Real? Not Real?

Pain medications
Photo from Pixabay on Pexels

Allow me to open with a controversial statement: Pain is a nebulous concept. Why? Because if you go through life and only feel pain on rare occasions, it has one meaning for you. Those stupid charts in doctor’s offices with the grimacing faces? They actually have meaning for you. You can rate your pain on a scale of 1-10 without a problem. People take your yelps and moans seriously. You get to live in a special world – and you don’t even realize it.

Then there’s those of us with chronic pain.

We don’t experience moments WITHOUT pain. Daily existence places us in the middle to the high end of that stupid scale. Getting out of bed? Yeah, that’s a 6. Showering? On a good day, we might get away with a 5; bad days chalk us up to an 8 and require a rest afterward. When we cry out or moan or wince, we get the side-eye. Doctors and nurses sigh when they see us. When we tell them our pain eclipses that damn chart, they roll their eyes and stamp “hypochondriac” on our chart. We’re left writhing on our beds, dismissed as fakers or drug addicts. If we dare to tell them the medications aren’t working, they frown and tell us we need a rehab program.

Thus, “pain” has no true concept – not one that applies across the board. Even in this age of “advanced” medicine, it’s one of the things that no one agrees on and people fail to treat appropriately. And if you fight through chronic pain, it starts to worm its way into your mental health. After all, how many times can you hear someone dismiss your concerns before you start to believe them? Before your mind twists around and you accept that you’re wrong? Or crazy?

Pain does terrible things to the mind.

Some of my deepest depressions have followed horrific flares. Or not even flares – just intense episodes of pain that doctors decided weren’t important. It’s altered my mindset completely. I now avoid trips to the doctor until I’m in dire straights. Following a laparoscopic procedure last year, I developed a seroma at one of the incision sites. I didn’t allow my husband to take me to the ER until I could barely stand up straight and coughing almost made me black out. (And, to be fair, I protested even then. He just hauled me out to the car and refused to listen) I ended up needing surgery to drain it and earned an open wound healing for the next TWO MONTHS.

But I convinced myself it was all in my head – like doctors always tell me. There was nothing wrong, and it was my fibro flare, nothing more. I didn’t want to go the ER and end up embarrassed – AGAIN. It’s miserable describing an intense pain, only to have a doctor dismiss you as a hypochondriac. And trying to insist that you KNOW something’s wrong only makes it worse. Better to skip the visit entirely and pretend it’ll go away eventually. At least, that’s what my mind tells me.

It’s why I’ve avoided telling a doctor about the worsening pain in my lower back – for the past two years. My nephrologist yawned and told me the cyst would go away, that there was no way it could cause me pain. (And, yes, the doctor knows I have fibromyalgia, and, thus, feel pain differently than normal people) But I don’t want to feel that small and idiotic again. So I suck it up and tell myself (daily) that the pain will go away.

It’s how these “medical professionals” have conditioned me.

I read about these fantastic advances in medicine all the time. Broken barriers, miracles, cures. But pain? No one seems interested in advancing the care given there. Oh, they were quick to embargo pain MEDICATION – slandering anyone taking such medications as a drug addict. They didn’t stop to think of chronic pain sufferers when they did so. Then again, they never think of us. We’re lumped into a category of hypochondriacs, drug addicts, and liars.

And then they act shocked when chronic pain patients commit suicide. It’s a twisted cycle that breaks down the mind a little more each day. It makes you wonder if one of these brilliant scientific minds needs to experience it themselves before we’ll see a breakthrough in how we’re treated.

The Taint of MHD

“You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.”

~Buddha

The last place I worked allowed employees to take “mental health days.” (Of course, you had to schedule them in advance, get coverage for your shift, and your manager looked at you sideways for making the request, but that’s beside the point). It was the first job to introduce the concept – however imperfect a concept it turned out to be. I mean, the days came out of our general pool of “time off” so we didn’t receive a set amount or anything. But at least we didn’t need to produce a doctor’s note. It was a way to admit you were at your wit’s end and needed a quick breather.

With the taint of “mental health” applied.

Reality check: EVERYONE needs to take a break now and then. From work, from family, from responsibility. When anxiety, depression, obligations, pain, everything pile up and become too much, we need to step back and take care of OURSELVES. Because most of us set ourselves on the back burner, neglecting mental and physical health. But workplaces don’t have “self-care days.” Instead, they dress them up as “mental health days” and frown at you when you admit you need a break. And those two words – “mental health” – tar you with a glaring light for the rest of your career.

It’s as if NO ONE in the history of the planet ever reached a breaking point. Because (news flash) every person, regardless of whether or not they have a form of mental illness, hits a wall at some point. Everyone is capable of a mental breakdown. Stress KILLS, and there isn’t a job anywhere devoid of stress. There may be different levels, but people also have different tolerances.

Me? If you removed all of the stress from my life, my body would give out and die, at this point. My system doesn’t know how to survive WITHOUT stress. Some people start hyperventilating if you smile and ask them to have something completed within a week. But admitting to a need for a “mental health day?” People don’t want that stigma attached to them. So they push through the pain, the anxiety, the depression, the agony, and they break.

It’s a horrible thing to watch.

And I understand. I only used a mental health day once – and I regretted it immediately. I’d spent the entire night before in the emergency room. I was in severe pain, but the ER doctor dismissed me as a hypochondriac. (Fibromyalgia patients struggle with this battle constantly) I KNEW something was wrong, but I couldn’t convince the idiot to listen to me. I couldn’t lie down, could barely sit up, and the doctor couldn’t touch my back without me trying to tear her arm off. She dismissed the test results and told me to take Advil. I was beyond my pain tolerance, I was broken down by her attitude, and there was no way I could face work (never mind my exhaustion).

