Following My Passion

every accomplishment

Last weekend I tried something new, something that pulled me out of my comfort zone. I was the moderator of an author panel — and it was awesome.

Five months ago, I was asked to take on the role. The panel discussion was to be part of Pasadena Mental Health Day, a community event to raise awareness of mental health. The authors and I would discuss their Young Adult fiction books, all of which have a theme of mental illness.

Even though I didn’t know exactly what a moderator was supposed to do, I immediately said yes. As a writer and mental health advocate, I was intrigued. I’m passionate about speaking out about mental illness, to help lessen the stigma and let people know they are not alone.

At times I second-guessed myself about taking on the position. Can I really do this? Absolutely.

Over the next few months, I read each of the books. I truly loved them all. The characters resonated with me and I was amazed by how realistic the stories were. They dealt with serious mental health topics, which were expertly handled by the writers. While the books’ target audience is teens, I’d consider them crossover, great for the adult reader as well.

Author Panel flyer

I’m excited to share with you these talented authors and their books:

Brandy Colbert: Little and Lion. The main character, Suzette, is also known as Little. Her stepbrother, Lionel, or Lion, has bipolar disorder. This book demonstrates how mental illness affects the entire family. This quote is from Little: “Lionel said as much to me once, how so many of the same people who are quick to empathize with physical disabilities don’t understand why someone with depression can’t just get up and get on with their day like the rest of the world.”

Kerry Kletter: The First Time She Drowned. Cassie is mentally and emotionally abused by her mother. Suicide is also a topic in this book. This quote is from Cassie, after her mom hits her and she slaps her mother back: “Her eyes widened. They were wide with the shock of how big I had gotten. Like in all this time she had been feeding me her rage and despair, depositing it into me like coins into a slot, she had never stopped to consider what might happen to all that hate.”

Lauren Miller: All Things New. Jessa has severe anxiety and panic attacks. She hides it from everyone. After a horrific accident and brain injury, Jessa’s anxiety gets worse. Jessa’s dad told her, “I want you to be free. Free from the panic and worry, free from all that terrible self-doubt I see in your eyes and blame myself for. But you have to want it too, Jessa. You have to decide not to let fear win.” Click here to read my previous post on Lauren.

Marisa Reichardt: Underwater. Morgan witnessed a mass shooting at her high school. She develops PTSD, anxiety, panic attacks, and agoraphobia. She can’t make herself step out of her family’s apartment. Morgan talks about an old friend, Taylor: “She deserves to live every single minute of her life. She deserves to pull it behind her like a kite. I envy that. Why can’t I be happy to be alive instead of afraid of living?”

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The books were amazing to read, that was the easy part in my preparation. But I also had to think about the actual moderator duties. As a speaker for NAMI’s Ending the Silence, I wasn’t too worried about being in front of an audience. But this would be much different.

I delved into learning the responsibilities of a moderator. I searched online and watched YouTube videos of panels. I researched the authors and prepared questions, and hoped and prayed it’d go smoothly.

The authors were incredibly nice and supportive. They’re experienced writers and are very well-spoken. I was the new one, exposed to an unfamiliar world.

We tackled the serious topics of their books, discussed their different writing styles, and they offered words of encouragement to teens who may be struggling with a mental health condition.

Before I knew it, it was time to wrap up the discussion. I did it.

What I learned from this experience was to continue to follow my passion, even if it takes me out of my comfort zone. Keep reaching, keep growing, keep learning.

Because you never know where it might lead.

Even if it's hard, roll with it. Try to learn something new every day. Do your best.  When you end up in a situation that you 'did not sign up for', think of it as an advanced course that your teacher decided you were ready for. Feel honored, dig in and learn learn learn!

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When Stigma Kept Me Quiet

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I’m grateful now for something I didn’t think was possible years ago, when I was first diagnosed with panic disorder and agoraphobia — People are talking about mental illness.

Stigma is still strong, but it’s beginning to lessen. The conversation is open. Nearly every day, I hear someone speak out. Often there are news stories focused on mental health. Actors, singers, athletes, and famous people publicly share their stories.

People are acknowledging that mental illness is a real medical illness that should not be ignored.

Schools are starting to offer courses in mental health. Teens are learning about mental illness through programs such as Ending the Silence, developed by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Thousands of mental health organizations around the world have resources available to help those affected.

