Okay Fine Whatever

Courtenay Hameister captivated audiences for nearly a decade as the host of the popular public radio program Live Wire, interviewing notable thinkers in a variety of fields. Behind the scenes she felt overwhelmed throughout her tenure, by preparation for the next show and onstage nerves. The unpredictability inherent in interviewing turned out to be a perfect trigger for what she later discovered was generalized anxiety disorder.

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Leaving Live Wire and confronting her anxiety became the premise for Hameister’s debut book, Okay Fine Whatever: The Year I Went From Being Afraid of Everything to Only Being Afraid of Most Things. The Sophie Fund’s “Readings on Mental Health” series featured Hameister on October 14 at Buffalo Street Books, where she read from her first chapter “Stepping Down” and discussed her experiences with anxiety in a Q&A session afterwards.

Through candid and precise prose, Hameister’s book gives a nuanced perspective on the nature of generalized anxiety and ways to both explore and challenge its pathology. Her writing recorded her encounters with things that scared her, the page becoming a place for both problem-solving and reflection. “Maybe I could retrain my brain the way you train a baby’s,” she thought. “We take a child out in the world and show them this is here to hurt you, and these things, like teddy bears, are for fun. Our anxious brains tend to get those things mixed up. I was training my brain to become optimistic.”

She describes her endeavors as “exposure therapy to the whole world”; from a sensory deprivation tank to time with a professional cuddler to 28 first dates to a Build Your Own Burrito night at a sex club, Hameister engaged with her fears by challenging the way she related to them.

“The one shift that happened was just one word,” she recalled. “Before if someone asked me to do something that seemed strange or new or gave me a little dread, I would say ‘Oh that sounds terrifying’ pretty much every time. And now, after it’s all over, I just say, ‘Well that sounds interesting.’” This adaptation, says Hameister, removed the judgment, allowing her to remain open to whatever might come her way.

Despite these shifts in her thinking, Hameister was quick to acknowledge that this book was not written to document a monumental, immediate transformation. In fact, this trope found in so many memoirs and movies doesn’t quite capture the true nature of negotiating one’s anxiety. The reason being, she explains, is that “change is frustratingly incremental. Most of the time as we’re changing, we don’t even notice it.” And her memoir is not afraid of unveiling this slowness. The book is less about overcoming anxiety and more about living with it.

In the Q&A session, Hameister offered some of her takeaways about anxiety. For example, she describes how generalized anxiety—“this free-floating anxiety that’s there all the time just waiting for something to attach to (and unfortunately there’s always something to attach to)”—impacts her ability to write. It became an additional obstacle to finishing the book, though she was not without potential antidotes. Sometimes she simply told herself, “I am going to write a terrible first draft.”

Another part of the process is creating new neural pathways around writing. She remembers her therapist explaining, “When you’re creating a new neural pathway, imagine yourself in the jungle, pushing through these leaves and they’re wet and horrible, and you can barely get through it. This is the first time you go through. The second time you go through, you have a machete, so it’s a little bit easier. And the third time you go through, you’ve got a couple friends, and really the tenth time you go through you have rototiller.”

Hameister also addressed the importance of normalizing anxiety. So often, people think they are the only ones that struggle. “If people could talk about mental illness the way we talk about breaking a bone or lupus disease, it would be life changing to let people know you are struggling,” she said. Additionally, reframing anxiety’s purpose can be helpful to this conversation. She proposes we think of anxiety as a signal that allows us to recognize, “Oh I care a lot about this. It’s really important to me.”

Hameister opens a doorway for those looking to better understand their own anxious tendencies or better relate to those in their life who have them. Okay Fine Whatever wonderfully highlights the value of people living with mental illness writing narratives that provide true insight into the mental health challenges all around us.

—By Margaret McKinnis

Margaret McKinnis, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a junior at Ithaca College majoring in Writing and minoring in English and Honors. She is a nonfiction editor at Stillwater, a student literary magazine, and an assistant director of the New Voices Literary Festival.

“Readings on Mental Health” is presented by the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County, hosted by Buffalo Street Books, and sponsored by The Sophie Fund.

