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mental health

A Million Little Pills

“Imagine smiling after a slap in the face. Then think of doing it twenty-four hours a day.”

~Mark Zusak, The Book Thief

First and foremost, let me state that I don’t deny the existence of an opioid crisis. I won’t even deny the fact that illegal drug use runs rampant (as my state prepares to legalize marijuana use later this year). Is it a problem? Of course it is. Do I think it’s something that will ever get solved or even shaved down by government regulation? Not a chance. But I’m sure officials pat themselves on the back and raise glasses of champagne that they’re making a difference in the world. However, this isn’t a post about drug problems – not really.

It’s about the dominos those regulations have tumbled.

People with chronic pain fall into a category known as “invisible illnesses.” We walk around looking perfectly normal to everyone else. Because, unfortunately, pain doesn’t manifest on the skin. And it’s a different experience for each individual. Some people tolerate horrific injuries without a problem (and I envy them). Others? They learn to cope with the fact it feels like a steamroller ran over them fifteen times during the night. On a GOOD day, I walk around with a pain level hovering between 6-7 on that silly chart they hang in the ER. On a bad day? It goes up to 14 – and nurses roll their eyes when I tell them. They consider it an exaggeration, despite the fact I’m trying to convey the truth.

Fibromyalgia doesn’t process pain signals properly. It’s a centralized pain state, and my nerves can’t tell the difference between a stubbed toe and a severed limb. (I know, it sounds silly, but if you spent a day in my body? You’d get it) And trying to convey how I feel to ANYONE? Is frustrating. Even medical professionals get skeptical at times. And I’m not the only person in this situation. Everyone with a chronic pain diagnosis? They’ve heard these same words, particularly since the opioid crisis:

“Have you tried Advil/Tylenol?”

And all you can do is sit there and stare at them in disbelief. Really? Advil? Tylenol? It’s the equivalent of being told to rub some mud on it or walk it off. (And don’t get me started on that whole “exercise makes pain better nonsense”) Because when the new regulations went into place, they slammed the door on medications that helped us EXIST. And no one stopped to think about the consequence of that decision. They didn’t pause and ask if they’d affect someone OTHER than the drug addicts they wanted to target. No voice went up to say, “We need to make sure we have a plan in place for THESE people.” And no medications have emerged to help in the meantime. We’ve had no advocates to stand up for us.

“Have you tried Advil/Tylenol?”

Currently, I’m struggling with an “old friend.” And I go into surgery tomorrow to finally remove it. In the past? My doctor prescribed Percocet to help me sit, stand, and walk while waiting to get me into the OR. He (hell EVERYONE) could see the level of pain I was in. And this time? It’s no different. But the regulations? They tightened. So he uttered that sentence. As if I haven’t already been popping Advil AND Tylenol like candy. And when he asked if they helped, I admitted they weren’t. His response? “You can try a heating pad.”

Yeah, I’ve tried that, too. And willow bark. And chamomile. And soaking in a tub with Epsom salt and eucalyptus. I HAVEN’T tried stabbing a blade into my body to see if that would work, but I’ve considered it. Because that’s what pain makes you want to do. It squirms into your brain and takes over every thought. And when a medical professional hands you the equivalent of a Band-Aid for a hemorrhage? You collapse into a dark place.

“Have you tried Advil/Tylenol?”

This is where people with chronic pain end up. Depressed. Miserable. And – most of the time – refusing to seek help. What help IS there? The medical community has turned their back on us. They’re too busy congratulating themselves on “beating” the drug addicts. Instead, they leave their patients walking on knives, moving hands encased in thorns, and breathing with lungs wreathed in fire. And they shrug when we venture to tell them we’re struggling. Because attempting to DO something? It would mean they made a mistake. And they’re not willing to do that.

