Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Homework: a short story

Justin had everything he needed laid out in front of him.
Geography book.
Pencil.  Actually multiple pencils.  The leads sometimes broke or just as often the pencils rolled away, as if by their own will, to hide under the desk. Justin included colored pencils too, just to make things interesting.
There was, of course, the homework sheet itself.  It was a fill in the blanks sheet all about cartography, otherwise known as map-reading.  Kinda boring, but okay.  Time to focus, Justin thought.  He looked to the left and saw his reading book and underneath that, a math worksheet.  More work.
Justin looked at the first part of the worksheet.  He had to label the different parts of maps.  Should be easy.  First were a series of little triangles, all bunched together.
“Psst,” came a voice from below.
Ignore.  What were the little triangles supposed to be?
Then the voice again.  “Hey Justin.”
Justin looked down to the floor.  It was Rex, Knight of the Realm.  Like usual.  Being an action figure, he stared up at the giant Justin above.  His four inch stature made him no less a warrior...  he had shiny armor and a long silver sword.  Rex had defended Justin's kingdom from many a threat, typically from Lord Tyranno, the Evil Knight, and Tyranno's menagerie of plastic dragons and assorted super villains.
“Justin,” Rex continued. “I really need your help.”
Justin put down his pencil. “Rex, I really need to do my homework.  Okay?”
“But Justin, Lord Tyranno is planning an attack.  Tonight.”
Justin sighed and picked his pencil up.  He began tapping it slowly on the desk.  Tap.  Tap.  Tap.
Rex spread his arms pleadingly. “We need you.”
Tap tap tap tap tap.
Justin had an idea.
“What do you need me to do?” he asked Rex.
“Fight with us,” Rex replied, raising his sword to the ceiling.
“Maybe,” Justin said, “Just maybe I could help you plan your attack.”
“Really?”  Rex lowered his sword.  This wasn't what he expected. “How do you mean?”
“I could make you a map,” Justin offered.
“A map?”  Rex considered the idea for a moment.  “I like that,” he said.
Justin smiled.  “Okay, so give me a minute.  I'm learning all about map making.”
Rex took a step back and waited, as patiently as any knight ready for battle could.  Fortunately, Justin finished his worksheet in mere minutes.  Rex saw him put the sheet aside.
“Are we ready?” Rex said eagerly.
Justin looked at his reading assignment.  He was to read the short tale of a young boy, a squire to a heroic knight in medieval times, and answer a few questions about the story.
“I think this might help too,” Justin said. “I can learn all about knights and swords and jousting.”
Rex nodded. “Sounds like my kind of story,” the tiny warrior said.
Justin read through the story, about how the boy inspired the knight to victory over a much stronger foe.  He was almost done with the questions when he heard a voice from the living room.
“How are you doing on homework?”
“Almost done, mama,” Justin said.
Rex stiffened.  “W- was that--”  he stammered, “was that the Queen?”
Justin smiled. “Yes,” he said.  “That was the Queen.”
Rex dropped to one knee and held his sword in front of him. “I am at your service, my Queen.”
“I don't think she can hear you,” Justin said.
Rex stood. “We must defend her kingdom,” he said.
“I know,” Justin said.  He thought for a second.  “I have a duty to the Queen too, you know.”
“You do?”
“Of course,” Justin said.  “My duty...”  He thought for a second.  “My duty is to be the best kid I can for her.  Do my homework, clean my room, all that stuff.”
Rex nodded slowly.
“Do you understand, Rex?”
The tiny warrior bowed.  “I do, sir.  A Prince's first duty is always to his Queen.”
“I just have to do my math.  So keep an eye out for Lord Tyranno until I'm done.”
“I shall.”  Rex turned and began scanning the horizon (in this case, the toy chest next to Justin's closet) for approaching villainy.
Justin finished his math worksheet just a few minutes later, far more quickly than he thought he would.
“Mama,”  Justin shouted, “I'm done!”
Justin's mom entered his room and stood behind him.  She gave his shoulder a quick squeeze.
“Math and everything?”  she said.
“Math and everything,” Justin replied.
She stooped down and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek.
“You're the best kid ever,”  she said.  “You know that?”
“I know,” Justin said with a giggle.  “Can I play now?”
“Just for a little bit,”  she said.  “Then it's time for your shower and bed.  Okay?”
“Mama?”  Justin said as she exited his room.
“Yeah, honey?”
“I love you.”
A bright smile spread across her face.  “I love you too,”  she said.
Justin went for his foam sword as soon as his mother stepped out of the room.  He kept it next to his desk, so he would always be ready to do battle.  He hefted it, and suddenly it became gleaming silver, forged by the finest blacksmith in the land.
“Rex,” Justin cried out, “I'm ready!”
Justin heard a voice from the far corner of his room.  It was Rex, of course.
“I need your help, Justin,” the knight said.  “Lord Tyranno has locked me in his dungeon!”
“I'm on my way!”  Justin cried out as he charged forward.
So Justin managed to rescue Rex and the two of them fought the good fight against the nefarious Lord Tyranno.  Just until bedtime, of course.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

