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Mirror, Mirror

Warning: Reflections in this mirror may be distorted by socially construed ideas of beauty.

My favorite time of year: resolution time; that glorious period when everyone spews list of changes that they intend to make and which end up being kept for all of, on average, five days. Most of those fantastic claims center around the body: attending the gym more frequently, eating better, attempting one (or more) fad diets that have yet to be discredited by science. And why not? It’s not as if our entire social culture were structured around norms of expectations of beauty, right? Oh, wait, it is. We have entire channels of YouTube that explain how to contour your face, dress appropriately for your age, shop thriftily so you can emulate the looks of the stars. Don’t get me started on what you can find on Instagram (and, yes, I’m old enough that I had to research both because I don’t actually utilize either one on a regular basis).

I don’t believe in resolutions, in general, but I really avoid the ones in relation to the body. Why? Because I have major body image issues, the same as most other people who suffer from depression. The crazy part is that I probably shouldn’t, at least according to logic. After all, I weigh a solid 100 pounds less now than I did even ten years ago when I was in a terrible relationship; that equates to 10 sizes smaller (and the real annoyance of having to buy new clothes every time I lost a significant amount of weight). Instead of reveling in the loss, though, I freaked out. I kept pushing against newly-appeared bones and ligaments, trying to figure out what in the world the protrusions were; I ended up with a lot of bruises. And I continued to avoid mirrors at all costs – because I still saw the same girl in the mirror as always.

And I still do.

This past year, everyone was posting their 10-year challenge photos to show the difference a decade can make. Now, I hate having my picture taken (see above in case you were under some delusion as to why that might be), but I finally caved to the pressure and found an old picture as well as one from this summer. It was the first time I was able to see the difference in weight, mostly because the evidence was sitting in front of me. The shock was overwhelming, but the bigger shock was walking to the bedroom, looking in the mirror and seeing that same enormous hippo staring back at me. Nothing had changed, not even moments after glimpsing the truth! My mind insisted that I was still an unattractive blimp. All of the broken thinking came right back: the taunting from school, the embarrassment from the playground (you know – when no one else can lift you on the see-saw?), the humiliation of walking past women your own age as you go to the Plus section while they traipse to the Juniors section, all while your much thinner friends insisted that size is just a number and prance around in crop tops, skinny jeans, and bikinis. So I put my sweats on and went back to avoiding the mirror – standard procedure.

The grip that thinking has on a person is insane. I’ve continued to lose weight, I’ve toned my arms and legs some more, and I STILL see the same horrible image in the mirror. Every now and then, I catch a brief glimpse of someone else, but I don’t know who she is. And the really crazy thing is, if I just look at my arm or my leg, I see changes (we won’t talk about my stomach – that’s insanity); but the entire picture…it falls apart. Trying to rewire my thinking has failed every attempt I’ve made. Those hurtful remarks are embedded deep in my psyche, along with every rejection.

If I were to consider making any resolution this coming year, it would be to root out all of those horrible sentiments and banish them from my way of thinking. Because, honestly, I would really like to look in the mirror and at least see MYSELF, as I am.

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The Broken Compass

This is the way.

~THE MANDALORIAN

When I was in high school, preparing for college, I had a plan for my future: I had selected my school, I knew I was going to major in Marine Biology, and I knew I was going to become a researcher, focusing on behaviors of great white sharks. My future was laid out as a beautiful, manicured path with sunshine beaming down at regular intervals. Unhappily, when I arrived at college, I experienced a minor setback when my adviser informed me that Marine Biologists were a dime a dozen; if I wanted any chance at a career in the field, I was going to have to add a second major to my curriculum to distinguish myself.

Enter the first change in plans.

Surprise, surprise: I’m not a researcher working with sharks; I’m not actually working in the field of Marine Biology, at all. Those beautiful, naive, plans ended up derailed time and time again as reality and my need to make other people happy intruded. And each time I ended up cringing and feeling disappointed because I changed my plan. After all, I believed that you were supposed to go to college, get a job, and then progress with that job for the rest of your life. That was the example I had from my elders, from television, from literature; I didn’t know of any other option. The fact that I wasn’t fitting into that mold – over and over – made me feel like a failure. My jobs were leaving me to switch paths entirely: concrete, dirt, gravel, stone. I even made the dreaded error of going back to school and getting another degree…a crazy, “old” adult sitting among a bunch of kids.

The audacity, the insanity…the reality?

