mental health

Flattery

Photo by Tara Winstead from Pexels

Yes, I’m about to trot out an old saying: “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” If you’re anything like me, you heard the phrase for the first time as a child. Say, when your little sister starts wearing the same outfits as you, joins the same swim team, or attempts to read the same books (despite a five-year age difference). You voiced a complaint and your parents pulled out that old gem to attempt to quell your indignation. And you ignored the sage advice because NOTHING’S more annoying than someone copying everything you do (especially little sisters).

So you missed the lesson.

The phrase dates back to the early 18th century. And while plenty of people twist it into a sarcastic meaning, the origins centered around an unintentional flattery. A person adopts aspects they see in another because they feel they’re POSITIVE. And while it ends up getting viewed as imitation (and usually in a negative light), the intent’s far from it. Younger siblings adopt the mannerisms, habits, and looks of those around them because they ADMIRE them and want to BE them. And while it’s obnoxious to walk into the mall with a “mini me” trailing behind you, it’s an artless form of flattery. (Yes, I know – no one goes to the mall anymore. It used to be a thing, okay?)

These days, everyone’s obsessed with being unique. And I’m entirely for finding and being yourself at all times. But when you exude that kind of confidence, it attracts attention. People turn their heads to watch you walk by. They see things they’ve never thought of. And you INSPIRE them to try the same thing. It’s imitation, sure, but for the RIGHT reasons. And getting defensive about it helps no one – least of all a person brave enough to climb out of their shell. Yet that’s what seems to be happening most of the time.

Everyone develops their social media presence. And – I get it – you work hard to carve out a different space from what already exists. Then you see something SIMILAR and lose your mind over it. (Note: I’m not referring to outright plagiarism here. I DON’T support that in any way, shape, or form) Suddenly, you’re attacking that person, crushing their self-image and turning them into piles of anxiety. All because they took a few of your IDEAS for inspiration. Imitation that FLATTERED the work you did in the first place. And now it’s a quivering pile of misery and depression.

Good job.

I’ll pull from my writing roots here for an example. I participated in a critique group ages ago, before I found the beta-readers I have now. I was still learning the ropes and figuring out the best way to write up my critiques to make them beneficial to the writers. And then I received one of my critiques back. The way the writer broke everything down? It was beautiful. Not to mention providing all of the information I needed to fix the short story. I took their format, made some tweaks for the way I read/edited, and I started using that for my critiques. And I couldn’t wait for the chance to review on of their stories and show them how I’d adapted their template.

Well, that opportunity arose a few weeks later. And, holy hell, you would have thought I committed a crime. They didn’t even pay attention to a word of my critique. Instead, I received a scathing message about how I’d STOLEN their review format. They were going to report me to the head of the group, get me banned, tell every other writer they knew so I wouldn’t find a welcome in any other critique group – it went on and on. Being the fragile newbie writer I was, I couldn’t apologize (or cry) enough. I felt WRETCHED. And I slunk away. I didn’t attempt to find a new critique group for YEARS.

And I did NOTHING wrong!

First, their precious format? No copyright. (And if you DO copyright that kind of thing? You’re a colossal moron) Second, I didn’t plagiarize it. I modified it to work with how I reviewed stories. I LOVED the way they set things out, so I adapted it to work for me. Third, stealing? That implies something malicious. And my intent was far from negative. Exactly like my sister, I was looking up to someone I admired and attempting to follow in their footsteps. And – as much as I hate to admit it – like I did to my sister, they slapped me in the face for my innocent imitation.

People can genuinely demonstrate flattery. They pick out things they admire, enjoy, or find intriguing. And rather than roaring in defiance, I think it’s important to pause and look for those possibilities FIRST. There’s no such thing as an original idea. EVERYTHING exists out there already. Does it have your unique twist on it? Probably not. But the same holds true for someone else. And if you look close enough (take off your angry eyes), you’ll probably see it. Odds are YOU took inspiration from someone – whether you want to admit it or not. Weren’t you trying to flatter them?

Someone somewhere looks up to you. And as long as they’re not photocopying you (with the exception of siblings – you’re out of luck there), what’s the harm? A little bit of imitation isn’t going to kill you. Destroying them, though? You could damage someone in ways you can’t imagine. It took me years to regain my writing confidence. And daring to trust another writing group? I felt like I was stepping in front of a firing squad! I suffered a horrific anxiety attack when I submitted that first short story.

While I’ll allow that there are exceptions to everything, imitation’s not worth getting your blood pressure up. Even if someone’s doing it out of sarcasm, they’re not going to keep it up if you don’t react. Keep being you – 100% – and smile. Accept the flattery and move on.

And remember that siblings WILL grow up…eventually.

mental health

A Necessary Evil?

“There are positive things that come of social media as well as negative.”

~Millie Bobby Brown

Maybe this will demonstrate my age, but when I was a kid (and even a teenager), social media didn’t exist. No smart phones, no digital cameras even – at least, not until the latter part of my youth. Instead of spending every day glued to a mechanical device, flipping through posts, tweets, and photos, we ran around outside like heathens. When you took a picture, you needed to wait for the roll of film to get developed to figure out you looked like a goof. (At the very least, you wafted the Polaroid around for a minute) People traded gossip behind whispers and scribbled notes passed from hand to hand in the back of the classroom. And when someone disliked you? You usually found out via marker on your desk or locker – anonymous bullying.

Sounds vaguely familiar, right?

While social media claims it’s a step ahead of the game, everyone knows the pattern grew out of those high school corridors. And while you’re supposed to register and prove your existence with official emails to prevent anonymous bullying, everyone knows that doesn’t happen. With endless sources available, people create plenty of accounts with the aim to harass or promote themselves. It’s the modern equivalent of gangs and sending yourself flowers on Valentine’s Day. And people continue to get trampled into the dirt, thrown into the corner of the bathroom, and pitched down the stairs. The only difference is no one gets a physical bruise anymore. Oh, right, and there’s no Principal to report to.

