Tag Archives: mental illness

Resetting Goals is Essential to Recovery

Resetting goals is an important component of recovery from setbacks.

It’s crucial when tackling mental health challenges. It’s essential when dealing with career or family detours. It’s easiest to understand when considering physical health.

Sometimes, I can feel a downward physical or mental health spiral as it happens. At other times, I crash before I realize I’m not good.

Over the years, I’ve realized that I can’t simply decide to feel good any more than I can simply decide to hike Pikes Peak. I hiked Pikes Peak once, after long, arduous training. Having let that training slide, there’s no way I can will myself today, untrained and unprepared, to the top.

If I want to make it again, or push an even harder goal, I need to put myself back through a training cycle that builds to that success.

I need to build, starting slowly. I can push myself, certainly, but only to a point.

When my body or mind deteriorate—through neglect, trauma or otherwise—recovery requires that I set new expectations. I can’t ask as much from myself as I might have at a prior point. I can’t expect my best when I’m feeling my worst.

One set of stairs at Swallow Cliffs

Just because I once accomplished a goal doesn’t mean I’m prepared to accomplish that goal again today. I was reminded of this last week when I did my first outdoor stair workout of the year at Swallow Cliffs.

A severe cold cost me nearly a month of the energy I needed for anything more than a slow walk. A deeply impacted tooth extraction extended my physical downtime. Still, when I went with backpack and hiking poles to do cycles of the 293 stairs at Swallow Cliffs in Palos Park, Illinois, I had no idea how much my body had deteriorated.

Instead of doing 28 cycles, as I had done last fall, I was gassed after eight cycles. My legs were shot. I could feel the tops of my thighs and backs of my calves throbbing for days. The few times I’d worked out on an incline treadmill or Stairmaster were too limited in length and intensity to keep my legs strong.

That’s the case with mental health recovery too. Sometimes we need to just accomplish one simple goal on day one. On day two, we aim for two simple goals or one harder goal. Then we build from there. Getting to where I feel good always feels like a long, steep climb. It requires painstaking attention to each step, often moving at slower speed than when I’m at my best.

A downward depression spiral can be slow and barely noticeable. At times, though, it feels like I’ve taken a high-speed slide to the bottom. I might hit an icy patch, sliding into a pile of rocks aimed at leaving me immobile. When I crash into those rocks, it might take me days to stand straight and start moving again. Slowly, I start a new upward climb, from a lower elevation.

When I’m starting from this lower level, I need to set different objectives. I need to rebuild my strength at a pace that doesn’t leave me disappointed by continuous failure.

Moving forward matters. Resetting goals matters too.

It’s best if I know what I can realistically achieve, so I can get the sense of accomplishment that energizes my next day’s progress.

Life’s Challenges: Differentiating Between Never, Not Yet and Now

How do we know whether what we’re being asked or asking ourselves to accomplish is even possible? It’s a question I’ve asked myself thousands of times on the trails. It applies, though, to every aspect of life.

So often in life, at work and in mental health challenges, transformational achievements come from deep struggles.

However, accepting pointless pains—with no conceivable chance of success—adds to the length and difficulty of life’s path. Our brains reward us when we accomplish goals. Failure offers no such boost. If we can develop lessons from a failure, the attempt still offers purpose. But when neither lessons nor success are possible, we are left simply with damage to self.

Even on trails I know I can hike, a voice repeatedly begs me to quit when fear, boredom, sore muscles or nasty weather intervene. I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve considered stopping before reaching a summit or a planned turnaround.

Amphitheater Lake in the Grand Tetons

The whisper to quit became repetitive and increasingly aggressive during long day hikes in the Grand Tetons, while battling up Barr Trail to the summit of Pikes Peak, on the Half Dome hike in Yosemite and during far less formidable hikes. Some days, it comes even while walking my neighborhood.

Near the summit on Flagstaff’s Humphrey’s Peak, I could traipse just 50 feet at a time before needing to gasp and wait for my heart rate to slow. I hadn’t prepared hard enough or long enough to make this hike. Every step was a struggle. At least a thousand times, I wanted to turn around and go back down. No one was with me. No one had to know I’d failed. But I would know. That was enough.