Hot New Books for Mental Health

Buffalo Street Books launches The Sophie Fund’s 2018 “Readings on Mental Health” series on October 7 with an appearance by Laura June, author of Now My Heart Is Full.

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Laura June (Photo by Silvie Rosokoff)

June’s heartbreaking yet hopeful memoir from Penguin Books reflects on motherhood, the relationships between mothers and daughters, and the joys and pains of being a parent. It relates a journey from being raised by an alcoholic mother to giving birth herself at 35, and beyond. “June reckons unflinchingly with the muck of motherhood and daughterhood without disavowing the precious particularities of both,” said Rachel Vorona Cote, writing in The New Republic.

The series continues on October 14 with a reading by Courtenay Hameister, former head writer and host of the popular public radio variety show Live Wire. Hameister recounts her struggles with anxiety disorders in her frank and funny new book from Little Brown, Okay Fine Whatever: They Year I Went from Being Afraid of Everything to Only Being Afraid of Most Things.

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Courtenay Hameister

On November 4 the series concludes with an appearance by Kelly Jensen, editor of a new anthology about mental health aimed at teenaged readers. (Don’t) Call Me Crazy: 33 Voices Start the Conversation About Mental Health from Algonquin Young Readers brings together actors, athletes, writers, and artists—Kristen Bell, Reid Ewing, S.Jae-Jones, Nancy Kerrigan, and others—discussing their personal experiences with mental health and how to tackle the stigma around it.

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Kelly Jensen

Buffalo Street Books is located in the DeWitt Mall 215 N Cayuga St, Ithaca, NY 14850. All readings begin at 2 p.m. and are followed by Q&A and book signings.

“Readings on Mental Health” is presented by the Mental Health Association in Tompkins CountyMental Health Association in Tompkins County with the support of The Sophie Fund.

 

The Joys of Mental Health First Aid

Don’t you love the smiles on these faces? The Sophie Fund does.

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The Class of April 16, 2018

This is a group of owners, managers, and workers from Ithaca’s restaurants, bars, and cafes taking a one-day course in Mental Health First Aid on April 16. They’re smiling because they had great fun, learned valuable skills, and became more confident in their abilities to support a family member, friend, colleague, or stranger experiencing a mental health crisis. Oh, and they also received official certification as Mental Health First Aiders.

The training was conducted by Melanie Little and David Bulkley of the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County. It was sponsored by a grant from The Sophie Fund to offer free training for the dedicated men and women of Ithaca’s vibrant culinary scene—where thin margins, long hours, erratic schedules, and high pressures can be the routine. The 15 trainees in the session are employed by Gimme! Coffee, Argos Inn, The Watershed, Temple of Zeus, Manndible Cafe, and other enterprises.

“With the stigma around mental illness, and given the hectic lives we lead today, it’s easy for somebody not to immediately seek the mental health support they need, or for people around them not to recognize signs that a crisis is brewing,” said Scott MacLeod, a founder of The Sophie Fund. “We aim to see Mental Health First Aid become the norm across the public and private sectors in Tompkins County. We would like to see every government agency, educational institution, and major business providing training opportunities—and in some cases, mandated training—for their managers and staff.”

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In training at the Tompkins County Public Library

Developed in Australia in 2000, the National Council for Behavioral Health brought Mental Health First Aid to the United States in 2008. Like traditional first aid, Mental Health First Aid is not about diagnosing or treating ailments, but rather giving immediate initial assistance until professional mental health support can be provided.

In the one-day Mental Health First Aid course, trainees learn the risk factors and warning signs for mental disorders and substance use concerns, strategies for assisting people in crisis and non-crisis situations, and how to get professional help.

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Practicing Mental Health First Aid skills

In the United States, the “movement” boasts a million Mental Health First Aiders—and millions more are needed. The country is going through an epidemic of mental health disorders. The national suicide rate increased 24 percent from 1999 to 2014. In 2016, 42,249 people died from opioid overdoses; 2.1 million Americans had an opioid use disorder. An estimated 43.6 million American adults are living with a psychiatric illness and another 16.3 million have an alcohol use disorder.

The 2016 annual report of the Center for Collegiate Mental Health said collected data from 139 college counseling centers showed that 33.2 percent of 150,483 college students seeking counseling in the 2015-16 academic year had “seriously considered attempting suicide.” That was a marked increase from 23.8 percent in the 2010-11 academic year. About 1,100 college students annually take their own lives.

