mental health

Hiding Away

“I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I’m awake, you know?”

~Ernest Hemingway

For some people, sleep is ordinary. They have a set schedule that never deviates. And falling asleep? That happens at the drop of a hat – no matter what took place during the day. (And if you’re one of those people, know that I secretly hate you – even though we’ve never met) They get in those doctor-mandated eight hours without a problem, waking refreshed and ready for the next day. Sleep is one more checkbox on the list of vital necessities that keep them functioning in the world.

Then there’s the rest of us.

Some of us? We’re pretty sure sleep is a mythical creature. There’s a better chance we’ll encounter a unicorn offering us three wishes and a ride to Oz. Even if we go through every rite ever conceived or mentioned in obscure scrolls, the best we manage is a nap here or there and a few brief minutes before the alarm goes off. Those “eight hours” doctors tell you to get every night? We might manage them – if we add up all of the scattered minutes over the years. Trying to turn off the frantic energy of an anxious mind (or coping with genuine sleep disorders) makes sleep impossible. And so we have to face the new day with a negative deficit of energy. One that continues to grow worse and worse.

Then there’s another side of the spectrum. Other people dive into sleep every chance they get. (And, no, I’m not referring to people with narcolepsy – that’s a bonafide medical issue) The oblivion of unconsciousness provides a respite from the negativity of the depressed side of their mind, the pressure of the outside world. And it beats having to confront what’s facing them. So they curl up in blankets and shut out everything else. Which SOUNDS awesome, because one assumes they’re banking up recovery and energy with each nap. But it doesn’t work that way. The kind of “rest” those people attempt does NOTHING to restore the mind OR body. Instead, it drags down the resources – because the mind circles around and around whatever issue they’re trying desperately to avoid.

Two lessons in sleep FAILURE.

And I’ve done both. True, I have diagnosed sleep disorders that land me in the first camp. I’ve battled insomnia and sleep apnea for years. My sleep doctor does everything possible to get me SOME semblance of a rest pattern. But looking at my FitBit report some mornings is depressing. I never reach that 100 score you’re supposed to get. Most of my pattern bounces between “light sleep” and “awake.” Rarely do I achieve the “deep sleep” the body needs to recover. And my “REM sleep” moments (where your mind restores itself)? Those are usually blips. I go through my days exhausted, with a blurry mind. And it’s been that way for as long as I can remember. My body needs a major surgical overhaul – something I’m not willing to go through (nor are my doctors comfortable taking that step).

But I’ve also tried to hide in sleep. (And, trust me, the irony that I can nap at those moments but not sleep at night isn’t lost on me) When I couldn’t face things weighing on my shoulders, I shut the curtains and pulled the blankets over my head. And I woke up feeling worse and MORE tired than when I climbed into bed. Because all my brain did was spiral around the issue I was trying to AVOID. Words and situations and “plans” played over and over in my dreams, sucking away whatever energy I might have managed to bank. Because I wasn’t resting appropriately. Instead, I was interrupting my body’s normal rhythm.

Now, don’t get me wrong – sometimes naps ARE important. My body crashes plenty of times (weekends) when it’s had enough. You can’t NOT sleep all the time and expect to function. But when YOU try to take the reins, your body doesn’t cooperate. You can’t hide from things that way. Well, you CAN, but it’s going to sit outside the door, waiting for you. Which is something we like to forget. Sure, while we’re asleep, nothing happens. But nothing CHANGES, either. The sleep doesn’t magically correct the issue and make it disappear. The fears, the depression, the anxiety – they sit beside your bed, waiting patiently for you to wake up. And most of the time? They get BIGGER in the process.

Hiding? Doesn’t work.

