Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Name Game

This week the prompt I've chosen for Writer's Workshop is, The meaning of your name...does it suit you?

Considering my love for everything lingual, I doubt it would surprise anyone to know I've put a lot of thought into my name throughout my life. My name means a lot to me and I consider it a big part of who I am--it's something I've carried with me for my entire life.  When I was a kid I loved the fact that my initials (MAR) could spell out the name of a planet with just one letter added. There aren't many famous Monica's that I know of, and I remember as a child when I did meet anyone who shared my name, it was always someone middle-aged. I liked that though--it made me feel a bit more unique to not be one in a crowd of people sharing my name in my school, or neighborhood. But of course as a nineties child, I couldn't avoid being teased about Monica Lewinski. When that situation went down (pun possibly intended), my classmates and I were not quite old enough to understand the details, but old enough to understand that it was a scandal. And I knew just enough so that when in fourth grade a boy said to me, "I'm Bill Clinton and you're Monica Lewinski," I slapped him.

I think some "name meanings" are a bit like horoscopes--so generic that you can find a way to apply them to anyone. The name Monica is believed to be derived from the Latin word moneo, which means 'advisor'. If I wanted I could probably try and argue that I 'fit' this name description, but I don't honestly think I do. I don't see myself as someone people come to for advice and to be honest I certainly wouldn't come to myself for advice--I'm too indecisive, and too compassionate as well, which makes it difficult for me to try and advise people because all I really want to say is "Do what feels right for you." So I suppose I see myself as more of a listener than an advisor--and that's okay.

According to, there are 14 people in the United States who share my first-name/last-name combination. This makes it even more impressive that I "know" one of these individuals! I put "know" in quotation marks because we never actually met, but we exchanged numerous emails during the four years I studied at the University of Iowa. You see, there's another one of me there, in Iowa City--same first name and last name, same spelling, and what's more, she worked for the University. This began causing us problems before I'd even made it on campus. In the summer before my freshman year, when I'd accepted my place and registered for classes, my university email was set up, and almost immediately I began receiving emails not intended for me. I'm not sure which one of us figured it out, but somehow we managed to get in touch with each other and figure out what was going on, and from then on we regularly found ourselves forwarding emails to each other that were intended for the other person. I think I did this more than she did, because unfortunately for her, my middle initial is A, while hers is K. This meant that anyone searching in the university's online email address database would see my address pop up as soon as they started typing, and logically assume it was hers--because it's not like we're John Smiths, so what was the likelihood of there being two of us? I believe she began telling people to be sure to look for the 'staff' Monica, not the 'student' one.

Things got a bit more complicated once I started working for the University of Iowa library, because I was then listed as staff as well! I remember my supervisor at the library looking as confused as I felt when he told me he'd had mail delivered for me to his office, until I realized it was campus mail meant for her. But by far the best mix-up happened early in my sophomore year. Because I was still living in the dorms and we had a landline phone, we were listed in the campus-wide directory. I came back from showering one morning around 9:30am and Allison told me that while I'd been gone a call had come for me from some department of the University of Iowa Hospital (which was where the other Monica worked). I was completely confused because I'd had nothing to do with the hospital and had no reason to be contacted by them. It only hit me as she continued to tell me how confused the caller had sounded when Allison had said, naturally, "I'm sorry, she's in the shower." Some poor schmuck had called what he thought was an office telephone number for the other Monica, only to be told she was unavailable because she was in the shower! No wonder he was confused. I believe I sent her an email to let her know what had happened, and I'm sure she got a good laugh out of it--I still do!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Hi, my name is Monica, and I am a certified suicide first aid caregiver.

Hi, my name is Monica, and I am a certified suicide first aid caregiver.

Most people who know me personally probably know that mental health support and awareness and suicide prevention are causes that are really important to me because these are things have affected both me personally and quite a few people who are very important to me. I don't think anyone is "comfortable" talking about suicide, but it's not something I shy away from because I believe that the best way to break down the stigmas about asking for help and support is to start talking about these things. However I also knew that all of my knowledge and skills for handling a situation where someone is at risk of suicide come from experience, with no formal training on the matter, and I really felt I could use some more guidance on how to handle such situations if confronted with them as a professional. That's why when the opportunity arose for me to attend a two-day suicide prevention training course through work, I jumped at the chance. The course was called ASIST--Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training. The goal of the ASIST course is to prepare people to support people who are in a crisis and having suicidal thoughts or at risk of suicide. What I love about the course, though, is that it was not just designed for professionals who would encounter such situations regularly. It's designed for anyone who feels like they could benefit from these skills in either their personal or professional lives. In fact, the focus is on getting people educated who may encounter these situations but who do not typically receive formalized training for it--groups like teachers, clergy, charity volunteers, housing officers, etc.

