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Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

My close friend’s nephew took his own life last month.  A few days later a person by the name of Andy Behrman tweeted me that he has a ‘rebuilding’ story.  I read some of his articles and got the goose-bumps.  Here was a person who had ‘come’ to me in the immediate aftermath of the horrible news of the suicide of this twenty year old student who had a heart of gold and a mind filled with demons.

 Andy Behrman – mental illness;  nephew – mental illness. 

Andy Behrman – bipolar disorder;  nephew – various diagnoses, bipolar having been one of the more recent ones. 

The message of synchronicity was loud and clear –get this story out there.  It’s another chance for more education and awareness of a silent killer. So in memory of my friend’s nephew, I post this interview in the hope that it may provide some help and hope to the silent sufferers(those with the condition and those affected by it).    

Andy Behrman is a writer and mental health advocate.   Through his speaking and writing he promotes awareness around the stigma of mental illness, suicide prevention and overall good mental health practices.  His memoir, “Electroboy: A Memoir of Mania” is electrifying.   

  1. Please shed some light on the condition of bipolar and what it feels like.

My initial response to this question is that for me, bipolar disorder made me feel like “King of the Hill”, but I was always scared I would lose this feeling.  It is a roller coaster ride of euphoric highs and desperate lows.  I exhibited much more mania than depression.  I felt invincible during my manias and I was extremely productive, outgoing and the life of the party.  But at the same time I felt like I was walking a tight-rope without a net underneath me.  I was involved in drugs and alcohol, was overspending, racking up huge credit card debt, and was sexually promiscuous.  And I wasn’t aware of any of the consequences of my mania, which is why I became involved in an art counterfeiting scheme which landed me in prison.

Although during my manias I felt very much in control, in retrospect I know that I was very much out of control. I was flying from New York to Paris to Tokyo and constantly on the move.  I wasn’t sleeping, I couldn’t sit still and I was delusional.  There were times when I really thought I could take over the world. 

My depressions, which came very infrequently, were not the depressions typically associated with “the blues.”  Mine were violent and rageful periods which lasted very briefly.  For me, bipolar disorder relied quite a bit on my “racing thoughts” and acting on them.  There were days I would wake up, have no idea what my plan was for the day and simply act on one of these thoughts –i.e. fly to Paris, buy a new wardrobe, contemplate a run for Congress, think about new business ventures.

This is a serious illness which is finally in the limelight.  When I was diagnosed more than twenty years ago nobody had heard too much about it.  I had never heard the term ‘bipolar’; it was referred to as ‘manic depression’.  People were not yet out of the closet with this disorder and they were definitely not speaking about it in public.  In fact when “Electroboy” was published, it was one of the first accounts of this illness and definitely the first written by a male.  People regarded me and my illness as my being ‘wild and crazy’ when in fact I was out of control and scared to death for my life. 

Bipolar disorder destroys lives every day and people with this condition take their lives at a high rate.

  1.  How can this be managed to enable someone to live a functional and good life?

Bipolar disorder can be reigned in and managed in several ways, but it must always start with the proper diagnosis.   It is extremely tough to diagnose and I was misdiagnosed eight times by eight different doctors.   One reason for this is that I ‘presented’ myself to these doctors when I was depressed (usually agitated or angry) so they didn’t see the mania.   And why would I want to see a psychiatrist or therapist when I was on top of the world?  So I was just as much to blame, although many of the doctors never asked the right questions about my behavior when I wasn’t depressed  (I believed mania was my natural state.)

After my diagnosis, it was critical to find the right medications, to stabilize them and to stay on them, as many patients have the tendency to go off them after their condition stabilizes.  I tried more than 40 different medications in various combinations and was unsuccessful.  I then opted for electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).

 It’s important to point out that many people don’t like to be on medication because their ‘highs’ are dulled and they complain of being uncreative.  But in general, if you’re working with both a good psychiatrist and psychologist (and I stress the need for both), taking your medication, are aware of your sleep pattern and the absolute necessity to get good sleep at the right time, and maintaining a healthy diet and exercise regimen, one can manage with this insidious illness.

  1. What personal qualities have helped you carry on and move in a positive direction?

I suppose I’d have to say that I’ve been able to move forward and work my way through bipolar disorder and return to being productive because of my perseverance and drive.  From the moment when I realized I was ‘stuck’ in my mental illness and when I finally realized I wanted to get better, my ability to acknowledge both my illness and the challenges was helpful to me.  I’ve also managed to maintain my sense of humor throughout my entire battle and this has been critical to staying well.   I just can’t explain how important it’s been having a sense of humor through some of the darkest hours of a cruel illness.

  1.  Was there a moment, epiphany  or thought that helped bring you to a better place mentally/psychologically, or did it evolve?

