“CARING FOR YOUR LOVED ONE WITH A MENTAL ILLNESS THIS HOLIDAY SEASON” in this week’s issue of the MANILA MAIL, page A7) www.ManilaMailNewspaper.com

Pilipinasblitz Forever
A column by Bles Carmona
For the week of Dec. 10-16, 2014
CARING FOR YOUR LOVED ONE WITH A MENTAL ILLNESS THIS HOLIDAY SEASON
Early this year, I was browsing through the offerings of The Book Shop in Hayward, my favorite local bookstore, and came across a precious resource that I promptly snapped up. It’s a book called “When Someone You Love Has a Mental Illness: A Handbook for Family, Friends, and Caregivers,” revised and expanded, written by Rebecca Woolis, MFT, a licensed family therapist with more than 20 years of experience in working with people who suffer from mental illness, and with their families. She is in private practice in Berkeley, CA.
I felt that it would be helpful to approach the topic of mental illness and stress during the holiday season from the perspective of the family, caregivers, and friends of someone with a mental illness. Although statistics says that 1 in 5 Americans suffers from some form of mental illness, a happier flipside interpretation of this fact also means that the other 80% of you are free of any psychiatric symptoms. If you belong to the “sane” and “normal” 80%, please count your blessings. Someone like me with bipolar disorder and my 20% group mates would have to contend with the same life challenges like you do but we have a disability which may impact our coping skills in many ways.
Here is an excerpt from Woolis’ book, a quick reference guide (one among many within its pages) and this is “How to behave around people who have a mental illness”:
1. Treat them with respect, even if you do not understand some of the things they do or say.
2. Be as supportive, accepting, and positive as you can.
3. Be calm, clear, direct, and brief in your communication with them.
4. Engage them in casual conversation or activities with which you and they are comfortable.
5. Do not touch them or joke with them unless you know them well and know they are comfortable with such interactions.
6. Do not ask a lot of questions about their lives.
7. Do not give advice unless they request it.
8. Do not discuss in any detail religion, politics, or any other topic that is highly emotional for them, as these topics may be intertwined with delusional thinking. Explain that these are personal or individual issues that you prefer not to discuss.
9. If they behave in ways that are unacceptable to you, calmly tell them specifically what they can and cannot do. (pp. 106-107)
Now the holidays, for some mysterious reasons, seem to either excite or depress people with mental illnesses. Folks are hustling and bustling all around, making party and family reunion preparations, thinking up gift ideas, shopping, planning a vacation, sprucing up the home, and doing a million other things during this season. These could be positive sources of stress that bring out the best in a lot of people, inspiring them to give their all into this festive, joyous time. However, for someone with a mental illness, facing these situations could be daunting, overwhelming, or downright confusing. The result could either be feelings and thoughts of amped-up excitement as they look forward to all the celebrations, or paralyzing depression at the thought of having to go through what in their minds will be a joyless holiday for one reason or the other. Sometimes the anticipation, the very thought of all that has yet to happen, could rob a person of the appreciation for the present moment. Conversely, if this holiday reminds them of a significant event in the past, then they can get sad, agitated, stressed out. Notice here that in both cases, there is an under-appreciation of today. Who was it who said that today is a gift and that’s why it’s called the present? My sentiments exactly. With a measure of mindfulness, we can ditch the guilt about the past or anxiety about the future and just focus on how blessed we are today, right at this present moment. You may say, yeah, easier said than done, to which I will counter, hey, it’s worth a try.
Now here’s what Woolis suggests in her quick reference guide on “Handling the Holidays”: You can help your relative reduce stress by:
1. Discussing plans in advance
2. Acknowledging any mixed feelings he or she may have. Do not make assumptions about how he or she will feel or act.
3. Keeping expectations realistic, especially regarding whether your relative can tolerate a gathering, for how long, and what kind of participation he or she is capable of
4. Respecting and supporting your relative’s choices and decisions regarding whether he or she is comfortable participating and in what way
5. Accepting your and relative’s limits
6. Helping your relative figure out how to handle some of the stress (e.g., how the person might answer questions, what task he or she might like to focus on, how long to stay, places to go to take breaks), if he or she is willing and able to discuss the event and his or her feelings. It may be important to acknowledge all family members’ needs, preferences, and limits before a workable solution can be reached. (pp. 166-167)

Now let’s talk about “Minimizing relapses.” According to Woolis, you must see to it that your loved one with a mental illness has a “therapeutic day-to-day lifestyle” which includes regular exercise, recreational activities, a daily routine, eating a balanced diet, and avoiding the use of alcohol and illegal drugs. Make sure that you can identify the early warning signs of relapse, such as: any marked change in behavior patterns (eating, sleeping, social habits); absent, excessive, or inappropriate emotions and energy; odd or unusual beliefs, thoughts, perceptions; difficulty in carrying out usual activities; impairment in communication; and any idiosyncratic (i.e., unique to the person) behavior that preceded past relapses.

