2013 Resolutions: Make Changes Incrementally in Small Steps

2013 is knocking on our door, and with it many wishes to improve one or more things in our lives.

My first resolution is to get through the post-holiday blues without becoming overly depressed. Once everything gets “back to normal” around January 4th and holiday trimmings come down, I always find myself falling into a low mood. It’s exciting and happy to be around loved ones during the holidays and relive decades old traditions. Later, when I’m back in my apartment behind my computer alone again, there’s a big let down. Returning to “the grind” sucks. I wish holidays were spaced out better.

I think many psychologists and psychiatrists recognize there is a disappointment after all the joy has passed, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it makes the DSM one day. Some people experience depression when winter hits – which I believe is Seasonal Affective Disorder – and that’s a well documented phenomenon.

My second resolution is to make “big” changes incrementally.

Most people set a goal of getting a “beach ready body” by May so they can vacation looking their best when the summer arrives. Naturally, people join gyms in droves after January 1st, but most give up by February when a new exercise routine is too strenuous, doesn’t fit into their schedule, or their life presents more pressing challenges.

Others set different types of goals: get IN a relationship, get OUT of a relationship, be more patient with the children, find a new job, move elderly parents into long term care facilities, be proactive about following a therapist’s suggestions for improving oneself opposed to staying in the same old rut.

My advice for any of these resolutions: take baby steps, not giant leaps. Most importantly, be flexible about what you determine as your ultimate “goal”. Unexpected things come up all the time and many will hamper your efforts. Make the resolution less about a numerical or emotional “target” and more about the process of improving your life on a day-to-day basis.

If your goal is to lose 30 pounds, make a reasonable plan that includes progressive changes in diet and exercise. Don’t report to the gym January 2nd and workout for 2 hours unless you can actually sustain that effort for several months. Also, don’t immediately change your diet to celery and water. Ween yourself off junk food slowly and experiment with healthier foods you actually enjoy eating.

Can some people “drop everything” and change on a dime? Sure, but they might be ignoring many other aspects of their lives that need constant attention. There’s always one guy or girl your local gym will trot out in June as the “biggest loser” who has rock hard abs and killer muscle tone. They went from “bloated” to “Baywatch” in 6 months, and you might ask yourself why YOU failed to do the same.

The truth is, they might have little else to do with their time besides working out and making hummus. Or, the weight they gained was an anomaly after an injury that prevented them from doing their normal exercise routine. If you haven’t exercised in years, it will take a couple years to get back into shape. Someone who had gained 30 pounds since July after surgery from a football injury will lose that weight much faster because they are accustomed to tough workouts and strict eating habits.

The same can be said for psychological changes. Want to quit gambling? Cold turkey works, but you’ll probably need to shore up other aspects of your life as well. Many addictions are actually symptomatic of greater psychological problems or stress. To keep yourself off the slot machines, see a therapist for support, join a Gamblers Anonymous meeting, and talk to your family about limiting your access to cash.

Otherwise, the process of putting your foot down and trying to cease all addictions, bad behaviors, or other personal problems starting January 1st, 2013 can lead to extreme disappointment when you “fall off the wagon” without laying the proper groundwork to stay on the wagon in the first place.

Random Small Steps for Honoring Your New Year’s Resolutions:

  • Follow your shrink’s recommendation to improve your sleep hygiene. Sleep earlier, sleep less, or sleep more if necessary.
  • Drink 1 less alcoholic beverages per week over the course of 8 weeks. By March, you’ll be spending less money on booze and your liver will thank you.
  • Have a salad with every meal BEFORE eating your main course. Vegetables will fill up your stomach and make you feel less hungry for heavy entrees. Don’t feel bad about requesting a take away bag or giving your food to someone else.
  • Drink an extra glass of water per day. Water is boring but it is vital to many of the body’s core functions. Plus, you can excuse yourself to the bathroom legitimately for a pee break at work and not be wasting time.
  • Send your boss an email requesting information about getting a promotion or salary increase. If you’ve been slaving away at your job for years, you need to be thanked the right way on your paycheck.
  • Spend 20 more minutes a week talking with your kids or other family members, even if it’s about inane subject matter. When your loved ones want to talk about something serious, they’ll feel more comfortable with you. Kids also like to hear from their parents; it shows you care about their well being.
  • Plan a family vacation and hold everyone firmly to the plans, no matter how young or old. Obviously emergencies take precedence over downtime. Otherwise, plan to spend time together in an enjoyable setting WITHOUT cell phones, laptops, or video games.
  • Try internet dating even if you think it’s weird. Match.com and eHarmony.com are multi-million dollar businesses. That means there are thousands – if not millions – of people paying to join these sites. You won’t be the only one. Give it a shot if you’re single and looking to date.
  • Join a support group for some aspect of your life that needs improvement. I need to find a support group for social anxiety. If you drink, gamble, smoke, drug, have anger issues, or suffer from OCD, get out of the house and talk about it with others. If the group sucks, leave and give yourself credit for trying.