My managers? Yeah – more of the same dismissive attitude. It didn’t seem to matter that I HAD the note from the hospital; it didn’t say I couldn’t work – just that I’d been there. I was being a baby and trying to get out of work. It didn’t matter that I had the time to use, or that the policy was in place. I was instantly tarred as a slacker and whiner. (Turned out – after a week of further testing and a laparoscopic procedure – that I had a cluster of ovarian cysts and the worst pocket of endometriosis my doctor had ever seen. He had to CUT it out)

No judgement? Really?

I needed the day to reset and take care of myself so I COULD get back to work. I knew I was in no shape to face people, that I would hinder the work flow. I thought I was making a reasonable, adult decision. (Not to mention making a good call for MYSELF) Why have “mental health days” for employees if we weren’t allowed to take them? I learned those days were a tool for management to label us – and not in a good light. So I never took another. No matter how horrible I felt, how badly things might have been going for me, or how much pain I was in (and I went to work with a severe seroma following another surgery at one point). I didn’t want to feel that judgement ever again.

This is why people burn out. Why break downs occur. Self-care disintegrates in the face of fear. No one wants their co-workers or superiors to think less of them. So we push forward, scraping at brick walls with our fingernails. And then we wonder why pass out, collapse, or just plain shut down. (As if we don’t get weird looks for THAT!) “Mental health days” carry this horrible taint – and it’s right in the name! If employers honestly wanted to help us, they could approach the concept in a better way.

For one, they could change the name. A “self-care day” has a better connotation. Instead of giving us the side-eye and making marks in our record, they could smile in understanding and congratulate us on recognizing a need to reset our system. (Granted, I know some people abuse such systems, but this isn’t directed at those kinds of people) Hell, how would they feel in our shoes?

Now that I don’t have a time-off pool, I’m the not the best at remembering to take days when I need them. I honestly should have taken the entire week after the wedding off to recuperate (my husband was smart enough to do that…of course, he has paid time off). Instead, I told myself to dive right back into work. With the holidays approaching, though, I’ve forced myself to build in days off. To clients, I’ve said their days for family. In reality, though, their days for ME. Time to restart my brain and system. A chance to relax and get myself back to square one. It’s also why I refuse to work on weekends, much as it may inconvenience some clients. I need that time for ME.

No, I don’t call the days “mental health days.” As a self-employed writer, I can call them whatever I want. And after my experience, I refuse to use that hated label. So I call them what they are: ME DAYS. Maybe corporate worlds aren’t keen on that title, but I think it works better than the tainted title they use now. It might encourage more people to take the time they need – before they smash into the wall face-first.

I’ll Take Water, Thanks

No family may be better than two families
Photo by Paula Schmidt from Pexels

“You can’t choose your family.” Everyone knows that tired old phrase. Never mind that it isn’t precisely true. All of us defy those words when we settle into the groups we DO choose, composed of loved ones who don’t share our blood but mean every bit as much to us as the people who can donate a kidney or liver lobe to us. They also prove that old adage of “blood is thicker than water” wrong. Oftentimes, they stand beside us when our official, legal family members find it uncomfortable to stick with us through panic attacks, depressive fugues, and other mental health taboos no one likes to talk about.

The family we CHOOSE keeps us sane.

The family we have no input on? Those are the people who – more times than not – drive us over the cliff. They stop listening, they don’t hear us (and, yes, there’s a difference between those two things), they trample over our words, and they misunderstand our states of mind. If they don’t experience the same shamble of disorders we do, they have no frame of reference and fail (epically) to assist us. Even when they mean well, they do more damage than good. Old traumas resurface time and time again, reopening old wounds that have never properly healed.

Because these are the people closest to us (in my case, anyway. I recognize I can’t speak for everyone). They know our history more than anyone else; they were present for the majority of it. Odds are, they were the first people we ever attempted to talk to, to approach with the chaos in our minds. And there’s a pretty good chance they were the first people to dismiss our concerns. (Family’s great and all, but they usually screw up) It’s a Mobius Strip that no one ever quite escapes from.

And then your dumb ass gets married.

You DO choose your spouse (most of the time. I’m aware arranged marriages still exist). However, the family that comes with them? Yeah, you don’t get a say there. You’re stuck with whatever hand the Universe feels like dealing you, and not everyone lucks out in the deal. Some do – I won’t deny that. The rest of us come to realize all of those “in-law” tropes exist for a reason. And marriage shackles you to whatever lunatics your spouse is related to TILL DEATH DO YOU PART!

Granted, you have no legal obligations to THEM. (I know – I checked the marriage certificate just to make sure) But suddenly you have ties to more people with ZERO comprehension of your mental tolerances. Not to mention you’re expected to swallow their “quirks,” no matter how badly they scrape at human sensibility. (To say nothing of your anxiety levels) And when they push you over the edge, YOU’RE the problem. (As always – Wow, sounds just like home)

Fucking bullshit.

The family you create over the years, made up of the people who know you, accept you, understand you, and love you ranks above any level of blood relation. Maybe they can’t donate an organ to save your life, but they’ll hold your hand while you go through the transplant and recovery. They’ll cheer you on and bring you soup or saltines or a glass of water while your body copes. They kick your ass when it’s needed, dragging you out of bed and forcing you to get your shit together when you’ve wallowed in too much self-pity. THOSE people are worthy of the “family” label – not the ones who share your name.

