January 17, 2007

Hearbreaking Work Means We Need Support

Posted in animal advocacy, recovery, therapy at 4:27 pm by nevavegan

Anyone who works long-term in helping animals gets more than his or her share of heartbreak.

Especially when we look at the bigger picture it’s very discouraging. Even as we rescue cats in our own neighborhoods, we read about the mass killings of cats elsewhere. We rescue individual fish only to see a scientific study that says the oceans will soon be empty of fish because of over-fishing, pollution, and other manmade factors.

There’s no doubt that we all need a safety net of social support, but many in animal work find it hard to reach out and even harder to actually get the support they need. How can we address this issue? How can we take care of ourselves while still taking care of animals?

The truth of it is that if we allow ourselves to really feel the complete awfulness of the situation, it’s overwhelming. So many of us pour our life’s blood and our complete hearts into our work, only to see years of progress undone by the selfish actions of a few unthinking people. My first tip is to pay attention to our own emotions and get back from things and take a break when we sense we’re going to a really dark place.

The animal rights/animal welfare/animal protection movement doesn’t really encourage this, but from my perspective it’s vital. So many times when I was first starting out I had someone in a position of authority say to me “So you need a break? The animals never get a break!” While this is factually true, I find it completely unhelpful. If it were a case where one animal were drowning and I had to wade in and save him, maybe in that case I shouldn’t stop and take a break. But the size of this problem of animal mistreatment is so huge; I could spend my whole life never taking a break and still not get very far. And back to the drowning metaphor again, how helpful can I be if I allow myself to get completely exhausted and then both of us wind up drowning?

Or I can refer back to my previous post: how many kittens can I rescue when I’m carrying a 90 pound weight on my back? I need to stop and put down that weight so I can be effective. I also need to reconsider and reflect on what I’m doing from time to time: are there better tools I could be using? Is this the best use of my abilities?

One little thought trick I find helpful is to think about a metaphor of a roller coaster. I didn’t pick the era into which I was born, I didn’t pick my culture, I’m just strapped in and along for the ride. I can do what’s in my power, and I can try to convince the ride operator to shut the ride down, but ultimately I don’t have the ability to change everything around me. I do what I can and I advocate, but I have to release the fear, obligation, and guilt that I feel about issues I can’t control. I can mourn it, but I can’t let it destroy me.

I’m not just whistling out my (unmentionable orifice) here either. I’ve been completely disabled by depression in the past. Unable to cope with the host of past events that haunted me and unable to cope with a tragic present, I was no good to anyone, not even myself. When depressed I always felt like I saw the world very clearly. In fact studies show that depressed people often do have a more realistic and informed view of the world than do non-depressed people. It’s easy when in that place to pat myself on the back for my keen mind, that I can see the injustice and cruelty all around me that others walk past. But the part I didn’t get was that others paid the price for this too. I don’t feel like I’m self deceptive now, but I do take more care to isolate myself from things I know I can’t handle. Because when I’m coping I can do something, however small. When I’m not coping then what good am I?

In talking to depressed friends I’ve encountered this same road block–they don’t want to be “stupid” and they don’t want to “lie to themselves.” I understand, but I also sometimes feel like if we need to lie to ourselves just a little to get through the day… Well, it’s better and less toxic than crack, I guess.

But sometimes it’s not about lying to ourselves, but about celebrating the small things. We can’t always save every stray rabbit out there, but if we saved one rabbit today, that’s a beautiful thing and we should honor it. Gratitude journaling is an incredible way to try to keep an even keel. I try to force myself to come up with a list of several good things that happen ever day. Seriously some days all I can muster is “I made soup and it was tasty, I cuddled with my cat, and my dog really loves me.” But it’s something still.

So far I’ve only spoken about ways we can support ourselves but as social creatures most of us need support from others too.

One complaint I hear over and over is that people need support, but don’t get the kind of support they need. A woman might say she needs her husband to listen, but he keeps offering advice. Someone else might feel that her friends are judging her when they mean to be supportive by saying things like “you need to stop being so angry.”

I honestly believe that the biggest gift we can give ourselves and our support system is to ask for what we need. We’re somehow conditioned against this. So many people are raised with the belief that if people care about us they’ll just guess what we need and provide it. I’ve really not found that to be true. Instead I’ve found that there are a lot of caring, sweet people in the world who are just waiting to help, if only they knew how. So, go ahead and say it “I need someone to just listen right now,” or “what I really want is to watch a silly movie with you and get my mind off of this.”

