A Prisoner of STIGMA

Tonight (4/19/17) is the 2nd annual d.A.M.N. event (disABILITY Memoirs and Notes) at Anne Arundel Community College. I was asked to share my presentation on Hearing Elmo.

PowerPoint: https://app.box.com/s/qkdo19k20djznhlpeezo7js24ik5f0mn

Presentation:

My name is Denise Portis and I teach Psychology courses here at AACC.

 

Thank you for coming to our 2nd annual d.A.M.N. event.

 

Today I want to talk to you about being a prisoner of STIGMA. I have been a disABILITY advocate for 25 years. It was not very difficult for me to reveal hearing loss and Meniere’s disease. However, the disability that had the greatest impact on me was mental illness, and THAT I chose to hide from everyone outside my immediate family.

 

SLIDE 2

 

What is a stigma? A stigma has SHAME attached to it. One source defines it as a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance. If anything is well known for having a stigma associated with it, it is mental illness. I didn’t want my friends to know, my co-workers to know, my parents or siblings to know, or even my children to know until they were much older. I had become a prisoner of the stigma attached to mental illness without ever going to trial. Yet, I was as incarcerated as any person charged and tried.

 

SLIDE 3

 

I have struggled with depression and anxiety most of my adult life. I tried to hide it and even get help for it quietly, being careful not to reveal my diagnosis to anyone but those closest to me. I had heard that publicly owning it would follow me in my medical records. People would think I was unstable, unreliable, and needy. I had heard a number of accusatory and negative comments once I began choosing who I would disclose this to. I’m still surprised I didn’t allow early comments to zip my lips and go back into my jail cell, remaining a prisoner to the stigma. However, I began to experience real freedom in acknowledging what was wrong with me. That acknowledgment changed the wrong to right. For the first time I was able to understand what my diagnosis were. Mental illness is an illness. It isn’t chosen, it can be treated, and a victorious life could be mine, So I began to tell EVERYONE. It became a very real part of how I chose to be an advocate. For me, transparency worked.

 

SLIDE 4

 

And yet, throughout my determination to live free, I saw people who were given a death sentence because of their mental illness. Amy is one of my heroes. If you’ve heard of Project Semicolon, you’ve heard of the movement she began. Amy said about Project Semicolon, “In literature an author uses a semicolon to NOT end a sentence but to continue on. We see it as you are the author and your life is the sentence. You’re choosing to keep going”. Amy took her own life last month.

 

SLIDE 5

 

Luis Montalvan came to speak at AACC in 2015. Many of us in the SODA club even had our picture taken with him. Luis was a national and renowned speaker about PTSD and travelled with his service dog, Tuesday. Luis took his own life in December.

 

These two individuals were very open about their mental health disorders. Being open made a difference. Both actually found doors of opportunity available to them because of their openness. I have to tell you when I first heard about both of their deaths, I cried. I shed tears because I know what it is like to get really tired of facing a new day with mental illness. It is hard. Even though I have chosen to surround myself with people who accept me exactly as I am, even though I am open and honest about my disabilities and refuse to be a prisoner of stigma, I totally GET what it feels like to WANT to give up.

 

Are Amy and Luis cowards? Do I have something they do not? No, and NO. Their lives and their deaths simply act as a reminder to all of us that mental illness is HARD. The way I combat the hopelessness and the aloneness is by being open. I present my story and my choice simply as a way for you to examine if this will work for you. If stigma is crippling you and making you feel like a prisoner, you may want to consider a jailbreak.

 

SLIDE 6

 

Be vocal. Fight in the open. Insist on acceptance and understanding. You may not find it in your current group of friends and family. I’m not telling you that you should walk away from THEM. I am asking you to look for revealers. Look for people who do not shy away from the diagnosis, who have learned not to be ashamed nor captive to their illness. They are out there. They can be found.

 

SLIDE 7

 

At AACC the SODA club makes it easy. The group is committed to being assumption destroyers and helping to erase the stigma associated with all types of disabilities. Those that are visible and easily seen, and those that are invisible and are only known upon “reveal”. We call our group superheroes. Their super powers are different. Each have strengths and each work hard to make a difference in a superhero kind of way. If you are looking for a place to make a difference on campus and within your community, we invite you to be a part of SODA.


L. Denise Portis

© 2017 Personal Hearing Loss Journal

Can You Be Arrested for That?

My favorite cane...
My favorite cane…

I have friends who are police officers. One, Carl, is actually chief of police for a district in our area. I see him most Sundays, and tomorrow I plan to ask him, “Can you be arrested for that?” I love his sense of humor and he and his wife, Pam, are two of my favorite people. Though I know he will be witty, I also know he will be straight with me. Anything that pertains to the law, he’s gonna be frank with me.