I’m one of the biggest advocates AGAINST drugs. I oppose marijuana. But this time? I broke down and looked into CBD. I’ve been in that much pain. Unfortunately, it would interact with my migraine medication, so it’s not an option. That’s what having NO options does to people, though. It drives them to a level of desperation they’d never consider. To a point where I’m removing an organ and agreeing to put myself into menopause – early menopause. Simply because I can’t handle this pain showing up every few months. And I can’t shovel down handfuls of Advil and Tylenol and wait for my liver to decide it’s had enough.

“Have you tried Advil/Tylenol?”

Every day, I hope for someone to puzzle out how to manage fibro. How to bring relief to everyone with chronic pain. But at the same time? I wish pain were visible to the world. If they could SEE what we feel, would they behave differently? Would they work harder to find solutions and ease what we’re going through? If we looked the way we felt, would people take us seriously? I don’t necessarily WANT to look the way I feel, but if it made a difference? As I stare down at the liqui-gels and quick-dissolve capsules in my hand that make up part of my breakfast – and snacks – and lunch – and dinner, I find myself closing my eyes and wondering if I’d hear something different if the doctors and nurses could SEE my pain level.

“Have you tried Advil/Tylenol?”

mental health

Roar

This past weekend, my husband and I watched a documentary on Hulu: Hysterical. (No, I’m not a huge documentary fan, but our favorite comic, Iliza Schlesinger recommended it) The focus centered around female comedians, but the underlying message was more than that – or maybe I just took more away from it. The things the women discussed were things that impact EVERY woman. And the longer I sat there, the more I found myself reflecting on my life. I heard words people have muttered under their breath (or blatantly said to my face). I saw magazine articles I’d come across while sitting in waiting rooms when I idiotically forgot to bring a book with me (never do that, by the way). And I remembered relationships with old boyfriends.

Even today – NOW – women STRUGGLE with social standards.

(For the men out there – I get it. You have problems and standards you battle, too. However, I’m not guy. So while I can stand up and preach about what you’re going through, it’s going to fall flat. You can mutter under your breath that I’m not being “equal,” but there’s nothing I can do about it. You can either wander off somewhere else or sit quietly and maybe gain a new perspective.)

The ANCIENT (and yes, I’m going to call it that) image of women keeping house STILL persists to this day. We’re expected to present ourselves a certain way – in public AND at home – speak with specific words and tone, maintain a household to meet society’s standards, and have aspirations of keeping our husbands and children happy and satisfied. And it’s utter BULLSHIT. This is why women suffer from depression and anxiety! That crazy image doesn’t work, and it has no place in modern society.

Women are EQUAL to men!

We have the right to do what we want. That includes NOT getting married, NOT having children, NOT cleaning the house all day, and NOT waiting on a man hand-and-foot! We can get whatever jobs we want. If that means we net a bigger paycheck than our spouse, so what? Maybe the house doesn’t look like a magazine picture. So what? Is it comfortable for the people living there? (For the record, no one lives in those damn houses. They’re staged by professionals for the photo shoot) Maybe you don’t have dinner piping hot and on the table when your husband gets home every night. (The horror!) Who the fuck cares? In our house, my husband does the cooking, NOT me. He loves cooking, he’s a thousand times better at it (my idea of dinner before we got married was a bowl of cereal or cheese and crackers), and it’s a healthier option. And he doesn’t mind in the slightest – which is more than I can say of my past relationships.

We’re sitting in the 21st century, and women are still fighting to get their voices heard. If you dare to stand up, you’re hit with criticism for being a bitch. Speak up about something, and you’re told you’re too mouthy. (And, of course, no man will have you) And women use these same insults against each other! That programming is so deeply set in our brains that we hesitate to tear it out! So we tell one another not to say anything, not to make waves, not to DO anything. And then we sit in the corner of our perfectly-kept houses, wishing we were dead.

It HAS to stop.

