Tuesday, May 29, 2007

TO WRITE: Gender and Social StigmaAlign Right
A student recently suggested "patriarchy" as a writing topic. That's a heavy issue for me to get my mind around, so I tried to think of very specific ways I have been affected by this social scheme. While the differences between the treatment of men and women is enforced in truly frightening ways in some countries today, and while there are evidently still a few matriarchal cultures in existence, here in the US I feel I live in a patriarchal culture that tries to portray itself as egalitarian.
So how has that affected me? I brainstormed. I do think that in one job I was treated differently than a man would have been in terms of mentoring. Also, I took my husband's last name when I married -- though I use my maiden name as my often-included middle name to try to keep it present. I know I've been looked at oddly when alone in some public establishments, where a man, I suspect, wouldn't have been noticed. I'm sure there are lots more, big and small....
Play with this...
If you need to brainstorm at all, take 3-5 minutes to make a quick list of times you feel you were discriminated against because of your gender. Then write continuously for 20 minutes on one of them, describing what happened as a story with beginning, middle and end.
How did it feel to identify and write about this issue? Did you describe a trauma or a mere annoyance? Did writing about it change your mood at all? If the story felt upsetting, try rewriting it with a different (fictional) ending that you prefer. This can often feel empowering.
TO READ: Extend Your Life by Treating Your Depression?
It's long been known that if you follow a group of people -- half depressed and half not -- for several years, more of the depressed ones tend to die during that period. But now there's good news: A recent study shows that if you treat the depressed people, they live longer.

In the study, researchers took half of the depressed group, all over 60 years old, and treated them with either medication or psychotherapy. The other half went untreated. They found that the treated people were only half as likely to die during the study as they untreated group. (This was after controlling for age, sex, smoking habits, level of education and current physical illnesses.)

Although the scientists don't know why yet, the decrease in deaths came nearly all in the group of patients who also had cancer.

Here's yet another reason to treat your depression, either with meds or psychotherapy -- in addition to feeling less depressed, you may just live longer too.

For more info: Joseph J. Gallo, The Annals of Internal Medicine, May 15, 2007.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

TO WRITE: Leaving on a Jet Plane... or Car or Bike or Boat
You're thrilled or you're dreading it ... you're dashing about or you're dragging your feet. No matter where you're headed out-of-town, no matter how you're getting there, going on a trip can be stressful and emotional. And if you're depressed already, it can feel overwhelming.

If I'm healthy when I'm about to fly or drive anywhere, I'm so excited that I underestimate the time required to prepare and pack. I forget until the last moment to take care of crucial phone calls or take out the trash. I'm often doing laundry at midnight before an early departure, because I must have some favorite outfit clean and ready-to-go. And then there are the decisions about what to pack, and how large a bag I'm really going to need for a weekend in the mountains or a three-week trip to Europe.

My husband, meanwhile, tosses some clothes in the nearest duffel bag and has time to read a magazine before we leave. (Sigh.)

Play with this...
Write continuously for 20 minutes on a voyage you've taken and your emotional and physical preparations. How did you feel -- whether you were off to trek in Nepal or take a day trip to the beach? And how did you get ready? Did one affect the other? If it was a less-than-great experience, can you plan something differently for next time? (I'm instituting a rule for myself that says I aim to depart 30 minutes before I actually need to. Just a mental game, but, with some luck my brain will buy into it.)

Monday, May 21, 2007

TO READ: My First Book is Being Published!
Like this blog? You're going to love this book.

I'm delighted to announce that I have just signed a contract with Ten Speed Press to publish a book I'm writing on the power of writing to ease depression.

The book (we're still fine-tuning the title) will be based on my experiences, the experiences of my creative writing students with mood disorders, and the scientific evidence of writing's many healing properties. It will describe some of the types of writing you can use to lift your mood, including freewriting, journaling, poetry, memoir, and even fiction -- and how you can write on your own or begin a writing group for people with depression. Lots of exercises -- to jump start your own writing -- and examples of students' writing -- for inspiration -- will be included.

Whether you're dealing with major depression or a difficult life transition, this book is designed to help you with techniques that can help heal your thoughts, emotions, and spirit.

If you'd like to be on my mailing list for early information and updates, please leave a comment.

The book will be available in May or June, 2008 -- just a year from now. My next few months will be spent writing like crazy! Hurray!

Stay tuned....
-- Beth

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

TO WRITE: Those Really Big Questions in Life
In the writing group I lead at Stanford, I sometimes pass around a paper on which people can suggest topic ideas. Members' topics, like those I bring in myself, range from the very specific -- washing dishes, a childhood toy -- to the huge and abstract -- the meaning of life, for example.

Recently I noticed a large proportion of the group's ideas were of the "really big" variety. These issues sometimes require a few minutes of writing before you truly get your mind around them, but they tend to be very rewarding.

Play with this...
Write continuously for 20 minutes on one or both of these questions: Who do you think you are? What is reality, anyway?

Though you may need to start with broad concepts, try to bring your writing back to the personal level too, by using specific examples and using details gleaned from your senses.

Wait a day or so, then reread your piece. Have you learned anything about your own beliefs? Have your beliefs been strengthened? Drawn into question? Does this affect your perception of your depression at all?