The best thing that I learned from this course was the three-word phrase "safety-for-now"--incredibly simple, yes, but it completely shifted my viewpoint of suicide intervention. As we discussed a lot on the course, when someone is experiencing suicidal thoughts, asking them about this and giving them the chance to verbalize those feelings can be a really important part of the process for that individual--to no longer be carrying that burden alone. But as the recipient of that person's story, as the listener, it can be easy to become overwhelmed. As the person tells you of the feelings and problems that may be contributing to them feeling that way, it is easy to start worrying about how you can fix everything for them--even when often times many of the contributing factors are not within your power to "fix"). But what ASIST focuses on is helping a person get through a suicidal crisis in the short-term by allowing them to feel and express their feelings, and guiding them towards finding a way to establish a plan to keep them safe in the short-term. There are no promises that this one intervention will make everything better. There is room to acknowledge and accept that person's pain and experiences, but the focus is on the present. While there is of course a part of the plan that does involve getting long-term support in place, the focus on "safety-for-now" allows you (the caregiver) to focus on being in that moment with the person in crisis, which is often what is really needed.

The main reason I'm sharing my experience of the course is because I really think that anyone could benefit from attending. No matter what field you work in, you never know what could happen in either your work or personal life--and I think that raising awareness and knowledge of how to support someone who is suicidal is the first step towards reducing the amount of suicides that occur around the world. An estimated 5% of the population will have thoughts of suicide at some point in their lives. If that seems like a small number to you, it's not--that's 1 in 20 people. The ASIST program was started in Canada in the 1980s and now runs in 23 countries around the world--including the UK (obviously) and the US, so if you're reading this and would be interested in attending, you can find more information on their website. Thanks for reading!

**The format for this post was inspired by this week's writing prompts.**

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Happy National Book Month!

So some of you may remember my lofty goal, about a year and a half ago, to write at least one blog post a week inspired by these prompts called Five-Minute Fridays. I did a few, but I just found that the prompts weren't really what I was looking for and weren't inspiring me in the way I'd hoped. But I've found another similar blog series called Writer's Workshop, and having looked at the last few weeks of prompts I'm already excited about it. I make no promises to post weekly, but I'll try! There are 5 prompts a week and you can choose to write just one or as many as you like. So the prompt I've chosen this week is, "October is National Book Month, tell us about the best book you’ve read so far this year."

I don't think I need to explain to anyone why this prompt grabbed me, though I will add that I'm thrilled to feel like I can actually answer it with quite a few books to choose from! Every year I keep a list of all the books I've read, and this is the first year that I can remember since high school that I've read so many books in a year purely for leisure. Obviously doing an English degree meant reading TONS of novels for every class, and I loved it, but reading on a time scale and trying to finish all of that reading before each class, even when the literature is enjoyable, is simply not the same as picking up a book as and when you want to and reading it at your own desired pace. And of course while doing my Master's, by the time I'd finished all my academic reading I rarely had the energy to read anything else! So it's wonderful to finally feel I have the time and energy to read for pleasure, and to continue tackling my ever-growing list of "Books to Read". That list used to be an ongoing Word document on my computer, but it was getting so disorganized that I had to come up with a new solution, so it's now in an Excel document, alphabetized by author, with additional columns for "Date read" and "Must buy" (only for books I read and love so much I know I must own them). The list currently stands at 85 books and, if my reading rate were to stay the same as it has been this year so far, it would take me about six years to read all the books on my list!

Now, it may sound like I have all this "leisure reading" down to too much of a science. You may be thinking, "How can you call it reading for leisure at all?" Let me just clarify that although I have this running list, I have no plans to read all the books in any specific order and also have no qualms about picking up a book at the library/bookstore/off of Josh's bookshelf just because it sounds good! I consult the list occasionally if I'm going to a bookstore and I also hope to get myself signed up at the local library, but it's more of a place for me to remember all the titles of books that have ever appealed to me. In my current stack of books-to-read, I don't think a single one is or was ever actually on that list, but instead all were picked up along the way.

I must say I had a hard time deciding amongst the books I read which was the best, so I'll let you know why I chose the one I did. Quite a few of the books on my list of "read books" this year were ones I'd been looking forward to reading for quite a while, or by some especially favorite authors of mine (Shirley by Charlotte Bronte and Sarah Kay's book of poetry). Such factors obviously added a bias to my level of enjoyment. So I decided to look at just those books that I'd read with no expectations, and from those I picked which was the most enjoyable. And the winner is...

Josh loves Stephen Fry, but until I met Josh I don't think I knew anything about him other than having heard the name once or twice. I've grown to love him through watching QI with Josh, but this book really was an on-a-whim read. You see, when we moved, I underestimated how many books to leave out for myself to read before we unpacked the entire bookshelf. Yes, I know--definitely a first-world problem. So I finished The Almost Moon, by Alice Sebold (which I do NOT recommend), and was at a loss, with all my books packed in boxes that were not able to be unpacked yet. I really wanted something to read, especially because we didn't have any TV or internet set up yet, so when unpacking a bag of Josh's stuff I spotted this. I opened it up just planning to have a quick look and see what it was like, and ended up abandoning my unpacking to start it. It's a memoir of the first 20 years of Fry's life, and I was captivated by his voice. The way he weaves humor into a lot of serious self-reflection is brilliant, and the honesty with which he recalls his childhood experiences is refreshing. I have to say, his TV personality, while lovely, doesn't do his writing style justice! If you're looking for a book with a lot of plot, then this probably isn't for you, but I personally love memoirs, and I devoured this! I've now added Stephen Fry's novel The Liar to my list, which I know Josh has in a drawer somewhere; I think he also has one or two more books following on later into his life and I plan to look those up as well!