When warning signs do appear, do the following: Notify the doctor and request an evaluation, maybe an increase in medication is indicated; maintain involvement in any ongoing psychiatric treatment program; responsibly decrease any known environmental stressors; minimize any changes in routine; maintain the “therapeutic lifestyle” described above, especially keeping the environment as calm, safe, and predictable as possible; and discuss your observations with your relative, talk about steps he or she might take to prevent another relapse, hospitalization, or incarceration. To minimize the impact of a relapse, it pays to be prepared: Have a crisis plan ready for yourself; keep emergency phone numbers and procedures in a convenient place; know your limits and how you will proceed if they are exceeded; and tell your relative calmly and clearly what your limits are, what they need to do next, and what you will do if those limits are exceeded. In some cases, you may have to call the police.
Be prepared. But also be kind to yourself. Neither you nor your loved one with a mental illness had a choice about your respective roles. However, from this point on, you know that facts and awareness are now being thrust upon you. Ms. Rebecca Woolis, MFT, in her book, “When Someone You Love Has a Mental Illness,” talks about various other topics which are so crucial in your shared difficult journey with your loved one. Her book is a valuable resource to me personally because I get to appreciate how hard it must be for my family and friends to cope when I am undergoing either the delirious hyperactivity of mania or the energy-less stupor of depression. Now through this book, they can be equipped with the tools to deal with me while at the same time protecting themselves by being urged to set limits.
This year marks my second relapse-free year and I am thankful to Spirit for guiding my thoughts, feelings, and behavior. I thank my family and friends for their love, loyalty, and support. I am thankful for my caring, competent, and compassionate psychiatrist, Dr. Gilda Versales, my doctor since early 2009. To all of you, blessings and light! Maraming salamat po sa inyong lahat!
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Find advisor Blesilda44 at KEEN.com, 1-800-ASK-KEEN (1-800-275-5336), extension 05226567 either by phone or chat: Mon-Fri 7-10 pm, Sat-Sun 7-11 pm Pacific. I speak English, Tagalog, and some Spanish. For personal readings (fee required), email me here: blessingsandlight725@gmail.com

“GIVING THANKS EACH CHANCE WE GET” in this week’s issue of the MANILA MAIL (Nov. 26-Dec. 2, 2014, page A7)

Pilipinasblitz Forever
A column by Bles Carmona
For the week of Nov. 26-Dec. 2, 2014

GIVING THANKS EACH CHANCE WE GET

Happy Thanksgiving Week to everyone! I know that once we settled here, we Filipino-Americans did as the Americans have done such that we have learned to adopt Thanksgiving as our own holiday, too, although the historical reasons for celebrating it are largely North American in nature. The so-called first Thanksgiving was a romanticized account of how the colonists and the Native Americans shared a meal. According to History.com, “In 1621, the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn harvest feast that is acknowledged today as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in the colonies. For more than two centuries, days of thanksgiving were celebrated by individual colonies and states.” For the record, we are neither ignoring the bad blood between the two camps nor overlooking the violence and injustice perpetrated by the “white man” against the Native Americans. Instead, during this season we just choose to focus on the many ways we are giving thanks for all the blessings we receive, and yes, even for the trials, from a God/Goddess who does not discriminate based on skin color and other markers of our differences. Personally, I believe that we are all united by love and compassion, which in my book are the only true religions. But then, that’s just me.

