The Gift Worth Giving Myself

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I don’t usually make New Year’s resolutions. But this past December I was thinking about changes I’d like in my life. The one that kept coming to mind was mindfulness.

For me, this means improving my overall mental health. Slowing down to become more aware of my actions and reactions. Being present in my surroundings. Taking time to enjoy this beautiful life.

Mindfulness is a work in progress. It isn’t always easy. I’m used to rushing all the time. I hurry to finish one chore, just so I can get to the next.

This past weekend I decided to deadhead the roses, cut back overgrown plants, and scoop up leaves. We have a large yard, so I knew I couldn’t get it all done. But I wanted to try.

I went from one plant to the next, snipping as fast as my fingers could squeeze the pruning shears. I stopped myself.

Go back, Jenny. Pay attention. Look at that gorgeous flower. It just started to bloom. Notice the bright yellow color, the shape of each blossom, the thorns on the stem. Be thankful for this small miracle, right here in my own backyard. What am I doing this work for, if I can’t stop to enjoy it? 

When I gazed at that rose and sniffed its sweet scent, I took a deep breath. I felt relaxed and rooted to the earth, right where I was, engaged in what I was doing. It almost felt like I was stopping time, just for a moment.

Mindfulness isn’t complicated. It comes to me in simple ways. Such as when I brush my teeth with my electric toothbrush. I close my eyes and notice how it feels like a massage to my gums. How the brush gently shakes in my hand. The taste of the toothpaste. The smell of the mint.

Last night at dinner I ate slower. Sometimes I feel as if I’m shoveling the food in, just to finish, so I can hurry and clean the kitchen. I forced myself to take the time to notice the texture of the chicken and taste of the spices. How creamy the sour cream was on my baked potato. The crunch of the lettuce leaves. The soft but firm feel of the broccoli when I bit into it. I was thankful I had this delicious food to make.

Toward the end of our meal, my husband said, “Why did I eat so much faster than you?” I told him about my mindful experiment. It wasn’t that he was eating faster, it was that I was eating slower.

I’m going to make a conscious effort to pay attention as much as I can. I’m hopeful it’ll get so natural, that it’ll become part of my routine. Not that I won’t be zipping around, trying to get everything done. I know there will be times I’ll forget to notice life going on around me. It takes practice.

I’m going to be mindful of being mindful.

Slowing down to pay attention to life is a gift to myself. Attention really is a rare and pure form of generosity.

I’m worth it. We all are.

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A Special Bond

After dinner last night, my husband helped unload the dishwasher and went into the other room to watch football. As I washed the dishes, something felt different. It was quiet. And a bit lonely.

Since Thanksgiving, we’ve had a busy household. Talee was home from college for a month. It was hard to say goodbye this past weekend. Mackenzie, who lives about an hour away, had been home often during the holidays. I got used to my girls filling our home with chatter and giggles.

We did a lot of entertaining the last month. Cooking, eating, and yes — washing dishes. It seemed like I always had someone there, offering to help. But it wasn’t just that they dried the pots and pans. We talked, laughed, shared stories and secrets. It made standing at the sink with my hands in soapy water, well… fun.

Some nights it was Mackenzie or Talee helping. Other times it was my mom, sisters, nieces, or close friends. It’s not just the women who do dishes at our house. My brother-in-law often steps in, and I’m grateful that my husband does too.

But there’s something about doing dishes with other women that’s special to me. We’re standing in one place, completing a necessary job. As we work, we bond.

My parents come over for dinner almost every Sunday. After we eat, my mom and I clean up, and my dad and husband chat at the table in the other room. They’re not paying attention to us, and Mom and I have a chance to talk about “girl things.” Maybe it’s clothes,  our hair, or what color nail polish we’d like to try. Sometimes it’s to vent our frustrations and divulge our worries. Whatever the conversation, it’s just between us.

