, I’m far past overwhelmed: I’m stressed, I’m drowning, I’m angry and lashing out at whoever comes too close. The latter is not a pretty picture, and I don’t like thinking about the times I’ve been pushed too far on that side of the line.

What my psychiatrists and I are currently calling bipolar II or atypical bipolar disorder causes me to experience a kind of hopeless feeling in which I rarely feel that kind of depression that makes me not want to get out of bed. It’s more of an angry depression. I feel isolated, alone, abandoned by all who should love me and somehow care and know me well enough to be able to see what’s happening and help. When I feel that way, in the very extreme times, I feel that life won’t possibly get better, that I can’t take the psychological pressure that seems to be pressing in on every side of me. I just feel angry at everyone who could possibly be blamed, including God. When the anger kind of dies out, I feel depleted and in despair. So I “swing” back and forth between a sad, hopeless depression and an angry depression, if that makes any sense. I’ll try to explain further in later posts. Suffice it to say, yes, I am a type-A personality, but I’m also typically a fairly cheery, happy person who always has a smile on my face. So when I get backed into these corners where I feel trapped and angry, the rage that almost flares up out of nowhere feels so at odds with who I feel I AM that it upsets me even further.

That brief introduction to my moods is just to somehow try to explain that I can quickly get out of balance. After years of this kind of yo-yo-ing, I can feel when I’m getting close to the brink, and I start feeling desperate. I know I need some down time, alone time, unwinding time to try to swing myself back to a more stable self. The problem is when I feel I don’t have the choice to just say no to activities or pressures or expectations from others.

Some people are more sensitive about this than others. Again, finding balance is always a delicate proposition, and many people understand this for themselves and that it’s the same situation for others. Some are just more empathetic about others’ needs as they bump into their own needs. I admit I get a little irritable when I say, “Well, I can only do ___ because I am pretty busy.” In my mind, that’s me being responsible enough to know my limits and exercise my personal choice to lay down those limits and work around them. When someone else responds, “Well, yes, sure, but we’re ALL busy,” I know they’re not really going to be too respectful of whatever line I’m going to draw for myself. Or they may say, “Yes, well, but (____ organization) really NEEDS you.” Sure, every organization that relies on volunteer help of any kind always needs help and never has enough. But I cannot possibly do enough to fill in those gaps, for that group or any other. Or I might just say flat-out, “No, I simply don’t have the time and energy to do that right now,” and rather than saying, “Oh, of course, don’t worry about it. We’d love your help, but we understand that” they keep pressing on in some way. These responses essentially tell me that these people value their needs above mine. And sure, we tend to be selfish beings and that’s natural. But I certainly appreciate it when someone else rises above those human tendencies and tells me, “That’s fine. You do what you need to do.” I so greatly value when they have the kindness to respect my choice, my right to make decisions for my own life and that of my family.

You see, I know what my limits are, and I’m constantly doing the balancing act. I am a softie at heart, and I want to give my money and time to a whole lot of worthy causes, worthy people. My heart goes out to them. I may even sometimes foolishly say yes or maybe when I should have said no because I’m biting off more than I can chew or even get in my mouth at one time. But when it comes down to it, my mental health must stay intact, so I can be happy, so I can take care of my family (which is paramount in my life above all the other things that matter to me), and so I can in the future continue to give to others. Simply, it rankles me when others don’t respect that I should know best for my own life and my own well-being and continue to push me when I say no. It ticks me off. Big-time. But on the flip side, I feel respected and cared about when someone is kind enough to take me at my word and wish me the best. Perhaps I expect too much out of people, but I would love to see more sensitivity in how people treat each other. There’s just no way of knowing what someone else is going through. I’m being open here on this blog so I can help others understand what I’ve experienced, but I simply can’t go through my whole personal history every time someone demands justification for me saying no. Thank you for being understanding, those of you who have been and continue to be so with me.


So many talks have been given, quotes made into cute signs, and so on about gratitude. I am sure I have absolutely nothing new to say on the topic. Nonetheless, I’d like to take a few minutes to share some of the things that move me and leave me with a sense of gratitude for the abundant, luxurious life I live. I am not wealthy, just fairly middle-class, but I recognize that I am rich compared to so many people across the world, even in our own relatively wealthy country.

