Happy Halloween!

It’s Halloween and I’m in a bit of a stormy mood. I think that’s appropriate, but others who must deal with me may have a different opinion. I understand. But at least I’m feeling stormy on a holiday filled with witches, ghosts, and zombies! I fit right in.

Like everything these days, Halloween may require some last-minute adjustments. Ingredients in candy may have changed due to supply shortages. Some neighbors may not hand out treats because they’re sick. Others may not be able to afford to buy candy when the price of food is so high.

But Halloween can still be fun!

If you’re on a specialized diet, rereading the labels of your favorites may be the only adjustment needed.

Gluten -free kids can switch to Halloween cookies at the last minute. Deconstruct some gluten-free Oreos and use orange and white icing to decorate them like jack-o-lanterns.

Popcorn Balls may be another quick-change option if you’re gluten-free.

For those who limit sugar, Brach’s® offers a variety of Gummy Bears and individually wrapped Fruit Slices jelly candy and Hershey’s has zero sugar chocolate bars. These sugar-free options may contain alcohol sugars that need to be avoided on a low histamine diet.

Last year, my grandkids and I turned Rice Krispy treats into ghouls with the help of cookie cutters and some black and green frosting. Then we made a burrito into a headless character from a cartoon we’d just watched.

Your cupboard and pantry are probably full of Marshmallows and trash bags that can become ghosts at a moment’s notice. Black microwave containers can become mini cauldrons filled with cheese dip or chocolate witch’s brew.

Spaghetti and red sauce can look like bloody intestines. Pixie Stix® may be filled with goblin ashes. All it takes is a little imagination and collaborative suspension of disbelief to make Halloween magic.

I took a 6, 4, and an almost three-year-old for a ride through the neighborhood to look at Halloween decorations a couple of days ago. I had a bag full of prizes. We held a contest to see who could find the most of an assigned category – bats, spiders, witches, and ghosts. The first one to find 5 in their category got a prize.

After a quick first round, it was clear that jack-o-lanterns would be the best category, so the 6-year-old teamed up with me to find pumpkins. We counted over 200. He practiced adding numbers together. I kept the other two engaged and we all earned prizes. It was great, spur-of-the-moment fun.

Today has already required many adjustments. I’m not feeling good about some of those, but overall I’m happy it’s Halloween and excited to see all the trick-or-treaters this evening. And if they don’t show up, I’m happy to eat their candy.

Happy Halloween!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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Is Familiar Better?

Last night, I ordered steak, baked potato, and broccoli from a chain restaurant and I began to ask is familiar better? It was late. I had just returned from 3700 miles of driving. I was tired, dirty, and hungry. I was grateful a restaurant was open.

From the first bite, I recognized the taste and smell even though I’d never ordered that meal from this restaurant before. The moment seemed weird until I was struck by the fact that much of the food from chains simply tastes the same. That’s what was familiar – the taste of chain food.

Is it the same? Possibly. A shared distributor could mean I would eat the same steak at 3 different restaurants within a few blocks of each other. And if it comes pre-seasoned, of course it’s going to taste the same.

Is there some particular food additive that homogenizes flavors? Also possible.

Or could it be that the food is the same because several brands are owned by the same corporate parent? That could be as well.

Whatever the reason, I’m pondering whether familiarity makes food more appealing?

There’s something that pulls people into popular chains over and over again. Some theories say it’s added fat and sugar that causes us to crave prepackaged food. And much of the food in chain restaurants is at least partially preprepared.

Others might say the food is the best ever! And maybe it is. I relate better to fresh food prepared on site because it agrees with my tummy more. Or maybe I’m picky.

I could come by pickiness naturally. My mother took a strong stance on saltine crackers and vanilla wafers. According to Mom, the only good saltines were Nabisco Premium Saltines. Anything else was inferior and not allowed in our house. Keebler Zesta® – not even elves could sell her on them. Lance- never. They weren’t fit to be crumbled into chili. And you certainly wouldn’t eat them with a piece of cheese.

Nabisco Nilla Wafers did not meet Mom’s exacting standard so brand loyalty in the way we currently think of it was not at play. And yet the remnants of my memories surrounding these foods drive me toward to buy the brands she preferred. Or at least they did before I had to choose gluten-free brands.

