Training for Mindfulness #mentalhealth #addiction #recovery

February 15, 2015 § Leave a comment

The sunlight is streaming through the southeast bay windows. Shadows cast by the spidery winter branches of the Lombardi Polar hang suspended in the air. A low growl curls in my big shepherd’s throat as he goes to the window. “No!” I say, in my gravelly cold soaked voice. “Get Down.” He turns and wanders away from the window aimlessly patrolling the east window. Strolling back, he hops into a high backed chair in the bay windows and curls up with his nose tucked over his paws.

My elderly fox terrier is cozy in his own sunbeam, snuggled in his favourite sleeping bag. Upstairs the bathtub is running as Husband prepares to leave for his regular Sunday job, anchoring the bass section in a church choir. I am ensconced on a leather loveseat, my empty coffee cup signalling it is time to get up and get busy. Writing is a convenient way to hold off the inevitable dog walk and house cleaning that lie before me today.

I’m feeling a little wretched with this cold. I don’t mind so much the sinusitis or constantly having to clear my throat. I hate having a sore throat. As a child I endured constant sore throats until finally, at the age of eight or nine, my tonsils were removed. I’m not sure the procedure helped or not. What I do know is that whenever I get a cold, I get the most painful sore throat and it is almost impossible to alleviate the pain, no matter what I try.

I will describe my living room. The flooring was laid in 1906. It is first growth fir, a little worse for wear but a lovely golden colour. A week’s worth of dog hair and boot dirt is visible from where I sit, with extra hair balls accumulated under the grand piano near the matching dog crates. In one corner is my double bass, on its stand, still in its case from the last concert I played with the amateur orchestra. Beside it are my two ukeleles and two guitars, all in their cases, all unplayed for some months.

Crammed in a shelf is the big shepherd’s stuffed Duckie. He is good for a game of fetch, as long as it only lasts two tosses. After that he loses interest and wants to do something else, like attack passersby. Also on the shelf are my buckets of pencil crayons and pens. These, too, are unused for many months. Two large binders on the shelf contain the course materials for passing the first level of carpentry apprenticeship. Both Husband and I are committed, he at the age of 55 and me at the age of 59, to becoming red seal carpenters. These binders are our first step in the formal process of acquiring that certification.

In the bay window are ranged four comfortable chairs, two of them occupied by dogs, as mentioned earlier. Directly across the room from me, in the far corner of the bay windows, is a small, modest coffee table. Sitting on that table is an inch and a half of paper neatly stacked. On top of that paper is another five page document, stapled, and settled slightly askew of the main stack of paper. These papers represent the cumulation of seven years of work on a doctoral dissertation. The main stack is the thesis itself, printed off in hard copy with annotations from my ex-supervisor and my new supervisor.

In the southwest corner of the room the grand piano sits, passed to Husband, from his dearly departed mother, a family heirloom from his grandmother’s generation. Various collections of music clutter the music stand and the top of the piano. Also sitting on the piano is the book recently published by my daughter, a provocative collection of photographs and journal notes from the mid-seventies through the mid-eighties. The book portrays the life of tree-planting culture at that time, and I figure in the story as her pregnant mother who gave birth to her in a tree planting camp.

Looking at the pictures in the book inspired me to dig out some of my photos and drawings from that period. A small collection of these images are also stacked on the piano, awaiting scanning and posting on the social media site were friends and family, past and present, are gathering to share stories.

The grand entry to the living room has a curtain rod that no longer holds curtains, but now serves as a drying rack for washed coveralls and other work clothes.

The sun is rising in the morning sky and the light now floods through the unwashed windows and bounces off the warm fir floors. The light reverberates through the room, drawings lines of perspective with shadows across the ceiling.

The big dog is on the move again. This time he growled at something on the street and voluntarily got down off his chair. Ah. Progress.

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Recognizable features #mentalhealth #mentalillness #ptsd #motherhealth #drawingstrength

January 11, 2015 § Leave a comment

Every once in awhile, sometimes with more frequency that either of us would like, Husband and I have terrible fights. Over the eighteen years we have known each other, these fights have taken on a pattern, almost a ritual of giving and taking hurtful words and escalating emotional intensity. If it weren’t for the fact that we are both in recovery and both working to improve the condition of our lives, including the emotional condition, our marriage would probably not have survived.