My mother-in-law lived with us for five years before she passed away. She had health issues, which made it difficult for her to do many things. But she insisted on helping me after dinner. She’d say that since I did all the cooking, the least she could do was dry the dishes.

She told me things I never knew about her childhood, her jobs, or what it was like when she was a teenager in the late 1940s, dating her future husband. I loved her stories, and honestly don’t think I would’ve heard them if we hadn’t been doing the dishes. I cherished those moments together.

I’m not sure what it is about helping in the kitchen that makes it such a great time to bond. Maybe it’s working toward the common goal of cleaning the mess. Everyone feels useful, whether it’s scraping food off the plates, hand washing the wine glasses, or putting leftover turkey and mashed potatoes into Ziploc bags.

I think of it as an unsaid time for women to share something in common, something we all know how to do. It can be a mundane chore. But when sharing the work, it somehow doesn’t feel that way.

Now that the holidays are over, I’ll need to adjust to my solitary job in the kitchen. At least I’ll have plenty of time to daydream. And think about the lovely women in my life.

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The Player I’ll Be Watching

When I watch the Rose Bowl on Monday (Penn State vs. USC), I’m going to keep my eye out for number 99 on Penn State. Joey Julius, a kicker, is a big guy, at 5’10” and 271 pounds. But it’s not just his size that makes him big. People who don’t even  follow football admire and look up to him.

During the spring and summer of 2016, he wasn’t at practice. Instead, the 21-year-old  was spending time at a treatment center improving his health. After he left, he told his Mom he wasn’t being true to himself. No one knew about his real fight.

In October, Joey decided to divulge his secret on Facebook. He has binge eating disorder, depression, and anxiety.

It’s hard to be vulnerable and admit you have a problem that you’ve hid for years, especially when in the public eye. But once it’s out in the open, it’s somehow easier to deal with. I know because I did that with my anxiety and panic attacks. When I talk about mental health and mental illness, I realize how many people it affects. I’m not alone.

“The Facebook post was very scary,” Joey said. “It took me a while to do it, but my path to recovery has to do with me being honest about who I am, and this is who I am.”

Good for him. Bravo, Joey. Because you spoke out, there are people reaching out for help. They know they aren’t alone.

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Happy New Year! I wish all of you a new year filled with health, love, and happiness.

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A Special Message

A few nights ago I received a wonderful, unexpected text. It was my niece’s husband, Mark (not his real name). He won’t be with our family this Christmas. He’s in the military, serving six months in the Middle East.

My husband and I sent him a care package a few weeks ago, hoping it would reach him in time for the holidays.

Mark texted me to say it arrived, and he was so thankful. The box was filled with holiday cookies, candy, our Christmas card, and a letter. I hoped he’d like it. I wasn’t sure what treats he’d want. But I knew that wasn’t the important part. I wanted him to know we think of him often and pray for his safety. I told him we’re grateful to him and his fellow officers for serving our country.

We texted back and forth for awhile, and I was thinking how great it is that we can communicate so easily — me in the United States, and Mark, thousands of miles away, in a foreign land.

I told him I was making beef stroganoff for dinner, and he said that was one of his favorite meals. Comfort food. My daughters wondered if that made him sad. I don’t think so. He wants to hear about our normal lives, about the familiar. He’s doing his job abroad, which I’m sure is very unpleasant at times. But it must help to know that when he gets home, he’ll be reacquainted with the people, places, and things he loves and misses so desperately.

God bless our troops at the holidays, and always.

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Ending the Silence

Last week I went back to high school. I had something I wanted to share with the students. At one point, I realized I had thirty pairs of eyes watching me intently. I knew they were listening. Really listening.

I told three different classes about my journey recovering from anxiety, panic attacks, and agoraphobia. I  explained how hard it was when my little girl developed panic symptoms. Talee was in fourth grade when she had a panic attack at school. She was terrified it would happen again. She literally couldn’t make herself walk into the classroom, and missed two consecutive weeks. She was afraid of being afraid.

