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.

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.

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.

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.

The “Nothing” Trap

“Don’t underestimate the value of Doing Nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.”

~ A. A. Milne

Everything in your mind and body rests in complete peace. For the first time today (maybe this week), you can think straight. There’s no surge of excess adrenaline coursing through your veins, making you jittery and anxious. You’re not spiraling through endless loops of self-critical statements. It’s a perfect, crystal-clear moment where you and the world come together and recognize one another. Which is when a voice in the back of your mind starts screaming out an alarm:

Holy shit! You’re doing NOTHING!

And thus ends that fragile moment of perfection. Anxiety starts pumping panic into your system, and you jump up to pace. You look around you to count how many people noticed your slacking. The self-recrimination kicks in. How DARE you sit down and do nothing? You lazy bum! What the hell were you THINKING?! (Oh, right – you weren’t) A frantic search ensues to find something – anything – to do so you don’t find yourself permanently labeled a slacker. Even if NO ONE ELSE IS AROUND.

Meanwhile, the happiness and calm your mind and body found shatters into little pieces. Your poor system tries to figure out what happened. Because that moment of nothing? You NEEDED it! You WERE accomplishing something, however invisible. Sitting in the quiet let your system recharge and reset. It dropped the excess levels of unneeded chemicals in your body. For the first time in who knows how long, you listened to yourself.

Doing nothing matters!

Unfortunately, doing nothing carries a nasty stigma. Only lazy people slack off and laze about with nothing to do. They’re bums without ambition or drive. No one wants that image attached to them. Productive people constantly move forward, checking off lists. Time to sit around? Obviously you lead an easy life. People set up a ridiculous competition of who has more to do. And if you happen to mention that you have an open slot in your schedule, you’re the envy – but NOT in a good way.

So we adopt this programming. And when we doze off in the afternoon, or binge an entire television series in a weekend, we cringe and abuse ourselves for doing so. The fact that we NEEDED that down time? Doesn’t matter. We find a reason to dose ourselves with guilt for doing nothing. (And don’t you dare TELL anyone you slacked off! Sacrilege!) It’s a secret embarrassment we carry around.

I still struggle with the “nothing” trap. Most weekends, I’m barely awake. Why? Because I push myself so much during the week that my system crashes. And even though I KNOW that’s what’s going on, I batter myself for doing nothing. I should be getting chores done. There are projects I could work on. ANYTHING to achieve productivity. But constantly dozing on the couch? That’s what a lazy person does.

Or, you know, a person trying to recuperate.

Doing nothing is OKAY. You put in energy, resources, and mental strength minute after minute ALL THE TIME. If you find yourself with free time, park your ass and DO NOTHING. Let everything fall down. The world won’t end (I promise – it hasn’t yet). And DON’T lecture yourself when you do. You need those empty moments. They’re what keep you strong. Without the empty quiet, you’ll fall apart. Which benefits NO ONE.

It’s time to break out of the “nothing” trap. Embrace your down time. Celebrate it and treasure it. View those empty moments for what they are: the recuperation of your mind and body. And if people say anything or make comments, ignore them. Because, honestly – for all their talk – you know they park their ass on the couch and DO NOTHING themselves. They just don’t want to admit it.

Circling the Sun

Congratulations: if you went exist on this planet, you have a birthday. It’s one of those inane things you’re awarded or arbitrarily assigned – whether you like it or not. The Earth makes it around the sun one more time, with you attached. Woo-hoo. The reality is you survived for one more cycle around the sun, which may or may not be worth celebrating.

And whether you want to or not, you damn-well better celebrate!

Birthdays were created by the card industry. (I’d say Amazon had a hand in there, too, but I know they didn’t exist back then) It’s an inane and preposterous ritual that’s only enjoyed by certain people. For everyone else, it’s another day on the calendar, and it represents nothing more than dread and aggravation.

Surprise, surprise: I hate my birthday. And it isn’t the getting older bit, either. Everyone has to do that, whether they choose to mark the occasion with a celebration or not. (Getting older is mandatory, acting older is optional) It’s the stigma that comes attached to the day that’s always tainted the word and everything I associate with it.

Birthdays are for spoiled people.