These fights generally last two or three days, with long periods of leaving each other alone interspersed with efforts to re-connect. For whatever reason, after two or three days the tornado has spent itself and we carefully start talking to each other, hugging, and telling each other we love each other. With each iteration of these fights, I am forced to go through my own growing and grieving pains.

What sets us off is immaterial. What is important is how I get triggered by Husband’s emotional and mental states, and how frustrated he gets when he needs understanding and comfort, that I am thrown into a panic and completely unavailable. When he gets frustrated he gets mean, condescending, invalidating, and disrespectful. When he gets frustrated and I realize every effort I make to ‘fix’ the situation is only making it worse, I withdraw, hurt and angry at him for causing all this trouble. Then, when I am angry enough, instead of weeping and gnashing, I go on the attack, accusing him of causing all the trouble and telling him his behaviour is unacceptable. I feel righteous, indignant, and royally pissed for the way he is treating me.

He is looking at me with dagger eyes and I am defiant. There is nothing wrong with me that won’t be fixed by him changing. Al-anon, anyone?

This time, during our extended period of ‘alone-time’ I furiously wrote down everything that I was saying to myself because I was unable to give him what he wanted to be happy with me, to be content with his relationship with me. This is what I wrote:

I am feeling angry. I am feeling afraid. I am feeling desperate. I am feeling distressed. I am feeling hopeless. I am feeling hurt. I am feeling attacked. I am feeling put down. I am the problem. I am stupid. I am slow. I am selfish. I am self-centred. It is all my fault. it is up to me to fix this. It is all up to me. I deserve to be treated like this because I am worthless. I don’t belong. I am not loved. I am not safe. This is all my fault. People are horrible. I am treated unjustly. I set unreasonable boundaries for myself. I feel diminished. I feel invalidated. It is hopeless. There is noting I can do but it is up to me to fix this. I am stuck. I am trapped. I feel manipulated. I feel dismissed. I feel attacked. I feel put down. None of this is making any sense. Why can’t I just do this. It is all myself. I am treated like an idiot. Attacked. Put down. Terrified. Panicking. There is no way out. There is nothing I can do…

This continued, allowing myself to repeat any statement that came into my mind. At the same time as I was writing this down, my jaw was trembling and I had tears streaming down my face. I could barely breathe. I felt excruciating emotional pain. I didn’t stop, I just let it continue to spew across the page until there was nothing left to write.

In the aftermath, I thought about what I could do to bring myself back from the bleak contradictory beliefs: 1) it is all up to me to fix this; and 2) I can’t fix this because I am wholly inadequate for the task. I remembered photos I had taken the last time I was pulling myself out of a deep emotional flashback. I had gone to the neighbourhood where I grew up. There was a creek running behind our house, and all through my childhood I had gone to that creek to play, to watch the water levels change with the seasons, to retreat from the insanity of my childhood home.

The creek is still there, as are the familiar shapes of rocks and boulders, vine maple trees and ferns, and ancient hollow cedar stumps. I decided to see if I could make a drawing from the photos I took, something for me to focus on, and draw me out of my painful state of mind and emotional exhaustion. I selected a photo, and then zoomed in on the image until I had reduced the complexity of the scene to one manageable fragment. I used a pencil on my sketchbook page to render a version of the photograph into shapes, composition and variations of light and dark tone.

As I built up the layers of scribbles a phrase came to mind, ‘recognizable features’. I realized the coursing water through the mossy rocks, the curling swirls of fresh mountain rain winding over, under and around glacial boulders, were as familiar to me as my hands scratching images with a pencil. These were recognizable features and in their familiarity I found comfort. I thought about my fight with Husband and noticed that when he is so angry with me that he stares at me with those dull, thunderous eyes, that I do not recognize his features. He is a stranger to me, and in that strangeness, I panic.

