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Trying To Flip It: Using Pain For Growth

So, last week, I did a stupid. I went swimming with the kids and jumped into the pool. The second a did, I felt water just shoot RIGHT UP into both of my ears. Ow. Ow, ow, ow. I hopped around, I stick my finger in there, nothing. A few home remedies later, and I got the water out. And I also got tinnitus pretty bad in my left ear.

A visit to the ENT and a nice dose of steroids later, and I hope I am on the mend. Tinnitus sucks. And, not gonna lie, it’s been upsetting. Like…is this ever going to go away? How can I get past it? How can you ignore something THAT IS CONSTANT?

There is a way. Actually, the more I relax, the less I concentrate on it and the more I can just…you know, do life…I’m okay. I’ve also been trying to take some of the lessons I’ve learned in the course of my long history with mental illness and apply it to this, including, hopefully, looking at this from a growth perspective.

Okay, first. As a stereotypical male, I do not do well with physical discomfort. My wife makes fun of me cause all of my clothing is usually pretty baggy. But seriously, even the slightest physical discomfort and I have big problems. Kind of funny, considering I’ve done okay in the mental resiliency front, but I digress.

Anyway, this has been a struggle. I can’t lie. I’ve been having a lot of anxiety about the ringing, a lot of guilt that I basically accidented and then stupided myself into this, and just a lot of stress.

I’ve tried to deal with that in a couple of ways. First and foremost: In a sense, this bit about tinnitus is very similar to fighting anxiety. Yes, that’s an accurate statement. Tinnitus is aggravated by stress and anxiety. If you can ignore it – which is HARD – it gets less or goes away. I’m lucky, the form I have is relatively mild, so ignoring it is not the hardest challenge in the world. But I am trying to ask myself some questions that I think are pretty important. How can I take the lessons I have learned from this stupid battle and apply them to the rest of my life? How can I learn to be more comfortable and more relaxed with physical discomfort? How can I teach myself to be okay with a silly mistake that anyone could have made?

My point, from a mental health perspective, is obvious. When you do something dumb, you are allowed to wallow in self-pity for a bit. Go ahead. Flush that stuff right out of your system. And, when you ready, start to ask yourself some questions – not just about how to deal with the immediate situation, but how to grow from it. How to take whatever mistakes you have made and transform them into lessons you can learn. I’ve tried to apply this model of post-traumatic growth to my own life, and I know I have written about it in the past as well.

Anyway, I’m trying to take this model and applying it to my own life. I’m not being as successful as I want, but I’m trying. I hope you can too.

So…do you want to be a Beta reader for my next book?

This one is personal, and it is exciting: I have a Beta version of my next book ready to go, and I’d like your help.

The book – tentatively titled Almost The End Of The World – is about a college student who has to return to life after the very, very near-miss of a world-ending asteroid. Here are the first three sentences of the description:

On January 3, the world was supposed to end when an asteroid collides with Earth.

It missed.

Now, everyone left alive must deal with the consequences.

This one asks questions about our shared obligation to each other. When we’re in a crisis, do we pull closer? Or further apart?

For the record, I started writing this before COVID!

So…want to read it? Or want the full description?

I’m looking for someone to read the Beta version of my book and give me feedback. This isn’t an editing role – I don’t want someone to look this guy over and read it with a fine-tooth comb. What I do want is for someone to read the book and tell me if I hit the main beats. Do you like the characters? Is the story relatable? What do you think I need to make it more clear? Looking for readers with the ability to make brutally honest judgments and the time to give me their unvarnished assessments.

If you’re interested, comment here, or Email me at MichaelSchlossberg@gmail.com.

 

John Lewis & Joy

As most of you are probably aware, Congressman and Civil Rights legend John Lewis died this weekend as a result of cancer. Lewis was 80. He was one of the original speakers at the March on Washington and until this weekend was the last speaker who was alive from that famous day. Congressman Lewis was commonly referred to as the “conscience of Congress” and one of the most powerful voices of the modern era on issues relating to race relations and civil rights. His absence, at this moment, leaves a hole in this country, but at least he died knowing that this country was a better place for his work.

