Three Things Make a Post!

Thing the First:

Yours truly is featured on Penguin’s SciFi/Fantasy webpage, so check it out (scroll down slightly).

Thing the Second:

You still have one week to register for the newest round of Becoming a Spiritual Nomad!  Registration is $25 for the six-week course.  Click here for more info or to enroll.  The course goes live on April 16 and registration will be closed that morning.

Thing the Third:

I made this. Let’s see how many of mine you agree with – then go make your own.

 

There’s a lot more fun stuff coming up around here in the next few weeks, so keep a sharp eye!

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The Power (and Pain) of Empathy

I thought this post needed a smiling puppy to balance out the sad.

Empathy isn’t just an affliction for psychic vampire musicians.  It’s a very real thing that strikes when you least expect it, like on a sunny Saturday morning through a window.

Every Saturday I work the front desk at Thrive fitness studio where I take Nia classes.  I’ve been doing it for a couple of years now, and it’s always a good way to start my weekend – nothing like riding the energy groove of a class full of happy dancing people to put a smile on your face.

The studio shares its parking lot with a veterinary clinic, so I often see people arriving with their dogs and walking across the narrow street from the lot to the vet’s office.  I’ve seen all sorts of canines and all sorts of humans with them.

This morning I was in the middle of marking off class cards when a luxury SUV pulled into the parking lot and all but flew into a space.  A blonde woman in her mid 30s and a typical dude-bro looking man got out and ran around to the back of the vehicle.  They opened the hatch, revealing a large dog crate.

Right away I knew something terrible had happened.  The woman opened the crate door and reached inside…then a moment later backed up, hands going to her mouth.  The husband (?) didn’t seem to know what to do, so he stood there patting her back awkwardly.

I realized I had just seen their dog die.

The woman lost it.  Completely.  Right there on the curb, she went to her knees and threw up into the landscaping, then sat rocking back and forth sobbing for several minutes.  The husband ran into the clinic and came back with a cup of water for her.  Finally he helped her to her feet, caught her when she nearly passed out, and the two closed the SUV’s door and walked into the clinic together.  He had seemed kind of helpless in the face of her pain, but once he figured out practical ways he could help her, he was pretty amazing.

By the time they came out, the woman was calmer, but she had that shell-shocked look people always get when death strikes them out of the clear blue nowhere.  They got back in the SUV and drove away much more slowly than they’d arrived, taking their dog back home.

I managed not to break down sobbing while I was behind the desk – there’s nothing more awkward than walking in on a crying woman – but as soon as I got in my car I had a brief but intense moment of weeping for the woman, the husband, and their dog.  I felt terrible, not just because of what had happened, but because I felt like I had intruded on what should have been private grief.  I tried, in my clumsy way, to send them love – love for the dog, as he or she passed; and love for the humans he left behind, especially the woman who loved him so much she broke down in the middle of a busy Saturday on South Congress.

On the outside these were not the sort of people I would ever have spent time with out in the world.  But we’ve all felt that kind of pain, that sweeping loss that washes everything away.  I found myself thinking about other people I’d seen that morning.  The lady who cut me off in traffic – what if she did that because her dog had just died and she was driving his body home to bury, her eyes overflowing with tears?  What about the weird smelling guy at the post office?  Any one of the people in the studio at that moment dancing?  I know from experience that to dance is to free stuck emotions and break up energetic stagnation, so any one of them could have been dancing out a deep wailing grief just as easily as just having a good time.

Or even when people have been cruel to me, I still have no idea what’s going on in their hearts at the time; I just know that it’s almost never about me. The woman from Pilates class who gives me the stink-eye when I arrive for Nia…it could be that she hates her body so much she can’t imagine loving a body like mine.  It could be that her mother died due to diabetes and she feels like her weight was a direct factor.  It could be her high school bully was a big girl who taught her to fear large women.  That won’t, of course, stop me from giving her the “Can I HELP you?” look, which usually earns an embarrassed retreat, but it does remind me that behind every person causing pain, there almost always is pain – a mountain of pain left to fester and rot until it stinks up everything around them.