People who hear me talk about the pain involved in long hikes sometimes ask why I don’t just turn around when it gets tough. For me, moving through this deterrence is part of the reward.

There were times in my life when I was so consumed that my thoughts focused not on whether I’d end my life, but how. The rewards from making it decades past those points have been well worth enduring the pains I felt in those days, weeks, months, even years.

The same is true of hiking. The rewards of fighting through to reach a stunning mountain lake or a summit with 360-degree views are more than worth the struggles—both along the way and certainly once I get there.

Still, desire to reach a destination isn’t always enough.

No matter how much I want something, there are days my body and mind simply can’t make it happen.

I certainly felt that way when I tried to double up the Seven Mile Hole Trail and the Mt. Washburn Spur at Yellowstone National Park. Even going just twenty feet at a time up the steepest incline section of Mt. Washburn, I felt the burning. It’s a feeling I had glimpsed as a fan watching the mountain stages of the Tour de France. There, world-class cyclists who press past their capacity and preparation can bonk, or hit the wall.

That happens when hiking too. Sometimes, thirty minutes of rest and some stretching removes enough muscle waste to continue. At other times, the only answer is letting my body and mind recover overnight, perhaps longer.

I can push my body and mind past discomfort, but not past inherent and trained capacity. As much as I want to move forward every day, there are times when the right answer is to step back, recover and then work to strengthen my internal building blocks.

When I start a new trail, particularly one tougher and longer than I’ve tackled before, I don’t always know what to expect.

Is finishing the trail something I can never achieve? Is it one I can achieve, but only after better preparation? Is it simply just a difficult, but achievable trail if I fight through fears, pains and outside forces?

Differentiating between never, not yet and now doesn’t come easily. Often, never is really not yet and not yet is now with a fight. The best days have been those when I thought I’d never make it and it turned out that the answer was now.

As you face your next challenges, are you exhausting your energy on a “never” when plenty of “not yet” and “now” opportunities deserve more attention?

Can you turn what feels like a “never” into a “not yet” with better preparation?

Is there a “not yet” that can become a “now” if you press to the very end of your limits?

It’s worth fighting forward to find the answers.

Glorious Moments, Disturbed

It should be the most glorious of moments.

Holding his grandson in his arms is the brightest of lights in Rob’s life. There’s no joy greater than the chance to “just love that child,” as Rob (not his real name) said recently.

But his son’s wife, his daughter-in-law, sits right next to him, glaring. She won’t leave the room while Rob holds his grandson. She won’t let him out of eyesight. She stays close enough to extract her child in an instant.

Rob has never done anything to hurt another person, certainly not his grandson. “I love that child with every bit of my heart,” he says.

But he feels the fear. He feels the judgment. He feels the absence of trust.

Rob has indeed hurt someone in the past—himself. Continue reading

13 Reasons Why Not on Suicide

For someone struggling in the depths of what seems inescapable mental health agony or tragic trauma, it’s easy enough to see suicide through a media lens. Often, suicide is shown as glamorized, predetermined escape pursued with a clear rationale and no reasonable alternatives. The reality is far different.

Speaking at an Up With Life suicide prevention fundraiser/rally for No Stigmas.
Photo courtesy Adam Pitra and No Stigmas.

With 13 Reasons Why now a popular, often binge-watched Netflix series, it’s time to think again about why suicide is not the right answer. I’ll start by sharing 13 Reasons Why Not Suicide that I highlighted at an Up With Life suicide prevention fundraiser and rally just a few days ago. Literally hundreds of other reasons to keep fighting exist. While traumas highlighted in 13 Reasons Why merit thoughtful discussion beyond what the show presents, we need to focus on how to survive, manage, recover and then share lessons learned with others facing similar struggles.

During more than 35 years since the worst of my struggles with suicide ideation, I’ve learned some of those why nots for me. The why nots are reasons I was incapable of seeing when it felt like my chest was collapsing in a four-way vise grip—squeezing to prevent me from absorbing even a wisp of any nourishment.

