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For my annual post on SAD, I wanted to share a passion project I’m working on in my new business, Eat to Love. I hope you enjoy:

 

For many years I had the same experience:

I woke up some morning in mid-November and felt like my limbs had turned to wood. I looked at the clock and calculated how many hours there were until I could go back to bed. I moved about my day as if an invisible wet woolen blanket was draped over me, weighing me down, making everything I did feel more difficult.

This experience always seemed to catch me by surprise. After a week or so, I’d remember that the same thing had happened the year before, and the year before that.

Then one autumn a couple of years ago, I learned to anticipate feeling this way. I learned about Seasonal Affective Disorder, its symptoms, and how to work with it. Somehow this made all the difference.

Knowing what to expect didn’t keep SAD at bay, but it did help in 3 specific ways:

  1. It helped me feel less confused: I learned the biological basis for SAD, which actually makes a lot of sense. Changes in the seasons and in the light we are exposed to changes the ways our brains and bodies work.
  2. It helped me feel empowered: By anticipating SAD, I could relate to it differently. I recognized that it was a real condition that comes at a predictable time. That the symptoms I experienced weren’t permanent or wrong, and that there were steps I could take to change them.
  3. It helped me to get ahead of it: By knowing that the biological changes associated with SAD start happening as early as September, I learned what steps to take and when to prevent and manage it as best as possible.

Knowing what to expect was a powerful change that happened for me. And it is one of the main reasons why my colleague Dr. Peter Bongiorno and I are offering a class on October 20th at the 92nd Street Y. We are squeezing a lot into this class, including the causes and symptoms of SAD and:

  • Sleep hygiene
  • Environmental toxins
  • Light and light box therapy
  • The role of exercise
  • Specific foods and eating patterns to help you feel better
  • Dealing with cravings
  • Support, stress management, and spirituality
  • Complementary medicine
  • Dietary supplements

Don’t wait until you feel the full weight of SAD. Take steps now to prevent and manage this condition so you can enjoy the beauty of winter without the burden of the blues. Hope to see you there!

 

DETAILS

Date: Mon, Oct 20, 2014, 6:30 pm

Location: Lexington Avenue at 92nd St

Venue: Classroom

Price: from $24.00

 

FOR MORE INFORMATION AND TO BUY TICKETS, Click HERE.

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Very happy to have been reviewed by Kirkus Indie:

 

“Hollenstein (Understanding Dietary Supplements, 2007) makes it clear from the start that her book has none of the drama of typical addiction memoirs. She has no harrowing, cinematic rock-bottom moment to report, for example; instead, she focuses on her slow realization that “[a]lcohol numbed both [her] pain and [her] joy.” This quiet process of introspection, however, proves to be just as engaging as any tale of alcohol-induced havoc. Hollenstein writes eloquently of the complex role that alcohol once played in her life, and her insights into drinking’s cultural currency are especially sharp. Of alcohol’s transformative power, for example, she writes: “Champagne with oysters transported me to Paris….I drank whiskey to express my saltier side.””

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wineFull disclosure: I don’t drink anymore. More than 6 years ago, on my 33rd birthday, I drank my last glass of wine. It wasn’t particularly memorable except for the fact that it marked what I sometimes think of as the beginning of my new life. More on that later.

For many years before that last drink, and ever since, I have spent a lot of time thinking about alcohol and drinking. Before I quit, that thinking came from a place of guilt and shame, and the mounting worry that I had a drinking problem. Since I quit, my thinking about alcohol has been more objective; it has come from a place of curiosity rather than obsession. And it is from that place that I would like to share some potentially unpopular, but very honest, thoughts about drinking.

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I first saw you in the movie Happiness. Your raw-ugly-beautiful performance cut through to my heart in a way I had never experienced before. “This guy isn’t afraid of anything,” I thought. “He’s fearless.” And you did it again and again: in Magnolia, Boogie Nights, Capote, Synecdoche, Jack Goes Boating, A Late Quartet. Balls out, I would call it now, with great admiration.

More recently I saw you at one of the Happy Talks at the Rubin Museum of Art. You sat with philosopher Simon Critchley and were as real and thoughtful and imperfect as I imagined you. The way you dropped your head into your hand to fully consider whatever probing question your co-host had posed. As if you needed to remove yourself from the presence of all our eager eyes in order to touch something deep inside, to find an uncompromising truth.