You just never know what’s going on with someone – why they look the way they look, act the way they act.  That’s not to excuse inconsiderate behavior by any means, but it does give me pause when I get ready to leap to judgment against someone.  Just as they have no idea looking at me what I’ve been through, I have no idea what wounds they are nursing, what demons they’ve faced.  You just never know.

There’s a quote that’s been on my mind since then, often attributed to Plato but actually traceable to the 1890s and a writer named Ian MacLaren:

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As the Ink Dries

(4 years ago)

 

Once upon a time, I got a snake tattoo.

It occurred to me the other day that all but one of my tattoos are of animals and the one that isn’t is about animals.  The butterfly was my “I just moved out of my parents’ house to the big city” tattoo; the spider was a reference to my writing, as Spider has been a spirit…helper, I guess is the word, with my work since I wrote my first book, The Circle Within.

I got the Sanskrit word Ahimsa on my neck the year my cat Cosmo died, both to honor his memory and to announce my intention of becoming vegan…even if it took me the rest of my damn life to get there.

When I turned 30, my BFF and I went to get tattoos together.  We both wanted snakes, and both on our arms.  This seems strange unless you know that we were co-priestesses of a coven, and we had become devoted to the Dark Mother, whose sacred animals included the serpent.  She always appeared to me with snakes curling around Her arms, and She and I danced together in a serpentine way, and it felt right, at the time, to mark my devotion to Her on my body.  So we both did, and I have loved my snake tattoo ever since.

It is a reminder of the ever changing nature of my faith – as I shed skins of old versions of myself, new skin emerges, shiny and soft, older and wiser.  Given that my sun sign is the sign of transformation (Scorpio, in case you hadn’t figured that one out already), this tattoo will never lose its meaning, for I will never stop changing, never lose my need to peel away my old skins and discover a new woman beneath.

Of course, once you start getting tattoos it’s very hard to stop, so I’ve been gathering images on Pinterest of ink that I liked, to hopefully inspire me toward the two or three pieces I had in the back of my mind:  I wanted something on my right arm to balance the snake on my left; I wanted a lotus surrounding the Ahimsa; and I wanted a tree on my back…oh, and I want something written in English as well, perhaps a single word inside my wrist, something like “create” or even “love.”

Even though I don’t exactly have a ton of money right now, as soon as I got my Bipolar II diagnosis I knew it was time to balance that left arm.  The snake was a symbol of darkness, and while I have no problem with darkness, if I wanted to bring my life more into balance, I needed to balance the snake with something that to me symbolized light.

I found exactly what I was looking for on Pinterest:  a phoenix whose wings formed a lotus blossom.

A phoenix, the bird who dies in flame and then is reborn from her own ashes…that sounds about right to me.

I knew I had to do it, and I had to do it NOW.  When my BFF asked me about the meaning of the phoenix and whether it meant my life before, or what was happening now, I couldn’t articulate an answer.  Something was driving me toward it, the same feeling that drove me to get the snake.  I can only conclude that God wanted me to get the tattoo, and She wanted me to get it as soon as possible.

So I did.

I handed over the design to the tattoo artist, who added a few swirls and flourishes to balance it out; I told him I wanted some red on the wings to balance the red-and-black of the snake, so that’s what he did.

And it is.  So.  Beautiful.

And yes, it hurt.

It makes me wish I could remove all of my other tattoos and have this guy redo them with his incredible linework.  I’ve actually been considering embellishing the snake somehow for quite a while; now that I’m not working with the Dark Goddess anymore it feels like it needs something, something to help it be part of my current life.

Of course, here’s the tricky part:  when you get a tattoo for spiritual reasons, spiritual things are going to happen in your life that bring that tattoo’s energy up over and over again.  You have to be ready to accept that.

Thus, I got my phoenix both to honor where I’ve been – all the deaths both big and small that have been a part of my path, all the things I’ve risen from even after my life had turned to ash – but also where I’m going, as I take the burnt-out wreck of the last year, the ashes of years of depression, the charred remains of who I used to be, and use them to incubate a stronger, healthier, happier, more successful me.

So shall it be.

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Dianne Sylvan, Spinster and Lunatic

I’ve written about my depression a lot. People have told me they think it’s brave, or somehow remarkable that I lay this stuff out for people to see, but the thing is, I can’t *talk* about things like this; I can only write. I’ve never been able to communicate well verbally when the subject is really emotional. I was a great letter writer back in the day.