My social media feed was replete with tributes to him – I suspect yours was as well. However, one clip, more than any other, really caught my eye:

To be clear, in this clip, John Lewis – then 76 – is crowd surfing. WEEEEEEE!!

“I just wanted people to keep me up….” That just clipped me in a big way.

I have absolutely zero idea what made Colbert or his producers go, “HEY, I have a great idea…but rock on!” It’s amazing and heartening to watch. And I’ll add this: As you can see in this clip, most of the audience is white. I would have killed to be in that audience and touch John Lewis – to, in his words, make sure that I kept him up. There had to be something so special about that. But there’s a deep sense of poetry there. John Lewis – a man who was beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge while fighting for civil rights – being held up by men and women of the same skin color as the men who beat him. It says something about how far we have come.

Of course, as you may suspect, this wasn’t the only clip of John Lewis expressing a deep sense of joy & silliness. Here he is in 2018, dancing away:

Again, the internet is filled with stories of Lewis’s kindness, selflessness, and a sense of caring for other people. Numerous members of Congress spent time discussing the way Congressman Lewis went out of his way to say hello or drop them a kind word.

What does this have to do with mental health? Honestly, quite a bit. We live in very serious times and face seemingly insurmountable issues. Racism. COVID. Climate change. Inequity and more. Every day, brave men and women fight and die facing these issues, willingly or otherwise. John Lewis was one such man.

Lewis could have become an embittered man. Instead, he chose to spend the rest of his life fighting for a cause he believed in, making new friends and allies, new enemies, and more. If a man who almost died on a bridge named after a soldier to the Confederacy could become a public servant and fight the ghost of that Confederacy…what choice do the rest of us have? How can any of us look at the world and decide we must retreat into its shadows when legends like John Lewis fought on?

This doesn’t mean we must always be serious. It doesn’t mean that we forego self-care, reflection, and our own lives. But it does mean that we must use our down moments to lift ourselves back up again.

To paraphrase the life of John Lewis: You have to walk across that bridge to be able to crowd surf.

Find your joy while fighting your fight.

Are suicides increasing during COVID-19?

It was a frequently used argument during the pandemic, one often used against lockdowns: Suicide rates would increase as a result of social isolation, financial hardships, and more limited access to proper medical care. This fear was repeated by medical professionals and medical health care experts. Even Donald Trump repeated the line at one point, arguing that extensive lockdowns would lead to “thousands” of suicides. So great that he and so many others suddenly care about mental health when they spent years defunding services that would prevent suicide and trying to rip health care away from millions, but that’s a completely different story, so let’s move on, let’s move on.

We’re about four months into some of the various lock-downs and quarantines. The question is obvious: What does the data say? Are suicide rates on the rise?

It seems like its too early to tell. We will only be able to more definitively tell the numbers when the annual suicide numbers come out at the beginning of the year, and even then, it will be extremely difficult to determine the cause of the suicide. However, there is some evidence to indicate that things are not as bad as many of us feared they would be – though that could very, very easily change.

First, let’s look at what data is available and what data has been misleading. At the beginning of the pandemic, a doctor said that his California hospital had seen “a year’s worth of suicide attempts” during a four-week period. That report was utterly debunked: Numbers had barely increased at the hospital in question, and locals reported that they believed the local rate had remained stable in the area.

Apparently, calls to some suicide hotlines have increased. Outreach to suicide prevention text lines has increased as well. However, this may not be a bad thing, as it may be a reflection of people turning to the closest support line to get help. Indeed, if these hotlines are working, the increase in calls may be a good thing. Again, unfortunately, there’s no evidence to say one way or the other.

I couldn’t find any hard data discussing whether or not there was any evidence of suicide rate increases in the United States – if someone has that, please correct me. However, I did find evidence that suicide rates have actually dropped 20% in Germany. This is a preliminary finding, so it is likely too early to draw hard conclusions from it.

There is no question that COVID-19 will cause a massive spike in a wide array of social problems, and suicide would certainly seem to be one of these problems. However, as noted by many articles on the subject, it’s more nuanced than simply saying that “The lockdowns led to more deaths.” The pandemic also ripped apart the economy, threw us into a recession, and maybe a depression. There is clear evidence that down economies lead to higher rates of mental illness and suicide. As such, it is difficult to say that lockdowns lead to suicides. It is much more complex than that.