I was the weird kid who always moved around, so I was the one left off birthday lists. Or I was the one included so they had someone to make fun of (an important guest at parties, particularly for girls). Then I was just the kid who never fit in, so I wasn’t wanted around. I read too much. I didn’t care about trends. I refused to make fun of other people. I didn’t lie. The list went on and on, and so no one wanted me at their birthday parties. And they sure as hell didn’t want to come to mine. “Birthday” turned into a hateful word.

Things didn’t improve into my adult years. I dared to let anticipation build that something wonderful might happen. Then something nice. Finally, that something wouldn’t go wrong. Disappointments piled up until I decided crossing the day off the calendar was easier than facing it. Why get excited over a day that reminded me of misery and abuse? Oh, sure, I wasn’t dead – and? I didn’t die the day before or the day after, either. In fact, I was still alive the MONTH after, and no one made a big deal then. Why make any noise over it on one day and not another?

Hell, for people with depression, EVERY day you’re alive is an accomplishment.

Yet no one sees the cringes when they start asking what I want to do. People remain upbeat and excited when asking where I want to go to dinner. They expect a certain level of enthusiasm as the day approaches. While I duck my head and plan to work as always. As I grit my teeth enough to break my jaw. And find time to hide where they can’t find me.

If you enjoy your birthday and look forward to it – good for you. But don’t expect the same of everyone. Not everyone has the same programming or memories. There are people that see their birthdays approaching like the Apocalypse. And berating them DOESN’T help. Let people feel the way they want. If they want to stay upset, if they want to skip gaudy celebrations, let them – WITHOUT JUDGEMENT!

Frankly, I wish the people around me would figure that out. It sure beats my trying to find fake enthusiasm to keep them from digging at me for weeks.

A Fool’s Performance

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

~Mark Zusak, The Book Thief

People attach expectations to different times of the year. When the new year shows up, they brim with (false) optimism for the future. Everything is supposed to be shiny and new, and you need to have a brightened outlook for the horizon. Smile and bounce on your toes, cheering on this “new” future that finally arrived. (Let’s discount the fact that all that actually happened was the Earth circled the sun one more time – something it’s managed to do for millions of years…without any assistance from us) And if you DARE to do less than cheer and get excited, you find yourself inundated with memes and treacle-laced sayings encouraging you to get on the bandwagon.

Because, of course, the majority knows best.

There’s no admission that it’s okay if you can’t manage to feel positive. Maybe you’re feeling frightened about something going on. Right now, COVID-19 is still raging out of control. Numbers continue to climb, medical professionals are exhausted and no longer receiving the support and love they got at the beginning of the pandemic, and the vaccine is trickling out. (I won’t get into the fact that the vaccine will take time to go to work) People have died, are dying, and will continue to die. Others survived, but they’re struggling with long-term complications – some of which doctors are puzzling over. That’s overwhelming for people, and it’s scary. But if they dare to speak up, others shush them and tell them to focus on the positive. Their fears are marginalized or discounted entirely.

Nope – Just keep smiling!

Perhaps you’re still struggling with depression lingering from the holidays. Or simply fighting to get out of the pit, in general. That dark shadow shows up unannounced and without warning. You could look at the horizon and see nothing to feel good about. Whispers in your mind could be telling you you’re stuck in the same rut as always. You know this will pass, and you’re fighting, but, right now, smiling and optimism are too much to ask. And those mindless idiots can’t comprehend that. Oh, no – the future’s shining bright with possibility – can’t you see it?

Get out in the sunshine – it’ll fix everything!

This moronic insistence on being happy and positive simply because it’s the new year is damaging. People need be allowed to feel how they feel – and supported for those feelings. Discounting the emotions in favor of forced cheerfulness is damaging. Sometimes things AREN’T bright with possibility. And whatever idiot dreamed up the notion that you can WILL good things to happen should have been drawn and quartered. Because I seriously doubt the people who died from COVID-19 or lost their jobs during lockdown willed that to happen. (You won’t convince me positivity is willed and negativity is not. All things in balance, people)

Feel how you want to feel. Give the emotions a voice. And if people try to shut you down and throw those clichés down your throat, ignore them. Odds are they’re trying to paint over their own true feelings in the first place.

