Looking Forward

I review Mrs. Jones’s most recent cat scan- enlarging pulmonary nodules, progressing mediastinal and retroperitoneal adenopathy, worsening liver metastasis- I stop reading and slowly exhale. The cancer continues to spread and we have exhausted all treatment options. I must now face Mrs. Jones and her family. Although some days I struggle less, delivering bad news is never easy.

My courtship with a local oncology clinic began about five years ago. I was a spry new graduate just out of PA school enthusiastic to learn and eager to provide care. Today, just at two months shy of five years, it is my longest relationship to date. Over the years I have had to say goodbye
to many people- more than most people have to do in a lifetime. Unlike some who go into Oncology because they were personally affected by a grandmother with breast cancer or an uncle with colon cancer, Oncology found me.

During my second year of PA school, I had the opportunity to complete a rotation in pediatric hematology/oncology. It was these six weeks that made all the difference. I was intrigued by the complexity of the cases and deeply touched by the level of compassion with which the entire health team practiced. Many of my friends and family frequently ask me, “How can you work in oncology? Don’t you get depressed? You must find it so sad.” I answer back, yes of course there is a lot of sadness in oncology but there is also so much love-more than I ever imagined. The love between a grandfather and his granddaughter, the love between a son and his mother or the bond between a husband and wife. One thing my mentor asks his patients, that I now always ask mine, is how they first met their spouse. As soon as that topic comes up, the walls come right down and the elephant in the room is no more. I have heard all sorts of stories on how couples have met from meeting in bible study to reconnecting at a 25-year high school reunion to lasting first impressions on a blind date.

Many patients tell me how they never expected to get sick and contemplate what they wish they did earlier in their lives. They come to a realization that LIFE IS NOW. They overcome the fear of dying by placing importance on living each day to the fullest. Taking photographs on a wild African animal safari, creating oil paintings depicting a real Brazilian sunset, performing in a jazz band, making hand-crafted stone jewelry, adopting puppies from the local shelter,  zip-lining through the rainforests of Costa Rica, and giving a special Sunday sermon- are just a few of the many adventures that my patients have shared with me.

Months after Mrs. Jones’ passing, Mr. Jones came by the clinic with his famous, and my favorite key lime pie. We chit chatted and I thanked him. He gave me a hug and expressed his gratitude for my role in his wife’s care and said, “It takes a special person to do what you do.” I smiled
and gave him a hug. “She was an inspiration to us all,” I replied.

I am taking a hiatus from work not because I do not love what I do, but to make myself full again because that is what it demands. The nature of the work is such. You must first have compassion for yourself before you can take care of others. I thank my patients because they have given me the courage and strength to do so. Two months ago I backpacked through Thailand, immersing myself in the rich Thai culture and meeting so many interesting people along the way. I volunteered at an elephant sanctuary and witnessed firsthand a loving majestic species. During that time, I also discovered a vast new underwater world through scuba diving. Last month while hiking through breathtaking canyons and sandstone formations of Utah, Arizona and Nevada, I experienced truly stunning views and found solitude in nature. Last week, I confronted the inner-workings of the mind and successfully completed my first silent meditation retreat. Today, I explore creative writing and tomorrow, who knows.

With no solid path set in stone and unsure whether I will return to practice or steer toward a new calling, only now do I realize it is OKAY to not know. To move forward you have to let go of your past and embrace change. With change comes reinvention and opportunity. In the distractedness and uncertainty of our lives, find more time for solitude, let go of fear of the unknown, embrace love, and soak in the present. Whatever you do, make sure that your body and mind are working in harmony.

“What you do for yourself, any gesture of kindness, any gesture of gentleness, any gesture of honesty and clear seeing toward yourself, will affect how you experience your world. In fact, it will transform how you experience the world. What you do for yourself, you’re doing for others, and what you do for others, you’re doing for yourself.” –Pema Chodron

 

Declutter Your Way To Happiness

AHHHHHHH, where are my keys? Where’s my favorite top? Ding. Ding. [Cellphone going off with facebook and Instagram notifications] Which pair of shoes shall I wear? This is usually how every day starts off for me before I leave the house.

In a digital age, where we are constantly bombarded with emails, 20 different news and social media notifications, and telemarketer calls, how are we suppose to stay calm and focused? To top it off, our homes are exploding with junk in our closets, cabinets, and workspace. Have you ever thought “why the HELL do I need so much STUFF”?

