RIP Robin Williams

I’m taking a break from my typical format to talk about the passing of a phenomenal actor and a huge part of my childhood. Normally I am relatively unaffected by celebrities’ deaths, but this one hit me in a way I was not expecting. Robin Williams’s history of mental illness is not news to the public, something he had been struggling with for a long time. No one knows for certain what was going through his mind during his last hours.

The reports we the public are being given are suggesting that Mr. Williams took his own life. This makes his death even more upsetting, knowing that he found himself in such a hopeless place that he felt he had no other options. This brings up a much larger issue surrounding how mental illness is addressed in this country. There exists a culture in the United States where it is difficult to seek help for depression. We tend to promote the mentality that depression is an emotion rather than the illness that it is, that a “strong person” can “snap out of it” if they really want to. This is not the case. A comparison that I like to give my clients is to replace mental illness with cancer. No one would ask a cancer patient, “Have you ever tried not having cancer?”

Luckily, unlike cancer, most mental illness is responsive to appropriate treatment. However, even those who are fortunate enough to have the resources available to them for treatment are faced with a huge stigma. Inaccurate media portrayals of mental illness and an overall dismissive social attitude has potential clients asking themselves, “What kind of person goes to therapy? Am I that kind of person?” Or more specifically, “Am I crazy?” (There is a massive controversy within the field of psychology surrounding the term crazy. I am trying to stay focused  and will not address this in depth right now.)

Fear of judgement and stigma can prevent people from reaching out. If you have any suspicion that someone close to you might be suffering, do not wait for them to ask for help. In several of my graduate classes we discussed a fear of “planting the seed” by asking clients if they are having thoughts of suicide. Research has shown that, if someone has not considered suicide, they will not suddenly have ideations if someone asks. The power of suggestion is just not that strong. But if they are having these thoughts, there is a good chance that they will open up about it if asked. The APA provides this great article for talking to someone about an emotional crisis.

However, you do not have to wait until a crisis emerges to fight the stigma surrounding mental illness. Make it clear that you are willing to listen if something comes up. Correct people when they make false and stigmatizing statements about mental illness. This comic perfectly illustrates the ridiculous nature of those kinds of claims. Recovery is possible, but not if we beat down everyone who seeks help. Be the change, and maybe others will not have to die.

Finally, if you are having thoughts of suicide, please seek help. The number for the National Suicide Hotline is 1-800-273-8255, and they are available 24/7 and can provide you with support and resources in your area. Program it into your speed dial so that you don’t even have to think about it before making the call. You might not see it right now, but it will get better.

My condolences to Mr. Williams’s family and loved ones during this tragic time.

“Our job is improving the quality of life, not just delaying death.” ~ Robin Williams in Patch Adams

So It’s Your Birthday

Hello adoring fans! Today is my birthday, so I am taking a break from the barrage of information about internship (and the community breaths a collective sigh of relief). After all, self-care is huge when you are applying for internship. It is a hugely stressful process, and so keeping up with things you enjoy is key. So in the spirit of self-care and my birthday, here are some pictures of my cats. Have a great weekend everyone! (Photo credits to my awesome roommate.)

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Armani giving me kisses 🙂

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I call this one “Draw Me Like One Of Your French Girls”

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Biiiiig yawn.

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Finnegan’s bathtime.

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Armani looking…what’s the word the kids are using?…”derpy”

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Finn’s reaction when he found out we were out of kitty treats.

So You’ve Decided To Adopt A Pet

I am an animal person, especially furry animals that can cuddle you back. Research has shown that people who have pets are happier, healthier, and live longer, but that only justifies my already-existing obsession. During my junior and senior years in college, my roommates and I discussed – with varying degrees of seriousness – adopting a kitten. Unfortunately, pets were not allowed in our on-campus apartment, and we did not want to risk the fines, not to mention what would happen to the cat if we were caught.

As I was preparing to start graduate school, my first order of business (just after determining my financial aid eligibility) was adopting a cat of my own. I only viewed apartments that were pet-friendly and frequented petfinder.com for kittens that needed homes. I even had an appointment to meet with a vet about the last kitten in a found litter scheduled before I had begun the drive to my new home. Aside from wanting to do what I could for homeless animals (I’ll post another week about my decision to volunteer with the Humane Society), I felt that bringing a cat into my home would help manage my graduate school-related stress. Animals have always been a source of comfort to me, and none is more comforting than the pet that greets you at the door every day when you return home. That is how I decided to adopt Armani.