Maybe I should back up though, and tell you the story? <grin>

First of all, I’m really tired. I could list you dozens of citations that link differently-abled people with fatigue and insomnia. I’m usually good about listing all those for you, but honestly there are over 26,000 articles since 2012 alone. (Yes… I counted, or rather Google scholar did!). But I digress…

When I’m tired I have a little more trouble filtering what I say. I am much more apt to just say the first thing on my mind. I’m trying to live with the “pause – respond” method (thanks for that Toby Mac post, Helen), and being mindful of not saying the first thing that comes to mind really helps. When I am tired though, I’m less likely to turn that filter on.

I have a dog in hospice care at home (sweet, retired Chloe), and I am very likely involved in way… too… much. Finishing my dissertation, teaching four classes, volunteering at a number of places; the list goes on an on. Just color me tired. This tired woman, with turned-off filter, entered Giant grocery store on Thursday. Milo-bear (my current service dog from Fidos For Freedom, Inc.) was tired as well as we had just completed a long training at the county police academy and he had a fairly long demo (that he NAILED). I only needed to get a few things, and so encouraged Milo for a last push before heading home.

When I’m tired, I wobble. <ahem> Ok. I wobble all the time. However, I wobble MORE when I am tired! I had one of the smaller carts, Milo, cane, and enough time that I did not need to rush. This didn’t seem to matter. I was a mess. I even wobbled when I moved my field of vision from one shelf to another. Being late-deafened, I do not always hear things in a big, cavernous store with lots of tile and hard surfaces. I turned suddenly, and almost plowed into a man standing there shopping with one of those hand baskets. He threw up his hands and watched me wobble, screech (just a little), and grab for everything stationary in my vicinity.

No face plant (this time). I whooshed out a breath of air, and locked eyes with him and was getting ready to say, “Wow. That was close“. He beat me to airtime, however.

“Well you are more than a little pathetic today, aren’t you?” with a grin and twinkle in his eyes.

Now… I’m late-deafened. I often mishear things. My husband could tell you a thousand stories about WHAT I THOUGHT I HEARD. He’s one of the few voices I can hear on a telephone, and has never let me live it down when he called and said, “Dinner at six?” I misheard and thought he said, “Dinner and sex?” Maybe inside I was thinking, “yes, please“, mature adult that I was said, “Excuse me…?” Yeah. That one has been hard to live down.

So this smiling man with a twinkle in his eye standing there waiting for me to respond, may NOT have said, “Well you are more than a little pathetic today, aren’t you?” I had to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Maybe he said “phonetic“. Eh, likely not since I only screeched and had not said anything.

Maybe he said “poetic”. I could dream.

Maybe he said “prophetic“. Perhaps he sensed I was getting ready to assault him.

To clarify, I said, “Ummm, pathetic?”

“Yes”, he replied, “because you….” his voice cut off because at this point? I had my cane raised.

I poked him with it. HARD. I’M pathetic? You’re the pathetic piece of humanity standing there making snide comments about people who are a little different than you!” 

He rubbed his chest where I poked him, mumbled something that I’m not EVEN gonna pretend I heard well or understood, and wandered off. I sat there hyperventilating.

Milo-bear looked up at me like, “Are we done yet?” cool as a cucumber. Me? My cucumber was fried.

As I stood there wobbling and taking deep, calming breaths, I gave myself a pep talk that the guy likely just had a poor choice of words. He seemed friendly, nice even. I’m sure he didn’t mean the way it sounded… the way I took it. I even had the grace to ask God that if He brought me face-to-face with the man later in the store, I would apologize and try to explain how his comment made me feel. Thankfully, I did NOT run into him, because… well I wasn’t really wanting to apologize.

Yes. I should have just moved on, or perhaps even “only” blasted him with my “how pathetic are YOU” rebuttal. I need to keep my cane to myself. (Can you tell I am preaching to myself?) Who knows why he chose the words he did. I make poor choices all the time.

And I do mean ALL the time.

So perhaps I need to practice the “pause method” even more:

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Denise Portis

© 2016 Personal Hearing Loss Journal

 

More Vulnerable than I Thought – Stronger than I Imagined

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Earlier this summer my parents came to visit. For some reason, I always have a “project” for my Dad. For some reason, he never seems to mind. This time, he built and secured a lattice porch screen to give us some privacy between our deck and the neighbor’s house. We have a huge yard, but it is long and narrow–not very wide. One of the first things my Mom and I did was plant Morning Glories. This beautiful vine has done so well this summer. It’s a childhood “feel good” memory for me, so I love greeting the blooms each morning.

I think one of the things I love about Morning Glories, is that they are (ahem) … GLORIOUS in the morning.

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I love coming out in the morning, in the quiet and cool AM environment, and having these cheerful flowers greet me.

VULNERABLE

I think one of the most difficult things about chronic illness and being differently-abled, is a sometimes, overwhelming feeling of vulnerability. I don’t know about YOU, but I hate feeling vulnerable. I’m not talking about the healthy kind of vulnerability where one learns to open one’s heart to another. I’m not talking about learning to be transparent and (at times) brutally honest (or, receptive of someone being brutally honest to YOU). I’m talking about the kind of vulnerability where you know you are at risk – in trouble – and floundering.