I’m not going to lie: I hated school. But I also didn’t fall into any circle of acceptance. As a military brat, I moved throughout my youth, entering and exiting grades. While my peers usually grew up with one another, I stumbled in on established friendships. And, yes, I was weird. I didn’t have the right accent. I knew different histories than the teacher kept reciting. (Newsflash: every region slants things and picks out the elements they want to focus on) I’d traveled from one end of the country to the other and seen and done things no one else had even heard of. As it turned out, no one cared about those things, either. And when I took a few steps away after bubbling about this, that, or the other, I could hear the giggles and ridicule.

Social media? It’s more sinister.

Some people WILL laugh at you directly. But you have the potential to interact with people from around the world. And that means you won’t see them sitting at their computer, falling out of their chair at your remark. Instead, you stumble across the sarcastic video where they mimic the way you talk, or quote something you said. And you get to see everyone else laughing in response. Or you attempt to join a conversation and find yourself squeezed out (or ignored). It’s the bullying of the past multiplied by an infinite number. And it’s ACCEPTED by the masses! Because social media found its niche with generations that never experienced the real thing. So they thrive within the safe walls of their little worlds where there’s no genuine repercussions for their actions. (Remember: no Principal)

I know, all of the heads of every company promise they have checks and balances in place. It sounds good, but you only need to observe for a few moments to witness the blatant failures. Cyber bullying has sent how many people to their deaths? False news (something so rampant it’s now an official definition) has created how much chaos? Social media took the game of Telephone we played as kids and morphed it into a living, breathing monster and loosed it on the world – with no containment plan. And when someone tries to point out the problem, the “fixes” usually only create a bigger issue.

Social media isn’t going anywhere. Those little wires are firmly embedded into everyone’s brains (coming soon, I have no doubt). And while I despise the damage it wreaks every day, I have to wince and acknowledge the positives it’s brought at the same time. The opportunity the global reach extends for artists is invaluable. Regardless of budget or location, writers, sculptors, painters, and sewers (and everything else you can imagine) have a chance to carve out a small space for themselves. If they can snag ONE person’s interest, the potential exists to grow an audience. Before long, social media grants them a platform and a following. They gain popularity and opportunities to expand their work.

It’s something they often struggled with before.

I resisted the social media fiend for YEARS. While everyone I knew was playing around on MySpace (don’t laugh), I skipped that era entirely. My Facebook account existed simply so I could exchange photos with friends and family around the country. To this day, my friend count? It’s under three digits (shocking, I know). But as a freelancer, I’ve had to admit the platforms out there can help me. And that means gritting my teeth and dropping into the deep end of the pool – with all of the piranhas. These people are VICIOUS, too! As you do everything you can to promote a positive image of who you are and what you have to offer, all you get slammed with is silence, bots (my personal favorite to deal with), or ignorance. It’s enough to make a person give up!

But you see the same story from other artists out there. They’re learning TikTok, Discord, and Twitch. People are setting up Kickstarter projects to branch out projects and flooding social media to spread the word. The persistence drives you to find new ways to market yourself and call attention to the work you’re doing. And (eventually) it pays off. You just have to keep struggling through the quagmire that exists.

Kind of like surviving to graduation.

mental health

Unicorn Without a Horn

Inspirational clothing
Photo by Jane Pham from Pexels

Spend even a few moments in the rabbit hole that is social media, and you’ll find any number of sources of inspiration. People carve out their individual niches for fashion, health and wellness, travel, and (of course) their adorable pets. Maybe you don’t think of those things as “inspiration,” but the images provoke emotions and thoughts – both positive and negative. Oh, sure, some people have shallow aspirations behind their work (i.e., profit), but if you dig deep enough, you’ll stumble upon the artists and thinkers. You can find minds and contemplations worthy of admiration. Maybe you even click those “follow” buttons because of the twinge of inspiration they struck in your thoughts.

That’s how charisma works.

It’s the same principle at work with motivational speakers. Whatever the topic, you find yourself swept up and riveted. Energy zips through your veins and you walk out of the room, ready to conquer the world. Even in a stadium of thousands, you feel an immediate connection to that person. You KNOW they held eye contact – even for a brief moment. The words form a bond with some part of your life. These people inspire you and make you feel that anything – goals, dreams, aspirations – are easily attainable. Charisma and ease infuse their bodies and voices. Without it, you wouldn’t pay attention to more than a sentence of their message – if that.

You can probably name at least five people that inspire you, because of that passionate fire. And they don’t even need to bring it out with a bullhorn. Charisma carries through in art, photography, and writing. Something about the person or their work catches your attention and makes you want to follow them (not literally, of course – that’s stalking and against the law). The people we hold as inspirations make huge impacts on our lives.

But BEING an inspiration? That’s a different story.

Unless you’ve determined to fall into one of those categories, you don’t expect to hear that you inspire someone. In general, people don’t get out of the bed with a eye on their actions and behaviors. Sure, you appreciate recognition for a job well-done, and acknowledgement of your accomplishments always makes your day. But that’s not the same thing as someone stepping out of the woodwork and saying, “You inspire me.”

Wait – what?

I struggle every moment of every day to get my life in order, battle inner demons (who usually win), drown in anxiety loops, and fall down endless steps of failure. Am I inspiring you to NOT be like me? (THAT, at least, makes sense)

The truth is, though, someone somewhere probably DOES look up to you. Even while you’re looking at the shattered disaster of everything wrong in your life (because that’s what people with depression are best at), they’re zeroing in on one thing you did right – and conveniently overlooked. Or, because they aren’t in your head 24/7, they manage to see things from a different perspective than you do. YOU focus on the events that caused all of the scars, but they see the strength it takes to survive the battle to emerge on the other side. And while you feel like a battered disaster area who only just limped over the finish line, they view you as an inspiration who accomplished something other people find impossible.