Why is there such a negative connotation against changing your mind, your path, though? The humorous world is built on mocking work life because people are often miserable existing inside of cubes and offices (I can attest to that – I did spend over a year in a cubicle, watching my life slowly get sucked out of me). So why do we insist on staying at hopes we hate? Is it because we’re all bought into the same example I did – that we’re supposed to lock into a single pathway? Is it because we have the same “support” systems telling us that we have good salaries, great benefits, and ample opportunities where we are, so why would we give that up for uncertainty? Is it because we’re afraid of the unknown?

Yes.

I have been there – I AM there. It’s terrifying to contemplate switching away from the comfortable path you’re on to one that is completely shrouded in fog and mist. Is there even another path on that other side, or is it just a chasm with a bottomless pit? At the same time, though, is it worth continuing being exhausted, aggravated, and frustrated when there is a possibility for genuine happiness? Sure, people look at you strange and question your motives (regardless of your age, really) whenever you decide to deviate from the expected norm. Where did expectation get you in the first place, though?

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Confidence and the Invisible Army

They win by convincing you that you’re alone.

— STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER

The invisible army.

I never realized the impact of the invisible army until recently or how much power it has over a person. I think we’ve all encountered the invisible army at one point or another in our lives: someone uses a line similar to, “everyone else feels…” and BOOM! the entire Imperial Army is ranged against your lowly, crippled X-Wing. There is no response to those statements, no way to defend yourself when everyone shares an opinion opposite to yours. It’s an instant blow to your entire system, leaving you stunned, and the only thing you can do is quietly accept your fate and limp home, never realizing the full impact of what’s happened until later.

Your confidence is shaken.

Before those words were spoken, you thought things were going pretty well; your spine was intact, you held your head up high, and you felt a measure of pride in yourself and your work. Now, knowing that EVERYONE is ranged against you, you’re cowering, you can’t look anyone in the eye, and you doubt everything you’ve ever done. That person robbed you of your confidence, shattered it (hopefully didn’t erase it entirely, but that is a possible outcome, too – it depends on the size of the invisible army), and the worst part is, that was their intent from the beginning. People use the word “everyone” because it has impact, because it’s difficult to argue against, because we know that majority rules. Now, that person has the upper hand, while you’re left slumped in defeat in front of them.

It’s a cruel trick, and it’s one I’ve experienced many times – surrendering pieces of my confidence over and over again. I would slink home, sit on the couch, and analyze every life choice I had ever made, wondering what led me to be such a screw-up. To be honest, I’m doing it right now – it’s what prompted me to start this blog, to consider a new path (I’m not even sure the Empire ever had an army this big). My confidence is currently being held together with a couple pieces of old tape and sheer force of will. Why? I know my worth; I can recite all of my best qualities, all of the positive things I bring to the table, and I have a hefty list of accomplishments. I have a list of people reminding me on a daily basis of my talents, reassuring me that I can do anything I set my mind to. So why am I trying to hold my shaky confidence together with fraying string?

Because an invisible army said I was wrong.

It looks ridiculous when it’s written out, but that’s exactly how much power that invisible army HAS. It’s a throw-back to elementary school when kids told you no one liked you on the entire playground, and you spent recess sitting on a corner of the blacktop making patterns with the rocks. It’s a reminder of asking a guy to senior prom and hearing him proclaim, loudly, that no one was stupid enough to go with someone as ugly as you. “No one” and “everyone” are hulking beasts with fists and mallets that hammer away at your self-confidence, and every blow leaves a bruise on your psyche. People use those words because of the power they convey, because they know you’ll cave when you hear them. If they can break your confidence, they win. They win, and you’re sitting at home analyzing every choice you’ve ever made in your life.

And it has to STOP.

So now I’m sitting here, wondering why I let those people do that to me. Why did I surrender my confidence to bullies? Why did I compromise a part of who I was because I was afraid of an invisible army? How many people were REALLY in that army? What were their strengths? Their stats? Their ranks? Was there even an army at all or was it a foil to “keep me in line?” I wasn’t brave enough to ask the questions, to plant my feet and show some of that spine. Which is how I ended up here, looking at a fissured self-confidence and hoping I have enough glue and staples to repair it.

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The Sound of Silence

These are my four "kids" - and the closest thing I have to therapy these days.

