mental health

Turning the Volume Down

“‎You’re not the same as you were before,” he said. “You were much more…muchier… You’ve lost your muchness.”

~Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass

Odds are, at some point in your life, SOMEONE asked you to turn your music down. It didn’t even need to be your parents. Siblings don’t always share the same taste. (If you shared a room, that usually goes double) And just because friends get along well, it doesn’t mean all of you loved the same bands. I adored the people I hung out with in college, but any time I hear N’Sync or the Backstreet Boys to this day, I start twitching. (Yes, I realize that dates me – I’ll cope) That request to lower the volume represented a subtle remark on your choice of tunes. The person didn’t want to outright confront you on your poor taste, though, so they went the polite route. (Unless you happened to be my father who had no qualms – and still doesn’t – in pointing out I listened to “noise”)

Subtle, yes. Effective, yes. And NOT confined to musical taste.

See, we don’t think twice about reaching for the volume knob. Someone winces and thinks the music’s too loud? No problem; we can always grab headphones if they’re THAT irritated. We’ll roll our eyes, and we may even ignore the request (the first five times), but no one’s going to outright convince us to switch things OFF. Most of us identify so strongly with our musical identities that the subtle messaging slides off our backs. It’s one source of rebellion that seems to hold, regardless of the decade. (Don’t believe me? Go look at movie themes as far back as you want) The taste we choose in songs identifies our personality. And we’re not willing to compromise on it.

But when someone deploys the same subtle messages toward OTHER aspects of our lives, we aren’t as defensive of our personal identity. The tone of voice doesn’t change, nor does the language. Yet we throw in the towel and accept the judgment – no questions asked. They request we turn down the volume on our clothing, our voices, the messages we use in our daily lives, how we present ourselves, and we rush for the knob like sprinters. Then those same people see how effective their “hints” worked, so they deploy them again. And again. And AGAIN. Suddenly, you reach for that volume and realize you’ve turned everything OFF. Precisely the way they wanted.

“Are you sure that’s what you want to wear?” Hear that question, and your first inclination is to step to a mirror and check. As you stare at your reflection, doubt settles in. Even if you thought you looked fantastic when you pulled the clothes on, now the nasty voices in the back of your mind go to work and start picking you apart. No one needs to say anything more, either; YOU do all of the work. Before you know it, you’ve settled for something else – usually something less loud, not quite as “risky” or bold. And if your critic delivers a smile? Well, that reassures you. They turned your volume down. No derisive comments, no rude remarks, and no outright commands.

“Don’t you think you should smile more?” (Boy, do I love that one) You freeze like a deer in headlights. Does that mean you walk around like a serial killer all the time? (Or do serial killers smile? I guess it depends) Panic sets in as you start analyzing everything negative that’s happened in your life. Were all of your failures due to a lack of a smile? (By the way, your anxiety WILL find a way to blame ignored emails on not smiling; it’s THAT good) You start losing chunks of time as you practice smiling in the mirror – trying NOT to look like a psycho. And even though you feel like a complete fraud, you’re given praise for your cheerier demeanor. Once again – nothing more than a “friendly” suggestion. But you jumped to adjust yourself to capitulate.

“Should you say that?” It doesn’t matter if you’ve rehearsed, edited, or planned the words; they vanish from your brain. Maybe you feel strongly about a cause. You could want to leap to defend a friend. Or your emotions could demand a response. Doesn’t matter. A raised eyebrow and that phrase slam your brakes. Your anxiety goes to work, constructing apocryphal outcomes. And you close your mouth, delete the document, and sit down. You don’t want to stand out from the crowd and potentially draw the wrath of the masses. Turn off the bullhorn, switch off the loudspeaker. Turn the volume down.

In short, stop being YOU.

People learned ages ago that outright criticism doesn’t always work. (Granted, it’s occasionally effective. Plenty of minds suffer the emotional blows and collapse) But gradually chipping away by undermining self-confidence? Introducing subtle questions that worm their way into a person’s brain? Yeah, that works a treat. And when someone battles anxiety and depression, the method’s deviously successful. In no time, they withdraw and settle down into the ideal image whatever slice of society wants. It’s an evil genius everyone accepts.

