Friday, December 28, 2012

Just a Couple of Things

Firstly, I have 4 words to say about the Newton shootings: Mental Health Care Access.

There is something very wrong with a society where guns are so easy to get and mental health care is so hard.

If you want to fight for better access but don’t have the time or energy (or functionality), your easiest option is probably to join NAMI (Nationally Alliance for the Mentally Ill). They have got lots of members who are normies, some of them real powerhouses, and they DO have the energy to work on these issues. The dues are moderate (there is a deep discount for mental health care consumers), and they pay, among other things, for legislative battles to protect and help people like us. NAMI also has lots of free programs that you or maybe your family could use. Go to and look up your nearest branch.

Secondly, I have been hearing from mentally ill friends that they’d like to meditate but just can’t seem to do it. They can’t calm their thoughts or detach from them. I totally get that! But I’ve gotten a lot of relief this past year out of meditating; so here, if you want them, are my best tips.

Don’t try to ‘empty your mind.’ That is like trying NOT to think of pink elephants. Don’t try to separate from your thoughts and let them float on by, either. That is an advanced technique - and frankly, if we could do that, we  wouldn’t have a psychiatric condition.

All meditation requires is that you try to focus on ONE thing, to the exclusion of all else. So pick a really simple thing. It could be counting up to 10: 1 on the inhale, 2 on the exhale, and so forth. Start over when you get to 10. If you are highly visual, it could be staring at an interesting but basic object, like a seashell. Or if you’re tactile, you can lie down and put your hands on your belly and feel your breath rise and fall. Or feel your breath come into and out of your nostrils. These are just examples.

Set an alarm for 5 minutes, or whatever amount of time you’ve picked. You don’t want to be interrupting your meditation by checking the clock to see if your time is up yet.

Now. Once you start, concentrate ONLY on the simple focus you have chosen. Don’t change your mind and switch to something else, or get up to answer the door, or interrupt yourself in any other way. Try to have your whole mind, every bit of it, invested ONLY in your focal point. Try to have that be your complete existence till the alarm goes off. Whatever other thoughts come (and they will, by the hundreds), just say to yourself, “That’s not important right now. The ONLY thing that’s important is my counting” (my breathing, my seashell). Just go back to that over and over, no matter how many times you get sidetracked and no matter how urgent the thought is. You can get back to it later.

You see, your mind is not ‘empty,’ and it is not ‘detached.’ It is merely concentrated on one thing.

What this does is give you a wonderful break from all that yammering and worry in your head. Even if you only manage it for 30 seconds out of 10 minutes, it is a desperately needed rest. Even if that is all you ever get out of it, it’s a step toward mental health. And you did it all by yourself, without drugs.

I am a volatile bipolar gal who never does anything the same way twice, but I’ve kept this up nearly every day, over and over, for a year now. That bit of mental rest is sometimes the only sanity I get all day. For that reason alone, it’s worth it.

And there is always hope that one day my mind will learn to do this by itself.

Deborah is a public speaker and author of Is There Room for Me, Too? 12 Steps & 12 Strategies for Coping with Mental Illness, available at, Kindle Editions, iBookstore, and other major vendors. Visit her web page at, or see her catalog at She has also narrated a meditation CD with her husband, musician Robert Hamaker, and sings on his latest CD, "The Colors of Sound." Check out sound samples at

Monday, December 10, 2012

And Now for Something Completely Different...

I’ve just had a unique experience that I doubt science is equipped to explain. If you’re comfortable with spiritual ideas, it might sit better. Or maybe not...we'll see.

I went to Sedona, Arizona over Thanksgiving week. Heard of Sedona? It’s about a two hour drive south of the Grand Canyon, and nearly as awesome to look at. There are huge, shapely, gorgeous sedimentary rock bluffs that rise everywhere over the landscape, in a rich eye catching red color due to their high iron oxide content. Among New Agers and other spiritual seekers, Sedona is considered mystically significant. This is partly due to the energy anomalies that exist there, each one known as a “Vortex” (for some reason, maybe to distinguish them, they use the plural ‘Vortexes,’ not vortices). People pay sometimes hefty fees for vortex tours, or healing and meditative pilgrimages to them.

The first two times we went to Sedona, I thought this was a very woo-woo idea and did not bother going. But I have opened my mind to all kinds of things since my marriage seven years ago, and this time I gave them a try. I didn’t know if there was anything to the hype - or whether I would feel it, even if there were.

So here’s what happened. We got a vortex map from a local spiritual center. Then we hiked up the side of Bell Rock, the vortex closest to where we were staying. We looked for juniper trees with especially twisted branches, which the vortex energy is said to cause. My husband and I went about halfway up the rock, sat down in the scanty shade of one of these short trees, and sat quietly, taking in the spectacular view.

Did anything happen? Oh, yeah.

All the discord drained out of my head, all the noise, all the inner criticism and second guessing - really everything that makes it uncomfortable in there. I fell utterly silent inside, peaceful and positive and sure. I was not mentally ill. It went away, completely. It was an amazing sensation. But - just a peak moment, right? Nice vacation, great view, my love at my side, who wouldn’t feel good?

Here’s the kicker: it lasted for two weeks.

No inner voices, no symptoms, no negative thoughts, no nothing. Absolute remission for half a month. Even on the marathon drive back to California, in a big awkward van that usually frightens me to death, I was calm and happy and relaxed. I drove for hours longer than I am usually able to and felt no strain. The interesting thing is that this state of consciousness involved no effort and no thought. In fact, I did remarkably little thinking. I was perfectly aware and alert, I played with concepts, I had conversations. But I did not often have words in my head. Eckhart Tolle claims that thinking is not usually necessary. You know what? He may be right. I didn’t need thought very often, and I still got plenty of things done. Life was so frigging easy!

My peace and sanity lasted until the first time I listened to someone complain at length about a bad Thanksgiving experience. It was as if their unhappy, uneasy voice had waked up my own. It started to mutter. And after that, despite everything I could do, that voice grew and grew. A week later I realized my beautiful peace was all gone, and I sobbed. I was unstable again, and life was hard. Just like always.

So is that the end of that? Not exactly. It’s a little like the first time I took medications that cleared my thinking. Now I know what it FEELS like to be sane. If you know what you’re shooting for, you have some chance of getting there. Until you have a target, you can’t even aim. And now I know I am capable of absolute inner peace.

What else can I do that I don’t even think is possible?

I don’t know what’s going on at those spots in Sedona. I don’t have to know. All I need to know is that sanity is possible. Even for me. For now, that’s enough to go on with.

Deborah is a public speaker and the author of Is There Room for Me, Too? 12 Steps & 12 Strategies for Coping with Mental Illness, available at, Kindle Editions, iBookstore, and other major vendors. Visit her web page at, or see her catalog at She has also narrated a guided meditation CD with her husband, musician Robert Hamaker. Check out sound samples at