I am feeling pretty vulnerable. I hate having an illness that is progressive. Even though I work my butt off trying to be independent and capable, each year it seems to be more difficult to “get my glory on“. I love mornings. I’m a (disgustingly) cheerful early-bird person; perhaps, part of the reason I have been able to greet the Morning Glories with a smile on my face. While standing and watching the dogs race around the yard and work on waking themselves up, I often find myself reflecting, even praying at times. Lately, I think I’m perpetuating my feelings of vulnerability. During my AM REFLECTIONS, I have been thinking about where I was physically a decade ago, five years ago… and even last year. Ten years ago, when I was only 40-years-old, did I know that I would navigate with a service dog and cane? Did I understand that I would only be able to hear when I had my cochlear implant connected? Did I know that I would have a pronounced limp from numerous twisted ankles as the result of falls? Did I know that on the evening of August 23rd, 2016, I would have numerous bouts of vertigo, nystagmus, and several panic attacks between bedtime and when my alarm clock kissed me awake? (The benefit of having a service dog and retired hearing dog as your alarm clock). Nope. I didn’t know this would be my life. It makes me feel vulnerable (and depressed).

STRENGTH

I am my own cheerleader.

Don’t get me wrong. When I need encouragement, I know how to reach out and ask for help. This practice being, a different and healthy kind of vulnerability. If you are a person with chronic illness, invisible or visible disabilities, and special challenges that make life rather difficult at times, you may have no problem telling someone “I’m done“. I do have problems with that. I find it easier to say, “I’m struggling“, and less easy to admit “I’m done“.

I think part of it is because I don’t want to disappoint anyone. Even at Hearing Elmo, I try to keep things positive and encouraging. As a co-advisor of a student group for people who are differently-abled, I want to model confidence and a “can do” attitude. But honestly? Sometimes, I’m just done. This morning (after the night I had), I could not “get my glory on” in spite of my special flowers greeting me the same as usual in a beautiful late summer, sun-rise welcome. I found myself struggling. I found myself feeling vulnerable, depressed, and on the verge of giving up.

When I cheerlead for myself, I tend to default to a number of cheers:

  1. There are other people worse off than I am. Yet, they are productive individuals who find purpose in life.
  2. I have support from people who care about me, who encourage me to utilize everything I can to be independent.
  3. I am making a difference. It doesn’t matter if my niche in this big world is a tiny pocket of influence. If I can help make a difference in one, it is still making a difference. 
  4. All the things I enjoy, and people I love, are opportunities and relationships I would not have if I didn’t have the challenges I have.
  5. I know, without a doubt, that I am a better, stronger woman because I have Meniere’s disease and am late-deafened. Calhoun and Tedeschi (2014) explain it best: “The encounter with a major life challenge can also include an increased sense that one has been tested, weighed in the balance, and found to be a person who has survived the worst, suggesting that one is indeed quite strong” (p. 5). 
  6. Life can be difficult. It’s a good thing I’m STRONG.

Ultimately, the way I “keep on – keeping on” is recognizing that this is hard, but I CAN do this. I’m going to have bad days. I’m going to need help. I’m going to fail, mess up, SCREW up, and want to GIVE UP. When I am weak and vulnerable, I am also strong.

I’m also learning that it is ok to say, “I’m done“. (Ouch. That hurts to even type it!) However, I recognize that this admission… this vulnerability, also means I’m strong. Stronger than I ever imagined.

Denise Portis

©2016 Personal Hearing Loss Journal

Calhoun, L. G. & Tedeschi, R. G. (2014). Handbook of posttraumatic growth: Research and practice. New York: Psychology Press.

The Last Straw

last straw

The Last Straw (that broke the camel’s back): The final, additional, small burden that makes the entirety of one’s difficulties unbearable.

Isn’t it interesting that there are so many idioms and colloquial expressions that mean “I’m done”?

The straw that broke the camel’s back (1816)

The last feather breaks the horses back (1829)

The final straw

Hitting a brick wall

Hanging up one’s gloves

The final stroke

I’m sure there are others. I’ve had a heck of a month. No worries – I actually thrive under (some) pressure. However, once in a while each one of us is simply not going to be able to take ONE MORE THING. That ONE MORE THING is often inconsequential and “small” in the grand scheme of things. Perhaps that is why we are so frustrated for breaking under what seems like a “small” thing.

This morning I was stepping off the porch when a “throw your head back to sneeze” came out of nowhere. Just. Like. That. I was horizontal with a teeny, tiny bit of remaining tunnel vision. My ears were roaring. I was nauseous. I had two very concerned service dogs in my face.

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Do you know I sat there and CRIED? I use to cry over everything. I mean, every, little thing! Happy, sad, angry, or confused, I’d unload some stress by crying my eyes out. These days I rarely cry. If I’m crying now, something is seriously wrong, or I have no reserves left and I’m “just done“.

