mental health

Remember Who You Are

“Adults follow paths. Children explore.”

~Neil Gaiman

When someone mentions the words “adult” or “adulthood,” how do you define them? Don’t reach for your dictionary; I’m looking for your personal thoughts on this one. What makes up the bullet points of an adult life in your world? (You don’t need to overthink this one, either. I’m not going to collect a written essay or anything)

Ready to compare answers?

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess you have some variation of the following: responsibility (i.e., paying bills, maintaining a home, showing up for a job every day), respect (okay, so youngsters need to obey laws and demonstrate respect toward authority figures, but they don’t get hit with the consequences as heavily as adults), providing an example for the future generation (assuming you can pry their attention from their screen of choice), or projecting a proper image – whatever that looks like. Did I come close?

Now, obviously, there are a few numerical milestones that separate an adult and child. Legally, an adult can purchase alcohol, vote in political elections, and rent a vehicle. (If you work – even part-time – you get the joy of paying taxes. So kids get to experience that responsibility, whether they like it or not) And, eventually, adults get to retire. But that’s about it. If you strip away those defining characteristics, there isn’t anything that divides an adult from a child.

Sounds crazy, I know, but I’m going somewhere with this.

You’ll find kids out there who end up taking on responsibility at incredibly young ages. They assume the care of their siblings (or themselves). Getting whatever work they can, they take on bills and management of a household – sometimes while scrambling to get to class. It’s a rough life and worse than plenty of adults juggle on a regular basis. And (though it seems to be an infrequent thing these days) kids DO get raised with a demand to show respect to those around them. It’s a demand in certain cultures and family lines. The definitions we use to describe an adult work equally well for younger ages, if we’re willing to turn and look around.

So it goes without saying that the flip side should function, too. If youngsters can step up to the plate and exercise a healthy work ethic, why can’t WE shrug off a suit and jump into a fountain for a few minutes of play? Why do we cross some imaginary threshold and decide we’re above being a kid? Is it the peer pressure thing? Or something else? Maybe that silly “title” of adult? (As if it appears anywhere on your resume or license) I’m going to go with the fact you feel a crazy obligation to look and behave like – well, like an adult. As if anyone actually has a concrete example of what that looks like. (It’s not like you’ll find the costume for sale anywhere)

When we graduate from college (or high school or get our GED), society tells us we’re an adult. You have ZERO preparation for the real world, but you’re shoved out in the cold and told to “do some good.” You stare around at the “adults” and start imitating their behavior, assuming they know what they’re doing. (Newsflash: They have no clue) Of course, you don’t see their crippling depression, the weight of anxieties on their shoulders, or the crumbling family issues they lock behind the front door. Because they struggle to put on a stunning display of carefully kept homes, with art books on tables, conversation pieces on the walls, and furniture that prioritizes form over function. They step outside without a single hair out of place, rattle off every label on their clothing, and wouldn’t dare appear in a photo or video without makeup.

And you buy into this definition of “adult!”

I did. I struggled for years to meet that ideal. It meant waking up early to struggle with cosmetics (to this day, I barely know what I’m doing). I rolled my ankles in heels. I hid my stuffed animals and toys in a corner of the bedroom. And let’s not get started on the weird art I agreed to display on the walls. Slip up and mention I was hitting the movies to see Montsters, Inc.? Everyone looked at me like I’d suggested placing a bomb in the building. Run to the swings at the zoo playground? They asked if I needed to get some water (because, clearly, I had heat stroke). When I wore a pair of dragon earrings, I was pulled aside and asked to remove them; clients might get the wrong impression.

Over and over, the message came clear: being an adult meant a constant cycle of SHAME. At least, when I tried to be myself. And even when I “fell in line,” I received a list of improvements. Nothing remained “right” for long. Is it any wonder those years were filled with the worst of my depression? My highest anxiety? The adult world SUCKED! I couldn’t make anyone happy – least of all myself.

So I stopped trying.

I took a moment to reflect on when I’d been happier. That was easy: as a kid. When I fully embraced being myself. Those times when I threw away the cares and concerns of the world around me and did what I wanted. (Okay, so it didn’t last long in those years, but the brief moments of freedom lingered in the brain) Something in my head clicked: as an adult, no one would hold me back NOW. I could do whatever I wanted. And if I was willing to brave those tongue-clicks from my frowning peers, I had nothing left to fear.

It’s when I decided to was time to be a kid again. I stopped apologizing for ME. No more fighting to duplicate cat eyes or smoky eyes or whatever makeup trend people were espousing. I decided I liked my face without junk on it (and it meant getting to sleep later in the morning). My home underwent a purge, clearing out everything that made no sense to me. And I stopped trying to hide my stuffed animals and toys. My goofy jewelry? Yeah, it’s always going to remain my favorite. (I love that my husband tries to get me artsy stuff) And I have no problem walking up to whatever movie I want to see – or bragging about it.