I turned down the volume on who I am so many times, I went subsonic. I lost sight of ME. If you can believe it, I owned a closet of conservative clothing. I listened to inoffensive radio stations (we’re talking basic pop, people). My hair remained its original blonde, twisted up in a bun at the back of my head. And I refused to say anything controversial for fear of reprisal. (Admit I was struggling with my mental health? Are you freaking insane?) The people around me nodded and applauded, but I was MISERABLE. I didn’t know the person looking back at me in the mirror. I felt lost, suffocated. And I went through so many breakdowns – always in silence. (Fun fact: none of those people want to know their experiment’s failed)

Turning your volume back UP isn’t as easy as lowering it. Because until you’re willing to scream, “This isn’t me!” you can’t get anywhere. And then you have to fight for every millimeter on the dial. It’s experimenting with EVERYTHING, deciding what suits you and what doesn’t. Not to mention installing an alarm to detect those digs into your psyche (and they’re EVERYWHERE). You have to program yourself to hear them, smile, and come up with a response. (For the record, the answer is usually, “YES!”) And you have to own every part of yourself, walking around with your head held eye – even as people stare, sneer, or roll their eyes.

It’s the worst uphill battle in the world.

And it never ends. My fingers still hesitate on the keyboard at times. I find myself uttering, “Should I say this?” under my breath. The old programming lurks under the surface, and I have to shove it back in the closet where it belongs. You need to do the same thing. Claiming your personal identity means asserting your strength over the old patterns. Dig your heels in and declare in a LOUD voice, “This is who I am.” Find your muchness and embrace it. And then refuse to budge. And do that day after day after day.

Don’t turn the volume down. You deserve to keep it as loud as you want – no matter what we’re discussing. Yes, even if it means the latest boy band. (I’ll just step into the next room)

mental health

Cue Annie

At some point in time, everyone uses the word “tomorrow.” Usually, we break it out when confronted with a chore we HATE: dusting, organizing the closet, weeding, rearranging the books to fit new ones on the shelf. (Let me clarify: I only hate that because it involves hauling heavy tomes back and forth across the den…and I usually don’t anticipate the space required the first time) Setting a new deadline soothes the guilt in the back of our minds. We’re not procrastinating – not really – we’re scheduling the task for a more appropriate time. Then we can go about our day, proud of our organization skills.

As long as we DO attend to things tomorrow.

That’s always the kicker, though, isn’t it? Because when tomorrow DOES show up, our enthusiasm for the chore hasn’t spontaneously manifested. Then we’re faced with a new quandary. Do we put off the task for one more tomorrow? Or can we sigh, roll up our sleeves, and get to work? How you answer that question depends on your motivation in the moment you stare at the garden patch, dust rag, closet door, or book shelves. And the internal dialogue you engage in will determine your next course of action.

It’s easy to think the pattern works the same when you look at the bigger goals in your life. You know you need to address the next step on that climb toward the top. And you WILL – tomorrow. You equate it to the thought process you use when looking at a sink full of dishes. But are you afraid scrubbing the dirty plates and glasses will lead to absolute failure? Possibly (I try not to judge), but more than likely not. Most of us DO panic that pushing over the boulder on our journey WILL result in a tumble back to the bottom, though. So we’ll confront the obstacle tomorrow – when we’re better able to handle the implications.

And the tomorrows start piling up.

When you’re considering a fear, it’s always easy to find an excuse to delay a task. (For instance, I know that giant spider probably has friends in the front yard. So I’m not about to head out and weed the beds until the coast is clear. Say after the first hard freeze) It gets harder and harder to unearth the possibility of success and write a firm action to DO something. Having a nebulous idea of “tomorrow” settles things easier. We calm the guilty side of us that insists we need to accomplish something, but we also settle our fearful side by refusing to attach a time. And before long? It’s been a month…two months…a year.