I think after I had spent time in prison for my involvement in my art forgery case, was locked in my apartment under house arrest and underwent nineteen rounds of electroshock therapy, I realized I had seen the lowest points anybody could see and I didn’t want to be living on a monthly disability check and be confined to my apartment forever.  For the first time it seemed limiting, which may sound like the wrong choice of a word, but I was caged inside because of my illness.  When I realized that I wanted more –  a career, a relationship and to explore the world again as a stable human being – I knew I had to strategize to take steps to get well. 

  1. What are/were your day-to-day coping skills that keep you afloat?               

Back then I had basic coping skills which included medication regimen and seeing my two mental health professionals regularly.  That was almost all I was capable of doing.  As I started getting better, I realized I could add a coping skill to my program as I was ready.  Some of these included things as basic as showering every day, eating three meals and snacks, exercising, focusing on a sleep schedule, keeping order in my life, making career plans and coming up with goals so that I could be financially independent again.  Oddly, I rely on these same skills today.

  1. What keeps you going and moving forward?    

For starters, raising two daughters, five and seven, keep me going and give me reason to keep going.  At the same time, I don’t want to discount the fact that I’m quite driven and want to create another work about mental illness more important than “Electroboy”, which will be helpful to people suffering with mental illness.  At this time I’m not sure exactly what that is, but I know I haven’t written my last book on the subject since I have much more to add to the discussion.  And finally, just living life, whatever happens on a daily basis – spending time with family and friends, meeting new people, seeing new places and enjoying every day keeps me going.

  1.  In general, how have you managed to rebuild your life?

That’s a great question because sometimes I’m shocked that I wasn’t just another statistic and didn’t end up dead.  I’ve relied on maintaining discipline and structure and worked closely with my psychiatrist and therapist, as well as doing so much work in group therapy.  But I think in general, I’ve always had the philosophy that recovery (and I’m not a huge fan of the word because I don’t think one ever truly recovers from mental illness but rather learns to manage it) is not about the light at the end of the tunnel, but realizing that there is light – even if it’s just a tiny bit seeping into the tunnel – and you’ve got to grasp it.

 

  1.  What advice can you offer for someone struggling with mental illness ?

For starters,realize you are not alone.  Twenty percent of the population is struggling in some way.  That’s a huge number.  And in addition to not feeling alone, there’s no reason to be ashamed.   If you had diabetes, there would be no shame.  You’d just learn how to manage living with it.   Next, find a good doctor with whom you can work, which can be very difficult considering the system is critical.  Finally, when you’re ready, sharing your story both with friends and family can illicit something you never imagined: support.

Thank you for reading this important piece.  Here are a few other links:

http://causes.msn.com/mental_health_month/?section=infographic#section=infographic

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t7ELkrfuq9g&feature=related

http://bipolar.about.com/b/2011/12/22/where-does-my-mental-illness-end-and-where-do-i-begin.htm

http://www.disabilityartsonline.org.uk/electroboy-andy-behrmann

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I am thrilled to hear that Wild  just hit #1 on the New York Times Bestseller listAuthor Cheryl Strayed had accepted my request for a blog interview back in MarchSo in her honor today and in my happiness for her I felt it appropos to repost her interview.

And if you haven’t already done so, read this book.  It’s a page-turning adventure story detailing one woman’s journey towards reclaiming her life while out in the wilderness.  It’s a unique story of courage,vulnerability, ‘kookiness’  and inspiration written in captivating prose that brings you up close to each and every event.

 

I am so excited to present this month’s interviewee, Cheryl Strayed.  I am exceptionally happy for Ms. Strayed because her memoir, Wild, which just came out March 20th  has been getting rave reviews and is currently  #7 on the New York Times bestseller list.  And Reese Witherspoon has optioned the movie rights to Wild, in which she will star as Cheryl. 

I am extremely appreciative that in this exciting ‘hoopla’ time for Ms. Strayed, she warmly and graciously agreed to this interview.    Her story is quite unique, to say the least, in how she has rebuilt her life after going through the tragic loss of her mother.  Ms. Strayed found her way back {to life} by embarking on an 1,100 mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). 

“It seemed like years ago now – as I stood barefoot on that mountain in California – in a different lifetime, really, when I’d make the arguably unreasonable decision to take a long walk alone on the PCT in order to save myself.”

1.       What personal qualities have helped you carry on and move in a positive direction?

One of the last things my mother said to me before she died was that I was a seeker. I didn’t understand at the time how right she was, but now I do. My impulse to reach and dig and get to another emotional or psychological place, to understand a new thing, served me well when I had to rage against my mother’s death at the age of 45 and later, when I had to heal my sorrow and learn how to live without her.