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My third day in Connecticut, I welcomed Armani into my apartment. It was a wonderful decision. I am now the proud caretaker of two cats, as my partner and I decided to adopt from the Humane Society together last year. I will share more about that in another post. Over the last three and a half years, he went from over-sized kitten to thirteen-and-a-half pounds of love. He is unbelievably playful but still curls up at my feet every night. The point is, Armani has gotten me through my program because, no matter how stressful my day is, he is always there to greet me when I come through the door (and about half the time he is watching for me from the window when I drive up).

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I have watched Armani grow up, and even though he can be a jerk sometimes (I once had to go to practicum with a scratch on my face because he aggressively decided that cuddle time was over), he is MY kitty and I love him! Nothing makes you forget that your dissertation chair just destroyed your most recent draft like seeing how high your giant tuxedo cat can jump for a catnip ball. For the record, he can go about seven feet straight up. I will try to get a video of it, because it is amazing.

My pets are my biggest form of self-care because they love me no matter what. If I’m running myself too hard, Armani will choose the perfect moment to fall asleep on my lap for an hour, and I have to slow down while he uses me as a human cat bed. Cats are zen, and they bring their humans into their zen. Good kitty!

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So You’ve Decided To Get A Hobby

My doctoral program consists of three years of coursework, one year devoted to dissertation, and then one year of internship. Because I was able to complete my dissertation while working on my coursework, I have the luxury of exploring some other interests during my fourth year, when I am not too busy stressing about my internship applications. We have officially reached the point in the process when my ranks and my site’s ranks have been submitted, and I must wait another two and a half weeks for the computer to decide whether or not I will be graced with a placement. (More on that another day. I have plans in the works to present you with another comprehensive series about what it is like to get an internship in psychology, but until I have secured my own placement, the stress of thinking about it causes me to want to completely shut down and hide under my bed until it’s all over.)

Thanks to Pinterest, I have recently re-engaged my crafty side and started making jewelry. Nothing overly fancy, just simple pendants made from what materials I can afford. Working with your hands can be a great way to relax and focus nervous energy. Unlike my roommate, I lack the patience to learn how to knit, but between the two of us we are hoping to create enough product to enter into a craft fair later this year. Again, this was a perfect way to give myself a goal to focus on unrelated to my program. Hopefully I can create something for which others would be willing to pay money.

It is easy to forget that I used to do things other than being a graduate student. It is easy to forget that I used to do things that were unrelated to my schoolwork. For me at least, having things that I enjoy doing is not enough to keep me motivated in my self-care. So my roommate and I decided to find local craft fairs and set a deadline for ourselves, and on May 24th we will debut our “art projects.” Who knows, we might even make enough cash to reimburse ourselves for the cost of our supplies.

Below are some samples of what I have made so far. If anyone is interested, I could try my hand at coming up with tutorials (or trying to remember which tutorials gave me the ideas to make them in the first place).

And now I am off to dig out my car. Best of luck to everyone in staying warm!

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Shattered marbles wrapped in wire

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Flattened glass marbles decorated with nail polish

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Flattened glass marbles with excerpts from an old textbook fixed to the back

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Examples of my finished products

So You’ve Decided To Make A New Year’s Resolution

Happy New Year, readers! Last week I wrapped up my four-part series on how I survived the dissertation process. I hope my experience can help others in the same position. If my process does not work for you, I hope it can at least help you figure out your own personal recipe for success. In honor of the new year, I thought I would be a cliche and talk about resolutions.

It has become common knowledge that most resolutions are abandoned by February, if they even make it that far. This is often the case because we tend to over-estimate what we can accomplish. One of the most common resolutions is to work out more often. How many people do you know who have not gone to the gym since last January who insist, starting 1/1/14, they will exercise five times per week? Or maybe this person is you. (Exercise has been my failed resolution more than once!) The important thing is to be realistic. Resolutions that involve setting yourself up for failure are easily abandoned.