Best wishes for a happy, healthy, and productive 2013!

Prayers for Newtown and Calls for Meaningful Change in the USA

On Friday, December 14, 2012, a disturbed gunman forcefully entered an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. He was carrying 2 sidearms and one semi-automatic .223 Bushmaster rifle. After shooting his way through the school doors, he used the semi-automatic to shoot between 3-11 rounds (each) into 27 different people, before shooting himself. Of the 27 hit, 26 died. Of the 26 that died, 20 were children around 7 years of age.

This hits home for me because Newtown is only about 30 minutes away from where I spent my childhood. It’s a bucolic, sleepy town where people go to raise families and enjoy peaceful lives. The innocence, tranquility, and happiness Newtown has enjoyed for decades was stolen from it in a matter of minutes Friday morning. Prior to this incident, there had only been one murder in 10 years.

Mental Illness to Blame?

Anytime something like this takes place – no matter where it happens – questions about the mental health of the shooter arise.

Was he Bipolar? Autistic? Paranoid? Did he have Avoidant, Anti-Social, Narcissistic, or Borderline Personality problems? Was he just a sociopath? Was he high on drugs?

The answer to this critical question? We don’t know yet, we might known soon, but we also might NEVER know.

I shudder at the thought that this seriously deranged individual might have a BPD diagnosis. My suspicion, however, is that BPD is NOT a factor in this man’s mental health troubles: the vast majority of people with BPD – even those who are extremely troubled – sooner hurt themselves before going on spree killings.

Have I had violent thoughts? Absolutely. Have I actually physically wounded or killed another human being? NO. The only physical wounds and scars I have caused are seen on my own skin. Burn marks. Knife slashes on my wrists. Skin picked and irritated to the point of irrevocable damage, producing callous-like formations on my scalp. Safety pin puncture wounds on my ear lobes (it was stress relief pre-diagnosis).

Only a handful of those with BPD have committed mass murder, some of whom are listed at the bottom of this WikiPedia Article on Borderline Personality Disorder – click here. For what it’s worth, the list of famous BPDers includes several well known celebrities who function productively.

For the record and to be clear I am in no way dismissing the emotional trauma people with BPD wreak on the lives of others. People with BPD can be manipulative, emotionally abusive, and at the very least extremely stressful to tolerate at home. Emotional scars are no different than physical scars. They stay with you forever. My differentiation is that scars – emotional and physical – while damaging and life changing, do not necessarily terminate life. Please be mindful of this as you consider those in your life with BPD in light of recent events.

I will now propose what I believe to be a pragmatic two-pronged approach to making these horrific crimes a thing of the past:

1. Substantive Discussion on Improving Mental Health Support, Screening, and Treatment. If my parents had recognized some of the warning signs I displayed as a young child as indicative of a potential mental health problem, it’s very possible I could have started therapy and meds earlier. Although this would not have prevented my development of BPD, depression, and anxiety, it would have greatly diminished the “self-implosion” that occurred in my early 20s. It was sudden, traumatic, and profound.

The United States leaves much to be desired in the mental health department. Resources are stretched, health insurance support is minimal, and society-at-large shuns those with the courage to admit they have a problem. This needs to change, and it needs to change fast.

If you think you have a problem, see a doctor. If you think your child or friend has a problem, don’t go into a state of denial to feel better about yourself. Speak up, get help, and zealously fight for an improvement in your loved one’s life. It could be the difference between life and death. Further, nipping mental health problems in the bud also stops them from spilling over to subsequent generations of a family. Had the problems of the earlier generations of my family been resolved, it’s likely the spillover effect would have been minimized.

2. Owning high capacity magazines, high power semi-automatic weapons capable of inflicting heavy casualties in a short period of time is NOT necessary. Fact: there are 300 million guns already in circulation in the USA. They’re not going anywhere, and banning them absolutely would be impossible.

That said, the make and model of the gun used by the Newtown, Connecticut; Oregon Mall; and Aurora, Colorado shooters was an AR-15 .223 semi-automatic rifle. These types of firearms are NOT necessary for self protection, hunting, or “sporting fun”.

They are easily acquired, easy to use, and their capabilities now painfully clear to several American communities. Why make it easy for mentally disturbed individuals to massacre a crowd of innocent people?

Ban these weapons outright. Institute significant penalties for those found to be bought and sold illegally. Ban the sale and manufacture of high capacity magazines for such firearms. They are simply unnecessary and have no practical purpose other than in law enforcement or military settings. If you think you need an AR-15 for protection, you’re either delusional, involved in criminal enterprise, or woefully misinformed in the realms of commonsense and safety.

We the people – who choose NOT to bear semi-automatics – have a right to safety.

I’m willing to compromise and let gun owners keep sidearms and low-capacity, low velocity rifles for hunting and protection. And YES, I also realize gun enthusiasts have a fair point about better mental health screening for prospective gun owners. That’s why BOTH approaches are necessary.