You can’t abuse sleep that way. Your mind DOESN’T recover and gain strength. And while your body MAY get some recuperation, it won’t stockpile energy. Honestly, what happens as soon as you wake up? You DEFLATE. Because you’re hit with the wall of everything you tried to push away. All you did was lose those minutes (or hours). Time you COULD have spent sitting, BREATHING, and maybe figuring out what you needed to do about the situation. Even if you didn’t do anything EXCEPT breathe, you’d do yourself a better favor than trying to hide in sleep. Trust me (seriously – I’m speaking as a person who would cheerfully slaughter any person if I was promised I could sleep like a normal person).

Does it hurt when our depression gets out of control? Of course it does. And when the anxiety spiral kicks in? You want to scream. But trying to bury yourself in pillows to get away from them? That doesn’t work. SCREAM! Stand outside (or inside – your choice) and scream. Maybe it won’t solve anything, but you’ll feel better and accomplish more for your body and brain than trying to sleep a problem away. Then sit down and breathe. Oxygen will help WAY more than oblivion.

mental health

Impossible Things

Anything new can mean feeling better about youself
Image by armennano from Pixabay

Everyone take a moment and consider something in your life you’ve NEVER changed. Because, odds are, you can come up with at least one answer. Maybe it’s a habit (cleaning chores don’t count – those are important). Or it could be a hair style you’ve clung to for decades. And let’s not forget a job you’ve planted yourself in (I won’t count it if you’re genuinely happy there). Something you’ve worn a TRENCH into the ground with your repetition and used some form of the words, “Well, I can’t…” when someone asks why you haven’t changed or done anything about it. Got it in your mind? Good.

WHY are you doing that?!

Don’t worry, I already know the answer. It’s because anxiety and fear have made it easy to stay on that old familiar path. Change is HARD. Sticking to what you know? That doesn’t require any effort or special talent. You simply do what you’ve always done. And it’s comfortable, in a strange sort of way. You’re not entirely happy, but you’re not miserable, either. It’s a functional limbo. But the trench gets deeper every month. Eventually, you’ll wear it down deep enough that you may never find a ladder tall enough to climb out of it. And that’s a frightening place to be.

We NEED to shake things up periodically. For ourselves. It’s healthy – much as people will try to convince you otherwise. (Newsflash: They’re in their own trenches and want the company) We need to bite the bullet, set the anxiety aside, and decide change is in order. It elevates your spirits and SELF to a higher level – one you’re not capable of imagining from the darkness of that old familiar shadow. You gain a new perspective when you decide you’re willing to try something different. That little (or big) something new peels away a scale from your eyes. The world looks different. YOU look different – to yourself. And that’s HUGE.

But you have to take the first step.

For the majority of my life, my hair was LONG. We’re talking ridiculous lengths, here. I refused to cut it more than my stylist deemed absolutely necessary. Which was, honestly, stupid because I always wore it up in a braid of ponytail, anyway. (Mostly because if I didn’t, people knotted things in it while I sat in class) Finally, the summer before my senior year of high school, I’d had enough. I came to a place of personal growth and decided I needed to make a change. I cut it off – ALL of it. The weight – literal and figurative – was liberating. I walked with my head held high for the first time. I looked people in the eye. And I took that confidence with me through college, maintaining the pixie cut all four years.

Until I lost my confidence again following graduation. Funny how something like hair length can tell the outside world what’s going on in your mind. As my hair returned to its previous length, my mental state plummeted again. I crawled back into the shadows. It took me SIXTEEN YEARS to get myself sorted again. And, yeah, it ended up chopped off. And I haven’t looked back since. It’s stayed ruthlessly short for the past five years. And my confidence? It wobbles now and then, but – for the most part – it hasn’t tanked.

I needed that dramatic of a change, though.

