Category Archives: Mental Health

Becoming Human

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I first read this book as a requirement for a class I took in college, called “Witnesses to Hope, Heart, and Humanity.” The class featured Pope John Paul II (the witness to hope), St. Therese of Lisieux (the witness to heart), and Jean Vanier (the witness to humanity). (If you can’t tell, I went to a Catholic school.) I had previously never heard of Jean Vanier. I was completely unfamiliar with his work and his writing. I took the class because Pope John Paul II and St. Therese are two of my favorite figures in recent Catholicism. I was not expecting to be so deeply moved by Jean Vanier.

But I was.

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I have since re-read this book twice, and intend to continue re-reading it the rest of my life. It touches me in a different way each time I read it. There is such wisdom, such understanding, and such beauty contained within these pages.

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Jean Vanier is a gentle, compassionate, and loving person who founded the L’Arche communities that can be found in 36 countries, including many in the USA. The mission of these communities is to be a place where individuals with special needs/disabilities can find a home that encourages them to live their lives fully, joyfully, and beautifully. The stories he tells of residents in the communities will touch a special place in your heart as you realize that as humans, we are all so very similar, despite any differences that may initially be perceived.

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This book taught me to look at myself and those in my life in a new way, for we all have some part of us that is wounded and in need of special care. Just as the people who live in these communities learn to overcome their challenges and accept the realities of their lives, so must all of us.

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I love this book so much that I’m actually finding it difficult to write about it. I’m at a loss for words when compared with the beauty of the words contained in this book. Jean Vanier is sure to touch a place deep in your soul, a place you may not even be aware is there, and will encourage you to respond by loving more fully every person in your life – including yourself.

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One thing that strikes me about him is his drive – his need – to understand people and their actions. When someone has an outburst of anger in the L’Arche community he lives in while writing the book, his thoughts are not to punish, or reprimand, or anything of that nature. He seeks to know the reason for the anger, and with that knowledge, to see how he can help prevent it in the future. He chooses to see everyone as good. It is not our actions that make us good or bad, but the nature of our being. And when our being is wounded, our actions can correspond with this hurt and pain. It is out of this that anger and violence can erupt. Jean Vanier desires to find the brokenness and to find a way to heal it, rather than to inflict further pain through shame or embarrassment.

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This perspective strikes home for me in a unique way, and I have tried to adopt it as my own perspective in many cases where I am trying to understand some wrongdoing or destructive event that has taken place. We are all in need of healing and hope. Jean Vanier’s realization of this very concept is what draws him to address the need for all of us to see our common bond as people in this world. It is through accepting each other, understanding each other, helping each other, and healing each other that we can truly become human.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

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I admit that I ignored this book when it came up in my Amazon.com recommendations for a long time. I thought it didn’t seem like the type of book I would “get.” But then I saw that a movie version was coming out, and had Emma Watson in it, and since I’ve loved Emma Watson since her Hermione Granger days, I decided to give the book a chance.

I’m so glad I did.

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As much as this is a “coming-of-age” novel, it’s definitely applicable to those of us who are already technically “of age” but still have a lot of learning to do. In the book, the main character, Charlie, writes to an unknown reader about his life. He explains what he sees, what he does, what he learns, and who he is becoming as a result. As a “wallflower,” Charlie spends a lot of time observing others and trying to make sense of his surroundings. As a bit of an outcast, he is delighted to become accepted by some older schoolmates during his freshman year of high school. These people, too, are the outcasts, and have a very unique and beautiful way of living their lives as they (not others) see fit.

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As people who really don’t care what others think, these individuals are free to do what makes them happy. This is, of course, quite unusual, considering high school is often a very chameleon-like experience, trying to fit in in whatever surroundings you might find yourself. But not these folks. And that takes Charlie by surprise.

Charlie is struggling with depression following the suicide of his friend, and as he becomes more involved with this group of people, he learns how to live.

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He learns to take chances. He learns that the best moments are often ones that require risk of embarrassment. He learns about love, and about true friendship. He struggles accepting the friendship his friends are offering to him, unsure of why they find him worthy of their time and effort. He discovers a truth about friendship, and about love:

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And he decides to try to open himself up to accepting more for himself. He begins to share who he is – his dreams and goals of being a writer, and his love for Sam (played by Emma Watson). One evening while driving down the road with his friends, they go through through the Fort Pitt tunnel, and Sam gets into the bed of the truck, stands up with her arms out, and imagines she is flying while they blast the song “Heroes” by David Bowie. The mood is electric, and Charlie thinks “at that moment, I swear we were infinite.”

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It is this love for Sam that leads him to discover something painful about his past, and telling about his future. During a moment of potential passion between Sam and Charlie, Charlie realizes that he “can’t do it” and shuts down. Throughout the book Charlie has been trying to process his feelings about his aunt and her death via car accident, and has remembered how much of an impact she had on him while he was growing up. It is during this moment with Sam that Charlie understands what happened between him and his aunt, and this rocks him to the core. He has a breakdown and ends up in the hospital.