“As someone who has battled both depression and anxiety personally, and has family members who battle alcoholism, this is a very important topic to me,” said Emily Guenther, one of the April 16 trainees. “It was nice to come to a class where I felt like people understood the difficulties and hardships that are faced daily when dealing with mental health issues. It was wonderful for me to finally get some tools that will be very useful for me moving forward!”

The sentiment was shared by many other trainees.

“The hospitality world often fosters an especially high-stress work environment and, as someone in a managerial position, I am very invested in the mental well-being of my crew, both day-to-day and long-term,” said Rob Hummel, the front desk manager of Argos Inn. “Certainly being concerned for others isn’t enough to be helpful, and the very specific identification and communication techniques presented at training gave me a proper, practical means of applying that concern when it’s needed. The attitude of care and compassion that Melanie and David encouraged as an integral part of mental health first aid is invaluable, both at work and in one’s own life.”

The Mental Health Association employs three certified trainers, and offers regular sessions open to the public and organizes private in-house trainings for companies and organizations.

“At the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County, we are passionate about Mental Health First Aid as part of the delivery of our agency’s mission to create a citizen’s movement in support of our community’s mental health,” said trainer Melanie Little. “The further this information spreads, the more our area will be filled with individuals who are ready to provide support, compassion, understanding, and resources to our fellow community members who are struggling.”

Little explained that the training teaches compassion, listening skills, the types of mental health help that are available, and combats the stigma surrounding mental health that prevents so many individuals from accessing the help they need and deserve. In an eight-hour course, she said, the training includes discussions about complex and difficult topics, and gives participants ample time to practice their skills by applying them to a wide range of scenarios.

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Melanie Little and David Bulkley of the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County

Mental Health First Aid not only serves humanity, it serves the bottom line, too. According to Mental Health First Aid USA, 40 percent of employees with a mental illness take up to 10 days off work a year because of it. Yet 35 percent of managers feel they have no formal support or resources to help their employees.

And, it’s kind of cool, or at least Lady Gaga thinks so: her Born This Way Foundation has helped train 150,000 people in Mental Health First Aid.

For more information or to schedule a training in Tompkins County, contact:

Melanie Little, Mental Health Association in Tompkins County

mlittle@mhaedu.org

For information about applying for a Mental Health First Aid training grant from The Sophie Fund, contact:

The Sophie Fund

thesophiefund2016@gmail.org

To support The Sophie Fund’s grants for Mental Health First Aid training, click here to go to the Donate page.

 

Photos courtesy Yuko Jingu

Community Profile: Jacob Parker Carver

Jacob Parker Carver is the Community Educator at the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County. A typical week puts him at the Tompkins County Public Library where he gives trainings in Mental Health First Aid, or on the Cornell University campus where he recently gave a talk at a mental health awareness event. Parker Carver’s job also takes him to a place that most of us would prefer to avoid: the Tompkins County Jail.

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Parker Carver along with other colleagues runs two regular mental health programs at the 82-inmate institution, the Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP), and a less formal program he just calls Talk. As Parker Carver sees it, mental health support is critical to giving prisoners a better chance in life once they are released. The county jail’s WRAP program began in April 2016 after Tompkins County Corrections Division Supervisor Captain Raymond Bunce recognized that prisoners needed more mental health services and the Mental Health Association reached out with help.

The idea behind WRAP, Parker Carver explained in an interview with The Sophie Fund, is self-help training—“teaching people how to identify the things that give them strength, that make them healthy, that keep them healthy.” It sounds straightforward enough, yet Parker Carver found it tough going at first. Much like the challenges that mental health providers face with the regular population, getting inmates to overcome the stigma around mental illness and treatment is no easy matter.

“We realized that we were not getting access to everybody in the jail who could use the service, partially because of the stigma around mental health,” Parker Carver recalls. “Especially within the jail, if you identify as having a mental health issue, that makes you a target. Behind those bars you’re easier to take advantage of if you have a mental health problem. So people don’t necessarily want to sign up for that. When someone is in that seat in front of me, they really want to be a part of that group.”

