How to Find the Right Doctor for Your Needs

Sigmund Freud

Where to Get Help?

Should I see a psychologist/therapist?  What should I look for in a doctor or therapist?  What kind of therapy is best for me? I’ve been asked this question more than once. I wish I had a definitive, simple answer.  I don’t, but I can tell you what I know from my own experiences.

A general consensus among mental health professionals is that a combination of medication and therapy is the best approach for most mental illnesses. However, different doctors, both psychiatrists and psychologists, have different personalities and methods that they prefer.  It can be tricky to find the ones who are right for you.

Psychiatrists Come in Different Flavors

I have been through multiple psychiatrists and therapists.  My stories should give you an idea of what to expect.  Expect differences.

My first, in my late teens, was very cool and distant.  He did not explain himself, and this was very frightening.  I felt lost and threatened.

I saw one doctor a few times who frustrated me with his “Don’t worry.  Be happy.” approach. He told me to avoid caffeine, eat a balanced diet, and exercise.  I felt his approach was overly simplistic and almost insulting because he seemed to imply my condition was the result of laziness and a bad attitude.

Another doctor had a very brusque manner and did not ask many questions at all before prescribing medication. I only saw him once because my internal radar started flashing red.  How do you prescribe without examining the patient?

One doctor that I saw for many years helped me a great deal, but toward the end of our relationship, she was having some personal problems of her own, and her manner changed. She began to insist on hospitalization and encouraging ECT (Electro Convulsive Therapy) over my protestation.  She tried to force me, but another doctor intervened.  I later found out she was overdosing me, and I had developed Serotonin Syndrome as a result, a condition that causes unpleasant side effects like facial ticks and is potentially dangerous.  Nevertheless, she helped get me through some very dark days, perhaps the worst parts of my illness.  I believe she thought that level of medication was necessary given my mental state at that time.

Finally, I met my current doctor, who I will refer to as Doc.  Doc is a match made in heaven.  He may not think of himself this way, but I see him as a fellow Geek. His intelligence and skill are apparent.  He’s a bit eccentric, a former military veteran who loves history and has a set of Roman armor in his office along with a display of figurines in battle and lots of science fiction books, mostly dealing with alternate timelines.  He will distract me with humor, but I have learned that he is always observing.  Probably what I love best though is his honesty. He is open about the fact that psychiatry contains a good bit of educated guesswork, and he always elaborates on why he is giving me a particular medicine, including its benefits and side effects.  Some people find him abrasive.  I find his candor refreshing.

Finding a therapist is just as tricky

One psychologist told me from the first session that we were going to have a personality conflict because she was a female, and because of my background, I don’t get along with women very well. She was about the same age as my mother, and as a “mother figure,” I suspect she thought I would project some of the negative emotions I associated with my childhood onto her.  Her methodology primarily involved delving into my childhood and discussing my dreams.  She helped me connect my current behavior to what happened to me as a child. In the end, she was right.  We did end up with a personality conflict although I learned a great deal from her and am grateful.

My current therapist is also a good one.  He has primarily focused on my struggle with philosophy and spirituality in an effort to make meaning from my life and encouraged my blogging. He has an undergraduate degree in philosophy, and our conversations are almost fun, really.  He seems to allow the patient to dictate what direction therapy should go unless he sees a specific problem to be addressed.

I also have an unofficial therapists, a friends who keep my spirits up.   I can’t stress enough the importance of a support network.  These people are your safety net.   Finding some sort of spiritual practice that speaks to your soul can also be a life saver.

Okay, Here’s my advice

As you can see in my story, while medication and therapy is basic, treatment varies greatly. Here are the pearls of wisdom I will give you in deciding if a doctor or therapist is right for you:

  1. I think it’s important, if you can muster the will and energy, to do a bit of research on your own. That way when you see your doctor, you can ask intelligent questions, so that you can better understand what his or her objective is with a specific treatment.  At minimum, use your common sense and your “gut instinct.”  If the situation doesn’t feel right to you, it probably won’t be. If you can’t do this, let your partner or someone you trust be your advocate.
  2. I think it’s important to keep in my mind that mental illness is not static. It falls on a continuum. At the “normal” end,  you might have “The Blues” from life event like a recent breakup.  Unlike mental illness, you will hurt for a while and then move on with your life.  At the other end, there is the almost catatonic state I found myself in for a long time.  Just a walking, breathing shell.  You are still a person who grows and changes.  You will get better.  You will get worse. The kind of doctor/therapist you need during one phase of your life  may not be the one you need a few years later.
  3. I think it’s important to understand that no doctor or therapist is going to be perfect. They are not omniscient.  They are not magicians.  They are trained in medicine, specifically psychiatry, but they are just people like you and me.  Also, unlike other fields, the doctor primarily has only a description and observation of symptoms for a diagnosis. While tests for different mental illnesses such as depression are being developed, they are still at the expensive, out of reach stage for most people.  The brain is still a mystery.  Plus, everyone’s body chemistry is different. Add all that up, and you can expect some trial and error.  Don’t get discouraged.

20 Years of Searching

Most importantly, be an active participant in your journey to wellness.   Just a year ago, that would have been impossible for me.  As I said, I was a walking zombie incapable of rational thought and introspection.  If you can get yourself to the point where you can become a seeker to find your own way, I encourage it.  Medication and therapy help get you to that point, but eventually you will need to ask the big, hard questions like, “Why am I alive?  What do I want my life to mean?”

My biggest frustration is that I have been working on my mental health for about 20 years now. If you count my years in an abusive environment that helped create and/or trigger those problems, then I have been struggling my entire life.  My doctors say that I will get better.  I wouldn’t expect a different answer from them.

I have come to terms with the fact that my illness is difficult to cure but not impossible to manage. I see my doctors as helpers, resources, and guides.  I am ultimately responsible for doing the work.  The important thing is not to give up. Your “dark night of the soul” may last a long time, but you must remember and hope for the dawn.

Notes from the Author

The picture above is the very famous Sigmund Freud, whose theories are now considered outdated (lots of fun as a tool to analyze literature), but he is still an iconic figure in psychiatric medicine.

Speaking of doctors.  Dr. Deb has an excellent mental health blog.  I enjoyed her latest post on Therapy Service Dogs. Pets are wonderful therapy.  I have 6 cats, each with their own unique personality.  Sometimes it seems like they take turns doing guard duty.  One of them is near me all the time.