I’m a CHAMP at the tomorrow game. I sit in seminars, feeling excitement well up as I learn new techniques and ideas. My mind churns with plans; I can SEE the steps I need to take. I step away to work on an assignment or sleep for the night. And when I come back and confront those steps, worries surface. Maybe my enthusiasm was misplaced. Did I really think I could pull off something so ambitious? I should probably table things until tomorrow – give my brain a chance to marinated.

Then tomorrow arrives, and my anxiety spiral’s had 24 hours to work. The single fear I started with has multiplied. WAY easier to convince myself I need more time to sort through the possible ramifications of each new possible doomsday scenario. (You can’t take action without backup plans, can you?) I need to wait until tomorrow – when I’m DEFINITELY ready. So the cycle begins. And it lasts until I’m willing to call a halt to the madness.

IF I make it stop.

There’s always another tomorrow. That’s the beautiful thing about trying something new. If you encounter a hiccup, you get another try tomorrow. But when you refuse to make the jump, you can end up standing on the edge of the cliff FOREVER. And the only person that can convince you one way or the other is YOU. Do you face your fear and take the risk that, yeah, you might fail? Or do you refuse to move forward? Which action offers the better state of mind?

On one hand, you stay safe and sound. You’re never going to fail. There’s no need to push through anxiety, fear, and potential depression. And, believe me, I get the allure! But you hate that stagnation, remember? If you didn’t, you wouldn’t have set your goals in the first place.

On the other hand, you have to confront the sweating palms, the shakes, and the racing heart. You have a 50:50 chance of things working out on the other side. (And, no, I can’t predict your outcome) You’re rolling the dice, moving out of your comfort zone, and placing your hopes and dreams in the hands of fate. It’s horrifying! But it’s growth, and there IS that chance of success. You could move forward with your dreams. And even if you DO fail, you’ll learn something out of the process. (We like to forget that part)

When I start noticing that more than two tomorrows have happened, I force myself to immediately stop what I’m doing and take action. It’s the only way to break the habit. And, yes, it’s terrifying. I find myself with gritted teeth (don’t do that – it’s bad for your jaw) and a massive stress headache. But I’ve made “progress” each time. No, I haven’t always succeeded, but I HAVE continued to learn and grow. So that means I’m not sitting back on the path, shifting from foot to foot in indecision. And it does feel good to admit that.

That’s how you break the pattern. As soon as the word tomorrow hits your brain, you STOP and implement a plan. Make appointments. Start the research. Take notes. Buy the supplies. Whatever you need to get yourself on the path to that next step, DO IT. Because if you use the word “tomorrow,” you’re verging dangerously close to “never.”

(Incidentally, this advice does not apply to weeding gardens where spiders may or may not be present)

mental health

Not a Molecule Out of Place

“She also said that people who try to control situations all the time are afraid that if they don’t, nothing will work out the way they want.”

~Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Certain people you can spot a mile away: They nudge crooked pictures to rights – in public venues and stranger’s homes. A strange tile in a floor mosaic causes them to twitch. You need to restrain them from tucking tags under collars for random people on the street. Left unattended, they rearrange pens in order of color on reception desks. And (generally) no one wants to tackle a project with them. Two little words follow them wherever they go, spoken in different tones depending on the observer:

Control freak.

There’s one way for everything to get handled, and it’s THEIR way. They usually nitpick the world around them, showing zero concern for the particular environment they find themselves in. Clearly, the host didn’t realize the books on the shelf needed to go in alphabetical order. Or maybe the store owner grew lax and failed to observe the dreadful state of their display. And, of course, no one else in the group has any clue on what they’re doing. It’s better if everything remained in THEIR capable hands. That’s how things get accomplished and turn out perfect and polished, after all.

People HATE control freaks. It’s why the term has developed a negative connotation over the years. Getting saddled to a work shift or group assignment with one of these individuals is pure hell. (Ask anyone) Even those with controlling traits protest the term, denying any identification with the words. Because “control freak” immediately brands you as a monstrous demon, bent on destruction.

As if having your shit together is something to revile.