To get around the stigma and create a different environment for inmates turned off by a formal wellness and recovery program, the Mental Health Association began offering Talk, a less structured group session. In an ideal world all the inmates would take advantage of this support, but Parker Carver has found that often times it’s the same group of people. Giving prisoners the space to express themselves, Parker Carver says, is not as easy as it sounds. While they are very appreciative to have someone who cares about how they feel, it is hard for them to escape the norms imposed by the criminal justice system.

“They’ve talked to correctional officers or probation officers, or some of them have drug and alcohol counselors,” Parker Carver explains. “They’re part of the system and that means they’re used to having to tell something from a script, having to jump through hoops, having to say the right thing to make sure that their kids don’t get taken away from them or that they don’t have to get sent to rehab or this that or the other thing. So they’re very used to having to figure out what people want to hear and then saying that back to them.”

Parker Carver’s methods enable some inmates to open up with surprising candor. “Someone who would tell their drug counselor that they want to get clean might tell me ‘As soon as I get out of this cell and get to go home I just need to go find crack because I can’t think of anything else that’s going to make being alive okay,’” he says. “That’s a hard thing to hear. But you’re not really able to help anyone unless you’re hearing the truth of what they’re going through.”

As Parker Carver explains it, WRAP and Talk also help inmates cope with the immense stresses of their incarceration. “Not everyone in jail is happy and holding hands and ready to get along,” he says. “You’ve got two people who are locked up and there’s no reason for them to hate each other. If anything, because they’re in the same difficult situation they should be supporting each other. But they’re both stressed, anxious, afraid, and on high alert—always in that ‘fight or flight’ situation. They can’t focus their anger in any place productive so they take it out on each other. That’s definitely sad to see.”

In jail cells, traditional coping mechanisms don’t apply. “When you’re in jail I can’t tell you to listen to music,” Parker Carver says. “I can’t tell you to take a yoga class. You’re stuck in this place so you’re limited to coping mechanisms that you can use in a small space, with very limited resources.”

That’s where the Mental Health Association comes in. WRAP trains inmates to understand the little things people can do in each day to try to take control of their mental health and communicate to other people about their needs. Parker Carver says it also teaches inmates how to be mindful of triggers—“the things that set us off, the things that are going to make it harder for us to stay in control.”

Parker Carver, 30, is a 2008 graduate of Ithaca College, where he studied cinema production. He spent four years teaching English in Shanghai before returning to Ithaca. He joined the Mental Health Association initially as its Youth Services Coordinator, before taking up his current position in 2015. He is mindful that after listening to the stories of pain and suffering in the county jail he needs to take care of his own mental health. Explains Parker Carver: “I spend a lot of time building little things into my day, into my life, that give me that energy, hope, and strength.”

—By S. Makai Andrews

S. Makai Andrews is co-president of Active Minds at Ithaca College, and a contributor to The Mighty

How Reading Fiction Soothes Teen Angst

Shawn Goodman, the Young Adult fiction author of Kindness for Weakness, will be the featured guest speaker at a “Readings on Mental Health” event on September 24 sponsored by the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County and hosted by Buffalo Street Books.

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Goodman will take his audience on a tour of the Young Adult literature landscape, discussing works such as It’s Kind of a Funny Story, by Ned Vizzini, Fat Kid Rules the World by K.L. Going, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick, and Mexican White Boy by Matt De La Pena.

In his talk, Goodman will explore the different reasons as well as the different ways in which teens and adults read—a critical question given how reading time for teens has become such a limited commodity due to competing activities, most of which are digital and instant.

Goodman is a school psychologist in Ithaca whose experiences working in several New York State juvenile detention facilities inspire his writing. The New York Times called Goodman’s Kindness for Weakness, “a gripping tale with important lessons for any young man.” It is the story of James, the son of a cocktail-waitress single mom, who becomes entangled with his drug-dealing older brother as he navigates adolescence. Goodman’s earlier Something Like Hope won the 2009 Delacorte Press Prize for a first Young Adult novel.

Goodman’s appearance is the second installment of “Readings on Mental Health,” a 2017 series featuring authors of books on mental health topics made possible by a grant from The Sophie Fund.