Crazy, right?

This argument’s been churning around in my head for a few weeks. I didn’t do more than answer a friend’s question. But before I knew it? We were comparing “war wounds” regarding anxiety and worrying about what other people think of us. Suddenly, she threw out that comment of, “You inspire me so much.” I didn’t know what to do, so I sat there like an idiot. I’m NOT an inspiration to anyone. I still go through at least one breakdown a day over SOMETHING. In fact, her words sent me down a new spiral of panic. (Was she making a joke? Did someone put her up to that? Was I misunderstanding the words? What subtext was I overlooking?)

In the end, I fell back on my old stand-by: I’ve gotten where I am through a TON of work and fighting. It deflected the compliment, but it wasn’t a complete lie. But it also didn’t admit how uncomfortable I was with her statement – or the fact that I felt like a complete fraud. I WANTED to tell her that I’m not an inspiration to anyone. I screw up all the time. I make the wrong decision. And figuring out the answers? I’m still working on that. But those all sounded…not inspirational? So I ran and hid (which, you know, is VERY inspirational).

Since then, I’ve thought more on the topic. I’ve looked at the times I’ve spent with my niece and nephew, and the things they say. Kids choose fictional characters for inspiration all the time, and we don’t bat an eye. No one (okay, not NO ONE – but rational individuals) stops them from that admiration. Hell, my niece is a complete and utter badass, and she’s only seven. She inspires me every time she talks or charges out into the world – completely fearless and determined to carve out her place. The time she dressed as Batman for Halloween and corrected everyone that tried to call her Batgirl? Yeah, that’s my girl.

Maybe you DON’T need qualifications to inspire.

So I wrote down a list of other people who check one or two boxes of some sort of inspiration in my life. Whether they make me smile, get me moving, drive me forward in my work, or make me feel like a human being. And while a few motivational speakers popped up, as well as some of my favorite artists, most of the list? Probably not anyone the general public’s heard of. If they’re on MY list, maybe it makes sense that I can show up on someone else’s list. For whatever reason they have (most likely as a cautionary tale).

You don’t know how someone else views what you’re doing. While you’re standing on the edge of the cliff, gasping for breath and staring at the blisters and cuts and cursing the climb, someone else is gazing in wonder that you managed something so monumental. And maybe, MAYBE if you take a second to look at things from their side, you won’t beat yourself up quite as much as normal. It’s a theory, anyway – one I’m trying to implement. Not to be an inspiration to anyone (I have no desire to be one of those), but so you can feel better about yourself and what you’re accomplishing every day.

mental health

Living vs. Surviving

“Some things in life are like ice cream:
They’re only good for a while and then they melt.
The trick is enjoying it and making the most of it while it’s still ice cream.”

~Anonymous

Okay, I’ll start with a disclaimer: when the whole “YOLO” thing broke? I had NO idea what people were talking about. I didn’t know if it was a person, a music album, a physical place, or maybe even a book. (I admit, I probably should have figured the last was a long shot, given how little people reach for written words these past couple decades) It took weeks of seeing those four letters everywhere before I broke down and asked Google what the hell everyone was talking about. Even then, I walked around, mystified. Why was the phrase so popular all of the sudden? Sure, reincarnation features in a few religions. But, for the most part, you DO only get one life. So why was the phrase “You only live once” taking on a new revolution?

Literal thinking? It doesn’t always do you a favor.

That niggling irritation under my thoughts refused to go away. And I found myself skimming through social media posts that used the hashtag. (Note: NEVER do this – it’s a recipe for disaster, particularly when you don’t grasp the concept) Rather than finding myself inspired – as I’m sure the intent was behind the craze – I ended up disgusted and even horrified. Did none of these people have PLANS for their lives? Weren’t they thinking five years, FIVE MINUTES down the road? Considering the stupid phrase popped up among the youth the majority of the time, I wondered whether they thought of the consequences of their actions in the slightest. Or were they simply jumping on a bandwagon – one careening over a cliff…while on fire…and stocked with explosives.

I wasn’t in the same position as most of them, though. (First person to label me as “old” is getting a lecture) I’d already experienced enough of what the Real World had to offer to know better than to throw caution to the wind. Any action I undertook? They all came with hours of anxiety loops as I went through every possible outcome. I was too busy focusing on my career, the bills stacked on my dining table, and wondering if I’d fall down my stairs (don’t laugh – I’m one of the clumsiest people you’ll meet). I couldn’t abandon responsibility for even a few minutes of fun or excitement or life because I was too busy surviving.

And that’s the kicker.

Whether the person to coin the “YOLO” term had the intent (I know the groupies didn’t catch on), the idea behind it or the phrase Carpe Diem is the same: you’re supposed to LIVE. Otherwise, all you’re doing between birth and death is surviving. And while I’ll admit survival’s important (Darwin got that right), you need a stronger goal. We don’t exist in horror or action movies. We get to have more options that making it from Point A to Point B. And it took me FOREVER to figure that out. Actually, I’m still working on getting that concept through my brain.

I’ve passed up more opportunities than I can count because I allowed my anxiety and sense of responsibility to get in the way. Sitting down with a piece of paper, writing out pros and cons, I’ve actually held an internal debate on the merits of buying an article of clothing. And I’m not talking something a I needed (though I’ve done that, too – never mind that every pair of jeans in my dresser didn’t fit); this is a dress or skirt I fell in love with and WANTED but didn’t NEED. My survival instincts kicked in and informed that, as the skirt couldn’t get me through the Apocalypse, there was no point to adding it to my cart. Meanwhile, the tiny voice in the back of my head, begging me to live a little, screamed at me to have a little fun, live a little, and reminded me that zombies aren’t real. But survival won out in the end. Over and over, my need to make it to the grave as a rational, responsible adult took precedence.

Because, you know, they have an entrance exam when you die.

