Feeling Productive – stress & happiness

When I started my new job back in mid January, I was elated. Thanks to my extrovert friend and neighbor who knows everyone and networks circles around me, I had my first gig that paid me to write. I told my parents,  called my sister,  babbled to my husband, and posted on Facebook. I was the definition of over-the-moon.

That new job came with a deadline, though. I found myself having to turn in the completed contents for the March edition of the magazine about two weeks after I started. I didn’t know what I was doing. The writing part I was comfortable with, but I had no idea how to compile all the content, and I was a nervous wreck about interviewing people. Despite the fact that this was what I’d always wanted, or maybe because of it, I was stressed. I desperately didn’t want to screw it up, but I felt totally overwhelmed. I turned into a bit of a crazy person, shrilly shooing my kids out of my office, venting to Jason with clenched fists. Did I mention this happened the worst week possible – right at the point in my cycle my PMDD is the worst? Yeah, not ideal, but that’s life. When it’s the job you’ve always wanted, you don’t turn it down.

I got through it. It wasn’t graceful, but I didn’t hit anyone or yell too terribly much. I did a lot of deep breathing and reminded myself of all the other times I got through similar situations – teaching for the first time,  running the university-wide blood drive in college. Remembering these reassured me I could do it. I also mentally chanted my mantra, “this too shall pass.” It helped that my advisor for the magazine told me she wanted to quit, the first issue she put out. (This is normal, and if she got through it, so could I.) One evening in those first weeks, I was so stressed and angry-feeling at no one in particular. I went for a run. I ran on the trails, watching the sun set as I went, and got a little lost. I returned after dark, where I found a pointedly calm husband pretending not to worry for the sake of the kids, namely our oldest, who is a worrier. Bless my family, especially Jason, for the support I got that week.

And now, I’ve had this job for seven issues. I know a lot more and continue to learn more each issue, about writing, editing, layout, and also about people. I love this job. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt so happily productive at something. And for the first time, I have a job that truly fits what I am naturally good at. I find myself thinking of work late at night or early in the morning, but it’s not stressful. I enjoy it. That doesn’t mean I don’t have to draw boundaries and protect my family time – I do – but it’s so nice not to dread my paying work, like I have a lot of my life. I always thought not wanting to go to work was just what people did. I even chastised myself for being lazy and undedicated. Turns out, I just had to be my true self and find the right thing. The point is this: though it was, to say the least, uncomfortable at first, this job is one of the best things I’ve ever done. I need to feel productive. It’s made me happier and improved my relationship with my kids. Since I have to spend time working, I appreciate the time I have with them more. I am more engaged and present with them. We need rest and play. We also need work. The right work, is good for the soul.

The Middle Way

In the original teachings of Buddha, there is a concept known as “the Middle Way.” It means avoiding extremes and adhering to moderation. The origin of this concept comes from the Buddha himself. Born into a wealthy family as Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha became dissatisfied with his life of riches and left his family to wander and seek happiness. He tried out abject poverty, eschewing all material possessions and found this didn’t lead to happiness either. What he eventually came to was the Middle Way: possessions are fine, even good, but it’s important to avoid becoming obsessed with them. They can bring some happiness, but letting the craving of them overtake you can lead to your stuff owning you instead of vice versa. Buddha applied the Middle Way to all aspects of life – possessions, status, sex, money, etcetera.

It occurred to me just today that this is applicable to something I’ve wrestled with in my head for a long time: the aesthetics of the human body. On the one hand, I fully believe media and society has led to a lot of our unhealthy striving for a certain kind of body, with very narrow, unrealistic parameters. We all see media images and, at least subconsciously, think, “I’m supposed to look like that – be that thin, that muscular, that young, that color.” This is definitely a negative. On the other hand, there is no denying the human form. We exist as physical entities, and it is in our genes to look at a group of people and prefer how some look over others, even if we’d been raised by wolves, devoid of media contact.

We are all exposed to media images. We can reduce our exposure, but we can’t eliminate it. We can’t pretend we don’t see physical differences, either. But, it would be folly to go about pretending we feel good and healthy about ourselves always trying to look a certain way. I have, at times, gotten to the point where I am scrutinizing myself in the mirror at close range, noticing all my supposed flaws – wrinkles, sun spots, sagging this, too small that. That is obsession, and it isn’t useful.

Where is the Middle Way in this? Well, there are a few pointers for finding it. First, limit your negative media exposure. Second, look at your whole person in the mirror ever so often and find all the good things your body does for you – “whole person” and “ever so often” are key. Acknowledge that you find certain people more attractive or less attractive, but don’t focus too much on it. The people you meet are more important to you for who they are, not how they look. As for clothes, wear the stuff that makes you feel good and comfortable – colors you like, soft fabrics, but don’t obsess over picking out just the right thing or how you look all day. Focus on being present in the things you do.

This applies differently to each person’s life. Everyone has different negative tendencies to overcome. But, I wanted to offer this because I’ve found looking for the Middle Way in a lot of things in life that bother me has put them in a comfortable perspective. Perhaps it will help you with a few things, too.

Back on my Meds

I tried to come up with a clever title for this one, but I ended up with bald statement of fact: I am back on my antidepressant. My ob/gyn prescribed sertraline (generic Zoloft) a couple of years ago when I was diagnosed with PMDD (pre-menstrual dysphoric disorder.) I was experiencing a number of symptoms, both physical and mental, but the overriding one was soul-crushing sadness that came over me like a shroud every month, ten days before my period started and miraculously lifted  with the first drop of blood.

I was elated at first, to have the medication. I had tried a lot of stuff – changing my diet, various supplements, yoga – nothing helped. The medication lifted the fog of depression, and I was thrilled to finally be free of it. But, as time went on, and my initial excitement over not being morosely depressed waned, I started to notice the side effects. I was tired a lot. Sertraline added to the fatigue caused by PMDD to the point where I’d fall asleep while my five year old was telling me about his day at preschool in the afternoon. With the sadness lifted, I had managed to develop some other coping mechanisms – more sleep, less caffeine, meditation – and I thought maybe I could make it without the antidepressant and get rid of being so tired.

So, I quit. At first, I was fine. I got irritable during the last half of my cycle, but I felt it was manageable. Then, one day after being off the medication for about four months, it came back. It was a Tuesday. I spent the entire morning trying not to cry. The sadness overcame me, crushing me like a boulder. I went upstairs, and, without any qualms, fished my bottle of sertraline out of the back of the bathroom cabinet and took one.

After a few days, the sadness abated. And something else happened. Jason seemed like he was in a much better mood, too, and so did the kids. During a heart-to-heart with Jason, he told me it was nice to not have me bitching at them all the time again. I hadn’t even realized. I thought I had kept a lid on my irritability, but my family had known. I had been suffering, and so had they.

The lesson: this is what I need for now. Even if I can function without meds, it’s not worth the impact it has on my loved ones to do without them. I may be a little sleepy here and there, so I’m learning to take naps, which is way better than making my family walk on eggshells, because I can’t stand any noise above a whisper ten days out of the month. Medication isn’t the only answer, or even the first one, but it’s a valid path and choice for many people who suffer from mental/emotional illness, and it is no more a matter of integrity than taking medication for a headache or cancer. If you’ve ever suffered from depression, you know you can’t just buck-up and choose to feel better any more than you can if you have the flu. My goal here is destigmatization of mental illness and antidepressants. It shouldn’t be something we have to hide, for fear of being seen as weak. Admitting I needed it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.