First, I am frequently very grateful for the conveniences we take for granted in our first-world life. Aren’t running water and electricity amazing? I love having a climate-controlled home. I don’t like the heat too much, although at this point, I’ve lived 25 years in warm climates where there isn’t much snow and the summers are either very hot and dry or hot and so muggy you might as well be in a steam room. I don’t mind the cold; I like bundling up, but I have come to appreciate not having to navigate around with snow on the roads or sidewalks. I appreciate just being able to go about my business unhindered. So I appreciate air conditioning and heating. When I moved to the South as a 10-year-old from the cold climes of Pennsylvania, I went to an elementary school that still didn’t have air conditioning. I sweated through the first month or two of school (August!) and walked home in a haze from the bus stop to my (finally!) air-conditioned house. Mom would often be waiting with a Popsicle. How sweet and wonderful that was.

And plumbing. To have hot water or cold water whenever we want it, without waiting, without hiking to a well or going outside to a pump. Wowee. And toilets: it’s pretty nice to flush the smelly stuff right out of your house and not have to use an outhouse that always smells (no trips to said stinky wooden shed in the middle of the night either when it’s dark and who-knows-what might get in the way).

Technology never ceases to amaze me. Sure, we’re living in a media- and tech-saturated society, which isn’t always a good thing, but I’m in awe of how much good can be done with what we have. I just think it’s cool if I or one of my children has a question we can just take a quick moment to run to the computer and Google it. When I was a kid, the only immediate sources available were my parents and the encyclopedia. If neither of those all-wise repositories of information had the answer, I was sunk, just stuck with a question and no satisfying solution.

All of these little things are just a sampling of blessings I appreciate on a daily basis. Of course, what matters most to me are my family and friends, my experiences and memories, the things I’ve learned. I have a husband who has his imperfections and little quirks that can make me a little crazy, but he is just overall a kind and unconditionally loving man who has been better to me than I could ever have imagined these past 19 years. My daughters are astonishing in their beauty, their talents, their sweetness, their good natures. I wish I could just sit down and enjoy them non-stop, but my own needs to be alone and do things for myself as well as just the daily needs of a household keep me from doing that. But I do enjoy the moments we have, even the hours, in which we talk, read, play or otherwise have fun and share together. I also have some wonderful friends whom I admire and love a great deal, who I wish could all live on my cul-de-sac and be available all the time for fun and commisseration. There have been many other people who have been kind and good to me over the years, and I hope that any good I do can just “pay forward” in their honor.

Finally, I am grateful for my faith in and assurance of a God in heaven. It is always comforting to know that he loves me and has a plan for my life, in this mortal existence and afterward. I try to live to show him how much I appreciate his goodness to me in so many ways.

Sure, it’s only March, but every day can be Thanksgiving Day, can’t it?

The complex intersection of health, fitness and self-image

I never felt particularly pretty or slim when I was growing up. I always felt like I was a little chubby. When I was about 11 or 12 I actually went on a diet, and at this point I don’t feel I can accurately recall whose idea it was: mine or my mother’s. I cut out sweets, mainly, and ate a little less. My younger sister was taller and slimmer than I and just somehow charismatic and attractive, and I always felt kind of dumpy next to her. When we went on family vacations on occasion, such as the one we made to Florida (Disney World and Daytona Beach) when I was 17, my 15-year-old sister is the one who snagged the attention and admiring looks of the guys. I was just there and along for the ride. It wasn’t until a little later that I came to feel that I was attractive.

My father also had a bad habit of commenting on people’s looks. I adored my dad, and his death in October 2009 was devastating to me, but he did have his quirks and plenty of imperfections, and this obsession with judging others’ outward appearance was one of those. I finally told him the year before he died that it was time he stopped making comments about how people looked. It surely contributed to my constant worry about my own appearance. One of Dad’s infamously terrible remarks happened when I was somewhere around 12 or 13 years old, and we were all listening to music in our living room. My mother was dancing around the room, and my dad observed that she looked like “one of the dancing hippos from ‘Fantasia.'” Silence. I knew it was a bad idea to compare my mom to a hippo, even if it was a very cute animated one, and my mom to this day will sometimes remark about how much it hurt her.

My dad had gotten overweight when he was in his mid-20s and decided to do something about it, so he went on a diet and started running. After that, he stayed super-trim and always exercised and ate healthy foods, even obsessively so. I am sure that his own experience feeling overweight contributed to how he saw things, or the other way around, or both, but it certainly affected my self-image.

