No Easy Victories…

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Take time to understand your own condition, one size doesn’t always fit all

Life is funny. Not the ha-ha-ha comical kind of funny but the funny  you don’t always want. Funny because just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, something happens that quickly dispels all notions of you having mastered this ‘life’ thing. It brings you down to earth, sometimes rather rudely so. And in comes the ‘stay-positive’ brigade, ‘if you conceive it you can achieve it’. Really? I’m just kidding, you can achieve it, but still life is funny like that.

I’ve shared with you about my ongoing personal battle with clinical depression, how I have made great strides in challenging and overcoming the illness, as well as activities I’ve now taken up that I could not previously pursue because of depression. Although I believe I’ve got a handle on it now, every now and then the heaviness of mood that goes with the condition comes on despite the medication. And these subdued moods have the effect of convincing you that it’s nothing to write home about. It’ll wear off soon, just stay with it. But I think it is something to write home about because if not dealt with, it can lead to other darker things.

There are difficulties though. Some of these I’m only learning now. Because I want my battle against depression to succeed, I’ve found I want to appear well to other people, all the time. Relaying my true mental state to others seems very much like pity-seeking behavior which I personally want to avoid at all costs. But I’ve also found that if I’m going to portray a true reflection of my search for a workable balance I need to let you know that even on treatment  there are days or periods of time when I don’t want ‘to mix with people’, when I wish for some mental silence. There are times, like now, when I wish I could be away from my everyday life. This is difficult to explain to people but it is exactly how it feels.

“Tell no lies, claim no easy victories”, Amilcar Cabral said in the context of a national revolution but I’ve found this applies equally well in a battle that has the potential for a relapse. Such is depression. I  have chosen to be open about the effects of the condition on my ability to carry out my daily activities and I was just thinking the other day that I would not be totally honest if I only gave you the stories of success and exclude the battles I’m still fighting. These battles are important because all too often I’ve been discouraged from trying out new adventures because the condition convinced me I cannot reach the standards already set by other survivors. I recently heard a radio talk show host refer to a celebrity depression sufferer as the poster girl for depression. I just got the sense that although that sounded like a compliment, it’s not a mantle that would rest easily on the shoulders of one still learning how to deal with the condition.

Poster boys and girls exude all that is positive about their chosen brand. The wide smile, the confident ‘I’m-in-charge-and-I-know-it’ look, that’s hardly what a depression survivor would want to convey. Whilst a poster girl or boy would give the message that ‘depression can be beaten’, I personally think it would be more important to convey the message that yes it can be beaten, but the victory will not always be poster-boy/girl material. Sometimes, despite the medication, the heaviness will come. The urge for social withdrawal, the self-doubt and the irrational fears will present themselves.

When the feeling that I’m on edge comes, I don’t fight against myself like I used to in the past. That, I have discovered, is the most futile of all human exercises, because you can never win a battle against yourself. Indeed, history is littered with stories of men and women who took on themselves and ended up in the gutter, defeated, high, drunk, broken down or even more scary, just going through life in ‘quiet desperation’. When the darkness threatens, I try to order my thoughts. Sometimes just a to-do list for the day or week reduces the unnecessary anxiety that comes with feeling ‘disorganized’. Remember, it’s not that the disorganization is real, no. It’s just an unsettling feeling of impending doom. So ‘ordering my thoughts’ helps me in taking it one day at a time. The darkness comes with a feeling that tomorrow will be just as dark, yet, from experience I know tomorrow can be totally different depending on how I deal with today.

The heavy moods can sometimes be lifted by a change in focus. This is tricky, I’ve found. It’s easy to change what you choose to focus on but your surroundings won’t necessarily change with you. These unchanging surroundings can defeat your well-meaning efforts to change your mind’s focus. A personal example. This might sound a little bit weird but it’s true. Just after graduating varsity I went through a long-ish job hunt. About a year to be exact. At the time I had no knowledge of clinical depression at all or even that I suffered from it. I took every job rejection letter that came very personally, especially in cases where I felt I had done enough to secure the job.