I don’t just gravitate toward things my mother liked. I also gravitate toward familiar foods I ate as a child – fresh tomatoes, okra, corn, potatoes, lettuce, beef, ham, chicken, blackberries, huckleberries, apples, cornbread, and ginger snap cookies. I crave my grandmother’s beef and noodles. I love vinegar-based coleslaw like my mom made. Familiar binds me to tradition as well as food.

All of this leads me to think that carefully considering which foods we allow to become familiar to our children could be an effective way to set the stage for lifelong healthy eating. And if that happens, I feel like we can definitely say familiar is better!

Odd Man Out

Sometimes taking care of your health means being the odd man out. That can be uncomfortable. But that doesn’t make you wrong.

I suppose a need to conform is generally helpful in society. It makes it easier to enforce laws and have an expectation that most people will follow social norms. This can create a sense of security. It can also help us blend in so that we don’t attract unwanted attention.

And we need to balance our emotional needs with our physical needs. But sacrificing physical health to appease or please those who may not have our best interest at heart sounds like a losing proposition. Yet many of us do this over and over for years.

So, how can we become more comfortable with being the odd man out? Here are a few things to try:

Prioritize Health – Whenever someone suggests you stop working out or eat something that hurts you or overextend yourself or ignore pain or go somewhere that might expose you to pathogens, remind yourself that your health is the most important consideration. That may mean you have to say no or suggest an alternative.

Practice Saying No – The more you say no in uncomfortable situations, the easier it gets. With practice, discomfort diminishes over time.

Explore Why You Feel Bad – Not everyone feels bad making unpopular decisions. If you know someone like that, observe them. Mimic their behavior a time or to and explore the memories or feelings that trigger a different response when it’s you.

Use An Authority to Support You – If anyone tries to pressure, shame, or manipulate you into an unhealthy situation, invoke the authority of your doctor or physical therapist or nutritionist. Say something like, “I’d love to, but my doctor strongly advised me not to and I feel like I should comply.”

Build Stamina – It’s easier to make good decisions and stick to your guns when you’re well-rested, well-fed, sufficiently hydrated, and relaxed. You can build stamina for being the odd man out by facing difficult situations with all of these conditions in place.

Don’t Scare Yourself – Things are rarely like we imagine they will be. Instead of focusing on potential negative reactions to making an unpopular decision, focus on being kind to yourself.

Celebrate Feeling Good – Don’t forget to celebrate every decision that leads to you being healthier. Cumulatively, these decisions lead to feeling the absolute best you can. Obviously, this deserves a big celebration, but celebrating along the way just as important!

Claim Your Life – There will be many people who are happy to advise you on what you “should” do. Listen, then sort through what feels right to you and what doesn’t. This is your life. It can be anything you choose it to be. Yes, you will have limitations of genetics, talent, situation, and physical ability. But you get to choose what you will do within those limits. Don’t let someone else choose for you.

Find a Role Model – Each time you’re tempted to conform to your own detriment, think of someone you admire who has chosen a unique path. They’re all around us. Many have achieved monumental things. If you look closely, it could be because they were willing to be the odd man out.

Help Someone Else – When you take the best care of yourself in spite of pushback, you model that decision as acceptable for your children, your relatives, your co-workers, and your friends. This has a tremendous positive effect that can help many people.

Today, I’ll be the odd man out in a mask because that is the best health decision for me in the situation. I don’t need to explain it, but I will if someone asks. And I won’t absorb any judgement someone else may make. It is fine for them to feel however they feel, but that won’t affect how I view myself.

I accept that sometimes I must be the odd man out.

Finding Mental Health

Finding mental health in a culture that misunderstands, stigmatizes, and sometimes views necessary life adaptations as a disease, is not an easy task. But it’s a good topic to explore this week of World Mental Health Day.

Before reading, please be advised it is not a how-to. It’s an exploration of the way we discuss and view mental health and the forces that make it hard to find.

Protecting and improving mental health will sometimes mean a fight against culturally accepted norms and established clinical protocol. And practicing good mental health daily will automatically put you at odds with the over-worked, over-obligated, under-still lifestyle we encourage in the US.

That’s a lot of momentum to overcome, even for those who are generally stable and balanced. For those of us who have no specific mental disease but have experienced neglect, abuse, violence, accidents, disasters, family loss, or other trauma that significantly affects how we move through life, it is often difficult to find trauma-informed care.