We always ate fairly healthy foods when I was growing up, with my mom making homemade wheat bread and putting wheat in every baked good she made. We ate vegetables and fruits in reasonable quantities, and rarely had soda or ate out. So we took care of ourselves pretty well. I never was an athlete, but I did start running my freshman year at college because I was “forced” to in a required fitness class I took my first semester. I dedicated myself to doing it and then just never stopped. Over the past 23 years, I’ve always gone to the gym to work out or gone running or walking, and I’ve only had a hiatus of a year or so total over that time, I think. I just enjoy the feeling of having a good workout, and for a long time, it helped me stay reasonably trim.

At college, too, I didn’t have a car, and my campus was large, so I did a LOT of walking. I could eat all I wanted at my cafeteria and have ice cream galore (I am a fool for ice cream), and with all that exercise, I probably lost a few pounds when I went off to college, rather than gained any. I actually felt pretty good about how I looked, and I felt confident in my attractiveness to all the members of the opposite sex I had the opportunity to meet at that large school.

When I married, graduated college, and got a desk job, however, I quickly put on 20 to 30 pounds. I wasn’t pleased with that and I started eating lower-fat foods and lost a little of it. But I still had most of that extra weight when I got pregnant the first time. After putting on almost 40 pounds with that pregnancy, I left the hospital just under 200 pounds and was shocked at how I looked in the mirror. That was all I needed to limit my calorie intake (I started counting calories for the first time in my life, and I kept it to 1800 since I was nursing), and I managed to take off all the pregnancy pounds plus some. After my second pregnancy, during which I still put on almost 40 pounds, I took off all of that weight and got down to a good size again. I did it again after my third pregnancy, gaining the same amount but getting it all back off 6 months after. I was 32 at that point, and I looked the best I had since I was in college 10-plus years earlier. I was pleased with how I looked, with my good eating habits, with my commitment to exercise, and being able to do all that after three babies.

About five years later, however, I had some pretty stressful experiences and put on about 10 or 15 pounds because I was eating too many sweets. I have always eaten chocolate and ice cream to my heart’s content, so either I started getting a little too old to burn off those calories, or I just ate too much, more than before. I wasn’t pleased with that extra weight and thought I looked chubby in photos. But try as I might, I couldn’t get those 10 or 15 pounds off; all I was able to do was take off maybe 4 pounds and that was all. Two years later, we went through a cross-country move, couldn’t sell our first house (and had lots of financial worries), tried to settle into a new and more stressful life and get to know entirely new people (and miss the old friends where we’d lived for 10 years), lived three months in a house with family (14 of us lived there in one house for that whole time) while we tried to find and buy a new house, and life really put the screws on. I ate and ate and ate. I packed on the pounds and suddenly was 40 pounds heavier. I hadn’t been that weight except right after that first pregnancy, and this time I’d done it without being pregnant, a really embarrassing feat.

As life settled in and eventually got a bit better, and I somehow got motivated, I was able a year later to focus on “dieting,” which for me meant eating fewer calories and cutting out  sweets, a painful thing for me, and I lost 35 pounds over the course of months. I never got to where I wanted to be, but I felt much better about where I was. I tried to lose more but couldn’t, and as life became (and/or stayed) more stressful, I managed to put a few pounds back on.

About a year ago, my doctor told me my cholesterol had inched up. I told her I’d try to lose more weight and see how that affected the numbers; I really don’t want to be on medication that would need monitoring of my liver and have side effects, etc. So I worked really hard for more than a month and still didn’t manage to lose as much as I had anticipated. I was hungry all the time and super-cranky because of it and only lost something like 7 pounds. I didn’t feel I could keep going that way and lose any more, let alone maintain that kind of hungry feeling for very long. So I gave up. Then life got very stressful again in the fall (the long and the short of things is that I simply got far too heavily involved in far too many things), and I put that weight back on and more. I’m back to 10 pounds short of where I started 2 1/2 years ago.

So what is the point of all these details?

First, appearance. I’d like to be able to look in the mirror and not have my first thought be a mixture of shame, disgust, embarrassment, and self-hatred because I weigh more than I would like.

Second, health. Yes, I would like to be healthier, no question. I generally eat healthy food, but then I also eat ice cream and chocolate. I’d like to be able to eat less of the bad things, just to benefit my health and heart.

Third, fitness. I’d like to at least give myself a pat on the back that I have always worked out. I still go to the gym every day of the week except Sunday, with only occasional weeks where I miss another day or two for reasons of illness or vacations (even then, when I travel, I usually find a way to exercise). So this is my one high-five to myself that I am dedicated to fitness. I like how it feels. I like that time to myself that I have at the gym. It’s wonderful. I highly recommend it.

