Wednesday, January 30, 2008

TO WRITE: Dream a Little Dream
We have them multiple times every night, researchers say -- but what do we really know about our dreams? I agree with the standard wisdom about remembering more of those slippery experiences: keep a dream journal by your bedside and record whatever you recall immediately when you wake, even if it's just an image or a feeling. Indeed, when I've practiced this for even a few days, I've found that I begin to remember more and more of my nighttime adventures.

Then, of course, there's the issue of what to do with these often bizarre movies with emotions. Many types of psychotherapies use dreams in various ways, but I think it's really up to you to use these journeys as you see fit. They may amuse, frighten, inspire, explain, or call you to action. But usually -- usually -- I feel better after I've written a dream down and examined it.

Play with this. . .
Write continuously for 20 minutes about a dream you've experienced. It might be from last night or a long time ago; it might feel trivial or life-altering. Describe what happened, including all of the sensory details you were aware of. Then see if any connections or ideas occur to you.

For example, I often find that I dream about my life at the moment in the form of a house -- a simple or complex layout of rooms, a messy or tidy interior, maybe worries I should be spending more time in the office or the kitchen. There's the common dream theme about taking a trip too -- maybe the road suggests your life journey? But you may make completely different connections to these sorts of events and symbols, and that's what is most important for you.

After you've written about your dream and your impressions about it, write for five more minutes about whether there are any ideas about your waking life that you'd like to take away from this exercise -- maybe even insights about handling your depression or the happenings around it.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

TO WRITE: The Poetry of Nature

As I write this I can see that the rounded line of hills that runs up and down San Francisco's East Bay region is changing color. Last week they were the color of straw. Then they looked like wet, dirty straw after several days of rain. And now they are a dusty green as they begin their annual transformation into glorious emerald green. I sometimes miss the Midwestern seasons I grew up with, but I treasure this metamorphosis each winter too.

Writing and poetry about nature is, of course, plentiful in our times and has been in many historical and ancient societies too. The Haiku form of poetry virtually always uses the natural world for its topics, in fact. (It's three lines long -- five syllables, seven syllables, and five syllables, respectively, in case you're trying to remember it right now.)

Play with this. . .

Choose a detail from the natural world -- you may want to go for a walk for inspiration, or even carefully look at a houseplant if you can't get out. Now write a list of at least ten words or phrases that come to mind when you think of this detail. (My list from the hills' color included: straw, emerald, dusty, trickling streams, blades of grass, tall weeds, my sneezing, the horizon, overseeing the bay, climbing rocky trails.)

Now use some items from this list to write a poem about the detail you originally chose. You may want to create a Haiku, or you might do a free verse poem by simply writing some sentences or phrases, and playing with where you "break" or end each line. If any analogies come to mind as you do this, you might include them too. For example, I might compare the hills' colorful transformation to my own recovery, or the seasons' inevitable return to my friend K's constant support.

Poetry can be a powerful means of expression and healing, and some people find it their favorite. Even if you're hesitant at first, give it a try and see what you come up with. Of course it's definitely fair game to alter it, adjust it and play with it later until you're happy with your poem. Just have fun.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

TO WRITE: The Term "Mental Illness"

Many of us -- whether we live with depression, bipolar disorder or another psychological condition -- have strong feelings about being labeled "mentally ill." Personally, I'm OK with it at this point, twenty-plus years into my bipolar disorder. But there was a time when that term made me very defensive and conjured up images of complete non-functioning. Fortunately, most of us do function to some degree most of the time, yet this descriptor is often used, particularly by those in the medical fields, I find.

As one trained as a biologist, I think I may actually prefer being "mentally ill" because it indicates that my condition is physiological as well as psychological. That doesn't mean I'm excused from the hard work of striving for recovery, but it helps remind me that it's not all my "fault."

One member of my writing group at Stanford prefers that we discuss our "mental health" rather than our "mental illness," and I think this can be very helpful too, because it is so much more positive -- and because it is more inclusive of those suffering, for example, from a depression that is situational, but not clinical.

Play with this. . .
Have you ever had the term "mentally ill" used to describe you? How have you felt about it? If you bristle at it, do you have another suggestion? And how important do you think this language is in perpetuating or countering stigma?

I'm curious about what you come up with -- leave a comment if you like. And consider whether it might be helpful to discuss with your loved ones or doctor the language used about your health.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

TO WRITE: Nurturing Yourself

Another new year! Happiness and health to you in 2008. We (Americans at least) tend to get wrapped up in resolutions for improving our life this time of year. Most of them aren't a lot of fun -- dieting, more time at the gym, etc. But I suggest you consider a resolution to nurture yourself more, whatever that might mean to you. Everyone needs some time to rekindle the inner flame, and when I'm dealing with depression I need it all the more. But I know that when you're under that cloud it can be very hard to see what might ease your pain.

Play with this...

Write continuously for 15 minutes starting with "I am nurtured by..." and describe the things that come to mind. If you get stuck, return to that sentence stem again and again. These can be big things or small things -- I know people who love candles and hot baths; others like a walk in nature; others crave a chat over coffee with a particular friend or mentor; I love a period of time designated for nothing but reading for pleasure; and of course there's writing! If you're really in a low mood, can you promise yourself a one-hour break from thinking negative thoughts about yourself? After you've brainstormed ideas in writing, reread your piece and, in five minutes more writing, determine what step you can take this week toward being kind and nurturing to yourself.