P.S. If you want to check out the Writer's Workshop prompt series, just click the button :)

Mama’s Losin’ It

Friday, August 29, 2014

Two years.

It's not often that I look back on my life so far with a genuine sense of awe at where I am and how far I've come. In fact, when friends and family express that they are inspired by or proud of me for what I've done and where I am in life, I feel a little bit uncomfortable. Because looking from the outside, things can look far more impressive than they are. Maybe, from the outside, it was brave of me to move to a new country so far away from friends and family, but I was just following my heart. And it's not like I didn't have someone completely worth the move on the other side. But it was pointed out to me recently how much has happened since I moved to Wales--which was two years ago today. I started and finished my MSc Ageing Studies, including my dissertation, I learned to drive stick-shift, I got married, and I'm on to my second home and second job. All in the past two years. And then I started thinking about where I was six years ago at what was, prior to my move to Wales, the start of my biggest life transition.

In August of 2008, I started studying at the University of Iowa. And I'd chosen it partly for location--it was just within my requirement of a three hour's drive from home. Yes, you read that right. As a senior in high school, looking at colleges, I didn't want to be far from home. It was one of my most important criteria in my selection of schools I applied to. I remember the night my parents moved me in. I was nearly sick with the anxiety of being left alone, but rather than expressing this, I lashed out, short-tempered with them despite my father's offers for them to take me out to dinner before they left and my mother's willingness to climb onto my lofted bed to make it up for me. Instead, that anxiety led me to push them out the door nearly as soon as we'd finished unpacking the car. I think I thought the sooner they left, the easier it would get, but it didn't. I remember, over the next few days before school started, how incredibly anxious and scared and lonely I was. I remember trying to find my way around campus, and how it took me three tries to find the English and Philosophy Building, where most of my classes would be. On the second try, it turned out, I'd found the right street and just not walked far enough. I remember calling up a friend while walking back from finally finding it, walking across the Pentacrest, trying to sound calm and chipper as I joked with her about it, but really just needing to confide in her about how scared I really was to be on my own. I remember how some of the first few friends I'd made were through simply overcoming my anxiety and breaking the simplest social boundaries--something that seemed to be acceptable in those early days when everyone seemed as lost as the next person. I overheard two girls standing outside my residence hall talking about how to get downtown, and inserted myself into the conversation so that I could "show them", but really because I desperately didn't want to eat dinner on my own. Those girls and I were only really friends for the first few months, before we each found our own direction. But I also met one of my closest college friends, in that first week, by approaching her on a bus full of "newbies" on the way to a Welcome Week activity.

I remember going home fairly often during my first year at college. Home was safe and comfortable like it always had been, whereas college challenged me in ways I hadn't expected. Taking care of myself, something that seems so simple, seemed a lot harder when there were fewer people around who would notice if I didn't. I remember the same dread and anxiety from that first day filling me when it was time to return to Iowa after spring break. I was genuinely afraid that I couldn't "do" college, that I wasn't cut out for it, that the depression and anxiety were going to win. They almost did, too--I came very close to confessing these fears and begging my parents not to go back, but then, depression comes with a lot of guilt too, and that guilt and fear of letting them down won out. My mom came to visit me as a surprise during that spring semester, just for an afternoon. I don't remember what prompted her, but I do remember thinking, "I wonder how she knew how much I needed this." It was a simple afternoon, lunch, a bit of window shopping, and some ice cream, but there is something incredibly warm and healing about being able to spend time with a person who has loved you even in your most wretched moments.

I can't pinpoint exactly how or when it happened, but somewhere between that first summer of college, spent at home and unemployed, and my second summer, in my first apartment, my first summer away from home, something changed. Part of it was finding a medication and a therapist that worked to help me get better control of my mental health, which meant my confidence and sense of independence was no longer being undermined so much by my anxieties. Part of it was also in further developing deeper friendships to tie me to Iowa City, my new home, in addition to the deep ties I had in my hometown. But from there, somehow, I grew. And six years nearly to the day from that anxiety-ridden move to a college that, at one hundred and fifty miles from Peoria, was barely within my comfort zone, I picked up and moved nearly four thousand miles. And I wasn't held back by anxiety--in fact, I was thrilled. I know a huge part of this has to do with the fact that I knew Josh would be here to support me, and that's why I don't tend to see it as "a big deal". But when I look at it all written here, when I look at the big picture--I guess it is. So every once in a while, I let myself be proud of how far I've come.