2.       Did you go through a period of self-pity?  If so, what helped lift you out?

One time about two years after my mother died I was with a group of women on Mother’s Day. We’d rented a cabin for the weekend and since none of us were with our mothers we went around in a circle taking turns saying something about our moms by way of honoring them. I was the only one with a dead mother. These women were kind to me, but I remember feeling an unreasonable amount of unexpressed resentment toward them. It felt so unfair that they got to have moms and I didn’t. (And then of course I felt guilty for feeling that way.)

I let go of my self-pity over time, as I grew up and accepted the fact that I would never get my mother back. I also met many people who’d also lost their parents young and they were a great consolation to me. I don’t experience self-pity anymore, but that doesn’t mean I don’t notice what I’ve lost. I’m never with a friend and his or her mother that I am not aware of it. A little    voice in my head always says, lucky you. But it’s a loving voice, and one that understands complexity. There are many orphans whose parents are alive and well.

3.       Was there a specific moment, thought or epiphany that helped bring you to a better place mentally/psychologically, or did it evolve?

I had many epiphanies that together formed an evolution. The hardest part about losing one’s primary parent in one’s teens or twenties is that you’re still trying to form your identity, to figure out who you’re going to be in the world, and smack dab in the midst of that, you’ve lost the person who’d defined you and against which you’d defined yourself. You’re grieving so hard, but you’re also trying to grow up.

Those things are utterly tangled together for me. I don’t know what was youthful angst and confusion and what was my grief, and I never will. I can’t imagine what my life would have been like if my mother hadn’t died. I’ve learned as much from her in her death as I did in her life. I had to stitch my own stories with the threads of her absence. At a certain point I became willing to do that. I accepted her death as my rebirth, whether I liked it or not. I was on a big journey when this really became clear to me—on an 1100-mile solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, which I wrote about in my memoir, Wild. The summer I hiked the trail was a time of many epiphanies. My experience on the PCT changed me forever. It was my evolution.

4.       What are/were your day-to-day coping skills that keep you afloat?

I miss my mother every day, but my grief has lessened over time. It doesn’t feel like the great weight that will sink me anymore. When it did feel that way in the four or five years after her death, I found comfort in my friendships, in silence and solitude, in the wilderness, and in my writing. Acceptance was probably the most important coping skill. I found solace in simply sitting with my sorrow. There’s a lot of strength in crying the tears that need to be cried and letting go of what cannot any longer be held.

5.       In general, how have you managed to rebuild your life after your losses?

By moving forward. By searching out love and goodness. By keeping faith with the things that brought me the most inner peace. By mothering my children with the same big love my mother mothered me. By becoming the woman my mother raised me to be, even though she didn’t get to be here to see her.

6.     What advice do you have for someone going through loss in the hope of coming out of the darkness intact?

There are dark days and painfully bright nights in this life. We have the capacity to survive them. We know this because so many others have and are and will. It’s an ancient tale. Trust it.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/01/books/review/wild-a-hiking-memoir-by-cheryl-strayed.html

Photo credit goes to Joni Kabana for picture of Cheryl Strayed.

Thank you for reading.  Sharing and Comments are always appreciated. 

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I haven’t had a full-blown panic attack in a couple of years.  Granted, my body is not always an ocean of tranquility.  I still feel lonliness, fear, and what I call the black-and-blues – the sadness I finally allow myself to feel, the sadness that panic covered up for so many years.”

As many of you may know from my {June} interview with Meredith Vieria, I met her at an event in New York City where she interviewed her childhood friend, Priscilla Warner, on her recent book, Learning to Breathe.   That night was a win-win for me as I met two wonderfully warm and engaging women, and they each agreed to do a blog interview. 

So this month, it’s Ms. Warner’s turn.  She is a noted writer, having coauthored a New York Times bestseller, The Faith Club, and now her new memoir.   She takes us on a fascinating journey as she seeks to find ways to heal from her years of suffering from high anxiety and panic attacks. 

Most, if not all of us can relate to anxiety but her condition was oftentimes very debilitating.   Ms. Warner shows us it’s never too late to learn, grow and change or as she says, “An old tiger can learn new tricks.”      

I am so pleased to present Priscilla Warner.

  1. What personal qualities have helped you carry on and move in a positive direction?

My mother, a prolific artist, used to tell me, “People will disappoint you, but your work never will.”  The love I feel for my family and friends is the most powerful positive factor in my life.  But often what sustains me most during tough times, propelling me forward, is my ability to create something from nothing, whether I’m writing or making art and jewelry.

  1. Did you go through a period of self-pity?  If so, what helped lift you out?

I didn’t go through a period of self-pity, but I did feel shame when I suffered from panic attacks.  I felt like I had a defective nervous system, that erupted at will, prohibiting me from functioning like a ‘normal’ person.  What lifted me out of that shame was writing Learning to Breathe, because it sent me on a mission to heal that proved to be astonishingly effective.

  1. Was there a specific moment, thought or epiphany that helped bring you to a better place mentally/psychologically, or did it evolve?