One rejection letter took me to the edge, and I thought this it, no more of this stuff. I had taken to opening these letters in the bathroom as I ran the bath water, so by the time I started bathing I was pretty down(I can’t really remember why I chose the bathroom but I guess it had to do with the need to handle rejection alone, a sure sign of depression). I eventually got a job, a good one at that. What I didn’t know was that my association of rejection with running the bath water would stay with me for a long time. There are times even today, fifteen years later, when I catch myself lost in thought as I take a bath, focused on the negative that’s to come. Exactly the same thought processes that I used to go through with every rejection letter. I’ve had to actually take a conscious approach to taking a bath, hard to believe I know, but it’s true.

I have chosen to change that association by kneeling down and praying before baths. This is easier to do when things are going ok, but when the darkness threatens, my being sometimes wishes to just wallow in the heaviness. It’s what I did for years so even though it’s not a good thing to do, it’s what my subconscious knows to be me, so if I don’t pay attention it’s what I end up doing, giving in to the melancholy moods.

Another trick that I’ve learnt is to do my pick-me-up activity. Years of depression can leave you with a very thin catalogue of activities that you enjoy that can lift your mood. Sometimes, even those can be ‘perverted’ to defeat their purpose. One thing I thank God for always is my love for reading. I read everything, newspapers, magazines, books, blogs, fiction , non-fiction, the lot. I never noticed it before but often-times, when depressed, I would look for comfort in a book. Sadly, your brain is not very discerning when you are depressed, so even this pick-me-up activity could end up enhancing the depression if you happened to be reading dark material. The idea is to choose a pick-me-up that actually works for you. Movies, TV and other media might help temporarily but I find you are not always in a position to do any of them, especially if you work.

I guess what I’m conveying to you is that this battle against this sometimes diabolical and debilitating illness is not always straight forward. I’ve debunked the notion of “happy pills” in my own life because although I’ve found anti-depression medication to be absolutely necessary in my case, they don’t make you “depression-proof” as my clinical psychologist likes to say. I find they serve to give you a fighting chance where you previously thought you had none. They serve to give you a better shock-absorption system, allowing you a longer and more considered reaction time where you would have previously gone straight in to the pits of depression, sometimes with no discernible way out. But “happy pills”? I don’t think so. You, as a person, remain solely responsible for injecting the “happy” into your pills, or life.

I was heartened by a certain response I got to the blog post “That Was Then”. Where I thought I had not necessarily conveyed what I had set out to do, a response came that a reader was encouraged to think about ways of dealing with their continuous “foul moods”. That’s the magic of reading and writing for me, sharing thoughts that until you put down on paper were your private preserve. Thank you for reading mine.

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24 responses

  1. This is the first of your blogposts I am reading Sydney and I am struggling to not be discouraged. Why? It is certainly not because I have found your descriptions of the state of depression so sharply accurate – to the point of them appearing unerringly like glimpses into my own life – but because I am deeply impressed.

    You appear to have a grasp on the nuances of life that perhaps many others who might not claim any medically defined ‘altered state of mind’, would yearn to possess.

    I recollect asking my homoeopath once that surely it was the case that if one could identify one’s depressed state that it must mean that one had somehow grasped hold of it and it was within the range of being described as ‘treated’ or ‘cured’. However he, rather mysteriously, answered that no, that was not necessarily the case.

    What then is depression? I like to think that it is an artefact of a particular perception of non-normality from a perspective that itself has an abnormal relationship to life which does not fit its definitions. Rather circular sounding argument, I am sure, but is it not defined within the confines of a science which also lives with a wide range of unsettled quandaries that have been tainted with biases held by some to be verging on the culturally myopic?

    I don’t know, who and what is more true to an accepted reality? The one who interprets life tinged with blue or the one who does so tinged with red or yellow, or any of the other subjectivities attributed to colour?

    How can we separate the lived realities of one who is suffering, a least materially or emotionally, according to the world view one holds (at any one time), from the perceived lack of suffering of another, if the latter is the one who is being treated for clinical depression, whilst the former is the ‘glass half full’ optimist, brimful of an affirmative approach to life with no apparent reason for being this way.

    What I suppose I am asking is about the extent and nature of a possible socially subjective root to a depressed state of being. How can I calibrate my mood, behaviour and feelings to define myself as depressed in a manner that will not cause certain ones around me to simply regard me as self-obsessed and needing to simply ‘pull my socks up and get on with it’?