At one point he asked you “How do you know when you feel happy?” And after a long, silent pause, you shared that watching your kids enjoying one another – how they allowed you to enjoy them – that was the definition of happiness for you. I wished my boyfriend was with me to hear that. To hear a father’s description of the unexpected joys of children, the sheer gorgeousness of life’s messy spontaneous moments.

But then you questioned your own answer. You wondered whether this sort of experience felt like happiness because it spurred reflection on your own past and sort of filled in the holes you imagined existed as a child, or if it was a feeling of true unconditional love for your children. “What is real happiness?” we were all left wondering.

I also wondered about those holes. I have them too. I often feel like a problem that’s impossible to solve. Simultaneously too much and not enough. And like there’s something rotten inside me, something that I might be able to exorcise if I could just find its exact location. I usually feel that no one else can see or understand it. I walk around the city feeling like everyone has figured out something that continues to elude me.

Drinking helped. It numbed me to my experience and allowed me to get away from myself and my pain, if only temporarily. But after a while I realized it didn’t really help. And worse than that, it added to my pain by convincing me that I was weak, incapable of dealing with reality, altering my experience in a way that was wasting my life. Eventually even the slightest discomfort led me to the bottle, creating a vicious cycle. When I stopped drinking 6 years ago, those feelings got worse. Without my predictable anesthesia, I felt overwhelmed by suffering, my own and that of others. When I found the practice of meditation, though, I started to build up my tolerance to such discomfort. Like exercising a muscle that had wasted away, I am gradually becoming more resilient, more loving and gentle to myself.

When I learned that you left rehab a few months ago, I wanted to reach out to you. I started writing a letter, telling you that even though we have never met, in a very real way I know you and feel your pain. I wanted to remind you how strong and beautiful you are, that you are deeply loved and appreciated for your imperfect self. Even if you didn’t believe it at first, I wanted you to take my word for it and eventually you’d see. I wanted to invite you to meditate, to have the experience of sitting with that seemingly solid and immovable discomfort without reacting with drinking or shooting up or even going down the rabbit hole of habitual thoughts. To watch how the pain changes, even if only minutely, from moment to moment. I wanted to tell you that it doesn’t get easier, but it does get better.

But I put the letter away. I lost my nerve when I realized you might think my lightweight addiction couldn’t measure up to yours, that my suffering was nothing in comparison. I couldn’t see past my own insecurities, couldn’t be fearless like you were in Happiness, and chose not to put those thoughts of love and support out there, even if you never read them. Now I wish I had.

You will be missed.

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The following is what is becoming my annual post about seasonal affective disorder, written from my new platform at Eat to Love. Previous posts on the topic can be found here, here, and here. I’ll be following up with a recipe for my favorite anti-depressant stew and some more thoughts on nutrition for depression.

 

Feeling S.A.D.? You’re Not Alone. Here Are 6 Things You Can Start Doing Today to Feel Better

The holidays are upon us, there’s an invigorating chill in the air, celebrations to enjoy, but you’re feeling anything but festive? Does your body feel heavy and leaden, your mind sluggish and unclear? When you wake up in the morning, do you look forward to the moment you can get back into bed? I know I do.

If this sounds familiar, you might have seasonal affective disorder. S.A.D. is a type of depression that hits about the same time each year. The exact cause of S.A.D. is not 100% clear but it is likely a combination of seasonal changes in your circadian rhythm and your body’s levels of melatonin and serotonin. Women, people who suffer from depression, and those who have a family history of S.A.D. and/or depression are at the greatest risk for S.A.D.

I have struggled with S.A.D. since I was a child, yet every November I’m surprised by it. I feel like the tin man on my yoga mat, my eyes sit at half-mast, and if I open an email from the Humane Society, I am reduced to a sobbing puddle for 20 minutes. After the initial shock and indignation wears off (it usually takes me about 3 days to say “It’s happening again…”), I put on my big girl panties and deal with it. The following is a list of the things I have found most helpful in managing S.A.D. [Continue reading]

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Since I wrote my last post – Meditation, Medication, and Where I’ve Been – I’ve thought a lot about the things I do that affect my mood. In that piece, I was working through my own resistance to taking an anti-depressant because I felt that it was a false comfort, an artificial means of improving my experience of my life and the world. While taking a drug for depression may not be ideal (my Words with Friends winnings have dipped precipitously, for example), I now realize that anti-depressant medication really isn’t as different as I thought. There are in fact many things I take and do, pharmacologic and otherwise, that alter how I experience life day to day.