That’s not to say you WON’T incorporate genuine family members into that group. I know people out there who love their parents and siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles – you name it. The word “family” needs to mean more than “individuals you’re related to.” It should stand for everything I described above. And if that includes relations, so be it. But, for a lot of people I know, it doesn’t. Because those blood relatives are a major source of the problem.

There are shredded pieces of the Mobius Strip of my immediate family. We’ve worked through some things, but there are a lot of problems that still continue to cycle around and around again, never making a breakthrough. I love them – I never doubt that – and I’ll do anything for them. But my parents…my parents still drive me over the cliff at times. No matter how often I try to explain things to them, they fail to hear me, see me. They circle the outside of my chosen family – because they don’t understand me the way my friends do.

Look at your family. Your REAL family. Don’t let the definition of the word weigh down your shoulders. You have one – everyone does – that’s surrounding you and supporting you and cheering you on. When you shift the way you look at that word, it lightens the burden on your mind. Maybe it IS water running through that family instead of blood. So what? Look at the world around you and all of the things WATER accomplishes.

Someone Else

“I have said that he has the power to deliver a compliment and make it hurt. So, too, he can say something that ought to be insulting and deliver it in such a way that it feels like being truly seen.”

~Holly Black, The Wicked King

You know when someone’s about to say something sweet about you. Their eyes light up, the corners of their lips curve, and a light emanates from their face. Meanwhile, your skin feels like it’s trying to crawl away from you, and your stomach drops out of your body. Your shoulders hunch up around your ears, and you drop your gaze to their feet. Maybe (just maybe) if you avoid eye contact they’ll stop talking.

Nope, too late – they spout that compliment.

Now you’re left standing in an awkward hunch, curled inward and mumbling incoherently in protest. If you’re lucky, the person’s a friend or acquaintance who’ll give you an odd look and move on. If the stars are misaligned, the person’s a boss or superior who’s going to continue to stand there and stare at you – wondering if you suddenly took leave of your senses. Because who in their right mind doesn’t love getting a compliment?

It makes sense, right? Compliments are positive statements made to buoy a person’s ego and heighten their day. The bulk of the population walks around collecting them with a fervor that matches PokemonGO. You can almost see the trophy case they install each statement inside, the time and care they invest in polishing the best ones. Bored? Ask a person to trot out their best compliments, and you’ll get entertained with hours of details and perfect recitations. That’s how normal, functional people behave. Because compliments are GOOD things. They’re meant to be treasured and enjoyed.

And then there’s the rest of us.

People like me treat compliments like bombs. We start hunting for the closest fallout shelter as soon as we detect that upbeat tone of voice. Excuses bubble up from our throats in a desperate attempt to head off those words. Anything, ANYTHING to prevent the other person from speaking. Is there a glass wall nearby we can dive through? A cliff we can jump off? A hole we can fall into? (Laugh if you want, but we honestly look for any escape route we can find) Compliments twist up our minds and bodies into knots, leaving us feeling beaten and broken.

It’s not because we’re wired wrong (although people with depression have that working against them). The problem comes from deeper in our pasts. See, not every compliment is spoken with sincerity. Girls, in particular, like to wield sweetness as a blade. Girls are MEAN (if you aren’t one or haven’t been one, you have no frame of reference). They’ll speak words they don’t mean, then turn around and laugh when you straighten your spine. Over time, your trust breaks. You assume every compliment is a lie, a joke. It’s another way for people to laugh at you behind your back.

So you stop accepting compliments.

Your brain teaches you to curl up in defense. You build walls and seek a way out. And it cripples you down the road. To this day, I flinch at compliments – even from the people I love the most. I look away and turn my head when my fiance’ tells me I look beautiful. (I rarely ask him if I look nice – so I guess he wins there) I cringe when clients praise my work – though I luck out there as most of our communication happens via messaging and email, so they never see. I dismiss family members, insisting they have to say nice things due to the familial bond. Friends? My teeth are always clenched (which is super awesome for my TMJ, incidentally).

I’ve never figured out how to accept a compliment. I parrot the expected “Thank you” in an effort to end the conversation. I scoot away. And in my mind (at least, I hope it’s in my mind), I roll my eyes and dismiss every word. I have never fit in to any group, and so I’ve always found myself the target of jokes. THAT I have no problem accepting (crazy, right?). And so even when a part of me screams that the words are true, I can’t accept them. I make excuses and the rest of my brain tells me it’s just people being polite.

Not a great mindset for someone getting married in 11 days.

People don’t think about the damage they cause with their pranks. And people don’t understand those like us. They think our reaction is rude, egotistical, or backward. Instead of looking beyond our awkward response to the motivation behind it, they sniff and walk away (or question our sanity – always fun). It isn’t fair – on either side. Speaking up and admitting you don’t know how to take a compliment helps. It lets the other person know you’re struggling, and that you’re uncomfortable. If no one says anything, the miscommunication continues. Opening a dialogue can help you lance the wound, at least. Not everyone will get it, but some people do.

There’s nothing WRONG with you. Damage takes time to repair. Hell, I’m still struggling, and I’ve been fighting to fix this problem for YEARS. But knowing that I’m not the only person makes a difference. And even if my brain spends hours arguing after the fact, at least I’m not searching for that bomb shelter anymore.

Big-Brained and Beautiful

For anyone that experienced the same hateful school trauma that I did, raising your hand to answer a question equated to volunteering to stand in front of a firing squad. Not because you didn’t know the answer (only an idiot raises their hand when they don’t know the answer), but because you admitted you DID understand the posed question. QED: you were announcing to the world that you held a glimmer of intelligence.