So, what’s the conclusion? There’s no conclusion. Not yet. Time will tell. But, more importantly, policymakers and the community at large must continue to work to mitigate the economic and social impacts of COVID – particularly on the mentally ill. I’m hoping to be able to work on that one over the summer.

Doom Scrolling: What It Is and Why It’s So Dangerous

I think it was at the height of the George Floyd riots (not protests, riots, and I do mean those two differently) that it really hit me. Dozens of cities were burning across the nation, the fire started by the murder of George Floyd. The kids were in bed, and I could not stop looking at Twitter, loading new tweets, reporting whatever horrendously depressing piece of information I learned to my wife, and then letting the cycle repeat itself over and over and over again.

I slept like crap that night. And for the next three.

Finally, at some point, it hit me: What the hell was I doing? Yes, staying informed is important, but this was insane. No good came of me cycling over and over through the battlefield that our news had become. Twitter was horrendous. Facebook was toxic. I needed to put down the damn phone.

I was Doom Scrolling.

Doom Scrolling is when you are staring at your phone, refreshing a social media feed, consciously or subconsciously looking for more bad news. It usually happens late at night, when you turn on your phone to unwind and relax…and instead become convinced that the world is on fire and that you will never get a peaceful night’s sleep again.

Looking at your iPhone late at night is bad enough for your ability to get some sleep, but Doom Scrolling is pretty much the worst thing you can do with your phone before bed, short of trying to eat the damn thing. But the problem with Doom Scrolling is what it does to your mind: It excites it, it terrifies it, it makes you feel sad and afraid. It also revs up your mind at a time you are trying to slow it down and get some rest.

All of these emotions are obviously not conducive to getting a decent night of sleep, and in turn, you wake up feeling sad, anxious, and depressed. This can turn into a bitter cycle.

Stopping Doom Scrolling is important to your mental health. It is difficult, but we have to find a way to do it.

How? Some thoughts.

  • Physically separate from your phone: Yes, that. It can be hard. It may make you twitch. But put your phone somewhere else. Charge it on the other side of the room. Give it to a supportive partner (who probably hates how much time you spend on it, anyway). Set a hard stop: No more phone use after Xpm. Just…go away from it.
  • Monitor your social media habits otherwise: Doom Scrolling happens because we have developed habits that push us towards using our phones anyway. Doom Scrolling is easier to stop when we monitor our social habits to begin with, then avoid staring at our phones at a moment where our minds are already primed to look for the bad news. We all know what it’s like – disappearing down the Scroll Hole. Looking at your phone for so long that you forgot why you started to begin with. Don’t be that person. Develop the habits to stop looking at your phone so much to begin with.
  • Set a time limit: Say you really do want to look at your phone and watch for the news. Maybe you, like me, enjoy being plugged into society and find value in it. That is a totally understandable reflex, and our phones have been unquestionably helpful at building a more connected world…indeed, many of us never would have become as a way of the problems people of color face at the hands of elements of law enforcement, to begin with, were it not for our phones. So, allow yourself ten minutes. Physically set a timer. Scroll for ten. And when your phone rings, be done.

You’ll notice a theme: Some of the pieces of advice that I give are more physical than psychological. That’s because Doom Scrolling is a reaction to the terror around us. I’ve repeatedly tried to note that individual psychology cannot be separated from the real world, and at moments of terror or anxiety, we all become depressed. Our phones just give that an outlet, hence the Doom Scrolling.

And one more thing. Don’t berate yourself for Doom Scrolling. It happens, and it’s okay. You’re not weak. You’re human and normal. We all want to feel connected, even to a world that feels broken. For better or for worse, our phones give us that opportunity.

How much is Doom Scrolling an issue for you? Have you found any tricks that can help you stop it? Let us know in the comments!

EDIT: More Resources! Here is a great article on the topic from Choosing Therapy.