When I embraced the kid I was – have always been – I took a huge breath in. It was an amazing sigh of relief. And I found this amazing gem you don’t realize exists when you’re young: you care less and less about those raised eyebrows and “for shame” remarks. Kids are bulletproof at some point in their lives. And you can tap into that, if you’re willing to abandon the regiments of being an adult. If you can laugh and play and be YOU, you can find that nugget. It means playing on the swings, dancing in public, dressing up in costumes, and laughing too loud. Which takes guts. But it’s SO worth it.

I don’t think anyone considers me a “stellar example” of an adult. My home won’t show up in any magazine features. And I’m not anyone’s model or muse. I don’t have a giant following on social media. But I also don’t care. I love the life I have. It makes me happy. And I have an outer layer of armor – courtesy of that little girl I decided I wanted to be again. It’s worth ditching the long list of bullshit I was attempting to follow before.

And, crazy as it sounds, it’s done wonders for my skin. (I’m just saying)

mental health

Think Before You Think

Theatre monologue
Image by bigter choi from Pixabay

How often do you find yourself having a conversation in the back of your mind? Not in the “crazy” way of talking to yourself, and I don’t mean hearing voices that aren’t yours. Just the standard internal monologue everyone uses throughout the day. Maybe to catalog your schedule. Or as you’re getting yourself out of bed in the morning and preparing for the day ahead. Or the (always popular) derogatory remarks you make to yourself for every hiccup and bump in the road, laying heavier and heavier weights on your shoulders.

Yup, we’re talking about THAT internal monologue.

The one that flattens your mood and leaves you looking for a blanket fort and a pint of ice cream. It’s saturated with sarcasm. You can even picture the twisted sneer on the face (well, YOUR face, since it’s your voice you’re hearing) as the zingers whisper in your ear. The words pour out non-stop, growing louder and louder as you move from an innocent trip to a full-out crash. Because the internal monologue’s distracting. It starts to take over more and more of your thought processes. Before you know it, it’s dominating your brain. You miss outside conversation. And you lose focus on the things you ARE supposed to provide your attention to. Which only serves to feed back into that maniac.

Not everyone possess an internal monologue. Some people go through their day with radio silence. And if you cope with depression? Well – like me – you envy those people. I know, others look at them strange and can’t conceive of the possibility of a quiet mind. But when all you hear is a constant barrage of negativity, you’d gladly sever a limb for five minutes of peace. Five whole minutes without your brain informing you of everything you’re doing wrong. (Did you know you can BREATHE wrong?)

People without an internal monologue don’t realize the blessing they have.

For the rest of us, we’re stuck with that actor in the spotlight, determined to speak to a trapped audience. And it’s usually overwhelming. If we could hand our ticket over to someone else (or, you know, LEAVE the theatre), we would. Anything to avoid the constant litany of failure. Because hearing about mistake after mistake beats you down. And just when you think you’re finally numb, the voice reaches a new spot and digs in a fresh wound. It’s agony! Listening to someone rattle off all of your worst qualities – 24/7 – is draining. And your body tells you in the form of exhaustion, insomnia (as if you WANT to stay awake and listen to the late show in your head), and illness.

I’ve attempted some pretty ridiculous things to break the cycle of negativity that runs on a constant loop in my mind. Blaring music? The theory seemed sound. Except that your internal monologue is capable of shouting over even the best headphones. (Turns out your mind’s WAY more powerful than anything technology can produce) Plus, high volumes aren’t safe for your hearing. And don’t get me started on the health risks of banging your head against hard objects. (Seriously, don’t try that one) Nothing shut that voice off. If anything, it ENCOURAGED the verbal barbs.

I needed to try a different angle.

Have you ever witnessed a stand-up comic getting heckled? It’s horribly rude. And the best performers out there handle the situation with grace and professionalism. But the speaker of your internal monologue? Yeah, they’re – well, they’re you. And let’s face it: they aren’t the BEST aspect of you. Derailing them is surprisingly easy, once you get the knack of it. (Okay, so this sounds strange, and, yes, I’m advocating that you “argue” with yourself. As long as you don’t do it aloud, you’re in the clear on the strange looks from strangers and friends category)

You need to throw those negative comments off track. And you do that by challenging the statements the SECOND you hear them. Or, if that’s not something you feel comfortable with yet, shift the train of thought they’re working on. For instance, when my internal monologue starts down the road of, “You’re never going to finish this story,” it’s time to step in. I can call a bluff and think of everything I HAVE finished and shut things down that way. Or I can jump to a fresh path and look at a new project I’m excelling at. Either way, that negative personality loses momentum and dissolves into the background. They lose their material.