Fourth, mental health. This is the crucial key to my weight issues. I already mentioned how my father was obsessed with appearance. He would make remarks frequently about aging movie stars or singers (he loved Linda Ronstadt but was so disappointed she “let herself go” and got “fat” as she got older; he was sad that Julie Christie had aged when she had been so gorgeous when she was young; the list goes on and on); he would comment about complete strangers who just walked by; he would comment about friends or family members. Naturally, I couldn’t help but wonder what he thought of my heavier weight, though he never said anything to me. It was pretty likely he commented about it to someone else when I wasn’t around.

My mental health issues include my turning to food as a coping mechanism. It’s my drug, I think. My father’s family had a history of alcoholism. The men in my dad’s family drank themselves to death. Dad managed to escape that because he chose in his 20s to join our church, which discourages drinking any alcohol. So he stuck to that and never had another drink in his life, though his own father had given him a taste for beer when he was a toddler and he still missed it. I believe that there is such a thing as addictive personalities; either it is actually hard-wired in our genes or chemical makeup, or it’s a family pattern of behaving. My sister started using drugs and alcohol at a young age and was very likely self-medicating her own mental health issues. Since I also have grown up with the same faith as my father, I have never had a drink of alcohol or a puff of a cigarette, avoiding any possibility of becoming an addict. But I am quite sure I’m addicted to food. I am reasonable with my eating habits when I’m not stressed, but when the screws are on, I turn to the kitchen. Last fall, things were so hard that I literally felt I couldn’t stop eating. I wasn’t hungry; I didn’t even necessarily taste the food anymore; I just couldn’t STOP. And it scared me.

So my goals are twofold: I’d like to look in the mirror and love myself, not immediately see my physical flaws. I’d like to accept who I am, see ME, rather than a body that’s aging and not model-slim, or even slim like I was in my early 30s (I still have those size-6 super-cute dresses I wore a mere six years ago; they’re in a box). I want to love myself, whoever I am.

But I would also like to break my addiction. I would. I’d like to stop my bad habits. But the idea of stopping them scares me. It scares me to even think about not using chocolate or cookies or ice cream as a soothing mechanism. My life can often become so not-my-own (I have four daughters and plenty of other responsibilities) that the food I eat is my only easy fix. I am not proud of this, but at the same time, I am aware that this is not at all uncommon. Those who don’t have this problem think it’s easy to just substitute other soothing mechanisms for the food and those of us who do have this weakness would just be A-OK. It’s just not that simple. I have pretty good “willpower” when I’m not feeling super-stressed or tired, but when I am, I just cannot resist the food. It’s just too easy. I don’t take the easy way out in almost anything in my life. I have come to believe now, after all I’ve experienced and weathered, that I am strong, brave and resilient. I say the honest thing to people even when it’s the harder thing to do; I work hard to achieve my goals, which may sound a little extravagant. But I try. So the food weakness is one spot in which I just too often feel I don’t have the strength or will to resist, when everything else is so hard and I am not taking the easy way out.

I could probably write ad nauseam about this topic. And I will write more. But I’ll just say that weight loss and health can be very complex issues for many people, and there are no quick and easy answers. Again, those who don’t struggle with these things will THINK there are easy solutions, but there are not. I think with everything I address in this blog, this is the case. That is precisely why I’m writing in this blog. Because life can be very difficult, and every person has his or her own set of weaknesses and strengths. If one thing is a strength for one person, it’s a weakness for another, and the two will likely not understand each other’s views on that topic. I’d just like to be able to explore the complexities of life and communication and relationships here, and those who have thoughtful insights they’d like to contribute to the discussion are most welcome to do so. Sensitivity is most welcome, and thinking twice before writing a cliche or simple answer would also be a fine idea. What say all of you?

Creative juices

Life is full of all kinds of things. Here, I will write about whatever else just strikes my fancy, because, hey, this is my blog. Just expect this page probably to fill up with all kinds of odds and ends and miscellanea. I suppose this is the web version of that catchall drawer everyone has in the kitchen and/or office: you never know what you may find. Here’s hoping that whatever you do find here, you find it to be entertaining, uplifting, inspiring or informative in some way, or a combination of all of the above.