People say I’m hard to know, because in person I’m a closed book but online I’ll talk about pretty much anything so I’m a bit of a study in contrasts.  That’s because online you can’t see my face, of course – the same reason people feel like they can troll message boards and be cruel to strangers online.  The internet is a two-edged sword, and it’s been a godsend for me as well as a challenge.

I’m writing this because over the past few months my depression has gotten so, so much worse that either something significant had to change or I was going to end up hospitalized. I couldn’t articulate *what* was wrong, only that I was running out of strength to fight it.  I felt like if the best I could do was a few good days every few weeks, it couldn’t possibly be worth it – because even the good days were tainted with the knowledge that they would end in a sudden freefall.

It just so happened that I came up for air in time for my six-month antidepressant follow up with my GP.  She moved out of state a few months back so I had to see a new guy, a slightly squirrelly doctor who was in a hurry.  Our appointment went something like this:

SquirrellyDOC:  So, what did Dr. X have you on?  Prozac?

SYLVAN:  60mg isn’t cutting it anymore.  Is there another level up or do I have to change drugs again?

SqDOC:  *blink*  Wait…tell me everything you’ve been on.

SYLVAN:  *counting on fingers, goes to both hands*

SqDOC:  Have you ever had a psych assessment?

SYLVAN:  No.

SqDOC:  Okay, GET ONE RIGHT NOW.

By the time I got to my appointment with the Crazy Whisperer, who was recommended by a dear friend of mine, I already knew what he was going to tell me – what I’d been suspecting but afraid to honestly face for months.  I *knew* depression wasn’t the whole story.  I knew there was something wrong with the way my meds kept having to change in these endless cycles.  I had been keeping track of my mood level in my To-Do List Book for over a year, and it looked like a sine wave on meth.

All those years that I kept getting reasonably okay only to fall back down again, all those times I kept trying to do better for myself only to crash so hard I couldn’t get out of bed, let alone keep up an exercise plan, all those self-help books that taught me so much but couldn’t break through my depression…well, it turns out we were only treating half the problem.

I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder phase IIhypomania with depression.  Most people think “manic/depressive” when they hear Bipolar, but there’s actually a fairly broad spectrum of symptoms ranging from uncomfortable to freaking scary.

People you see on TV labeled Bipolar tend to be really extreme examples of BP I – in which the manic phases are very pronounced and tend to be aggressive, hyperactive, and sometimes even dangerous (mostly from the person going off his or her meds because she likes being manic).  BP II is harder to spot, because in the “manic” phase it appears the person is just more like themselves, trying to make up for lost time, optimistic and bouncy and busy.  The person with this type might not realize there’s anything hinky about the hypomania because it seems like it’s “right,” without realizing the hypomania itself isn’t the problem so much as the violent cycling into and out of depression.

Losing my job last year destroyed all my structure, and for a while it was fun, but soon things started to slide–and even I, who am self-analyzing to the point of madness, didn’t realize what was happening.  My social circle shrank.  I pulled away from my family.  I acted out in alarming ways and hurt people I would never, ever hurt consciously.  My depressive periods grew darker and I began to rapid cycle. 

Worst of all, I was on the verge of giving up.  You can only fight for so long when you believe the battle is already lost.  I knew where I was headed:  the psych ward.  I vowed long ago never to kill myself, but that doesn’t leave me with a lot of options down at the bottom of the pit.

A few months ago I did what I often do and started reading more on the subject, specifically Dr. Andrew Weil’s new book Spontaneous Happiness that discusses a more holistic approach to mental health, and I started taking a DHA supplement and looking into other alternatives.  I think I was getting ready to take a bigger step, one I had been so afraid to…until that GP told me I had to go see a Crazy Whisperer and get a real diagnosis.  I knew he was right.  I had officially reached the end of my emotional pain tolerance.

In case you don’t know me: my tolerance for pain is pretty fucking high.

I was, therefore, relieved almost to the point of heady joy when I left the psych office with a real, professional, accurate diagnosis for my mental illness:  Bipolar II.

Which means I’ve been living with a misdiagnosis for over 13 years.