Take something I do every day: eat. Clearly the foods I eat affect how I feel. Dark chocolate, fatty fish, or dark-green leafy vegetables (though not necessarily all at once) have effects on the brain that make me feel better. (I once had a dentist who claimed eating a pound of spinach always cured his blues.) On the other hand, I associate chicken soup or my mother’s oatmeal chocolate chip cookies with intensely comforting feelings. Whether a food has an actual physiologic effect on the brain or brings about pleasant feelings – or a combination of these two – the result is the same.

In an attempt to address depression more “naturally,” I once experimented with dietary supplements such as St. John’s wort, SAMe, and fish oil. Though the effects of these substances can vary from source to source and person to person, they are biologically active compounds that affect the brain (often along the same pathways as anti-depressant drugs).

Exercise – running, walking, yoga, or my new passion Physique 57 – is perhaps the best non-pharmacologic approach to improving depression. Again, it is not totally clear whether the effects are predominantly physiological or a result of switching things up and, as Pema Chodron says, “doing something different.” It is likely a combination of these.

It bears mentioning that alcohol and drugs can be remarkably effective, at least in the short term, in making one feel better. I used to derive great relief and comfort from a glass (or three) of wine. However, in the best of cases, these positive effects didn’t last, and in the worst of cases, alcohol made my depression worse and led to dependence as more and more was needed to achieve the perception of pleasure.

Meditation, on the other hand, has improved my depression by changing how I relate to my thoughts and feelings. By taking the brave step to stay with feelings of depression, I have been able to develop curiosity about what is going on in my mind. I was ultimately able to discern what was depression – which I decided to treat with an anti-depressant for now – and what were judgments and anxieties about my depression.

Many other things – laughter, sex, getting a massage, listening to music, taking a vacation, spending time with animals or the people that make me feel good – enhance feelings of enjoyment and happiness and should not necessarily be thought of as that different from a little green capsule.

The day I published my last post, my blog had the highest number of hits ever in a single day. That tells me I hit a nerve. With so many of us experiencing depression, I hope we permit ourselves to do the things that make our lives better and loosen some of our harsh judgments about pharmacologic interventions for mood-related issues.

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You might have noticed recently that the lights have gone dark at Drinking to Distraction. I could make excuses: I’m busy with work, traveling more, doing fabulous and enviable things around New York City. But the truth is that I have been depressed.

Depression, much like alcoholism, is not something people are eager to talk or hear about. It’s not eminently discussable, and is rather something people suffer with privately. I have struggled with depression since I was a child, and I learned it was something to be whispered about and overcome. Yet, with the number of people affected (The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimates that 6.4% of US adults had depression in the year 2008; I was unable to find any statistics on how many have experienced depression at any point in their lives but I imagine it is a much greater number), it is also one of the most common health problems. And this reticence to address it directly and publicly seems a dangerous paradox.

After many years of living with it, I realized that depression may not be all bad. Many of those who suffer with depression also have a level of sensitivity that predisposes them to great empathy, compassion, and creativity. In his Shambhala Sun article entitled “Depression’s Truth,” Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche discusses another potential benefit of depression – clear seeing:

According to Buddhism, the world that we perceive—the world we interact with and live in—is insubstantial. Through the experience of depression and despair we can begin to see things more clearly rather than less clearly. It is said that we are normally charmed or bedazzled by the world, like a spell has been put on us by the allure of samsaric excitements and entertainment. When we get depressed, though, we begin to see through that—we are able to cut through the illusions of samsara. Depression, when we work with it, can be like a signal, something that puts a brake on our excesses and reminds us of the banality of the samsaric condition, so that we will not be duped into sliding back into the old habits again. It reminds us of the futility, insignificance and non-substantiality of the samsaric condition.

The author goes on to say that depression can present unique opportunities, if faced fearlessly and with courage, awareness, joy, love, and compassion. One of the main ways of doing this is through meditation: through remaining open and aware to the present, observing the moment to moment variability in depressed feelings, and being willing to look at things in a different way.

When I began practicing meditation almost 2 years ago, one of the first benefits I noticed was the opening up of space. Space between habitual thoughts, space between judging things as good or bad, space in which I could be rather than just do. As a result of this newfound space, I have become more compassionate and aware. I have cultivated the ability to observe myself encountering discomfort and to watch urges – to drink or zone out – rise and fall without reacting to them.