The Depression & Anxiety of Racism

Last week, I wrote a bit about the Black Lives Matters movement and the incredible stress and strain that racism is causing people of color. This is a topic that I really think demands further exploration.

First, I mentioned it last week, but check this article out in more depth. Rates of anxiety and depression spiked, hard, for African & Asian Americans in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. Among African Americans, positive screenings for these disorders rose from 36% to 41%, while they increased from 28% to 34% among Asian Americans. Those are all significant increases.

Interestingly enough, it did not increase for members of the Hispanic population. I’d be curious to better understand why that is the case, but that’s for another day.

Tragically, the reason we have this data is because the federal government was attempting to track the impacts of COVID-19 on minority populations, which, as we know, has been hit particularly hard by this pandemic. One tragedy upon another.

If these findings are accurate and representative of the increasing rates of mental illness among the general public, it means that at least two million more people experienced mental illness as the result of the murder of George Floyd. These are horrifying numbers, but they really aren’t all that surprising.

We know, definitively, that external forces can increase rates of mental illness. Depression, anxiety, and suicide all rise in times of economic turmoil and it makes tragic sense that a group of people who are under perpetual attack at an individual and societal level would experience rising rates of mental illness when a horrific video showed a slow-motion murder.

What does this mean? Again, the good news…such as it is…is that we, as a society, are having a larger conversation about systemic racism. I worry that too much of the conversation has focused on police brutality and criminal justice reform. That is important, no question, and its the primary issue in front of us at the moment. However, we cannot lose sight of the impact that centuries of racism have had on countless other areas of life.

One of those must be mental health.

As a white man, I cannot personally understand the impact of racism on mental health. But the literature and personal experience of countless people of color are clear. Racism means lost opportunities. It means personal pain and lives destroyed. It also means the trauma of watching countless people who look and act like you being gunned down by the men and women who are supposed to protect you.

What’s my point of this entry? The article above proves it: Police brutality and systemic racism mean depression. They mean mental health. And as we have a conversation about what Black Lives Matters means, we cannot forget this vitally important component of addressing and ending systemic racism.

COVID-19, Mental Health and Black Lives Matter

Hey, everyone!

First, I apologize. My blog entries have obviously been spotty for the past few months. There is a reason for that: The real world. Simply put, my job as State Representative became too overwhelming. This, along with other responsibilities, made it really difficult for me to blog. I am sorry and I will try to get back into my twice a week habit now.

So, let’s get right to it. Every one of us has been following the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent explosion of the Black Lives Matters movement. If you read my blog, I’m guessing you are at least somewhat progressively orientated. That probably means you are shocked and horrified at the current state of the world, and want to do something to make it better.

As a white man, I can’t sit here and yammer on about what the Black Lives Matter movement means. I represent a district that is about 1/2 minorities and work with dozens of other elected officials who are people of color, and I’ve tried to learn from their experiences to figure out not only how to do my job better, but how to be a better person.

From my perspective, acknowledging those limitations, I’ve come to the conclusion that we scream Black Lives Matter because society has decided for centuries that they don’t. That we scream Black Lives Matter at the top of our lungs because the communities of color have been devastated, destroyed, and degraded for centuries in a way that white people cannot begin to fathom.

To the casual observer, I think it gets too easy to assume that the entire Black Lives Matter movement only revolves around police reform and criminal justice. As best I can tell, that isn’t only the case. Black Lives Matter, at least to me, means that we address all of the systemic inequities in our society. That means addressing countless areas of our public policy, including education, urban planning, economic development, health care access and more.

It also, unquestionably, means mental health. I’ve written on this topic before, but even the briefest of looks at Google shows the enormous disparity facing the minority communities when it comes to mental health. Furthermore, new studies show that that levels of anxiety and depression spiked among the African American population after the murder of George Floyd. As if their burden wasn’t already enough to shoulder.

All this brings me back to COVID. I wrote a line in Redemption that I barely even thought about until a reviewer flagged it: “When civilization collapses, it doesn’t collapse evenly.” COVID has taught us that, hasn’t it? Obviously, civilization isn’t collapsing, but boy has it taken some hits.

And those hits have not been evenly distributed.

