mental health

Hiccups

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

Until we trip on a branch and sprain our ankle.

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

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

Clearly, you’re a useless idiot.

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

All from ONE little stumble!

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

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

And I bought it!

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

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

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

Can you overcome the hurdle?

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

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

mental health

Scripted in Stone

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

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

~Andrea Gibson, The Madness Vase

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

So, yeah, funny.

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

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

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

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

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

The light bulb went off.

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

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

And how many lose the fight?

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

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

mental health

Being Unavailable

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

Is your hand up?

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

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

Newsflash: It doesn’t.

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

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

I had ZERO boundaries!

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

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

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

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

It’s exhausting!

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

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

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

mental health

Cracked Vessels

“What is grief if not love persevering?”

~WandaVision

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

And this year? It’s a winner.

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

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

Because grief doesn’t go away.

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

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

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

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

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

Stop asking people to let go of grief.

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

mental health

A Thousand [Wrong] Words

My Wedding Picture

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

Harsh or just realistic?

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

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

So I developed bad behaviors.

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

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

Because you can spend HOURS hating it!

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

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

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

And I changed my mind about pictures.

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

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

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

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

mental health

The Pause Button

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

~Taylor Swift

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

There’s another peak hiding in the mist.

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

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

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

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

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

Same mountain, different view.

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

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

mental health

Left, Right, Wrong

Choices of your integrity are difficult
Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

Some decisions in life are simple: “Do you want a piece of cake?” Of course you do. (Who says no to cake?) Others feel like life or death situations, even if they aren’t: “Want to come to the party?” (Okay, so some people find that an easy decision to make. But introverts agonize over it) Every day, you come across multiple points where you need to decide to go one way or another on a situation. And, for the most part, you feel good about your choices. But then you have those moments where you find yourself confronted with a crisis of conscious. Someone lays a concept out at your feet that tears at your sense of self, your integrity, and everything you believe in.

Now what do you do?

Actually, let me increase the odds a little. That person holding the cards out to you? They aren’t the average individual off the street. Nope. You’re looking at a manager, a client, someone with genuine authority. They possess the ability to influence your job, livelihood. The decision you make will follow you throughout your career, probably the remainder of your life. And that person? Isn’t interested in YOUR ethics or beliefs. They have their own agenda to advance.

Gets the anxiety going, doesn’t it? You can feel your heartbeat speeding up. And is it getting harder to breathe? You may as well have been handed an active bomb and asked to defuse it – with no training or knowledge of how to do so. (Oh, and there aren’t any red wires – in case you wanted to hope Hollywood gets it right) Do you follow what YOU know is right? Or do you fall in line like a good little sheep? Can you look yourself in the mirror if you break with your integrity? Can you stand up straight and face the consequences if you refuse?

And NOT making a decision? Not an option.

I know it sounds like the plot of a novel or movie, but this happens ALL THE TIME. And it crops up in every field. People present you with tasks that make your spine lock up. Every part of your mind and body say, “No!” as you stare at their face and visualize your “permanent record.” (You know, that thing that isn’t visible but somehow manages to exist) Your brain starts whirring a million miles a minute, arguing back and forth, while your palms sweat and your stomach turns. How much is your integrity worth? What value can you assign to it?

I’ve felt so afraid of reprisals when this happened. Actually, let me rephrase that: I FEEL so afraid of reprisals when this HAPPENS. And that sick sensation? I get it regardless of WHICH side I choose. Because on the one hand, I’m going against what I feel is right. On the other? I’m terrified I’m going to lose a job. You know the phrase, “damned if you do, damned if you don’t?” Yeah, very apropos for this situation. Which doesn’t necessarily make a person feel better.

But I’ve learned that holding the line on my integrity? That matters MORE.

And I know, for some people, the decisions I’ve made seem “simple.” A lot of the time, they were sales-type issues. Encouraging visitors to purchase photos when they were in the lorikeet station. Despite the fact I knew full-well no one wanted to pay for pictures they could take themselves. And after two days of coming home sick to my stomach? I stopped. I walked around with the camera untouched around my neck, even offering to take photos for other people. And I had fellow interns report me, received a lecture from my mentor about salesmanship (I have NEVER been a salesperson) – and wasn’t assigned to that rotation for the remainder of the summer. (Secretly, I wasn’t disappointed. Lorikeets view interns as personal chew toys – and I loathe birds in the first place)

Or when a manager made up cards for us to hand out to clients, encouraging them to give us five-star reviews. She was obsessed with our rankings on Google, Yelp, and Facebook. And she wanted as many positive reviews as possible. Personally, I believe people will write the reviews they feel, without any prompting or incentive. So, despite getting an entire box handed to me, I never delivered one. The box remained untouched in the drawer beside my computer. It meant frowns whenever I was asked how many I had left. And every meeting? A lecture on how our reviews sat. I’d say I felt bad about my decision, but I didn’t. At least the people that DID choose to go to those ranking sites did so of their free will (well, some of them did, anyway). I wasn’t pushing people to artificially inflate a score.

Recently? I found myself with an article that runs counter to knowledge I have. I started and stopped it at least six times, trying to match the tone of similar pieces. But that sick feeling wouldn’t go away. Was I really going to write BAD information? All of my background and first-hand experience, and I was going to toss it away for fear that my client might get upset? What mattered more? My integrity – displayed with my bio on the bottom of the page? Or following a popular trend? I decided my integrity, my NAME counted for more. So I wrote an honest article. And this isn’t the first time, either. I worked in the veterinary field for ten years. That means I’ve witnessed PLENTY of genuine science. Things other writers don’t know or grasp. And I’m not afraid to buck the system and tell readers the truth – even when it’s not popular.

You have to make your choice.

Is it scary as hell to look at those two sides and pick? You bet. And, as I said, it doesn’t matter which way you go, you end up feeling nauseous and horrible. But DEEP down, when you hold to your integrity, you BREATHE. There’s no compromise on who you are and what you believe. Instead, you draw a line in the sand that you refuse to cross. And, in the grand scheme of things, that stands for more than making someone in authority proud.

Your voice shakes when you tell that person you can’t go against yourself. Hell, your whole BODY shakes. And while they frown, lecture, and carry on, SOMEONE out there admires your inner strength. Your ability to maintain integrity goes on your permanent record, too. Maybe that person feels it’s a negative, but someone down the road will view it as a positive. And THAT’S what you need to remember. YOU need to view it as an accomplishment. Instead of losing something, you retained an important piece of yourself. Do you know how difficult that is? People fail to do so ALL THE TIME. They fall in line without a second thought. But when you choose you, your integrity? You win.

mental health

A Million Little Pills

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

~Mark Zusak, The Book Thief

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

It’s about the dominos those regulations have tumbled.

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

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

“Have you tried Advil/Tylenol?”

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

“Have you tried Advil/Tylenol?”

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

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

“Have you tried Advil/Tylenol?”

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

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

“Have you tried Advil/Tylenol?”

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

“Have you tried Advil/Tylenol?”

mental health

Roar

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

Even today – NOW – women STRUGGLE with social standards.

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

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

Women are EQUAL to men!

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

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

It HAS to stop.

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

And I said NOTHING.

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

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

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

mental health

Hiding Away

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

~Ernest Hemingway

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

Then there’s the rest of us.

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

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

Two lessons in sleep FAILURE.

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

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

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

Hiding? Doesn’t work.

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

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