Big mistake.

Even in my advanced classes, volunteering knowledge and smarts meant setting yourself up for failure. Not in the class (teachers adore a smart kid), but in the jungle that was your peers. It made no sense to me then, and it still doesn’t add up to me now. After all, the stereotypical image is that intelligence is something to be admired and respected. (Okay, maybe not at this moment in this country – in general, though) Posters decorated the hallways proclaiming a need to study, to better yourself, to stand up and nourish your brain cells.

Meanwhile, every time you showed the slightest glimpse of those smarts, your classmates took it upon themselves to beat you into the ground (sometimes literally). Smart wasn’t cool, wasn’t acceptable, and wasn’t tolerated. Again, even the advanced classes had a tolerance threshold, and woe betide you if you dared to cross that line. It was a lesson I learned EARLY:

Never let on how smart you really are.

I intentionally failed tests – including the entrance test for the advanced program. (When you know the correct answers, it isn’t hard to pick the wrong ones. It’s also easy to gauge the rough percentage you need to get wrong to not come off as a complete idiot and arouse suspicions) Of course, I made the mistake of bragging about that particular exploit and got a lecture from my parents (and ended up repeating the test a few years later – without knowing what the test was for. Wonder of wonders, I passed with a startlingly high score). I always made sure I got just enough answers wrong on tests to keep my “A” average but not get 100s all the time.

Except…people still hated me. Because I was still smart. My need to keep my parents happy with straight “A” report cards alienated me from my peers. And when you like the teacher who calls on you? You can’t lie or fumble an answer. (They KNOW you know – it sucks) All of my attempts to hide my brain resulted in an epic fail, and I found myself shunted to the fringes.

Smart people get tarred with a brush of humiliation. Despite the fact that people run around demanding answers all the time, they’d rather listen to YouTube videos or podcasters than those with backgrounds in the topic they’re asking about. Intelligence gets ridiculed, even as they cower in the counter and wonder over the end of the world. It’s the biggest catch-22 in the world, and it’s damaging to those of us with beautiful brains.

You develop this reluctance to speak up. It doesn’t matter that you have the answer or know the solution to a problem. Your entire body seizes up, and you stay silent out a sense of preservation. If you don’t say anything, no one will make fun of you later. (Never mind that they’ll also figure out what’s going wrong; that never seems to occur to them) It’s like existing in a real-life zombie movie where you watch everyone else get picked off, one by one, while you sit there, holding the antidote.

Madness, right?!

For me, college was a breath of fresh air. I had four years where being smart received praise and awe. The people around me shared the same mindset, applauding those who raised their hands and volunteered information. You surged around intelligence and hoped it rubbed off on you – because I wasn’t the smartest kid there. I breathed easy for the first time. And I foolishly thought that enlightened state of mind would carry through to my adult life.

And then my first job introduced me to the Good Old Boys Network. It didn’t matter if I had a better way of doing things; I was a girl trying to step out of bounds and act intelligent. Could I go back to my cube and just do what I was told? No one wanted my opinion. And I definitely wasn’t deemed smart enough to venture changes or improvements. I was a mindless gopher, following instructions. It was a soul-sucking environment.

And leaving Cube Land didn’t make things better. People don’t like it if you try to offer ideas that are smarter than theirs. You get frowns, ridicule, or just steamrolling. “Work smarter, not harder?” Yeah, that phrase has no meaning in the real world. If you attempt to show someone a more reasonable way of doing things, they flounce away as if you’ve insulted their ancestors. And then you find yourself getting shut out by everyone else. It’s school all over again.

And it’s WRONG!

No matter where you are – school, college, work – you have the right to be intelligent. If you’re smart, then SHOW it! I know it won’t gain you any friends (well, except for the rest of us nerds), but trying to cram yourself into that idiot box? First of all, it’s full of insipid morons. They’re lousy company. Second, there’s no room in the damn box because they aren’t smart enough to get in there in a logical manner. So now you’re wedged into an uncomfortable position with a bunch of mouth-breathers? Come on – you deserve better than that.

I hid my brain for a long time, squashing it into a tiny box. I was embarrassed that I was smart. I stopped using some of my vocabulary, shrank into the back of the room, and hunched my shoulders. I let the outside world dictate who I got to be. It took a supreme effort of will to stand up and admit I was SMART. To defend my choice of words in documents. To point out that my way of doing things made more sense than twelve extra steps that accomplished nothing. To accept that I couldn’t tolerate stupid activities – even if it meant losing friends. (That was the biggest kicker, by the way)

Your brain is a gift. I’m not an advocate of reading the news, but if you need proof of how important your intelligence is, skim the headlines some time (especially a paper from Florida). You’ll see how lucky you are NOT to be one of those people. If the rest of the world wants to sneer, let them. When things go to shit (and the way 2020 is going, that’s shaping up as a real possibility), they’ll be the first to go. Your smarts will keep you alive and kicking, figuring things out.

So raise your hand. Speak up with an idea. Ignore the smirks and rolled eyes. Those detractors are zombie-fodder. There’s nothing, NOTHING wrong with being five steps ahead. Don’t let the world dull the shine of your thoughts. Smart is beautiful. Don’t let anyone tell you different.

The Guilt Trap

“Saying no to something is actually much more powerful than saying yes.”