It only lasted a minute or two. With retired neighbors on both sides of me, I can’t sit on the ground wailing very long before I garner some unwanted attention. I chanted to myself, “Suck it up, buttercup!” and struggled back to my feet. I’m sporting a few new bruises, and my pride? Well heck. My pride wasn’t hurt at ALL. When you have Meniere’s disease, pride isn’t crushed in falling, for one falls a lot. Pride is when you KEEP yourself from falling <big grin>

I felt so much better and finished watering the hanging baskets and flowers before making my way back inside. I likely over-analyze things too much. When psychology is your main squeeze, you tend to analyze everything. I took a few minutes to think about why falling on my face and experiencing a short bout of vertigo set me off. I determined it was “the last straw“. Have you ever felt that way when burdened with one more “little” thing?

It is very normal to have days like that. We all have stress. Stress can be good – and bad. Do not confuse stress with burnout. How do you know if you are becoming burnt out? According to the Help Guide organization (2016),

You may be on the road to burnout if:

  • Every day is a bad day.
  • Caring about your work or home life seems like a total waste of energy.
  • You’re exhausted all the time.
  • The majority of your day is spent on tasks you find either mind-numbingly dull or overwhelming.
  • You feel like nothing you do makes a difference or is appreciated.

(para. 6).

I love this chart (for I am a “chart” kind of person). I think it does a terrific job explaining the difference between stress and burnout:

Stress vs. Burnout
Stress
Burnout
Characterized by overengagement Characterized by disengagement
Emotions are overreactive Emotions are blunted
Produces urgency and hyperactivity Produces helplessness and hopelessness
Loss of energy Loss of motivation, ideals, and hope
Leads to anxiety disorders Leads to detachment and depression
Primary damage is physical Primary damage is emotional
May kill you prematurely May make life seem not worth living
Source: Stress and Burnout in Ministry

As you can see, both stress and burnout can be dangerous. Short-term stress, and at times – chronic stress, are a normal part of life. The “last straw” can actually be a good thing if it means you do something to alleviate some stress.

I cried. I hugged my dogs. I over-analyzed to my heart’s content.

However, the “last straw” can also be a prerequisite to something far more dangerous.

So what do you do when you feel your knees buckle and your back breaking? Well the first step in successfully recovering from collapsed camel syndrome is recognition of the problem or problems. Take some time to evaluate where you are at in your life. Are you over-extended? If so, what can be cut out? Start working on de-stressing. What can you take off the back of your camel?

Are you getting enough rest and taking care of yourself by eating right, getting some fresh air and sunshine, and laughing out loud occasionally? If not, make it a priority to do those things. They can strengthen “your back“.

The Help Guide organization explains how we can unload some of the burden on our camel:

Burnout prevention tips

  • Start the day with a relaxing ritual. Rather than jumping out of bed as soon as you wake up, spend at least fifteen minutes meditating, writing in your journal, doing gentle stretches, or reading something that inspires you.
  • Adopt healthy eating, exercising, and sleeping habits. When you eat right, engage in regular physical activity, and get plenty of rest, you have the energy and resilience to deal with life’s hassles and demands.
  • Set boundaries. Don’t overextend yourself. Learn how to say “no” to requests on your time. If you find this difficult, remind yourself that saying “no” allows you to say “yes” to the things that you truly want to do.
  • Take a daily break from technology. Set a time each day when you completely disconnect. Put away your laptop, turn off your phone, and stop checking email.
  • Nourish your creative side. Creativity is a powerful antidote to burnout. Try something new, start a fun project, or resume a favorite hobby. Choose activities that have nothing to do with work.
  • Learn how to manage stress. When you’re on the road to burnout, you may feel helpless. But you have a lot more control over stress than you may think.

(Help Guide.Org, 2016, para. 23).

Finally, acknowledge how incredibly resilient camels are! In Arab cultures, the camel symbolizes patience, tolerance, and endurance. Yes, at times you will need to ask for (and hopefully receive) help. This is a terrific article on finding help: (Where to Begin: Finding Help During Chronic Illness).

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Denise Portis

© 2016 Personal Hearing Loss Journal

Help Guide.Org (2016). Preventing burnout: Signs, symptoms, causes, and coping strategies. Retrieved May 26, 2016, from http://www.helpguide.org/articles/stress/preventing-burnout.htm

When “LIFE” Happens and Your Glass is Half-Full

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One frustration that I often hear from Hearing Elmo readers is that living with a disABILITY or chronic illness is “manageable” if only LIFE itself were a little easier. However, the old adage is true… “Life is hard“. It just is.

I take an unconventional interpretation of the “Glass Half Full” expression. I realize the original meaning is — Are you an optimist or a pessimist? I look at this analogy in a similar way that the “The Spoon Theory” describes energy levels, daily quotas of tasks, etc. For some of us, our glass is never completely full. I wake up first thing in the morning after a good night’s rest, and my glass is half full. Don’t get me wrong… I’m in a good mood. As a matter of fact, I’m one of those annoying “morning people“. I grin ear-to-ear, greet the dogs and take them out, fix my coffee, and eagerly open my calendar to see what the day holds.