Because control freaks get work DONE. They look at a situation, analyze the steps required, and then roll up their sleeves. While most people mill around or stare at the ceiling, waiting for some kind of divine inspiration to strike, those with a controlling nature have already broken down the situation and anticipated potential problems. It’s that drive people resent and frown upon. (Nothing worse than motivation, am I right?)

Yes, I get it: having someone point out flaws and constantly inform you of what you’re doing wrong grates on the nerves. That’s where control freaks cross the line. But the negative stigma doesn’t belong. Rather, it needs understanding. And maybe a touch of support.

If you look at people with controlling natures, you’ll usually find underlying cases of anxiety. The ability to shred a situation and find EVERY possible problem comes with that constant whirlpool cycling in the back of their brain. That’s why they demand you do things in a certain way. By keeping everything in a precise order, they’re deflecting one of the tragedies their brain cooked up. (Okay, so the odds of aliens landing in the backyard is slim. But there’s still a 0.000001% chance. So keep your stupid photos aligned!) The order in the chaos soothes the demon in their mind.

But the twist of the lip and scornful tone when people say “control freak” forces people to deny the trait. And, in the same breath, they attempt to deny their anxiety. “I don’t demand people to keep the counter set up this way” is the same sentence as, “I’m not trying to prevent the worst from happening by being prepared.” But people only hear the first defensive statement. And they turn their backs. It doesn’t encourage dialogue. And it won’t help the anxious work through their fears.

Personally, I embrace being a control freak. My way IS the right way. Because I get things done, without mistakes (most of the time; no one’s perfect – though we know I try), in a timely manner, with brilliant results. You can always find everything you need without scrambling, and Cthulhu won’t destroy my house because the books on my shelves are in alphabetical order. (There’s a slight risk of zombie dinosaurs, though, as my husband continues to fold the towels in weird ways) But it took me a long time to embrace the title and recognize the superpowers that rigidity brings.

Don’t get me wrong: I know the negative aspects, too. (For one, everyone hates me) My anxiety often leaves me paralyzed and struggling to take the next step toward my goals. And I need a constant reminder that what flies in MY space isn’t accepted in someone else’s home or workspace. It’s physically painful to sit in a room with a crooked picture. And seeing the damned fast food sign with the reversed words for WEEKS?! Yeah, almost had a coronary.

But control freaks AREN’T the enemy!

We’re the ones you turn to when everything goes to hell. Who do you want when your project falls apart at the last minute? The popular idiot you voted to lead you? Or the control freak who can navigate the problem and bang out a champion solution at minute zero? People with that laser eye for detail are the ones that achieve so-called miracles. They get the spiral working and spit out solutions. And all you have to do is grit your teeth and tolerate them barking orders. (Is that so much to ask?)

Here’s the thing, though: If “control freak” wasn’t so negative, maybe anxious people wouldn’t end up quite so rigid. When I can stop and explain WHY I need things a certain way, I don’t “bite” as much. It lets me get out of my head and explain my fears – hostile dolphin takeovers and all. (Okay, so the fears aren’t this ridiculous. I’m trying to make a point) How often have you stopped and asked someone WHY they need pens lined up in a pentagon? Or why their fingers itch to align books with the edge of the shelf? When did you swallow the words “control freak” and TALK to the person about who motivated their actions?

The drive behind hyper-organization usually comes from anxiety and fear. SOMETHING in our brains urges us to impose restrictions. And once everything’s in line, our brain decides to send the “homeostasis” signal. But if you don’t TALK to us, you can’t understand that. And derisively labeling someone a control freak won’t encourage them to open up. (Nor will it break them of the habit)

Too many negative sentiments find their way into mental health issues. And it’s one of the reasons people hide. Why talk about the anxiety you feel when you see a skip in a pattern if someone’s going to glare at you? More people need to STOP and take a moment to sit down and engage in conversation. One quick question could end SO much stigma. “Why do you feel that way?” (And NOT said in a nasty way!)