I LOATHE odd-numbered years. I didn’t step into 2021 feeling bright, cheery, or optimistic. I braced myself for a bomb going off. I’m not saying that I expect everything to go wrong (I’ve had good things happen this week), but I’m not smiling or sharing positive messages everywhere. Hell, I’ve already received word I need surgery, and we’re not even a week into the first month!

Admit the way you feel.

Forced cheer won’t help you feel better. I look at friends who are trying to say they’re frightened or sad, and in tromp the Pep Squad. And when I push to encourage them to vent and pour out their feelings, those Pom Poms descend like glitter bombs. It’s a tragedy. You DON’T have to be happy. You DON’T have to feel optimistic. So what if it’s the beginning of the year? It’s a day on a calendar – nothing more. Feel how you want to feel. Being true to yourself matters more than keeping those idiots happy.

Annual Madness

No more New Year's Resolutions
Photo by freestocks.org from Pexels

New Year’s Resolutions. Quite possibly three of the most disgusting words in the English language. Seriously – does hearing that phrase ever make anyone smile? No. People cringe, make excuses to duck out of the conversation, or dissolve into tears. And yet the concept circulates this time of year with the same fervor and insanity as the other holidays.

Pure madness!

Because let’s be honest: how many people keep those ridiculous resolutions? Actually, let’s go back further than that. How many people set reasonable expectations for themselves in the FIRST place? No one. Alcohol, leftover holiday treats, and an abundance of positively-worded memes on social media inflate a person’s ego and set their imagination on fire. Fiction starts flowing from their fingertips that would shock speculative authors.

  • “Lose 500 pounds?”
  • “Get 6 promotions?”
  • “Become independently wealthy in 3 months?”
  • “Marry a billionaire?”

Oh, sure, perfectly rational and obtainable goals.

The brain checks out, locked behind a soundproof barrier while some primal force takes over. People write out pure garbage and proudly share their fantasies with the world. The list gets posted somewhere prominent – so you can slowly cave in on yourself throughout the year as reality sets back in. Months tick by, and you start to realize how unrealistic of a bar you set for yourself. Anxiety creeps in, reminding you that the clock’s speeding up.

You told everyone you’d be a champ by now, but you’ve barely scratched the surface. A 5K? You can’t even jog to the end of the driveway. A raise? Your boss just implemented salary cuts throughout the department. You’re scrambling to meet your fatalistic deadline and hitting a brick wall. And now depression crawls in. Because you know you’re going to fail. There’s absolutely no way you’ll succeed. (And you shouldn’t feel bad – NO ONE would achieve such impossible dreams, even with every drop of luck on their side)

December rolls around, and you’ve shredded that list, burying it in the backyard (or you burned it). But now everyone’s forcing a cheerful note into their voice and asking how you did. They’re acting like they’re any different – disguising the fact they failed just as epically. And you want to crawl into a hole rather than admit you didn’t check a single box. Misery wraps around you, inviting that feeling of failure.

Which is STUPID!

You never stood a chance! You weren’t thinking straight when you made those resolutions! (Actually, you weren’t thinking PERIOD) You had grandiose plans the Avengers would fail to accomplish. But trying to convince yourself of that? Hard to do when you’re sinking into a pit of depression. Instead, you look at the calendar and DO THE SAME THING ALL OVER AGAIN!

STOP THE MADNESS!

New Year’s Resolution are pure evil, and I, personally, don’t make them. I used to. I used to participate in this endless spiral of insanity. I made grandiose plans, failed, and felt foolish and embarrassed. Everyone bounced up to me after Christmas, asking how I did on my resolutions, and I made excuses to get out of the conversation. Obviously, I didn’t publish a novel. (No one publishes a novel in one year – not with a major company when they’re brand new to the scene) And I clearly wasn’t a size 0 (nor will I ever be – duh). Oh, and that winning lotto ticket? Yeah, the odds weren’t in my favor.