I spent SO much of my life following that pattern. Because getting slapped down HURTS. When I tried to stand up and say something was wrong, I received insults and sneers. (If I had a penny for every time I’ve been called a bitch, I could retire to a private tropical island) And females are VICIOUS with each other. I stopped standing up. I crawled back into the corners. I let myself get pummeled into silence. I put up with getting pinched and fondled. I watched men get congratulated while I was insulted – for the same behavior. They were model workers; I had shortcomings. When I attempted to say something, I was labeled a troublemaker. At one job, I received a TEN-MINUTE lecture for walking in the door in tennis shoes. (My heels were in my desk, and the office was down a cobblestone street.) Meanwhile, a recent hire wore Converse every day because he jogged on his lunch break. I got another lecture for wearing jeans to climb around oil pipelines. (Never mind that I ended up falling on the rocks the next day and tore straight through my khakis) The men at the job had jeans and no one said a word. An old boyfriend whined when I got home late and dinner wasn’t ready. He was laid off at the time and home – chatting with other girls online. My work schedule also inconvenienced him after he totaled his car and needed to borrow mine.

And I said NOTHING.

Because I’d already learned that NO ONE wanted to hear me. I accepted the blame. I watched other promotions and knew there was no point putting in for them. I had ZERO chance. I ACCEPTED my place. Through school and friends, I’d learned what I was supposed to be. The words, “I’m sorry” became dominant in my vocabulary. It took me forever to dig into my brain and find that damned mind control chip. To realize how screwed up everything was. And when I finally tore out the programming and look backward, I was horrified. Why did I let all of those people – men AND women – shove me into that tiny box labeled, “Women’s Place?” How did I become so afraid and small?

I stopped flinching at the insults. And I refused to back down or sit down when they loomed over me. Which is extremely difficult and scared the shit out of me, in the beginning. And I won’t lie – people HATE me for it. I’ve heard everything in the book. (Though, since I’m married, all of those warnings that no man would have me didn’t come to pass) I refuse to be afraid to stand up for myself and those around me. And you know what? There are other women out there doing the same thing. When you fight your way out of the box, you look around and see others who’ve done the same. It’s a relief (knowing you’re not alone always is), but it’s also empowering. Because you realize that it’s POSSIBLE to break down the walls.

Women HAVE voices. And we deserve to use them. We deserve the places we’ve carved out for ourselves in this world. And NO ONE – man OR woman – has the right to tell us differently. That first roar of defiance? It’s shaky and quiet – I won’t deny that. But as you find your strength and root out that programming, it gets louder. And when it joins with everyone else’s? It has the power to create change. Never let ANYONE extinguish your fire.

mental health

Hiding Away

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

~Ernest Hemingway

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

Then there’s the rest of us.

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

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

Two lessons in sleep FAILURE.

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

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

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

Hiding? Doesn’t work.

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

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

mental health

Impossible Things

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

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

WHY are you doing that?!

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

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

But you have to take the first step.

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

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

I needed that dramatic of a change, though.

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

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

It’s that easy!

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

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

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

mental health

Permanent Stories

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

~Kat Von D

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

My tattoos are the same way.

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

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

The difference was THEIR perception.

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

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

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

Tattoos are a person’s identity.

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

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

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

mental health

The Socialization Pill

Anti-social board
Photo by Sarah Pflug from Burst

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

WRONG!

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

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

Everyone is NOT a social butterfly.

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

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

It’s ridiculous!

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

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

Your CHOICE!

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

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

mental health

A Different Kind of Ceiling

“Children have a lesson adults should learn, to not be ashamed of failing, but to get up and try again. Most of us adults are so afraid, so cautious, so ‘safe,’ and therefore so shrinking and rigid and afraid that it is why so many humans fail. Most middle-aged adults have resigned themselves to failure.”

~Malcolm X

Storytime! At my high school, the end of the English year meant term paper time. Everyone knew and expected it. You’d get a general topic, and you had a few weeks to turn in at least five pages of double-spaced work, complete with citations and references. It was pretty standard for an Honors class, and everyone knew the drill. So when Junior year rolled around and the teacher gave us the option of writing about any author we wanted, it felt like a jackpot. I’d just finished reading Les Miserables, and my brain was surging with joy for Victor Hugo and his way with words. I dove into the library (yes, library – we didn’t have Google back then) with a giant stack of notecards.