Photo Attribution:

Why Nobody Helps an Abused Child

Sad Little Princess

The injustice of it all

When talking to my psychiatrist one day, he highlighted a notion that I’d been ignoring.  I’m not just depressed.  I am angry. I am angry at my mother for her abusive behaviors.  I am angry at my stepfather, grandmother, family members, and neighbors  for covering for her.  I am angry at the other adults in my life whose responsibility it was to look for signs of abuse and report them.  These people include my pastor, my teachers, my doctors, and my babysitters.  Most of all, I am angry at the loss of opportunity to be a different self.

What would my life be like if someone had intervened? Would I be suffering the way I am now?  Would I have the coping skills to live a much better life?  I have spent many hours contemplating, “WHY?” How could these people just ignore what was happening to me? While the answers do not satisfy my anger, perhaps they can help someone from making the same mistakes.

Reason #1  Misconceptions resulted in people not recognizing the abuse.

People often look for obvious signs of abuse. Violence leaves cuts and bruises; neglect may appear in dirty clothes, or an appearance of being underfed.  They also look for inappropriate behavior, low grades, and substance abuse.  These are certainly warning signs.

However, some abused kids go to the opposite extreme. They are meticulous in their work.  They get good grades.  They are well behaved and seek approval from teachers and other adult mentors.  They’re very anxious about doing something wrong.  This may give the overall impression that you’re dealing with a “good kid,” and there’s nothing to worry about.

That was me.  After I ran away from home, many of the adults who dealt with me as a child admitted they felt something was wrong. I was just too good, unnaturally good. If they’d been more perceptive, they would have noticed hyper-vigilance; I was always “on alert” and ready for something bad to happen.  They would have noticed that I flinched or startled easily.  They would have noticed that I severely overreacted to discipline.  The smallest word of disapproval would have me in tears and throwing up in the bathroom.

Reason #2  They were part of the “bystander effect.”

The bystander effect is a psychological phenomenon where an entire group of people witness a crime or emergency and do nothing to help. The term was coined in the 1960s when a young woman was stabbed to death in her apartment, and her neighbors heard her cries but did nothing to stop it.

The bystander effect occurs for many reasons.  People may fear they will be attacked or harmed in some way themselves if they act to intervene.  They expect someone else will do something.  They create reasons not to do anything such as, “It’s not right for me to interfere with someone else’s family.” The cynic in me says no one wants the inconvenience of filling out paperwork and talking to police.

One Halloween, my mother took me to a downtown event, a sort of street party where businesses were also giving away candy to kids.  Weeks ago, she had given me a ring to wear, a blue sapphire.  At some point, the ring slipped off my finger and was lost.  When we pulled up in the driveway, I realized it was missing, and when my mother found out, she went crazy.  She said the ring had sentimental value and started slapping me, clawing me, pulling at my hair, screaming at me, and calling me names, the usual.

When her fury started to escalate, I did what I often  had to do growing up.  I got out of the car and ran.  This time I thought I’d be smart and ran to our neighbor’s house, an elderly couple, and begged for sanctuary. They took me in, and at first, they showed the appropriate alarm, but as they were discussing whether or not  to call the police and what to do about the situation, my mother knocked on the door.

She was calm, playing the role of the exasperated mother who has a naughty little girl.  She could win an Oscar.  She told our neighbors that I was spoiled and wasn’t used to a good old-fashioned spanking.  They all laughed about it together and exchanged stories of being in trouble as a kid while my heart squeezed tighter and tighter in dread of what was coming. I was forced to go home with her, and I’ll leave the results to your imagination.

Those people KNEW.  I had just described to them in detail what had happened as I have here.  They knew I wasn’t an ordinary “kid in trouble,” yet they were more than willing to accept my mother’s explanation because they didn’t want to get involved.

Reason #3  Keep it in the family.  It’s nobody’s business but ours.

Another psychological phenomenon that causes people to ignore abuse is the enabler.  The enabler is a person who cleans up the abusive parent’s mess and makes everything look normal.  They actively keep other people from finding out and intervening in the abusive behavior, so the abusive cycle continues unimpeded.  Enablers may also be victims of the abuser themselves, but they think what they are doing is “love” and protecting the family.

My grandmother was an enabler.  After one of my mother’s fits, she would try to calm me down with treats and soothing words.  She emphasized over and over that I shouldn’t tell anyone. Telling people would only embarrass the family.  Authorities  would come and break our family apart.  My mother would be hurt, and I would be responsible.   Sometimes she even went so far as to rewrite the script.  What I experienced didn’t really happen.  Instead she would paint a portrait of a much less scary and more understandable scenario.  As long as I kept quiet, everything would be okay.

My grandmother was determined to protect my mother even though she was in danger many times herself. One time, I had to wrestle with my mother to keep her from beating my grandmother with her own cane, yet when I overheard my uncle speak with my grandmother after that incident about “getting my mother some help,”  she refused outright.  My uncle didn’t push the issue, so he carries some blame in my eyes.

When I was 12, my mother married, and my stepfather also protected her.  Instead of denying what happened, we would sympathize with each other in the aftermath, and  he convinced me that he WAS getting her help…next week.  Over and over.  He kept me from taking those final steps to protect myself much sooner.

It’s All So complicated

Yes, I’ll go ahead and say it.  I’m angry.  I’m pissed.  I’m FURIOUS!  All it would have taken was ONE PERSON to stand up for me!

However, it’s more complicated than my anger would like to admit. Human beings are complex and fallible. I loved my grandmother.  I can put myself in the shoes of some of the people who thought there might be something wrong but were afraid they’d make a mistake if they did something about it.  Maybe I’m partially to blame for not consistently trying to get help.  One of my former students privately told me that she was a victim of abuse.  I was horrified that I didn’t catch it while she was in high school.  She told me she was very good at covering it up.  I share in the guilt.  Also, it does only harm to hold onto all that anger.  I have to work at forgiving these people and myself too.

Notes from the Author

I’m grateful that blogging has brought me into contact with other survivors of abuse such as Just Another Person and his wife. It helps knowing your experiences aren’t freak incidences.  It helps knowing there are people who can empathize as well as sympathize with what I went through.