As I examined the statements that had coursed out of my brain onto the page in a rapid torrent, I realized these were the things I told myself as a child when I faced the perplexing and terrifying reality of my mother’s mental illness. My mother was a loving woman, who cared deeply for her children, all of us. However, she was stricken with debilitating postpartum depression when my youngest brother was born, her sixth child in seven years. I was four years old at the time. My mother was one of the five percent of women who suffer post partum depression and go on to develop a full-blown psychiatric disorder. It wasn’t until I was ten that my mother was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. This diagnosis was a consequence of her attacking a paper boy and throwing a rock through the neighbour’s window. As child, my mother had gone from a source of comfort and security, to a person of unrecognizable features. Even when she was sitting in front of me, I did not recognize the dull blank blackness in her eyes, her sallow, flat complexion. She was there in body, but emotionally, and later, mentally, I could not reach her, I could not recognize her features.

As I worked through the drawing I was able to see the impossibility of the position I was in, as a child, and how I felt trapped. I was able to see how Husband’s legitimate need for support and understanding, escalating into a fury of frustration, was not the same thing, but the cues of comportment and composure were familiar enough to bring up those long buried feelings. In this sense, his bleak despondence of being misunderstood were recognizable features that awakened that lumbering monster inside me. I was able to see how my childish response, to believe I could somehow change the course of my family history, while I was utterly unprepared, and unsupported, to do so, was an extremely painful condition. That painful condition had never been properly excised, and so, when current conditions were properly attuned, the wraith of anger, frustration, grief and pain would rise up once again and thud me into a form of wakeful coma.

But this time the pencil drew me through it, giving me a way to put the whole experience, past and present, into words. It allowed me to draw comfort from the familiar setting of the creek bed and the rushing winter water, while giving that young girl, and this old lady, the strength we needed to withstand the onslaught, to let it rage past us, through us, and over us.

Here is the drawing – nothing special, but the beginning of something:

Recognizable features of rocks and boulders, and the flow of winter rain down the mouton, through my childhood backyard

Recognizable features of rocks and boulders, and the flow of winter rain down the mouton, through my childhood backyard


Mindful writing practice to re-conceptualize painful memories and traumatic triggers #mentalhealth #addition #alcoholism #posttraumaticstress

January 4, 2015 § Leave a comment

I have been practicing several new cognitive techniques that are helping me feel better on a day to day basis. These techniques address the autopoietic aspect of my experience. That is, auto – self, and poetic – creating, autopoietic speaks to the idea that we are not exactly autonomous within our environmental conditions, rather, we are autopoietic, we can respond to our environmental conditions, although we are never wholly separable from them.

I have suffered for most of my life from the idea that I was an autonomous person, because I believed that meant I was supposed to have the will, or inner fortitude, to transcend my environmental conditions and the fact that I seemed to be subordinate to them was an indication of a fatal character flaw rather than an accurate representation of the reality of my experience. As an autopoietic person, I am empowered to respond to my environmental conditions. I don’t have to change them, I can become skilled at assessing what they are, and then determining by best course of action based on that assessment. Given that environmental conditions are dynamic, and constantly changing, this means that I am in a continuous process of mindfully ‘reading’ my environmental conditions and sorting through a realm of possibilities for what my next steps will be.

My best friend introduced me to a new book, “The Mindful Path through Worry and Rumination: Letting Go of Anxious and Depressive Thoughts“, by Sameet M. Kumar. I started writing for twenty minutes on a daily basis, as much as I could remember to do it. I also started using mindfulness to practice meditation. What I noticed is that when I practice a simple inventory taking process by naming sensory perceptions – what I can see, hear, feel, taste, and smell, as they are occurring – this cognitive process supersedes my habit of anxious rumination and displaces troublesome thought clusters. I am noticing I can implement this technique at any time, in any place and it helps me cope with troublesome triggers into unwanted mental and emotional states.