De-clutter all the way to happiness sounds like a bold statement to make (AND it is, but it’s  totally possible). The first image that comes to mind when we hear the word ‘de-clutter” is probably stacks on stacks of boxes with DONATE written across it. That is one way to interpret the word. But, I’m talking about not only de-cluttering your physical surroundings, but your mind as well. To break it down further, I’m saying to remove all things that do not add value to your life till you are left with the things and thoughts that bring you joy and lets you focus on the more important and joyous aspects of life. It sounds absurd and is definitely a big project, but one that will provide a very positive return on investment. Time and time again, studies have proven clutter negatively affects the quality of our lives. It drains us of our time, money, energy and productivity.

I don’t know how many times I’ve searched for a pair of earrings to match my otherwise perfect outfit 2 minutes before I have to step out of the door, and I can’t find it anywhere. And of course, I’m already late to  work or a party, so the stress and anxiety are building up, and now I’m leaving the house frustrated, frantic and sweating instead of calm and relaxed. I’ve ruined my mood, and this situation blocks my ability to think clearly about my meeting coming up. Compounded stress will not only decrease productivity, but also result in earlier aging, health issues, and mental instability.

Even our garages are getting used as additional storage rather than for the purpose they were built for – parking cars (what a shocker). Here’s a picture our what the garage at my parent’s house looks like.

 

(Add picture)

 

I’m not saying there aren’t the exceptional few who are very organized and have everything perfectly labeled and stored away in the right places, but I could count the number of people I know with those organizational skills on one hand. Even then, having A LOT of stuff properly organized and stored away doesn’t mean we need or even really want what is in those boxes. We keep all this stuff because we build an unhealthy attachment to materialistic objects. How often are you ACTUALLY using these items? 

I know the task of decluttering seems daunting, but just take it one step at a time. It’s not a race, so do it at your own pace and do it right. Here are several strategies to your journey of decluttering.

 

Trim down those closets and drawers

Our inherent problem is having too much and still wanting more. How many times are you looking for something to wear and hear yourself saying I don’t have what I need and go out and buy more? It’s a vicious cycle day after day, week after week, and the reality is the next thing we buy does not bring us the happiness we seek.

Decluttering is different from spring cleaning or selecting a few items for The Salvation Army. It’s a concious act of evaluating each item you own and asking yourself whether it brings you joy and happiness. If you think you need all that stuff, you don’t – I promise you don’t NEED 40 pairs of shoes, 30 sweaters, 20 shades of lipstick or 4 different kinds of dinner plate sets. You don’t need it, and if you are like me and are super indecisive and get anxiety, it’s actually quite unhealthy for you.

Here’s why: We take important decisions each day, from how to handle a difficult client to dinner decisions to making weekend travel plans. With all the natural stress that comes along with decision-making related to work and family, we can help ourselves out by avoiding additional layers of stress.

From your closets, discard any clothes you have not worn in the last one year. Some clothes will be easy to pull out cause you don’t like them anymore, but remember, if you don’t love it and haven’t worn it in a while, most likely you are never going to wear it. There are plenty of ways to donate your stuff while doing some good in the process. After you have tidied up your closet space, have assigned boxes for different seasons instead of keeping everything hung all year round – make selecting items easy. 

Challenge for Thought: I came across Project 333, and haven’t tried it myself, but hope to start soon. Project 333 is a fashion challenge that invites you to dress for 3 months using 33 items or less, which includes clothes, jewelry, accessories, and shoes. What you can have in addition to the 33 items is sentimental jewelry, workout clothes, and sleepwear. The purpose of the challenge is to see whether you can be creative and style yourself for three months using the same 33 items. When I read about it, it made me think of going backpacking but staycation-style. Find out more about this challenge

 

Coming out of the closet

Next, move on to the rest of your house and work area in the same fashion. Clean out under those bathroom sinks, beds,storage closets, 100 junk drawers, magazines and textbooks you have saved from 20 years ago, garage, basement, and any other nook and cranny. When evaluating every item, remember to ask yourself “does this bring me joy?”. If it does, keep it; if not, discard it. It’s as simple as that. Get to a point where you know where everything is and it’s purpose.