~Tom Hanks

Everyone recite after me: “No means no.” You know that phrase – you practiced it in elementary school. In fact, it followed you all the way up to college (if you attended – no judgement). Teachers, mentors, and counselors applied it to everything from drugs to sexual advances. We proudly stood tall and assured our authority figures we could utter the words in clear tones.

And we do – in THOSE situations.

But get us cornered in an office setting and thrust a giant stack of reports into our arms, and the word “no” disappears from our vocabulary. Confront us with a shift that needs to get covered, and two little letters no longer exist in the alphabet. Ask us to remember to take care of ourselves, to prioritize our health (mental, physical, spiritual) above ANYTHING else, and we wilt and collapse under the pressure.

Epic fail.

Figuring out how to say no violates the guilt centers of our brains. Someone’s approaching and asking (demanding?) assistance, and we’re incapable to backing down. After all, we know no one else is going to step forward. A lot of people with depression, anxiety, or other conditions HATE seeing someone else in distress. We know what it feels like. So we bow our heads and take the burden on ourselves. To the detriment of ourselves, but – hey, we’re used to it. And better us than someone else.

Suddenly, we’ve created a pattern. Everyone learns that we’ll say “yes” to everything. No need to check elsewhere, regardless of the work piled up on our desk. They know the guilt will nibble at our conscience and prompt us to accept ONE MORE task without hesitation. Who cares if we’re dissolving into ill health and crumbling into despair? Just so long as they don’t have to bother with handling something themselves. And we don’t disappoint them.

We just sacrifice ourselves.

Because saying “no” is HARD! You have to fight that disappointment that’s going to flicker over the other person’s face. And you know they’re going to unfurl a guilt trip if you so much as form that hard “n” sound with your mouth. You’ve established a routine of always doing everything they ask. And now you’re daring to refuse? What the hell’s gotten into you? You’re supposed to work yourself into the ground – burn the candle down into a pool of wax!

Figuring out how to stand up for yourself and say “no” takes an effort of will. The first time I refused to accept a shift that needed to be filled, I honestly felt like I was dying. I couldn’t stop sweating, my pulse raced faster than during my hardest HIIT workout, my vision blurred, and I thought I was going to pass out. (Sound familiar? Oh, wait – that’s an anxiety attack!) But I had no choice – my body was beyond its limits. I was in so much pain that BREATHING hurt, and my system was going to take me out one way or another. I knew the refusal was needed for my own safety – and the simple act of saying no made me feel like I was dying! (Dead if I did and dead if I didn’t – such an awesome place to be!)

And my manager made me feel like shit for it. She gave me the worst disappointed look and pointed out that I had always stepped up before. (Talk about pouring salt in a wound!) I had to stand my ground and defend my decision – defend a simple “No!” I had co-workers that lied through their teeth to get out of covering shifts, and they never had to justify their answers. I was coming apart at the seams, and I needed to explain that – because I’d set a pattern of “yes.”

Learning to say “no” might save your life!

I started looking at everything I was asked from that point forward. I took stock of my body and my mental state. And I started saying “no” more often – for ME. Amazingly enough, my health improved. My body recovered, and I spent less time sobbing into my pillow at night. My depression eased up on me, giving me a chance to breathe. I realized I was BURYING myself in all of those “yes” and “sure” responses!

It’s still difficult for me to say “no.” My brain is wired to help and say “yes” to whatever someone asks me. I have to gut-check myself to STOP and look at calendars and think through how things are going. Because sometimes that need to step in still trips me up. And I pay for it.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be there for someone (don’t misunderstand me there). But you have to keep yourself at the top of the list. If you go down, you can’t help ANYONE. If you bury yourself, eventually the dirt’s going to tumble over. No one’s a superhero – much as we want to all try to be. Finding the courage to square your shoulders and say “no” is the smallest act of heroism you can accomplish – for you. Your mind and body will thank you.

For Shame

Photo by Ian on Unsplash

As a kid, I spent my formative years receiving a Catholic upbringing. Every Sunday, we trooped down to church. (So, yes, I’m a familiar with the routine of kneeling and sitting and standing) I even spent a few years at a Catholic school, complete with a uniform and the overriding fear of Mother Superior swooping in on the classroom. I didn’t make my break with organized religion until after college. Which means a hefty indoctrination of healthy Catholic guilt.

And Catholics INVENTED guilt.

While I’ve successfully shrugged off most of the teachings jammed into my head during those early years, breaking that guilt chain hasn’t been so successful. And it’s tempting to blame the religion, but the world, in general, likes to beat you with guilt – especially when they know you’re susceptible to it. It’s like sharks scenting blood in the water. They see you twitch, watch the light in your eyes dim, and they know you’re a prime target for well-placed words or a specific tone of voice. Suddenly, you’re shouldering the blame for things that you barely glanced at. You’re carrying the weight of embarrassment and shame for something blown out of proportion. All for the glee and enjoyment of others.

Guilt serves a purpose. It’s the niggling voice of your conscience reminding you when you’ve screwed up. (And, according to Catholics – you’re always screwing up. Fun times) You SHOULD feel guilty when you fuck up, and you need to make reparations where you can. There’s nothing inherently wrong with guilt, when you think about it. But society has embraced the concept in order to torture people. And some of us are prime targets. We’ll feel regret over ANYTHING.

Bump someone’s coffee mug and cause it to spill? That’s worth a week of apologies and a gift card. (When, in reality, a simple apology and cleaning the mess is all the accident is worth)

Knock over a stack of folders on a desk when you trip? Clearly, you need to devote yourself to that person for the remainder of the month. (Never mind that accidents happen. And, honestly, who balances folders on the edge of a desk like that?)