And then things started to unravel.

For some of my classmates, that year was their first experience in an Honors class. And they weren’t prepared or – if I’m being honest – qualified. They complained about EVERYTHING. Quizzes ended up open book to accommodate the fact they hadn’t read the material or studied. She offered Pygmalion as a substitute when they whined that Waiting for Godot was too hard to understand. (I read both – mostly because I loved My Fair Lady) And the term paper? They threw a fit. Within a week, the teacher cut the pages down to three. Three, double-spaced? That was nothing! I protested. I sat down and wrote a long letter to the teacher, outlining every way she’d let down the advanced students. It was the first time I dared to stand up to any adult, much less an authority figure. (And, really, one of the first times I took a chance on standing up for MYSELF)

She ratted me out.

If you aren’t a female and didn’t attend a public school, allow me to clarify things for you. Girls? They’re EVIL. Mean Girls gets it right. The teacher stood in front of my desk, looked straight at me, and announced that “someone” (she didn’t use my name – I’ll give her that much) was unhappy, so the term paper limit was reinstated. I didn’t have the best school life prior to that point, but it went to rock bottom from that point on. Everyone knew who she was referring to. (Why couldn’t she have stood behind her desk to make the announcement?)

I tried to make the best of things. After all, I was already used to threats of being shoved down the stairs. People already slammed my locker shut, narrowly missing my fingers. I got tripped in the hall on a routine basis. And I learned by Sophomore year to wear my hair in a bun to prevent things from getting put in it. (Sometimes I wonder if that trauma is why I’ve chopped it ruthlessly short now) I threw myself into writing one of the best papers of my school career. I was incredibly proud of it. And despite my teacher’s behavior, I expected professionalism from her.

I received my first harsh lesson in learned helplessness.

When our graded papers came back, I flipped to the last page. There was a red “A” written there. I was happy, of course. Until I started to go back through the rest of the paper. Nothing. No marks whatsoever. No notes, no edits, NOTHING. She never read it. Because I know for a fact it wasn’t a perfect paper (no one writes THAT well) I made it to the restroom before I started crying. And I tore the paper to shreds.

As I got older, others reinforced the lesson. I’d attempt something I thought was amazing or noteworthy, and they’d shrug. I’d hold out my accomplishment with a smile, and they’d snatch the rug out from under me. It built up a sense that nothing was ever good enough. Everything I did was actually a failure. I was a dog chasing her tail – never catching it, and with zero chance of doing so. Slowly, the lesson set in: that bar was always going to be out of reach. So why bother trying?

And this happens to people all the time!

It’s a subtle, sinister form of bullying that often goes without notice. Why people do this I have no idea. I don’t know why that teacher behaved as she did. I didn’t go to the Principal with my complaint. I didn’t report her to anyone else, or even threaten to do so. I was a student going to the source. While I understand she probably felt called out, was it worth squashing a person under her heel and leaving her to the mercy of the student body? (And if you want me to believe a teacher doesn’t know what happens in a school environment, you’re crazy) She knew exactly what she’d done. She watched me flip through my paper, looking for a critique that didn’t exist. It was more damaging than if she’d cut it apart and failed the assignment – and she knew it. After all, she was aware of the intelligence level of who she was dealing with.

You can’t hold a carrot out for someone and then tell them you ate it. It’s cruel. People are PROUD of their accomplishments. When they come to you, delighted that they managed to overcome something, and you YAWN?! You might as well stab them; it’d be cleaner. It’s a sadistic practice. But it slides under the radar. People enforce a learned helplessness every day. And the victims sink further and further into depression. They get anxious over attempting anything new. They stop trying.

And maybe that’s the point.

If you’re afraid, if you stop trying, you won’t accomplish anything anymore. Which means you stop running the risk of making them look bad. I crawled into the shadows after that paper. I dropped my head and closed my mouth. I continued to turn in my assignments, of course, but I never said another word when she adjusted the curriculum to suit the class. My acts of rebellion were miniscule. (When our idiot Teaching Assistant decided we needed to play “Head’s Up 7-Up – which I hadn’t done since elementary school – I read and stared her down when she encouraged me to participate) Whatever spark of determination I might have had fizzled and died. She won.