Be thankful for your family and friends this holiday season. Be thankful there is food on the table, a roof over your head, and that you live in one of the freest countries in the world. Honor these privileges with dutiful care paid to the mental health of your family and neighbors, and get rid of extremely dangerous, unneeded firearms that pose a serious risk to the safety of others.

Nota Bene: I DO NOT own any firearms, hunting knives, ammo of any kind, explosives, poisonous gas, biological weapons, artillery, or riot gear. The most dangerous object in my apartment is probably a dinner knife. Further, if the knife were to ever be used on human flesh, there’s a very high probability it would be used on mine before anyone else’s. Suicidal tendencies and idealization are part and parcel of the BPD diagnosis. In most cases, homicidal intentions are NOT.

How to Get My Mother to Reconcile with Her Estranged Brother

Ever since I was born, my mother and her first brother have celebrated Christmas Eve together. Gradually, as they had kids (and their children had children) the party has evolved. I think my mother is cooking for 25 people this year. It used to be less than 12. She’ll groan about it until it’s over, but secretly I think she is very happy to do it, since she’s getting older and has realized aging is an immutable force.

Up until the early 1990s, my mother’s youngest brother would occasionally join us for Christmas. My mother was on good terms with him for most of her life. We attended his marriage to a lovely Japanese woman and got to know their daughter, named in my grandmother’s honor. My father took a picture of my mother (the oldest) and her two younger brothers on the front steps of our house many years ago, and it is a nice reminder of what was. Now things are much different.

When my mother and her youngest brother had their disagreement, I was too young to comprehend it. When he stopped showing up for Christmas and stopped sending greeting cards, my Mom would sigh and ignore my questions about the conflict. Eventually my own brothers and I just accepted it as an estrangement that was beyond our understanding.

I haven’t seen my uncle since, but we occasionally communicate on Facebook. His daughter is now in college and I’ve exchanged a couple emails with her. We haven’t seen each other face to face in 20 years. He lives in New York and my youngest brother saw him once a couple years ago. That’s really been the extent of physical contact. It’s kind of depressing given my mother’s constant vocal mantra of “supporting each other” and “being a family”: she doesn’t even speak to parts of her own family.

It took a couple years to figure out what was going on. Once I was in college and starting to show signs of mental illness, she’d open up about her own issues and those her siblings faced. Then, a couple years ago, during a rapid-fire email exchange with my estranged uncle, it all came together. He’s actually more comfortable talking with his nephews than his own sister. My mother’s other brother – the middle child in her family – has no beefs (on the surface) with any of them and is probably the most stable of the three. He’s raised a wonderful family and worked dutifully as a teacher. I can’t discuss the particulars of why my uncle and mother don’t speak, but I will say that the emotional grounds for silence are legitimate.

So now it’s less about why and more about HOW do they get on speaking terms again. For perspective, my mother is 67 and getting old fast. Her brother is a few years younger but definitely past the 60 year barrier. Their own mother died shortly after turning 70 from breast cancer. I only knew my grandmother for roughly 2 years. Three decades later, my Mom is approaching her twilight years, and with them the very real chance that she could develop cancer or some other illness. The thought of getting sick and not speaking to her own brother before death is mind boggling and unacceptable to me. Familial bonds are supposed to strengthen with age, not deteriorate.

What should I do? Arrange a surprise meeting in a neutral location? Lobby my mom for re-opening the lines of communication? Let my uncle in the middle of it work things out? He’s not exactly young either, but he would be the best candidate for brokering peace among the three of them: he knows all the family history and struggles. If I sat in the center of the table, I could only speculate, and that would not be productive. That said, he’s not at fault for the dysfunction and has his own family and new grandchildren to worry about, and might be as confounded as the rest of us about why his elder sister and baby brother never speak.

The cliche conclusion about growing very old is that in some ways, you begin to regress. The veneer of middle age maturity and conviction dissipates and leaves behind a person just as vulnerable as a young child. It’s almost a blissful existence. If you don’t believe me, visit any retirement community during the daytime. You’ll see everyone enjoying bingo, working on arts and crafts, or playing shuffleboard. They watch PG rated movies and religiously tune in at 6:00 PM for the nightly news. Bedtime is at 8:30 PM. At that point in your life, why not feel like a kid again, even if your biological clock thinks differently?

Ultimately, whether or not my mother and uncle speak again is up to them. I’d like it to happen because it would make our family unit a little stronger and more diverse. My thoughts and wishes, however, are still largely irrelevant to their disagreement. I really don’t want to have everyone reconcile when one of them is within inches of death. That’s too dramatic and disappointing, because the new found happiness and renewed love is short lived once one soul departs from Earth. Then you are grief-stricken.

If you have the ability to get siblings back together, please make an effort to do so this year. Your siblings are part of you forever: why not make a bond worth cherishing for years to come?