Forget someone’s name? Oh, that’s the end of the world. You’d better order a bouquet of flowers and grovel for forgiveness. (Because that’s never happened in the entire history of the planet)

People see the shame on your face and seize control.

I speak from experience. I’ve turned myself inside out for every mistake I’ve ever made. I damn-near tack myself up for crucifixion! (To be fair, the Catholics don’t require that anymore) Every single slip-up is nuclear, and I crawl over coals and broken glass. And very few people stop me from doing so. Most add additional obstacles for the glee of the entertainment. They know I feel a bottomless, horrible shame, and they milk every second out of it. Notice a glimpse that I may feel better? Oh, no – time to mutter some choice phrases and knock my anxiety back into the stratosphere where it belongs.

And, ironically, those people feel no guilt over their actions. They consider it justification for the mistake, regardless of how minimal it may have been. It feeds into a loop that wasn’t healthy in the first place. Which makes breaking the cycle difficult, if not impossible. How do you stop feeling like a monster when people treat you like you’re an inch tall because you mispronounced a word?

It’s a wretched sickness.

I have to catch myself now. “Is their reaction appropriate to what I did?” The majority of the time (surprisingly), the answer’s coming up a resounding, “NO!” For my own mental health, I have to learn to apologize and walk away, leaving them and their nasty remarks in the rearview mirror. (Shaking apart the entire time because it’s still not easy to accomplish) I can’t let my guilt swamp up and choke me anymore. Of course, breathing through that gut reaction takes more effort than it should.

Some of us are programmed to accept a heavier burden of shame and embarrassment than others. It’s easier than standing up to someone else and point out their overreaction. When you already believe the worst of yourself, it’s easy. So people take advantage of it. And the loop tightens up – usually around our necks.

But most of those hiccups in the day? They’re nothing. They happen to everyone – including the people dragging out our torture (and you won’t see them groveling). We don’t need to balance a giant block of stone on our shoulders in response. If we stop to think for half a second, we’d realize that. Apologize (feel bad, because it’s an ingrained response), and move on. Don’t let the assholes get to you.

Known and Unknown

“Feelings don’t try to kill you, even the painful ones. Anxiety is a feeling grown too large. A feeling grown aggressive and dangerous. You’re responsible for its consequences, you’re responsible for treating it. But…you’re not responsible for causing it. You’re not morally at fault for it. No more than you would be for a tumor.”

~Patrick Ness, The Rest of Us Just Live Here

When Pixar created the character Fear in Inside Out, I felt an immediate connection. The heightened awareness of everything going on around him. The jittery nerves (with or without coffee – though they clearly made him a caffeine addict). And the mile-high reports on every conceivable outcome for the situations being presented. Even the disbelieving stares of those around him at the more “outlandish” possibilities he listed in the reports. It was anxiety personified, but given a label of “fear” to appeal to every age group.

A little unfair, but not far off the mark.

Fear resides in the heart of anxiety. The tightening spirals we spin down develop out of fears. Ironically, the deeper we get into our whirlpools, the greater those fears become. We start on the fringe with “rational” concerns for every situation we encounter. Then we start to branch out into those possibilities the people around us start laughing at. The kind of things everyone assumes impossible and irrational. (Of course, the way 2020’s been going, I’m not sure how many people are still laughing at us)

It’s hard to interrupt those spirals. People with anxiety are always aware of them. We know when we’re generating our tornadoes. But stopping the process, putting on the brakes and forcing ourselves to breathe…it’s damn near impossible. Trying to do so is like – well, it’s like trying to stop a tornado. What if we overlook something? What if we forget to plan for an eventuality?

Pulses spike, our lungs take in less air, the brain clamps down in the skull, and our body starts shrieking a warning. (We forget to include that possibility. Ironic, right?) Now we’re lying on the floor with people standing over us, staring in shock. And the odds are the situation was minor.

One more time when the spiral won.

I panic over EVERYTHING. I have a 100% satisfaction rating and constant five-star ratings for my writing. Yet each time I turn in an assignment for a new client, I freak out until they respond. And if it’s more than a day, my brain twists in my skull. This is the time my words failed me. The assignment flopped. This client will hate my work and break my streak. I had an off day. I missed an edit that killed the entire article. I’m a complete hack. I’m an utter failure who can’t string one sentence together. It goes on and on until drinking water makes me nauseous. Suddenly, they’re reaching out to my other clients questioning why they’ve hired me.

And then they tell me it’s wonderful, and they’re pleased with my work.

And I repeat the spiral with the next new client. My track record means nothing to my anxiety-fueled brain. Hell, I conjure fifty horrible possibilites for why someone rings the doorbell in the space of walking from my desk to the front door! (It’s usually the postman) And don’t get me started on the phone ringing. I know the gut-check reaction isn’t rational, but trying to stop the flow of concocted possibilites is almost impossible.

While I’m aware elevated cortisol levels aren’t doing my body any favors, I’m pretty sure my system’s adapted to them by now. Let them drop, and I think I’ll crash. (See? The spiral really never stops) However, that cursed way of thinking comes in handy now and then. Thinking of everything means I PLAN for everything. I have a contingency for the bulk of my concerns. (I have no plans for aliens – not yet, anyway) Most people with anxiety work the same way, once they learn their thought patterns. It’s a pseudo-coping method that works with their brain chemistry.

“Okay, we’re going to overreact, but we’re also going to over-respond.”