I made myself a little database app for my iPhone to track the relationship between observations of sensory perceptions, thoughts and feelings. What I noticed is that one sensory perception, especially in the words or deeds of others, can trigger unwanted thoughts that contribute to unwanted feelings. I also noticed that observations of sensory perceptions seem to trigger unwanted feelings that tag unwanted thoughts that I use to explain my uncomfortable feelings. The other thing I noticed about this tag-team effect of sensory perceptions, thoughts and feelings, was that they quickly became self-referential. It only took one sensory perception to trigger a cascade of negative thoughts and escalating anxious feelings. Depending on how hungry, tired, or lonely I was feeling to begin with, this exponential increase also ‘trigger stacked’ on top of previous cycles of unwanted thoughts and feelings. This helped me understand how a seemingly minor perturbation in my field of perception could turn into a full blown panic attack or rageful frame of mind in the ‘blink of an eye’.

These observations, thoughts and feelings have led me to practice mindful writing exercises. These exercises start with observations of my immediate surroundings, simple descriptions of what I hear, what I see, what I smell, taste, or feel (sensory perceptions on my skin). For example, right now I hear the percussion of rain falling on the street and sidewalk, I hear water running down gutter downspouts, I hear the splash of car tires on a distant, busy street. I hear a plane flying overhead, diminishing as it travels out of range. I hear voices of pedestrians passing on the sidewalk. I hear the slight sighing snore of my big dog sleeping nearby. I see the wet head of my golden coloured shepherd cross curled up in his favourite chair after our morning walk. I see him shift slightly to make himself more comfortable and hear him exhale a big sigh as he settles back to sleep.

In the chair next to him I see one crumpled ear of our fifteen year old fox terrier, wrapped in one of his favourite sleeping bags. I see him shudder slightly in his sleep. He is going deaf and blind so he has become quite attached to my physical body, always wanting to know where it is and only completely relaxing when he knows I am close by.

I am sitting in my living room, in a house built in 1906. It is a little drafty where I am sitting because I am surrounded by five bay windows and the cold damp air slides off the glass and touches my fingertips, my earlobes and my feet. The light is cold, grey, and dull, it is midday in early January and the sunlight is weak and watery at best on this northern latitude. At present the rain is falling in thick wet drops. Earlier this morning there were a few sodden flakes of snow mixed in.

This process of description engages my creativity, language, writing, and sense of connection. These faculties take precedence over reliving unpleasant memories from the past that trigger feelings of righteous indignation, sadness and unrequited love, or indulging in anxious rumination about the future and everything I can imagine going wrong as a pre-emptive strike against possible bad feelings in the future.

What I am noticing about this writing is that it is also leading me back in time, to examine conditions from my childhood and earlier decades of my life. These examinations are not following the same angst-ridden re-hashing of upsetting memories and hurt feelings, but rather, going back as a journalist recording observations from a time gone by. Somehow, by describing the scenes as if I were hovering over the scene and describing details and transitions, I am able to conceive them as events separable from me, even though I only remember them because I was immersed in them at the time. Now, as I use my new observational skills to describe past environmental conditions and evolving circumstances, I can ‘see’ them in a new way, and understand them beyond the injurious, trauma inducing events that have so dominated my life up to now. I no longer have to bury them, compartmentalize them, force them out of my thoughts. I can actually handle them, and start to see the players, my family members, with some of the compassion I apply to my reactive aggressive shepherd, and my deaf and blind fox terrier.

Wow. Could I possibly come to forgive my family members for the painful circumstances of our emergence and the roles they play in perpetuating hurtful family culture?

I do have hope today.

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October 20, 2008 § Leave a comment

I have just finished working for a couple of hours mapping my research processes which kind of turned into mapping my projects and tasks, which turned into thinking about timelines. I have a lot of thinking, researching, and writing to do! Just to finish this term. I hope my process design is going to work because if it doesn’t I don’t see how I am going to have time to re-think what I am doing. Looking forward to the digital pen and the speechwriting software. God. I hope they help me get this stuff done. Now I finally feel ready to get some writing done – that is, writing from my notes. I do have a plan in place for processing texts. I have so much work to do!