People were shocked. Others looked at me strange. Some said they couldn’t believe I’d gone to such a new extreme (we’re talking waist-length to a severe pixie). A few even wondered if my mental health was stable (never mind that they never asked when I was hiding behind my hair). And when I started coloring my hair? Yeah, those questions popped up again. Was I having a midlife crisis? (When IS your midlife, anyway? It’s not like you get a piece of paper with your death age on it. So I think that concept is ridiculous) Had something happened that made me feel rebellious? (I love how hair color is rebellious) No one ever asked if I suddenly felt like ME. No one smiled and said I looked like myself. (FYI – I did, and I still do)

And last week, when my stylist asked what color we were going with this time? I felt like something different. I’ve gone with blue for close to three years now. Something in my brain decided it was time for something new. And while I would have protested up, down, and sideways in the past, my hair is now bright pink. And I LOVE it! I feel amazing and have a renewed sense of self and purpose. From something as simple as a new hair color! All I needed to do was decide on the change and not let ME hold myself back.

It’s that easy!

I’ve heard the phrase, “I could never do that” so many times, it gives me a migraine. The only thing that ever stops you is YOU. Anxiety and fear stand in front of you, and you let them! I don’t say that to be cruel. I say it because I’ve been there. I talked myself out of short hair. Then it was hair color. I’ve argued myself away from clothes I genuinely wanted. And my dream job? I spent DECADES telling myself that’s all it was – a dream. There wasn’t a word of truth to any of it. But I was afraid of what other people would say. I worried what perfect strangers would think (as if their opinion means two cents). Anxiety after anxiety piled up. And instead of using them as a LADDER out of that stupid trench, I used them as shovels to dig deeper.

Every time I’ve silenced the fears and worries, embracing the change – the CHANCE – I’ve come out happier on the other end. Does it take a whole heap of courage and bravery? Of course. You’re doing something new! You close your eyes and take a deep breath. But when you open your eyes again? The view is so spectacular. Your heart swells in your chest, and you BREATHE. And the air at the top of that trench is WAY sweeter than the must inside it.

Even if it’s a little change you’ve been contemplating, don’t let your anxiety stand in the way. You have that idea for a reason. It’s a part of your mind driving you forward. Don’t let what your fear – or anyone else – says stand in your way. You only get so many ladders.

mental health

Permanent Stories

“I am a canvas of my experiences, my story is etched in lines and shading, and you can read it on my arms, my legs, my shoulders, and my stomach.”

~Kat Von D

Certain things fall out of your notice after awhile. For instance, I forget that my hair’s blue all the time. When I first dyed it, I was always conscious of the color, and I felt people’s eyes on me constantly. Some of the people who saw the color narrowed their eyes in disapproval, and I hunched my shoulders. (Never mind that I loved it and felt like myself for the first time in ages) Others took the time to come over and compliment me, which made me smile and relax. And kids – especially little girls – loved it, which tickled me to no end. It’s been a few years now, and I’ve gone through several other colors, but blue is the most common. And since it’s ALWAYS colored at this point, I forget about it. So I don’t think anything of people turning to look my way – and I stopped caring about their opinion. It only matters when someone comes over to ask me how I did it (and I feel bad when I admit I don’t – that I rely on my fabulous hairstylist to keep me from looking like a Smurf)

My tattoos are the same way.

Now, there’s a slight caveat there. When I got my first tattoo, my mother was panicked. She was afraid I’d risk losing my job. Even in our current “age of enlightenment,” she felt that tattoos equated to rejection by employers. And she wasn’t entirely wrong. The clinic I worked at had a strict “no visible tattoos” policy. We weren’t in the Bible Belt (where damn near everything is against the rules), but they didn’t want clients getting offended. I’m not sure how a tribal shark and Calico Jack’s Jolly Roger might offend someone, but people can get weird about anything. So I brought my scrub top to the appointment, and we made sure the tattoo wouldn’t be visible when I was working. And I did the same with my second (dragon triquetras being horrific images and all).