My 13 Reasons Why Not Suicide List:

  1. Life’s journeys could take you somewhere awesome. Struggling through those difficult, painful months and years is necessary to get there. That thought struck me hundreds of times over the years, but I make a particular point of reflecting on it when I reach the top of a mountain after a thigh-throbbing, calf-cleaving hike.
  2. Humanity comes in many colors and fabrics, each of us with our own strengths and elements of attraction. It is only when we weave gently together that we create the most stunning of tapestries. Each thread is essential to the beauty of the whole. You are a critical, irreplaceable thread.
  3. That pain you feel today—and maybe felt for weeks, months or years—can pass. It may take hard work and perseverance, but you can get to points of contentment and, sometimes, even joy.
  4. There is a child, a friend, a colleague, a love you haven’t yet met whose life will be far better with you by their side. When you get there, you’ll know it was worth enduring the difficulties.
  5. Urgent help exists, starting with the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at (800) 273-8255. For those who prefer, the 741741 crisis text line serves a similar immediate support role. For those who don’t know where else to turn for help, start with these outlets. Finding the right long-term support from there isn’t always easy and may take multiple efforts. But it is transforming.
  6. Brain chemistry science advances every year. Whether it’s prescription medications or sunlight, Omega 3s or exercise as gateways to the pharmacies in our brains, the medical community is getting better at helping us manage brain chemistry. For many who haven’t found the right medication or life changes yet, keep searching. There’s a good chance solutions are out there or under development.
  7. Neuroscientists are learning more each day about the role brain circuitry plays in mental health. Cognitive behavioral therapy, meditation, gratitude exercises and many alternatives help us reroute our thoughts through synapses that never connected or stopped connecting properly. We’re learning that our brains need to be trained the way athletes train muscle groups to work together. When stresses or traumas break us down, sometimes we have to reorient or intensity our training.
  8. About 75 years ago, a young man named Martin thought he had contributed to the death of his beloved grandmother. Beset by grief and shame, this 12-year-old boy made an attempt to end his life. Fortunately, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. survived that pain-filled, impulse reaction. This country and this world are substantially better off for the many years we had him. The same can be said for the many millions of other attempt and ideation survivors.
  9. Giving and receiving compliments is essential to our humanity, but we’re often stingy with both. A few compliments when I desperately needed and was open to them helped me. Suicide, unfortunately, confines the compliments that would otherwise nourish us to a single eulogy.
  10. People struggling with mental health disorders, particularly those contemplating suicide, generally see a distorted figure in their mirror. They don’t see the warmth, empathy, humor, beauty or whatever other attributes they exhibit in plain view to everyone else. When you can’t see anything good in yourself or any hope in your life, know that it’s the equivalent of having heavily impaired eyesight, sometimes to the point of being blinded. You need help getting your vision of yourself repaired.
  11. Suicide doesn’t end pain. It just moves it, even if those who die by suicide often think they are relieving others of a burden.
  12. A few years ago, I stared up the last section of Yosemite National Park’s Half Dome Mountain, terrified that I couldn’t make it up even with the chains, boards and stanchions the Park Service had built into the steep, slick granite. Fortunately, I was far from first up the mountain so I could watch as others made the final trek. The helping hand I needed was there. It took me time to look around and find it. It was worth searching around.
  13. If we keep working together and supporting each other, we can make a difference. When we talk about mental health, raise money and reach out, we enable people in need to realize they aren’t alone. We provide hope and support.

These are just 13 of the reasons why suicide is not the answer. I could identify hundreds more for those who don’t see a reason that works for them on the list.

I know it’s difficult to fight through the worst of times; to believe that a solution exists that you haven’t found yet. It requires time and energy to find the right answers to mental health challenges and tragic circumstances. Give yourself that time.

You’re worth it.

Helping Employees Cope Through PTSD

While workplace bullying can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder in some employees, PTSD damages employee performance even when it originates outside work.