Pay attention to the kids in your life, not just what they say, but their body language and other behaviors.  Ask the hard questions if necessary.  You might be the one person who notices and takes action to rescue a child from an abusive situation.

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Internet Addiction: What’s Your Drug of Choice?

Facebook for Dummies

a 12 step program for online games?

Hi.  My name is Emily Rossiter, and I am addicted to Facebook games. I confess I find immense pleasure in harvesting a crop of strawberries on Farmville or redecorating my cafe in Cafe World.    They aren’t my first online love affair either.  I’ve spent huge chunks of time on MMORPGs like City of Heroes and Warcraft, or Warcrack as some people aptly call it.

The games themselves are innocent enough.  They do give me and lots of others pleasure.  They do require, however, an enormous amount of upkeep, hours that I feel should be spent on an activity I find more valuable like reading or even watching a good movie.

Yes, it is pretty silly, but I have written extensively on what I believe to be the only “cure” for depression and anxiety.  That “cure” is a value driven life, modifying activities for the handicap of mental illness, and continuing to baby step forward bit by bit towards your dreams. That way no matter how sick you get, you are following a path that you have chosen, and your life has meaning.

When I made my life goals, I failed to account for the mastery of every crop in Farmville.

So why play these games?

What is the appeal? What makes us spend long stretches of time glued to the computer monitor?  Aren’t there better things to do?  The Atlantic featured an article called  Extreme Netflix?  Some Users Have Rated 50,000 Movies.    When I read this article, I had an “Aha! moment.  These games tap into the human need for reward much the way a behavioral specialist trains a monkey by giving him a banana when he does something correctly.

When you really think about it, the Netflix rating system works on the world’s simplest game mechanic: do something, get a point, move to a slightly more complex situation.

It’s not unlike a casual game, perhaps like Zynga‘s smash hit, Farmville, a Facebook game in which you raise virtual crops. Except in this case, what you’re growing isn’t a virtual representation of wheat or tomatoes, but your own personal movie-picking servant, a savant twin of yourself that knows nothing but you and movies.

Suddenly, it made sense.  Yes, it’s extremely hypnotic, and it feeds right into the tendency of people to avoid their problems through Zombie Mode.  You just click, click, click.  No thinking involved.  Your brain gets a little reward much like a lab rat pushing a lever for a pellet, and you get a few hours of not worrying about all the problems in your life.

Still don’t see a problem?

For most people, these games are a diversion, but you shouldn’t underestimate their power.  News stories in which parents neglect their children appear as a warning. One of the most recent stories was a UK woman who let her dogs starve and rot and made her children eat cold food using their hands out of cans because she couldn’t be bothered to cook or clean.  There are other cases.  The same article mentions a similar incident in North Korea, and in 2007, a case in Reno, Nevada made headlines.

Thankfully , I am not anywhere near crossing into the land of abuse and neglect. I am extremely aware and attentive to my husband and daughter’s well being, but I still feel that I spend too much time on these games.

aiming for the middle path

On the other hand, on my really bad days when it’s a heroic effort just to get up, these games provide a welcome reason to stay up. Even though they are simple, they do stimulate some brain activity, and they put me on Facebook, where I might have interactions with other people, which is a high value activity for me.

What is the answer? Denying myself the relief of having a no effort activity when I’m not feeling well is at one extreme.  Becoming so involved that I prioritize checking my cafe over my priorities on a good day is at the other extreme, where I am now.  The answer can only lie in moderation, or the “Middle Way.”

I need to set limits and stick to them. It’s surprisingly hard.  I quit smoking a few months ago,  so I know I can break a difficult habit.  However, to be kind to myself, my willpower may be stretched thin from the effort not to smoke and also recent physical illness.  I’ll forgive myself for the excessive time spent baking cakes made of 1’s and 0’s, and work on the problem for now.  How much is too much?  Are there other limits I should set?  How can I motivate myself to stay within these limits?  If you’re reading this, what’s your opinion?

Notes from the Author

My rant about Facebook games is in no way intended to be a judgment against anyone. You are in charge of you, and however much time you feel is worth spending playing online games is your decision. I only meant to raise awareness in case you are spending this time unconsciously rather than choosing. Where do they fit in your value system?  What role do you want them to play in your life?  How much time is too much for you?  Sometimes we all need to do a little “self check.”

PsychCentral has some excellent information and resources dealing with Internet Addiction.

I was extremely surprised and happy to be included in A Daring Adventure’s “link love” to blogs focused on quality content. Take a peak.  There’s some more great links there.

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Every Breath Is a Choice to Live


My 19th Nervous Breakdown

About 4 years ago, I experienced what used to be called a nervous breakdown, but it’s referred to now as a major depressive episode. I’d been fighting depression and anxiety for a long time, but my tenuous hold on sanity finally evaporated.

Every morning when I woke up, I would have a panic attack about going to work that day.  I was a dedicated teacher, but chronic insomnia, panic attacks,  and depression left me exhausted,  which I will admit affected my ability to teach and to complete my duties. I was also deathly afraid of “losing it” in front of my students or coworkers.

As if on cue, I started having panic attacks at work.  Then I had to go through the embarrassing process of explaining to my bosses what was happening. I had to be taken home at least once by a counselor because everyone who saw me hyperventilating and clutching the wall for support was afraid to let me drive.

My absences began to rack up, and I finally went on Family Medical Leave.  Twice, actually. I tried to come back, but I think I lasted a couple of months before having to go back on leave.  Then FMLA ran out, and I was on unpaid leave.  After a meeting with the principal and the Human Resources representative, I faded away into the sunset; my contract was not renewed.

Gloomy Sundays

My life became the “downhill slide” everyone fears. Our finances suffered severely.  I began to develop panic attacks at the prospect of going other places, like the grocery store or church.  As at work, sometimes I’d make it to the store only to have to turn around and go home.  I started spending more and more time in bed, not necessarily sleeping, just staring numbly into space.  My husband, and even my daughter, had to take on more and more and more responsibilities because of my illness.

The guilt I felt because of my failure to hold it together seemed unbearable. I had destroyed my family’s “American Dream.” Not only was I in the depths of misery, but I felt I was dragging them down with me as well.   I would lash out at my husband even though my anger and increasing hatred was directed at myself.  Worse, I felt that even though I wasn’t actively abusive, my inability to be a “normal” Mom was unforgivable.  I needed to be a good mother to achieve some form of atonement with mine, and I could not. In my own mind, I was tried and convicted without question.

