Mental Health Matters: Acceptance (Part II)

I began Mental Health Matters with the acceptance of my own mental health issues, and so, as I shift to share how I’ve developed healthier coping mechanisms, I’m returning to acceptance.

Accepting my adoptee status has been no easy feat. I was ashamed for a long time that I didn’t know who my parents were. Everyone around me seemed to be raised by their biological families. Why wasn’t I? Also, I grew up in the 70s and 80s, where we watched TV shows like, Diff’rent Strokes and Webster and movies, like Annie. Each depicted adoption by wealthy benefactors. My mother was a woman who went to dialysis three times a week and received a disability check; my father was a pharmacy technician at Northwestern Memorial. Many times, I questioned why I got the seemingly short end of the adoption stick.

Accepting my mother’s death and my father’s abandonment has been challenging. I frequently wish that I had “regular” parents and a typical situation. I understand that many families are dysfunctional, but I also know that some familial relationships function with what most would deem normality. Some people have two living parents who call, visit, and have healthy relationships with their grandchildren. I know this exists because I’ve seen it with friends and other family members. Again, I believed I’d been gypped.

Accepting I don’t belong with my biological family has also been tricky. While I didn’t think each would hold me in a long embrace, I did think most would recognize me as part of their “family” and attempt a relationship. I figured they’d want to know what I’d been up to the last forty or so years. But I was wrong. I ignored the fact that I was entering the middle and end of their lives. With my father, specifically, it seemed I’d disrupted the carefully crafted lie man he’d constructed himself to be. For his wife and three of his children, my existence symbolized indiscretions and his flawed human beingness. It was too much for any of them to face.

But by the time I’d found my biological father, I was too grown to be ashamed of anything else.

Years ago, I began unravelling who I was and how I got here as a way to accept myself and my narrative. We…all…have…a…story. And each one is different. My story includes a schizophrenic mother. I mention her mental illness a lot because it’s a part of acknowledging her existence as a part of my own. Without my mother, Joyce, I wouldn’t be here. Equally important is my father, Jerome. During our initial phone conversations, he apologized profusely for inviting my mother up to his apartment that day. I assured him just as many times that there was little reason to feel regret. Without his lust, I wouldn’t be here.

In 2011, I decided to stop interacting with my adoptive father. He’d never understand my point of view or be the father I thought I deserved. Before I ceased communication, I created a ritual to forgive and accept the way he cast me aside during adolescence. A year later, he developed Stage 4 throat cancer. Two years before he actually died, he offered a face-to-face verbal apology. Accepting his “I’m sorry” helped me to accept our circumstances. My adoptive father was who he was, with his own set of challenges, and our lives had intersected and happened the way they were supposed to. In kind, I accepted my adoptive mother for who she was. She wasn’t always physically fit or financially secure, but she was mentally sound. And who am I to judge anyway? The same way I bore children with my imperfect an unhealthy self, she chose to adopt and raise me as her own with her imperfect and physically unhealthy self.

Accepting each of these parental parts has made it easier for me to accept myself. Additionally, acceptance for me has meant acknowledging my origin story. It doesn’t mean I have to like it, but I do accept the reality of it. Every now and then, I relapse into dream-like thoughts of the “perfect” family. But the majority of the time, I now know being me is nothing to be ashamed of.

Mental Health Matters: Acceptance (Part I)

Mental Health Matters: Situational Anxiety with Dr. Dinardo

andrea_situational_anxietyThis week, I speak with one of my dearest blogging friends, Dr. D! We discuss all things anxiety. She explains the difference between anxiety disorder and situational anxiety. Dr. Dinardo provides 3 strategies to help us cope with situational anxiety, especially because it may be heightened during the pandemic and times of racial unrest. Oh, and I reveal a real-time experience that was causing me a bit of anxiety. I’ll have to write about the results later.

I also have to warn you…if you don’t want to hear us dote on one another, then you should begin this episode around the 7-minute mark. Our conversation can be viewed on YouTube or listened to on SoundCloud, Buzzsprout, or Apple Podcasts. I hope this is helpful as we seek healthier ways to engage with and support one another.

Be sure to also check out Dr. D’s blog: drandreadinardo.com, google her TEDx talk, or follow her on IG: dr.andrea.dinardo. You’re bound to learn something and be a bit more motivated.

 

Mental Health Matters: Adoption with Dr. Masters

marchita_masters_adoptionThis week, I had the privilege of discussing adoption, adoptees, adoptive parents, and foster care with Marchita Masters, PsyD, who not only has worked with foster care children in several settings, but who has also adopted a child. Our conversation can be viewed on YouTube or listened to on SoundCloud or Apple Podcasts. I hope it is helpful as we seek healthier ways to engage with and support one another.