There was not one specific ‘eureka’ moment that turned me from an anxious person into a happy woman.  I take life moment by moment now.  My meditation practice helps me to note the happy, sad, anxious, boring, challenging instructive moments I experience and be grateful as they string themselves together into one long life.  The Thomas Wolfe quote I used for my high school yearbook is still surprisingly relevant!  “Knowledge is finding out something for oneself with pain, with joy, with exultancy, with labor, and with all the little ticking, breathing moments of our lives.”

  1. What are your day-to-day coping skills that keep you afloat?

Meditation is a daily practice that helps me sustain a feeling of being grounded, at peace and in touch with my essence.  I love knowing that all I need to do is observe my breath coming and going in order to feel empowered, healthy and happy.   I also start my day with a short prayer of gratitude, which gets me off to the perfect start, wherever else the day might take me. 

  1. What thoughts propel you forward?

The thought that propels me forward is, “This too shall pass.”  (So try and enjoy this somehow!)

  1. What advice do you have for someone going through internal difficulties that greatly impact the quality of their life?

I’ve discovered that people can heal in ways they never thought possible.  There are many resources out there to help make that possible.  We can all turn pain into understanding and growth.  We can choose the path we take through our suffering.  That path will twist and turn in ways we can never expect.  But if we put one foot in front of the other, and approach life one step at a time, we can move from a painful place to a productive one.  We can accept sadness and feel grace.  We can find teachers, therapists, techniques, experiences and resources that don’t have to cost a fortune, but that can make a huge difference in our lives. 

Hear Ms. Warner speak :

http://www.youtube.com/user/PriscillaWarnerBooks?feature=mhee#p/u

Her articles in Psychology Today:  http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/learning-breathe/201204/how-i-learned-not-take-my-panic-attacks-personally
http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/learning-breathe/201201/is-it-selfish-seek-happiness

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I am so excited to put out this month’s interview with Meredith Vieira.   As most of you know Ms. Vieira is a journalist and TV personality.   She was the original talk show host of The View and co-hosted the Today show, the NBC early morning news program.   She currently hosts the TV game show, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, as well as being a frequent contributor to other news shows.

I had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Vieira at a book event at the JCC in Manhattan where she interviewed  her friend/author of a new book.   At the reception afterwards, she graciously accepted my request for a blog interview.   Speaking to her on the phone was like talking to a good old friend.

The issue I focused on with Ms. Vieira is one that is unfortunately all too prevalent – that of chronic illness;  and more specifically its impact upon the family.  Richard Cohen, Ms. Vieira’s husband, has been living with multiple sclerosis for more than 30 years.  Mr. Cohen is a TV producer and writer.  He writes a most reflective and insightful column on chronic illness for AARP MagazineHe has also written two books. (referred to later on)   

It becomes a ‘family affair’ to live and cope with the daily struggles and difficulties of a chronic and debilitating condition.  The challenge here is to live as best as one can, with it and despite it; and Ms. Vieira and Mr. Cohen do it well together. 

I hope you get lots of take-aways from this most down-to-earth interview.   I am appreciative of Ms. Vieira’s openness and authenticity as she brings us into her family’s life, providing insight and inspiration on coping and living with chronic illness.  

  1. What personal qualities have helped you carry on and move in a positive direction?

For me what has helped is for Richard to be open about his illness. For a very long time he was closed.  Partly that was out of concern about how people would react to him, professionally and personally.  He kept his disease from people. That made it harder to deal with as a couple.  You knew you were part of this masking and I don’t think that’s healthy for the other person involved- the partner.  I understood it and I didn’t force the issue but I was glad when Richard decided to be honest with people.  That was the result of our older son as a very little boy,at 6 or 7, asking me late one night when the lights were off in his room, ‘what’s the matter with Dad?’  Kids are so smart.  I don’t remember what I said exactly in the moment to comfort him-something like that Dad was fine and in the morning we’d all talk about it.  The next day we did; we explained it in terms a child could understand. It was after that that Richard realized, “I want to be open about this now.”  So I think the openness has helped me.  I’m all for not burying feelings.  I think it’s much better to get it out.

A sense of humor:  We both have a pretty good sense of humor.  We can laugh at the absurd.  And when you have this kind of illness, there are moments that are really absurd.  You can either get very depressed which is understandable or you can try to shake it off as best you can, put it in perspective and move on.  I think humor helps us put things in perspective.  That has been a great coping mechanism for me as well as for Richard.  He often will lead the way.  He’ll have an episode where maybe he drops something and he gets very angry at himself.  And then he’ll make a joke; and that allows me, that gives me permission to make a joke back.  Nine times out of ten we reach that point and I think that has been tremendously helpful.