Suicide solution

Finally, I was facing Hamlet’s famous question, “To be or not to be? Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or take arms against a sea of troubles, and, by opposing, end them”  (Hamlet Act III, scene i). I confess that I contemplated suicide quite frequently.  I told myself that I was a burden to my family.  At least without me,  they could move on.

To die, to sleep

I began to form a realistic plan. I analyzed various methods to see which one would be the most painless and leave the least amount of mess.  Also, I’d personally known a mother who was a failed suicide, and after hospitalization, her husband divorced her, and she was forbidden to see her daughter, so I had to make sure it was final.  Because I didn’t want my husband or daughter to come home and find me, I was going to dial 911 first.  I was too savvy to let my psychiatrist or therapist know my thoughts.  I’d be hospitalized immediately.  I’d already had bad experiences with hospitalization in my late teens.  That wasn’t an option.

To sleep perchance to dream

The contemplation of death led to a contemplation of my life’s purpose and my afterlife, in whatever form it would take. I had to admit to myself that my family would be devastated.  I would solve my problem but compound theirs.  Then what happens after death?  What if it were infinitely worse?   This life is frightening, as much an “undiscovered country” as death.  If I failed in this life, then I would surely fail in the myriad possibilities that would confront me after death, or if there was nothing, then what was the point of my having lived at all?

Conscience makes cowards of us all

My thoughts naturally began to justify my existence. There would be  so many projects, explorations, and relationships left unfinished or unattempted.  I would be giving up precious time watching my daughter grow.  There was also a faint hope that I could get well, and because of that faint hope, I owed it to my husband and daughter to fight to live the best life I can.  A very small voice inside also whispered that I owed it to myself, especially to my child self that deserved to know loving kindness, to know success.

The Long and Winding Road

And so here am I.  I cannot say the question is answered.  It’s not.  In fact, it is ever present.  There is a quote by a favorite author, Chuck Palahniuk, which sums up my condition, perhaps the human condition in general.  “You have a choice. Live or die. Every breath is a choice. Every minute is a choice. To be or not to be.”

Since becoming aware of that choice, I have embarked on a search to find a purpose to live, to make meaning for my life, to find peace. I read philosophy, self help books and blogs,  study spiritual teachings, study myself, study my experiences and the experiences of others.  Mostly I just find more questions, but ironically, the original question itself, “To be or not to be?” has been the catalyst to motivate me to find a better way to live.

Notes from the Author

Suicide is obviously a very serious subject and a very real threat when dealing with major depression.  Follow this link for resources on suicide prevention.

Did you notice the subtitles?  Yes, they’re the titles of songs by The Rolling Stones, Billie Holiday, Ozzy Osbourne, and The Beatles.   I would have provided you with a playlist, but I had some technical difficulties.

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The Art of Introspection: Creating a Mandala

Tibetan Monks Working on a Mandala

An Ancient Spiritual Tradition

A mandala is an ancient artistic tradition associated with Hinduism and Buddhism. Very loosely defined, it is a series of symbols arranged aesthetically into a circle.  Traditionally, they have been used as a focus for meditation, allowing deeper access into the unconscious mind.

How Can a Mandala Help Me?

The famous psychoanalyst CG Jung used mandalas in his practice to identify emotional disorders that could then be treated.  Why?  The symbols that a person chooses to represent their individuality or emotional state in the creation of a mandala are highly revealing. As such, it is a powerful tool for self-analysis.  Understanding the self is one key to wellness.

what is a symbol?

Choose a number of symbols (I like the number 7) you feel represent yourself.  Anything can be a symbol.  A symbol is simply something that represents some other concept.  Over time,  symbols have come to have recognizable meanings. For example, white represents purity and innocence.   If you’d like to explore commonly used symbols, explore the online dictionary of symbolism.  Symbols can also be deeply personal, like my labyrinth.  It represents a spiritual journey, a reminder that there is a way out of the maze of my illness (See About Me).

How do I Choose Symbols?

When choosing symbols, try to avoid shallow or obvious connections such as, “A football means I like sports.”  The key is to ask “Why?  Why?  Why? Why does this symbol define me?” and you will have a much richer experience. For example, if the football represents sports, why is it so important to you?  Perhaps it represents your struggle to please a parent by participating in sports.  Perhaps it represents your need to receive respect from your peers.  Perhaps it represents your desire to get a scholarship and “get outta here.”  Perhaps it simply represents the sheer joy you get from physical activity.  The more you dig, the more you will get out of the exercise.

Create Your Masterpiece

Once you have your symbols, arrange them in a circle in a way that pleases you. Be creative. When I was an English teacher, I used to have students make mandalas for themselves.  Sadly, I don’t have those beautiful creations anymore, but here are some examples of student created mandalas from a different classroom.

Oliver's Mandala

This was from a student named Oliver.  He described his work this way:  “The outside of my Mandala is blue water. The next layer is fire and then there are spines and mountains that you have to climb. The orange layer represents sharks and the green layer has red poisonous snakes. The center represents world peace.”

analyzing relationships

You can also choose to create a mandala to represent another person in your life such as a spouse, a grandparent, or best friend. This can be a solitary activity used to identify and purge some emotions you’ve been holding inside about this person, or it could be used as a relationship builder.  Create the mandala and then give it to the person as a gift.  What a lovely way to communicate appreciation for someone you care about!

Notes from the Author

Gretchen Rubin, author of the book and blog The Happiness Project, also writes about choosing personal symbols in her post on 8 Auspicious Symbols .

The labyrinth, as I mentioned, is a powerful symbol for me.  If you feel comfortable doing so, I would love to hear what you would choose as your personal symbol!!!!

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The Story of a Runaway, or How I Escaped Hell

Get Out of Jail Free Card

my most terrifying moment

The most terrifying moment of my life happened sometime in March of ‘92.  I may be off a month or two.  I don’t have the best sense of time.  I lay in bed that night convinced that my mother was going to kill me.

Let me back up a bit.  I was an only child, and my mother was a wee bit unstable.  I’m understating of course.  She controlled every aspect of my life, and her moods were unpredictable.  Let’s say for example, one day I accidentally knocked over a plant creating a huge mess, and she was very understanding and helped me clean it up.  Two weeks later, I spill some juice on the kitchen floor, and she flies into a rage and attacks, verbally and physically.