Mental Health Matters: Codependence

I discovered the idea of codependence last year around August. I was displeased with my daughter’s choice of boyfriend, as I had been in the past, and was looking for reasons why she seemed to have fallen in love with the same personality – again. Google is one of my best friends, so I used it to search for specific traits that I’d noticed in both her current and former beau.

No matter what phrases I used, codependence popped up. So, I clicked on a link and read the characteristics:

Low self-esteem

People pleasing

Poor boundaries

Reactivity

Caretaking

Control

Dysfunctional communication

Obsessions

Dependency

Denial

Problems with intimacy

Painful emotions

codependencyJeez Louise! You know those movies that show people’s lives flashing before their eyes prior to their deaths? That’s how I felt reading this list of descriptions. It was as if someone had written an outline of my life. I stopped worrying about my daughter and the men she’d chosen and instead began reflecting on myself and the choices I’d made from childhood through adulthood. The proverbial light bulb went off and I realized (as my sister once said) I’d been codependent as f—k!

From the low self-worth of abandonment to the eventual numbing of painful emotions established in adolescence and further perpetuated as a grown woman, I exhibited each codependent trait. I was stunned, but suddenly, my life made sense.

While most wouldn’t describe me as a people-pleaser, there were specific people I rarely told, “no.” My grandmother was one. The example I repeatedly describe is when she’d told me that she wanted me (and the rest of our family) home for Christmas. We could do what we wanted for other holidays, but December 25th was different. So, even though Dwight and I moved our family a thousand miles away, we drove up and down the interstate every other year for seventeen years with our daughters in tow just because I thought I had to and also because I feared telling her no. I’m not sure what I thought would happen if I said, “We’re not coming,” but I avoided the conversation and disappointing her for almost two decades, all while ignoring how the situation affected my family and me.

Another way codependency showed up in my life is through a lack of boundaries. I could write another twelve posts about this, but I’ll just share two specifics. Prior to 2014, I had no personal boundaries “based on awareness of my own unique needs.” It’s easy to do this when you’re unclear about who you are. How could I know what I needed if I didn’t know who I was as an individual or what I liked? As a result, whatever others liked, I liked. Whatever they wanted to do, I did. You’d never hear me say, “No. I’m not doing that!” It was more like, “Sure. I’m down with anything.”

Similarly, I had very few relationship boundaries. I’ve written before about the ease with which I can become friends with others. However, in the past, I’ve also befriended former students, even when they were still under my tutelage. Years ago, each one had access to me through my cellphone, where we’d chat for hours, discussing their personal business, and depending on what was happening in my life, mine too. I wanted to be a “caring teacher,” but blurred lines and unresolved issues, helped me to become a codependent one as well.

As a current teacher educator, of course, I advise against this; it’s unprofessional. However, reflecting on those ten years, it’s clear that poor boundaries permeated both my personal and professional life in another attempt to prove I mattered.

Another clear way codependency manifested is through control. For much of my life, I didn’t feel as if I was in control of myself. As an only child in a family of older relatives, times were far and few between when I knew what was best for me. Also, losing my mother at sixteen and being sent away at seventeen showed me that I was in control of nothing. Anything could happen at any moment. This led to two issues: I trusted everyone’s opinion, except my own, and I eventually tried very hard to control everything around me, including other’s actions, so as not to be caught off-guard by life, ever…again.

This revelation of codependency really changed my outlook as it gave me a new way to take responsibility for myself and my behavior.

From this point on, I’ll continue to share how I developed healthier coping mechanisms, in addition to conversations with those in the field who can support us in actualizing healthier lives.

Until then, tell me…are you familiar with this term? Have you ever been codependent?

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Mental Health Matters: Children with Tim Dukes, Behavioral Specialist

tim_children_MHMToday, I share a conversation I had with Timothy A. Dukes, behavioral specialist. We discussed parenting and children, specifically during the pandemic. However, he shared insights about how to help children re-set their behavior, as well as how parents should do something as simple as asking our children, “What can I do to make your day better?,” which can be beneficial even if there’s no pandemic occurring.

Our conversation can be viewed on YouTube or listened to on SoundCloud or Apple Podcasts. I hope these words help us all to become healthier versions of ourselves.

Mental Health Matters: Perfectionism with Kotrish Wright, MSW

kotrish_perfectionismToday, I share a conversation I had with Kotrish Wright, MSW centered on PERFECTIONISM. She shares 5 strategies we can use to move past procrastination, and subsequently past those debilitating thoughts that swirl around in our heads. It can be viewed on YouTube or listened to on SoundCloud or Apple Podcasts. I hope this brief discussion helps us all to become healthier versions of ourselves.

 

 

Mental Health Matters: Sex as Escapism

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The day my father asked me to leave home, I awoke to three or four trash bags filled with my belongings. They slouched in the middle of my bedroom floor. The day before, I’d thrown myself a seventeenth birthday party surrounded by family. But I’d also just gotten in trouble at school for forging a tardy pass.