Because I have had a hearing loss and Meniere’s disease for over 25 years now, I have learned to manage my time very carefully. I work hard to not “bite off more than I can chew“. The great thing about being an adjunct professor at a community college, I can stretch my 3-4 classes a semester out over the day and week so that I have “down time” for office hours or simply chill time in between classes. I am involved in a number of community service and social justice issues, but I work hard to make sure monthly meetings do not interfere with my “regular scheduled programming” (a.k.a. my LIFE).

Have you noticed, however, that just because you have a disABILITY or chronic illness, LIFE and its occasional sucker punches, still occur? We don’t get special treatment. Just because our glass starts out at the beginning of the day — HALF FULL — doesn’t mean that LIFE and the normal crap that happens within it, will not happen to us as well.

You are going to catch the flu.

You are going to have unexpected car expenses.

Someone is going to hurt your feelings.

You will be treated unfairly.

It is going to rain (and if you live where I do – it will rain a lot).

Your dog is going to be sneaky and eat grass and then surprise you with a present around 2 AM.

You may experience a divorce.

You may become estranged from an adult child or (once) close friend.

You will be accused of something you did not do.

You may be treated with disdain and anger as you navigate your “normal” in a world that does not view you as such.

A doctor is not going to listen to you.

A spouse or significant other is going to get frustrated with you – as if you can change your “normal”.

Your alarm is going to go off and you will want to hurl it through the window.

You will accidentally burn supper.

You are going to trip (and if you have Meniere’s – often!)

You will be misunderstood.

You will lose people you care about and will grieve.

Grief

Last week, my precious father-in-law passed away. My husband and children went to North Carolina and thankfully arrived before he was gone. I stayed home to take care of pets, cover classes for my husband, and “hold down the fort”. Can I just say I hate,  “holding down the fort”?

My family members are home now, and I am grateful I will have the opportunity to attend my father-in-law’s Celebration of Life later this summer.

I am running on EMPTY. This is final exam week and the extra stress that comes with grief and worry for my loved ones has taken a toll. You see… LIFE doesn’t pull any punches. Just because you have a disABILITY or chronic illness, you will still experience the normal things in LIFE that every person does. Losing people we care about is part of LIFE. It sucks. It hurts. It is hard. For those of us with a glass that starts “half full”, it may mean we need to take care to – TAKE CARE.

I normally go to bed between 9-10 PM. This past week I have made an effort to retire between 8-9 PM. We’ve had an excess of rainy weather which causes my balance to really be a trial for me. I am taking extra measures to make sure I change elevations carefully (stairs or bending) and am giving my service dog a serious work-out with various skilled tasks that I can do when my balance is not as wobbly. I’m trying to eat healthy, balanced meals.

Experiencing grief is a normal part of life. It cannot be avoided, and we cannot wish it away. If disABILITY or chronic illness is a new normal for you, I encourage you to prepare in advance for LIFE. We are not granted special privileges just because we have special challenges. So my advice is to do what you can to have a plan in place for when LIFE happens. The plan may include steps to take extra care of yourself. It may mean you make that phone call or send that email to someone you know you can dump on safely and wail or whine to your heart’s content. You may want to make an appointment with a counselor (so have one in advance on standby in the event you need an objective listening ear).

The Benefits

I learned something important over the last week. If I have prepared – as best I can – to absorb life’s normal sucker punches, and take steps to function in spite of a half-full glass, I can still BE THERE for those I care about.

I am not so energy-depleted that I fail to recognize the needs of others. I can support (as best I can) those who are grieving. Because I’m getting extra rest, I can think of small (seemingly) unimportant things that can make a difference in the life of my grieving husband. Like… making Cheeseburger Hamburger Helper for supper (something I cannot even eat but is his major comfort food). I can take on some extra chores around the house to give him the opportunity to have some extra time to grieve either openly or privately. I can be a listening ear (difficult but doable when you have a hearing loss). These simple things would be virtually impossible if I didn’t have a plan.

I am not so naive to believe that having a plan will mean you never have anything take you by surprise. LIFE is really good at surprises – some good and some bad. You cannot prepare and plan for every surprise. I hate to be a downer and fess up that at times I’m just DONE. For whatever reason, I allow hopelessness and despair to rule and reign in my heart and mind. For me, it helps to acknowledge that I’m at the end of myself and need help. It may mean seeking spiritual renewal. I may need to overhaul my schedule. I may need to just experience the YUCK. Sometimes all one can do is wade through and survive. The sun really DOES come out tomorrow. (… and thankfully? my weather forecast for tomorrow really does include SUN).

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Denise Portis

© 2016 Personal Hearing Loss Journal

Mindfulness: And the Skies Opened Up

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I apologize for how long it has been since I have posted anything. I am one week from finishing all my coursework towards my Ph.D. and have been busy working, going to school, and finalizing my dissertation committee. To say I’m exhausted is an understatement. I try to be serious and mindful about how much rest I am getting. I was thinking last week when I turned the big 5-0, that I have now lived longer as a person with disABILITY and chronic illness than I lived without those challenges. It influences what I have chosen to study and what I am passionate about. When you are ABD (All But Dead — just kidding: all but dissertation), you tend to think about your dissertation each and every day. This means that everything I am reading and researching for the literature review of my own work is on my mind each and every day. I even dream about it! “Predictors of Posttraumatic Growth in Persons with Acquired Disability” takes up much of my brain power.