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With the help of his family and friends, Charlie learns to heal from the abuse in his past. Sam (and her brother Patrick, who plays a big part but I have yet to mention…oops), come to visit Charlie and inspire him to embrace life in the now. He realizes he can’t change what has happened, but he can impact what happens now and in the future.

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The story is one of learning to come out of one’s shell, of learning to become oneself despite what others may think/say/do, and of learning to be okay with whoever it is you are. It’s one of living life and choosing to look at painful or difficult situations as challenges and opportunities. It’s about learning that only in taking a risk can we have the types of experiences that will make memories and experiences that make an impact on our lives. When we find people who encourage who we are becoming, we find the strength within ourselves to grow, learn, develop, and blossom into the person those who love us know we can be.

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Ellen Hopkins – Impulse

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I’m a big fan of Ellen Hopkins. My favorite book of hers is entitled “Impulse.” I’ve read a few others of hers, and I have definitely enjoyed them. However, I could not put “Impulse” down. It was delightfully consuming.

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There are several things to love about Ellen Hopkins’ writings. The first, at least for me, is her writing style. The way the words are laid out on the page is extraordinary. She writes in verse, and many times the verse takes on a shape significant to the content of the text. This adds such visual interest that you can’t help but be intrigued. And secondly, her subject matter is edgy, is graphic, is surprising, and is GENUINE. She has a keen sense of the struggles many young people encounter in today’s world, and expresses them in a way that helps to give voice to what they are going through, as well as helps to communicate these things to those who are invested in helping and caring for them.

In “Impulse,” there are three main characters who meet at a residential facility for teenagers in need of intensive psychiatric care after having attempted suicide. The three characters do not know each other, nor are they all that similar (at least, at face value). However, their lives become interconnected through their therapy sessions, daily activities, and shared struggles. Each character’s story is incredibly personal and compelling; however, the one that I related to most was Vanessa. Her story opens with her suicide attempt in which she slits her wrists in her family home and is found by her younger brother. Her grandma, a nurse, provides the immediate care necessary to keep her alive until the ambulance arrives. As her story unfolds, we learn that she has a complicated family history involving an absent father and a bipolar mother. Her way of dealing with the pain she feels is acting out sexually, which ends up in a pregnancy she chooses to abort. She’s so overwhelmed by the shameful and painful feelings she has both from what causes her to act out, as well as the aftermath of how she feels from the abortion that she gets involved in self-injurious behaviors. She cuts herself to deal with the emotions she has but cannot handle.

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If anyone reading this blog is familiar with self-injury, you may be aware that once a person begins using it as an escape from the reality which they cannot face, it becomes the knee-jerk answer for any time of discomfort. Vanessa, once she has begun hurting herself, finds it impossible to stop. What’s more is that she doesn’t see a reason to stop, since she no longer sees a reason to be alive, let alone healthy.

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In my own experience struggling with mental health issues (one of which is self-injury), I can attest to the truth of the quote above. The knowledge that one is not alone, that this struggle and this drive and this confusion is something shared by many, is a huge relief. Because the nature of self-injury is often alienating, due to the fact that many people do not know how to respond to the notion, and are often repulsed by the scars left from self-injurious episodes, many sufferers find themselves feeling rather alone and isolated. The need to hide the wounds and scars is often synonymous with the need for the self-injurer to hide their own thoughts and feelings.

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In the book, Vanessa learns to connect with the other characters, who, although their struggles are different, are actually quite similar to her. This connection brings them a certain comfort that was previously unavailable to them, since they previously were not in daily communion with young people facing these types of challenges and concerns. As the quote above says – there is a “simple” need to connect with someone who might understand. It’s funny that this need is considered to be simple, especially when you think of how complex and crucial these relationships can be.

Yet, in the end, Vanessa learns that she can, in fact, overcome the self-loathing and guilt she feels. She can, like a lotus, blossom from the mud where she stands. It is at this point that Vanessa realizes the following:

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Personally, I find this quote to be a motivator – something to spur me on into a future filled with hope. It is of no use for us to wail over the past, for it is gone and there is no changing that. What we have is the here and now, in anticipation of what good may come. And of course we will come across trouble, and find ourselves stumbling and losing our direction at times, but the idea is to not allow that to become the way we live our lives. For it is through this cycle of falling down and getting back up that we learn the value of peace and happiness. And, as Vanessa says: our happiest memories we have yet to create.

Speak

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In an attempt to blend my last post (about education) with my general theme, I have decided to write about the book, “Speak” by Laurie Halse Anderson. I read this book probably around 2006, after stumbling upon the 2004 movie. Both the book and the movie captured my mind and my heart.