So I’ve been thinking lately again about all the things I’ve found interesting over the years. With my children getting older and finding their own interests and getting involved in activities, I am telling them what I used to do. My oldest, who turns 16 in a few months, plays clarinet in band and has been loving that. She also plays piano and is quite good at it, considering how few official lessons she’s had. She doesn’t really feel passionate about singing, though. She also loves art; she’s loved to draw and paint for years, and her creations are just astonishingly beautiful and true to life. My third daughter, who is going to be 10 in a few months, has decided she wants to run track at her elementary school (they do this for fourth grade!). It cracked me up a bit when she said she wanted to try shotput. My girls are petite little things, willowy and trim. So when the 9-year-old said, “That shotput is heavy! My arm is feeling, well… not very strong,” I had to laugh. I said, “You’re not exactly a beefy kid. The people who do shotput are usually a bit beefier than you. You, well, you’re more veggie.” But, hey, if she wants to try that (and the long jump and high jump), then great.

This younger one also decided that she may very well be interested in drama. I’ve taken her to see some plays, and after the most recent performance, she voiced her interest. Not surprising. My oldest has never shied away from public speaking; in fact, she’s quite good at it. But she’s never wanted the spotlight or wanted to perform in that way. But the 9-year-old, well, she is more of a spotlight gal. I think she’ll be great up on the stage.

These burgeoning interests are reminding me of all that I used to do. I performed in community theater as a young person; in fact, as I informed my 9-year-old, I was the star of a play at the university where my dad taught when I was in 7th grade. It was great fun. I helped out stage-managing and performing at our Playhouse in the Park in high school during the summers; I would have acted more, but I had band camp and other activities during the summer that interfered with the schedule. I marched in band for a couple of years. I played piano. I enjoyed singing.

Talking about those activities now with my girls, I miss those days of involvement. Now, I’m just as heavily involved in life, but with different kinds of pursuits, more “adult,” “responsible” things. I work a little, editing other people’s writing. (That’s at least something I get paid for.) I write and review books (a pursuit for which I am not paid). I volunteer with a variety of organizations, right now the band boosters. Mainly, I run a household, which is pretty demanding and complex work, but it’s not focused on me; it’s focused on my husband and children. But sometimes now I miss holding a French horn in my arms and creating lovely music and being right in the middle of a band that’s surrounding me with all the harmonies of 60 instruments working together as one. I miss standing on a stage and reciting words someone else has written that inspire or amuse because I’m bringing them to life. I miss all the cool stuff I did that brought out all my creative juices.

Now I’m exercising my abilities to bring out my children’s juices (hey, I’m a juicer!); I’m refining my interests and learning to manage my time and resources, exercising restraint. I can’t do it all, not at once, but I can do a few things that really inspire me the most. For now, that works for me.

My initial reflections on beauty and self-image

I’ve recently become passionate about the concepts of self-image and beauty. I was drawn into this topic by writing a few articles about cosmetic surgery among the population of Utah, and as I’ve interviewed women who have had elective surgeries to improve the look of their bodies, I have become dismayed at how much we as women (it happens with men, as well, but I’m going to focus on women here) internalize our society’s preoccupation with image and youth and beauty.

What started my interest was during a visit during the summer to Salt Lake and Utah Valley, I noticed a LOT of billboards advertising cosmetic procedures. I decided to investigate the phenomenon and see if anything was going on. Since I’m a journalist and I’ve always enjoyed research, I got home and got to searching for information that would back up my suspicions about there being a trend or not. What I was able to substantiate, numbers-wise, was that there are a lot of plastic surgeons in Utah, more than what would be expected per capita. I interviewed some surgeons, and their opinions were that there were just a lot of doctors who wanted to live in Utah; there’s a medical school in Salt Lake City as well, so a lot of doctors stay in the area after graduation. My opinion was that there was more going on. But first, I put together the information at hand in this article for “Utah No. 8 in the U.S. in numbers of plastic surgeons per capita.”

I decided to follow it up with another facet of the phenomenon: what therapists had to say about it. So I wrote this: “Factors contributing to high rates of cosmetic surgery in Utah plentiful, complex.”

I must say, given the information I have researched over the months, I have to agree with the counselors and psychological opinion. And I’m contributing to work on the topic. I have been interviewing women who have elected to have cosmetic procedures, and they have told me time and again that they just felt really self-conscious about their bodies. Their husbands, they have told me, didn’t want them to have surgery, but they did it for themselves. They simply felt bad about how they looked, and surgery seemed to be the only way to fix it.