When she flew into a rage, she appeared rabid.  Spittle would fly from her mouth.  Her eyes would roll in her head like she was devil possessed.  She liked to claw and pull hair as well as slap.  I tried very very hard to be good all the time, but it didn’t really matter.  Based on anecdotal evidence, she was most likely an extreme bipolar or possibly even a paranoid schizophrenic, untreated.

The Boiling Point

I could tell an endless number of horrific stories, but on this particular night I was 17 and recently been made valedictorian of my high school.  When my mother picked me up from school, I told her the exciting news.  She hit me, my head banging against the window, and told me I was too proud, that I was nothing without her.

During this time period, we seniors were evaluating schools and deciding on possible majors.  My mother told me I was going to be a pharmacist and that she would move to Auburn with me.  We could live together in an apartment, leaving my stepfather behind.  My heart sank below sea level.  I had been looking forward to college  as an escape route.  When I tried to make a case for independence,  she said she’d kill me rather than have me leave her. I’d seen her take some extreme actions.  I believed her.  Escape route closed.

So…I lay in bed that night envisioning my future, and the more I imagined, the more convinced I became that even if my mother did not actually grab the butcher knife and hack me to death like she promised, I was going to die anyway.  If she was going to continue to dominate me for the rest of my life, I would lose what little parts of myself I had miraculously kept hidden and intact this long.   That spiritual death made the butcher knife look promising in comparison.

The Escape Artist

My only option seemed to be a prison break.  After getting dressed and packing a small bag, I looked around the room at my treasured possessions one last time and slipped out the door as quietly as I could.  I ignored the ugly lemon yellow 70s Ford Grenada that technically was mine.  It was too risky.  Not only would it make noise, possibly waking her up before I could get away, but knowing my mother’s modus operandi, as soon as she discovered me missing, she’d call the police to tell them her juvenile delinquent daughter had run off again, and if the car was gone, she would say I had stolen it.

I walked a few blocks, past the school, and to a nearby gas station, which had a phone booth outside.  It really wasn’t that far, but I was cold and crying and terrified.  The walk seemed to last forever, and the bag I carried got heavier and heavier.  Now that I was far enough away, I turned my attention to the practical matter at hand.  What now, genius?

Fortunately, I had a quarter.  I looked up my father’s number in the phone book.  My parents had divorced when I was five, and my mother had let me have very little time with him over the years.  He was practically a stranger.  If I believed the stories my mother told, he was a drunk who would beat and probably molest me.  I called him anyway.  That should tell you something.  Absolutely any situation had to be better than the one where I was trapped.

My father agreed to pick me up immediately.  He took me home.  The aftermath is another story for another time, but in the end, my mother had lied about my Daddy.  (No surprise, really.)

The Long and Winding Road

My father did indeed drink, but he was not a mean drunk.  He was a happy, gregarious man who enjoyed playing the guitar and singing what to my generation would amount to old-fashioned country and rockabilly.    He left big tips for waitresses, and everyone seemed to know his name wherever we went.  He was affectionate, and he disciplined by talking me through situations.  He never raised his voice, ever.  He let me make my own decisions and my own mistakes.  It was a completely different universe.

Unfortunately, I never completely escaped.  My mother had kept part of my soul with her after all.  I have PTSD, like a war veteran.  I wake up in the night struggling and fighting with her still, trying to get away.  Sometimes I dream that I’m trying to protect my daughter from her, or even my cats.  If I see someone or find myself in a situation that reminds me of my childhood, I react in terror. My first wreck was the result of seeing a phantom version of her in the car behind me.  I have a deep-seated fear of people.  I suppose I expect them to morph into rabid monsters too.  If they don’t, I just wait…  Every betrayal becomes a confirmation that the world is a place of misery and disappointment.

Still I fight.  This blog you are reading is proof.  I may be disabled by mental illness, but I keep trying to live the best life I can.  It’s the only way I can see to find victory at last.

Notes from the Author

I’m a big fan of Untypically Jia, so when she said “Tag, you’re it” and left the door open for this meme, I decided it might be fun to give it a try.  It seemed harmless enough, much like the “Getting to Know You” Notes I receive sometimes on Facebook.  As you can see, I never got past the first question.

Your comments are welcome as long as they are considerate, but please understand, I don’t want pity.  Do you pity a boxer who’s knocked down for the count?  No, you expect him to get back up and fight again.

I also know that my story is not “special.”  I know there are people suffering from lack of adequate medical care, food, water, and shelter.  Better or worse is relative to perception.  This is my story.  It has meaning for me.

There are many of you out there who have your own stories.  By writing these words, I offer empathy and encouragement.  I may be starting to sound like the proverbial broken record, but you are not alone.

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Guard Your Emotional Health and Live Better

Emergency Room

Emotions Are Contagious

You wash your hands before you eat, cover your mouth when you cough, get regular check ups, perhaps a flu shot, and take many other steps to keep your body healthy, but what about your emotional health?

The truth is emotions are contagious. If you are surrounded by pessimistic, unhappy, or possibly even mean or vindictive people, you are going to “catch” an unhealthy emotional bug.  The opposite is also true.  If you are surrounded with friends who are positive and encouraging, your chances of being happy are much greater.

The problem is when we get caught up in a relationship with someone, whether it be romantic, a co-worker, family member, or a friend,  sometimes we have difficulty viewing it objectively, so how do we know when a relationship is bad for us ?

Your Relationship Check up

If you suspect you may be in an unhealthy relationship, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Is the person self-centered, rude, or inconsiderate?  You deserve courtesy and respect.
  2. Is the person jealous of the time you spend with other people?  You deserve a wide range of relationships.
  3. Does the person criticize or try to discourage your personal goals, dreams, and desires?  You deserve to live your best life.
  4. Is the person controlling?  Do they insist everything be done their way?  You deserve to make your own decisions.
  5. What kind of relationships does this person have with other people?  Are they arrogant, mean spirited, prejudiced?  Do they like to gossip and stir up trouble? You deserve a relationship with someone with good character.
  6. Does the person invade your privacy, insist that you check in constantly or take them everywhere with you?  You deserve your own space.
  7. Does the person come to you with complaints and problems but neglect your needs?  You deserve support.

