Free to Be Me

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I wouldn’t call myself a perfectionist. I used to though. It really bothered me if everything wasn’t just right. I’d feel anxious if the house wasn’t clean, the girls’ toys weren’t put away,  or dirty dishes were left in the sink. I’d be hard on myself if I didn’t cook amazing meals every night or if I didn’t exercise enough that week.

I thought I had to be the perfect mom, wife, daughter, friend, cook, gardener, and housekeeper — all the time. It was exhausting. I wasted a lot of energy striving for unrealistic goals and self-imposed high expectations.

I’ve learned to let go. To be gentle and not criticize myself when things don’t go the way I planned. Give myself a break when I don’t accomplish what I set out to do that day. Let myself indulge on deliciously rich foods. Say no when my schedule is too hectic.

No one is perfect. It’s okay to make mistakes. In fact, it’s good to, that’s how we learn. It’s fine to admit we don’t have it all together. Because really, who does?

If we can forget about being flawless, we can be who we are instead of pretending to be perfect. What a freeing concept.

My sister recently told me, “Jen, don’t worry what other people think. You do YOU. You’ll be happier.”

Yes, I will. Imperfections and all.

Now that I don’t need to be perfect, I’m good.

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It Takes a Village

It caught my eye as I drove past the local high school. “Parent Mental Health Night” flashed on the digital display board. I don’t have a child there anymore, my youngest is a senior in college. But as a mental health advocate, my curiosity was peaked.

I checked it out online and reserved my seat for Monday night’s meeting. The city’s Youth Commission organized the entire event and a movie theater donated the space.

As we arrived, groups of teens welcomed us and checked us in. I settled into my seat and looked around. I was happy to see how many people showed up.

The first speaker explained that the Youth Commission formed last year and made decisions on which upcoming projects they wanted to focus on. They felt the number one concern for youth is mental health. The number one concern.

They got to work and developed Parent Mental Health Night and also a separate evening just for teens later in the month. To say I was impressed is an understatement.

The lights in the theater dimmed and we watched about ten minutes of an award winning movie, based on a true story. The film is called “No Letting Go.” It’s about a teenager struggling with bipolar disorder and how his mental illness affects the entire family. His parents desperately try to save their son, while keeping the rest of the family together.

After the film, a panel of professionals were ready to speak. There were psychiatrists, therapists, counselors, the head of the county’s youth outreach program, the county’s executive director of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), and the police chief. They discussed anxiety, depression, eating disorders, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.

I couldn’t get a phrase out of my head. It takes a village to raise a child.

These community organizations came together to openly discuss the importance of mental health and the challenges of mental illness. A step in the right direction. A step toward ending the stigma.

On that night, in that theater, mental health was literally put in the front row. No longer shoved to the back of the room.

It was captivating when the young adults on the panel spoke. In their late teens and twenties, they each gave a testimonial about their struggle with mental illness.

One boy’s anxiety became severe when he was a junior, dealing with the pressures of high school and getting into college. One girl was hospitalized with depression. Another girl hid her eating disorder for years. One young man with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia was hospitalized numerous times.

They all had one thing in common. It was hard for them to admit their problem to family and friends. Because of stigma.

Often mental health conditions are kept secret because the individuals or family members are embarrassed or ashamed. One speaker said, “Pretending there isn’t a problem only makes the stigma worse.” So true.

The police chief was the final speaker. He explained the importance of having officers CIT trained. Crisis Intervention Training. Many of the domestic calls involve someone with a mental illness and CIT officers know how to handle those cases. Currently, 70% of the police force in our county are CIT trained. The goal is 100%.

Something else the police chief said made a huge impact. He talked about how officers monitor social media. They search Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and more.

One night a teenage girl was on Instagram and said she was going to kill herself. Officers found her post and called her parents in the middle of the night. They were sound asleep and  had no idea. That girl was helped in time, thanks to those police officers.

It takes a village.

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Learning Something New

Meditation has always intimidated me. I used to think it was mainly for monks or people deeply devoted to yoga. I thought there was one correct way to do it, and that it involved hours of silence and sitting still. I wouldn’t be good at either.

I’d heard that meditation could help lower high blood pressure and relieve stress and anxiety, all of which I have. But I wondered if there was some trick, maybe a secret meditation code, that I would never be privy to. So for years, I never attempted it.

Until now.

I’ve been working on mindfulness and practicing deep breathing techniques. The next logical step for me is meditation. I did some research and learned that it isn’t as mysterious as I once believed. It doesn’t have to take a lot of time or effort in order to reap the benefits.

It can be as simple as sitting in a chair in a quiet room for five minutes, counting your inhales and exhales. Or going for a walk, deep breathing, and concentrating on the movement of your body.