These past few days I have been “chasing a rabbit” (like my retired service dog, Chloe)  and reading published articles on mindfulness as it incorporates one of the major domains of posttraumatic growth. I suppose “mindfulness” started out as a Buddhist tradition; however, in the last 8-9 years, the field of psychology has come to recognize it as a means to treat numerous physical and psychological disorders. In my short personal history of 25+ years, I have learned that folks with acquired physical challenges–whether the result of illness, accident, or genes–also experience comorbid anxiety or mood disorders (Carson, Ringbauer, MacKenzie, Warlow, and Sharpe, 2000; Siegert & Abernathy, 2005; Weintraub, Moberg, Duda, Katz, and Stern, 2004). You do not have to convert to Buddhism to practice mindfulness. Kozlowski (2013), explains that mindfulness has been Westernized by psychology and “it is purposefully devoid of spiritual or religious connotations and focuses simply on the act of awareness. And if you want to take it to a level that we can all relate to and understand, at its core is stress reduction” (para. 5).

You’d think as someone who has worked so hard to hear again, I would rarely purposely “go deaf”. Yet, I have discovered that if I want to do some deep thinking, praying, and just spend some time being aware of all the “stuff” in my life, I have to reach up and click my cochlear implant off. I need the quiet to take the time to be mindful of what is currently stressing me (and how to de-stress), what my priorities are, and how I can make a difference TODAY in the life of someone – ANYONE. My bionic hearing is wonderful, but I cannot focus when my processor is busy – processing. So I “go deaf” – on purpose. I need to reduce distractions. For me that means being alone with my thoughts and perhaps a pad of paper nearby so I can jot things down as I think of them.

Mindfullness & Preparation

Learning to be mindful, meant that I learned to change how I view disABILITY and illness. I learned not just to experience my “new normal”, but to own it. With that acceptance came the understanding that I am able to make a difference in such a way that I would not have been able to had my “normal” not changed. I likely wouldn’t know the people I know. I would not have been drawn to studies about posttraumatic growth. I wouldn’t have chosen to invest my time in student populations of individuals with visible and invisible conditions. My life – that I embrace and love – would not be what it is today.

Learning to be mindful also taught me to prepare. I knew before this ten-day deluge of rain that I was going to have a much tougher time with my balance. I deliberately scheduled an additional hour of sleep each night, made sure I had my cane and service dog equipment ready to go each morning, placed my umbrella and rain boots by the back door, planned where to park to eliminate having to by-pass major puddles of standing water, deliberately stayed where I could see outside to determine when the rain had let up enough to take the service dog out or to make a quick trip to the campus testing center or copy center, and made sure that I allowed extra time to get to where I needed to go each day because I knew my mobility issues would require I traverse slowly and methodically. Even though the sun sets much later now that it is the month of May, I made sure that I had someone to drive me for evening obligations as I knew my vertigo would be worse by day’s end. Being mindful about the forecast and likely changes in my symptoms, meant that I could “hope for the best and prepare for the worst“. A nice little “perk” of Meniere’s disease is that if you learn to recognize the changes, you discover that you are a living, breathing, and walking barometer. (I’m likely more exact that local forecasters).

So… when the skies opened up, and delivered mist & sprinkles, steady, significant amounts of rain, and at times-torrential downpours, I was as ready as I could be! I suppose some folks might think that being so mindful and preparing for worsening symptoms, is the equivalent of being self-centered. I have learned the hard way, however, that if I do not take care of myself, it is impossible for me to take care of anyone else. I MUST take deliberate steps to insure I am prepared for long periods of rain, for example. If I do not, I will be nearly useless to anyone else. I’m not trying to avoid or escape the worsening symptoms I know are to come with a long bout of rainy weather. It is a type of cognitive-restructuring (from the psychologist’s point of view). As a person of faith, I work at being “mindful” of His promises. It helps me to remember He is mindful of me (Psalm 8:4, Psalm 111:5, Psalm 115:12, Romans 8:5-7, Romans 12:2, 1 Corinthians 2: 9-12, 16, Colossians 3:1, and 2 Peter 3:2).