And other people won – over and over. I kept dropping my head and crawling away in shame. I stayed out of the way. The fire grew so cold I’m amazed I ever got it warm again. Because I refuse to let that helplessness rule my life anymore. And it’s a HEAVY blanket to burn away – believe me. I cringe when I hold out something special, expecting the same “meh.” It takes every drop of confidence I’ve scraped together to stand there and say, “Look, I did this!” And if someone DOES shrug, I have to shrug in response and find someone who won’t.

There are different glass ceilings out there no one talks about. The invisible barriers people concoct when they teach you to feel like a failure. They make you ashamed and helpless – for no good reason. And, yeah, it takes hindsight to look back and realize what an amazing badass you were the entire time. Hell, I stood up to a teacher! When no one else would point out her errors, I did. (And I had ZERO confidence back then – believe me) I demanded the education I deserved. How freaking awesome was I?

And how disappointing was she to take that moment away from me? I can’t rewrite history. The years of pulling shadows over my head so no one would see my embarrassment and “failure” aren’t going to suddenly vanish in this new enlightenment. But I CAN break the cycle moving forward. I CAN hold every single thing I do right close and put it up on a shelf to admire it. And I have people who’ll stand beside me and “ooh” and “ahh.” That’s how I move on and burn the damn misery out of the way. And you can do the same thing.

mental health

Building a Wall

Brick wall of self-sabotage
Photo by Madison Inouye from Pexels

All of us have multiple checklists in the back of our minds. There’s the daily To Do List, consisting of average tasks you go through on a regular basis. The outside world may think nothing of that list, but if you battle any mental illness, the To Do List is critical. It gets you out of bed and through the day. Then you have checklists for the various goals you want to accomplish. You have small, immediate goals all the way up to your major dreams. And as you get over each individual hurdle, you check off those lists. It feels good (accomplishment always does).

You’re cruising along, moving down the path. Maybe you stumble over an obstacle or two, but you DO get past them. (No one’s watching or judging, anyway) You’re spirit’s soaring, and you start feeling good about yourself. Maybe you even shake off some of the anxiety you felt towards those goals. There’s a renewed sense of belief in yourself. You might reach the finish line.

Until you smack into a wall.

You back up and stare in disbelief at this hulking wall that showed up out of nowhere. It wasn’t there a second ago. Maybe you weren’t exactly watching the road up ahead, but you’re pretty sure you would have noticed an obstacle this substantial. All of your positivity starts to drain away. Hurdles are one thing, but this is a WALL. It blocks everything, and there’s no way of climbing over it that you can see. Everything in your mind comes to a screeching halt. It’s so unfair. How could the universe throw down something so impossible? Because, of course, that wall came from somewhere else.

Nope.

Unfortunately, the wall snuck in from YOUR mind. It’s the result of the anxiety and depression you thought you conquered. The two combined into self-sabotage. And we’ve all done it. We get in the way of our success and triumphs ALL the time. Because we’re afraid of that finish line. Doubt creeps in, and we question our ability to take the final step. The wall becomes a safety blanket to hide behind. If we can’t get around it, we don’t have to face the consequences of stepping over the finish line. So while we’re staring at the wall, wondering where it came from and cursing whatever universe came up with the idea, we brought it with us the entire time.

Most of the time, you’re the only thing standing in your way. Actually, I shouldn’t say “most of the time.” ALL of the time. No one can prevent you from success except yourself. You make the decisions regarding your life – or you don’t. You set that wall in your path. And you CAN take it down. Even if it looks impossible to shift. After all, it’s a construct of your mind. That means you can decide what the wall’s made of. Maybe it’s an illusion. Or perhaps it’s constructed of gelatin, and you can push through it. What if it crumbles as soon as you touch it? Or, hell, conjure a sledgehammer and SMASH your way to the other side!