Things have definitely changed since I was a young girl, when I experienced confusing and frightening symptoms, which I kept secret. I knew my problem wasn’t normal and didn’t think anyone would ever understand. I didn’t dare speak up, in fear of being ridiculed.

It took me twenty years of suffering before I received medical help.

I’m not the only one who has waited so long. NAMI says that people who have a mental health condition typically wait eight to ten years after the first warning signs appear to get help. The main reason?

Stigma.

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Most of the time, I was fine. I graduated from college, got married, and had two baby girls. But by my early 30s, my panic attacks became more frequent and more severe.

I was angry with myself because I couldn’t stop the symptoms. My internal monologue wasn’t very kind:

This is stupid. I worry too much. No one else feels this way.

What’s wrong with me? 

Maybe it shouldn’t bother me when my heart beats too fast, and I get lightheaded and dizzy. It’s just how I am. So what if I feel sweaty and shaky, and start to black out? I need to be tougher when I think I’m going to faint. I have to calm down when I feel like running out of the place where I’m panicking.

Who does that? Get over it.

It’s the dumbest thing ever that I don’t want to drive because I’m scared of feeling panicky. People get annoyed when they’re stuck in traffic, but their hearts don’t pound and they don’t need to pull over to get hold of themselves.

And when I feel disoriented? That’s the worst. It’s like I’m living in a dream and things aren’t real, like an out of body experience. That’s creepy. I can’t let myself think that way. This is absolutely ridiculous. I’m so weird.

I should be able to stop it. Just STOP it.

No matter what I do, I can’t let anyone know. They’ll think I’m strange. I doubt a doctor would know how to help. Maybe I have a brain tumor. I don’t want to scare my family.

Whatever. I’m fine…

Usually.

When I look back on how I used to talk to myself, it makes me sad. I was sick and needed help.

Growing up, I’d never heard anyone talk about mental illness. I had no idea my symptoms actually had a name: panic attacks, panic disorder, agoraphobia, generalized anxiety disorder. I couldn’t believe it when my doctor told me that millions of other people suffer from it too.

And all that time, I thought I was alone.

HARVESTING SINCE 1892

I was shocked when my doctor said that medication could help me. I was even more amazed when the antidepressant worked.

When my daughter Talee was 10 years old, she started to show signs of panic attacks. It broke my heart to know that she had to deal with the same terrifying symptoms that I’d had.

Even though I’d been through it myself and knew that many people had anxiety, I still felt the stigma. I didn’t want Talee’s teacher or the other parents to know my daughter had a mental health issue. I didn’t want her labeled.

But I was NOT going to let my sweet girl suffer in silence and secrecy, as I’d had. I pushed the stigma aside with all my might, and reached out for medical help right away.

Thankfully, both Talee and I have recovered. And now, I speak out to reassure people that there is help available and they are not alone.

The conversation must continue. The more that people talk about mental health and mental illness, the less taboo it will be for future generations. Let’s end the stigma.

There is hope.

#CureStigma

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My Post Featured on the NAMI National Blog: Celebrities and Mental Illness

In the NBA, you have

I’m super excited that one of my stories is being featured today on the NAMI National Blog. It’s about an incredible chain reaction that happened in March, between two NBA All Star players — DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love — and “Today Show” anchor and host of “The Voice,” Carson Daly.

Please have a look by clicking here.

Have a wonderful weekend! And Happy Mother’s Day!

Take care,

Jenny

A Walking Inspiration

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My husband Alex and I have been walking almost every day to get into better shape and shed a few pounds. We love to hike in the mountains near our home.

To be honest, we’re not always super motivated to get out and do it. The other day, it took all we had to lace up our sneakers and hit the pavement, instead of driving to our favorite coffee shop to enjoy a mocha iced blended topped with whipped cream.

Today we were fortunate to meet someone who filled us with inspiration.

Alex and I were at our business this morning and a gentleman came in, who we’ve seen before but have never had the chance to talk with. He’s an older man who looks like he’s in great shape. We often see him walking in the neighborhood.

He came into our store looking sporty, in shorts, a dri-fit shirt, baseball cap, and tennis shoes. We shook hands and introduced ourselves. His name is Cole. Alex and I told him we see him walking all the time.