Instead of living my life, I’ve survived it – and not always well. I mean, I’ve never gone to jail, never skipped out on my taxes, and never been implicated in a major act of treason, so I figure I’ve covered the basics. But checking off some of items on my bucket list? That’s fallen into a heavy pile of dust. And not for a lack of opportunity. I turned away from my chances, arguing that I needed to use my time or money for more reasonable options. And some things? They only come around ONCE. Kind of like living. (Ironic, no?)

Trying to get past your screaming anxiety is a major battle. Then you have to fight the responsibility drilled into you from birth. (Side note: being the oldest child SUCKS) It leaves you exhausted, battered, and bruised on the other side most of the time. And you’re usually shaking like a chihuahua when you finally step up to the edge. But when you take that final leap? It feels amazing! You inhale this huge breath of LIFE. Energy rushes through your veins and zaps into your brain. It doesn’t matter how old (or young) you are. You bounce around with the enthusiasm of a five year old. And suddenly? All of those doubts in your mind go quiet.

Well, at least until you find yourself with the next opportunity.

I’m still working on this whole “YOLO” thing, trying to find the proper balance between life and survival. Because I don’t want to sacrifice having a LIFE. And I’m tired of missing out on fun and laughter and enjoyment. I spent over 30 years practicing responsibility. Yippee. You don’t get anything to show for that. No one appears out of the mist to hand you a shiny diploma for “accomplished adulthood.” There’s no special identification card. But the regret? That weighs a TON. And it bends your mind as much as your shoulders.

At the same time, you can’t go insane. Throwing complete caution to the wind is going to compromise the survival part of the equation. And if you don’t allow anxiety and responsibility SOME voice, that cliff with the bandwagon? Yeah, you’re getting a seat in the front row. It’s a careful learning experience. You want to give EVERYONE a chance to speak up – in moderation. And it means learning to ask yourself the right questions. Not, “Am I being frivolous?” (Obviously, you are – that’s how living works) But “Will I regret passing this up?”

When you start learning the feel of those LIFE moments? You can pick them out. And then you can turn to your anxious side and lay out counterarguments. That usually calms down your responsible side (since you clearly thought things through). And the result? A life experience you’ll get to look back on in your final moments.

Sure beats closing your eyes and thinking, “Well, I paid my bills on time.”

mental health

Hiccups

People may not always appreciate the anxious and their need to over-analyze a situation to death, but it means we’re usually prepared for the worst to happen. (Which it usually will – maybe 90% of the time…Okay, maybe only 80%) Even when we champion over our “doom spirals” and charge forward, we have a duffel bag full of resources and alternate plans (Plan B-Plan Omega) ready to go. It’s annoying to listen to us diagram every possibility, but most people admit we’re handy to have around when the fences fail and the T-rex breaks out of containment.

Until we trip on a branch and sprain our ankle.

Because – for all of our brilliant reasoning and the ability to foresee disaster – we aren’t perfect. And we’re not always the best at foreseeing minor stumbling blocks. Even worse, coping with those hiccups? Yeah, we tend to fail there, too. Our emergency duffels contain everything you need to combat Armageddon – but we forgot the ankle wraps. (Seriously – who remembers that kind of thing when meteors might come raining down on your head?) So we hobble along, getting slowly left behind by the group – mostly because we’ve already resigned ourselves to the approaching zombie horde. (Alright, yes, I’m mixing up movie scenarios here)

My point is, when you’re fantastic at seeing the big picture, you’re usually lousy with the finer details of things. And you let those tiny blips DESTROY you – because you feel like you should have done a better job at scouting them ahead of time. It’s a stumble, a trip, and stub of the toe, but you let your mind build it up into a twenty-car monstrosity on the highway. ANYTHING to justify the fact that you just twisted your foot around on a rock on the path. And you forgot that Ace bandage in your backpack.

Clearly, you’re a useless idiot.

One slip-up, and your mind goes to work, conjuring up an entirely new Doomsday situation. And YOU LET IT! Because if you were smarter, faster, better, [insert adjective here], you wouldn’t have stumbled on that obstacle in the first place. So, obviously, you’re a colossal moron. And your depression’s only too happy to pick up that narrative and run with it. The longer this goes on, the further you get from the path you started on. And now you’re falling – over and over again. Instead of climbing toward your goal and that crucial dream, you’re slogging around in the swamps, tearing your hands and feet up on impossible climbs – and you still haven’t addressed that ankle in the first place.

All from ONE little stumble!

Me? I’m a champion at this. And the worst part? I PLAN for everything in my life to go to shit (at some point), but a bump in the road? Yeah, pitches me straight off the cliff. And by the time I get my head screwed back on straight, I’m left wondering why I attempt to climb the mountain in the first place. Because I lose SO MUCH ground! All because of tiny hiccups in the path – none of which I could anticipate or do anything about. But I’m bound and determined to shoulder the blame for that tree branch lying on the ground. Clearly, I put it there – so I could trip over it.

I’ve had work contracts come to end. Not because of me, but due to outside forces. And I even get it: shit happens to everyone. (Not every obstacle’s as easy to get around as a rock) My clients gave me rave reviews and asked to work with me again down the road, should things change. No biggie, right? But in my brain, anxiety and depression got together, had a chat over coffee, and translated the situation to, “You are the worst writer in the world and deserved to be fired.” Cue the whirlpool: I couldn’t write. Why was I even doing this as a career? I’d never get another job. I should just give up and work at McDonald’s. Oh, wait – they think I’m overqualified to flip hamburgers. I probably can’t do that, either.

And I bought it!

WHY? This is how freelance writing works – and I even KNOW that! The end of a contract is nothing more than a stumbling block. And it’s not even like I don’t have other work, currently. Not to mention that I have plenty of avenues to garner additional clients out there. Or I could take the downtime to focus on my speculative fiction. I was misreading a wave hitting the ship as an iceberg and jumping in the lifeboat for no reason. (How many disasters can I fit into one post? Let’s count them, shall we?) But this is how my brain works. And I KNOW it’s the same way for plenty of other people.

