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Sharing Stories

Written by Caitlyn P

When I was little, my mom would read me stories before I went to bed, but my favorite nights were the ones when she would make up her own stories and tell them to me, about a little girl with my name who went on adventures with mermaids or bears or her team of stuffed animals. Those stories were created for me and kept by me, but what I really remember now is the experience of being a listener.

Humans are natural storytellers. Since early civilizations, people have sat around fires and tell each other stories about how the world was formed, where humans came from, and what their purpose was in the world. In many ways, we still do this today. And the reason we tell stories today is perhaps the same reason we’ve always told stories. Whether it’s a quick sentence summarizing an experience or a full-blown retelling of an incident, there’s something very human in the act of sharing a story with another person.

When we tell a story, as well as when we listen to one, we are engaging in a sort of connection with one or two or several other people. In an article about the importance of stories, Dr. Kirsti A. Dyer points out that storytelling is one of the oldest healing arts, practiced by grieving individuals to cope with loss or illness, and that stories told by others can provide hope.

Media Psychologist Dr. Pamela Rutledge, in an article on the psychology of storytelling, points to evidence that storytelling helps us get in touch with a deeper part of ourselves and, through mythology and symbolism, broadens our understanding of universal truths and patterns in the way we experience life.

Dyer also says that stories can also inspire others to share their own experiences. The thing about experience is that, as humans, we all see and feel and know things that we can show to others through the stories we tell them, and even if the listener has never seen or felt or known those same things, they will be able to connect to at least a small part of what is being told to them. And isn’t connection what we’re all looking for?

Some days, when I realize how fast life moves us from one story to the next, I’m hit with a wave of nostalgia for the made-up stories my mom used to tell me, mainly those shared moments that make up a part of the history of who I am and who I am becoming. I have more experiences now, and more of my own stories—tales of grief, of hope, of the patterns in human life. And partly because I’m a writer, but also partly because I’m just human, I share them.



Transforming Stress Time Into Mediation Time

Written by Caitlyn P

When I moved to Chicago for school, my other off-campus friends told me that the first couple of weeks of commuting are exciting, an adventure, and you can’t get enough of it.  But then, they said, once you’re settled in and used to the buses, the trains, and the long walks down the streets where buses don’t run, you become quickly disenchanted.

It happened more quickly than I expected it to.  After just a couple days of adjusting to my new semester’s class schedule, I started closing my eyes to make myself feel like I was getting just a little more rest because the coffee or tea or whatever form of caffeine I was using hadn’t kicked in yet.  I would stare out the window and wonder why the traffic had to be so heavy, why everyone had to pile on the bus at one stop and get off at several others.

I started, in short, to think of my commute as a waste of time.  I don’t like wasting time.  As a student, I have plenty of things I need to get done during any given week.  Sitting down to relax and recover from the stress load of the week is one of those things.

So how can a commute, typically stressful in itself, help us to get more than heap after heap of stress out of our work week?

Using that time for meditation is one possibility.  Meditation as a relaxation technique is gaining popularity in research studies.  Yale University Researchers have explored the relationship between sleep and meditation, in an article published by Psychology Today.  Researchers found that people who meditate on a regular basis can more easily tune out the parts of the brain associated with anxiety and other mental health issues.  Meditating can help lead to a greater mental alertness and clarity of thought.

The type of meditation ideal for fifteen to twenty minute intervals is called transcendental meditation.  It relaxes the mind and body by releasing stress and tiredness, and can be practiced simply by sitting comfortably with eyes closed.

Zen meditation may take more time than transcendental meditation, but if practiced it includes closing the mind to any thoughts or images that might occur to it in order to escape from the constant talk of one’s mind.

Taoist meditation is typically seen as a more practical meditative form.  Its purpose is to focus a person’s flow of breath by expanding and contracting the abdomen.  Through this, anybody practicing this type of meditation will gain a focused attention that may be applied to situations in everyday life.  This is the type of meditation that encourages focusing on the positive when a negative situation arises.

Mindfulness meditation, in contrast, is involved with being alert of everything that’s going on in the present situation, forcing our bodies to focus on what we can’t change.  It’s all about being aware of things you don’t have any control over.

