mental health

The Great Adult Debate

Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.

~C.S. Lewis

At least for the immediate future, there’s nothing we can do about the inevitable march of time; we’re going to continue to get older with each passing year (don’t ask how old I am because I’m not going to admit to that age – suffice it to say that I used landlines as a kid, and my first tool of research was the library and not Google). I have no doubts that science (or some less research-based organization that will go horribly wrong) is tirelessly working on methods to slow this process so that no one need suffer the ravages of old age, but until the Benjamin Button pill becomes available, we’re all stuck with the reality of encroaching wrinkles, body aches, and gray hair. For those of you out there with exceptional breeding (or excessive bank accounts – and, yes, we can all tell), you will still find the following signs of advanced age creeping into your life: a plastic bag full of plastic bags somewhere in the house, multiple chapstick sources (i.e., the car, work, several locations in the house), and multiple ibuprofen sources.

Face the facts, we’re all going to become adults whether we like it or not…and, frankly, we like it not. Who in their right mind likes bills, responsibilities, and taxes?! Sure, being able to rent a car and consume alcoholic beverages (legally – I’m looking at some of you) is a bonus, and there might be a few other perks sprinkled in there, but there’s a lot of dead weight that comes with being an adult…which prompts all of that ibuprofen you start carrying around and popping like candy. Is there anything more depressing than watching your hard-earned paycheck disappear – first to the government, and then to all of those necessities you thought sounded so cool as a kid? You know: a house, electricity, a car, the Internet no one can live without, and the ever-present phone? And, if you went to a higher education, there are those student loans you will be paying off for the rest of your life…and probably from the grave, too. We actually looked FORWARD to this and WANTED to grow up?!

What the hell were we thinking?!

Well, to be fair, we weren’t because we were young and stupid. Also…we didn’t have a choice – no Neverland, and no magic pill to let us stay kids forever. Damn. Okay, so here we are – adults (please feel free to add your own whining sound effect); we don’t get to change that. What we DO get to change – and somehow forget – is what we do with our lives. Yes, we have to be responsible members of society; we have to get jobs and pay our bills because prison really isn’t as glamorous as television makes it out be (unless you are a traffic cone, orange is not your color). This doesn’t mean staying in a mindless, soul-sucking job that makes you wish you were dead – that is NOT the definition of being an adult, and whoever tells you differently is lying (and probably wishing THEY were not in a mindless, soul-sucking job). NOTHING stops you from doing something you love, something that makes you happy…well, except YOU. Have you ever noticed that the word, “can’t” is uttered more by adults than kids? Think about that.

It isn’t just the professional side of things, though; there is this “adult persona” that people feel a need to embrace once they exit the doors of their educational building of choice into the “adult world” (if that doesn’t sound like the lamest amusement park in the world, I don’t know what does). People actually think they have to turn in their toys, posters, games, and books at the gate in exchange for classical art pieces, pottery, furniture that is non-functional (look, don’t touch!), and – my personal favorite – coffee table books. There’s this overwhelming pressure to hold dinner parties with fancy canapes, wine glasses, and conversation with Mozart playing softly in the background. Your dinnerware needs to match (of course), and it should only be in the most refined taste, coordinated with the drapes in your dining room. Your handbag has to match your shoes (or maybe not…I’m not fashion-forward, so definitely don’t trust anything I say in regards to clothing), and you’d better have the proper jewelry accessories. I think you’re allowed one pair of tennis shoes, but they are strictly for outdoor activities or sports. Everything is sophisticated, classic, and screams, “grown-up” – and people believe this is real!

WHY?!

You became an adult, not a Stepford Wife! Just because you age up doesn’t mean setting aside who you are and stuffing yourself into a mold you’ll never fit in. Have you ever set foot into ComiCon or DragonCon? You think a single one of those adults are not fully-functional, responsible members of society? (If you have doubts, go look at the cost to get in and then rethink your opinion) Getting older doesn’t mean letting go of the things that make you happy, regardless of what those things are. Adults play video games, read YA fiction (right now, some of that is better than the other side of the bookstore), read comics, build Legos (no child is building that Millennium Falcon), watch Disney+ and plan to storm Build-a-Bear when The Child is released (I will mow down your kid if they are in the way), and stand in line for animated movies. We didn’t give up on the things we loved just because society decided we were “grown-up.” And we’re HAPPY. Sure, we get some odd looks. Sure, people point. Sure, people roll their eyes, laugh, mutter under their breath – all of those things. So what? Last time I checked, I wasn’t enjoying things for anyone but myself.