the other part of this is that I am in a highly competitive situation

October 20, 2008 § Leave a comment

where my work needs to distinguish itself from the others. I can see now that bringing my studio processes into my writing processes is going to give me the edge I have been needing to bring all this chaos of thought into some sort of coherence. I have figured out that I can use Inspiration for my outline drafting and idea development. There is actually a freehand drawing function in the program. Now that gives me the combination I have been looking for, to be able to quickly type and draw in one application and not have to fuss with layers or overly complex programming. The digital pen will allow me to quickly shift between typing and drawing without the encumberance of needing the tablet hooked up to my laptop. The speech recognition software will allow me to speak my writing, which I think will contribute to reducing technical jargon and bring my writing into a more accessible form. I’ve been thinking, too, about using Dennis, as an imagined audience, to write emails to, but never sending the emails. This gives me a way to write to someone who I have huge respect for, who I will polish my prose before sending. In this way, I can have an ideal audience and write in the email form. At the same time, I get the words out as a communication to a real (though imagined) person. The email format works well because it divides the content into discrete topics. I really should get going with my housework now, but I am stoked! A walk to see if I can pick up a camera would be really good right now. And then I will clean house, I promise.

Here is the silly bit

October 20, 2008 § Leave a comment

I didn’t realize how many kinds of papers I was writing until today: research proposals, thesis papers, conceptual frameworks, dissertation chapters, research questions, thought papers. All these papers have different ways of approaching the writing process. I kept looking for a one size fits all approach and it isn’t going to work that way. That becomes the topic of the work, what is the topic, what is the genre? Same ideas apply to a drawing or a painting. If I am going to paint a flower arrangement, what paints am I going to use? Am I going to use white? Or just a white background? Do I research the right to add white later to highlight areas that got lost during the painting process? How many colors am I using? Is it monochromatic? Or am I providing an approximation of local color? I am excited to jump into writing, using this approach. The other thing I just discovered is that Inspiration has a freehand drawing function. So I have everything I need in that software application to continue developing my ideas. As I learned from my discussion with Matt on the drive to Portland, writing out the sentences and paragraphs is the last thing I should be doing. Long before I settle down to that part, I want to have my topics, sub-topics, arguments, and author quotes ready. I have been trying to accomplish too much in the writing itself. No. That is where I think my inspiration files are going to take on new significance. One thing I haven’t sorted out. I have these notes from Berger and Luckmann in my notebook. I made them reading on the bus, something I pretty much have to do. The point is, that the reading process includes putting pen to paper for the reading. After that, I have to transcribe those notes and the relevant quotes. It is the only way I am going to get the content chunks into my computer so I can organize and sort things for writing. Where do I put those pieces? That is another good question. Emails with attachments? Here in this blog sorted by categories? Oh. Yes, I think that is it. The text becomes searchable, and it is stored where I can always find it. These journal postings, these random thoughts, these free-writing sessions could all be categorized as free-writing. That could be the default category. Then, when I am working with a specific text, that gets it’s own category. When the texts come in as pdf files, I can use scrivener and put the screen captures of text into a file for that particular text. That way, when I name the file by the author and year, it can be easily catelogued beside the .pdf. Which is recorded in Endnote. That would be the best way to do it. For sure, then when I am looking for something, they come up in file searches on my computer. It’s a good question and I am ready to put my files into a new order to prepare for this next phase.

I bought the camera

October 20, 2008 § Leave a comment

It is a nice little Nikon coolpix L18, very small, fairly lightweight. It fits in my belly pack. I’ve shot the flower arrangements and I am pleased with the photo quality. I’ve started looking at everything as metaphors for papers. I’m liking my new perspective. I put together a conceptual framework for the Tools for Thought paper and sent it off to Don. Of course, he wrote back asking me for the dreaded purpose statement. Well, I’m not going to get suckered into that wrestling match again. I’m going to set up a structure and start plunking things in, when I feel ready, then I will write the, “In this paper we will…” statement. Honestly, I don’t know what the purpose of the paper is yet, I want to lay it out a little more thoroughly before attempting that. This has been my mistake before. Trying to write that purpose statement when I really didn’t have a clue. When I think about the use of the term ‘tool’, I don’t have to venture far before I encounter a memory or a blog posting that uses the term to represent something. I think, what I need to do now, is start scanning media and scholarly references for uses of the term. Just what are we calling a tool, anyway? I’m hoping my speech recognition software arrives this week, so I can start using it in my writing. I think it is going to help. That and my studio practice, creating metaphors for writing research and thesis papers.

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