A Long-Term Benefit of Being Mindful

In closing out this post (and greeting a day where the sun has finally breached the dark clouds), I want to share something I’ve learned simply because I really HAVE been at “this” a long time now. When you are mindful, purposefully focus your thoughts, prepare, and live deliberately, you will find that some good habits develop. On about “Day 6” of our recent monsoon-like weather, I came into my 8 AM class and… honestly? I wanted to go sit down and cry. I was tired of the vertigo, tired of the nausea, tired of the wobbling, and tired of the balance corrections. My head hurt and I was cranky. Darn — if it wasn’t only 8 in the morning! After booting up the computer, turning on the projector, and fishing out my lesson plans, I looked up to greet the class a few minutes before “launch”. I always try to ask students by name how things are going for them. I try to really get to know them and let them know I care. I noticed on changing my visual perspective an empty chair of a student who just buried her father. I caught in my peripheral, the quiet entrance of a young man making his usual unobtrusive way to his seat in the back. This young man just found out his cancer has returned for the fourth time. I saw the sleepy, single mamas and the students who took two early morning classes (including mine) before going to work for eight hours. I saw and waved to the student who attends classes, works four hours, and then goes to sit with her husband in a hospice center before staggering to bed each night. All the very temporary “woe is me” disappeared,

Just.

Like.

That.

Mindfulness doesn’t mean I do not have “bad days”. Being mindful, doesn’t mean I will always be in a super, good mood. However, being mindful gives me a better perspective and deeper appreciation for what really matters. I can more quickly rebound from self-pity and look for opportunities to make a difference – even in a sometimes “broken” body and weary mind. Being mindful allows me to wake up to a Milo-bear (service dog) alarm-clock with an attitude of “BRING IT ON“. For me… it makes a difference.

L. Denise Portis

© 2016 Personal Hearing Loss Journal

Carson, A. J., Ringbauer, B., MacKenzie, L., Warlow, C., Sharpe, M. (2000). Neurological disease, emotional disorder, and disability: They are related: A study of 300 consecutive new referrals to a neurology outpatient department. J. Neural Neurosurg Psychiatry, 68:201-206.

Kozlowski, E. (2013). Can Christians Practice Mindfulness? Huffpost Healthy Living. Retrieved May 6, 2016, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/eden-kozlowski/mindfulness-and-religion_b_3224505.html

Siegert, R. J., Abernethy, D. A. (2005). Depression in multiple sclerosis: A review. J. Neural Neurosurg Psychiatry 76:469-475.

Weintraub, D., Moberg, P., Duda, J., Katz, I., & Stern, M. (2004). Effect of psychiatric and other nonmotor symptoms on disability in Parkinson’s disease. Journal Of The American Geriatrics Society52(5), 784-788 5p. doi:10.1111/j.1532-5415.2004.52219.x

 

Use Your Words

use your words

Not too long ago, I stood in the kitchen with a piece of my kitchen cookware, and dramatically wiggled the (seemingly constant) loose handle.

“Hey, honey,” addressing my husband, “hand me the thingie-majig out of the… (I gestured wildly towards the drawer)… the… the… THINGIE!”

My husband turned to face me and raised his left eyebrow. It was only the left one. You know… the one he raises when I’ve said something truly ridiculous and he’s trying to make a point?

… with an eyebrow? Yeah. That one.

I continued to gesture holding the slightly, heavy pan and sputtered and fumed, not daring to repeat my request, only adding a bit of a head flick towards the… the… THINGIE.

At this point my husband’s raised eyebrow lowered. Instead both eyes grew wide with alarm. Both eyes. You know… the ones he widens in horror when he realizes I truly expect him to read my mind and decipher both thingie-majig and thingie?

“Denise.” (When he pauses like that not only do I know I’m in for a mini-lecture, but it also means it may be deserved).

“You canNOT expect me to actually know what you mean. We’ve been married a long time, but I know thingie-majig, thingie, whatcha-ma-callit, and doo-hickey are interchangeable, obscure references to whatever happens to be going through your brain at the time!”

Do you know I tried to argue with him?

“Terry.” (Cuz, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander).

“I’m holding a pan. I’m jiggling the loose handle. I need to use this pan. The handle is loose. I need a screwdriver. The “thingie-majig” is a screwdriver, of COURSE” (I sighed super loud for a little dramatic effect and continued). “I gestured towards the junk drawer with my eyes, head, and elbow. The drawer is the “thingie”. Now who wouldn’t KNOW THAT?”

His eyes lost their incredulous look.  It was like watching a slideshow of emotions flick over his face.

First anger. (“Is she SERIOUS?”)

Next came a sad effort at stifling his laughter.

Then that lightbulb look. I love this look. It’s a slow-simmer realization that darn it. “Darn it, she’s right! That kinda made SENSE!”

He scratched his head and bent to collect the screwdriver from the bottom junk drawer. “It sucks that what you said made sense”.

I demurely accepted the screwdriver and sweetly…

Kept.

My.

Mouth.

Shut.

… because it didn’t make sense. I didn’t use words! Well, I did… but they weren’t real words. How can I call that communicating effectively?

When We Don’t Use Our Words

When you’ve lived with a chronic illness or disability long enough, the vocabulary associated with it becomes second nature to you. However, it doesn’t become second nature to others. You know all the medical terms and acronyms associated with your “new normal”. You shorten things and abbreviate information with people who really do not completely understand what you are trying to convey.

So… use your words.

  1. Use specifics.

Don’t say, “I can’t hear well”. Instead be specific and offer an alternative that may help.

“I can’t hear well in this cavernous room with so much background noise. Can we step out into the hallway to finish this conversation?”