That’s not to say you could never exercise five times a week. You just need to work up to that rather than starting there. Will power is like a muscle – the more you engage it, the stronger it gets, but it requires training. You would not attempt to bench 200 pounds if you had never touched a weight before because you would get nowhere. Start with the smaller weights and work your way up. For me – these past few months I have been shirking my exercise schedule. I have my internship applications to thank for that. So for the new year, I am starting by going to the gym in my complex once per week, and I found a brief workout that can be done at home to be done before I shower.

Next, we have to remember to forgive ourselves when we fall short of our resolutions. I can’t tell you how many times I have committed to making a change in my life only to abandon it because I was falling short. Once, when trying to make healthier dietary choices, I read a quote that I now cannot find: Deciding to stop your diet because you did poorly that day is like dropping your cell phone and saying, “It’s probably broken. I may as well run it over with my car.”

My third and final tip for keeping a resolution is to make it quantifiable. Last year I made a resolution to finish my dissertation, and so I set a schedule to keep it. If I had just resolved to work on my dissertation, it would have been much more difficult to determine whether or not I was successful. Break it down for yourself and you are more likely to follow through.

So, to recap:

1. Keep it realistic.
2. Forgive yourself.
3. Be specific.

Now that you are all set to make and keep your resolutions for 2014, I want to throw in a plug for self-care. New Year’s resolutions tend to focus around self-improvement, which is wonderful, but sometimes at the cost of well-being, so I suggest throwing in at least one that is just for you. For me, I enjoy cooking but rarely make the time for it. In 2014, I intend to try two new recipes per month. I know I would probably fail if I tried to make cooking a part of my weekly ritual, and I know that a resolution to “cook more” would ultimately lead to one or two taco nights with my roommate and end there.

Welcome to 2014! What will you do to take care of yourself this year?

So You’ve Decided To Write A Dissertation, Part 2

You have chosen your topic. You have acquired a chair. You have attempted – with probably a varying amount of success – to turn off that competitive voice that constantly measures up your topic against that of everyone you talk to. Now comes the difficult part – actually writing the thing. Like I said in the last post, it is unbelievably daunting to start a task that you know you will not finish in this sitting, or this school year even. Here I share my insights into what helped me stay motivated and get those words on paper (or on screen, to be technically correct).

I did 90% of the work for my dissertation while living 2000 miles away from the love of my life, so instead of being upset, I chose to channel those feelings into my proposal. It was much easier said than done. The first step was to create a schedule for myself. Now, generally I am very good at meeting deadlines, but with a dissertation, there are few set deadlines that you have to keep unless you and your chair come up with something, and even then those dates tend to be fluid. For me, it was easier to set aside times to work rather than simply saying “I will write X number of pages by Y date.” I knew I could easily get discouraged if I accidentally picked a time frame that ended up being impossible to stick to, and as any over-achieving doctoral candidate will tell you, this is sadly easy to do. Since I had adequate time before my school’s deadlines (all I needed was to successfully propose by September 15th of whatever year I wanted to apply for internship, and this was the start of my second year), I had the option to work this way. Find what works best for you, and just remember to be flexible with yourself if you suddenly realize you’ve given yourself a 100-page deadline in the middle of finals.

My personal proposal schedule consisted of dedicating 10 hours every other Saturday to researching/writing my manuscript. I tend to work well getting into a zone and accomplishing a lot in one sitting, so this worked well for me. If I broke my work time down into one or two hour increments, I would spend most of my time reminding myself where I left off, which would only serve to frustrate me.

My dissertation ritual would start on Friday afternoon. I would make sure that my apartment contained adequate food – both substantial and guilty pleasure junk foods – to last me through the marathon of Saturday. (I subscribe to the theory that will power is like a muscle in that it can only handle so much “weight” at a time, and so while I am using my will power to continue writing rather than checking my email and social networking sites, I do not ask it to monitor what goes into my mouth. If your will power can multitask, then you are more talented than I am.) Then it’s an early bed time, which is not atypical for me on the weekends, as I was born at approximately age 50.