Cole lifted up his shirt a little and slid a digital pedometer off the band of his shorts.  “Look. I’ve walked more than 10 million steps over the past three years.” He showed us the evidence. “That’s 10 thousand steps a day. I walk about six miles each day.” Cole fastened his pedometer back onto his shorts. “And I’m 84.”

WOW. What?

At 84, this man is lean, has endurance, and well-toned calf muscles. And — he’s full of joy.

The entire time Cole talked to us, he had a smile on his face. His eyes crinkled at the corners when he laughed. Alex told him that he seems so happy.

“I smile a lot because what else is there? It’s nice to be happy.”

Cole said he’s healthy and doesn’t take any medications. “I’ve had a few bumps along the way (prostate issues and cancer) but I got through them and kept moving.”

Literally. Keep moving, keep on walking, Cole. You’re doing awesome and inspiring others along the way.

This afternoon Alex and I plan to go for a hike in the mountains. I doubt we’ll have time for six miles, like Cole does — but maybe two. Every little bit makes a difference.

I’m thankful we met Cole today. I’ll think of him next time I need some extra motivation to get out and exercise — and need the willpower to resist a yummy creamy mocha iced blended.

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Next to Normal

I don't need a life that's normal,

Last month a friend asked if I wanted to go with her to see the musical, Next to Normal. I knew nothing about it. She said it was a play about mental illness, and as a mental health advocate, it peaked my curiosity. I thought it’d be fun to go and a nice way to start off Mental Health Awareness Month, which is in May.

Wow. I had no idea what I was in for. I mean that in a good (but really emotional and powerful) way.

This past weekend my friend and I saw the production with our husbands. Not exactly a typical couples date night. It wasn’t what I’d call a feel-good show. It was intense, turbulent, and volatile. Yet filled with beautiful singing and amazing acting.

I wasn’t prepared to be so deeply moved.

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The 2008 play centers around Diana, a woman living with bipolar disorder. As her condition worsens, her suburban family becomes more and more dysfunctional. Diana meets with doctors and psychiatrists who prescribe medication that has terrible side effects.

One of the most poignant parts to me was when she refused to take her pills because she didn’t feel like herself. She didn’t know who that person was anymore. Diana was clearly conflicted and in the depths of turmoil and despair. She sang, “I Miss The Mountains.”

But I miss the mountains

I miss the dizzy heights

All the manic magic days

And the dark depressing nights

I miss the mountains

I miss the highs and lows

All the climbing, all the falling

All the while the wild wind blows

Stinging you with snow

And soaking you with rain

I miss the mountains

I miss the pain

The play delves into difficult topics such as suicide, drug abuse, and grief. The audience was on an emotional roller coaster, along with the characters.

It struck me how realistic it was. It felt like a living story, a real-life blog of someone trying to deal with crisis and mental illness.

It was a snapshot of a typical family doing their best to grapple with their tumultuous journey, which they certainly didn’t ask for and didn’t expect. Each character goes through heartache and confusion, which stems directly from Diana’s illness.

The play demonstrates how stigma can force families to hide their personal challenges behind closed doors. Act like everything is okay but it’s far from okay.

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On the way home, my husband and I talked about how good the show was.  It didn’t  surprise us to hear that Next to Normal has won three Tony Awards and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

But it’s not for everyone. It tackles subjects which many people aren’t comfortable with. And for those struggling with any type of mental health condition, it may be triggering or too hard to watch.

But this award-winning play is a testament to the fact that people are beginning to acknowledge and speak out about mental illness. The conversation — on this once taboo subject — is open and must continue.

Bravo to Next to Normal for bringing mental illness front and center.

And yes. They got a standing ovation.

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The Sunny Girl

Keep

Recently I met an inspiring woman named Lauren Cook, also known as “The Sunny Girl.” I immediately connected with her and was drawn to her optimism and work in the field of mental health. I admired her positive outlook and motivation to live the best life possible.

Lauren, who’s working toward her doctorate in Clinical Psychology, is an author, therapist, and national speaker. She travels around the country, giving presentations to college students on the importance of mental health and how to achieve happiness and fulfillment in life. She stresses mindfulness and making time for self-care.