It turns out that this happens a lot – if you think health care in America is bad, wait until you have to deal with mental health care.  It’s poorly understood by many “regular” doctors, and considered quackery to others – STILL! – and not understood by the general public at all.  “Normal” people can’t understand what it really means to have depression – so just imagine how mysterious and, well, crazy anything less common would be.

My new Crazy Whisperer is a hilarious, bright, enthusiastic man who engaged me in conversation that felt natural and even when the tone was Serious Indeed never once let me feel like I was some kind of lunatic.  We talked about my religious history and my vegetarianism and my love for dancing (not only had he heard of Nia, he thinks it’s awesome), and together we arrived at a medical Plan to start with.

He put a big emphasis on regular exercise, establishing routines of rising and sleeping, steering my diet back away from simple carbohydrates (junk food) to more nourishing things that are anti-inflammatory (plant food).  He seemed impressed with how much I knew about the subject.  I was all, “Dude, I’m a wannabe vegan.  I’m up to here with nutritional research.”

This is where my obsessive love of self-help books is going to pay off – I already have a solid base of self-examination and analysis to start from, so I have not been blindsided by a crisis like many people are.  I am a student of my own weirdness, and that’s going to make a huge difference.

Just having the right diagnosis has already made me feel so much better.  Bipolar is not curable, but there’s so much I can do to help myself manage it, to learn to navigate the waves – now that I know what I’m really dealing with, I feel more optimistic than I have in a long, long time.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be implementing some changes in my life to try and stabilize my mess, so I’ll probably talk about this again, but just as talking about depression gave me hope that my experiences might resonate with someone and make them feel less alone, so too do I hope my words on Bipolar will help someone.   I could keep all of this private, sure – but who would that help? I’ve always believed part of my sacred duty as a writer was to share stories and experiences – whether my own or those of fictional characters – that could reach out to people.

But it’s absolutely not a coincidence that this is happening now – it was right there in my 2012 tarot reading, it’s been popping up in my meditations, that sense of import, of a tidal wave building – and I could keep flailing around exhausting myself and eventually drown, or I could relax and float and see where it took me.  Remember my word of the year?  TRUST.

I hope you’ll continue to journey with me as I make all these amazing new discoveries. I hope that others reading this will be able to better understand those they love who have these illnesses, or recognize them in themselves.  You are not alone.  You are not helpless. We are capable of such amazing things when we act from love and hope.

Don’t believe me?

Hide and watch.

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Valentine’s Day: 10 Ways to Show Yourself a Little Love

This post originally appeared in February 2012.

Today, whether you’re partnered or single, male or female, gay or straight or any shade of inbetween, let’s all take a moment to show ourselves some love – you don’t have to do anything drastic.  Just offer yourself a simple gesture of affection that reminds you:  “I am worth my own love.  I am worth my affection.”

Pick any one, or more, of these suggestions to give yourself a little love this Valentine’s Day.

 1 – Touch your body with kindness.

Being cruel to our bodies is so habitual we don’t even think twice about how we pinch, poke, prod, and push ourselves out of the way; but just for today, when you touch your own skin for any reason, just think, “I love you.”  Reach up and touch your face and feel your skin–that skin that holds you together, that faces the world on your behalf.  Touch your skin gently today.

2 – Drink a glass of water.

Airy-fairy affirmations and stuff might not be your thing, but I bet you a dollar your body likes being hydrated.  Go get a glass of iced water (or however you like it) and just drink it, and with every sip imagine the water running through your body and replenishing the cells that need it.

3 – Dare to eat a peach.

Get one piece of fruit, preferably something that takes a minute to peel and portion, and eat it, slowly, without doing anything else at the same time.  Pick something juicy, something full of life – something you don’t normally buy for yourself, if you tend to go for utilitarian fruits like apples and bananas.  You deserve a papaya today!  But even if it’s an apple, just enjoy it – your body will enjoy taking all those lovely nutrients and making new bits of you out of them.  Don’t eat the fruit as a “swap” or some other lame-ass diet thing – just eat a piece of fruit because it tastes good and your body loves good things from the Earth.

4 – Turn off the TV.