I fell for the “adult” trap out of college. I scrambled to project the right image, follow the “rules,” and set up my first apartment appropriately. I lost myself, too, watched fragments drift away. I would see something I knew I loved, and I’d point it out to one of my new “friends,” and then wilt under their skeptical eye and crawl back home in shame. It took me a long time to realize how miserable I was, being so “adult” all the time, quashing all of ME inside, away from prying eyes. It wasn’t until I met a friend of mine, who wasn’t afraid to just be herself – consequences be damned – that I started to crawl back out of my shell. Oh, I lost some of those “friends” – they declared me “too weird,” “strange,” “immature,” and plenty of other derogatory things – and my ego took a blow before I realized they were A) wrong, and B) never friends in the first place.

Now? Now, my house has stuffed animals and Funko Pop! figurines in every room, as well as Lego sets. My movie collection is a mixture of animated, superhero, musical, anime, and action. I have a fair amount of YA on my book shelves, as well as manga/light novel, and comics. My purse and wallet are Harley Quinn, my laptop bag is Nightmare Before Christmas, my water bottle has The Child on it, and my gym bag has a Flerken on it. My clothing has Disney characters (including Star Wars and Marvel), DC characters, and cats on it. The vast majority of my jewelry is handmade (not by me – I’m not talented in that arena), and instead of a diamond, my engagement ring is a color-changing garnet. When we have dinner parties, we play Villainous or Unstable Unicorns or Bears vs. Babies, complete with shrieking laughter and accusations of cheating and hateful remarks. And I love every minute of it. Yes, I get weird looks sometimes, but I also get a lot of compliments and smiles. Either way, it doesn’t matter to me anymore, because I’m happy. Maybe it’s not the Webster’s Dictionary version of, “adult,” but it’s my definition, and my only regret is that I wasted a lot of time arriving at that realization.

So, you tell me: what kind of adult do you want to be?

mental health

Be Anyone but Yourself

I've always loved the idea of not being what people expect me to be. - Dita Von Teese

One of the biggest lies you will ever hear from another human being has to be, “Be yourself.” Those two little words come from everyone: family, friends, teachers, motivational posters in medical offices. The words come in the form of empowered scripts, cute kittens, every range of emoji, and endorsement by any number of celebrities. Indoctrination begins way back in kindergarten and follows you into adulthood, becoming more and more of a parroted line with every recitation. Now, I’m not condemning the sentiment or even every person who tells you to, “Be yourself,” because there probably are people who were – and are – genuinely honest. Let’s be real, though: the vast majority of people say those words with a little tiny caveat attached.

Be yourself…with the following conditions.

People really don’t like us to be ourselves; they like it when we’re THEIR version of ourselves. So, be yourself…but don’t wear that, don’t say that, don’t speak up, don’t join that group, do join that group, don’t write that way, don’t associate with those people, don’t vote for that person, do vote for that person, don’t support that cause, don’t color your hair that shade, don’t color your hair at all, don’t wear your hair in that style, don’t wear glasses, do wear glasses but not that style, don’t listen to that music, etc., etc., etc. The list goes on and on and on, and suddenly you’re no longer yourself, you’re a ridiculous clone of the person who told you to, “Be yourself.” Sometimes, you can’t even remember who you actually ARE. Did I really like Top 40 music? Do I even like reading mysteries? Have I always liked the color green? When did I sign up as a member of the Walking History Tour Fans? How did I ever end up with green braids in my hair? Suddenly, you find yourself staring in the mirror, struggling to figure out who the hell that person is looking back at you – not because of depression or any other mental imbalance, but because you’ve lost your personal identity under a tidal wave of, “Be yourself!”