    I feel that I cannot simply defer to an entirely ‘materialist’ view of the depression having a physical basis in the brain because I do not subscribe to all states of being to be solely reducible to a physical ‘reality’. The knowledge of the human genome has simply enabled us to understand that the basis for variety, phenotypically and behaviourally arises more out of dna interactions with past and present environment (in its most generous sense) than it does from the strictly limited bodily performance of the gene and its accessories.

    Sydney,your writing is marvellous and instructive. I read this piece more than once, just to allow myself to wallow in its lucidity. Thank you.

    I wish you more power on your enlightening journey.

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    1. Thank you for reading Mama D. I’m encouraged that you took the time to respond as well as you have, and I’m amazed at the insight. One of the most agonizing things of this ‘altered state of being’ is the incredible pull towards self-judgment, accompanied by the fear of ‘normal’ people seeing you as too inwardly focused. So it is such a relief to get such kind words indicating understanding. I’m truly grateful.

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      1. I want to say that when I step out of the puddle of tears at my feet and compose myself, I shall respond again, perhaps articulately enough to enable the reader to empathise with my frustrated anguish at what depression can mean at different scales of ‘Life’ organisation.

        I think it cannot be an isolated, even if it is an isolating, experience. It feels, in the dark recesses of my gut, to be a global phenomenon borne out of a particular orientation to Life and living. What a claim! Yet I feel it to be so…and I do not wish to ignore the messages of my heart, however unorthodox ‘society’ may construe it to be.

        I recall reading, in an online blog, an environmentalist speaking about her passion for and deeply felt sorrow concerning the disappearance of species and the increasing toxicity of the rural landscape and the commonness of indifference towards the mindless exploitation of the planet. She spoke clearly, feelingly and lucidly and I found myself drawn by her words into a place of deep sorrow.

        Am I to be classified as abnormal for reacting in this way? Not only having an immediate reaction, but going on to perceive the gloominess of the modern, urban landscape with its widespread indulgence in celebrity pettiness and ‘bling’ culture, intolerance of difference, swiftness to move towards conflict and generalised apathy in the face of it all.

        Who wants to read or listen to what is construed as ‘news’ when all it seems to do is to inure us against feelingly responding to tragedy and injustice in the world and cementing ourselves even more ‘snugly’ in our own ‘kept up with the Joneses’ abodes?

        To tell the truth, I am not just deeply sad, I am angry, sad and frustrated. Though I do some reaching out of my own, within the community I live, I find that it is becoming harder and harder to effect meaningful change. And it does, yes it does, drive one into a place of depression, especially if one resorts to comparisons with moments in yesteryear and ‘otherplace’ where the grass seems reliably verdant and yet impossible to retrieve or to be restored…

        I am glad of Ones like yourselves, who have responded to Sydney’s moving communication, and for Sydney himself who can convey, like a silver lifeline, a thread of understanding which has woven us into a tapestry of shining cloth, which we may wrap ourselves in, reflect and take some comfort in our shared humanity.

        I am very much looking forward to more such creations in collaborative online space, where we may use our respective talents to share, revealing glimpses of deep camaraderie based on an ethos of a profound respect for the soul of each of us.

        Have I gone into high drama? Well, if I have, I have to say, it feels well worth it, and look, the sun is emerging behind the grey clouds of my peripheral vision! Even though winter approaches, I cannot but bask in the sensualism of the symbolic silver lining 🙂

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      2. If this Is ‘high drama’ I want more of it! You possess the ability to write beautifully about the most frustrating and depressing of things. I read with a smile from start to finish and again to make sure I didn’t miss the sensuality of the symbolic silver lining that you write so beautifully about. I am so looking forward to this collaboration in Literary Scribbles, Mama D!

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  2. informative, enlightening…. and awesome, Sydney! The writer in you is becoming more and more brilliant!

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    1. As always, thank you for reading Felma, much appreciated.

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  3. I am so glad that you decided to share this part of your struggle. I’ve heard people suggest (to me, as well as to friends) that one needs to present a positive outlook and, personally, I think that’s a wrong-headed notion. If the intent is to further isolate an already isolated person- fine, the suggestion makes sense. Otherwise, not at all.