When you struggle with self-confidence, anxiety, and depression, EVERYTHING can feel like a setback. And you have to interrupt the flow of that thinking. Okay, you fell and twisted your ankle. And maybe there IS a slasher coming up behind you. But are you incapacitated or just bruised? Because those are two dramatically different situations. One lands you on the “deceased” roster for the film. The other? It might just get you to the final credits. And that’s the conversation you have to have with yourself.

Maybe you didn’t plan for or anticipate the stumble. Does that mean you don’t have any resources to cope with it? Of course not! You’re a champion worrier! Even if you didn’t bring the bandages, you probably have SOMETHING that’ll work in a pinch. And with enough motivation, you can get your ankle stabilized so you can keep going. But you have to MAKE that choice.

Can you overcome the hurdle?

When I FINALLY stopped listening to my inner monologue, I sat down and made a new plan. I wrote out the steps I wanted to take to get myself back on track. And I’ve already crossed off half of it – within a week. (Turns out my motivation never went anywhere – it just got a little buried in the avalanche of bullshit) Maybe that’s what you need to do. You’re already accomplished at making out those lists. So add a new one to get your ass around the obstacle – even if it’s a small one.

It’s better than getting abducted by aliens, right?

mental health

Scripted in Stone

“The trauma said, ‘Don’t write these poems.

Nobody wants to hear you cry about the grief inside your bones.’”

~Andrea Gibson, The Madness Vase

Trauma’s a funny thing. (Okay, NOT literally) Everyone views it in their own way, and each person will come up with a different definition on what they’d consider “traumatic.” And what IS funny is that, despite that variability, it’s almost universal that society wants to bury traumatic responses – such as PTSD – as thoroughly as they do any other mental illness. We know all of us undergo these experiences, carrying away SOMETHING, but we don’t want to acknowledge it, talk about it, or bring it out into the open where a person might feel comfortable admitting they’re struggling.

So, yeah, funny.

And I’m the first to stand here and say that I’m as guilty as the next person. Not about the “big” things out there. I come from a military family, and I accept PTSD in soldiers without a second thought. I’ve seen first-hand the changes wrought by war in the men and women that set foot in theatre. That’s the kind of environment that defies description – even for someone that thrives on their imagination. And while family members sit in front of a television and hold their breath through the glimpses of news stories the media allows to trickle through to the public, it isn’t a TENTH of what those people experience.

But I’ve overlooked smaller traumas. Things that can reach in and twist a person’s guts while leaving their outward appearance unchanged. Because – again – everyone has different tipping points. What you may handle without a second thought can unhinge someone else. And while you’re shaking apart inside, another person can handle with complete calm. That’s where we fail one another. And it’s where the failure to acknowledge trauma starts. If you can’t look into the glazed eyes of someone and see them unraveling, you’ll never notice the silent cry for help down the road.

At least, not until it’s staring you in the mirror.

Trauma response ISN’T healthy. And until you recognize the symptoms, you can’t break them. Such as reliving the moment – however unintentionally. Or cycling through the self-loathing prompted by the trauma event. And triggers? They don’t always make sense – at least not to people around you. Because you didn’t talk about the trauma in the first place. So no one understands why you’re curled up on the couch, staring into space. (And they can’t hear everything your brain is shouting at you) All because of something benign that triggered you. Now you’re stuck in a loop of anxiety or a depressive fugue, and your friends and family are bewildered as to what’s happening.

I never catalogued the traumas I experienced in the past. Mostly because I thought PTSD was for BIG things. And I wasn’t going through those things. It wasn’t until I started paying attention to these loops that I realized they had patterns – and roots. They went back to horrible moments in my life that I didn’t label “traumatic” – because I didn’t want to sound dramatic. (Why do those words sound so similar?) But they DID strike blows to my psyche. And they carved out WEEKS of my life, demanding intense recovery. I lost time, dwelt in intense misery, and suffered horrible self-loathing and depression as a result. Yet, not one was my fault.

The light bulb went off.

What words was I using during my loops? The same ones OTHER people did. I was taking on the blame for things that weren’t my fault, too. One thing went wrong, and, out of the blue, the entire world was falling apart because of ME. I was wrong, and terrible, and unwanted, and worthless. HOURS spent cycling around in my head, examining every tiny fault in my life and character. (Because that’s ALWAYS productive) I was reliving those moments. It was a fucking trauma response!

People don’t realize how small a trauma can be. And while the response may not impact someone’s life to the point of PTSD, it still isn’t something rational or safe. I’ve lost hours to a response. Hours of self-loathing and self-hatred! And they come out of the blue! For no good reason, the bottom falls out of the world. It isn’t a gradual drop, the way my depression works. Nope – no warning, and I’m stuck. And fighting out again? It’s difficult as hell. I KNOW other people go through the same thing. But because trauma’s such a taboo – on top of the squirmy topic that is mental health – how may suffer in silence?

And how many lose the fight?

Recognizing the stupid loops is tough. Mostly because I have to be IN one to catch on. And then it’s a battle to get out. Meanwhile, my depression perks up its ears and joins in on the fun. So that leaves TWO battlefronts to face. (Yeah, I know – plenty of military metaphor there) And all of it devolves around the fact that I can’t figure out how to heal the original trauma. How am I supposed to get past that kind of damage? When you have a major betrayal that leaves a giant CRATER in your emotional sense of self, how do you even narrow the gap? Can you close it? Because, right now, it doesn’t feel like it. Which leaves me scrambling to try to notice triggers before they happen (hasn’t worked yet), and then struggling to get out of the quicksand after.