There are other questions you could ask, but these will point you in the right direction.

If You’ve diagnosed an unhealthy relationship

Every situation is different.  You should consider your circumstances carefully and perhaps arrange a consultation before you prescribe treatment, but here are some possibilities:

Stop the Bleeding

If the person is family, a spouse or romantic partner, or another relationship that is important to you, perhaps you can work out your problems.  If you don’t have good communication skills or the relationship has deteriorated to the point where you need it, perhaps counseling with a therapist will help.

Apply Disinfectant

Maybe you can’t salvage the relationship the way it is, but you can continue with a different set of rules.  Set new boundaries. For example, family dinners are going to be very difficult if you and your brother in law can’t stand each other.    Agree to keep your distance.  Maybe you were best friends before, but now you can’t stop fighting.  Move a step back and become polite acquaintances.

Time for Major Surgery?

If the relationship is very bad (and trust me I know they can be very bad), you may have to make a clean break.  It’s best if you do it as peacefully as possible, but if a person is consistently interfering with your ability to live a good life, you owe it to yourself to end it. Leave.  Burn the bridge behind you, and don’t look back.  If the person is really scary, get help from people you trust.  The process may be painful, but you will be better off in the long run.

take your emotional vitamins

Once you’ve identified the bad relationships in your life, you can focus on your true friends. Interacting with kind and supportive people is like taking a vitamin every day. They’re good for your emotional health.

Notes from the Author

If you’ve wondered why my posting has been erratic, my depression has been  getting worse lately, and I haven’t been able to write.  My ankles were swollen and making it difficult to walk, , so my husband made me go to the ER where they diagnosed hypertension.  As if I needed another pill…

One problem I’ve had with my mental illness is distinguishing the pains caused by my depression and anxiety from symptoms of something else that needs to be treated. For example, the doctor asked if I’m having chest pains or a sick stomach.  Well of course I was.  It’s called a panic attack!  Or is it a heart problem?  Uh oh.

I’d actually like to dedicate this post to my little sister. She’s not a blood relative.  She’s my sister of the heart.  She’s just gone through a breakup and is very angry, but I think she is also very brave.

If you’re a nerd like me and want to read about research on emotional contagion, here you go.  It’s an academic paper in pdf format.  Yes, I read the whole thing.

Also, it’s World Suicide Prevention Week.  Read about it here.

Share this with friends.  :)   Tweet it!

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4 Easy Steps to Creating “Real” Online Friendships

The Friendly Computer

Are online friends “Real” friends?

Why do you need online friends?  Aren’t “real life” friends better? I have slight agoraphobia, which is common for people with panic attacks or other anxiety disorders.  Agoraphobia means I feel very nervous leaving my home.  Combine that with social anxiety, a completely irrational, paralyzing fear of rejection, and you have a problem.  As a result of these 2 factors, the Internet is my primary social outlet.  Instead of giving up on making friends, I decided to work within my limitations, and I have been more successful than I could have hoped.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

The  Internet is such a vast place.  It allows people with varying backgrounds, cultures, interests, and personalities to communicate across land, sea, and time zones with relative ease.  Because of the wide variety of people represented, you can find people who are a perfect match to be your friends.

However, online friendships are more difficult to create and maintain than face to face relationships. There are many factors working against you:

  • Long distance relationships are hard to maintain, even with people we know well face to face.
  • You can have too many people to keep up.
  • There are trust issues.  It’s difficult to verify a person is really who they say they are on the Internet.  You could even fall victim to a predator.
  • Less accountability for behavior means people are much more likely to act mean or foolish.
  • Because it’s so easy to hit the delete button and remove a person from your life forever, there’s also less motivation to work through problems.

The Steps to Making friends online

Based on my experience, if you follow these guidelines, you will be more likely to build positive relationships online in spite of the difficulties.

1.  Fill out your information page

Whatever social media you use, make sure you fill out the section that contains your background, interests, and a brief description of yourself. Since this personal page is how people will form an impression of you, make it as detailed as possible without compromising your privacy and safety.

Some people prefer to see a real picture of you as well.  I use avatars myself, but I try to choose pictures that represent my personality. Do NOT leave that ugly generic silhouette on your page.  Because you appear anonymous, I suspect a spammer or someone looking to make trouble.  At best,  you seem to be just “messing around” and won’t be online that often.

2.  find people with similar interests

The saying “opposites attract” is not true.  We tend to get along better with people like us, so go to the places that people like you would naturally gather. Scan these pages for people who capture your interest and send them an add request.

  • There are Facebook fan pages for everything imaginable.  I found one of my best friends, Anna Liza, on a Facebook fan page for zombies. (Didn’t I mention I was a Geek?)
  • On Twitter, you can use a hashtag like #depression to find people commenting on a specific topic.
  • Join a discussion forum and participate regularly.
  • Become a blogger.  This takes a considerable amount of effort, but blogging is a social activity that draws like-minded people together.
  • If you already have a few good online friends, ask them to recommend someone else you might like.  That’s the beauty of networking.

3.  Observe people carefully

Research tells us that the average person has about 5 close friends and around 150 acquaintances.  The Internet can stretch these limits a bit.  Most people who regularly use social media have hundreds or thousands of “friends,” but face reality.  You cannot keep up with 1,500 people in any meaningful way, so how do you find the ones who will form your “tribe”?  Put them on probation for a while, wait, and watch.

  • Whatever social media you are using, go to people’s home pages and read the background information. What do they say about themselves?
  • Then look at their stream.  What are they posting? You can tell a lot about a person through what words, images, and links they show.  Are they clever, funny, dark, crude, spiritual, etc.?
  • Do you see anything that would set off your “Danger” instinct? Do they have offensive or openly hostile content?  (Report them.)    Do they hide a lot of information such as their age, marital status, etc.?  Are they consistent?  Liars usually mess up.
  • On Facebook, click on Friends and then Status Updates. This will clear out all the game spam temporarily and allow you to see what a lot of people are posting at once.  Don’t worry.  Farmville will still be there when you go back to your normal feed.  ;)
  • Watch how they respond to you. Do they ignore your attempts to communicate?  How frequently do they reach out?  Do they give you genuine feedback or vague remarks?  When you express an emotion, do they empathize?
  • Make lists. Both Facebook and Twitter have this option.  For example, I have lists for old high school friends, game buddies, fellow Geeks, family members, etc.   You get the idea. This helps me make the connections with people that I need to make. For example, if I’m in the mood for some “remember when” I can pull up my old high school friends list.