    And how is the person who is in the depth of depression or crisis to get strength from others when all they see are fake smiling faces? That has long been my view of it. Better for them to hear honestly from someone who is coping that, “hey- things still get difficult sometimes. But I am still here, still trying.” That to me is much more inspiring, much more relatable.

    I drew strength in times of struggle not from the perpetually happy, but from those brave souls who cried publicly, who accepted their so-called negative emotions as freely as their ‘positive’ ones, and who spoke their truth no matter public opinion. Those are the courageous ones, and I am not surprised to count you among them friend.

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    1. Brandee and Sydney, you are both wise souls and I’m learning from you all the time. Sharing and acknowledging someone’s struggle is a powerful thing.

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    2. Thank you Brandee. There is so much truth in your words. I have actually found it takes so much of your energy to fake ‘well-being’, it just drains you. It epitomizes the battle against self. I, like you, have found it encouraging to hear from people who tell it like it is. That there will be bad days or periods, but it’s in recognizing those moments for what they are that some relief comes. Last week I made time to watch William Coles’s BPD video(I reblogged it) and because of my current state I found the courage of the people relating their stories to be refreshingly up-lifting. Your insight into the condition is amazing.

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    3. Very well said Brandee! I couldn’t agree with you more!

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  4. Please take comfort in the fact that your fight keeps joy in my heart…..so please keep fighting

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  5. A good friend once said to me, “I think compassion comes from the heart, it’s almost instinctive, because you are human and I’m human I can’t let you bear that load alone.” This valued friend… is both very dear to me and very, very wise. 🙂 I am very proud to know him.

    Sydney, I can only aspire to be as intrinsically wise and as extrinsically articulate as you are today. Watching you develop your writer’s voice is both a privilege and an honor. Walking with you on your journey… benefiting from your perspective and insight thanks to your willingness to devote your time and energy through word-pictures is nurturing some neglected corners of my soul… and I thank you for this.

    We are taught to seek out, and even live in, the shadow of the most successful, the most popular, and the most moneyed members of our Societies. We err if we teach this behavior, and we err if we buy into it. It is by sharing the challenges of others, and in turn, sharing our challenges, that we grow into our full potential. It is compassion that empowers us. Compassion for ourselves and compassion for others.

    I spend my offline life heavily involved in advocacy initiatives. This means that when you don’t hear from me online without notice, I am either lending bedside support at the local emergency room, swimming in crisis management activities ‘in the field’, or debriefing fellow front-line caregivers. Not a day goes by that is not colored by the realities of Depression _ spoken or unspoken.

    It seems most of us live very frenetic, stress ridden lives these days. Coping is an ongoing challenge. In North America statistics point to 1 in 5 people suffering from an undiagnosed Personality Disorder. Relatively conservative estimates claim 1 in 3 people suffer from some form of Depression. Despite these alarming (by any standard) statistics, depression is something we all keep painfully quiet about. It is as though by not naming it, it will simply cease to BE.

    Children suffer from depression, as do teens and young adults. First time parents… of both genders, suffer from postpartum depression more often then not. On any given day, at least every third person we come in contact with is battling depression. Our infirm and our elderly are locked in environmental and situational induced depression. Pharmaceutical companies make obscene profits from marketing medications that mask symptoms. Physicians with little or no mental health background habitually resort to prescribing these medications whenever diagnosis is not possible based on blood tests or visible injury. Much like a babysitter would bribe a child with candy to avoid a difficult situation. Many of these medications induce both depression and personality disorders. It really does sometimes seem as though the health professionals, we have been taught to respect and listen to, are committed to managing Depression by suppressing the voice of experience within us. Depression is perpetuated by silencing symptoms and discouraging open conversations.

    I don’t know anyone that has not experienced depression and I include myself amongst the ‘anyones’. Depression is real. Depression cannot be beaten in isolation. By speaking out, fellowship and acceptance grows. By refusing to allow fellow humans to bear the load alone… and by accepting that we, as simple human individuals must not bear such a load alone… the burden of depression is lightened. In isolation, the burden of depression, in self or in a loved one, is heavier than a mountain.

    Compassion does indeed come from the heart Sydney – it’s almost instinctive, because you are human and I’m human I can’t let you bear that load alone. We journey together.