PTSD causes are more wide-ranging and frequent than many believe. Sometimes, an employee’s co-workers or managers engaging in repeated threats, intimidation, humiliation or work sabotage trigger PTSD. Managers may be sensitive to issues faced by a recently hired veteran, having likely heard of the links between combat and PTSD. You’ll also likely be aware when an employee suffers a major, sudden family loss. But few know when an employee is battered at home, suffers rape or assault, or is exposed to frequent neighborhood violence. Even fewer know if an employee is still struggling with early, severe childhood neglect or other severe events that might not include risk of physical injury or death. All can lead to PTSD.

(This article was originally written for and can be found in the Learning Center of mental health advocacy group No Stigmas.)

Some studies have found that more than half of the population experiences major traumas during their lifetime. While many experience post-trauma symptoms for a short time, fewer than 10 percent develop PTSD. In any given year, an estimated 3 to 5 percent of adults struggle with PTSD while about 8 percent of the population will encounter PTSD at some point in their lives.

Screen+Shot+2016-08-23+at+2.39.25+PMThe ease with which home safety struggles are missed struck me after I spoke on a mental health panel to interested Northern Trust employees globally. I extolled the virtues of walking outside to gain the brain chemistry benefits of exercise and sunlight in battling depression. But I didn’t consider that location matters, including in parts of Chicago where the panel discussion was based. Exposure to violence or fear while walking could easily negate the benefits of sunlight and exercise for those suffering from PTSD and other anxiety disorders, along with exposing anyone who took my advice to very real physical risk in rough neighborhoods.

Could a caring leader/manager responsible for an employee struggling with PTSD also miss such connections? Certainly. Recognizing symptoms might be easier.

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Coaching Employees Out of a Depression Spiral

Version 2It was at least a year too late when I realized that my firing of a talented, once-energetic employee didn’t need to happen. Her bubbly, sarcastic wit had turned at times malicious. Her engaging personality became more frequently sullen and withdrawn. Work performance deteriorated after years of strength.

I didn’t know it then, but extremely difficult home circumstances triggered this woman into an episodic depression spiral, one she was not then equipped to pull herself from alone. Not knowing the circumstances, I mistook her poor results for apathy. I didn’t explore alternative explanations and enough options to restore her results. I failed her as a leader/manager. Remarkably, she has since forgiven my inability to discern the true situation and remains a personal friend today.

If any manager should have seen the symptoms of depression and known how to help, it should have been me. I had gone through several depressive cycles, the worst coming as a teen when my pain turned for long stretches to suicide ideation. But I had pulled out of these cycles through trial-and-error rather than a clinical understanding of my disease. I figured out which behavioral changes helped turn my spirals upward without knowing there was evidence that these were the right approaches for many.

I hid my disease for decades, fearful that acknowledging I sometimes struggled with depression would damage my career or cause others to avoid or, perhaps even worse, pity me. Once publicly acknowledged, I dove into researching mental health challenges as an author and volunteer for NoStigmas, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and other organizations.

What I’ve learned would have made me far more effective in several prior roles leading a global corporate team, a Washington, D.C. congressional office, and even back to long-ago days as editor-in-chief of a large college newspaper.

For managers, the struggle in managing a depressed employee starts with even recognizing the behavior.
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Common Complications for Muslims and Mental Illness

Political pandering driven to simplistic sloganeering is creating a common challenge for Muslims and mental illness sufferers.

For Muslims in America, being perceived as sharing a common religion is an increasing burden following Orlando’s Pulse shooting, San Bernardino, the Boston Marathon bombing, Chattanooga, Fort Hood, 9/11 and other incidents. Foreign attacks, including yesterday’s airport attack in Turkey, don’t help either.

For those struggling with any mental illness, being perceived as sharing a common disease is an increasing burden following Sandy Hook, Columbine, the Colorado movie theater, Virginia Tech, and other incidents. The Germanwings crash and other overseas events only add to misgivings.

Since Muslims and mental illness are rarely discussed in mainstream media outside of tragic events, the perception of all Muslims and anyone struggling with mental health challenges is that violence is part of the label. For most, this is far from the truth.

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Glad to Walk With, Not Just For, Carly on Suicide Prevention

Five years ago today, the world came one missed detail away from losing one of its most beautiful souls. It was the third time this caring, talented, engaging woman reached a point of desperation and pain she couldn’t see any other way to escape. I hope and pray it was her last attempt to die by suicide.