Saturday morning I would get an early start, eat a large breakfast, and consume a 5 hour energy. Part two of my ritual was complete. Next, I created my work space. Everything I could possibly need for the day was within reach – laptop charged and plugged in, highlighters, pens, notebooks, stacks of articles, chips. Time to motivate with one to three views of this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d6wRkzCW5qI. 40 Inspirational Speeches In 2 Minutes was a gift from my friend Adam one day when I was having trouble bringing myself to finish a paper, and it has never steered me wrong. I would probably lead an army into battle after watching this video if someone handed me a sword and yelled.

Time to create an upbeat atmosphere to perpetuate the hyped-up, motivated vibe created by the video. I put on my favorite Pandora dance station, which usually led to a 10 to 30 minute dance party, followed by an intense writing montage. The rest of the day consisted of alternating power-writing sessions and brief dance parties. Hey, you have to know what works for you, and this system kept me pumped!

Some weeks, no matter how hard I tried, my apartment became one giant distraction, so I moved the operation over to Panera or Starbucks (minus the dance parties – unfortunately I am not at a point in my self-actualization where I can “dance like no one is watching” unless no one is, in fact, watching), and that seemed to get me back on track. The point is, you need to find a system or ritual that works for you, and be flexible if your needs change. And I highly recommend that video, whether you are writing a dissertation, taking a test, or about to take a long drive. No matter what is going on with your life, 40 Inspirational Speeches will definitely get you pumped.

So You’ve Decided To Go To Graduate School

Hello and welcome to the world of higher higher education! Maybe you are well into your doctoral program; maybe you are just starting the application process. Either way, I created this blog in the hopes of imparting some of my wisdom gleaned from my own survival of graduate school. What has worked for me may not be the best decision for you, but it is my hope that my experience might benefit others in my position. Graduate school has been an incredibly stressful, tear-filled, anger-inducing, rewarding, and painful experience, and I would not change my path for anything. My expertise is rather specific to psychology programs, but if you feel that something is relate-able to a different type of program, all the better.

For now, no matter where you are at in your graduate experience, I would like to share with you my most valuable piece of doctoral program advice: TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF. Your friends, adviser, professors, and family have probably all said this to you at one time or another, but psychology students seem to have an ironic knack for ignoring our own needs, and it is easy to see why. We are encouraged to talk about self-care. We are encouraged to engage in self-care. We are encouraged to keep a running list of hobbies and relaxation techniques to draw on at any time to help manage our stress. But we are never really given an opportunity to put it into practice. A very smart classmate once pointed out to me that we’re told to make our well-being the #1 priority, but for everything else – dissertation, classwork, practicum, volunteerism, jobs, research, et cetera – to tie for #2. It’s not possible to have six second priorities, so self-care ends up falling off the proverbial radar all together. In the short term, it is very productive. And since all of your classmates are working this way, it is impossible not to do without feeling like you are falling behind. After all, there’s not exactly a section on the CV for nature walks and long baths.

So we become hypocrites. We tell our clients that it is okay not to be perfect, that taking time for self-care is more important than over-extending themselves and burning out while working 16 hour days before going home to pull an all-nighter on a take-home midterm. I remember my second year – I was working in Residential Life on campus, writing my dissertation proposal, and completing my first full-year practicum. At one point my boss pulled me aside and told me that she noticed that I seemed over-worked and recommended that I focus on taking better care of myself. I asked if I could leave work early to join my friends at Happy Hour, and she said that she could not excuse me from my duties. She claimed she wanted me to take care of myself, but only in ways that did not interfere with my responsibilities to her. We graduate students are horrible at asserting ourselves and our needs because we think that it will hurt us somehow, even though nothing hurts more than the dreaded burnout.

It is something that I continue to work on. It’s tempting to cancel date night to finish that research project. But if you are going to be successful in grad school – and I mean truly successful, both academically and personally – you have to do it. Whatever your self-care is, it needs to be just as non-negotiable as going to class or practicum. Even though it was great experience, and even though it meant not paying rent or utilities, when Residential Life offered to extend my contract, I said no. It was impossible to relax or have a night off when my boss lived right upstairs and often took advantage of this fact, so I left to take better care of myself.

I hope that psychologists and graduate students alike will be able to start living the advice we give our clients: take care of yourself first. Everything else is optional. And no job, regardless of the benefits, is worth your ability to take care of yourself. It’s time we stop seeing self-care as a luxury and start seeing it as a prerequisite for everything else.