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    1. Leni, I’m truly humbled by your response. The most constant feeling that I wrestle with day-to-day is that of the pull towards isolation , avoiding interaction because that feels like a strain. Even putting down in words how I feel feels like “you shouldn’t be doing that” but I have learnt that the world is full of dear friends like you, Brandee, Heidi and family who will understand that “I do NEED to” write this down, for myself and for somebody else who might not understand. Thank you so much for your kind words Leni.

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  6. Everytime I read your post, I try to analyze what makes them so nice, emotional and touching. Because you add to them your personal touch, that which only you can make it possible. This is indeed one of your best until now and of course I am waiting for more best from you. I loved this one!!! You inspire me.

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    1. As ever, thank you for reading Divya. I appreciate your encouraging words so much, glad to have you as a friend.

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  7. Yes, Sydney, life is funny. Just when I figure out how to maximize my potential, my potential changes.

    I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder 7 years and one week ago. I recognize now that I showed symptoms all my life. Many times, I went to a physician because I suddenly felt tired and weak for no apparent reason. Each time, s/he ran lots of tests, found that I was exceptionally healthy, and told me that I was probably just overwhelmed with stress. I felt devastated that I had lost the ability to think straight and do the things I loved, and knew I would never recover.

    I dispelled myths about needing to push myself, get out and about, and follow a routine. Eventually, the fog lifts and I return to my active, eternally optimistic self.

    Other times, I got so euphoric about a project, my mind raced, I zoomed with intense focus, and worked around the clock. I neglected other responsibilities to become SuperWoman as an expert in my latest new field of interest. I couldn’t imagine ever being unable to accomplish whatever I set my mind to. I knew for sure that if I conceived it I would achieve it…until my energy subsided.

    I laughed with you when I read about your shock absorbers. A dear friend and I recently began joking about wanting better shock absorbers so the little things in life wouldn’t make us bounce so drastically. I am learning that medication doesn’t just mask symptoms: it changes the anatomy of the brain so the chemistry works more consistently so I ride more smoothly over the bumps in the road.

    Like you, I, too, understand the power of prayer. I get on my knees whenever I reach a euphoric peak or despairing valley. It helps me shift gears and return to a more balanced perspective.

    I am learning to recognize the stable Grace who never changes, regardless of how her energy and abilities fluctuate: the one who consistently values kind humor, realistic optimism, deep conversation, intelligent study, artistic expression, and realistic expectations. This helps to make the peaks and valleys less powerful.

    I am learning to identify my current potential, and dance with it. I am learning to remember that I never know how long I will be in my current mode, and where it will take me. Recently, I was lying on my bed, and it became the calm ocean at night. I decided to practice getting better at enjoying the moment. I refused to call it a “bad day”. I looked up at the stars as I floated on my back for a few weeks, waiting for the sun to rise and a wave to come along that I could ride to my next time of activity. I faced the challenge of considering that the sun might rise sooner if I enjoyed the time of stillness.

    Each day, each moment can be an adventure.

    Like you, Sydney, I succeed at appearing well to others. Only my husband and psychotherapist have been able to see through my facade. I want people to see me as a trustworthy, strong person. As I write this, I realize that hiding my illness hides my trustworthiness and strength.

    Thank you for sharing your story so I could learn how to share my secret.

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    1. A close friend who has dealt with depression all her life once said this to me when I was feeling very dark – we’re not weak. We are stronger than most, because we’ve battled harder to get where we are.

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    2. WeaverGrace, I am truly humbled that you chose to validate me through sharing what I know could not have been easy to share on such a public platform. Please allow me to be a little vain and quote myself, I can’t remember which of my blog posts made me realize that “courage in battle comes from knowing that other people are engaged in exactly the same battles alongside you”, and now I realize that some people are engaged in even harder battles but still think it worthy to give courage to their fellow human beings. I’m truly grateful Grace and please know that through your highs and lows, you are never alone. Like Heidi says, for us to get where we are has taken incredible strength, and courage. Thank you for reading, but most importantly, for letting your courage shine through.

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    3. Heidi, I do not consider myself stronger than most. I think that people with disabilities and/or mental illness are considered weak and fragile. Like you, I am certainly stronger than that (especially with my shock absorbers). My strength is merely greater than people might expect, if they consider my challenges.