I’m a master of self-sabotage. I make excuses for not taking that next step:

  • “Maybe they won’t like my proposal.”
  • “The story isn’t good enough for that market.”
  • “I don’t have enough experience to compete with other professionals for that job.”
  • “My style’s too off-beat for them.”

Sometimes, I spent so much time behind the wall, the opportunity slipped away. A few times, I shattered the wall in time to succeed. But even those successes haven’t stopped me from putting up walls and doubting myself. The underlying lack of self-confidence holds me back. Which is crazy! Is there a guarantee I’m always going to succeed? Of course not. But if I NEVER take the chance, I fail 100% of the time!

The wall’s comfortable; I won’t deny that. It’s a safe refuge where nothing happens. But that’s just it – NOTHING happens. No forward momentum. Everything exists on the other side. And I’m stuck pacing around with my anxiety and depression. Why? I can look back and see how far I’ve come, and I’m going to stop so close to my goals?

Sounds silly when I think of it that way.

It’s easier to blame the wall on an outside force. And it’s definitely easier to engage in self-sabotage. We won’t fail. And no one likes failure. But staring at a wall for eternity? Who wants to do that? Pick up your sledgehammer and get to the other side. And do it sooner rather than later. Too many opportunities come with expirations. The last thing you want to do is kick yourself for missing out on them.

mental health

An Endless Cycle

“One person’s craziness is another person’s reality.”

~Tim Burton

Even on good days, people with anxiety undergo complicated thought processes. They look around at the world and see a million different possibilities. Not all of them are negative, either. (Something critics overlook) Each action comes with a seemingly endless list of reactions. And that’s a lot for one fragile brain to cope with.

So it shifts some of the energy.

Have you ever seen someone break or pick at their fingernails? How about a person pulling out their eyelashes or eyebrows? (And I don’t mean people that choose to pluck their eyebrows for whatever fashion trend happens to flood social media) Some run the edge of their fingernail along another finger, occasionally breaking the skin. Others pull on their joints, almost unconsciously. (Not cracking knuckles – that’s different…and highly annoying, I might add) I could go on and on, listing more destructive habits. Tiny acts of self-mutilation that don’t gain attention because they slide under the radar.

And then there are even more sinister habits.

Things people do that those around them never know of or even suspect. Desperate acts that grow worse and worse with mounting anxiety. Because the brain gets overwhelmed and needs to push the frenetic excess SOMEWHERE. Into a quasi-OCD. Me? I write out words on my fingertips. Except there’s a strict rule: I can only go two letters at a time. And if the word comes out uneven? Yeah, my anxiety goes up. So then I search through the sentence and add more words…or punctuation. Anything to hit an even number. Feeding my anxiety what it craves – and distracting my addled brain from the whirlpool it was already stuck in.

And not one person around me has a clue.

The nails? The pulling of my fingers? The eyelashes? Yeah, people have noticed those. My husband watches for when I start twisting my fingers together. And I don’t even know I’m doing it at times. Panic sets in, and it’s an unconscious reaction. He’ll reach over and pry my hands apart. And other people would comment on the state of my fingernails or say it was disgusting I was pulling out eyelashes. It took FOREVER to break those habits. They never asked WHY, simply felt the actions were repulsive.

Are they elements of self-harm? Of course they are. Are they intentional? No. That’s the difference. It’s a spontaneous response of the body to the emotion built up beneath the surface. So’s my spelling obsession. I don’t exhibit OCD tendencies anywhere else. But when my anxiety hits it’s limit, I start writing words out on my fingertips. It’s my signal of, “Holy shit, we’re in trouble!” And trying to STOP? I’d have better luck stopping a train at top speed.

Anxiety comes with consequences people NEVER realize.

Figuring out the link between the two took me YEARS. And I don’t know why the spelling started in the first place. (I LOATHED spelling bees in school) Nor do I know why I pull on my fingers. It HURTS, and I’m not really a fan of pain. But the signals eventually DO get through. It’s a desperate plea from the brain that I’ve failed to cut off the anxiety flow.