Just take a look at how COVID has hit minority communities. The evidence is painfully clear: According to the CDC, minority communities in general – and the African American community specifically – are more likely to contract COVID, be hospitalized as a result of COVID, and die from COVID. This isn’t a result of any genetic challenges. Instead, its a result of systematic discrimination that has resulted in years of poor health care access in general, substandard living conditions and worse health.

When civilization collapses, it won’t collapse evenly.

What’s my point? Pretty obvious. I think most of us agree with the statement that Black Lvies Matter. That means we have to act like it. It means our policy has to reflect those values, and that must be carried out in the way that we discuss all aspects of public policy. Mental health must be part of that equation.

The Long View

Morning, everybody!

As I type this, it is about two months from March 12, or as my wife and I have come to call it, the “before times.” I refer specifically to March 12, because in my mind, that’s the day Corona snapped away from an abstract problem to “Oh, hell, this is bad.” March 12 is the day that my local school district canceled classes after a potential COVID exposure with a teacher. It’s the day my region saw it’s first positive case. It’s the day local private schools began to close. It’s the day I closed my legislative offices. It’s also around the day that Tom Hanks announced he was positive and sports games started getting canceled. That, in my mind, is when everything started to change and become much more real.

So, what’s happened during those two months? Uhh…you know what, never mind. Let’s just not do that. You’ve lived it with me. You know how bad this is.

I’m writing this entry today with a simple goal: To urge you to change your perspective and to take the long view.

In those two months, tens of millions became unemployed. Businesses have collapsed. Large sectors of the economy have been decimated. Millions have been infected. Most of us know someone who was. Many of us lost family members or friends. This has been a nightmare and one that will change the world.

It will pass. All pandemics pass. Everything returns. Not to “normal,” but yes, everything returns.

So, here’s my plea in today’s entry: As best as you can, take the long view.

Whatever you have done in your life, however you have lived, you have unquestionably struggled. You have endured pain you thought would break you, lost people you thought you could never live without. You have undergone trauma, experienced things that were meant to bury you. However much pain you are in, however terrible things seem and whatever darkness you are currently surrounded by, please remember this:

You. Have. Survived.

In moments like this, it can be easy to lose perspective. It can be easy to forget that you have endured periods of your life that were so filled with darkness you never thought you’d recover. Please remember those moments at times like this. Please remember that you have gotten through and that you will again and again.

It’s been going on so long it can be easy to remember, but please: This pandemic will end. All pandemics do. This moment will pass. You will hug your family members again. You will go back to work. This moment will fade into your personal history. It will not be forever.

As best as you are capable during a pandemic, take the long view. Remember that time will ease this.

 

The Importance of Routine – Especially Now

My buddies in Harrisburg constantly make fun of me.

There are many reasons for this: My obvious good looks, my undeniable charm and my searing insight into local politics…okay none of those are true, but this is a tough time, let me pretend, okay?

No, there’s actually one reason in particular that they make fun of me that I wanted to talk about today, and I wanted to touch on it to discuss why it’s even more important, particularly now. My friends in Harrisburg make fun of me because I am an old man. I go to bed early. I HATE being out late. If we’re at a dinner or something, and it goes later than 8pm, I’m cranky.

Why? I have a routine. I like to be back in my hotel room by 8pm or so. I spend the time getting myself set up for the next day. I iron my shirt, load my gym bag. Then I spend an hour or so putzing around on the computer or reading, finishing up Emails. Around 10pm, I take a shower. By 1030, if not earlier, I like to be in bed.

My alarm is set for like 530am the next morning. I wake up, stumble around my hotel, climb into my car and head to the gym in the Capitol building. I work out, starting around 615 or so. Done by 715, shower and dressed by 745, grab breakfast and start my day.

Okay. Why the hell do you care about my evening and morning routine?

I mention it to make a point. I hate being away from my home and my family. Absolutely, positively hate it. That being said, when it comes to Harrisburg, more often than not, I’m in a hotel room at the end of the day. I’m about 90 minutes from home, so if we have a late-night or early morning, its just not worth getting in my car and going home.