Maybe if the world discussed trauma more, this wouldn’t feel so difficult or overwhelming. People could talk openly about the way they feel. (I’d like to add that the trauma wouldn’t happen in the first place, but I’m aware that’s a pipe dream) Instead, it continues to get buried. Leaving those of us who experience ANY kind of blow (big OR small) to suffer in silence. Which, to me, kind of feels like another trauma – don’t you think?

mental health

Being Unavailable

Everyone that’s ever responded to a text message or email after work hours, raise their hand. If you’ve taken a phone call related to work on the weekend (and I’ll use the term “weekend” loosely, as people work different schedules), keep your hand up. Finally, ANY work-type function performed during a vacation (mini or otherwise), leave your hand up. Now, be completely honest:

Is your hand up?

Yup, so’s mine. Welcome to the world of the workaholic. We have no sense of self preservation, and no concept of the word “boundary.” SOME event in our lives drove us hurl ourselves off the cliffs of perfection and people-pleasing. And our brains translated those needs into answering every beck and call as if our very lives depend on it. It doesn’t occur to us that – unless you happen to work for an actual Evil Overlord – we won’t die if we start setting up boundaries and allow those intrusions into our downtime to pass by. In some cases (say, if you’re dating, married, or have families), it MIGHT allow us to live longer.

Now, I’m not telling you to abandon a healthy work ethic. You don’t come across those very often these days, and they ensure quality. There’s nothing wrong with throwing yourself into everything you do, avoiding distraction. But when you punch out at the end of the day? You’re DONE. You don’t need to continue dancing attendance to the “powers that be.” Especially when it starts compromising your health and well-being. Running around in circles, frantically watching a phone every moment of the day? How does that improve ANYONE’S anxiety?

Newsflash: It doesn’t.

I worked in veterinary medicine for ten years – usually at emergency practices. That meant I could receive a text at any moment, asking me to come in and cover a shift. I understood the possibility, and while I wasn’t always coherent when texts or calls came through, I faithfully kept my phone on and the volume up. It never occurred to me that other people turned theirs off when they were home, ignoring THEIR messages. It took me years of agreeing – over and over – to add hours to my week, stretching myself thin, before I caught on. And by then? I’d established a pattern. Trying to back away and say, “No” became nearly impossible. I couldn’t figure out how to put up boundaries when my back already looked like a well-worn welcome mat.

And transitioning to freelance work? Things didn’t get better. Oh, sure, I set my hours and days. But the panic of reacting to the snap of someone’s fingers was already set in my mind. As soon as a message, email, or text came in, I jumped to handle it. Who cared if it was five minutes before I crawled into bed? Or on the weekend when I’d decided I wouldn’t work? How about the week of my wedding when I firmly declared I WASN’T working? The ingrained pattern drove me to reach for a keyboard. And my husband frowned and made the same comment, “I thought you were done for the day.”

I had ZERO boundaries!

If you don’t put down pickets and barbed wire (sometimes you need razor wire AND an electric fence), you’ll never learn to break the habit. And YOU’RE the one who has to set and hold a boundary, not the people around you. Because odds are pretty high you’ve trained people to walk all over you. A neat little note asking them to stop? That’s not going to work. You have to slam the door in their face a few times to get the message through. And, honestly, all of those barriers are for YOU just as much as they are for them. Trying to hold those boundaries is difficult. You’re breaking a habit that’s engraved down to the BONE. Erasing muscle memory takes a force of will. One you probably don’t have, courtesy of your anxiety that a client, your co-worker, or your boss will HATE you for deciding to insist on your time to relax.

The withdrawal? It’s real. I haven’t made it to the point of not checking my professional email account – mostly because I also use it for my personal writing. So I see messages come in after I’ve finished for the day or week. And there’s an internal LURCH to respond. Then my brain starts attacking me when I say (aloud), “I’ll take care of this in the morning (or Monday).” Every negative thought in the world shrieks in my inner ear. And I start shaking. Because my go-to gut reaction is to handle the response immediately. I have to talk myself down from the ledge – and, no, that isn’t an exaggeration.

Who cares that it’s dinner? I should drop what I’m doing and send a reply ASAP so my client knows… Oh, wait. So they know what? That I’m not a human being? That I chain myself to my desk and do nothing except sit and wait to hear from them like a dog in a shelter – desperate for any crumb of affection? Put the phone down and worry about it later.

It’s the weekend, but they have a question? I need to make sure I answer it! Because if I don’t the world will come screeching to a halt? Did they specify that the issue was immediate? Or didn’t it say “when you have a chance?” Doesn’t that imply they understand I have other things going on? Because I TOLD them I don’t work on weekends so I can spend time with my husband?

It’s exhausting!

But it’s also an important exercise. The week of my wedding was insanely stressful – for a ton of reasons. Letting myself fret over work issues (none of which were critical), was stupid. I’d set out of office announcements and let all of my clients know ahead of time about the time off. The fact that it got ignored wasn’t my problem. But instead of holding my boundary firm, I let them trample over the line. And I suffered as a result. It was the same as taking a text to cover a shift when I was on vacation (a POSTED vacation) years before.

When you don’t set boundaries, you give up pieces of yourself. And your mental health suffers. You don’t get rest (obviously, since you’re constantly staring at your phone in horrified anticipation). Downtime becomes a complete and utter joke. You might as well move into your office, because you never “leave.” Then there’s the domino of what happens with the people around you. Your family gets frustrated with your never turning “off” work. Friends get irritated with your need to step aside all the time. And you come apart trying to please everyone.

Are you going to get shocked by that fence a few times? Yup. Is it going to hurt? You bet. But will you thank yourself for putting up the fence down the road? YES. I feel the hiccup of tension and anxiety, but then I put my phone down and go back to what I was doing. I mean, I’m a work in progress, but I’ve come a long way from how I used to be. But you have to take that first step. You won’t regret it.

mental health

Cracked Vessels

“What is grief if not love persevering?”