Actually being yourself means NOT listening to those people. It means closing out all of the other voices when you make your daily decisions, not worrying about what someone else is going to think about your choice. Not everyone is going to agree with you (that’s a good thing, by the way), and they’re going to make faces, and they’re going to roll their eyes, and they’re going to say things – usually worded quite cleverly – to make you question yourself. They do that because they want you to BE LIKE THEM! Consider that when you hear that slight inflection at the end of their words questioning your decision. After all, cutting your hair super short and dyeing it ice-blue isn’t going to end the world (personal experience, here). Speaking your mind, rather than keeping things bottled up and eating you alive inside, may or may not be detrimental – depends on how you say things – but it’s a thousand times better than keeping pain inside, allowing it to fester and destroy you. Honesty isn’t going to win you a lot of friends, but it is always, always, always the best policy.

If you can look in the mirror and see YOU – 100%, genuine, YOU – and be content, then that’s a win. It likely means disappointing people, annoying people, aggravating people (all of which has the potential to be fun, if you look at it the right way), but where lies the greater peace? Making everyone else happy, or making yourself happy? Looking in the mirror and seeing the Indianapolis 500 version of yourself, created by everyone around you, or looking in the mirror and seeing the you that you have worked so hard to create yourself?

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The Neverending Battle

Perfection, to me, means you spend much too much time trying to be perfect.

~Walter Matthau

Truth time: I AGONIZE over these posts. I spend hours and hours thinking through what I want to say, how I want to say it, deciding whether to go with an image or a quote, coming up with just the perfect clever title (side note: I am terrible at titles – not just here but in my other writing), re-writing what I wrote, fixing the formatting, all before letting myself hit that Publish button. And, honestly, half the time I then go back and make edits anyway because I feel like what I said isn’t good enough, or I notice something was worded wrong. Why?

I’m a crazy perfectionist.

I am the kind of person who gets hives if there isn’t a dot above every “i” and a cross over every “t.” And don’t get me start about pictures that are just that nth degree off of center in people’s homes – we’re talking nails on a blackboard. I am that person who has their DVDs, music, and books in alphabetical order (books by author, of course – I’m not psycho…well, manga is by title), and woe-betide the prankster who dares to touch that system. When I hung the pictures in my house, you bet I used the tape measure to make sure everything was precise and even…and then I dared to let someone else move in, and everything went to hell. Now, I gave him a full course on how the house was laid out, where everything went, and how things were to be done. Did he listen? Of course not. He just did as he pleased, and I had to cope with absolute chaos and towels that weren’t folded right. It’s a wonder I ever agreed to marry him (there will DEFINITELY be a part of the vows where I promise to never look at his desk – for my sanity…and his continued existence).

I’ve survived, though – and, more importantly (to him), he has, too (with a lot of suppressed screaming and some additional tutorials). It still doesn’t stop my nasty habit of trying to inflict perfection on my day-to-day life. There is nothing quite so aggravating as finishing cleaning the entire house and watching one of the cats scatter food all over the freshly mopped floor. (Cats, by the way, while believing themselves to be the most perfect creature on the planet do not strive for perfection – fun fact) You want to really destroy a perfectionist? Ask them to sweep up cat litter with a broom and dustpan; that damn last line of litter dust NEVER goes into the pan! The spice jars have to be turned with the label facing forward, the plates and glasses have to be in a line, and don’t get me started on the labels from the Good Thins boxes in the cabinet. It’s order, it’s organization, it’s PEACE. When everything is exact and precise and PERFECT, then the world is set to rights, and everything is okay.

Perfectionism is a cousin of anxiety.

If everything isn’t JUST SO, then worry and nerves start to get into our way, and we start to go into our spirals of panic. It’s a coping mechanism (and I am the first to admit it isn’t a healthy one, but there you have it) to keep that hulking monster of fear and anxiety at bay. If everything is exactly perfect and in its place, then everything is OKAY. If I get 100% and straight As, then Mom and Dad won’t have any reason to yell at me. If I get into a good college and get a degree, then I’ll get a job and become a worthwhile human being. If I do everything I’m told and follow all of the rules, then I’ll never get in trouble. It sounds good, right? I certainly thought so, and it was the model I followed through my life…but it doesn’t work in the real world. Because no one else follows that model. Not everyone follows the rules or even cares about the rules. Not everyone cares about working to full potential. Mom and Dad will always find a reason to yell at you (parents are parents for a reason – it’s their job). You can do everything right and still fail. Perfect FAILS you. And then what do you do?