So, for a guy with anxiety and depression issues, spending a lot of time away from home and the family that I love can be a challenge, and yes, it can be anxiety-producing. I’m probably in a hotel 50-70 nights a year (well, that will change this year for sure, but that’s another story).

One of the ways I have found to cope with it? I have a routine. And I mean a SET ROUTINE that I absolutely despise breaking and do not do so under virtually any circumstances. This routine absolutely, positively helps keep me grounded and focused. It is unquestionably a way to fight off my anxiety. It also has an added benefit: It keeps me prepared and set for the day in Harrisburg – days which are, incidentally, insanely busy. I frequently liken session days to bouncing around like a pinball.

Anyway, this entry is Corona related. How and why? Well, we’ve been indoors for a month now, and for many of us, we probably still have some time to go. If you are one of the lucky ones who is healthy and well, and able to stay in your home, your normal routine has probably been shot to hell. You’re now working from home, doing things you never thought possible from the comfort of your living room, trying to manage your kids’ education, worry about family and friends, etc.

There is a reason we all have routines. They are comforting and save your body invaluable decision-making energy. I get it – quarantine means we can back off of the things that keep us tied to the normal world, right? Sure, if that’s what you want. But understand that there is going to be quite a bit of anxiety associated with that.

The best thing I can advise? Find a routine, and stick to it. Develop the discipline to find things that keep you healthy and well. Set an alarm and get up at the same time. Dedicate X hours a day to doing Y. Go to bed at the same time. If you are working from home, develop a habit that signifies you’re done with work (change out of jeans and into sweatpants, go for a walk, whatever).

Routines help. And they help even more now at moments where we are cut off from so much that we know and love. Find a routine for yourself, and stick with it. Even now. Especially now.

What Do You Look Forward To?

Like everyone, the Schlossberg family has just had a grand ole time with adjusting to quarantine life. I’ve been legislating from my office, voting on bills from my bedroom, and trying to help desperate individuals try to access government benefits like unemployment. Brenna is trying to adjust to online teaching and constantly worries about her students or whether or not they are safe, eating well and being cared for. The kids are doing better than us, mostly, but Lord knows they miss their friends and their school lives. I’m just grateful they aren’t older and haven’t quite lost the idea that this is just an adventure with the family.

Life is hard. It’s hard for all of us, and you don’t need me to tell you that. And let me acknowledge again, I have it a hell of a lot better than many. Brenna, the kids and I are safe and healthy. We have food. We have shelter and we face no immediate economic thread as a result of this. There are so many people in worse shape than us. I don’t say that to devalue our pain or that of others, but to acknowledge that we have good fortune that others don’t.

But, I want to take a second to share a piece of advice that I have found incredibly useful as the days drag on, and this goes for everyone, no matter what your circumstances or levels of comfort are.

Every day, when the kids go to bed, I have a huge piece of cheesecake. I mean, we’re talking a piece of cheesecake the size of my head. It’s cherry cheesecake and from the Amish Bakery at the Allentown Farmer’s Market. Yes, I’d like several pieces, right now. Cheesecake and a big glass of milk.

Why am I writing about this on a blog about mental health?

I didn’t mean to do it, but at some point, I realized that the cheesecake became something I’d look forward to towards the end of the day. A goal. A point of relaxation. Like many of you, the lines between my work and professional life have always been relatively blurred, but even more so now that my home is also my office. The cheesecake was the ultimate sign of relaxation for me. It became something I’d look forward to. A nightly ritual I could enjoy that marked the end of the day.

At moments I was stressed, anxious or tired, I’d say to myself, “Just keep going. There’s cheesecake at the end of the day.”

This is probably useful for more than just a pandemic, but I have absolutely found that setting a ritual, adhering to that ritual, and enjoying that ritual can be very useful during the more stressful moments of a day. It gives me something to strive to – a little treat. It doesn’t have to be much. It doesn’t have to be cheesecake. But I have absolutely found that giving myself a pleasant reward at the end of a stressful day can make a world of difference.

So, that’s my advice to you. Set a goal. Stick to it. And find what works for you.

Have a wonderful day, everyone. Take care of yourselves and each other!