~WandaVision

For decades now, I’ve found a trend emerging: odd-numbered years bring the most grief. Line up everything negative and positive that happens, and everything tips down in those years. Even with a pandemic shaking loose last year, 2020 didn’t manage to bring the same crippling blows as the first half of 2021. (And, yes, I’m aware there are still six months remaining to slog through) Going into odd-numbered years requires bracing myself for a never-ending onslaught of abuse from the universe – whether I put on a hopeful outlook or not.

And this year? It’s a winner.

In a handful of months, I’ve witnessed the loss of so many people. Friends and my own family have lost people close to their hearts. I’ve touched on grieving practices before; the myriad ways people handle coping with the holes in their lives. And I’ve seen every possibility, participated in each one. I’ve watched the usual phrases emerge – and had friends come to me because they can’t handle hearing them anymore. I reached a point of not handling them anymore and withdrew. Have we really nothing new to say to one another when our worlds collapse?

The worst phrase I’ve encountered is a variation on, “time will heal the wound.” Excuse me? You’re trying to tell me that, given enough years, I’ll stop feeling the loss? What utter bullshit is that? I look at friends who have experienced the unimaginable this year. Why is there an expectation for them to close up that CRATER and get back to “normal?” Normal fucking went out the window! It’s GONE, permanently. They can’t get it back. NEVER use those words for people undergoing supreme grief.

Because grief doesn’t go away.

I think that’s something I’ve come to realize in the past couple months. As I wrote a farewell letter to my uncle, I reflected on other relatives who’ve slipped away in past years. The pain? It doesn’t hurt any less when I poke at it. Even losses from DECADES ago. So this theory that time closes over chasms within us and puts them to rest is complete bullshit. Perhaps we grow around the wounds, rising above them. But dissolving them away like a wound? No, that doesn’t happen.

Someone shared a post of social media this week that explained grief in a way that makes more sense to me. It showed a series of jars with a ball inside. In the first row, the ball grew smaller and smaller and disappeared. In the second, the ball never changed size. Instead, the jars grew larger. It struck a chord. The first row represents that stupid phrase – and it’s wrong. Time doesn’t heal ANYTHING. The second row is more accurate. The grief remains, often constant. What time does is allow us grow AROUND it.

When I sit in a room and look at the ghosts of those I’ve lost, the pain aches – every bit as fresh as the day they stepped away. Coming from a medical background, I can assure you that doesn’t represent “healing.” Healed wounds cease to cause pain. So why do we still use that stupid phrase? How is that supposed to offer comfort to someone enduring something so horrific?

I think, as I’ve said before, that society is so afraid of “negative” emotions. They refuse to recognize grief as anything positive. There’s no room in our programming to see the pain of loss as anything other than something to get over and move beyond. But I think we need to change that. We feel grief because of the bonds created. That’s positive. And holding that connection, that energy tight? There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a positive asset to a person’s character, I’d say. Why would you want someone to throw away that aspect of themselves?

Yes, I’m a huge geek (I never deny that). And when Vision uttered that quote, I came apart. It captured everything I wanted to say so perfectly. I’ve also held onto the words so much these past few months. They’re the best I’ve been able to share with people – and with myself. I don’t know which writer came up with them, but they’re a genius.

Stop asking people to let go of grief.

Grief is love. And holding onto that love – as strongly and deeply as it started? That isn’t weakness. It isn’t negative. We should promote it.

mental health

A Thousand [Wrong] Words

My Wedding Picture

Take a look at the photo above and let me know what you see. I’ll tell you my first impressions. The left strap of her dress has come down (she really should have fixed that before the photographer snapped the picture). And I think she needed to pull the dress up, it’s showing too much cleavage. Then there’s the fact that she isn’t smiling (though maybe her smile’s hideous, so who knows – this may be the better option). Her shoulders are rolled a little forward, showing poor posture. She’s incredibly pale, too. You’d think she’d have tanned, right? And while there’s some hint of bone structure at her collar bone, you can easily tell she’s not a thin and trim girl.

Harsh or just realistic?

Now, before you start condemning me to the depths for judging someone like this, the photo’s mine. It’s from my wedding, actually. And I’ve spent plenty of time looking at it and dissecting it. (This is one of my better assessments, truth be told) I’m also the only person to analyze it this way – to my face, anyway. Most people that saw it when I shared it gushed and went on an on about how beautiful I looked. I responded the way I always do: I deflected the compliment by assuring them it was only due to the work of my hairstylist (who also did my makeup – and she DID accomplish an amazing job). And, mentally, I told myself they were saying the words you’re supposed to on someone’s wedding day.

I’ve always picked photos of myself apart. And it goes back to my issues with self-image. Use whatever lens or filter you want: all I’m going to see is the distortion my brain’s programmed with. It zeroes in on every millimeter of cellulite and loose skin (translate that to “fat” – though my husband glares when I use the word), every stray hair, every imperfection – and I fully admit they’re usually imagined. It made me duck away and hide from cameras. And the words, “Let me take your picture” turned my stomach.

So I developed bad behaviors.

I always drifted to the back of group photos so I could hid as much of my body as humanly possible. (And since I’m tall, I told myself it was acceptable) I’d sneak an arm behind my back to try to tug loose clothes tighter so I wouldn’t look misshapen and fat. (News flash: when you wear scrubs, it doesn’t work) I turned sideways as much as possible – at least until I realized that did nothing to disguise the fact I was overweight. Because I always seemed to end up with people thinner than me, so comparisons were inevitable. And trying to focus on my face alone? Forget it. I’ve resigned myself to the fact I will never master the art of the selfie. The angles never come out right, making me look wrong no matter what I try.

The number of pictures I’ve deleted could fill a warehouse. But I can’t do anything about the photos other people take. Except stare at them, and hate them, and pull them apart. The phrase, “I hate having my picture taken” became my motto. It was easier to hold up my hand in front of a lens than to explain the resulting photo would land me in a fugue of depression. And I know plenty of other people out there struggle with the same problem. If you can’t look at yourself in the mirror, a picture is ten thousand times worse.

