Posts Tagged compassion

The Stigma of Connecting Mental Illness and Violence

I’ve been quiet since Friday.  The Connecticut tragedy incited a PTSD reactive response, and to keep myself safe, I pretty much shut down my online presence.  Everything I read, whether it was pleas for better gun control or essays on the prevalence of mental illness in the psyche of your typical mass murderer, sent me spiraling into a place I find difficult to describe.

Even worse, I’m having a manic episode, or I was having it right up until yesterday.  I don’t like talking about my own mental illness.  I’m ashamed of it.  But I try to have courage and talk about it because I hope that by speaking out, I can educate others and help other people who are mentally ill.

This country needs to be willing to look at mental health issues even when there isn’t a tragedy.  We need to attend to it when the small defeats and victories of friends and neighbors take place around us day in and day out.  And for the love of all things good, we need to be really, really careful when something tragic occurs.  Before we blame mental illness or gun control laws or try to assign blame to anyone or any single condition, we’d better take our time to research all the issues and get the answers right.

I’ve read a lot of articles, or to be honest, skimmed the ones that were too painful, that blamed the shooting on mental illness.  Every time I read something like that, I cringe.  The mentally ill are not more likely to commit acts of violence; in fact, they are much more likely to be the victims of violence.  As painful and scary as it is for me to seek help when I’m feeling ill, it’s tenfold times more painful and scary to get the help I need in a charged atmosphere of blame-storming for a heinous mass murder.

As S.E. Smith wrote:

As always in cases of rampage violence, mental illness has been dragged into the mix, and I’ve been watching the Internet for the last three days with a growing sense of both deja vu and horror. None of the things being said are new — all of them are in fact very bone-achingly familiar — and all of them are extremely unhelpful, dangerous and counterproductive.

The American Psychiatric Association states that the vast majority of people who commit violent crimes do not suffer from mental illness.

Substance abuse is a much bigger risk factor for violent behavior; in people with untreated mental illness (a shockingly large number due to the difficulty involved in accessing services), drug abuse is a confounding factor in acts of violence in many cases, not the underlying mental illness. Socioeconomic status, age, gender and history of violence are also more significant indicators of the risk of violence.

You’re more likely to be hit by lightning than to be injured by someone who suffers from schizophrenia.

And yet if you believe the stories and anecdotes widely published this weekend, you will do what people typically do: you will stay the hell away from mentally ill people.  Each time a tragic event like the one in Connecticut occurs and mental illness is raised as a proximate cause, people pull away even more from the mentally ill.  In other words, the very stigma associated with mental illness intensifies, and those of us who most need love, compassion and support receive even less.mentalillnessstigma

I’m one of the lucky ones.  I get the treatment and the care and the compassion that so many of my ill brethren do not receive.  Most people don’t even know that I’m ill.  You see, I know the warning signs.  In the case of manic episodes, my mind starts racing.  Creative thoughts pile onto creative thoughts, and then it gets faster and faster and I can’t stop working won’t stop working don’t want to stop working and it’s amazing the things I can get done . . . but I feel an overload, an imbalance, a systems shutdown approaching.  But like a jet plane hurtling through the air on cruise control, I cannot switch directions, not even when I know exactly how it’s going to end: nose down in the mountainside.

Crashing hurts, and it makes no sense to an outsider, but with time and medication and therapy, I’ve gotten much better at engineering less destructive crash landings.  The most important thing I do is to radio ahead to the tower, or tell a few friends that I’m losing altitude too fast, and that I am, frankly, feeling ill.  In other words, despite the stigma that attaches to my illness, I reach out for the help I need.

I was on the phone this morning with one of my best friends, and she just sort of sat with me.  She told me that she loved me no matter what, and that she wasn’t going anywhere, and that my illness didn’t make her not want to be my friend.  In fact, a few of my friends called me.  They won’t let me fall through the cracks, and when I crash land, they’re there to pick up the pieces.