Every time I got another tattoo (if you’ve never experienced the process, they’re like potato chips – you can’t stop at just one), I made sure it would remain covered by my scrubs so my mom could rest easy. Because the prejudice against ink kept cropping up. Unlike questions about your marriage status and children, it’s acceptable for an employer to ask if you have ink. And they can demand you cover it up. (So much for enlightenment) I decided it didn’t bother me, but I noticed a difference when out in public – where no such restrictions are in place. During the winter, when my arms and legs were covered (and thus no tattoos were visible), I ended up with those annoying kiosk people at the mall coming up to me ALL THE TIME. My Resting Bitch Face did nothing to deter them. (Yes, I am a master of that expression – most Capricorns are) However, during the warmer months when I had on shorts and tank tops, they decided to avoid me. The only difference between the situations was the visibility of my tattoos. I didn’t change how I walked, the expression I wore, or anything else.

The difference was THEIR perception.

Obviously, I’m not hemmed in on tattoo placement restrictions anymore. While I DO have client conversations via Zoom now and then, I feel zero need to worry that a person might decide I can’t write because I have a tattoo here or there. (And I have grand plans for two more – at least one of which will be my forearm) But the prejudice hasn’t stopped – even within my family.

In December, I added my fifth tattoo. I know I discussed it with my mother, and I even posted pictures on my social media accounts (because it’s adorable and came out fantastic. It’s also my first color tattoo, which I was a little nervous about). Earlier this month, we had a surge of warm temperatures, so I had shorts on when my father dropped by to help us with some home improvement things. It’s hard to miss the tattoo since it takes up most of my thigh, and he immediately commented that he didn’t know I got a new one – in a disapproving tone. I was shocked. One, that he wasn’t already aware of it (I mean, it’s been months – the thing’s completely healed). And two, that he sounded like one of those people on the street that ask if you realize tattoos are permanent. I carefully explained when I’d had it done, and that I’d told Mom about it (assuming she’d tell him). It did nothing to change his expression.

Which sums up the reactions I get out in public. It’s like my hair: some people offer positive comments, while others turn up their noses. Why, yes, as a matter of fact, I know they’re permanent. (For that amount of pain, they damn well better be) I’m not a spur-of-the-moment tattoo person. I plan them over MONTHS. I think through what I want and why. Every tattoo has multiple meanings and reminders for me. I put them where I can see them for that reason. It’s why I’ll never get one on my back – what good is it if I can’t see it every day? These are important stories for me, marking moments in my life that I don’t want to forget. And I know it’s the same for other people that decide to go under the needle.

Tattoos are a person’s identity.

It amazes me, in the age we’re in, that you can still find pockets of prejudice. If hair color, piercings, or tattoos aren’t your thing, that’s fine. But does that give you permission to judge the people who DO want to embrace them? These are people expressing their personal identity. For a lot of us, it’s finally embracing our self-expression – people we’ve hidden away for decades. Your judgement? That’s not needed. We aren’t walking around telling you you look ridiculous buttoned up to the chin and wearing…oh, I don’t know, a wristwatch. (I have no idea where to go with that – mostly because I don’t engage in this behavior) I’m proud of the hours I’ve sat for my tattoos – because it isn’t easy! They fucking HURT! We’re talking holding incredibly still, trying to distract your body as it screams, “What the fuck are we doing?!” Not to mention the weeks after as you engage in care while it heals, and peels, and ITCHES.

Left WITHOUT parental interference, kids don’t judge. They come up to you and examine hair, earrings, and tattoos with interest. They ask questions – and a lot of them are intelligent questions. Have I EVER told a small child they could get a tattoo? No. I always explain it’s something they need to think carefully about and WAIT until they’re 18. With hair, I say they need to ask their parents. I’m not an irresponsible individual (though parents like to make me out to be one – thanks ever so much). Prejudice is LEARNED, it’s not innate. And it needs to stop. People need the freedom to be themselves – whatever that looks like.