Without further commentary: Tips for getting the support you need

1. Ask for what you want/need in a direct way. Don’t expect people to always pick up on hints, especially not when you need some support right away. Let people know you need a shoulder to cry on/a sympathetic ear/whatever.

2. If someone gives a kind of support that isn’t helpful to you, try not to take it too personally. They might just be offering the kind of support they would want or they are having trouble understanding your situation. It’s fine to say something like “I just need someone to listen right now.” But if they keep saying things that make you feel worse, maybe they just aren’t the right support system for you.

3. Look for different ways to get support. You can have a reciprocal agreement with a friend to help each other through bad days. If you need support on a topic some people don’t understand, you can sign up for topic specific email list. You can also take the initiative and form a support group and invite others to join. Support groups are made up of people coming more or less from the same place, and can offer a kind of safety there you won’t find elsewhere.

4. Not everyone is a good support system. Some people are just too caught up in their own issues to offer support. Other people just aren’t naturally empathetic. Don’t obsess over why they can’t provide support, just move on. I’ve seen so many people go to someone they think “should” support them, over and over, only to leave hurting. When you’re already hurt, you’re vulnerable, so try not to set yourself up for further hurt.

5. It is very unwise for anyone to depend exclusively on one line of support. Your really bad day might be the very same day your best bud inexplicably decided to sign up for a bar crawl and so won’t be in speaking condition for 48 hours. Your mother might go away on vacation. It’s a very good idea to have a contingency plan.

6. If you feel your depression has crossed a line, is chronic, debilitating, or if you’re having suicidal thoughts, get professional help. No matter how well meaning your friends are, they don’t necessarily have the training to deal with this. Some people are ashamed of the idea of seeking professional help, but if you were having a heart attack you’d go to a doctor, right? So if your soul and very being are shutting down, isn’t that just as important?


January 15, 2007

Posted in happiness, recovery at 1:50 pm by nevavegan

Micro and Macro Happiness

In talking about recovering authentic self I spoke of what will and won’t make a person happy.

I’d like to take this a step further and discuss the concepts of micro (self) and macro (community) happiness.

Most of us think we know what it would take to make us happy, and most of us are probably wrong.

A few years back I was down in the dumps about stuff going on in my life and I thought about what it would take to make me happy. First off I needed a better job and with it, more money. I needed to dig myself out of the financial hole I’d managed to get into. I needed enough money to take some vacations with my husband and have some in savings. We needed an emergency vet fund for our animals, and a bigger home to hold the many animals we’d rescued…

But I was deeply dissatisfied on a whole different level as well. I was waiting for my actual life to begin. I thought I needed to lose some weight before I could look for better clothes to wear.

Part of me felt a little hopeless about that any way, because I could lose the weight and I’d still have the same face, the same hair, the same enormous feet. I’d been telling myself that earning more money was going to make me happy, but how could it when I didn’t like the person I was.

For what it’s worth, I never lost the weight. I kept bobbing between 145 and 150. 145 was my all time high weight in college when I was in recovery and decided that recovery meant eating whatever I liked any time it appealed to me (so long as it was vegetarian—I wasn’t yet vegan then), plus my metabolism was completely wrecked. At 145 both of my parents told me I’d gotten way too fat. I came home to choruses of “you’re too big to wear pants like that.” “you can’t wear shorter skirts when your hips are so large.” Never mind that most of my male friends were always telling me I looked great—all I heard was that I was fat. After that I lost about 20 pounds not through trying but just by not having a car and living a good distance from public transportation. I walked everywhere and carried groceries home for over a mile.

But after I got married and got a desk job and lived in an area where driving was the only real option for me, well those pounds came back and settled in for the long haul. I went to the gym and lifted weights to help my bones. I walked my dogs, but the number on the scale stuck stubbornly at 145, and danced up to 150 for no apparent reason from time to time. So there I was waiting to lose 20 pounds before I could try to be happy, before life could begin.

So I thought I knew what I needed, but I was wrong. What I needed to be happy was encouragement, isolating myself from the negative voices that made me feel ashamed of who I was and how I looked, and I needed to stop the negative self-talk I’d developed. I needed to treat myself like a friend, not like an enemy. I needed a sense of community, I needed to find ways to express my creativity. I needed that thing I’m calling authentic self; because I needed to stop trying to be what everyone else wanted and just start to be myself.