Micheal Cho, of Lifehacker.com states, “Whether it be your closet or office desk, excess things in your surroundings can have a negative impact on your ability to focus and process information.”

Keep fewer objects on tables and desks, and away from the line of sight. Remove unnecessary documents from your computer files, and transfer older but necessary files to an external hard drive or to the cloud. This will give you available space on your computer, which in turn, will allow it to run faster, save you time, and alleviate stress.

 

Your daily routine

Plan out your day in the morning hour by hour and try to stick to it. This will help you from getting flustered with the sheer number of thoughts and tasks entering your mind. Take on one task at a time. There is no such thing as being an efficient multitasker – that’s task switching when you move your attention from one task to another and then back to the original one. You can not successfully work on multiple tasks all at one time while still giving each task your 100% attention. Be more efficient by dedicating all your attention to one task at a time, and the transition from one task to the next will be smoother allowing for more time on activities that bring you joy.

Inject time to disengage from the world and engage with yourself. It seems counter-intuitive for me to tell you to be more efficient, but slow down and take the time to reflect, but both are equally as important. Enjoy the quiet windows of time in-between tasks. Go for a walk outside, and get some fresh air.

 

Write down your thoughts

Some reports say humans have over 50,000 thoughts a day… that’s a crap ton of thoughts. With some many thoughts, our mind is bound to get bogged down and distracted. By writing down our more concrete and vivid thoughts, we are able to control them from continuously running through your mind, and getting all jumbled up. Our mind wants something to be done with these thoughts, so whether you take any real action or not, the mind will interpret the note-taking as action and allow you to move your attention elsewhere. Also, don’t overthink every thought – not all of them need to be watered and cared for. 

 

Just Turn off

The digital age has given us a new way of communicating to others, but the super easy access to the world and everyone comes with a price. Social media and junk mail (cough, cough: promotional emails) are distractions in our lives when not used in controlled amounts. Most of us know when we go from a little to too much, but if you aren’t sure where on the spectrum you lie, just start counting the number of times you grab your phone per hour. According to a study done by Deloitte, Americans, between the ages of 25-34, on average check their phones 50 times a day, but I’ve heard numbers to an upwards of 150 times. Last year, I deleted my Facebook app (cause that was my vice) for two months, and it was an eye-opening and rewarding experience. Initially, for the first week or so, I grabbed my phone every 5 minutes attempting to open FB, only to remember I deleted it. But as days went on, I stopped being as dependent on my phone. I also had an epiphany realizing my life changes very little by knowing what is happening in others’ lives.

So, here’s the solution: turn it all off for a little bit every day, and don’t cheat by counting the time you are sleeping. The same survey done by Deloitte showed that Americans are using their phones while dining out, shopping, and watching television. What happened to living in the moment and giving others your undivided attention? Well, everyone’s doing it, so it seems that this is how we are supposed to live life now, but I challenge you to be better than that and guide others to put their phones down as well.

Don’t go to your phone the minute you wake up, and don’t let checking the news be your excuse. The news is exactly that, it’s news. It will not have changed 2 hours later, well updated but its already in the past. Start your morning waking up with a clear mind and take the time to be grateful for everything in your life. For the last 6 months, I start every morning with 30 minutes of meditation focused on my breathing and tuning out all thoughts. I feel relaxed starting my day and cruise through the day more poised, balanced and productive. Give it a try.

 

Distance Unhealthy Relationships

As a child, my dad urged me to choose my friends carefully, because the quality of your life is partly determined by the people you surround yourself with. I never paid much attention to him then, but as I have grown up, I definitely believe his advice to be true. Spend some time over the next few weeks listening carefully to the people you hang out or communicate with and pay attention to how those interactions make you feel – these people can be family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances on the bus, etc. These feelings can be feelings of joy, happiness, excitement, sadness, anxiety, fear (the list can go on forever). Feelings don’t have to be categorized into positive of negative, cause even anxiety can be a good thing sometimes, but rather into healthy and unhealthy. Try to distance yourself from people that bring out unhealthy feelings or are wasting your time. Learn to say no to people asking you for favors that will not bring you joy. Learn to take care of yourself first.  