Like those “I am” statements, it’s WORK. And I’m so used to getting bogged down in my internal monologue, that it might take me too long to implement a switch. Then it’s a matter of soothing the mental bruises and moving on, promising to remain more observant next time. But I FEEL better for not letting myself get dragged under all the time. Don’t get me wrong, I still feel beaten down by the things that inner voice says. (We’re the most accurate critics around) But at least I’m not dragging the negativity around with me throughout the day.

Give it a try. Put your internal monologue on a stage – with a spotlight – and then deprive them of their glory. Throw tomatoes or rotten fruit. Or break out your phone in the middle of the show and ignore them. Be a rude, disrespectful audience. If they can’t support you and behave, then you don’t need to listen. It’s a training process – for both of you. It’s the only way you’ll learn to speak nicer to yourself.

mental health

Brain Food

“I am the greatest. I said that even before I knew I was.

~Muhammad Ali

Even if you (like me) subscribe to streaming services so you can avoid the annoyance of commercials, you don’t get away from subliminal messages in your life. Advertisements are EVERYWHERE. Introverts still have to venture out of the house to seek sustenance now and then, and that means seeing billboards, ads on the sides of bus stops, and all of the sandwich boards and glaring posters in, on, and around stores. Produce and cereal get taglines these days. Everything’s designed to provoke a feeling, a message, and emotion. And people devote their careers to getting that reaction from you.

Meanwhile, all you wanted was a doughtnut.

Unwittingly or not, you DO take in those words. They leave an impression on your brain that you carry with you throughout the day. (Nothing better than a dose of guilt with your morning coffee, am I right?) Running errands with a blindfold on isn’t the best advice out there, though. That means you’re going to find yourself confronted by potentially negative words and images when you step out of the house. And – depending on your working environment – you could face the same problem in your office. So is it any wonder you walk around with the weight of the world on your shoulders? You’re subconsciously feeding your depression the food it CRAVES!

Think about it: What do you have around your home and work space? What are the words you see as you walk around? Are they affirmations of the fantastic job you did on your last project? Or are you surrounded by calendars with red ink – shrieking that you have five seconds to complete twelve more deadlines? Which one provokes your anxiety, do you think? We can do all of the work in the world to prod our thinking in a positive direction. But if we’re not “feeding” our thoughts a decent meal, it’s going to fall flat every time.

We have to get the “diet” right.

I know it sounds silly and corny and – okay, it sounds like some self-help nonsense. But you want to find affirmations that work for YOU and put them EVERYWHERE. Remember how you used to stick those sayings in your locker so you could drag yourself through class every day in school? Yeah, same principle at work here. You’re counteracting all of the negative that bombards your brain in the world. Even if you don’t stop and READ the words, your mind absorbs them as you catch them out of the corner of your eye. And those affirmations start to beat back the doom-and-gloom monster that is the depression lurking in the shadows. You sit up straighter. Your shoulders roll back and feel lighter. And you stop wanting to beat your head into the desk.

If you happen to follow my writer website, you know that I’m a sticker fiend. When I started adding those cute little images to my computer, I noticed my spirit lifting every time I sat down to work. Yes, they express my personality (and turn otherwise boring boxes into a colorful workspaces), but there’s more to it than that. Two, in particular have messages that hit me whenever I sit back:

“You are BRAVER than you believe, STRONGER than you seem, and SMARTER than you think.”

That one is nothing more than a simple circle. My husband got it for me when I started my writing business – and spent most of my time feeling worthless. Too much time wandering around, letting myself absorb the negative ads that pop up all over. Stopping and looking at the words have gotten me through SO many difficult days.

“Never Never Quit”

This one? It’s an original illustration from Karen Hallion. Three little words that goad me along when I feel sunk. If I sit and stare at my screen, struggling to find words, my eye hits that sticker, and my body relaxes. A simple affirmation that means EVERYTHING.

You can do the same thing. Maybe stickers aren’t your thing. Post-It notes cost nothing. Find quotes or words that strike you and put the Post-It where your eye will hit them. Your mirror, beside your bed, next to your computer, on your cubicle wall. Add a decorative border, or leave it plain. Whatever works to get your attention. Put them up at home AND at work. Because you need those affirmations EVERYWHERE. And then let those words sink into your brain when you feel your mood sinking. Give them the chance to feed your thoughts.