      Earlier this week, a dear friend of mine lashed out at me for not showing up to help her. She doesn’t know that I felt challenged when I notified her as soon as I realized that I wouldn’t get there, and worked hard to stay awake to sit up in bed all day. I let her rant, knowing she was being unreasonable when she accused me of being inconsiderate without asking why I didn’t stick to our plan. I would like to find a way to tell her of my illness so I don’t feel so weak and isolated.

      Seven years ago, when I used the label of “bipolar” to anonymously find others with that same label in online forums, I found many people who were engaged in similar situations alongside me. I recognized that I felt frightened as some people told of their raging battles, and inspired when others shared their stories with peaceful courage.

      Sydney, I thank people like you who think it worthy to offer courage to our fellow human beings. I look forward to learning more from you about how to do this.

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  8. What an amazing, incredible discussion this has sparked. There are so many facets to depression and other mental illness. I feel that there is much truth in what MamaD said – there is a Weltschmerz, a pain at the state of the world, that is deep and abiding and looks like depression, although I’m not sure it is. Perhaps it is clear vision! Only I would beware of nostalgia. I’m not certain that there are any good old days or that humans were ever different and better, perhaps this pain is, in the end, about the nature of humanity. There could also be a pain at the separation from nature that too many of us suffer and perhaps often don’t recognise if we are stuck in some world of concrete, bitumen and reflective glass, and this would indeed be a modern disease.

    There is also a depression that comes from inside a person. This is difficult to manage and deal with. I saw it ravage my own brother and he really was ill. Not just upset, not just sad, not anything he could snap out of by willpower.

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    1. Ubuntu. In a word Heidi, I think that is what it is. Interdependent living and it does not age.
      What is modern and what is old if time is just an aberration, an artefact of our sensibilities?
      As someone said to me recently, which way is up? In a planet suspended in dark matter, how do we appoint a direction to the planet.
      There are frameworks, other than the reified ‘scientific method’ within which knowledge is ‘decoded’ and to our peril do we assert that there is only one!

      Whatever depression really is and however we have insight of it, like most conditions of humankind on earth, it does not need to be limited to a solely materialist/physical cause. The story I subscribe to is that we have levels of disconnection from the mother planet, many of which we fail to acknowledge.

      Theodore Rozak in ‘The Voice of the Earth’ speaks of the inability of the narratives borne out of a deep disconnect from the Earth to supply an explanatory story or a frameworks for healing.

      This one, I feel, is up to us. Who dares hold the hand of ‘the other’, unconditionally?

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      1. You are so right Mama D, this is Ubuntu at work, indeed, who dares hold the hand of the other? I grew up in a rural village where life was quite tranquil. Life has progressively moved me into this concrete jungle and I often wonder if my disconnectedness has contributed to the condition. I do know it’s always been there though. Like Heidi says, its origins are internal, and sometimes, once triggered, its effects can be totally devastating. Grace, I too look forward to learning from you. That’s Ubuntu at work. Sometimes, even those closest to us make demands on our lives that they have no clue are impossible at the time, no matter how reasonable they seem to them! I’ve done ‘selfish’ things before to ensure I get my mental silence, they don’t get it but it works wonders for me. Any other way just makes things worse for me, your friends will understand, eventually.

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  9. Zanele Mthimunye | Reply

    “I’ve found that I want to appear well to people, all the time”- I think that’s the mistake we all make. Wanting to appear well, happy and in control. my late friend who appeared well, happy and healthy at all times, ended his life. This came as a shock cause he always appeared well. But through his life, I have learned to write and talk about my depression… Thank you bhut’ Sydney for sharing this, it’s deep and eye opening!

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    1. Thank you so much for reading Zanele. Much appreciated. It’s amazing how I learnt to hide my pain, I hid it so well that now it appears and feels as though I’m not being genuine when I share it. I’m certain your friend had also become a master at hiding the pain. That’s why everybody’s always shocked at a ‘sudden’ suicide like that. The amazing thing though is I have found it very liberating to acknowledge the condition to myself and publicly. And if by doing so, I have given someone the strength or courage to deal with their own situation, even if it’s just one person, then it’s worth every uncomfortable feeling I have had to overcome. Good luck Zanele.

      Like

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