My involvement in this topic is still in the early stages. I’d like to interview many more women, and even men, about this issue. My faith is similar to that of many in Utah, who are predominantly members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and in the six months I’ve been reading about this issue and interviewing, I’ve just been dismayed by the fact that these beautiful women who by and large believe they are created in the image of divinity feel it necessary to sculpt themselves by a surgeon’s knife. How have we come to this point? We are actively teaching our daughters that they are daughters of God and they have individual worth and a divine nature. How do we come to this disconnect, then, where we believe we can only feel truly good about our bodies if they are perfect, or nearly so, by society’s standards?

This is a complex issue indeed. I sympathize a great deal with the women I’ve talked to; I’ve given birth, my belly is soft and mushy and not even close to flat, and it’s lined by silver stretch marks. I’m the older side of 40, and my youth is not as close as it used to be. I’m only getting older and softer. But I’d like to rally myself and these other women to fight back against the devilishly prevalent media images and societal beliefs that are so insistent and constant that it is truly a battle within to keep them from becoming a part of our mindsets and self-images. Let’s fight. Let’s win this battle. Let’s remember who we are. Yes, let’s keep fit and healthy. Let’s eat well and exercise regularly and get sufficient sleep as much as is possible. But let’s not internalize these societal images to the point we feel it necessary to go under anesthesia and have someone cut into our bodies.

I heartily support the work of Beauty Redefined, a wonderful website and organization that “is dedicated to taking back ‘beauty’ for girls and women everywhere” and rejecting harmful media messages. I’ll be writing more about the media in other posts, because I am a journalist and because my parents taught me as I was growing up about media and its influences. My father focused his work at the end of his career in television and teaching on the idea of “media literacy,” making sure that all of us who are such heavy consumers (willing or not) of media would learn to critically analyze the messages that are being given to us regularly. I’m going to do my part to help educate and remind us all about how we can fight back and think in a healthy way about what we’re seeing and hearing.

A brief introduction to my favorite books

As a newspaper book reviewer for more than a dozen years, two of which I was the editor of a book page, and a member of the National Book Critics Circle, as well as having my own book review website, I think I could say I’m an expert on books. At the same time, the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know, so I hesitate to call myself much of an expert on anything at this stage of my life. I know how little I’ve read of so many things and would like to read more, but there’s only so much time, isn’t there? I’ve read a number of classics that have enriched my knowledge and understanding of all kinds of topics, but then I’ve missed out on a lot of them as well. So, that being said, I’ll talk a bit about what I enjoy reading, what moves me, enlightens me, inspires me, opens my mind, and just entertains me.

I read a bit of most everything. I like fiction and nonfiction and young adult literature. I still have a great fondness for the award-winning books I loved as a child, and it’s been a true delight to share those with my daughters as they’ve gotten old enough to appreciate them. I don’t think I read a lot of genre books, like science fiction, and even though I did get caught up in the Twilight books, I didn’t just jump on the paranormal bandwagon. I try to be selective about what I read, checking with friends and now GoodReads, for instance, to see what other people have said before I invest time in any book. I’ve collected quite a few books over the years I’ve been reviewing, since reviewers get free review copies, but I’ve also gotten rid of most of them except the ones I truly loved.

Sometimes I enjoy a book not so much for the story but for the way it’s written — poetic, lyrical, lovely, clever, full of great metaphors — and sometimes I just like it because it has fun characters or a super-clever or engaging plot. I love to be surprised, so I adore books (and movies and TV shows, too) that are able to pull off a great plot twist that I don’t see coming (but it has to make sense). I suppose that’s why I adore gothic stories; one of my absolute favorites is The Thirteenth Tale. Wowee. There just aren’t nearly enough good twists like the one Diane Setterfeld pulls off in this one. I don’t typically read a lot of sci-fi, but I have enjoyed a few good science fiction tales over the years (I do quite appreciate Orson Scott Card, even though I’ve still never managed to read what is by all accounts his best book, Ender’s Game). I like fantasy better than sci-fi, so I’ve read more of that (I loved Card’s Seventh Son series about Alvin Maker).

Sometimes I’m in the mood for a hefty tome that digs in deep to a topic, and sometimes I just need some good fluff. I’ve found that YA love stories satisfy me well on that latter count (I found Anna and the French Kiss to be delightful, for example, as well as I Now Pronounce You Someone Else). I like to learn about all kinds of topics, particularly science and health and different places (this book on memory research was fascinating: I didn’t realize just how complex it is to figure out biologically and chemically how our brains create memories), and I appreciate good memoirs (especially if they combine science and humor, like Richard Feynman’s wildly entertaining Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!). Any book that includes passages on grammar or punctuation earn points with me, as did one character’s two-page riff on a comma error in The Elegance of the Hedgehog, a great book even without that hilarious-to-a-copy-editor segment, and once I read Jon Krakauer’s riveting account of disaster on Mt. Everest (I was skeptical when a friend suggested I read it), I’ve found myself attracted to other mountain-climbing books.