“You’re moving to Covert with your grandmother,” my father announced. “You walked around here frontin’ yesterday, like everything is okay. YOU’RE SUSPENDED!” he yelled.

I was baffled. I thought that was protocol…walking around and pretending everything was okay when it wasn’t. I’d pretended my mother’s death hadn’t bothered me the previous nine months, and no one berated me about that. Why was having a party while suspended an issue?

But it was too late to argue. My father’s mind was made up. I moved as soon as school ended in June.

By September, my grandmother had convinced my father that he needed to relinquish his parental rights so that she could “legally take me to the hospital,” if necessary. So, the three of us drove to a small Michigan court, where a judge bestowed my grandmother with the title, legal guardian.

My father droned on about the court appointment being a “formality.” He’d “always be my dad,” he said. I wished I had an appropriate response. A tear or a lip quiver would’ve added affect. But I was dead to his speech and to mounting situations outside of my control. Life had finally completely numbed me. During his soliloquy, I zoned out and devised a simple plan for my new existence: befriend no one, complete senior year, and leave as soon as I crossed the graduation stage.

That was the plan, until I went to a computer class called, Basic and met a boy.

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He was a year younger. He played football, ran track, blew the saxophone in band, and was his class’s president. He made time for me and he made me laugh. More importantly, he made me forget about my mother’s death and my father’s abandonment. He made me forget that I wouldn’t finish high school with friends I’d known since the first grade.

Initially, we talked on the phone for several hours. He lived five minutes away from my grandparents’ home and his house was on the way to my work-study job, which made stopping by convenient. Soon we traded phone conversations for sitting on his mother’s couch, where we watched their floor-model television and kissed. Our time together quickly turned to sex. I enjoyed it. It was liberating in the most poetic way. When we were together, my pent-up emotions floated free like colorful balloons toward a bright blue sky. I repeatedly chased the euphoria.

I was so in love with the idea that he loved and wanted me that I wrapped myself around him. I mattered. He and I ebbed and flowed through teenage love. There was no way I would let him go. To do so would mean returning to earth to face the reality of my circumstances, which were outside of my control, and I wasn’t ready.

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Instead, I (unconsciously) learned men, sex, and relationships could temporarily fill a void. All three helped me escape to a place where I temporarily felt better about myself. As long as I had one, then I knew I was worth something to someone, even if the moment was fleeting. Either of the three were easy to attain, especially in undergrad, where my deeper issue flowed with a sea of everyone else’s rampant hormones and fluid identities. Throughout my life, there were times when I had all three simultaneously in different faces, constantly seeking a high, never quite reaching bliss, still feeling shitty about myself. It would take years before I’d understand one thing about trying to fill an empty space with men. You can’t. There were never enough to make me feel whole. Ever. It was always an impossible endeavor.

***

Parts of this piece were first published on PULP, a sex/uality and reproductive rights publication celebrating this human coil.

This blogger’s poem aptly describes what I’ve experienced.

Elizabeth Fitzgerald explains how escapism is a part of the fight, flight, or freeze group, which can manifest in codependent ways, including addiction.

Mental Health Matters: Escapism with Elizabeth Fitzgerald, LPC

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Beginning today, I’m sharing conversations that I’ve had with experts in the field of mental health. These are licensed practitioners, clinical psychologists, and everyone in between. I hope these brief discussions help us all to become healthier versions of ourselves.

The first topic is ESCAPISM with Elizabeth Fitzgerald, LPC. It can be viewed on YouTube or listened to on Apple Podcasts, SoundCloud or Buzzsprout.

Mental Health Matters: Feeling My Feels

When I first received a packet of information from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services outlining the events that led to my adoption, I called my then best friend to read her the contents. At first, her sniffles were low, but eventually they began to drown out my words.

“Why are you crying?” I asked.

“It’s just…so sad,” she began.

“Don’t cry,” I insisted. “Don’t cry for me.”

By this time, I was 32 years old and had mastered muffling and numbing my own sorrows. I wasn’t going to sob about my own life, and I certainly wasn’t going to allow anyone else to mourn for me.

I suppressed the pain of discovering I was an abandoned five-month-old baby with the other emotional trauma I’d endured. The only thing about stuffing emotions into an abyss is that they’re never really gone. Pain. Sadness. Anger. Whatever emotion you’ve attempted to ignore stays with you. I learned this nine years later when I was 41.

moon_womanI’d decided to do a relationship meditation hosted by Oprah and Deepak. I thought the meditation would help me have a better relationship with my husband, father, cousins, and in-laws. What was surprising is the meditation really focused on the relationship I had with myself. This was achieved through chanting mantras and answering journal prompts. One of the questions asked this: What, if anything, are you afraid of finding out about yourself? Or something like that.