You set up a new standard of perfect, and… No, forget I said that. You start to realize that maybe that lesson Dad threw your way all those years ago (when you were too young and stupid to actually listen) was accurate: you don’t have to be perfect. Maybe you can let the picture be a tiny bit off-center. Maybe you can let your husband-to-be’s desk look like ground-zero of a massive disaster without yelling at him. Maybe you can write out 3000 words of that next book chapter without deleting all 3000 words and just acknowledge you’re putting sand in the box to build with. Maybe you can realize that people are genuinely idiots, but that’s okay; no one ever said you had to be one of them. You’re a crazy bundle of anxiety with a need to succeed – well, okay. So do it in your own fashion and make THAT your perfection.

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Fear the Spiral

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

~Frank Herbert, DUNE

We’ve all been there: ambling along, happy as can be, everything going our way, when out of nowhere we find ourselves standing on the edge of a cliff unable to see the other side. Is there an other side? Is the path on the other side as nice as the one we’re currently standing on? What’s at the bottom of the cliff, just in case we can’t make that jump? Will something terrible come up behind us if we don’t jump? We start up a spiral of fear that plants us firmly on our spot, paralyzing our brain’s ability to function properly.

Why do we do that?

Right up to that cliff, we were intelligent, rational, thinking human beings. We could problem-solve with the best of them, and we found solutions for the issues that cropped up in front of us. Now, though, doubt and fear are worming their way into our minds, and we’re stuck. It’s amazing the power fear, especially fear of the unknown, can exert over us.

What if we make the wrong choice? Fear of failure is crippling for a lot of people. There are people you’ll disappoint (real or imagined…and, let’s face it, for most of us, it’s more imagined than real – we just don’t want to admit that). The mind conjures up this giant, flashing red “F” that you’re positive the entire world is going to be able to see. Except…well, we know that isn’t real, on some plane of our rational thinking. People fail all the time; it’s how you learn and grow, and, sometimes, it’s how you go on to succeed. The fear is still there, though, grinding you into the ground and convincing you that making that jump could be the worst mistake of your life. If you miss the jump and fall – there are no save points and restarts in the real world. Your mind tells you that you have to get it right the first try; you can’t screw up – and you believe it.

What if something worse is coming? Things were going great, so Murphy’s Law dictates that there’s an end to that waiting somewhere. Maybe if you just hunker down and close your eyes, the monster won’t see you. It always worked when you were a kid, right? Except you’re not a kid anymore, and you’ve watched too many horror movies now, so you know that monster is going to see you out there in the open on that cliff. That horrible thing is going to come right for you, and all you can do is sit there, staring at it, and waiting for it to tear you apart. You’ll never outsmart it, you’ll never outrun it, and you can’t defeat it, so what can you do? You honestly believe that this horrible thing is going to happen, and you wait for it; you let it consume your entire life. You forget to go on with everything else, you stop trying to figure out a way to the other side of the cliff (just in case you can make it), and you let your mind convince yourself the end is coming.

And we lose every time we do this.

Our minds are so amazing, so strong, but they can turn against us in a heartbeat. We give them a drop of fear, and they turn that drop into a tsunami. I’m not saying fear isn’t healthy – it is. Fear gives us something to fight against; it’s the enemy we conquer when no one else is looking. We get stronger when we face our fears, as absolutely terrifying as it is to close our eyes and make that jump. The problem is when we let the fear get the best of us. If we never take a step forward, we’re forever stuck in that same place: waiting for the worst, clutching our precious “F” to our chests.

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The Tenth Circle of Hell

Doctor: You have to learn to listen to your body.  Me: Oh, we're not on speaking terms.

Picture, if you will, a person who is completely healthy: they have no physical deformities, they have no speech impediments, they have multiple college degrees and can speak and write eloquently, they have no hearing difficulties (selective hearing doesn’t count), all of their original limbs are present in their original form, and they’ve never seen the inside of an Oncology office in their lives. Enviable, right? Possibly also imaginary?