2. Don’t leave out details that actually assist in expressing your need.

Don’t say, “Will you watch the dogs for me while I talk to mom?” Instead provide some more detail so that your request isn’t unreasonable.

“The dogs are wound up and my mom is trying to FaceTime me. Can you take them outside while I talk to her for a few minutes? I will be able to concentrate and hear her better.”

Don’t say, “Oh my gosh I need to leave right now!” Instead provide the details for your hasty departure so that whomever is accompanying you can make polite excuses and follow you in a more polite way.

“Oh my gosh. The ceiling fans in here are low and are moving in the opposite direction of my inner ‘SPIN’. I need to step out right away”. 

3. Avoid acronyms unless they are truly universal.

A.S.A.P.  – – – Yeah. We all know what this means.

BPPV – – – To most with a balance disorder or Meniere’s disease, we understand this to stand for benign paroxysmal positional vertigo. Few others will know what this is. I have even discovered that within disability groups (types), members will often use acronyms that they think are universal to “us” and they are not. For example in a Meniere’s support group I belong to, the members constantly refer to Meniere’s disease as MD. As a volunteer and participant of a service dog organization that includes a number of mobility challenges, MD stands for Muscular Dystrophy for both myself and many others.

I have been surprised how understood and universal the acronym MS is. Many, many people seem to understand it stands for Multiple Sclerosis. Why is that I wonder? (I’m asking for real responses and not rhetorically!)

4. Don’t use cues unless you have practiced them and both you and your “helper” understand the cue. 

If someone has facial hair or talks behind their hand, I’m likely not comfortable stepping into their personal space to hear them better. I will turn to my husband and touch the corner of my mouth. This means, “What’d he say? Repeat for me please?” We’ve used this FOREVER and it works without any hitches for us now.

I have trouble in places that have huge, open areas, or extremely, high ceilings. I may “look” fine. But if I pick up the vest handle on Milo’s equipment and quietly ask for my husband’s arm, he knows I’m about to do a face plant. If my husband isn’t around, I take Milo’s vest handle and head for the nearest wall so that I may continue with whatever I was doing safely, or talking to whomever I was trying to talk to before my “Woah!” I have never had someone argue with me about moving towards a wall. (I’m pretty sure people would rather move than pick me up off the floor).

5. Complete your thought. Use real words.

Just because you know what you are talking about, doesn’t mean you can voice a sentence fragment.

“Put it over…” 

Put it over where? If the other person wasn’t watching, they do not know where you mean for them to put it.

Recently I got up on a step stool (never a good idea) to dust the ceiling fan blades in the dining room. The fan was OFF, so “color me SURPRISED” when I was hit with a sudden bout of vertigo and actually felt my vision tunnel as I struggled to stay conscious.

“Please! Right now!”, I screeched.

Manners didn’t matter. Specifics about the timeframe were irrelevant. I fell. My husband did hear the fall. Well… he HEARD the screech too, but he simply didn’t know what it meant. It was vague. It could have been meant for the dog who just stole my sock for the fourth time and I was demanding it back. (Hey. It’s happened).

He was horrified he didn’t interpret my call for help for him to actually get his butt there immediately. I hit the carpet and the dogs scattered safely out of the way. Since I didn’t injure anything (dogs included) I could laugh as soon as I made it vertical again. “Well geesh. It’s not like I called your name or explained why I needed you! I should have said, ‘Terry! Come quick!’, right?”

As fond as I am of “thingie-majig”, “thingie”, “doo-hickey”, and “whatcha-ma-callit”, they aren’t words. They stand for whatever word is missing from our immediate working vocabulary. They are stand-ins, and we simply cannot expect someone to make sense of them. When it comes to our challenges and self-advocacy, it makes sense to —

Make Sense.

Use your words.

Be specific.

Use necessary details.

One final word of advice though. Sometimes we work SO hard to be good communicators, we may offer a little too much information. If I throw the acronym at ya, of T.M.I., — does that make sense to you?

Too Much Information. We can blow people away with unnecessary details and specifics.

Several weeks ago I ran into one of my students in the hallway and we were headed in the same direction. He opened the door to the stairwell and I leaned over to hit the elevator call button. He said, “Oh here, let me carry that” and reached for my bag assuming I would be able to take the stairs if someone carried my bag.

I said, “Oh no. I can’t take the stairs. Even though I have Milo it will take me ten minutes to make it up one flight of stairs. I’ll be late for class. I just can’t traverse the stairs safely at top speed. I need to wait for the elevator. I don’t always wobble, or have bad balance days, but I never climb or descend stairs safely”. By the time I finished with my over-zealous answer, he was practically cross-eyed.

“TMI?” I sheepishly asked.

“A little… but we’re cool!” he cheerfully responded. He ended up taking the elevator with Milo and I because we were headed to the same class and were discussing something he was passionate about – projective tests (ugh. Hate them!).

So just be careful about being specific and detailed, without killing someone with unnecessary information.

Denise Portis

© 2016 Personal Hearing Loss Journal