Everyone has coping mechanisms their body develops. And they’re not always healthy. You start to puzzle them out. And then you have to figure out how to break them. The spelling may not cause any damage physically, but it drives me NUTS. I’ll spend HOURS writing out every sentence I hear! WHILE telling myself the exercise is insane. But getting my fingers to stop moving feels impossible. I trade one anxiety for another. Not the healthiest practice in the world.

But, as the say, acknowledging the problem is the first step. And while I may spend A LOT of time screaming in my head (or laughing at myself), I’m at least aware of the issue. The distraction shakes things up – and it gives my poor thoughts a break of SOME kind. And at least the spelling is a safer coping skill than the self-mutilation my body picked out before.

mental health

There IS a Try

"I Tried" in cement
Photo by Umit Y Buz on Unsplash

By now, most of the populace is falling off their resolution wagon. Excuses are cropping up everywhere. All of the new gym equipment is finding its way into closets and basements. (Thank you so much, you inconsistent twits. I really needed to go up to 15 pounds on my dumbbells, but can you find them anywhere? NO!) Junk food is climbing into grocery carts, allowing you to find rice cakes and peanut butter on the shelves again. (Why? Why do people always take the crunchy peanut butter? Some of us need crunchy peanut butter to live) And we won’t discuss the alcohol situation.

Resolutions are stupid and pointless.

However, there’s a different option for the year that I DO embrace: a word. Every year, I settle on a single word that I hold onto throughout the months. Sometimes it relates to goals (“write” has come up in the past when I wanted to focus on my short stories and novels). Other times, its something deeper and more personal (last year, it was “explore” – and sort of an epic failure, courtesy of the pandemic). But I sit down, sort through the dictionary in my brain and decide what word I want to tack to the front of my mind. As the weeks and months progress, I remember my word choice. It’s a grounding exercise – and more effective than a resolution. (When lockdown doesn’t prevent every travel plan you’d originally laid out)

For 2021, I settled on “Try.”

I took a lot of risks last year. Hell, I jumped into my dream job with both feet! But I also hemmed and hawed for close to four months before I did so. And I bit my lip and hesitated on the keyboard over a lot of decisions. Fear of the unknown, of making a mistake, of failure held me back A LOT. (In case you’re unaware, that comes with depression and anxiety. They’re nice little side effects) Not everything worked out, but most of my decisions DID. And I need that “try” to keep pushing me forward – without the fear.

It’s my reminder to move forward. Maybe the chance pays off, maybe it doesn’t. If I don’t try, though, I won’t know. A tiny little flicker of rebellion against those dissenting voices in the back of my head that insist on beating me down.

Does it correlate with my goals – professionally and personally? Sure. I want to try to continue to grow my writing presence. I’d like to try to land a newspaper or magazine article. And I’m always trying to sell my short stories. But you can’t resolve to do those things. They’re based on chance. If I made them a resolution, I’d disappoint myself. Building them around a single word makes more sense. I feel more empowered and determined chasing after that word “try” than assigning a specific goal. (See how it works?)

But there’s more to this word thing.

I want to try to take our delayed honeymoon (stupid COVID-19). At the moment, trying to find new bookcases for the house is proving a challenge. I missed my reading goal for last year by TWO books, so I want to try to smash the goal this year. I was going to try to avoid a major health issue, but I’ll be facing surgery later this month, so I kind of missed that one (and I think adding any hopes after that might tempt the Universe).

There’s so much I can do with the word “try.” It opens so many doors for me – in every possible area. Without the disappointment of a resolution. Trying something doesn’t carry the risk of disappointment. You MIGHT fail, but you gave it a go in the first place. THAT’S the important part. It’s energized me for the year and given me hope.

Ditch the resolution (if you haven’t already) and find a word, instead. You have an entire massive dictionary to choose from. You’ll be happier, in the long run.