Micro happiness is not so much about changing the circumstances as it is about changing the internal dialogue we have about ourselves. Think I’m wrong? There’s someone out there who has more money than you do, a better job, three healthy kids, vacations in exotic locations each year and is still miserable. There’s someone out there living in a trailer park, barely scraping by and he or she is happy. There’s someone who weighs a lot more than I do and she wears cool clothes and looks good and feels good about herself. I needed to stop listening to everyone else’s opinion and start forming my own positive views.

Case in point: In a jewelry making group we were once talking about our jobs. One by one we all said we pretty much hated our jobs, they made us miserable but were a necessary evil to pay the bills. Then one woman said she loved her job. She worked at K-Mart. She said she loved setting up the store displays, she loved people so she enjoyed helping all the customers that came in. She felt incredibly satisfied if someone came in looking sad or stressed and she helped them with a smile on her face and then they left happier than when they came in. I’m pretty sure I would not enjoy working at K-Mart, but apparently it’s all about the mind set.

When it comes to macro happiness though, the US may be at a disadvantage. Studies show lower rates of depression among the Chicano population in the US, and while there are many theories most center around the idea that Mexican American have more sense of community and tighter family bonds than the rest of us. This may or may not be true, but there’s no doubt that individuals in mainstream US culture are becoming more and more socially isolated.

This past year I anxiously awaited the arrival of my cousins, finally emigrating to the US from Peru after all these years. They had their paperwork in order, jobs lined up already, they were packing up their belongings. Then out of nowhere they suddenly changed their minds. They just could not leave Peru. Sure it was not very safe there and they worried about what jobs their children might eventually find, but they couldn’t leave the beauty of their country, the happiness they found in community and culture. The US was simply too depressing and they couldn’t face it.

Our sense of community, our bonds to others are healing both mentally and physically, but what are we to do when culturally those bonds are discouraged. I remember being in junior high school and being obsessed with my tight little group of female friends. I wanted to spend every free minute with Natalie, Stephanie, and Kim. My mother, in an angry mood, told me I was wasting my time. Friendships don’t last, she told me, these people won’t stand by you in the long run. My father backed her up: friendships don’t matter, people betray you the first chance they have. Cowed by these discouraging words I allowed my mother to decree I could have no more contact with Kim and when I went to a different school than Stephanie I lost touch with her.

Now, so many years down the road, who do I have in my life? I have Natalie, who accepts me just as I am, who has been my confidant and companion since sixth grade, who believed in me and believes in me even when my own family has not. Natalie and I don’t always agree on everything, in fact in many ways we’re polar opposites, but this is friendship formed in childhood that has sustained me through the years. I look at the happy people I know and I see that they have lives full of lasting relationships. I wish I had been encouraged to form those bonds.

Even more so as adults we are deterred from forming relationships. We are transient and more recently deeply and bitterly divided as a nation. We generally don’t know our neighbors and if we do we often find we have little in common. We’re distrustful. Levels of rudeness seem to have sky-rocketed since we no longer need to face our neighbors socially, and since most don’t stick around too long anyway. Rude and aggressive driving have almost become the norm. The news reports on neighborhood disputes between otherwise normal-appearing adults that have turned deadly.

I don’t have much solution to offer. I’m as polarized as anyone. I could not sit down to dinner with bigots and tolerate their hateful views. If someone opposes gay marriage (in the civil sense) then they are not welcome in my home. I am estranged from my family for reasons I do not consider my fault. I know this is nothing new in the history of humanity. People travel to new places, they lose touch with old friends and family. So it’s up to me to keep in touch with the friends I have and build new relationships. Apparently relationships are particularly important to women with research indicating women with stronger social ties experience better health and less depression.

Posted in Uncategorized at 1:01 pm by nevavegan

Put the philosophizin’ to use

Some tips for authentic eating
*I will no longer punish myself with eating, either by eating too much or too little.
*I will do my best to be healthy, but not obsess over the number on the scale.
*I will not confuse craving with need—Just because I can’t stop thinking about brownies doesn’t mean brownies contain some nutrient I’m lacking.
*All the same, sometimes it’s nice to just give into a craving, if I don’t overdo it.