I spoke on behalf of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI. I’m trained as a presenter for NAMI’s Ending the Silence program, developed for high school students. The goal is to raise awareness about mental illness and to help end the stigma. We discuss the warning signs of mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and suicide. We talk about what to do if we notice the warning signs in ourselves or a friend.

I wanted those juniors and seniors to know I waited twenty years before I told anyone about my frightening symptoms. I knew it wasn’t normal when I felt disoriented, like I was living in a fog or dream. I knew it wasn’t right when all of a sudden, my heart would pound, I’d get lightheaded, shaky, and afraid I’d pass out.

I didn’t want anyone to think I was strange. So I kept it a secret. I figured I needed to deal with it. Alone.

The main reason I felt this way? Stigma.

The stigma surrounding mental health conditions is strong and very real. It can delay someone from getting treatment and symptoms can worsen. Mental illness affects millions of people throughout the world. Not only individuals, but also their families.

My daughter and I were fortunate, as we both recovered from panic disorder. It wasn’t easy, and there isn’t a complete cure. But medication and positive coping strategies — eating healthy, exercising, deep breathing — enabled us to resume our normal lives. We’re productive, happy, and in control of our panic.

I don’t remember mental health being discussed when I was in high school. I didn’t know  anxiety and depression were considered a mental illness. I had no idea that other people experienced the same terrifying panic symptoms that I did. Maybe if I’d heard about mental health conditions when I was a teenager, I would’ve received treatment earlier.

That’s why I speak out as a mental health advocate. I want people to know they aren’t alone. There is help available. There is hope.

I’m looking forward to visiting more high schools to tell my story and do my part to help End the Silence.

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My Holiday Mantra

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Every year I ask my daughters to give me a small Christmas list. They’re both in their early twenties and even though they’re easy to shop for, I like to get a couple specific ideas.

I opened Talee’s email and clicked on the first link. It led me to the bracelet pictured above.

I smiled. It warmed my heart. She believed she could, so she did. What a strong message. It says a lot to me that Talee picked this out for herself.

I’m sure she thinks it’s cute because of the slim design, the rose gold, and the ‘girl power’ mantra. I do too. But it also reminds me how far Talee has come.

Maybe I’m reading more into it than I should, but here’s what goes through my mind:

  • My little Talee, painfully shy with terrible separation anxiety in preschool. She used to hold onto my legs and say, “Mommy, I’m scared.” When I asked what she was afraid of, she’d shrug and tell me she didn’t know. I desperately wanted her to be confident and speak up for herself. As she got older, an amazing thing happened. She became sure of herself, walking tall and proud, talking to people with direct eye contact. She’s grown into a happy, confident, and outgoing young woman, graduating from college in six more months. She believed she could, so she did.
  • My little Talee, with sports induced asthma so severe, I thought she’d have to give up her passion — basketball. But I don’t think quitting her favorite sport ever entered her mind. She never, ever gave up.Through determination and hard work, she became one of the most valuable players on her high school basketball team. She still plays intramural tournaments in college. She believed she could, so she did.
  • My little Talee, dealing with anxiety and panic attacks when she was just ten years old. She was frightened, embarrassed, and frustrated that she couldn’t make it go away. After having a panic episode one day in fourth grade, she was terrified it would happen again. Her fear caused her to miss several weeks of school. With medical help, she learned how to control her panic. It wasn’t easy and took time. She persevered and is stronger because of it. Panic no longer rules her. Talee is the one in control. She believed she could, so she did.

It’s funny how one small Christmas gift has so much significance for me. I know Talee would laugh if she knew that, and tell me I overthink things way too much.

Maybe I’ll buy three bracelets.

Mackenzie would also love one. With tenacity and courage, she’s carved a successful path for her career, one she’s dreamed of since high school. She believed she could, so she did.

When I wear mine, it’ll remind me to continue reaching for my hopes and dreams. And I’ll think of my strong, beautiful daughters.

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