I was amazed to see the correlation between Lauren’s presentation and mine. I’m a speaker for NAMI’s in-school mental health awareness campaign, “Ending the Silence.” One of the main differences of our programs is that I talk to high school students and Lauren speaks to millennials.

But the message is the same: It’s okay not to be okay. If you’re struggling with a mental health condition, tell someone and reach out for medical help. There is treatment  available. And most importantly, you are not alone.

I love what Lauren says: “”Happiness is about loving an imperfect life for all of its little splendors and failures.”

I’m super excited to be featured on Lauren’s website! Please click here to take a look at our interview and check out Lauren’s site.Image result for quotes on happinessSecond image courtesy of here

 

 

10 Ways Technology Can Benefit Mental Health

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My millennial daughters were part of the first generation ever to grow up with computers, cell phones, and the Internet. I appreciate the incredible technological advances but as a parent, I experienced challenges that seem to go hand-in-hand with electronics.

It was a constant battle to monitor screen time. I wanted to make sure that texting, posting, and searching the web didn’t devour too many hours of the day. I had concerns about online safety, cyber bullying, and the effects social media would have on my girls. I knew that constantly comparing themselves to others on Instagram and Facebook could lead to low self-esteem, loneliness, and depression.

Much attention has been given to the negative aspects of technology and mental health.

But what about the positive side?

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As the vast tech world continues to expand, there are numerous ways it can benefit mental health. Recently I learned about one of those ways.

There’s a new type of online chat group, called a Slack community. Slack stands for “Searchable Log for All Conversation and Knowledge.” Entrepreneurs Zach Schleien and David Markovich are co-founders of a free Slack group for people with mental health issues. It’s called 18percent. The name comes from the 18 percent of Americans living with mental illness.

Zach was inspired to start 18percent after a close friend took his own life after battling schizoaffective disorder/bipolar type 1. Zach said he never knew how much his friend Louis was suffering, as Louis never spoke about his struggles.

Zach wanted to create a space on the Internet where people could talk openly about their mental health problems anonymously and help each other, in the form of a peer-to-peer global support group. He said some users don’t want to discuss their issues with family and friends but they feel comfortable in an anonymous chat group.

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Thousands of online tools are available to support those living with mental illness. Technology can offer convenience, 24-hour service, and anonymity. For example:

  • People in the United States can text the Crisis Text Line at 741741 anytime and talk with a Crisis Counselor.
  • Google has teamed up with NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) to offer a mental health screening questionnaire for U.S. residents who search for “depression” on their cell phone.
  • Apps are targeted to people with conditions like anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, and schizophrenia. The apps are designed to help manage symptoms and track moods.
  • Mindfulness and meditation apps (like Headspace, Calm, and The Mindfulness App) can help lower stress.
  • Blogging and writing can be therapeutic. It’s freeing to write down thoughts, feelings, and emotions, and release them out into cyberspace. Can be anonymous. Creativity can flow; try poetry, list goals and dreams, write a letter to your mental illness. The blogging community can be a wonderful source of encouragement and support.
  • People can talk anonymously in online chat groups, like 18percent, 7 Cups, and NAMI Discussion Groups.
  • Online therapy, such as BetterHelp and 7 Cups, offer professional counseling services. Some mental health professionals give one-on-one therapy through video and text.
  • Computerized Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CCBT) is one of the new frontiers in psychotherapy, offering online CBT to treat depression, anxiety, and other behavioral health problems. Advantages are that it can be delivered on-demand and is less expensive than visiting a therapist.
  • Scientists are testing Virtual Reality as a tool for exposure therapy.
  • Online fundraising can benefit mental health organizations. Following the death of his friend, Zach Schleien not only started the Slack community, 18percent, but he raised $10,000 for NAMI through an online crowdfunding platform called CaringCrowd. Zach’s goal is to raise $30,000 for NAMI in May, in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month.

Mental health technology can bring amazing opportunities. But this is a new area and experts warn consumers to be careful about trusting an app or program. The National Institute of Mental Health says, “there are no national standards for evaluating the effectiveness of mental health apps that are available.” The NIMH suggests people ask a trusted health care provider for recommendations.

Technology has made enormous strides I didn’t dream were possible when my daughters were little. At least now that Mackenzie and Talee are in their twenties and independent, I don’t have to worry about constantly monitoring screen time.

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