 

These are ways to reduce stress in our lives that are easily achievable and can be done immediately. Everyone I talk to is always complaining about being stressed. Some stresses seem out of our control to reduce, such as work or family pressures (which they are not, but that’s for a later time), but for the positive lifestyle changes we can make fairly easily and quickly, it’s a no-brainer. Freeing up our mind from the daily stress of completing insignificant tasks allows us to increase the amount of concentration we give to important tasks helping us accomplish more in the day and add real value, create more time to decompress and feel more relaxed and get better sleep.  

 

8 Ways to Combat Depression

I can still vividly remember curling up into a ball on the floor of my room, rocking myself and feeling so alone in life while praying for that sharp pain to go away. It did not. The year 2016 was one I will never forget – the bad, the worse, the ugly, the good.

Merriam- Webster defines depression as “a state of feeling sad” and major depression as “a serious medical condition in which a person feels very sad, hopeless, and unimportant and often is unable to live in a normal way”.

Based on this definition, who hasn’t at some point in their life felt majorly depressed? Depression affects almost 10% of the American population in any given year. That’s 1 in 10 people you know! Then, why is there still such a stigma behind admitting it to close ones? More than likely, they have also gone through a similar time in their life. 

I was depressed for months in early 2016 – I experienced more pain than I had ever felt before. And what was worse, I didn’t even know why it happened or what direction that heavy cloud looming over me came from. For weeks, I didn’t know how to analyze the emotions and thoughts going through my head or how to deal with it – crying for no reason, not functioning or wanting to get out of bed, living inside my own head and having thoughts of wanting to “get a clean start”. I had lots of negative images about myself: thoughts of being a disappointment to everyone around me and to myself, regret, guilt, thoughts of feeling unaccomplished and not knowing what actions can change that situation, thinking everyone else around me has it all figured out, etc. You get the point.

You may be wondering with all my negative thoughts, sadness, and anxiety, how I ever shifted my mindset? Well, the honest answer is although I’m no longer in a corner of a room crying, I do still battle feelings of sadness here or there. It may feel as though you will never work through the depression, just like everything else, depression is also only a phase in our lives. How long this phase lasts is up to you and how willing you are to let others help, but it will end.

8 Ways to Reduce and Combat Depression

1. Create a support system

This is the Number 1 action you have to take. I don’t care if you read any further, because this singular act will carry you while you are needing some assistance. First and foremost, it is completely normal to go through depression at some point in your life so do not let anyone or yourself make you feel as though something is wrong with you. Open up to close friends and family about the sadness, pain or anxiety you are feeling, along with the symptoms. Your loved ones will be more than honored to be included in this phase of your life. Remember, if they can’t support you at your worst, then they don’t deserve you at your best. Don’t forget to include pets in your support system. They have an uncanny way of bringing smiles through the positive energy they possess.

2. Read and learn about depression

If you don’t believe me when I say it is completely normal to go through depression, then do some basic research completed by reputable sources and learn as much as possible. I promise you will come to the same conclusion. Through researching depression and anxiety, you will come across information on how the mind works and how to beat it. We do not have to be a slave to our mind. 

Depression statistics infographic

 

Here are some articles to jumpstart your research:

Depression: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment 

10 things to do Everyday to Beat Depression 

3. Write

Sometimes, actually always, writing helps. Dedicate a journal to your depression and thoughts, and keep a track of the emotions and thoughts you are experiencing. Initially, writing it down will feel unnatural and may want to run from it, but writing objectively and through observation will reach a better state of mind. Have a conversation with your depression by asking why it is in your life – be the therapist. If someone else in your life was experiencing what you are, what advice would you give them? The mind loves drama and has a tendency to revisit the same negative thoughts over and over again, so by writing it down, your mind will be confused into thinking an action was taken and will attempt to put it behind you. Disidentify from your depression, because you are not your depression. Jot down a small need you can fulfill that will ease your mind from the sadness, and then do it. Your writing skills do not have to be anywhere close to great, and you don’t even have to write in complete sentences, just WRITE!  

4. Seek help through a therapist

A therapist can offer you professional support that your friends and family may not have knowledge about. Therapists have heard every problem in the book from people on all walks of life. Basically, there is nothing you would say that they have not heard yet. Therapists will not judge you, if that is something you are worried about. To top it off, they will be able to provide the RIGHT tools  and guidance to help you fight your depression. When I saw a therapist, I made a list of all my issues and insecurities (that was the source of my depression). That is just the kind of person I am, but in doing so, it helped me analyze my problems and shortcoming (See, writing does help).