The more we set aside our irritation and anger, the better our chances of breaking down the walls and stigmas around too many mental health disorders. Even if that means letting someone instruct you on how to fix your twisted necklace chain.

mental health

Soundtrack the Day

Playlist on phone
Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

How do you find yourself working through the day? Do you keep a television on in the background, maybe tuned to the local news so you’re aware of what’s happening in the world? Are you one of those who prefer silence? (If you are, please tell me how you cope with only your thoughts for company) Or do you pop in a musical selection on your streaming service of choice? (If you use CDs, tapes, or records, I’m not one to judge)

Most people opt for the latter – complete with preferred playlists.

Music provides variety, speaks to memory, and taps into emotion. (Not to mention avoiding dangerous triggers the news is famous for) Courtesy of the internet, you can find any genre you want – as I proved to my father in one experiment. Feel like sitting down with jazz? You’re only problem is deciding what era to choose. Want to curl up with folk yodeling? You’ve got it. Ready to dive back into the music of your childhood? Pop the year into a search bar and let nostalgia enter. Maybe you won’t get anything accomplished, but you’ll enjoy the trip down Memory Lane.

Researchers invest years and years into the science of music. What tempos encourage shoppers to purchase more? (What? You thought those songs were random?) Are there pitches or tones that irritate? Do certain voices attract people? It’s science and marketing we don’t think about when we hit play. At least, not until it affects us personally. For instance, on my internship at the Zoo, the summer started with an instrumental clip that lasted 10 minutes. It wasn’t unpleasant, but when you hear the SAME BARS repeated over NINE hours? You lose your grip on sanity. Visitors didn’t notice because it took them an average of 10 minutes to move through the exhibit. We finally protested, and the team added two additional pieces for a total of 30 minutes. It made the difference on our nerves.

My point? Music’s powerful stuff!

This is why the playlist you choose for yourself plays such a dramatic part of your day. The key, tempo, pitch, and lyrics work their way into your brain and influence your mood, perception, and even the narrative you set for yourself. Yes, it’s subliminal. No, you don’t usually realize it’s working. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

Think about it: When you listen to something powerful or dramatic, how do you feel? Do you get a sense of strength and that ability to take on the world? Of course you do! Your brain sucks up the confidence within the melody and translates it into your mood. The opposite happens when you listen to sad songs. Gradually, you find yourself sinking into quiet and despair. It’s mood osmosis, and you don’t realize WHY it’s happening.

I maintain an insane number of playlists. Every novel I write gets its own “soundtrack.” And short stories usually have at least one song assigned to them. The music sets the tone for scenes, allowing me to get in touch with the characters and the presiding emotions. (Plus every writer out there – whether they admit it or not – develops a movie script for their work. This is simply part of the process) But I also keep music running when I do my freelance writing work. And that doesn’t fit nicely into a pre-programmed playlist. I still need SOMETHING to keep my mind “distracted” while I work, though.

I can’t work in silence.

And – over time – I’ve learned to recognize my mood shifting depending on what’s playing. As keys drop, lyrics swoop low, or voices slow down, so does my outlook. My fingers stutter on the keyboard, and I start losing faith in my work – or myself. If I punch up the beat, assignments churn out in record time, and I can take on the world. I find myself confident in everything I face. And it’s all a result of what’s churning out of my speakers. My playlist impacts which way my brain decides to jump.

It’s forced me to get picky on what I set each day. Yes, I LOVE my showtunes. The number of musicals I know by heart is – well, not surprising for a theatre nerd. But too many heartbreaking songs come up on the playlist. Perfect when I need to write a miserable scene, but terrible when I’m trying to work through copy, network, or cobble together a pitch. I’ve set them aside in favor of 80s pop, upbeat tunes, and even dance favorites. And I’ve seen my productivity and mood swing up.

What about you? Look at your playlist (or note the songs you hear throughout the day). Where do you place the music you hear on the emotional scale? And how are you feeling in response? Can you make changes to improve things? (I get it if you’re stuck somewhere without control of the sound system. But if you’re feeling this way, odds are other people are, too) Try it and see how the way you view the world changes.

What’s the worst that could happen? You might start chair dancing? (Or, you know, actually dancing) Not to worry – there’s ALWAYS a worse dancer out there in the world.