I rationalize through the fear. It calms the racing pulse, and it keeps my brain from spasming. And it makes me a valuable person to bounce ideas off of. Maybe I come up with situations that aren’t always rational (odds are computers won’t gain awareness and seize control of your company), but most of the contingencies WILL. I can play Devil’s Advocate with the best of them, forcing you to think through things you normally won’t when you’re riding high on a dream. It’s one of the reasons I honestly believe I’ve been so successful in MY dream.

I sat down and wrote through every pitfall. (And at least a dozen that weren’t very likely) With them staring me in the face, I had a chance to think around them. It made stepping off the cliff’s edge easier. It also lessened the tension in my shoulders, around my skull. The practice drives my fiance’ crazy at times, but it gets him thinking. And it’s even made him pause a time or two when I’ve voiced a (real) possibility he didn’t consider. It’s a secret superpower those of us with anxiety have tucked away.

Yes, we’re frustrating. When we tell you we’re concerned about getting mauled by a bear on the subway, we drive you up the wall. But if you take a second to breathe and ask us to think through that statement (and what we can do to avoid it), you’ll steer us AWAY from a deepening spiral. We know the idea’s absurd (we honestly do). We just need help switching tracks in our brain. Figuring out a solution helps. And USING our gift of seeing possible problems when you need to plan – that makes us feel useful.

The spirals are always there. They don’t go away. We see them EVERYWHERE. We just need people to understand them.

Last Tile

Fallen tower of blocks
Photo by Samantha Hurley from Burst

As I’m sure everyone is already aware, September is National Suicide Prevention Month. A month in which people organize walks, share and copy suicide prevention phone numbers, and loudly proclaim their willingness to listen to anyone who might need to talk. It’s one of the months I cringe at having to endure, and I avoid participating in those events at all costs, manufacturing excuses if anyone succeeds in cornering me.

And not for reasons people like to guess.

I don’t promote suicide as an answer to any situation. Speaking as a person who attempted suicide on five separate occasions, I can certify that it doesn’t accomplish anything. (Yes, this would be the first time I publicly acknowledge that fact – lucky you) The desperation and rock bottom level of depression you reach to determine suicide as your only option is something that defies description. It’s something that the people who organize these events have ZERO concept of. And as much as they insist they’ll sit with you through such quagmire, they won’t. Because depression isn’t pretty.

Depression LOOKS pretty on television and in the movies. It’s crying, eating disorders, and closed curtains. It’s skipped social obligations and broken marriages. No one has yet captured the reality, though. Nothing captures the true depths of crushing misery a person undergoes when their mind twists in on itself and pummels every part of themselves. It’s a suffocating tar pit that sucks you down, pulling you tighter with every tiny movement. You’re fighting a person who actually knows everything about you – YOURSELF.

And you LOSE.

Friends claim they’ll sit with you while you abuse your image. They say they’ll support you as you brutalize yourself. But they get tired. They can’t endure the days, weeks, and even months as you struggle against the image in the mirror. It gets OLD for them. They don’t want to put up with it. “Can’t you just be happy already?” It’s tiring, and it saps their energy. So they drift away. They find excuses (sound familiar?) to skip being in your presence. Your depression infects them, and they escape to preserve themselves.

Good news: the guilt from that knowledge buries you deeper.

Suddenly, saving everyone from the monster you are sounds like a good idea. Ending the burden you’ve become feels like an answer. You’ve proven that sickening voice correct: no one wants to be around you. No one wants anything to do with you, and they’ll be better off without you. It feeds into the dark loop playing in your mind. Instead of helping, their failure to understand the twisted logic of depression has created the very problem they said they’d solve.

The world doesn’t like depression. They roll their eyes at anything that isn’t bright and cheerful. You’ll even get called out for pessimism. “Why can’t you just be positive?” I faced cold reality at my previous job when I was informed my subtle cries for help “made people uncomfortable.” I was told I needed to stop.

No concern, no sympathy – I was clearly the problem, upsetting others.

Yet there’s all this shock when someone succeeds. People wonder how they “never noticed” or “never knew anything was wrong.” As if the world hasn’t created a place where asking for help, showing we need help isn’t strictly forbidden. Rose-colored glasses encourage you to see NOTHING. And you thrust them at us as if it will make that soul-sucking pit go away. Newsflash: a rose-colored pit full of spikes and slime is still a pit of spikes and slime.

It’s taken me 25 years to reach the point I’m at now. That’s 25 years of being thrown to psychologists that wanted to know why I hated my parents so much (clearly, attempting to end my life was about them and not me). A full 25 years of weighing whether or not to tell friends, boyfriends I had depression, and watching many turn their backs on me. I endured horrific medications that destroyed my body, and then suffered through cold withdrawal when I realized they weren’t worth it. I learned to drag myself back from the edge on my own, facing and fighting those demons every moment of every day. When I failed, I learned to keep my head above the muck, breathing until I could find a way to climb out of the pit again. I finally found someone I could talk to – someone who WOULD sit with me through pure hell, regardless of how long it took. Someone who gently deflected every incorrect phrase that came out of my mouth (not contradicting them, just turning them aside – something that monster hasn’t figured a way around yet).

25 years, in which I wanted to die 5 times.

Even I know those aren’t the best odds. I’ve hidden my struggles. I’ve put on the positive face people want to see while falling apart inside. Despite the cutting remarks people made, I’ve held my head up high. It’s what we do. So you can stand up and look shocked and say, “I had no idea” down the road.