These are only a couple of the many different varieties of meditation, though nearly all of them can be utilized for the purposes of relaxation or increased well-being, both mentally and physically.  The Maharishi Foundation outlines specific meditation health benefits including reduced high blood pressure, increased productivity, and decreased anxiety among practitioners of transcendental meditation.  The most important thing when deciding which type of meditation to practice is deciding what works with your schedule and what you need to get out of it, because, like a lot of other things, what you get out of it is what you put into it.



Emotional Community-Laughing and Crying

Written by Caitlyn P

I went to visit my family recently after two months away from them—the longest amount of time I’ve spent away from them to date.  I was feeling lonely in the city, with just a couple friends, an imaginary cat, and endless varieties of tea.  I knew it was time to go home.  Past time.  And that all I needed was a hug from my mom, my brother, my sister.  I needed to hear them laugh.  To watch corn fields flash past the window.  I spent less than twenty-four hours with them, and it was the happiest almost day I’ve had in a long time.

But when everybody had gone to sleep and I was still up doing my homework, I sat on the living room floor and just cried for a good twenty minutes.  They weren’t tears of happiness or loneliness.  I think I just needed a good cry.

In Chicago, where I have to be alone and be an adult and show everybody how strong I am emotionally and mentally and physically, I hold everything in.  I cry less, because crying doesn’t feel like strength.  I laugh less, because when something hysterical happens and I turn to tell a friend about it, there’s only a stranger on the bus.

If the stranger is fortunate enough to witness the same event, though, we share a moment.  We share laughter.  We share a piece of life.  Laughter brings people together in a shared experience.

On that trip home, I visited my great-grandma in the hospital.  In the seriousness of what was going on—the fact that I was making a brief visit home just to make sure I’d get to see her one last time—I was expecting a quiet visit, soft voices and soft touches, the sort of thing that happens in movies.  But my great-grandma, great as she is, spent the time of my visit telling us all, half-jokingly, about how she doesn’t want to sit and talk with people.  She wants to sit and be silent.

She did most of the talking.

An article by Psychology Today points to evidence that laughter can make mental stress less debilitating.  It allows blood vessels to relax and has an effect on the body that is similar to the benefits of aerobic exercise.  Laughter replaces more negative emotions in a way that is almost medicinal.  According to the British Medical Journal, laughter also has some ability to increase pain thresholds.

I think that, especially when you’re facing the fact that someone you love is on the verge of no longer being with you, the emotional boundaries are fragile.  You can burst into tears at any second.  But you can also burst into fits of laughter, so loud and pure that it heals the broken pieces inside of you.  Maybe tears are the breaking that has to come before the healing laughs.

That’s why when somebody tells a good joke at a funeral, you laugh even with tears streaked across your face, when you feel like you shouldn’t be laughing so you laugh harder.  When it’s over, for a moment, everything is okay.



Letter About Depression

Written by Caitlyn P

Dear Reader,

My mom diagnosed me with depression today.  She’s not a doctor.  She’s speaking from personal experience, and sometimes, I think, that holds a greater weight.

It’s not that I’m surprised by her diagnosis, or by her telling me that my symptoms match her initial symptoms.  I noticed the similarities years ago.  But I figured that as long as she didn’t notice, as long as she didn’t acknowledge it, then I was safe.  Surely, even if I felt depressed sometimes, I must be depression-free.

Art and depression go hand in hand, sure, but I thought I would at least have my first book published by now, a movie deal and a house in the country.  I thought the only writers who could really be depressed were the famous ones.  I guess, somewhere in the back of my mind, I thought that I had to reach a bunch of milestones before I would eventually smash into that wall of laying in bed crying just because my alarm went off and I have to struggle through another day.  And even though I had done that in the past, it couldn’t be depression because afterwards, for a time, I was okay again.  I was happy.  When the sun rose, I forgot that night would come.

And now, here I am again standing at the bottom of the dark pit, watching my friends laugh as they sit in the sunlight around the edge, not noticing how far I’ve fallen or how deep I’m sinking.  I can’t remember how I got out before.  But I know that I did.  And there’s some comfort in that.