Since that attempt, Carly has worked hard to develop and implement the coping skills that allow her to see what used to seem like enclosed walls as hurdles or at least as rooms with doors and windows that she can pry open. Though it is still hard some days, Carly has figured out how to learn lessons and move on from mistakes rather than dwell in self-loathing. Carly has surrounded herself with energizing people who give her strength and renewal rather than those encouraging the thoughts and behaviors that sent her on too many downward spirals. She learned to love herself enough to accept that others could truly love the real Carly: along the way opening her heart, mind and soul to the extraordinary woman who is now her wife.

As I walk today in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Out of the Darkness Chicagoland Walk, I join Carly’s family and other friends in considering ourselves fortunate that we are not walking in memory of Carly Jacobson. We are walking with her. If her wife and mine do not mind, I might even hold her hand or hug her by my side for a few moments as we walk, grateful to know her and be part of her world.

For too many walking today, the walk is to honor, remember and cherish those who have died by suicide. In addition to our involvement in The CARL Project, No Stigmas and other mental health work, I am proud to join Carly as co-chairs of a new AFSP-Illinois Lived Experience Committee—established for those who have suffered through suicide ideation or attempt, as well as those currently struggling with pains they don’t know how else to escape.

It is our hope to learn from those who have struggled and share those insights so that, in future years, many more of our fellow AFSP walkers are doing so hand-in-hand or side-by-side with those they love.

#OOTDCCW #SuicidePrevention #MentalHealth

Mental Illness, Politics Increasingly Intersect

It’s a bit frightening watching as the mental illness and political worlds increasingly overlap.

When I started writing on two tracks—one focused on mental illness and another on politics and public policy—I thought I was covering different subjects. Now, it’s clear that understanding mental illness and its remedies contributes to comprehending and working in our political system—recognition I share with no desire to diminish either topic.

Consider the following:

  • Schizophrenia is a mental disorder often characterized by abnormal social behavior and failure to recognize what is real,” according to Wikipedia. “Common symptoms include false beliefs, unclear or confused thinking, auditory hallucinations, reduced social engagement and emotional expression, and lack of motivation.” As we look at public policy today, how often do we find political debates rooted in falsehoods, clear policy inconsistencies and words twisted by political opponents to suggest they mean something other than what we heard. As is the case with schizophrenia, improving our political system requires multimodal treatment that includes educational, social and other interventions, including direct treatment of some of the primary causes of the psychosis in the system. In government, the psychosis often originates in a disconnected, dysfunctional political system.
  • According to Mayo Clinic, Narcissistic Personality Disorder “is a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of ultra confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.” Can you think of anyone from the political world for whom this description applies? Understanding narcissism is too often critical to understanding politicians.

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Mental Health Through Dramatic Change

A dramatic life change, solo hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, helped Cheryl Strayed restore her life path in the biographical movie “Wild,” starring Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl. Dramatic gestures may not be enough, though, for those searching for mental health.

After her Ghana volunteer trip failed her expectations, Carly was left to ponder her future. Following is how Carly contemplated her experience:

How many times am I going to do this before I realize it doesn’t work? Leaving home in high school. Didn’t fix me. Quitting Tiffany’s for a whole new career. Already saw how well that worked. Going to volunteer in Africa thinking that focusing only on others would pull me out. Torment.

Find a damn balance, Carly. Come on, be smarter.

You can’t do this in one dramatic move. But you know you can do this. You know you can feel better, be better. You’ve done it before. One step at a time. Use your coping skills, all of them. Well, I still can drink, can’t I? Yeah I can still have some wine, maybe just not so much. I can handle that.

I just can’t count on a single change to fix everything. It’s such hard work to fix everything. So hard. But I don’t need it all to be perfect, do I? I’ve felt okay before without it all being perfect. I just need to keep enough on track that I don’t fall back.

Why does it work for others? They go on a long, spiritual journey in a strange land or on some mountain trail and come home healed. That would be so much easier. Why can’t I be like that? Why can’t I just love me for me?

Good question, Carly? Why can’t I?