Friends:   This comes with openness. I am totally comfortable leaning on friends. We have wonderful friends who not only ask Richard how he is doing, but will ask me how I’m doing.  This speaks to the whole notion of family illness.  This is  an important message, if I was to get out anything, it is –  for those who know someone with chronic illness, ‘don’t be afraid to ask’.  We appreciate it.  A lot of people are scared to bring it up because they may feel they’re walking on egg shells around people who are chronically ill. My experience has been that most people in that situation like when it’s acknowledged and they have that opportunity to speak about it.

      2.   Did you go through a period of self-pity?  If so, what helped lift you out?

 Sure I have days when Richard will say ‘why me’ and I’ll say to myself, ‘why me’?  I knew about Richard’s illness before I married him; it wasn’t sprung on me.  He was diagnosed with MS when he was 25.  And I married him when I was 33.  He’s five years older than me.

 We used to run all the time together.  We can’t do that anymore.  I love things like skiing, things that he can’t do.  There are moments when we’re talking about a vacation and we’re limited and then I’ll feel , ‘oh I really want to do that’. It’s one of those passing things.  But I also think that’s O.K.  It’s O.K to have a pity party every once- in- a-while, just let it out.  Because there is loss–  there’s physical loss and emotional loss. There’s that kind of day-to-day loss and it’s alright to feel bad about that as long as you can put it in perspective; in the scheme of things that ‘ain’t’ the biggest issue. 

      3.   Please speak here to the issue of caretaking 

Caregiver is the word I use.  Richard is not in the position where he needs that kind of attention.  Because he has secondary MS, he has less ability to use his hands and eye-sight than he used to. So there are times when I am his hands or his sight – for reading a menu, tying a shoe or doing that top button on a shirt.  But I’m certainly not a full-time caregiver.  We sort of take care of each other.

I think a lot of people who are caregivers feel tremendous guilt when they allow their personal feelings to rise above those of their spouse.  It’s sort of like ‘how dare you.  That’s the person who’s ill, not you; so what right do you have?’  And I think you have every right, whatever your emotions are.

      4.   Was there a specific moment or epiphany that helped guide you to a better place mentally and psychologically, or did it evolve?

 I understood enough about MS going into the marriage in part because my dad was a doctor.  I went to appointments with Richard and I saw people younger than him who were already  wheelchair-bound.  I knew the potential progression of the illness.  It’s so unpredictable.  Will Richard end up in a wheelchair or worse – bedridden?  Is it possible; sure it is, but we have no way of knowing that’s going to be the outcome.  Every individual is different.  I knew a possible trajectory of the illness heading into it.  It sounds so trite but that expression about being hit by a bus tomorrow.  You just don’t know in life.   He could dive off a diving board and break his neck and be a guadrapalegic.  I could get ill.  You can’t live your life on the ‘what ifs’.   Because you’d never do anything.  So to me it was worth it. 

This is just a part of what we deal with.  Everybody has their stuff.  This is our stuff. 

There’s that wonderful story of everyone putting their troubles in a bag and throwing them all in a pile, and all you want is your own bag back.  Because it’s familiar.

Richard especially has had a bumb deal because he also has had two bouts of colon cancer.  It hasn’t only been MS for him.  I did have a little conversation with God after the second bout of cancer.  I said, “really, really, this guy doesn’t deserve all this.” I thought that was a cheap shot, just really unnecessary; we got it.(the lesson) 

Take away that part of our life and there are unbelievable pluses.  It’s led Richard to a point in terms of his own reflection where he was able to write two beautiful books about chronic illness.  Write what you know.  And help people.  His books have really helped people.  To be able to have that gift where you can actually change somebody’s life, that’s a pretty amazing gift.  It came at a cost, but it’s still an amazing gift. 

When he wrote about it, he was able to release and let go.  I think it was very empowering for him and I think it gave him a strength he didn’t have before.  MS does a real number on you where you feel like less of a man.  This gave him some of his self-worth back.  It allowed him to articulate it.  He had buried it.  When he started to write about it, it helped him deal better with his illness and face it. He talks a lot about denial and he thinks denial is a very good thing.  For the longest time he denied the illness and said, “I don’t care; they say I can’t be a producer, I’ll be a producer.”  It worked for him up to a certain point; but by burying it he wasn’t allowing himself to feel everything he needed to feel and to face everything he needed to face.

 Writing his first book, his memoir, Blindsided, allowed him to do it in a safe way because he is a writer.  It was like therapy.  His second book is Strong at the Broken Places is a profile of five people with chronic illness.   His third book is coming out in October and it has nothing to do with illness.  It’s called, I Want to Kill the Dog.  It’s hysterical.  It’s about our history with our pets in our family.  It’s freedom again.  He said, “I don’t want to be known just as the disability author.  There’s more to me.”  He’s almost come full circle.  “MS doesn’t totally define me; it’s part of my life, it’s not all of my life.”  He’s a very funny guy and so he wrote this very funny book.