Someone can look perfectly normal on the outside and function well while struggling internally. They can do it for years. What you may not see is the toll it is taking.

Sometimes that will show up as physical symptoms. Other times, it may result in subtle depression that quietly diminishes a person’s ability to experience joy. Or it may sometimes lead to what appears to be a sudden breakdown.

Burnout, lashing out, perpetual anger, perpetual sadness, mood swings, multitudinous failed relationships, substance use, drinking, and overworking can all be indicators of a difficult inner life. But where we draw the line between adaptations that preserve sanity in unthinkable circumstances and mental disorders or illnesses is somewhat subjective. It’s also vulnerable to the unreliability of self-assessment.

Better definitions, more specific language, and more accurate expectations would be helpful in guiding all of us in finding mental health. Current discussions paint with such a large brush that what may be a normal response to the ups and downs of life seem to indicate poor mental health.

Have people struggled with the changes brought by a pandemic? Of course! But that doesn’t, by definition, mean a person is experiencing decreased mental health. It may mean I feel discomfort for a period of time while I adjust. During that time, I may feel a sense of loss. I may feel anxious or worried. I may feel frustrated or angry. I may need more rest. And, for a time, I may feel depressed. If I did not experience these “negative” emotions, I would not fully adjust and again find equilibrium.

Describing a healthy progression through negative emotions as decreased mental health feels dicey to me. It creates the idea of a problem where there would otherwise not be one. And the belief something is “wrong” can exacerbate the difficulty of moving through the process.

It can make one step along the way appear insurmountable. That may lead us to seek help. That help may diagnose an adjustment disorder. But is it really a disorder or did I fail to learn skills that would make adjustment tolerable? Should a lack of skill be characterized as a disorder?

This is the slippery slope we’ve been sliding down for years. Has that resulted in positive benefits overall?

Labeling with an inappropriate diagnosis can place the blame on victims and create social isolation or rejection. And it can cause practitioners to dismiss a patient’s experience.

Medicating for a short period may be helpful or it may prolong the healing process. It rarely solves an underlying problem without being combined with other therapies.

I saw a statement flash across my screen today that said reducing intimate partner violence will improve mental health. The way I read that, the victim of violence is the one with diminished mental health.

Obviously, a victim may have a negative response to abuse. (I hope so!) But that seems NORMAL and not in any way maladaptive in and of itself.

In that scenario, maladaptive behavior could include failing to report the violence and remaining in the situation. But staying for awhile until supports are in place may be the only way to safely exit.

How is it that we turn a victim’s experience of helplessness, hurt, betrayal, loss, anger, frustration, and resulting low self-esteem into an indicator that the victim has a mental health problem? Uh, no. The victim is a victim. And that doesn’t mean they’re weak.

The way we view this is bassakwards and stigmatizes the wrong party.

Do we need so badly to believe that could never happen to us that we need to put all victims in a “them,” not me category? Lobbing the mental health problem identifier at victims certainly accomplishes that.

Keeping the identity of victims secret also serves to create the illusion that they did something wrong. If we don’t believe a victim will be stigmatized, why do we need to keep their identity secret? Or asked another way: If we don’t believe our society will use the victim’s vulnerability against them, why keep their identity secret?

But the truth is, we do stigmatize and use vulnerability against victims all the time.

Is it possible to find mental health in the midst of the morass I’m exploring? Yes. But it may not look like what you expect. And that is a great place to begin. If you’re able to let go of expectation and willing to experience life as it comes, you’ll be much more likely to find mental health.

And it may look different for you than it does for your father, mother, spouse, or children. That is okay. It may look different today than it does tomorrow. That is normal.

The wonderful thing about humans is that we are each unique and capable of adapting and learning. These are things to be embraced, built on, and celebrated. Unfortunately, we create environments that often make us feel we must hide our best qualities in order to be considered “normal,” well-adjusted, and mentally healthy.

We can change that by keeping in mind, we are not the same. We don’t need to be. We can grant each other grace to find our own paths. We can be different and still deeply connect and understand each other.

Mental health has many faces waiting to be found. If we create safe environments in which to explore, we’ll be closer to finding mental health.

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