When this latest depression began, my first clue was an utter lack of space. I could locate no gaps in the negative soundtrack running in my head, telling me how awful, burdensome, boring, lazy, undeserving, and unlovable I was. I could not find the space to take the good with the bad and thus fixated on the negative aspects of every experience, real or imagined. I could not find the space to do the things that made me happy and kept me healthy – to exercise, eat well, read, write, or laugh. Even the space that allowed me to stop what I was doing and sit down to meditate diminished. I continued to sit, however, hoping to overcome this darkness and to find the space that would allow me to observe myself once again and make skillful changes. This did eventually happen but the change I kept coming back to wasn’t one I was ready to make.

For several years, before I quit drinking, I managed my depression with antidepressant medication. One of their earliest benefits was the quieting of that chorus chanting “you suck you suck you suck.” As a result, I became unstuck and faced some real challenges head on. But a part of me yearned to come off the medication, to be “pure,” and to experience my life’s highs and lows unmuted.

When I was struggling with questions of whether or not I was an alcoholic, one of seemingly few “solid” reasons to quit drinking was the possibility to stop taking antidepressants. And 5 months after taking my last drink, I began to taper off antidepressant meds. Much of what I write about here has been my experience since then, which for the most part seemed to be a story of successfully navigating the world with neither alcohol nor antidepressants. Until recently.

Through meditation, reflection, and discussions with people who love me enough to say “this isn’t working; it’s time to try something else,” I realized I needed to consider medication again. Even though antidepressants had helped me in the past, the idea of going back on them made me feel like an utter failure. I was also confused as to the Buddhist perspective on treating depression with drugs. According to my fledgling understanding of Buddhism and specifically the Four Nobel Truths, it is the relentless pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of discomfort that is the source of life’s suffering. What then are antidepressants but an FDA-approved affront to the second noble truth?

My confusion brought me, as it often does, to the Internet, where I found a 1993 Tricycle article by the Buddhist psychiatrist Mark Epstein called “Awakening with Prozac.” Epstein writes:

There continues to be a widespread suspicion of pharmacological treatments for mental anguish in dharma circles, a prejudice against using drugs to correct mental imbalance. Just as the cancer patient is urged to take responsibility for something that may be beyond her control, the depressed dharma student is all too often given the message that no pain is too great to be confronted on the zafu, that depression is the equivalent of mental weakness or lassitude, that the problem is in the quality of one’s practice rather than in one’s body.

One of the only concrete things worth learning in all of [my] years of training was that there actually are several psychiatric conditions which can be cured or prevented through the use of medications and that denial of such treatment is folly. This is not to say that it is always so clear when a problem is chemical, when it is psychological, or when it is spiritual. There are no blood tests for depression, for example. And yet, the presence of certain constellations of symptoms invariably point to a treatable condition that is unlikely to resolve through spiritual practice alone.

There are undoubtedly dharma practitioners who are depriving themselves in the same way, out of a similar faith in the universality of their ideology. Such people would do well to remember the Buddha’s teachings of the Middle Path, especially his counsel against the search for happiness through self-mortification in different forms of asceticism, which he called “painful, unworthy, and unprofitable.” To suffer from psychiatric illness willfully, when treatment is mercifully available, is but a contemporary ascetic practice. The Buddha himself tried such ascetic practices, but gave them up. His counsel is worth keeping.

At the same time I sent a text message to my meditation instructor asking, “What would the Buddha think of my going back on antidepressants?” Her response, “He would be delighted for you to do whatever you need to create stability and thus find it easier to experience gentleness toward yourself and others. But just a guess!!!”

Once I gave myself permission to treat my depression and perhaps actually thereby further my dharma practice, I began taking an antidepressant. Though it takes several weeks for the medication to have its full pharmacologic effect, I noticed subtle changes steadily taking place. First the breaking up of the cloud that had settled over me like Eyeore, the quieting of my self-deprecating Greek chorus, and the breaking down of barriers to doing the things that make me feel good, capable, and whole. After one month, I find myself picking up a book rather than zoning out in front of Bravo TV, going for a run rather than remaining chained to my desk, choosing to lighten up on myself rather than running myself into the ground for the slightest perceived fault. Pema Chodron writes:

Instead of struggling against the force of confusion, we could meet it and relax. When we do that, we gradually discover that clarity is always there. In the middle of the worst scenario of the worst person in the world, in the middle of all the heavy dialogue with ourselves, open space is always there.

Once I stopped struggling against my confusion and recognized what was true for me in that moment, the answer became clear and a space continues to open up before me. As with all things, I needed to find my own middle way and just see where it takes me.

 

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