      5.   Any specific day-to-day coping skills?

 I just kind of live day-to-day.  Today was a good day or maybe today wasn’t the best day, but tomorrow might be better.  That seems to work best for me.  We’re still in that stage where that’s doable.  When you are living with any kind of illness, you really learn to appreciate the here and now.  It takes on an added value because you’re lucky to have it.  If there’s any coping mechanism  that’s what it is: try to be as much in the moment as you can be and enjoy it; or understand  if it’s not great, then this too shall pass. 

      6.   What advice would you offer people going through their own difficult situation?

In our family it has been sense of humor and honesty.

It’s important to be able to communicateIllness is a family affair.  You need to keep the communication going and open on all sides.  And certainly if you have kids as well.  As I said, keeping this from our kids was a little off because kids in general are so attuned to things.

Build that group of friends, that support system around you.  Go for it.  Don’t be afraid.  Don’t feel that you’re a burden to other people.  And don’t be ashamed of illness.  What you’ll discover is everybody else has their own thing.  People don’t like to talk about stuff.  They hide it but if you’re open and you say you need help, people will be there for you.  It’s important to know they’re there.  It’s like it takes a village; when there’s illness it takes a village too. Most people have been phenomenal.

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I recently saw the movie Being Flynn.   It’s based on the memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, by Nick Flynn.   The basic premise is, while working in a homeless shelter, Nick meets up with his estranged, homeless father.  What follows is the poignant struggle of a son to reconnect that severed bond with a brilliant, grandiose and manic, father, who also happens to be a perpetually aspiring writer.  

Transformational stories are uplifting and this certainly satisfied that criteria. 

And so I came home and looked up the ‘real’ people.  As many of you know, I’m an asker.  I reached out and contacted Mr. Nick Flynn asking him if he’d be amenable for an interview.  To my most excited surprise, he said yes. 

Nick is a writer and poet.  He clearly has the talent that never materialized from his father.  One more fact to know in terms of his overcoming and rebuilding his life – his mother committed suicide when he was in his early twenties. 

 

1.    What personal qualities have helped you carry on and move in a positive direction?

It’s more of a support network that allows one to work through things.  Friends and family, community.  It’s a group effort.  It’s recognizing the need for support systems.  It’s something that’s actively done.   You choose your friends and work on your family relationships and seek out those support systems.

2.   Did you go through a period of self-pity; if so, what helped lift you out? 

Everything is on a continuum.  It’s not like you’re in it and then you’re out of it.  Some days you’re in it and some days you’re out of it.  When self-pity comes up you try not to water it and cultivate it.  I don’t think it’s an emotional state that one should try to eliminate.  It’s a continuum.  That’s the model that’s more useful to me.  It’s not good or bad.  It’s part of me.

3.   Was there a specific moment or epiphany that helped guide you to a better place mentally and psychologically or did it evolve?

I don’t think there was much of an epiphany.  I’m not much of an epiphany type of guy.  I put one day in front of the other.  Cultivate the things that are more beneficial to one’s life than harmful.  Again it’s a continuum.  It’s not an ‘either or’.  An epiphany suggests an ‘either or’; you’re either healed or you’re not healed.  I think that’s harmful. 

4.    What are your coping skills that keep you afloat? 

I meditate.  Certainly exercising and eating right.  All that stuff.   If you watch bad movies or engage in destructive behavior, you’re not going to feel psychically sound.  Everyone knows that and still does that anyway.  You have to keep the balance right.  I don’t meditate and exercise and eat well all the time.   You just do the best you can.  Sometimes you’re gonna watch the dumb movie.  

5.    How have you managed to rebuild your life through your difficult childhood/young adulthood?

The main thing for me is I quit drinking and doing drugs.  That was the main change.  It wasn’t an epiphany; it was more of a daily practice.  That was a break from patterns like my father’s.  That was a conscious choice.  I had few options; it was that or die.  For me that’s the main thing. 

Everything is a daily practice.  AA has that phrase, ‘one day at a time’.  It’s basically the idea of being present in the moment.  It’s a Buddhist idea – that’s what you have to do to write, to have a relationship-  to see life as a daily practice.  If there’s any  sort of little message here, this is something I think about . 

6.    What advice do you have for people going through a difficult situation?

Cultivate those support systems.  And that’s a daily practice too.  Recognize that we’re all connected in many ways.  That’s not so clear in the moments of suffering.  But we need to try to hold on to that idea.

  Link to movie trailer

Thanks for stopping by. 

 

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I am so excited to present this month’s interviewee, Cheryl Strayed.  I am exceptionally happy for Ms. Strayed because her memoir, Wild, which just came out March 20th  has been getting rave reviews and is currently  #7 on the New York Times bestseller list.  And Reese Witherspoon has optioned the movie rights to Wild, in which she will star as Cheryl. 