Do you want to cover every inch of your skin with ink? Then do it. Want to experiment with every color on your hair? Go for it. Maybe you want to shave your head entirely. Why not? Self-expression represents who you are at your core. There’s nothing wrong with it. Do you need to open yourself to the potential questions? Yeah, you do. But – barring the ignorant – is that such a bad thing? I don’t think so. It gives you an opportunity to open up about YOU. Embrace your self-confidence. You never know when THAT might catch on. And maybe you’ll inspire one of those kids to do the same – away from that misguided parental influence.

mental health

The Socialization Pill

Anti-social board
Photo by Sarah Pflug from Burst

Everyone without mental illness has a solution for curing depression. And most of those answers don’t usually come in the form of therapy, medication, or communication. Nope. They’re usually sunshine, exercise, diet changes, or (my personal favorite), socializing. Because when you feel like the world is collapsing in on you, the one thing that’s going to make you feel better is interacting with a horde of people.

WRONG!

We crawl into our blanket forts to get AWAY from people. It’s not a subliminal call for others to come join us. Getting thrown against a wall of humanity won’t do anything for the crippling misery boring through our skulls. Think about it: how does getting forced to interact with complete strangers make you feel better? You have to dredge up socialization skills. Then you have to force a cheer you KNOW you don’t have because people don’t want to deal with depression. And you’re usually confronted with topics you A) have no knowledge of (remember, these are strangers) or B) couldn’t care less about. And introverts do NOT have a mastery of small talk.

You’d have better luck pitching one of us into a ravine with starving predators. Our odds of survival are MUCH higher. We’d also come out on the other end with a better perspective. (Attempting to survive a genuine threat tends to to do that for you) Social interaction won’t fix things for those of us coping with a bad day/week/month/season. It’s not the answer we’re looking for. We’d TELL you if we wanted that kind of thing. You’d see us put on our “going out” clothes.

Everyone is NOT a social butterfly.

It drives me up the wall when people tell me I need to “get out more.” (And, yes, I realize the irony of discussing this during our current pandemic. You’re just going to have to transcribe this to a different time and place) Getting dragged to parties, dinners, and get-togethers made me skin crawl. I’d come up with every excuse in the book to decline an invitation. But since I hate lying (and I’m particularly BAD at it), that meant finding REAL reasons not to go. Or it meant I had to go – kicking and screaming.

Then I sat in a corner, twisting my fingers into knots and wishing I was anywhere else. I couldn’t start conversations (another introvert habit), and sneaking out the door is difficult when you’re trapped behind a wall of people. Conversations dropped within a few moments because I lacked that small talk ability. And people KNOW when you don’t want to be there. (Which is why this “solution” FAILS!) My eyes would dart back and forth, looking for my opening to leave. As soon as ANYONE made their farewells, I seized my chance to bolt out the door. I looked like a prisoner making a jail break!

It’s ridiculous!

And it’s completely unfair. To me, to the person who invited me, to everyone around me. I have no idea if they were trying to be polite, if they thought they were doing something good (that supposed “cure”), or if it was some joke to place bets on how long I’d last in a social situation. But the result was always the same. I used the same brittle tone of voice. You know the one: “I can’t believe I’m sitting here, and I wish I was anywhere else, but I’m trying to be polite – please stop talking to me.” I’d catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror and think of a deer in the headlights. (VERY complimentary)

There’s a difference between being around the people you love and being thrown into a social situation. One relaxes you, makes you laugh, and makes you feel safe and secure. The other tenses you up, makes you want to cry, and cranks your anxiety past eleven. What’s the difference?

Your CHOICE!

When someone pressures you and throws you into the socialization coliseum, nothing good comes from it. If YOU decide you want to form a get-together, it’s different. You’re selecting the people, the place, and the situation. There’s no awkwardness, no forced conversation, and the anxiety settles to a manageable level. (Let’s face it – you’re organizing something, so there’s going to be SOME panicking) And you’re not going to do it when you feel like the world’s falling apart. It’s THAT simple.

Don’t let people pressure you to go out in the masses. (Especially now – but that’s a different story) You know it won’t help, no matter what nonsense they spout. Are they living in your head? No. So why in the world would you take their advice? You know better than that. Shake your head and tell them no. You don’t need to make an excuse, just say no. It’ll save you in the long run – BELIEVE me.