4.  Be authentic, friendly, and supportive

  • First of all, don’t say or do anything online you wouldn’t do with guests in your home. In a sense, you ARE guests in each others’ homes, virtual ones.  Use your manners, and don’t be a “troll,” someone who deliberately likes to stir up trouble.
  • Don’t lie either.  Since you’re hiding behind a screen, sometimes it can be tempting to pretend to be someone you are not so that people will like you more.  You can’t build a friendship if you’re not showing your real personality.
  • Also, avoid the trap of what I call “fake friendship.” Don’t call someone your BFF if you’ve just met them.  If you are endlessly enthusiastic and act like you adore  everyone you meet, the people in your online community will notice.  Then if you wish to express genuine affection for someone, it may come off as insincere based on your previous behavior.
  • Make frequent contact.  The Internet gives you an advantage because there are a number of ways for you to communicate. If you’re like me and have social anxiety, do what makes you feel comfortable.  Use chat, email back and forth, leave messages on their walls, share interesting articles, music, or other links you found.  Exchange silly gifts.  Be friendly and present.
  • Be an active and interested listener and give genuine, heartfelt responses. This is vital for ANY relationship, on or offline.  Pay attention to what’s happening in their lives.  Ask about their sick grandmother.  Congratulate them on their new job.  If they post something sad, cheer them up.  If they have a cause, interest group, or business page, support them by joining and participating .
  • Be willing to work out your problems. The best of friends may have spats now and then.  If you’re angry and they aren’t readily available, you might be tempted to just remove them from your friends list.  Wait.  Give them a chance to explain.  Own up to your own mistakes as well, and avoid “landmines” or issues you know tend to start a fight like being on opposite sides of a political issue.

My friends live in my computer

I mentioned at the beginning of this post that I have been more successful than I could have hoped making friends online.  Using this method, I have found my Fab Five, the close friends I can count on to keep me going.  I also have a number of acquaintances who verge on close friendship, and I’ve even become closer to people I know in “real life” such as my sister in law.  She’s family!

Notes from the Author

Did you click on the “Research” link?  It will take you to an article titled “Warning: You Can’t Make Friends Online.”  Their headline is misleading. I’m living proof, and if you read the article, you’ll notice they don’t rule out Internet friendships.  They just state the same problems I did earlier in this post.

Would you like to read more tips on making friends online or friends in general?  Read “How to Build Your Tribe-Find Your People” on Marc and Angel Hack Life.

My goal for this blog is to build a supportive center for people suffering with mental illness, temporary depression caused by a life event, or people who have family and friends with these difficulties.  Please tell somebody else you think might be interested about Surviving Limbo! Word of mouth is one of the fastest ways to travel.

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Mental Illness: The Answer to “How Can I Help?”


When you’re diagnosed with a mental illness, family and friends often ask, “What can I do to help?”  We usually don’t know what to say. We don’t even know how to help ourselves.  After some research and consideration, here are some of my answers:

Be Realistic

Acknowledge the sickness, and never say anything like, “Get a hold of yourself” or “Snap out of it.”  Don’t expect a quick cure, either. Healing takes time and patience.

My husband knew all was not well when we got married.  During those first glorious years, I think I was in some sort of remission, so he didn’t take my illness that seriously.  I finished my Masters degree and became a teacher.  Then when I started sinking, he thought, “She’ll bounce back.”  When I sank further, he did everything he could to try and fix me.  Eventually, he learned (as I have also had to learn) that there’s no magic pill or form of therapy that will transform me overnight.

Some family members and “friends” still don’t quite understand why I can’t just try a little harder and be fine.  I’ve learned to tune them out rather than let those darts  hit home.  I’ve slowly gotten better, but I am still unable to work.  I get brief periods of energy now and then, but they don’t last very long.  It’s all about management…inching forward one baby step at a time, which is the primary focus of this blog.

Be compassionate

Sometimes all we need is to know you care.  We need you to be tolerant of our difficulties, and we also need some reassurance that you won’t abandon us.

Growing up, I was terrified.  I tried to be very very good in order to minimize the painful experiences, but I could never be good enough.  Someone special had to teach me faith, or I would not have made it this far. My father, who took me in when I ran away at 17,  passed away a few months ago.  He was the first person in my life to teach me the meaning of unconditional love.  He never said a harsh word to me, ever.  If I did something wrong, he would teach me how to do better rather than blame me for my mistakes.  I kept expecting disaster.  I had learned from my childhood that disaster was inevitable.  One day, I thought, my father would have enough of me, but he never did.  He was always there.  He was always protecting me.

Be alert

After educating yourself on the nature and treatment of the specific illness, watch for symptom changes or signs of trouble.  Your objective  input at a doctor visit can be extremely helpful.

When we feel horrible all the time, the days begin to blur together.  Answering questions about sleep and eating patterns, side effects of medications, and so on can be difficult.  We’re not always aware of our own behaviors.  Fortunately, my husband goes with me to all my appointments and fills in the blanks.  This is a huge help.

It’s VERY IMPORTANT if we begin talking about suicide to take it seriously. Suicidal thoughts are common with depression.  Don’t panic.  Just be aware.  Repeated thoughts of suicide over time may lull you into a false sense of security.  You may think she never means it.  However, if we actually describes a realistic plan, then it’s time to take action.  Contact the doctor immediately or go to the hospital emergency room.

Be flexible

Unfortunately, you may have to make some lifestyle changes to accommodate symptoms of a specific illness. For example, I have panic disorder. Anything the subconscious associates with danger can be a trigger for a panic attack.  It might be an object, a place, a person that reminds you of someone in your past, a day of the year.  Pay attention to what always triggers a panic attack. Then, it’s good to have a strategy in place for dealing with one.