It took me a long time to finally LOOK at the resolutions I was writing out and realize they were absurd. I wasn’t expecting anything REAL out of myself. I was demanding tasks of myself Hercules couldn’t accomplish. And then I was berating myself for failing – for no good reason! If you set that bar on Mount Everest, how can you expect yourself to pole vault it? Especially if you’ve never pole vaulted in your life? Idiotic madness!

So I stopped making resolutions. Because I knew I wasn’t capable of asking REASONABLE of myself. It’s easy to think you can, that you can apply thought and rationality to yourself, but when you’ve established a pattern? Nope. (Trust me – I tried one year)

And now? Now this time of year isn’t the nightmare it used to be. And if I accomplish something during the year it’s a delightful surprise. I can work toward something because I WANT to, not because I have a list taped on a wall with a deadline. It takes that anxiety off my shoulders.

Sure, I get weird looks from people when they ask about my resolutions. But at least I’m not lying the way they are. And I leave a new year breathing easily. Which means I enter a new year the same way. Feels a lot better to me.

The Other F-Word

“Failure doesn’t define you. It’s what you do after you fail that determines whether you are a leader or a waste of perfectly good air.”

~Sabaa Tahir, A Torch Against the Night

One year ago, I hit the lowest point I’ve achieved yet. Turns out that pit of muck has a deeper level, one devoid of branches, vines, or anything remotely resembling a ladder. And the closest you get to a glimpse of light is a tiny pinprick that Depression insists might be a trick of the mind. It’s cold, you don’t want to move, and shutting out the endless cycle of abusive statements playing through your head? Impossible. And while I kept hoping my toe might touch a firm stone foundation at some point, it never did. I just kept sinking deeper and deeper – further and further into abject misery and self-hatred.

The perfect holiday mood.

Torn down to pieces by people I trusted, faith stripped away in moments, I found myself confronted by abject failure. I felt less than a millimeter tall, and I wanted to disappear. Everything fell apart, and I ended up adrift. No plan, no ideas, no comprehension. Just a mountain’s worth of self-doubt, humiliation, and the certainty that I’d never crawl out of that pit ever again.

No one enjoys failing. It doesn’t matter if you struggle against chemical imbalances in your brain or not. Perfectionist or casual seat-of-the-pants mind set – failure throws you off your game. You hit a solid brick wall, and it HURTS in every possible way. You find excuses to avoid discussing the issue with your friends and family. You look at your resume and try to invent creative ways to disguise the blip. You break out a thesaurus and write out long passages to cover the gaffe in your experiment. All while you curl up in a ball inside, wincing and flinching.

Mental, emotional, physical: failure checks every box.

Unfortunately, fails hit some of us harder than others. Yeah, I feel like every failure in my life was the end of the world. Realistic? Maybe not. (Okay, obviously not since I’m still here, but we know convincing my brain takes extra work) Those moments opened every door and window to my depression and a FLOOD of voices swept in. Statements I haven’t even heard before slammed into my head, causing me to shrink down tighter and tighter. The fact that last year came out of left field, consisted of multiple lies, and snapped several bonds of trust? Yeah, talk about an internal meltdown. Every safety net broke like a spiderweb in a hurricane.

Honestly? I was convinced this was the failure that was going to take me down for good. I saw no way out. (Not to mention ruining my holidays) Clearly, I was a useless, worthless human being. I had no future. Nothing I attempted to do would matter, because everything I touched was shit and would turn to shit. (And while people tried to convince me otherwise, failure and depression DON’T mix!)

I’m not gonna lie: it took me almost four months to figure out how to get out of the pit. FOUR MONTHS to silence the voices, to cobble together the mud and muck into a ramp I could crawl up. And the fear of failure? It hasn’t left – not once since then. It hovers over my shoulder every time I decide to send in a proposal or accept a new contract. I’m constantly terrified that I’m going to fail and destroy everything again.

I can hear you from here: “Wait, WHAT?!”

I know: you wanted an answer on defeating failure and moving on to success. That’s the thing, I don’t have the solution. Have I succeeded since I decided to stop going down the wrong path? Of course. Have I smashed every goal I set for myself this year? You bet. But did I shake that vise of failure for even a moment? I don’t think so. (Other people might disagree, and I’m sure they’d lecture me)

I still made mistakes this year. And, in my head, I’m still a screw-up. Coming into December, my body cringed in on itself. Every muscle, every nerve, every cell remembered, and it went into protective mode. My mind collapsed in on itself, and each day has been harder and harder to get up, to function, to keep going. It feels like permanent damage, like some twisted PTSD (please don’t lecture – I know it’s not, and I’m not making light of the condition).