Monday, May 14, 2007

TO READ: Groups Offer Comfort and Even Joy in the Mental Health Community
I have a lot of mentally ill friends. Maybe you do too. Twenty-one years ago, when I was diagnosed with major depression (which later became categorized as bipolar disorder) I personally knew only one person who I even suspected of having a mental illness. Now people with depression, bipolar disorder and other conditions are everywhere in my life!

I find that as we go through this life-altering experience, we tend to bond to one another for information and support. You may have noticed it in your life too. When you suddenly get a diagnosis, or a prescription, everything changes, and you need someone to turn to -- someone who's been there. That's why I believe the services provided by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and the Depression and the Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) (see links at right) are so vitally important. And I know that sense of connection and shared experiences is one of the reasons people seek out my writing class for people with mood disorders at Stanford.

Being immersed in the mental health culture may involve reading about depression or other conditions, recognizing that you have mentally ill friends or relatives, seeking education and camaraderie in support groups or therapy groups and, in a surprisingly high number of cases, holding paid or volunteer positions in mental health advocacy. (In addition to my writing group, I speak as a volunteer on mental health issues for two organizations.) And there is a great deal of comfort, release and joy in these communities.

This weekend I took part in the NAMIWalks for the Mind of America in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. The positive vibes and goodwill were everywhere -- from the fact that there were 90-odd teams participating, to the cheers and thanks of volunteers as we finished our 5k walk, to the open-minded chats going on at the booths offering information, books, and items made by people with mental illness. I felt proud to be a part of helping make these illnesses more visible in our still-stigmatizing society.

If you're coping with depression and you're not familiar with NAMI and DBSA, do yourself a big favor and check them out for education on illnesses and treatments, emotional support for consumers and their families, resource lists, legislative and research updates, and especially to learn where there are support groups near you. You don't need to feel alone as you grapple with difficult thoughts and feelings.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

TO WRITE: Oh, Those 'Parental Units'
Whether you feel your parents are the guiding lights in your life or people who cast dark shadows -- or, most likely, something in between -- there's no denying that parental relationships are crucial to shaping who we are. Think back to your growing-up years: How did you experience them, or the other person or people who raised you? Nearly all of us can point to both happy and painful childhood events. And what of your current relationships: Are your parents living? Do you have regular contact, rare contact, no contact? Do conversations mirror those of childhood, or have they evolved in some way?

These reflections can be eye-opening for anyone, but perhaps especially to people coping with depression. If you feel like it, consider the relationship, if any, between your parents and your difficult moods. Some people believe there is a direct cause-and-effect relationship; others find their parents their greatest support. There's no good or bad -- our parents are only one part of our lives and, as adults, we have already moved on considerably to shape ourselves, and we'll continue to change and grow.

WARNING: This can be an intense topic. Remember the "flip-out" rule -- if it feels too scary to go there, just don't go. Write on something else this week.

Play with this...
Choose one parent or guardian. Take 20 minutes of continuous writing to describe your past and present relationship with that person. Try to incorporate at least a couple of specific stories of events. Also consider how you might like to improve your view of that relationship today -- could you recognize your separateness and release some frustration or pain, for example? Can you feel thankful for any part of your interactions? You may want to share what you've written with a safe friend, partner or therapist. Remember: We are always evolving and becoming stronger as adults.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

TO READ: Happy Faces Trigger Less in the Brains of Depressed People
When you're depressed, you know it's hard to put on a smile -- and it can even feel difficult to react to smiling people around you. Now brain research shows that depressed people do have real impairments in the ways they process happy faces.

In a recent study, depressed people were slower and less accurate at "processing" -- in this case, detecting the gender of -- happy faces than were healthy people, as shown by functional MRI. But after eight weeks on Prozac, and improvement in symptoms, this ability returned. On another task, responding to increasingly happy faces, the emotion-processing regions of the depressed brains were less active than they were in healthy people's brains. In this case, the difference was not improved by the antidepressant.

Being able to recognize and respond to other people's emotions is a crucial part of interpersonal relationships. These different responses demonstrate that it's not a personal failing to have trouble reacting to a friendly person when you're depressed, but a measurable neurobiological trait of the illness.

For more information: Am J Psychiatry 164:540-542, April 2007.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

TO WRITE: Simple everyday routines
One way in which writing can help us see ourselves is by bringing the ordinary details of our life into clear view. For example, when you stop long enough to see a daily ritual broken down into its individual steps, you may appreciate it differently -- its intricacies, its roles, even its beauty. Consider this poem by former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser, who, incidentally, was a life insurance executive in Nebraska most of his life.

The Necktie
His hands fluttered like birds,
each with a fancy silk ribbon
to weave into their nest,
as he stood at the mirror
dressing for work, waving hello
to himself with both hands.

Play with this...
Write a poem about a simple routine task or ritual you do. As Kooser's poem shows, this action can be something quite small and ordinary. Describe the routine, considering its meaning to you, and various ways you could express its qualities to others. Take at least 10-20 minutes to write and revise your poem. (If you really prefer prose to poetry, use that, but try the poetic form first.) What does this everyday habit reflect about your life?