I had to stop going to church, the movie theater, and other crowded places with my family because I would have a panic attack every time and have to leave anyway, ruining the experience for everyone.  The trigger for me is a crowded room where I feel trapped.  Now, if I’m forced into a situation (like court) or having a very brave day, I might be able to go out for a short period of time, but I need to sit on the end of a booth/row of seats, have a good view of the room especially the exits, and have some physical distance between my family and other people.  My family knows what an attack looks like, so they know if they see one starting,  it’s time to pack up and leave quickly.  They also know I’ll need air and a place to lie down.

Be firm

I hate to say this, but at times we may need you to intervene on our behalf whether we like it or not.

During one of my “up” periods, I had the bright idea that I didn’t need treatment anymore, and my husband was forced to take a stand.  Don’t agree to stop medication or treatment unless our doctor has agreed to it.

Don’t go along with delusions if that’s part of the illness.  Stick to the truth.  Also, don’t tolerate violent behavior.   Set clear boundaries.  If we have repeated violent outbreaks, ask for professional advice.  Hospitalization may be necessary  until our behavior is under control.  So far, that hasn’t been a problem for my family, but I would never want to repeat the cycle from my youth.

Be brave

“Families say this is the only illness in the world where you don’t get a covered dish. People don’t call, don’t inquire. The cultural understanding of mental illness is either that it’s their fault for getting ill, or it’s the fault of their family.”  This quote from USA Today shows the unfortunate stigma that goes along with mental illness and how that stigma  extends to the entire family.  People will talk behind your back.  People will be outright mean to your face.  Stick with positive people who are kind and distance yourself from the rest.  If they still show up in your life from time to time, do your best to ignore them.

Be aware of your own needs

Like anyone who cares for a person with a long term illness, you’ll be prone to burnout and depression yourself. Take care of your own health.  Do fun stuff.  Talk with friends.  Get other people to help you now and then.  Seek professional counseling for yourself if you need it.  Most of all, don’t blame yourself for what is happening or think that you’ve failed in some way if treatment doesn’t progress the way you expected.  We love you.

Notes from the Author

Slowly, I’m becoming aware of other bloggers who have been moved to help people by their own life circumstances.  In “Do You Teach What You Need to Learn?” Angela Artemis of Powered by Intuition talks about the motivations of personal development bloggers and points the way to some really inspirational sites for you to visit.

A question from a reader inspired me to write this post.  If you find this article helpful, please share it with others.  You have a number of options to share at the end of each post, including Twitter and Facebook.  You have to click “Leave a Comment” to see the share buttons.

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Musical Therapy for the Soul: Galileo


How Music Can Be Therapy

When you hear a certain song, do you think to yourself, “Yes, that’s me.  That’s just how I feel”?  If you have a mental illness, you most likely feel different, a sense of being an outsider.  Songs, like poetry, express powerful emotions in a way that reveal our soul, our common humanity.   As such, they can be a source of healing.  They can remind us we’re not alone.

Do You Feel Weird or Isolated from the World?

I grew up as an only child in an abusive environment.  In addition to that sense of isolation, I’ve always been a bit eccentric, a “think outside the box” person.  Unfortunately, this compounds my social anxiety because I’m quite likely to express an idea that threatens someone else’s world view and makes them hostile.

I stay in my house most of the time because I’m slightly agoraphobic.  Leaving home makes me nervous, so the Internet has become my primary source of communication with the outside world.  Being house-bound would seem to only increase my sense of isolation, but ironically, after feeling “weird” for so long, I’ve begun to find people similar to me online. If you’re one of them, welcome!

“Galileo” by The Indigo Girls Is Your Song

Galileo’s head was on the block.  The crime was looking up for truth, and  as the bombshells of my daily fears explode, I try to trace them to my youth.

And then you had to bring up reincarnation over a couple of beers the other night.  And now I’m serving time for mistakes made by another in another lifetime.

How long till my soul gets it right?  Can any human being ever reach that kind of light?  I call on the resting soul of Galileo, King of Night Vision, King of Insight.

And then I think about my fear of motion, which I never could explain.  Some other fool across the ocean years ago must have crashed his little airplane.

How long till my soul gets it right?  Can any human being every reach that kind of light?  I call on the resting soul of Galileo, King of Night Vision, King of Insight.

I’m not making a joke.  You know me.  I take everything so seriously.  If we wait for the time when all souls get it right, then at least I know they’ll be no nuclear annihilation.  In my lifetime, I’m still not right.

I offer thanks to those before me  That’s all I’ve got to say.  ‘Cause maybe you squandered big bucks in your lifetime.  Now I have to pay.

But then again it feels like some sort of inspiration to let the next life off the hook, but she’ll say, “Look what I’ve had to overcome from my last life.  I think I’ll write a book.”

How long till my soul gets it right?  Can any human being ever reach the highest light?  Except for Galileo.  God rest his soul.  (Except for the resting soul of Galileo, King of Night Vision, King of Insight.)

How long?  Till my soul gets it right.  Till we reach the highest light.  How long?  Till my soul gets it right.  Till we reach the highest light.   How long?

Galileo lyrics © Emi Virgin Songs, Inc;  Godhap Music  (Taken from Lyricsty)

Song Analysis:  Why Is This Your Song?

  • In this song by The Indigo Girls, Galileo is a symbol for us “weird” types, truth seekers who are willing to look past social conventions for deeper answers.  Galileo was executed for proposing a new world view, and although we may not face literal death, the truth often offends people.  We may frequently find ourselves facing hostility.
  • The symbol of Galileo  is combined with the idea of reincarnation.  We can look at that literally from a religious perspective, but in my mind, reincarnation is also symbolic.  We face many little “deaths” as we search for answers.  When we look for the truth, our beliefs constantly have to be reexamined and altered, making us a different person than we were.  A new lifetime begins.
  • Then we look back with regret.  If I’d only known, I could have made better choices and not suffer so much now.  That sense of regret is evident in the lyrics, but the words also offer us a sense of hope.  How long?  How long implies that eventually we will get it right.

Keep this Song in Your Heart

If you’re a “weird” person, then this song is my gift to you. Watch the video, and you’ll see that The Indigo Girls are one of us.  Keep this song in your heart and know that you’re not the only one hurting.  You’re not the only one seeking answers.  You’re not the only “weirdo.”

Notes from the Author

If you’ve not done so already, please subscribe! You can receive updates through email or RSS.  Look in the upper left corner.  :)

If you liked this post, you might also enjoy “Do You Have the Weirdo Syndrome?” from Productive Flourishing.

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