I look at my white board calendars, covered in assignments, and try to remind myself of how far I’ve come. I scroll through my list of completed assignments – well over 150 for the year – and encourage my brain to cheer. I tell myself, “You’re not a failure. Look what you’ve accomplished in eight months!” But the shadow continues to perch on my shoulder and whisper in my ear. And I’m not sure it’ll ever go away.

Does it mean I’m going to give up? No. I’m determined to keep it at bay. To fight against the fear it engenders. And – somewhere, buried deep inside the anxiety – I have no intention of letting that failure define me. Which means forward momentum. Is that an answer? For me. It’s a better solution than drowning in that pit, at any rate.

Blue Christmas

Between Thanksgiving and the start of the New Year, there are fourteen celebrations that take place among different belief systems. (Which comes as a shock to a lot of people with narrowly-focused minds – not that it changes anything) Some have solemn, dignified practices. Others are boisterous and loud. And a few mix those emotions together. The majority, though, concentrate on a singular theme of family, togetherness, and reflection.

Beautiful, right?

For most people, it is. The vast majority count down the days to their holiday with anticipation and excitement. Halloween barely makes it out the door before they start planning decorations, meals, and gifts. (Okay, so I’m leaning heavily on Christmas here. I honestly can’t say I’ve encountered anyone going overboard on Chanukah or Kwanzaa decorations) They pummel you daily (hourly), asking if you’ve finished your shopping, your baking, your cards. You can see the phrenetic energy coming off them, making you wish you had some kind of force field or protective bubble to hide in. Because those people drain YOUR energy and heighten your anxiety the longer you spend in their presence.

Because the holidays AREN’T always happy and joyous occasions for everyone. Those same messages of family, friendship, and togetherness become reminders for people who are struggling with those very concepts. The enforced joy and happiness hammer at people struggling with their depression. And that constant badgering? Not so great for people with anxiety. (Seriously, how are you supposed to feel getting asked the same question every two seconds?!)

But denying the holidays? Sacrilege!

If you attempt to crawl away from the lights and garland and tinsel (fucking tinsel gets EVERYWHERE – it’s worse than glitter), people stare and shame you. Because who hates holidays? They can’t take a moment to listen and realize that there are underlying issues at play. That overwhelming cheer makes you feel WORSE. That you possibly aren’t on speaking terms with your family (or maybe you don’t HAVE family – 2020 took a lot of them away). Or – craziest of all – perhaps you celebrate differently from them.

WHAT?!

I’ve walked a careful balance for almost two decades now. Since I broke with my upbringing and elected to follow a different belief system from my family, I’ve encountered a lot of stubbornness, ugliness, and ignorance. Which sucks the joy right out of the holidays. And when I dare to point out the pagan origins of A LOT of those people’s habits, they REALLY get nasty. It makes me not want to participate in the first place.

The approach of the holidays equates to stress, anxiety, depression, and misery, for me. It means waiting for endless questions, hearing the same spouted nonsense (for crying out loud – “Happy Holidays” is not a “liberal cop out” – I’m being polite and respecting the fact that I have no idea what you might celebrate!), and rolling my eyes so much I get a headache. I spend more time crying during the holidays than I do the rest of the year.

And I know I’m not alone.

I think, if everyone stopped for FIVE SECONDS, and looked around at everyone around them, things might be different. STOP forcing a bright, cheery demeanor on these weeks. TALK to those around you – find out what’s going on in their minds. LISTEN to people about their beliefs, and maybe learn about a different culture and celebration for once. Take moments out to BREATHE, in peace and quiet with no one around. If you have to, tell people to go away so you can gain those moments (they’ll survive).

And, if you need to, feel bad during the holidays. You’re entitled to your emotions and what’s going on in your mind. Never let anyone tell you differently. Because, when you get down to it, they’re just one more day.