I still have all the books I acquired as a child and teenager, and I’ve shared them with (sometimes foisted them on) my daughters. It doesn’t get better than Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time or Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series. The latter especially has held up for me as an adult reader: the books are complex with lovely storytelling, great vocabulary and legend.

Ah, I could go on and on. But that’s what more posts are for. So stay tuned.

Let’s start at the very beginning

I’m going to crack open my heart, peel back the layers surrounding me, and essentially strip down to my bare inner self here. It’s a little unnerving, but I am telling myself this is for the greater good: I hope that things I write will be of benefit to you who are reading this. So here goes.

I have always been a perfectionist. I have also always been a pretty optimistic, cheery, energetic person. I was brought up in a religious home and have always been faithful inside and out, if that makes sense. I have never had alcohol or cigarettes; I even avoid caffeine. I was taught to not take the Lord’s name in vain, and it still bothers me to hear people use God’s name as an expletive. I didn’t use bad language. I earned top grades since my early days and graduated as valedictorian of my high school. Generally, I was considered a “goody-goody.” No problem. I didn’t mind at all.

The summer I was 17 I had the amazing opportunity of spending five weeks at a state program for gifted students. The program itself was great and offered all kinds of interesting activities, but even better was spending that kind of time with students like myself. I felt like I belonged. I also fell in love. Ah, First Love. I had a whirlwind two-week romance with a boy who was smart and cute and who liked me, nerd that I was. I began to see myself as pretty and attractive to guys, an utterly new idea. It changed me.

It also devastated me to have to go home. The Boy lived a five-hour drive away. The romance was over. I saw him one more time, briefly, and we agonized over the distance between us. But that was it. He didn’t even try to keep up a long-distance relationship of any kind. I pined for him and went on with life, starting my senior year.

Several months later, I traveled to a state academic function, and it happened: I was in a crowded room, and all of a sudden space just opened up, and the Boy was standing a few feet away. A choir might as well have been singing and a heavenly light spotlighted down on him. I went to him, trembling. He responded distantly, and that was pretty much it. No happy reunion, no resuming of our summer romance. I was absolutely crushed.

Where is all this going? To what I now realize was my first “breakdown.” I crashed. I cried and cried and acted completely not myself. I don’t remember the details, since it happened 25 years ago and it’s too embarrassing for my mind to keep in my memory bank. I do remember, however, a teacher being called in and me acting out somehow that night in our hotel room, and then yelling and using my first bad language the next day when it came time to board the buses to go back home. Even thinking about the brief flashes of memory that are still there makes me cringe with embarrassment and shame. But in putting together pieces that resemble this outburst, I now know that this was the beginning of moments of not-normal behavior. I felt out of control and completely not myself, as if I’d been taken over by an alien being.

Even so, it was years until I even thought of this event as anything relevant to later incidents. I went off to college and went to see a counselor there, not because I felt compelled to do so by personal demons, but because my younger sister was facing her own demons at a drug rehab facility, and my mother told me that it would be good for the whole family to be involved somehow. I was 2500 miles away, so going to a therapist at college was the best I could do to be involved, I guess. I still felt a bit detached from the counseling, as if it wasn’t for ME, but for a family thing. I didn’t personally need the counseling, but I was contributing to the good of the family in a way. I did recognize that my family was dysfunctional (my parents had had issues over the years and divorced right at that time as well), and it was nice to have someone to talk to about those things. But otherwise, I was going about my own business, living the life I had been so eager to get to for years: being on my own at my dream school.

Oddly enough, I had another incident during that first year of school and I don’t think it still really struck me that anything was seriously wrong. I had boy issues throughout the year, but none really sent me into a tailspin. One evening, however, I was waiting for a date to take me to a very nice event at a theater on-campus. He was perpetually late and I’d warned him to be on time. Even so, he was hideously late and I “lost it” again. I yelled at him and generally overreacted. Again, my mind doesn’t care to let me remember details, but I remember the feeling of the out-of-control anger (rage? fury?) that was disproportionate to the offense, and the shame I felt at how I behaved. The guy was pretty easygoing, so, oddly, it didn’t seem to really damage the relationship. We broke up later, but it was just because it was time for it to be over, and I had realized I was crazy about a guy I was best friends with (who figured in to some later outbursts, a number of them).