I am extremely appreciative that in this exciting ‘hoopla’ time for Ms. Strayed, she warmly and graciously agreed to this interview.    Her story is quite unique, to say the least, in how she has rebuilt her life after going through the tragic loss of her mother.  Ms. Strayed found her way back {to life} by embarking on an 1,100 mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). 

“It seemed like years ago now – as I stood barefoot on that mountain in California – in a different lifetime, really, when I’d make the arguably unreasonable decision to take a long walk alone on the PCT in order to save myself.”

 

1.       What personal qualities have helped you carry on and move in a positive direction?

One of the last things my mother said to me before she died was that I was a seeker. I didn’t understand at the time how right she was, but now I do. My impulse to reach and dig and get to another emotional or psychological place, to understand a new thing, served me well when I had to rage against my mother’s death at the age of 45 and later, when I had to heal my sorrow and learn how to live without her.

 

2.       Did you go through a period of self-pity?  If so, what helped lift you out?

One time about two years after my mother died I was with a group of women on Mother’s Day. We’d rented a cabin for the weekend and since none of us were with our mothers we went around in a circle taking turns saying something about our moms by way of honoring them. I was the only one with a dead mother. These women were kind to me, but I remember feeling an unreasonable amount of unexpressed resentment toward them. It felt so unfair that they got to have moms and I didn’t. (And then of course I felt guilty for feeling that way.)

I let go of my self-pity over time, as I grew up and accepted the fact that I would never get my mother back. I also met many people who’d also lost their parents young and they were a great consolation to me. I don’t experience self-pity anymore, but that doesn’t mean I don’t notice what I’ve lost. I’m never with a friend and his or her mother that I am not aware of it. A little    voice in my head always says, lucky you. But it’s a loving voice, and one that understands complexity. There are many orphans whose parents are alive and well.

 

3.       Was there a specific moment, thought or epiphany that helped bring you to a better place mentally/psychologically, or did it evolve?

I had many epiphanies that together formed an evolution. The hardest part about losing one’s primary parent in one’s teens or twenties is that you’re still trying to form your identity, to figure out who you’re going to be in the world, and smack dab in the midst of that, you’ve lost the person who’d defined you and against which you’d defined yourself. You’re grieving so hard, but you’re also trying to grow up.

Those things are utterly tangled together for me. I don’t know what was youthful angst and confusion and what was my grief, and I never will. I can’t imagine what my life would have been like if my mother hadn’t died. I’ve learned as much from her in her death as I did in her life. I had to stitch my own stories with the threads of her absence. At a certain point I became willing to do that. I accepted her death as my rebirth, whether I liked it or not. I was on a big journey when this really became clear to me—on an 1100-mile solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, which I wrote about in my memoir, Wild. The summer I hiked the trail was a time of many epiphanies. My experience on the PCT changed me forever. It was my evolution.

 

4.       What are/were your day-to-day coping skills that keep you afloat?

I miss my mother every day, but my grief has lessened over time. It doesn’t feel like the great weight that will sink me anymore. When it did feel that way in the four or five years after her death, I found comfort in my friendships, in silence and solitude, in the wilderness, and in my writing. Acceptance was probably the most important coping skill. I found solace in simply sitting with my sorrow. There’s a lot of strength in crying the tears that need to be cried and letting go of what cannot any longer be held.

 

5.       In general, how have you managed to rebuild your life after your losses?

By moving forward. By searching out love and goodness. By keeping faith with the things that brought me the most inner peace. By mothering my children with the same big love my mother mothered me. By becoming the woman my mother raised me to be, even though she didn’t get to be here to see her.

 

6.     What advice do you have for someone going through loss in the hope of coming out of the darkness intact?

There are dark days and painfully bright nights in this life. We have the capacity to survive them. We know this because so many others have and are and will. It’s an ancient tale. Trust it.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/01/books/review/wild-a-hiking-memoir-by-cheryl-strayed.html

 

Photo credit goes to Joni Kabana for picture of Cheryl Strayed.

Thank you for reading.  Sharing and Comments are always appreciated. 

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“Each day I have to work to go on; each day I decide to live.  I am not the same person as I was.  That is the way it should be.  Losing Koby means that part of me was killed.  But rather than mourn the person I was, I work to bless the person I have become.”

I am humbled to present my March interviewee, Sherri  Mandell.  Mrs. Mandell is the mother of Koby Mandell, the oldest of four children, and founder of the Koby Mandell Foundation.  She and her husband created this foundation in response to their son, Koby’s murder in May of 2001.

Koby was 13 when he and his friend, Yosef Ishran were hiking near their home in the town of Tekoa in the West Bank and were eventually found in a cave stoned to death. 

Their foundation helps bereaved parents and children who have tragically lost loved ones “rebuild their lives and create meaning out of suffering.”  