Well, no, because appearances are deceiving. I just described myself from a stranger or even an acquaintance’s point of view. The truth is, though, that anyone who knows me, especially anyone in the medical field, would never use the word “healthy” in a list of adjectives – and I’ll even take my mental faculties off the table for this post. I, like a large percentage of the population, suffer from an invisible illness: an insidious monster that does its worst work under the surface where the only one who knows what’s going on is the person suffering the invasion. To the casual eye, we look like everyone else; we even look HEALTHY, which is the real scam. Meanwhile, our own bodies are turning against us in sick, twisted, and malicious ways. And the absolute worst part? We spend every day fighting and putting on a show to continue to appear normal.

I have fibromyalgia.

Some invisible illnesses out there are “lucky” (multiple sclerosis, Lyme disease): the cause is known; fibro is still bouncing around in the dark taunting researchers. Originally, patients were told they were crazy (true story: my mother is an example), that they were making their symptoms up in order to get attention, get pain medications, etc. (You’d think human medicine would find better excuses for people to have after hundreds of years, but there you go.) Finally, some doctors/researchers stepped up, acknowledged the condition was real, and they decided it was a problem in the musculature (hence its name). Then they changed their minds and decided it resided in the nerves – really great considering you have those throughout your entire body. Now, the current theory is that the bugger exists inside of your blood vessels – and we thought the previous theory was a blow! Oh, it sounds great, all of this research, there’s a problem: patients are bounced around from quack therapy to quack therapy in the meantime. My mother almost died being treated by a complete idiot of a doctor who didn’t understand the illness. They’re essentially throwing darts at a dartboard, hoping one might stick – not sound medical therapy (wait, didn’t I use that line in my talk about depression?). I want to stay angry at these medical professionals – and I can at the idiots, that’s easy – but it’s difficult. Why?

Because fibro SUCKS!

Let me try to illuminate what it’s like to be a fibro patient for you. I’m currently in the middle of a flare (which is why this post is late, actually), brought on by a combination of stress, a change in the weather, overdoing things in the middle of a flare, and possibly alignment of the stars (seriously – fibro is that weird). I have overheated electric wires extending down three of the fingers on my left hand; my right forearm is so fragile that the lightest breeze could fracture it into pieces; both of my legs have been boiled just shy of third degree burns so that even a cat whisker touching them makes me want to scream…which is at least an improvement over last night when they were repeatedly run over by rush hour traffic and then beaten for an hour with a sledgehammer. At least, that is the level of pain my brain is communicating to me because it doesn’t process pain appropriately (wherever the signals are coming from: nerve or blood vessel). I’m having trouble walking today, and just balancing my laptop of my lap is taking an effort of sheer will right now. I also fell asleep for two hours after waking up…probably because trying to sleep last night was an ordeal (remember the description of my leg pain from last night). I admit that this is a flare, so this is pretty bad, but I have some level of pain on a daily basis…and, believe it or not, it can also get worse.

Nothing helps, though.

Oh, I tried the silly fibro medication on the market – it made me sick as hell (and it didn’t work, anyway). I have tried soaks with Epson salt (which is never relaxing as it involves shooing cats away from the tub since they try to drink it), but they don’t help. Meditation is a joke (sorry for believers, but it is). This is the reality for so many people with invisible illnesses: no cure, no solution, and a lot of unsolicited advice from people who don’t share the same battle. Is it any wonder that we push ourselves to behave and appear as normal as possible? Believe me, I’d rather grit my teeth and force myself to walk across the room as smooth as possible than listen to one more person tell me eating a Keto diet will “fix me.”

The reality is that what we actually want is understanding. We would like people to understand when we’re having our flare days – and the fact that, when our bodies our under that much pain, our brains don’t always work so well (your mind can only process so much and still function properly). We would like people to understand that OF COURSE we look normal on the outside! Our battle is occurring on the INSIDE! If we actually looked the way we felt, EVERYONE would believe in the zombie apocalypse. We would like people to understand that, yes, some of us register for and need those disability placards. There are people out there that have difficulty walking more than ten steps without excruciating pain, or that need to walk slowly but refuse to take wheelchairs from people that genuinely need them (remember what I said above about appearance before you open your mouth and complain that you had to park a little further away).

I don’t want to belittle cancer because it’s horrible, and it has touched my own family (my sister is a breast cancer survivor), but people with cancer have options and therapies and hope. People with invisible illnesses…we don’t. So, before someone opens their mouth to ridicule a person who isn’t sporting a freshly-shaved head or puffy cheeks, maybe they should consider that.