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Now, I do realize the movie features Kristen Stewart, and that may be off-putting to people who are anti-Twilight (or just are tired of the media circus involving the cast of that movie series). But, before I lose you to this, let me remind you that this is a pre-Twilight Kristen Stewart. She is still sullen and expressionless, but with good reason in this particular story. And since she wasn’t “famous” at the time “Speak” was made, she seems more…genuine.

This book (and movie) features an average teenage girl, Melinda Sordino, about to begin high school. She goes to a party where she doesn’t really know anyone (except her best friend). A cute boy notices her and pays her special attention, and when she allows herself to be alone with him, he takes advantage of the situation…and her. Afterward, she’s in a state of shock and confusion, and needing help, calls 911. The police show up to find a bunch of underage teens drinking alcohol (obviously problematic). When the teens find out who called the police, they instantly shun her without ever finding out the reason she made the call. The plot continues with Melinda beginning high school with everyone (including her now ex-best friend) hating her. While reading/viewing, I couldn’t help but place myself in her situation and feel the pain of isolation, misunderstanding, and shame. It’s heart-wrenching. Her saving grace comes in the form of art class. The teacher is an oh-so-typical art teacher, (played by Steve Zahn) who encourages her to think about life and the world in a new and original way.

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After picking the word “tree” from the globe (as shown above), she is asked to draw it on the board. She draws a simple tree, and the teacher tells her that that is a good start. It is this challenge that sets her on a path to self-discovery through art. Her art becomes her release, her focus, and ultimately, her voice.

It’s an inspiring story, and one that I in particular find meaningful, due to the personal connections I can draw. I admire the teacher who encourages Melinda to change her perspective, to challenge herself, and to grow. I have had similar “teachers” in my own life (though not all those who have taught me life lessons have been educators in the traditional sense). These people often do not realize they are throwing a life preserver to a person who is on the verge of drowning. Also, I can relate to the expressive nature of art, and how it can be a source of consolation and healing. I love art. I love to make art, and I love to view art. Art is a fascinating concept to me, really. I’m not a student of art, and I’m certainly not blessed with any particular artistic gifts. But, to me, that doesn’t matter when creating art for art’s sake. My works will never be in a gallery or admired by many (or even few…ha). But they matter to me. They’re a way for me to communicate myself without the going through the trouble of selecting the appropriate words. I pour my feelings onto paper, canvas, even coloring books, and feel a great sense of relief. And, when I find myself feeling things that I am unable to vocalize – unable to speak – I find that, like Melinda, art gives me a voice.

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It’s Kind of A Funny Story…

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So there’s a double meaning to the first part of the title of this blog: “Mental Notes.” The first is probably the more obvious, describing the idea of me keeping “notes to self,” as it were, on the books I read and the things I enjoy. However, there’s another meaning which I have yet to make reference to on this blog. And this meaning is that I want this blog to be a place where I can make note of the experiences I have in my research of and living with issues pertaining to mental health. As someone who has been dealing with mental health concerns for over half my life, I am very interested in the subject. I am often reading psychological books – both of the informative, educational kind, as well as the memoir, autobiography kind. I love to read how others facing challenges learn to overcome them and thrive. I draw great inspiration from these individuals.

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I ran across a movie on HBO during one of the promotional free weekends that happen on occasion. This movie was one I’d never heard of, but in reading the description of it, I decided to watch at least the first few minutes. The summary had said it had to do with a young man’s stay in the psych unit of a hospital, and well, naturally my interest in this topic was peaked. I began to watch the movie, and it didn’t take long before I was hooked. I enjoyed the plot, I loved the awkwardness of the main character, and in the end, I loved the “moral of the story.” The movie was, as the title of this post may suggest, called “It’s Kind of a Funny Story.” After watching the movie, I decided I needed to read the book upon which the movie was based. I found it through the library’s ebook collection, and devoured it. I loved the way Ned Vizzini wrote – it just felt so…authentic. So genuine. So relatable. It set me on a path in which I began feverishly reading books of a similar style, and before I knew it, I had worked through Brent Runyon’s “The Burn Journals,” Stephen Chbosky’s “Perks of Being a Wallflower,” Stacy Pershall’s “Loud in the House of Myself,” and Merri Lisa Johnson’s “Girl in Need of a Tourniquet.” I have been eagerly consuming these books, yet have learned the art of being able to savor each morsel. Every one of these books has touched me, inspired me, and comforted me. I imagine at some point I will write about each of them on this blog, as that is what I decided to start this thing up for in the first place. But, for today, I just wanted to introduce the idea and make my audience aware of my goal for maintaining this blog. I want to write about my experience as a twentysomething, single, adventurous, inquisitive, creative, educated, loving woman with a sense of humor…who also happens to struggle with mental health on a daily basis. I hope that in my own small way I help to eliminate the stigma of mental illness and support understanding, compassion, and openness in the human family and highlight the fact that we truly are all interconnected and valuable.

I’m glad to have you join me on this journey!

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