I have kept a gratitude journal for several years now. I do admit that there were periods when my entries were sporadic and uninspired. During those times, I may have been feeling depressed or frustrated. Perhaps during 50% of those “dry spells,” I remember trying very hard to write at least a couple of entries like, “I am grateful for a room of my own” or “I thank God for my comfortable, lived-in slippers.” I try to notice every single thing, every little thing, which normally I’d be taking for granted when I’m being thankful for the big things, the exuberant feelings, the dramatic events. Therefore, throughout the years, I have come to a personal conclusion: it is when I’m going through a dark night of the soul that I must try harder to find things, people, and events in my life to be thankful for, because you know what? Any which one of those could be taken away from me at any time. In short, what I’m trying to say is I’d like to exhort you to appreciate the people and things in your life and to be thankful for them. A wise woman told me lately that there is a difference between appreciation and gratitude, and I think I’m beginning to understand now. Appreciation is when we have a sensitive awareness of people and things just because they are there, while gratitude or thankfulness is usually our reaction when we asked for a favor and it was granted.

One of my adult learners, Benjamin, is also doing a gratitude journal and sometimes we read out our entries to each other during our tutoring sessions. Aside from being a springboard to correct any grammatical or spelling errors (if any), his handwritten journal gives me a precious insight into how he thinks and feels. There was one statement he wrote that I couldn’t forget because it had a profound impact on me: “I thank God that the earth is round with four corners. Even if people are different, they are all the same.” Benjamin even accompanied his entry with a crayon-drawn quasi-realistic globe with the continents mapped in and a cross in the middle of the globe to signify the four major directions. He really got into it.

Browsing through my latest gratitude journal, here are some things that I have thanked God and Goddess for:
1. I am thankful for the few friends that I have. They may not be that many but I have experienced their love, support, and loyalty. I am also thankful for my wonderful family.
2. I am thankful for my ability to read. This ability alone expands my world, influences my point of view, and spurs me into action.
3. I am thankful for my comfortable clothes and shoes that keep me warm even in the coldest weather.
4. I am thankful to be able to ride AC Transit Bus #22 (my main transportation to and from Chabot College where I go to school).
5. I am thankful that I went out on a date with him today (whomever “him” is at the moment).

And so on and so forth. The idea for me here was to give thanks every chance I got lest I just let the moment pass and take all those bountiful blessings and seemingly inconsequential things for granted. Our Great Father and Great Mother have been good to me. I have even come to terms with my disability, bipolar disorder, and somehow turned it into a wellspring of inspiration for meeting people with disabilities like me, as well as healers of the mind, body, and spirit, and other very interesting people. If not for my illness, I wouldn’t have had the privilege, 14 years ago, of founding the Biopsychosocial Support and Interaction Group (BISIG) which was the first support group for people with mental disorders in the entire Philippines at the time. If not for my illness, I wouldn’t have met my wonderful members, most of whom are living drama-free productive lives these days. I am thankful that after much trial and error, I have learned not to be ashamed of my mental illness anymore and to do my best to live as normal a life as possible given my limitations.

Now just this past Sunday, I happened to be at the Angel Light Books in Berkeley again for their Thanksgiving Psychic Fair. As a “thank you” to all the loyal customers who have frequented the shop, store owner Ms. Valencia Chan asked us to join her for complimentary hors d’ oeuvres, pumpkin pie, and ginger peach tea. All of us who were in the store that day received a free gemstone heart which we picked with our eyes closed from her elegant black velvet pouch. I got a red jasper which Ms. Valencia said is supposed to energize the blood and increase one’s stamina. Goodness knows, with finals week coming up soon, I need all the help I can get. There were readers there for Chinese Fortune Telling, Tarot, Palm Reading, and African Shell Reading available for $20 for each type for 15 minutes, as usual. Of course, I haven’t experienced an African Shell Reading yet so that’s what I went for. Ms. Khadijah Grant, dressed in traditional African garb, was my reader. There was an invocation to my ancestors since according to Ms. Khadijah, they are always available to help. She asked me to move my right hand three times among the shells, coins, stones, etc., heaped over a circular symbol on her table mat. The long and short of it is that I need to get more grounded and that I am being urged to use more of my gifts for the benefit of others. She asked me to do a “mineral meditation” since minerals stand for memories – part of my grounding work, acknowledgement of my ancestors, and a call for guidance from the Earth itself where I am to do my future work.

As I am wont to say to myself as I feel my beating heart, “It is well with my soul.” It truly is. It is well with my soul. Happy Thanksgiving to you all!

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Find advisor Blesilda44 at KEEN.com, 1-800-ASK-KEEN (1-800-275-5336), extension 05226567 either by phone or chat: Mon-Fri 7-10 pm, Sat-Sun 7-11 pm Pacific. I speak English, Tagalog, and some Spanish. For personal readings (fee required), email me here: blessingsandlight725@gmail.com