The walks? The events? The fundraisers? I’m not trying to burst bubbles, but they’re not going to fix the problem. You fix the problem by opening your eyes. By not getting fatigued with us. By MEANING it when you say you’ll be there. By doing your homework and learning what depression means in the first place. By picking up on subtle cues and derailing our thought processes before we end up in the sludge. You help us more by earning our trust (and KEEPING it) than walking a thousand miles. By being friends and stepping in when we need you than telling us to go outside and get sunshine. (I could be in the fucking tropics, and it ain’t going to do shit, people – STOP making that suggestion!)

You help by opening your eyes and your ears. Not by opening your wallet.

More Bees with Honey than Fire

“There’s a way to do it better – find it.”

~Thomas Edison

In less than two months, I’m getting married. (Yes, in the middle of a plague – exactly as I dreamed) I had grand plans for that day, none of which included a now four-month hiatus from my typical workout routine due to a freak orthopedic injury. (With me, there’s nothing other than freak conditions) Four months (going on FIVE) of little more than physical therapy translated into some weight gain.

PRECISELY what I wanted prior to my WEDDING!

I’ve discussed my on-going battle with body issues. I’d love to say they evaporated with the impending knowledge of countless pictures in a wedding gown, but I’m not a liar. Can you say “daily meltdowns?” I’ve harrassed my physical therapist for weeks to let me go back to kickboxing, knowing it’ll burn the most calories. He’s firmly refused. The most I’ve received permission for is walking and LIGHT exercise.

What’s a girl to do?!

After breaking down in a monumental way (and considering bludgeoning my fiance’ with the scale when he mentioned how much weight he’s lost through quarantine), I reached out to a friend who coaches an exercise program. Turns out barre doesn’t irritate my stupid hip excessively. It doesn’t grant the calorie burn of my beloved HIIT kickboxing, but it ranks above walking around the neighborhood.

I was hesitant about agreeing to the program. (Ticking clock and fucking bathroom scale and all) See, I’ve been down this road before, and it was the worst experience of my life. Not because of the exercise or diet – those are nothing big. No, it boiled down to the way the program decided to motivate you. Because, let’s face it, exercise doesn’t work without motivation. Eating right doesn’t happen without motivation. And while I’m the first to admit everyone reacts to prodding in different ways, I firmly believe there’s a right way to do it and a WRONG way.

The majority of people don’t join such programs because they like the way they look. No, we HATE some aspect of ourselves. Maybe it’s everything. Or it could just be our knees, our legs, our arms. Whatever – something needs work. For people like me, if you gave us the chance to blow the whole thing up and start again, we’d sign on the line. Depression has corrupted the way we view ourselves in the mirror. Society reinforces that twisted sight every day, crushing us under constant negativity.

Fucking heaven forbid you even LOOK at a doughnut!

So why the hell would you FORCE such people to post images of themselves? Why would you claim that it’s a NEED in order to improve and lose weight? How does that accomplish anything? As one of those people, let me clarify loud and clear, it does the complete OPPOSITE! It motivates me to throw on as many layers of clothing as possible and hide in a corner. Because even the THOUGHT of someone else seeing such an image throws my anxiety into overdrive. I can HEAR the laughter and ridicule. And now I need a banana split to soothe my sobbing psyche.

You don’t motivate people that way. That’s something people need to make a choice about on their own. When they feel safe, confident, proud. People may NEVER feel that way, depending on how their brain is wired. Being a Nazi about things and barking orders and demands is not how you motivate everyone. It doesn’t uplift people who are more fragile. Some of us have trauma buried inside, and the nasty edge pushes us further into our walls. It’s never going to bring us out.

And when I dared to speak up, I got slapped in the face for it.

The usual pattern I’d come to expect. Disheartening isn’t a strong enough word. And then, throughout this summer, I had to sit and watch my fiance’ enganging with my kickboxing crew without me. THEY are an example of how to motivate properly. Probably why it hurt so much. Instead of beating people down or barking at them, they encourage the best in a person. They never ask for more than you have to give. They’ve built up a determination and belief in myself I didn’t realize I had (which is why I didn’t completely crash after the Nazi bitch got ahold of me).

My fiance’ started going to classes while I was in physical therapy. He felt it lessened the blow to me, eased my depression. I got supportive messages from the class instructors, telling me they missed me, and asking how things were going. I WANTED to hear those encouraging words in every class. I still want to be there, to get the drive to be better than I was the last class. They’re always beside us, working with us. The message is positive, affirming, and when you can’t do something, there’s a reassurance you’ll get there. The motivation is 100 times better.

But I’m not allowed back yet, not for at least another month.

Imagine my fear and terror at trying another exercise program. My hands were shaking when I talked with my friend. I had to force my teeth not to clench. My stomach was so nauseous, I had to consider reaching for one of my precious stock of Zofran. (Can we say trauma reaction?) I was ready for more of the same. But I needed some kind of framework. Trying to piece things together on my own wasn’t working. I told myself I trusted her.

My trust paid off. The positive motivation mirrors what I get from kickboxing. There’s no demand for anything. There’s gentle encouragement, promises that if I can’t balance today, I will down the road. (I want to laugh since my ankles are atrocious, but it’s nice to hear) It’s the kind of motivation someone with a fragile body image needs to hear. No threats that if I don’t do something, I’ll fail. Just encouragement to keep trying. No demands that I cut this, this, and this from my diet. Suggestions on what to eat, and if I happen to have a cupcake, it’s not the end of the world.

I get to be a human being. And I’m acknowledged as a human being. Better, I’m seen as a human being with bruises and tender spots. I don’t have to be a brick wall bracing for the cannon ball. To me, that makes all of the difference.