It doesn’t help that my last childhood pet just died, it’s the anniversary of my aunt’s death, and—well, nothing really helps, does it?

I bought some mandarin oranges and bananas to keep on my desk, because they were bright, and bright colors make me feel a little bit brighter.  I bought myself tea with rose hips, and it smells like springtime and magic and happiness.  I’ve been spending time with my favorite authors, primarily Steinbeck, and I’ve been focusing more and more on the thing I love most: writing.  I’ve forced myself to make time for the people I love most.  And for a few minutes at a time, all of those things do make the emptiness feel less hollow.  Nothing makes it go away for good.

The reason I’m writing to you, though, isn’t to remind you of the hurt or the emptiness or the inescapability of depression.  There are a lot of people out there who don’t understand because they’ve never felt any of these things.  And their lack of understanding doesn’t mean that they’re “normal” or that we’re overreacting or that anybody is wrong for feeling what they do or don’t feel.  It only means that they don’t understand.  When people don’t understand something, it’s up to the people who do understand it to help them, so that society can reach a sort of equilibrium of compassion and hope and light.

I’m writing to you because writing to somebody else who understands makes me feel less alone, and I wanted you to know, too, that you’re not alone.  That none of us are alone in this darkness.  The sun will rise again, and the sun will fall again, and when one of our candles goes out, there are thousands of others burning, willing to share their light until dawn comes.

My mom diagnosed me with depression today, and it isn’t right now, but one day, eventually, it’s going to be okay.



The Benefits of a Balanced Diet

Written by Caitlyn P

Before I became a vegetarian, I didn’t pay any attention to my nutritional intake.  Mostly because I didn’t have to.  I was a sophomore in high school.  I had a bagel for breakfast while I was running out the door to catch my ride, I’d buy my lunch, and I was fed whatever everyone else was fed for dinner.

Vegetarianism wasn’t as big a change as my family always thought it was (“But what do you eat?”).  I still ate cheese, and I wasn’t willing to substitute anything for the eggs in my mom’s best brownie, cookie, and nutroll recipes.  But I quickly became aware, among holiday interviews from family members who were concerned I wouldn’t get enough protein or iron or fiber, that paying attention to what I eat was going to need to become a priority.

I do it without thinking now, but starting off I was always checking packages for protein content, making sure I had some broccoli (my favorite green vegetable) every day, adding a variety of beans to whatever I cooked because I’d heard somewhere that beans have good things for vegetarians.  It was never a problem—I saw it as fun, something new, a way to add things to my diet that I’d never tried before.  I finally discovered what tofu was.  I learned how to make weird combinations of foods taste good.

In all the first four years of vegetarianism, though, I never thought about why my family was—and still is—so worried about what nutrients I take in or miss.  I didn’t think to wonder what happens to the body when it’s deficient of any of its regular nutrients.

The thing is, our diet has as much impact on our mental health as it does on our physical health.  An article published by outlines the vitamins and nutrients our body needs on a daily basis in order to stay mentally fit.  Among other things, it suggests a link between depression and deficiencies in certain nutrients, such as calcium, omega-3s, vitamin D, and zinc.

The Indian Journal of Psychiatry points to evidence that a theme underscoring many vitamin deficiencies is a deficiency of the chemicals serotonin and dopamine, neurotransmitters that are responsible for controlling our behavior.  A study found that deficiency in these nutrients was common among patients suffering from mental disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

That said, eating a balanced diet may improve our mental health, but it isn’t the cure-all to mental illnesses.  Even those who focus on eating well-balanced meals may suffer from stress, and stress eats away at our body’s necessary nutrients.

Eating well, though, is something we can all benefit from.  At least making a small effort to keep ourselves healthy goes a long way on the road to being healthy, mentally, emotionally, and physically.  It doesn’t require a revolution of thought or a transition from carnivorism to veganism.  You don’t have to cut out everything that tastes good.  In my experience, eating healthy has only involved trying new things, making them work with my diet and my lifestyle, and trying to be the best of myself.


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