Heres a good link to search for a therapist near you

5. Volunteer

Humans are social beings, and volunteering allows us to interact with others in a valuable way. Helping others shifts you from having negative to positive thoughts, increases self-esteem and improves your self-image. Volunteering gives the pleasure of instant gratification. There is a lot to be said about helping others, whether it’s a time of sadness or happiness. A great place to find volunteer opportunities in your area is VolunteerMatch.com.

6. Exercise

When you are in a state of depression, the last thing you want to do is exercise. But working out releases endorphins in your system, which I like to call the “natural, happy drug” blocking the pain receptors. Exercising is also a distraction, a way to stop the cycle of negative thoughts and allows you to live in the moment. Many people, during a time of sadness, turn to yoga. Yoga has healing powers to help you calm your mind and focus on the movements of the body. There is so much research on the correlation of exercising and mood, but the best way to know for sure if the research is correct is to get out and try it for yourself. Don’t make the excuse you do not have a gym membership. You can turn on a workout video on youtube, but my recommendation is start by going outside, letting the fresh air hit your face, and got for walk or run. In addition to exercise, every time you seem to be consumed by negative emotions, focus on taking slow, deep breaths. The emotion may not pass, but for those few breaths, you will be injecting extra oxygen into your body.

7. Lessen Your Stress

Make a list of all the factors in your life that are causing you stress and get very specific (i.e. a certain task at work, having to fold laundry, family obligations, relationship, etc). Do you see any line on that list that you can temporarily eliminate or pass it onto a supporting friend or family member? Ask your spouse to help out more with the children or request your boss for a flexible deadline to a deliverable or a teammate to cover a portion of your work. After all, what are you building a support network of friends and family for? Ask those special people if they see a solution.

8. Happiness

Just like I asked you to make a list of all the areas that cause your stress, I want you to make a separate list of all the things that make you happy. It may seem like a daunting task, since you may not feel any happiness right now, but just indulge me for 5 minutes and think really, really hard. Start by thinking back to a random time you were happy. What were you doing and how did it make you feel? For me, I love dancing and it makes me feel truly free and when I can express myself the best. Now back to you, what makes you happy? Once you have that list, is there anything you can do on that list in the near future, (i.e. right now or today)? If so, just do it. You may be thinking, I’ve tried that and it isn’t the same. That’s also okay. Sure, it may not bring you the same happiness you have associated with it, but just stop thinking and be. Just say to yourself, “My worries can come back in a bit, but right now I’m just going to [dance]”. All of this seems really hard, but I promise small bursts of happiness is what is going to help get you closer to the end of the tunnel.

 

I already stated earlier that depression is normal, but its more than that. It can be a blessing in disguise. Depression is signaling to your mind that something in your life is not right, and that change is required. You may already know why you are depressed, but if you don’t, that is fine to. That’s where a therapist and good sound advice comes into play. My depression has lead me to the realization/epiphany that I am not happy with where I am in life. I’m 31, do not have a job and have wasted the last 9 years of my life extremely confused without having had taken any steps to lessen that confusion. Do not get me wrong. I have a Masters degree in Marketing, use to be an event planner, and have a caring circle of close people. My depressive state brought to light major cracks in my relationship with my significant other which we have taken the time to fix. Believe it now or not, but an enormous amount of good can be born out of depression if you are willing to interpret the signs correctly. You can see firsthand what I mean by that. The birth of this website, Average Brown Girl, and my deserve to help bring happiness and wisdom into the lives of others came from that depression state. Every experience and phase is a part of life, but it’s taken a lot of crying and support reach that understanding.

Could it have happened any differently? NO. Everything that has lead you to where you are right now has happened for a very specific reason. If I had not “wasted” the last 9 years, gotten depressed, or struggled finding a job, I may not have taken up meditation and I know with confidence it is going to change my life for the better.  I wish I could say depression is a thing of my past and it’s behind me, but then I would be lying. It sneaks up on me in moments  I Ieast expect it, but I’m learning to observe and deploy my methods. May all beings be happy. 

Please share what methods have worked for you to combat depression.