I think I really just tried to ignore these events, or I considered them to be weird blips in an otherwise happy life in which I was still the happy, optimistic achiever who admittedly was a perfectionist and consequently a bit anxious, but everyone still saw me as a happy, energetic, bubbly person, so I could kind of skim over these incidents. In hindsight, they’re just signposts that I didn’t recognize for years for what they were.

Three years later, I was in a distance relationship of sorts with the aforementioned best friend. We supported each other through some challenging times in our respective church missionary assignments and felt we would be together at the end of them.

I will probably have to write later about more specifics of what I experienced during my mission time, but I can say briefly right now that it was generally great except for some big but brief blips at the very beginning and the very end. I came home feeling in need of support and shoring up, and I knew it was time to figure out what was wrong. At age 22, I finally realized I was depressed or … something. I came home from my mission to focus on getting myself well. Unfortunately, I expected love and support from the Male Best Friend, who had by that time been a part of my life for about 3 1/2 to 4 years. But I went to visit him, vulnerable and looking for support, and he decided practically within hours of my arrival that our relationship was not going to work out. It doubly devastated me, and when I went home two weeks later, I was in even worse condition than I had been when I’d come home from the mission service and, rather than feeling I had support to help me as I figured out what was wrong with me emotionally, I was even more crippled.

My father had had some of his own breakdowns and had once or twice decided to put himself in a hospital to get care. So I decided that was probably the best course for me. Again, I don’t care to remember the harrowing details, but I’m pretty sure from the snippets I’ll let myself remember I was at that point suicidal. So hospital it was. I went into our small-town hospital’s psychiatric unit voluntarily for what was almost a week, I think. It was odd and a little embarrassing to be inside a locked unit, and I had some fellow patients there who had some real issues that made mine seem small. But over the course of that week, the doctor there decided I was bipolar and began treating me with lithium.

I resumed my life, feeling better able to cope and probably doing better after being on the lithium, so I was able to go about life. I stayed in my small hometown for a month or two but then decided to go back to college early, a couple of months before the new semester would start and I would be enrolled. I just needed to get back with friends and in a place I enjoyed and felt comfortable. I still was absolutely heartbroken over my failed relationship, and that pained me for a long, long time, but I managed.

I checked in with counselors at college again, and I had regular blood tests to make sure the lithium wasn’t damaging my liver. But over time, I came to believe that wasn’t the best treatment, or rather, that it was unnecessary. I knew what the “typical” textbook symptoms were of bipolar disorder, and I just felt that I didn’t fit the profile (I didn’t stay up for days on end or get “manic” in the way that seems to be the “typical” way we hear about with certain cases). Lithium was a serious drug to be on, and I didn’t want to be taking it if it wasn’t completely necessary. So I went off it and seemed to do fine.

In more posts, I’ll share more about what I’ve experienced over the years. For now, this does cover the beginning. Now, I reflect on all that and wonder if I should have stayed on the lithium, and made things a lot simpler for myself, but who knows? Perhaps it was for the best I struggled and learned. I was able to have three pregnancies and give birth to three daughters, which I couldn’t have done if I’d been on lithium. In a way, hindsight doesn’t much matter now. I can’t say I have “clear”, for-sure answers now, but I do have years of experience and I know for certain that my brain chemistry does require me to be on medication of some kind. Again, I’ll share all those things in further posts. But it’s been a long haul these past 25 years, and I hope that in sharing these details of my life, I can help enlighten someone else and make things clearer in this world of mental health that can be oh-so-NOT clear.

Welcome to my inner world

My brain has always been full of ideas and interests. In high school, I participated in band, the school paper, the speech and drama team, and a variety of academic competitions. I took piano lessons. I enjoyed all of my classes, English and math and science. When I went to college, I decided to major in journalism because I enjoyed it so much, but also because I felt it would give me an opportunity to still investigate and learn about a variety of topics as I wrote about them (or edited what other people were writing). I still love to learn about almost anything, and reading and book reviewing has given me a great way to delve into tons of topics. I feel I’ve become somewhat specialized in a few areas, and I have a few particular interests I feel particularly passionate about enough to blog on. So this site will be the umbrella for the various topics I’d like to address, which will include, for the time being, books, beauty and self-image, mental health, home and family life, and then just whatever else I’d like to share. Feel free to contribute to the discussion by commenting.

Cathy Carmode Lim