You’ll notice a change. You’ll feel the lift starting to happen. And it’ll fend off the misery you usually battle throughout the day. You don’t need to justify the presence of those affirmations to anyone else, either. If they ask, you can explain what the quote means to you. Maybe they need some affirmations in their life, too. Or you can just smile. (Everyone gets weirded out by the quiet smile – it’s awesome) As long as you’re protecting YOUR mind, that’s what’s important.

mental health

Channeling Ironman

"I am" notebook

When your feet hit the floor in the morning, what’s the first thought that crosses your mind? After you cycle through the usual litany of, “Holy crap, why am I awake?” (obviously). Are you the kind of person that starts running through the tasks you have lined up for the day? Or do you groan over the job you need to drag yourself to? Either way, you’ll find the word “I” working it’s way into those statements. And you fall into one of two possible camps: positive or negative. (And, no, I’m not referring to chipper morning people and those who require a caffeine infusion to function)

Now, before you start fretting, I’m not going to go into that nonsense about needing to smile first thing in the morning to create a rainbow for the day. I’m firmly opposed to smiling at dawn; that shit needs to get banned. How a person decides to crawl out of bed is entirely up to them. And the fact you growl and scowl through your routine doesn’t mean you’re going to strike out the rest of the day. (Karma doesn’t work that way) If it did? I’d be dead by now.

No, I’m focusing in on the words that tumble around in your head in those first few moments. The coherent ones, anyway. (I’ll give anyone a pass that can’t form a functional sentence until they get their first cup of coffee. I share a house with one of you) Not because they set a tone or anything, but because they DO influence the way you view yourself. Those words determine how you’re going to hold yourself for the rest of the day and interact with the world. More importantly, they decide how you’re going to speak to yourself as the hours progress.

And how you continue to talk to and about yourself.

The average person finds positive ways to describe themselves. They get out of bed, look in the mirror, and smile. “I am going to ace that presentation today.” Or they pour a mug of tea and think, “I am confident I can sell that pitch.” The slant of the words they cycle around their brains trends UP. Even if they encounter a bump in the road, they’re able to shrug things off and keep working. The constant reinforcement from their minds buoys them through adversity. It’s why you see a smile on their faces all the time. And why they’re usually morning people, encouraging you to start your day with a grin plastered on your face.

A nice theory, but not always practical.

For those of us with depression, we don’t get a positive voice in the back of our minds. That first glance in the mirror? It’s accompanied with, “I am a disaster. Why did I get out of bed?” Our morning beverage of choice gets stared at with thoughts of, “I am grossly incompetent. No one’s going to hire me.” And that sinister whisper continues to plague us. We get frown lines between our eyes, hunch our shoulders, and avoid eye contact. Hurdles throw us into despair because the only thing waiting to catch us is a mud pit and laughter. All we hear are doubts and reminders of every moment of our lives in which we failed. So getting up in the morning? That’s an ACCOMPLISHMENT in the first place. Asking for a smile on top of things is absurd.

Anyone with depression knows you need to change that inner dialogue. I know, it’s easier said than done. (I’m in that boat, too – remember?) So you start with something small. And something I’ve found that helps is narrowing my focus to two little words: “I am.” What you add after those words can determine which way your mood bends. And it grounds your mind into YOU, forcing you to examine a situation from YOUR point of view. It’s frightening, challenging, and requires supreme effort (we’re talking marathon strength here). But the end reward?

Well, you tell me what you think.

The notebook in the picture? It’s mine. I picked it up in my annual school supply splurge. (I’m not an addict or anything. If you don’t understand, talk to a writer) Within the pages, I keep a few different tallies for my writing, including the number of brave steps I accomplish each week. On Fridays, I then sit down and analyze how I did: with my business, with my mental outlook, and with my emotions. And at the end, I write out an “I am” statement. No matter how I feel the week went, that word MUST be positive. Sometimes it takes me an hour to come up with a way to finish the sentence, especially when I feel frustrated. (Believe me, I want to use “frustrated” ALL the time) But I refuse to accept anything less than a positive shift in my thinking.

This simple (okay, it’s not simple; it’s brutal and exhausting) exercise is already rewriting the patterns in my head. I catch myself reverting to the old way to speaking to myself and cut the flow of words off. It doesn’t mean I WON’T write out those frustrations in my analysis, but I’m not allowed to dwell on them. I HAVE to cycle around to a positive. It’s leading to a fight to keep my thinking on track.

And it’s EXHAUSTING!

But it’s helping. Instead of getting sucked into my usual pit of despair, I’m looking UP to the next step. And I don’t find those voices as overwhelming as I used to. Yes, they’re still there. (Let’s face it, no one’s cured depression) They just don’t own as much real estate in my thoughts as they have in the past.

So take some time out of your day and find an “I am” statement. Write it down. You don’t need to do it in a notebook; a scrap of paper will do. Steam up a mirror and write it there. Look at it and hold it in your mind. And then do it again tomorrow. And the next day. And the next. Train your brain to find a positive assessment about yourself. It’ll quiet all of the negative we battle.

Even if you’re not waking up with a bright, sunny smile every morning.