When was the last time you saw a commercial that didn’t try to convince you you aren’t acceptable the way you are?  All you need to be happy is to lose weight, and all you need for that is Yoplait or Special K’s magic granola bars!  Right?  Even those Dove “Campaign for Real Women” ads, which are nice to see because they feature more body diversity, are kind of sad when you remember that the same company (Unilever) makes Slim-Fast.  So turn it off.  Or, at the very least, when you’re watching a show you love, hit “mute” during the commercials, or record it on DVR so you can fast forward through them.  There’s never any reason to watch a commercial – you already have enough stuff, you already know where to buy yogurt.  Even the funny ones get old after the first ten times you see them…so hit mute!

5 ~ Reframe just one thought.

Just one.  Pick one thing you say to yourself often:  “I can’t do ___ until I lose ten pounds,” “I’m a fat porker,” “Look at these jiggly thighs!” “My hairline keeps running away from my face!” and change it.  Whenever you hear that thought in your mind, immediately pause, and very firmly, present yourself with a positive thought about that body part, that aspect of your personality, that issue.  It doesn’t even really have to be related – just becoming mindful of how often you have these negative thoughts can help cut down on how many you have.  Just pick one thing that your inner Evil Auctioneer likes to repeat at you and countermand it. Just one. You don’t have to change your whole way of thinking today; just pick one mean thing to stop saying to yourself.

6 ~ Tuck your tush and take a breath.

One of the fastest ways to feel better, calmer, happier, and more relaxed is something you’re going to do anyway:  breathing.  Because of how we sit all day, our hunched-over posture that puts pressure in all the wrong places, and the constant anxiety we live in, our bodies are stuck breathing in stress-mode:  shallow, up in the chest, the kind of breaths a panicked animal takes.  Stop.  Sit up straight.  Tuck your pelvis under – it’ll help straighten your spine and even out the flow of energy along your spinal column, plus it engages your leg muscles.  Take five slow, deep breaths, focusing your attention on the expansion of your ribcage, your belly moving in and out – just breathe.  Give your body some air!  When you walk, imagine a gentle hand pulling upward through your head to straighten out your spine.  Square off your shoulders.  I call this the “walk like the good guys are marching you dramatically down a hallway” walk.

7 ~ Get up and dance.

If you’re somewhere you can take a moment, turn on one song – just one – and shake it for a minute.  Just get up and move.  Lengthen your muscles.  Stand up and stretch upward, outward.  You don’t have to “do a workout,” there are no reps required – just let your body unkink for a minute.  Our sedentary lives do so much damage to our poor bodies as well as to our emotional well-being; your body was designed to move around!  Let her!  You don’t have to go all Lance Armstrong.

8 ~ Ditch your scale.

This one might be hard for a lot of you, but hear me out.  That number on the scale is not a measure of your worth as a human being.  It should not have the power to decide whether you’ll have a good day or a bad day.  Do not give a household appliance that kind of power over you.  Ditch it.  Let your doctor weigh you if you really need to know, and go by how your body feels.  If nothing else, stop weighing yourself every day – your weight is not a day to day constant, and obsessing over an ounce here and an ounce there leads to MADNESS.  Trust me on this one.  Give yourself once a week or better yet make it so you have to leave the house to weigh yourself.  The best thing, of course, would be not to worry about that stupid number and just move and eat in ways that make you feel good, but even a single step in that direction will help you relax about your body.  And we really, really need to relax about weight – shaming and hating and stressing over it is clearly not the solution, or we’d all be wraiths by now, right?  Go back to #1:  Touch your body with kindness.

9 ~ Look at something beautiful.

No, I’m not going to make you stand in front of a mirror – this is much easier.  We spend a lot of time in really ugly environments – cube farms, offices, assembly lines, industrial kitchens – and deal with a lot of really ugly people (meaning ugly in how they behave).  Switch your attention for a few minutes to something you find genuinely beautiful – a view of nature would be great, but even just a lovely pic on your desktop, a slideshow of images from somewhere in the world you want to visit, a painting you love.  Take in some beauty today.

10 ~ Tomorrow, when you get up, ask yourself, “How can I show myself some love today?”

Ask yourself that same question every day, and whether you pick something off this list or make up your own, you’ll find that giving yourself a little love adds up in surprising ways.

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