Brace yourself, complete and unvarnished honesty is coming: I have depression. *gasp* I fully admitted it! I put it out there in print – in this day and age when there’s this huge taboo against mental health! What am I thinking?! Well, frankly, I’m thinking that the stigma against depression and other mental health disorders is unfair and one of the reasons that we have a high suicide rate in this country. I’m thinking of the injustice of people battling horrendous demons, frequently on their own, without a voice. I’m thinking of the too-familiar phrases uttered of, “I never knew there was anything wrong with him/her.” I’m thinking that’s what happens when a blind eye is turned to people like me when we don’t speak up and admit that we spend most of our lives tumbling around in this black void of our minds.

Ah, but there are so many answers for us in this day and age! We have come so far from the horrors of electroshock therapy – a veritable cornucopia of solutions! Let’s see, there’s the always popular psychological sessions where your every thought (however mundane) is scooped out and examined from every angle until you can’t remember what your original feelings might have been in the first place. Psychologists inevitably lead to psychotropic medications with their endless lists of side effects and titrations…usually followed by recalls when someone figures out that one of those side effects isn’t so benign. We can’t forget the neutraceutical industry, either (coconut oil fixes everything…or is it CBD oil now?) with herbs, tinctures, soaks, and even prescriptions for sunshine. Depression frequently locks you into a world of immobility, which is why people like to remind you to exercise, to boost your endorphins to “feel better.” Nothing cures feelings of worthlessness and doubt like squeezing into Spandex and venturing into the public eye, after all. And then there’s my personal favorite: the circulating memes of people insisting that they will always be there to listen, regardless of circumstance…until you hit that really bad day, or your stretch of bad days turns into a bad week, or they realize that depression doesn’t go away after a couple of sessions of sitting on the couch with chamomile, or they realize you’re not going to stop crying regardless of what they say, or…well, you get the picture. Plenty of options, plenty of answers to “fix” us and allow us to join society.

So do I have the answer?

Yes! And for the low, low price of just $19.99 and a subscription fee of only $7.99… Please, come on! No, of course I don’t have an answer because I don’t think there is one. I spend every single day battling against those demons in my head that tell my I’m a failure, I’m worthless, I’m ugly, I’m incompetent, and I’m better off dead, and there isn’t a single item on those lists that I haven’t tried. They never worked, not even a lingering placebo effect. The closest I’ve come to effective therapy are those four “kids” in the picture above (I’d like to say they’re free, but the costs of caring for them is actually kind of ridiculous…and I’m not even allowed to claim them on my taxes!). They let me cry on them as much as I need, they sit with me no matter how long the darkness pushes down on me, and regardless of what I might think of myself on a given day, they think I’m amazing and wonderful.

The battle is daily, though. Sure, some days are easier than others; not every day is the battle of Helm’s Deep. This is a reality that I and a lot of other people cope with, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. We perform some of the best acting in the world, finer than any actor in Hollywood could dream because most of those around us have no earthly idea there is anything wrong. We smile, we complete our daily routines (often with a perfectionist streak), we laugh, we engage in conversations we have zero interest in, and we appear functional and ordinary. While inside our heads we’re dying a little bit more with every grin, with every forced giggle, with every completed project. We realized a long time back how uncomfortable people are when we show our “depression side;” they want to cross to the other side of the street and put up warding signs! So we hide the tears, hide the grimaces, hide the downcast eyes, hide the slumped shoulders and put on a fantastic performance.

Meanwhile, inside our heads, we’re screaming at demons most people could never imagine in their worst nightmares. We’re sitting inside of swirling voids that would swallow entire cities whole if they escaped the confines of our brains. We’re sinking slowly into the coldest, thickest murk that never seems to have a bottom, clutching at rungs of a ladder that continually snap apart in our hands. We’re curling up into balls and wedging ourselves into corners of pitch black rooms, clutching our hands around the tiniest slivers of light that shrink every time we breathe. We’re suffering self-flagellation at the hands of someone who knows every tiny detail of our lives – every mistake, every regret, every flaw. We are tearing ourselves apart, piece by piece, while also frantically trying to save the scraps and put them back together, praying we haven’t lost any of the pieces.

That is what the silence sounds like in our minds.

I don’t have an answer. I fight my battle every day – same as many, many others. I’m not sure there is an answer, to be honest. All I can do is provide an insight into the battle and share one of the voices. If the taboo is broken, maybe more will be done. I don’t mean these sweep-it-under-the-rug “cures” they champion today, but actual in-depth research and understanding. Or maybe it’s as simple as opening a few more minds, creating a little more reality in the world.