That’s what grieves me about so many of the articles I tried so hard not to read this weekend.  For every one that begged for compassion, three more confused mental illness with violent propensities.  And you know what this does?  It rains down shame, ugly, dark sickly-familiar shame on those of us who suffer from mental illness.  As gut-wrenchingly difficult as it is to seek treatment, this sort of fear-mongering makes it that much harder for people like me to seek help.

It takes courage to seek help, and it takes courage to admit you’re ill.  Fallacious arguments that connect mental illness to violent propensities make it even harder.  Please have compassion and use discernment when you address issues of mental illness.  After all, you never know who could be affected by the words you use.




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Rebel Thriver Workshop: Stop Being Self-Destructive

This week, I have led a Rebel Thriver Workshop to help other women stop being self-destructive, in word, deed or thought. The workshop is based on a book by Rick Hanson, Just One Thing–Developing A Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time. I recommend that you purchase this book and work through the exercises in it. With the help of Rick Hanson’s writing, I achieved some important breakthroughs in my own therapy.

Cognitive Behavorial Therapy

No one knows exactly how the brain works. But we know a few things. If we change the way our minds work, our brain changes too. What you think and feel; the things that you think about; and, how you react to the world around you changes your brain’s actual structure. The busy regions get more blood flow. Inactive neural connections wither away, while the ones you exercise grow stronger.  In other words, the active synapses, or connections between neurons, once fired together, get wired together. Use it or lose it, so to speak.

This is the essence of cognitive behavioral therapy: if train your mind, you change your brain. Once you change your brain, you can change your behavior more easily. In other words, when you practice positive behaviors, these behaviors become easier and more automatic to replicate, especially when you are under stress. It’s a lot like military training: when the bombs and bullets start flying, the marines fall back on their training, and that is what this workshop is all about: getting the training.

Be on Your own Side

This first lesson is simple.  Be on your own side. Are you groaning? It’s easy to be on someone else’s side, isn’t it? But are you on your own side? We’re raised to think we don’t count as much as others. Friends, we cannot keep waiting for someone to take up our own cause. Maybe you’ve been kicked or knocked upside the head whenever you stood up for yourself; maybe you believe you don’t deserve to be valued or happy.

We cannot change what happened to us when we were young. But we can control how we treat ourselves today.

Consider what it feels like when you are a good friend to someone else. Ask yourself if you’re that kind of friend to yourself? Are you too hard on yourself? When someone mistreats you, do you only make a halfhearted effort to protect yourself?

The next time you face a situation that makes you feel self-critical, frustrated with yourself, guilty, lacking power or control, ask yourself if you are on your own side.  To put it another way, are you looking out for your own best interests?

Then feel like you’re with someone who loves and cares about you. Bring to mind the feeling of comfort that gives you. Remember what it feels like to be on someone’s side: a child, or a dear friend. Let these feelings fill you.

Now: imagine that you have the same feelings, the same physical stance, the same thoughts—while caring for yourself. Pay attention to what this feels like: encourage the good feelings, and if you sense any resistance, try to let it go or push back against it with light and love.

Keep asking yourself: am I on my side? And if I were on my side, what would I feel and do here? Then, to the best of your ability, DO IT.


For me, part of the key to ending self-destructive thoughts and actions was forgiving myself for all the times I wanted to take my own life and for all the times I either hurt myself or spoke hateful things about myself. You see, the guilt for what I did to myself compounded my problems. I would feel bad, really bad about what I’d done, and then want to punish myself for it.

One day, I realized that I needed to break the chain of guilt, judgment and self-destruction. Whatever I did was done. And in order to stop mistreating myself, I needed to let go of all of the pain and guilt and anger I felt toward or about the way I had acted in the past.

What is done is done. We are more than our past. We are the ones who create and drive our future. We need to let go of the mistakes we made. Don’t judge it. Don’t condemn it. It just is. Let it go, as you would let go of an illness, a spoiled apple, or a passing mood.

In order to love yourself, you need to do one thing, and one thing only: start loving. And the first step to loving yourself is forgiveness.