Chase your blues:
*Studies show that daily vigorous exercise that elevates your heart rate is as effective for treating depression as anti-depressants. So get sweaty.
*You can’t change everyone else, so change your mind set. A huge thing for me was letting go of this old habit I had of taking responsibility for anything and everything. Sometimes people do things I don’t like, and that’s the way it is. Sometimes some people just don’t like me no matter what I do, and at some point it just isn’t my problem. I didn’t create all the problems in the world and while I can try to do my part, I can’t solve them all single handedly.
*Adopt a friend at the animal shelter (if you have the time and resources to care for a friend for the rest of his or her life). You’d save a life, and that’s certainly something to feel good about! Dogs, cats, bunnies, and even rats can elevate your mood, just by spending time with you. Stroking their fur releases endorphins in our minds. Though this is far from the only reason to adopt it’s nice to know you get so much back for all the care you give.
*No time for an animal friend? Adopt a plant. Studies show that just looking at green has a calming effect on many people and houseplants can help to filter some toxins out of indoor air.

A Note on Interpersonal Conflicts.

I believe in saving relationships where it’s possible.

I believe in mediation, counseling, just plain old getting over it, and burying the hatchet.

So why have I personally not buried the hatchet? Because after all this time I believe it’s important to protect myself from people who would do me harm.

Growing up my mother heaped verbal and emotional abuse on me that destroyed my self esteem and sank me into a terrible and lasting depression. I internalized her claims that I was ugly, and stupid; that I had a bad personality and a terrible temper. Her claims that my personality was so bad that nobody would ever be able to care about me are likely one of the main reason I got involved in abusive relationships as a young adult. I’d never been treated with basic respect and it had been so drilled into my head that I was unlovable that I was willing to tolerate really awful treatment.

As an adult I thought I could put that all behind me and have a relationship with my mother.

Unfortunately, although the abuse was never again so blatant as it was when I was younger, she continued to trample boundaries, impose on me, and chip away at my self esteem. She is the kind of person who makes herself feel better by hurting others. But I’m already hurt and I don’t need to be hurt further.

Part of the trouble with growing up in a disordered environment is that I’ve just been trained from infancy to accept things that aren’t ok. In other words crazy seems normal sometimes. I’ve reached the sad conclusion that I have to examine friendships and working relationships in my life with that in mind. I shouldn’t put up with abuse, and yet at the same time I have to understand that not everything is abuse.

I guess as an example I could use my long-time friendship with Natalie. Being friends since sixth grade means that over the years we’ve had a number of fights, especially during our turbulent teen years. Ok, most were probably my fault… But anyway, at some basic level I feel that Natalie does not enjoy hurting my feelings, nor does she attempt to manipulate me, nor does she use harsh words to punish me if I disagree with her. She thinks some of my ideas are pretty silly, but she accepts that they are my ideas and mean something to me.

This is sort of the definition of a healthy friendship. A friendship is not healthy if the other person cannot tolerate disagreement, says bad things about you behind your back, or brings irrelevant accusations into discussions merely for the purpose of manipulating you. But it’s hard in the moment to distinguish sometimes. It requires stepping back from the dispute and getting a little perspective on it.

I can’t encourage anyone to hang onto a damaging relationship. But forgiveness and tolerance is something we figure out as we go along, and sometimes even with disagreements that just can’t be settled, there’s still a core of love and acceptance worth fighting for.

January 14, 2007

Recovering My Authentic Self

Posted in happiness, recovery, vegan at 1:47 pm by nevavegan

Recovering My Authentic Self
(Or why everyone might as well become vegan today)

Due to some recent tragedies my thoughts lately have centered on childhood memories, trying to sort out what is meaningful from what’s not.

My earliest memories involve awe and wonder, staring at butterflies, marveling at the vastness of the night sky. This is important because for years my parents told me that I was born happy. They said I almost never cried as a baby. They claimed I was sick a lot but just kept smiling through each illness. That is until about age three when they claimed my personality took a drastic change for the worse; I started to cry all the time according to them. I complained and whined; I didn’t like the food they gave me. I became ungrateful.

Looking back there seemed to be some really important things going on. When I was three my brother went to school and I was alone all day long in an unhappy house, or at least that’s how it felt. I also know now as an adult that I have and likely had then, some food allergies and asthma, which were never taken seriously or treated by my parents. But whatever the cause, and however much I shake my head at the concept of parents who wouldn’t seek medical attention for what they claimed was a dramatic change in their child’s personality (or for that matter ever consider the fact that their ridicule helped nothing), this essay isn’t about childhood injustice. I intend instead to write about happiness and authentic self.