Because you can spend HOURS hating it!

The longer you stare at a picture, the more you find wrong with it. It doesn’t matter that other people use photo programs and filters to alter their images (that idea never occurs to us). All we see is perfection on one hand and every flaw on the other. Oh, we KNOW the pictures we see on those social media accounts aren’t real. But our minds aren’t wired to let that understanding through. Instead, all we can hear are the whispers telling us what’s wrong with US. And self-preservation encourages us to stay away from the source of our misery.

Then I came across this picture. It wasn’t posed like the other. (I didn’t know our friend took it) And when I sat down to start pulling it apart and cycle through my usual depressive spiral, I didn’t make it very far. Not because I couldn’t find things wrong (Please: my brain had a list within 5 seconds). It was more because something else clicked. I look HAPPY in this picture. That doesn’t happen in most pictures. And that’s where the key turned.

I went back over other photos, looking for similar smiles. And I remembered a few my husband took when I wasn’t looking. They were different from those horrible “let’s take a picture!” images I’ve always despised. I still WANTED to pick out the flaws, but the overwhelming feeling was more, “Gee, I look like ME.”

And I changed my mind about pictures.

It’s HARD, I won’t deny that. My gut reaction whenever I see a photo is to break out my mental magnifying glass and start taking notes. But I’m getting better about stopping myself and stepping back. I’ve even managed to share some progress photos on my weight loss with my coach. (My anxiety won’t let me share them with the entire group yet) I didn’t see the progress until she helped me, but now? I get it. And that allowed me to see things differently in the mirror.

I used to get annoyed when my husband would sneak a photo when I wasn’t looking. But they’re some of the best pictures out there. Because they’re REAL. So I’ve stopped protesting. And I’ve learned to smile – when I see them. (Let’s be real – I’m not the kind of person to walk around with a goofy smile on my face) They’re a part of who I am, and they represent what HE sees in me. It’s a new lens I can use in MY mind. And it’s healthier than the shadows my depression wants to use.

Even a year ago, I never would have dreamed of sharing my face with complete strangers. Oh, sure, I have a headshot for my freelance work. (It’s actually from our engagement photo shoot – another set of pictures I found myself loving, even though some of them WERE posed) But this is different. And I’m proud of the progress I’ve made. The negative voices still circle in my head, of course. But I can also drown them out with a few positive shouts. And that’s my hope for other people.

Don’t worry about filters or PhotoShop or whatever other programs are out there. And don’t let the voices in your head get to you. Somewhere in your phone or a shoebox or an album, there’s a picture that encapsulates YOU. And when you find that happy moment, it’ll lead you to the next and the next and the next. Once you pick up the thread, you’ll find a way to see your pictures differently. And maybe you’ll stop hiding from the camera. Just a little.

mental health

The Pause Button

“I second-guess and overthink and rethink every single thing that I do.”

~Taylor Swift

There are two camps of thought when it comes to achieving your dreams. On one hand, you ride off into the sunset, blissfully happy. But on the other, you realize it wasn’t quite what you thought. At least, that’s what the predominating themes of Hollywood and literature would have you believe. Reality throws a third wrinkle into the mix, though. You can climb that mountain and feel joyful and vindicated – and then realize the work isn’t FINISHED.

There’s another peak hiding in the mist.

The problem isn’t that you didn’t aim high enough. And you may not even need to set a new goal. You’re not upset or disappointed with the accomplishment. But there’s a negative in there, all the same. Because you’re wearing a rut into your little mountain paradise. You kind of settled into home base and switched off your brain. And in the process? Your ambition went with it.

There are gradations and levels to a dream. And, yes, additional mountain peaks. They’re not as difficult to scale (usually – everyone’s different), but they exist all the same. And when you finally stop dancing around over victory, you have to look at them and take stock of things. It’s time to rethink where you are, what you want to do, and how you get to the next stage of things. Or even if you WANT to. Maybe that rut’s so comfortable you DON’T have any desire to leave it. And there’s nothing wrong with that, especially if you are content and satisfied.

But pretending that you don’t have to think anymore? That’s dangerous.

This hit me like a ton of bricks the other day. I was writing out my work assignments for the new month, when I sat back and realized I haven’t looked for new work in AGES. Of course, I haven’t needed to. Clients have sought me out and added to my plate. (And don’t get me wrong – that’s pretty awesome) My schedule is comfortably full, too. So it’s not like my dream isn’t realized. But it’s also not GOING anywhere. And my anxiety climbed onto my shoulder and started poking me in the brain. A writer’s only as good as their next assignment. And if you’re not constantly bettering yourself, you’re not really a writer.

I started rethinking everything. And then I started making a new plan for myself. No need to throw out what I’m doing (that route leads to madness), but I DO need to get out of the current rut – at least a little bit. This means dividing up my time to allow for researching new writing possibilities. I also took a critical look at my speculative fiction (following a helpful critique) and realized it needed an overhaul – and devoted time, rather than the “as I can manage” time.

Same mountain, different view.

I’m not any less satisfied with what I’m doing. I wake up, amazed that this is my life. But there are still tiny checkmarks in the back of my mind that I haven’t crossed off. And that’s where rethinking comes in. It’s a little like stepping back from a painting you’re working on and realizing you could add a touch more shading. The image is fine, and most people would probably consider the painting acceptable. But your eye? It knows there’s a touch more you could do to achieve perfection. (Bearing in mind I know perfection is never achievable)

Every so often, you need to step back and look at your life with a critical eye. Have you missed something? Is there a “more” you might want to consider? Are you content with that rut, or do you want to step out of it? And you have to remember, there aren’t right or wrong answers to those questions – especially if you’re where you want to be. (If you’re NOT, then you want to really pay attention to your answers)