At first, I didn’t want to write the truth. But, after realizing I’d be the only one reading it, I decided to be as honest as possible. I scribbled these words: There must be something wrong with me for me not to have any parents.

And then, I cried.

I cried for the five-month-old version of myself, who must’ve been terrified being left in an apartment for days. I wept for a baby who was separated from her mother. In that moment, I realized I didn’t need permission to empathize for myself. So, I also cried for being adopted and not told to feel anything about the finding years ago. I grieved losing my adoptive mother. My final tears were for my adoptive father, who, no matter how much he uttered, “I love you,” had shown otherwise.

That day was pivotal. I’d waited my entire life for someone to green-light my emotions when really, I held the power all along.

moonAfterwards, I stopped stifling tears and emotions. I began using honest communication in most situations. I refused to follow family and society’s made-up rules of engagement. From that day forward, I knew it was better for me to share emotions than it was to harbor resentment and damage myself further. This ranged from answering simple questions, like “How do you like working here?” to harder ones, like, “Why haven’t you invited me to your parties?” with truth. With many people, I ceased hiding my emotions, and subsequently, protecting theirs. I don’t mean to say that I trample on others’ feelings; that would be insensitive, but rather, I don’t hold back for fear of what others will think. I don’t owe anyone a lie or a watered-down answer because they’re ill-equipped to deal with how I feel or because they’re not used to hearing a different opinion.

Since that day, I’ve also learned how to move through emotions and determine why I’m experiencing a specific response. I have a phrase: I feel (fill-in-the-blank emotion) because of (fill-in-the-blank reason). It might look like this: I feel resentful because my family doesn’t consider how I feel around holidays. Sometimes I share these sentiments; other times, I don’t. The important part is to know how I feel and move through it.

Sometimes tears arise because I’m triggered by past life events, like the time I was watching TV and a woman and her mother were shopping for wedding dresses. I remembered how I shopped for dresses by myself and it made me sad. Being able to acknowledge that emotion and then pause for a second has been more supportive for me than pretending feelings don’t exist.

Finally, because I’m now more inclined to feel my feels and process emotions, I’m less likely to use unhealthy coping strategies. I no longer rely on people, relationships, or sex as a means to improve my mood or self-esteem. As a result, my relationships have improved because I’m interacting from an authentic space, not from a place of suppressed hurt and anger.

For me, an ability to feel has been liberating.

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Mental Health Matters: Suppression

My mother died on Monday, September 4, 1989. It was Labor Day. That’s why I can remember it. My father returned from Northwestern Memorial Hospital that morning. When he walked in the back door, I knew life had changed. His red eyes and sunken shoulders spoke first. It was one of two times I’d seen him cry.

“She’s gone,” he said.

Then, he hugged me. Both of our faces were wet when he released me.

When we arrived at the hospital, my father handed me several quarters and instructed me to use the payphone outside of the intensive care unit to call family and friends.

The first person I dialed was my grandmother.

“I knew something was wrong,” she said. “I could feel it. We’ll be right there.”

She and my grandfather’s Michigan home wasn’t far; they arrived in two hours. Her voice disrupted the solace.

“She just couldn’t take it no more. Her little body just couldn’t take it no more,” she said.

My grandfather swallowed his grief and let out a small choke. He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket, turned to face the hallway, and blew his nose.

Others’ pain makes me cry, and my mother had just died. My eyes welled up.

“Don’t cry,” my grandmother instructed, “you had your mama for a long time. Sixteen years is a loooong time.”

img_6673Years’ prior, my mother had told me not to feel sorry for my own adopted self. Throughout my childhood, I’d been told not to cry over trivial matters. On Labor Day 1989, the lesson my family desired was finally solidified: there is nothing worth crying over, not even the death of one’s mother.

That Monday I swallowed my pain.

The next day I attended the first day of my junior year with hundreds of other Whitney Young students. When my friends asked me how my summer was, I continued swallowing my pain and casually replied, “My mother died yesterday.”

They thought it was odd. “I’d be home if my mother died,” one replied.

“It’s okay. Life goes on, right?” I practiced my calm demeanor.

A few days later, when friends and family congregated to pay my mother respect, I continued swallowing my pain. I used sarcasm to cover resentment. I stood in the vestibule and made my friends laugh about a man’s shoes or a lady’s church hat. Why should anyone feel sorrow for me, when I wasn’t allowed to feel an emotion for myself?

img_2576I swallowed the pain the whole 1989-1990 school year. I’d learned that angst is best covered with achievements and a smile. I knew how to achieve and my natural smile shone from ear to ear, no matter how I felt about my circumstances. Apparently I fooled everyone, because not one adult asked me about my emotional state that year, not even my father’s new girlfriend, not even a teacher at the best high school in the nation.

This is how I learned to push emotions down. This is how I learned to pretend to be okay when I wasn’t.