Alphabet of Intention

When I wake up in the middle of the night. Instead of counting sheep or counting backwards from 100, for each letter of the alphabet, I repeat a word that inspires me or that is a trait I’d like to embody. I repeat this alphabet of intention until I drift off. It always works.

As the year begins, I thought why save this practice for my insomnia? Why not incorporate the alphabet of intention into every single day? So, I am going to practice saying my ABCs regularly, reminding myself that these are areas of growth for me, qualities to cultivate, ways of being to aspire to.

Of course, there are other words that can be used (I don’t repeat the same ABCs every night; they vary), but this is what I’ve been repeating for the last few weeks.

A –  Appreciation. Recognize the good, the beautiful, the inspiring.

B –  Bravery. Be bold. Stand up. Speak out.

C –  Compassion. Be sensitive to others.

D –  Delight. Enjoy life.

E –  Engagement. Be involved both with whom you are interacting and with what you are doing.

F –  Forgiveness. Let go of resentment.

G –  Gratitude. Give thanks for the large and small gifts in your life.

H –  Health. Be well, physically and emotionally.

I –  Intention. Have a purpose and work toward it.

J –  Non-judgement. Be with things as they are instead of automatically reacting to them.

K –  Kindness. Be nice. To everyone.

L –  Let go. Release expectations.

M –  Marvel. Notice the miracles and the wonder all around you.

N –  Nourishment. Do what you need to do to be healthy, both in body and spirit.

O –  Openness. Be yourself. Be honest. Be vulnerable.

P –  Peace. Maintain presence of mind.

Q –  Quiet. Allow for moments (or longer) of calm.

R –  Reflection. Examine your own thoughts, words, and actions. Regularly.

S –  Strength. Dig deep and unleash your ability to be resilient, to endure and not break.

T –  Transformation. Allow change to happen.

U –  Uplift. Raise your awareness. Be encouraged.

V –  Value. Know your principles.

W –  Wisdom. Cultivate insight.

X –  Exultant. Be happy.

Y –  Yes I Can. Have confidence in yourself and your abilities.

Z –  Zen. Engage in quiet meditation.

Happy New Year! May we all be happy and healthy.

Suicide: He Did Not Kill Himself

My friend Fred was in town from Colorado for Jason’s memorial. The morning of the memorial, I was part of a group that met with Fred to run the hike and bike trail and then have brunch at another friend’s house. While I was talking with Fred at the brunch, Jason’s name came up, and Fred said to me, “He didn’t kill himself; depression killed him.” Whether these were Fred’s own words or not, they struck a chord with me. Honestly, I had never considered that the disease of depression – not the person – could be held responsible for the death.

Even as I speak the words, I realize that no one would ever say, “He killed himself,” when talking about someone who died from complications related to Type 2 diabetes or about a life-long smoker who died of lung cancer, even though their own actions or inactions certainly contributed to their deaths. Part of this has to do with the way in which we think about mental illness. We minimize the biochemistry responsible for the disease. We put the sole burden of being mentally ill on the individual, as if it is his choice, a decision made of a rational mind, one  that is not wrecked by a faulty brain. Even I, who lives with depression, who has survived suicide attempts in my life and studied neurobiology, even I fell into this trap, resorted to thinking that it is the person causing his own death rather than the illness causing it.

Major depression is not sadness. It’s not feeling down. It’s feeling completely empty, worthless, and hopeless. It’s an all-encompassing darkness, in which you lose the will to eat, to work, to do anything. Eventually, you can even lose the will to live.

Yes, there is treatment. Prescribed medication, psychotherapy, lifestyle changes like exercise and nutrition, even electroconvulsive shock treatment. But because the disease is so complicated, so nuanced, its etiology so unknown even by the experts, treatment guarantees nothing. Maybe it works and maybe it doesn’t. Maybe you get better and maybe you don’t.

Depression is not a choice. No one chooses this outlook on life. No one would choose an outcome of suicide. Choice is not part of the equation. So let’s be very careful about the words we use. Language matters when we talk about mental illness, because our own words can either reinforce the stigma and shame associated with it or they can weaken that stigma and shame.


It is the worst kind of victim blaming to say that people who die from their mental illness are responsible for their own deaths. Depression is a disease, and suicide is death from that disease.

Acceptance: When Life Is Good and Bad at the Same Time

“The good news is that I know what I have and I accept it. The bad news is that I know what I have and I accept it.”

My friend Leyla said this to me the other day. I was visiting her in the hospital, where she has been living indefinitely since she got a diagnosis of leukemia last month. Leyla had some odd symptoms. Initially, she saw her doctor for phlebitis, which the doctor didn’t think much of it as phlebitis can have relatively minor causes. But, the very next week, Leyla had an 11-hour nosebleed. That was concerning. After lab work and a diagnosis, she’s now receiving regular blood transfusions and undergoing chemotherapy.

Leyla was my high school chemistry teacher. Not for the whole year, because her class was hard, so I changed out of it and got into regular chemistry. But I lasted about six weeks in her class, and I learned a few things about Leyla in that time. One is that she is loud. Really loud. She is also in your face, which was intimidating as a 15 year old. But the reason she is in your face is because, she loves chemistry and that love is shown through her enthusiasm. She connected everything to chemistry. She celebrated Mole Day. Even after decades of teaching, she was still excited about what she did. Needless to say, Leyla was a great teacher, a legend in the school and in the school district. Lucky for me, when I returned 15 years later to teach biology in my high school, Leyla became my department chair, my mentor, and my friend.

Leyla has always been really positive, and she remains in this state of mind despite a really scary and life threatening medical condition. When I asked her how she was, she said, “The good news is that I know what I have and I accept it. The bad news is that I know what I have and I accept it.” This was like a koan to me, and I’ve been thinking about it non-stop since I heard her say it. It reminds me that duality is the nature of life. It can be, in the very same moment, both liberating and painful. But this is only true if we are aware of what we’re experiencing. If we bury our head in the sand, if we fail to pay attention, or if we choose to avoid difficulty, we cannot be fully engaged with our life.

I left the hospital wanting to cry, and yet, I was so glad I got to spend time with Leyla, so grateful for the wisdom she shared with me. This reaction of mine seemed to be the very embodiment of what my friend spoke about. Shunning what is scary is not the answer. Learning to accept is the first step to dealing with it. That can be both good and bad, and that’s okay.

The Bright Pearl that Resides within Each of Us

There is a bright pearl within each of us. But we must find our pearl, uncover it, and allow it to shine. 

I came across this quote in the book Quiet Mind Open Heart – Finding Inner Peace through Reflection, Journaling, and Meditation, and it spoke directly to me. Of course, there is a bright pearl within me, and within each of us. It is just a matter of finding our pearl, uncovering it from all the dirt and muck that keeps it hidden, and allowing it to shine.  Continue reading

My Life the Shit Show: No, I wouldn’t change it

Today I read a memoir piece in my writing workshop that wasn’t about living with depression (surprise!). It was about – undoubtedly a likely contributor to my depression – my father and growing up in his scary, drunken shadow. It was yet another example of my life the shit show. Continue reading