My daughters said to check out the app, Headspace. The trial period is free, so I decided to give it a shot. One evening I went into our family room and settled  in for my first ten minute session. I turned off the lights and sat on the floor in a comfortable position. I closed my eyes and concentrated on the man’s voice on the app (which sounds kind and soothing), instructing me to breathe deep and slow.

It was going well for the first few minutes. That is, until our dog walked into the room. He  licked my face and nudged my arm with his nose so I’d pet him. He plopped right next to me and rolled over, wanting his tummy scratched. Thirty seconds later, my husband barged in and wondered what time I wanted to watch TV. I guess I should’ve warned both of them I was unavailable for ten minutes.

The next couple of sessions went better. But my problem was trying to keep my head clear. It felt like a hundred thoughts constantly invaded my quiet time. What should I make for dinner? I forgot to call Mom. I need to transfer money to that other account. What movie do I want to see this weekend? My mind goes a million miles a minute. It’s hard to turn it off on demand.

This is where the man on the Headspace app helped me. He said if your mind wanders, it’s okay. Let it wander. Don’t fight the random thoughts.

There was one explanation I really liked. He said to pretend you’re on a street corner watching cars go by. Each of those cars is a thought. You can’t possibly stop them from coming. Just be still and watch them drive past. The cars (thoughts) come. And they go. Let them. Then get back to counting your breaths.

Like any new task, meditation takes practice. Some days I have more concentration than others. But that’s okay. Every day I look forward to that calm, zen feeling that washes over me.

Meditation empowers me. I’m in control of my thoughts, my breathing, my anxiety.

Even when my dog comes into the room.

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Weekly Vlog: Do You Believe What I Believe-My Manifesto

Hi Everyone!

I recently subscribed to Danny’s YouTube channel, and have really been enjoying his new vlog. He brings up great points and asks questions that really get me thinking about my life and how to improve it.

I love watching Danny’s videos because they’re casual and well thought out. He’s usually at home or in his car, and I feel like I’m having a conversation with him. Except he’s doing all the talking! Check it out!

Dream Big, Dream Often

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A Healthy Body and Mind

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I read this quote a few times before it completely sunk in. Our bodies don’t decide how we live. But our bodies certainly do reflect our lifestyle and the choices that we make.

I’m not talking just about eating healthful foods instead of junk food. Or even about exercising, drinking lots of water, getting enough sleep, and not smoking. These habits are a major part of overall health. But they’re not everything.

You can run five miles a day, substitute quinoa for white rice, carrot sticks for Cheetos, and drink two liters of water, yet still feel unhealthy and unhappy.

Attention must be paid to good mental and emotional health, as well as being physically fit.

Mind, body, spirit.

For me, this means feeling happy and fulfilled. Having a purpose. Using my talents in a constructive way, to improve my life and help others. It means having a strong marriage and good relationships with family and friends. A positive attitude. Faith.

It doesn’t mean I’m happy all the time or always feel like I’m being productive. If I’ve had a disagreement with my husband, if there’s a problem at our business, or if I’m  overwhelmed with money issues, then I don’t feel good, no matter how health-conscious I think I’m being.

When something isn’t going right, it makes my whole body feel ‘off.’ My stress and unhappiness is mirrored in how my body feels.

Here are some issues that can drag us down, mentally and emotionally:

  • Feeling lonely
  • Being miserable in a relationship
  • A stressful job
  • Money worries
  • A constant, negative attitude
  • No spiritual connection
  • Needing to lose weight
  • Health concerns

It’s not easy to change these around. But if we take a deep look at what truly is making us unhappy and unfulfilled, then actions can be taken to improve that situation. The first step is getting at the root of the problem.

Years ago I had a job that literally made me sick. I was under extreme stress. I stayed because I had just graduated college and needed to make money. I didn’t want to feel like a failure by quitting. I didn’t want others to think I couldn’t handle a full-time job.

My joints were swollen and painful, I was tired all the time, and cried almost every morning before work. When I finally quit, it was like a one hundred pound weight was lifted off my shoulders. I instantly felt better. Soon my body wasn’t sore, I had more energy, and I smiled and laughed easier. My only regret was that it took me too long to leave.

Change is difficult. But sometimes it’s what we must do for our health and well-being.

Here’s a checklist of what I strive for:

  • A positive attitude, a life filled with optimism and happiness
  • Minimal stress and anxiety
  • Strong marriage and relationships with my daughters
  • Strong network of family and friends
  • A meaningful way to spend my days
  • Good business decisions
  • Creativity (I love writing, photography, gardening, baking)
  • Strong faith
  • Good nutrition and exercise
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Practicing mindfulness and meditation

These take time and effort to incorporate into a daily routine. It’s about making good choices and practicing healthy habits.

Having a happy, healthy body makes it all worthwhile.

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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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