I want you to say it out loud. “I forgive myself.” And if you want to add a few things that you forgive, go ahead.

I will start. I forgive myself for wanting to end my life. I forgive myself for hurting myself. And I forgive myself for treating myself like a second class citizen.

And then: I let it go. I let it go.


It’s easy to feel it for others, isn’t it? Your child runs to you crying after a bad day at school; a dear friend finds out that her mom faces a cancer that is chewing up her last reserves; or even a perfect stranger on TV sobs when they lose their house to a flood. Compassion exists in our natures. We evolved and developed compassion because we need it to nurture our children and build communities.

But without a nurturing childhood, too many of us lack the ability to feel compassion for ourselves. We’re perfectionists. We’re our worst haters and our worst critics. And this lack of compassion for self is the very seed that eggs us on to hurt ourselves.

Next time you make a mistake, or you feel intense pain or sadness, bring to mind what a dear friend would feel for you. Envision their facial expressions; their gestures; the love in their eyes. Let your body receive this compassion.

Then, imagine a child or a dear friend is in pain–the sort of pain you are in right now. Bring to mind the compassion you would feel for them. Let these feelings fill your heart. Extend those feelings toward that person, as if touching them from afar with light and love.

Now, seize hold of this compassion, and turn it inward. Go ahead. You do it with your anger and even hatred without hesitation. Now I want you to take this love–and send it into every cell in your body. And then I want you to whisper something kind.


Pick a kind phrase.

“May I feel better.”

“I am so sorry for my loss.”

“I love me so much.”

“May this pain pass.”

“May I walk with light and love.”

 Peace be with you. And as one of my friends always says, “keep on shining.” Rolling Stones with Bonnie Raitt: “Shine A Light”

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My Novel in One Sentence

Novel Overview

            The other day, my writing partner Renee-Schuls-Jacobsen Lessons from Teachers and Twits and I tried to summarize my novel in a paragraph, and I’m here to tell you it isn’t easy to step back and pinpoint a book in one sentence.  And to be frank, I have been a little nervous about revealing the plot because it is, like so much of what I write, a bit raw.  I’m afraid that prospective readers will hear that and howl, “Gah!  Too dark!”  And the thing is, this is not a dark story.  Ultimately, I am weaving a tale of hope, redemption, friendship and love.  How is that you ask?  From chapter 9 to the end of what I am tentatively naming Ripple, I show how competent and loving care can resurrect a shattered young woman and her broken mother.

Because so many people have been helping me solve plot questions on my Facebook page Running from Hell with El, I wanted everyone to know more about what I am doing.  In one sentence, here it is.  After the rape of a 15-year old girl named Phoebe, her mother Helen protects her in a way she never thought she could, and after she seeks help, we see the ripple effect of women helping women.  That sounds simple doesn’t it?  But it took me thousands of words to cull it down to a sentence that could fit in a Twitter Running from Hell update.  And I owe my writing partner for helping me write this sentence.

Where does this concept come from?  Go ahead and laugh.  It comes from a Grateful Dead song.  The song is (yeah you guessed it) called Ripple.  Pretend you’re listening to background music as you hear these lyrics:

  06 Ripple

Reach out your hand if your cup be empty,

If your cup is full may it be again,

Let it be known there is a fountain,

That was not made by the hands of men.

In my novel, several characters, in their professional capacity as lawyers, therapists, the operators of a safe home for abused women, and even a horse trainer, reach out and help Phoebe and her mother.  In flashbacks, the reader will see how the mother’s attorney, Cassandra, went through her own periods of darkness.  In a very real sense, I am writing about the ripple effect of women helping women.

When I conceived this novel a year ago, I knew that my main characters, like me, would emerge from darkness and tragedy into a bright future.  This is why I named the girl Phoebe.  Her name means “Child of Light.”  From the very darkest places, if we reach out with our hand with an empty cup and someone reaches back and refills it with love, we will find our way to the light.  Always searching, always reaching . . . for the light.

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