After going through a period of really deep depression recently I find myself clinging to this mythic image of me as being born happy. It tells me that somewhere inside me is the potential for happiness.

This is important because a recent study demonstrated that for most people happiness is reliant on internal factors, not external ones. The study showed that lottery winners were no happier after a year than anyone else. It also showed that people who’d been paralyzed in accidents were no more depressed after a year than people in the general population. Instead people returned to a level of happiness or depression that they’d had prior to the life changing events.

Hence my subtitle. I’ve had a lot of people tell me that they could never become vegan because they’d miss their favorite food too much, it would be too hard, or they’d be depressed if they didn’t have meat every day. But the study seems to indicate that you could become vegan today and after some initial turmoil of adjusting you’d be just as happy, or not happy, by next year as you are today. Both encouraging and discouraging.

But we might have reason to believe that becoming vegan might actually increase levels of happiness at least initially. I mean for the person; it goes without saying that adopting a vegan life style will greatly increase the happiness of the animals. What I mean is that by taking a really positive action for the animals and environment, anyone who is vegan should have something to feel good about every single day.

I’ve always said that being vegan has given me a lot more than I’ve ever given to the cause. It’s not the reason I went vegan in the first place. But more than a decade on I find that there are more benefits and fewer drawbacks than I ever dreamed of. Becoming vegan lead me away from a lifestyle of violence, it forced me to reconsider assumptions that were harmful to me, it opened me up to learning about other cultures, other cuisines, and other philosophies.

When I decided to give vegetarianism a try when I was in high school my mind set was one of worry (I didn’t want to inconvenience anyone), fear (how was I going to make this work), hope (here I was finally trying to make a stand for my beliefs), and not a little resistance (I felt compelled, but did I really want to disrupt my entire life like this).

I was a kid who cooked. By and large I got positive feedback on my cooking. It was a source of some self esteem. What did I cook? Lemon chicken, ham, butter-laden pastries, big slabs of beef, and cakes, pies and cookies made with eggs, butter, and milk.

It was tough to go from someone who made food that others wanted to eat to sitting there in the kitchen with a big bag of brown rice and a big bag of split peas wondering what the heck to do. For the first time I was making dismal failures that nobody wanted to eat. Then I started college. With my own kitchen and my own time I decided to start learning and trying new things. Some were awful, some were wonderful, and I actually feel like I’m a better cook today for being vegan than if I’d rested on my early laurels and made nothing but coq au vin for the rest of my life.

Again, that’s not a reason to become vegan. It’s not about ethics, it’s all about me. Still, it’s a good reason to not turn away from veganism if it appeals to you. Because it’s all about that basic premise—we go through drastic change and end up more or less where we started. I wanted to be a wonderful cook, and if I do say so myself, I think I am.

Also happily I retrained myself from loving foods dripping in butter and wrapped in bacon to eating more fresh veggies and more wholesome choices. A sort of side effect, much to my benefit.

But back to the story at hand. If I consider my authentic self as intrinsically happy and look for ways to recover my authentic self, I have to think about what factors make most human beings happy. We all say it, money can’t buy happiness, but do we really understand it? Money won’t make you happy, food won’t make you happy, stuff won’t make you happy, but changing the way you think can make you happy, doing good things can make you happy… Finding your authentic self, the one that saw the world with wonder and kindness can make you happy.

When my aunt was dying and I went to see her for one final visit she was unrelentingly cheerful. Confined to a wheelchair with gauze wrapped around stage four bed sores, she went shopping, did crafts, and spent time with her loved ones. We all pasted pained happy faces on, determined to keep up the charade for her sake. But inside we were thinking “Doesn’t she understand? It’s not going to get better this time.” But now I understand. It’s not that she didn’t know she was dying, but that she saw the path in front of her and knew she was going that way with a smile or with weeping, but time wasn’t stopping for her. You can’t always change the circumstances but you can try to do the best with the time you do have.

And why does happiness matter? I mean other than this vision I have that happiness is my authentic self? Because first and foremost I’m no good to anyone, let alone myself if I’m hoping to get run over by a truck every day. Because happiness is a gift we bring to the world and it’s contagious. It costs nothing, uses no resources, releases no green house gasses, and yet I can bring some small bit of it to anyone who is open. I can take my happiness and use it to help animals, to help people. I can show people that a non-violent approach to life can be fulfilling and joyful.