Ms. Mandell is a writer and author of the book, The Blessing of a Broken Heart.

  1. What personal qualities have helped you carry on and move in a positive direction?

That’s a hard question.  I really don’t feel it was anything that was personal to me.  I feel like it was other people- the community that helped me and my family.  I received so much support and love that helped me continue on and move. 

I had people helping me and they all had a special position –somebody who did our laundry, somebody who could sit and listen, somebody who organized the food for us.

To give you an example, after Koby’s murder, that first night after we got home from the cemetery (in Israel people are buried right away)  my friend Shira made a basket for me on my bed and she put “from Your Guardian Angel.”  It was people who surrounded me and my immediate family who kept me going. 

I’ve become a different person.  I’m much more driven and purposeful.  I have a different perspective on life. 

  1. Did you go through a period of self-pity?  If so, what helped you out?

Self-pity is not the right term.  When you’re destroyed you don’t have the strength for self-pity.  I was just suffering and sad and destroyed.  I didn’t pity myself; I just had to mourn my son. 

You wonder Why you; but you know there’s no answer to that question.  Also living in Israel it’s different.  In Hebrew you don’t really have the word pity.  It’s a different word.  And it’s a different culture. 

  1. Was there a specific moment, thought or epiphany that helped guide you to a better place or did it evolve?

It was a series of things that pushed me forward. 

It was Koby’s birthday, his 14th, five weeks after he was murdered.  My friend Shira who’s a grief counselor told me I had to do something to mark his birthday.  So my kids and I went into Jerusalem.  We didn’t know what to do.  We thought we’d go out to Burger King because being kosher and moving to Israel was a big fun event for us to be able to eat at a kosher Burger King.  But we couldn’t go because it was just too sad for us.  We went to a vegetarian restaurant.  I got the idea to give money to beggars for Koby’s birthday.  The minute I got that idea a beggar came up to us in the restaurant.  We gave him a lot of money.  Then my kids and I went out on the outdoor street mall and we went chasing after beggars to give to them.  It was a really hard day. 

But we were able to transform it into something that was fun and giving.  And that’s what we do.  We wanted to do something Koby would like, so it’s always fun.

  1. What are your day-to-day coping skills that keep you afloat?

There’s always davening (praying), learning  {Torah-Bible} and taking care of my family.  There’s Shabbos (the Sabbath), yoga and walking.  And writing; I’m a writer. 

Torah relates us to God and G0d is infinite.  So when I was learning and relating to something infinite, I could relate more to my son because he was in that place.  Torah connects you to other worlds.  The language of Torah is very pure.  And that’s what I felt I needed after Koby’s murder.  I needed something that had that untouched feeling.

  1. In general, how have you managed to rebuild your life?

I received so much help and support.  I wanted to give back what I had received. 

My husband and I started a camp for bereaved children.  We have 400 kids at the camp.  We always try to do something fun and giving; to help teach people to rise from this and not be broken. 

We also run programs for mothers.  We have had over 25 healing retreats for different groups of mothers.  I went to almost all of them.   We have support groups.  I’ve been part of a group that’s part of the Koby Mandell Foundation for the past 7 years.   And we keep evolving.  Wednesday is Koby Mandell Foundation day in Jerusalem.  We have belly dancing, yoga, psycho-drama for the women.  We have programs in resilience and renewal.   These are for bereaved mothers who have lost children to either terror or illness or any form of loss.  We also have a healing retreat over the summer, a bereavement retreat for Americans.  We do a 5 day healing retreat for bereaved parents. 

 

  1. What advice would you offer someone going through tremendous difficulty, in the hope of coming out of the darkness intact?

You have to use it to grow to be bigger. You have to basically change your life afterwards.  You can’t go back to who you were.  You have to find a way to give from the pain. 

I read something by Rabbi Soloveitchik:    “Every darkness has its own secret; and sometimes God only speaks to us in the darkness.”  There’s a message there.  It’s like the difference between growing in the light and growing in the darkness; there’s two ways to grow but growing in the darkness is much more common. 

And language – that’s another thing.  Ordinary language becomes unbearable because it can’t contain your experience.  Like even the expression, making lemonade from lemons, phrases like that can’t describe it.  You lose your connection to a lot of people because you can’t relate to what they say and the way they speak. 

I think very few people talk about the language problem.  They express it like they can’t bear their friends and people saying the wrong things.  But I don’t think it’s just that people say the wrong things; I think it’s a matter of not having language to contain the experience.  If you don’t have the feeling that people are there to support you, you’ll kind of begrudge what they say. 

Also, grief and trauma are in the body.  So you have to deal with the body, too.

 
“…It is when our hearts are broken that God sculpts our souls, prodding open the narrow entrances to the caves of our being.  Whenever God takes from you, he has to give you something back.  God has given me the blessing of a broken heart.”

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