How to Cope With Depression and Anxiety

I have suffered from depression and anxiety since my early teen years.
There are those times when I can keep my personal demons in check. I will feel pretty decent and I am able to move forward with life. There are other times that it is a little (or a lot) (or a whole lot) harder to cope. Sometimes the challenges and hardships will come at me fast and furious. Sometimes I trip and fall into a well of negative thoughts, regret, and fear about the future, and it takes everything I have to scramble on out of there.
You might have some of the same challenges. So what do you do? What do you do when the hole is deep, the day is long, and it takes all you have to just keep standing?
Let me help:
Move: Exercise has frequently been called “nature’s happy drug”. When you exercise (and I have found this to be true even when I do a quick yoga routine) your body releases endorphins, the source of that exercise rush that many experience. Exercise also gives you a feeling of control over your life and yourself, along with the more obvious benefits that a sustained exercise program can bring.
It almost doesn’t matter what you choose to do to get fit… from the aforementioned yoga, to weights, martial arts, running, or even walking. Just get moving. Move enough and your personal demons may not be able to catch up!
Meditate: Meditation can be many things, but to me it is ultimately about clearing out your mind and emotions to make room for more positive thoughts and feelings. Meditation doesn’t have to be sitting in a lotus position for an hour, surrounded by fragrant candles, and chanting one’s mantra. It can be as simple as laying quietly and calmly in bed, trying to relax, and clearing your mind of the emotional and cognitive detritus of the day. I have found that being “goal-oriented” about meditating (“I must meditate today!”) will not serve you well. Just relax, let it happen, and try again another day if you struggle to clear your mind. Don’t give up and keep trying. I promise that it will be worth it in the end.
Mindfulness: Being mindful of the present moment can help get you out of a depressive funk or steer you away from an anxiety attack. Does it sound a bit counter-intuitive to take a deep dive into an unpleasant moment? Not necessarily. Here’s how it works:
  1. Take notice of the input from all your senses. People often favor one sense over another, so give special attention to, say, the sounds around you if you’re more of a visual person.
  2. Focus only on what’s happening at that moment. Think of it as effectively stopping or slowing time (Neo dodging bullets in The Matrix would be a decent reference point here). Take it all in.
One of the reasons this works is that anxiety is typically about fear of what the future may bring and depression is often about regrets and the past. Being fully and firmly in the present moment goes along way towards pulling you out of that dark whirlpool of emotion.
Breathe: I occasionally have anxiety attacks. Mine typically aren’t as severe as those others experience, but an attack can still ruin my day and make me feel exhausted. One tactic that I have tried is to become conscious of and regulate my breathing. Doing so will calm me down to the point that I can take other steps (see CBT, below) that will help me get back into a calmer state. Here’s what works for me:
  1. Become aware of your breathing (shortness of breath is one of the hallmarks of an anxiety attack).
  2. Start trying to take deeper breaths. This usually takes a number of tries.
  3. Once you have some semblance of control over your breathing, try for slower, patterned breathing. 5-5-5 works for me. I breath in to the count of five, hold for the count of five, then breath out for the the count of five.
Think: I learned about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) years ago and have practiced it ever since. Essentially, CBT is the art and science of rational and positive thinking in the face of negativity and adversity.
Here’s an example:
You get word that your job is about to be eliminated. Your first thought could be, “my boss thinks I’m terrible at my work”. This is a thought distortion known as “mind reading”.  You could respond to that negative thought like this:
My boss has never had a complaint about my work before, so there’s no reason to think any different now. The company is struggling right now, so it’s obvious that this is a financial decision.
Then you might think, “oh no, I’ll never find another job. I’ll go broke”. Here we have the distortion known as fortune-telling. Now take that thinking error and really examine it:
While there might be a month or two that I’m out of work, I will be getting unemployment so at least I won’t starve. Being out of work for a period of time could actually be a good thing in the end. I will be able to work on cleaning up the basement, plus I can get caught up on reading. Best of all, I have a chance to find a better job!
Humor: A good chuckle or two can keep your depression at bay (a hearty guffaw is even better!). Find some funny memes on Facebook, a favorite comedy movie, or tell someone a few terrible “dad jokes” (a personal favorite of mine).
Reach out: It’s hugely helpful to talk to an understanding person. You certainly don’t want advice along the lines of “just suck it up” or “have you tried thinking positive?”... that’s what you get from folks who truly don’t understand what you’re going through.  Often it’s enough to have someone to talk to who will merely listen, who won’t judge or condescend to you.
Do something: The best way to manage one’s bouts with depression and anxiety (to my mind, anyway) is to do something. Anything. Set a small goal:
  • Go for a walk.
  • Do your dishes.
  • Make your bed.
  • Read a chapter in that new book of yours.
  • Finish your to-do list for the day.
Then move on to a slightly bigger goal (or goals):
  • Go for a walk every day for a week.
  • Finish that book.
  • Do a thorough house-cleaning.
  • Finish your goal list for the week.
It almost doesn’t matter what you pick to accomplish… the point is to get some sense of achievement. Build on those goals and then you can build on that feeling of accomplishment, which will build your confidence and help you reach even bigger goals.
You might also want to throw yourself into a hobby, skill, or charitable pursuit. I fancy myself a writer (evidence being this blog and two published books). Writing, even a little, helps me considerably. Your interests may be quite different than mine… perhaps you’re into art, sports, poetry, home improvement, gardening, or any of a myriad other things. The point is to do something (or perhaps a few somethings) that makes you happy and maybe even stirs your soul. Please note the very deliberate emphasis on the word you. It’s critical that you indulge in something that you enjoy. You need to express your own desires and do something that you happy… not what pleases someone else. Anxiety and depression often come from the stress of unrealized goals and unexpressed desires.
You may not be able to conquer your depression and anxiety, but you can learn to manage it. You can control it, so it no longer controls you and your life!