The Neverending Battle

Perfection, to me, means you spend much too much time trying to be perfect.

~Walter Matthau

Truth time: I AGONIZE over these posts. I spend hours and hours thinking through what I want to say, how I want to say it, deciding whether to go with an image or a quote, coming up with just the perfect clever title (side note: I am terrible at titles – not just here but in my other writing), re-writing what I wrote, fixing the formatting, all before letting myself hit that Publish button. And, honestly, half the time I then go back and make edits anyway because I feel like what I said isn’t good enough, or I notice something was worded wrong. Why?

I’m a crazy perfectionist.

I am the kind of person who gets hives if there isn’t a dot above every “i” and a cross over every “t.” And don’t get me start about pictures that are just that nth degree off of center in people’s homes – we’re talking nails on a blackboard. I am that person who has their DVDs, music, and books in alphabetical order (books by author, of course – I’m not psycho…well, manga is by title), and woe-betide the prankster who dares to touch that system. When I hung the pictures in my house, you bet I used the tape measure to make sure everything was precise and even…and then I dared to let someone else move in, and everything went to hell. Now, I gave him a full course on how the house was laid out, where everything went, and how things were to be done. Did he listen? Of course not. He just did as he pleased, and I had to cope with absolute chaos and towels that weren’t folded right. It’s a wonder I ever agreed to marry him (there will DEFINITELY be a part of the vows where I promise to never look at his desk – for my sanity…and his continued existence).

I’ve survived, though – and, more importantly (to him), he has, too (with a lot of suppressed screaming and some additional tutorials). It still doesn’t stop my nasty habit of trying to inflict perfection on my day-to-day life. There is nothing quite so aggravating as finishing cleaning the entire house and watching one of the cats scatter food all over the freshly mopped floor. (Cats, by the way, while believing themselves to be the most perfect creature on the planet do not strive for perfection – fun fact) You want to really destroy a perfectionist? Ask them to sweep up cat litter with a broom and dustpan; that damn last line of litter dust NEVER goes into the pan! The spice jars have to be turned with the label facing forward, the plates and glasses have to be in a line, and don’t get me started on the labels from the Good Thins boxes in the cabinet. It’s order, it’s organization, it’s PEACE. When everything is exact and precise and PERFECT, then the world is set to rights, and everything is okay.

Perfectionism is a cousin of anxiety.

If everything isn’t JUST SO, then worry and nerves start to get into our way, and we start to go into our spirals of panic. It’s a coping mechanism (and I am the first to admit it isn’t a healthy one, but there you have it) to keep that hulking monster of fear and anxiety at bay. If everything is exactly perfect and in its place, then everything is OKAY. If I get 100% and straight As, then Mom and Dad won’t have any reason to yell at me. If I get into a good college and get a degree, then I’ll get a job and become a worthwhile human being. If I do everything I’m told and follow all of the rules, then I’ll never get in trouble. It sounds good, right? I certainly thought so, and it was the model I followed through my life…but it doesn’t work in the real world. Because no one else follows that model. Not everyone follows the rules or even cares about the rules. Not everyone cares about working to full potential. Mom and Dad will always find a reason to yell at you (parents are parents for a reason – it’s their job). You can do everything right and still fail. Perfect FAILS you. And then what do you do?

You set up a new standard of perfect, and… No, forget I said that. You start to realize that maybe that lesson Dad threw your way all those years ago (when you were too young and stupid to actually listen) was accurate: you don’t have to be perfect. Maybe you can let the picture be a tiny bit off-center. Maybe you can let your husband-to-be’s desk look like ground-zero of a massive disaster without yelling at him. Maybe you can write out 3000 words of that next book chapter without deleting all 3000 words and just acknowledge you’re putting sand in the box to build with. Maybe you can realize that people are genuinely idiots, but that’s okay; no one ever said you had to be one of them. You’re a crazy bundle of anxiety with a need to succeed – well, okay. So do it in your own fashion and make THAT your perfection.

Fear the Spiral

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

~Frank Herbert, DUNE

We’ve all been there: ambling along, happy as can be, everything going our way, when out of nowhere we find ourselves standing on the edge of a cliff unable to see the other side. Is there an other side? Is the path on the other side as nice as the one we’re currently standing on? What’s at the bottom of the cliff, just in case we can’t make that jump? Will something terrible come up behind us if we don’t jump? We start up a spiral of fear that plants us firmly on our spot, paralyzing our brain’s ability to function properly.

Why do we do that?

Right up to that cliff, we were intelligent, rational, thinking human beings. We could problem-solve with the best of them, and we found solutions for the issues that cropped up in front of us. Now, though, doubt and fear are worming their way into our minds, and we’re stuck. It’s amazing the power fear, especially fear of the unknown, can exert over us.

What if we make the wrong choice? Fear of failure is crippling for a lot of people. There are people you’ll disappoint (real or imagined…and, let’s face it, for most of us, it’s more imagined than real – we just don’t want to admit that). The mind conjures up this giant, flashing red “F” that you’re positive the entire world is going to be able to see. Except…well, we know that isn’t real, on some plane of our rational thinking. People fail all the time; it’s how you learn and grow, and, sometimes, it’s how you go on to succeed. The fear is still there, though, grinding you into the ground and convincing you that making that jump could be the worst mistake of your life. If you miss the jump and fall – there are no save points and restarts in the real world. Your mind tells you that you have to get it right the first try; you can’t screw up – and you believe it.

What if something worse is coming? Things were going great, so Murphy’s Law dictates that there’s an end to that waiting somewhere. Maybe if you just hunker down and close your eyes, the monster won’t see you. It always worked when you were a kid, right? Except you’re not a kid anymore, and you’ve watched too many horror movies now, so you know that monster is going to see you out there in the open on that cliff. That horrible thing is going to come right for you, and all you can do is sit there, staring at it, and waiting for it to tear you apart. You’ll never outsmart it, you’ll never outrun it, and you can’t defeat it, so what can you do? You honestly believe that this horrible thing is going to happen, and you wait for it; you let it consume your entire life. You forget to go on with everything else, you stop trying to figure out a way to the other side of the cliff (just in case you can make it), and you let your mind convince yourself the end is coming.

And we lose every time we do this.

Our minds are so amazing, so strong, but they can turn against us in a heartbeat. We give them a drop of fear, and they turn that drop into a tsunami. I’m not saying fear isn’t healthy – it is. Fear gives us something to fight against; it’s the enemy we conquer when no one else is looking. We get stronger when we face our fears, as absolutely terrifying as it is to close our eyes and make that jump. The problem is when we let the fear get the best of us. If we never take a step forward, we’re forever stuck in that same place: waiting for the worst, clutching our precious “F” to our chests.

The Tenth Circle of Hell

Doctor: You have to learn to listen to your body.  Me: Oh, we're not on speaking terms.

Picture, if you will, a person who is completely healthy: they have no physical deformities, they have no speech impediments, they have multiple college degrees and can speak and write eloquently, they have no hearing difficulties (selective hearing doesn’t count), all of their original limbs are present in their original form, and they’ve never seen the inside of an Oncology office in their lives. Enviable, right? Possibly also imaginary?

Well, no, because appearances are deceiving. I just described myself from a stranger or even an acquaintance’s point of view. The truth is, though, that anyone who knows me, especially anyone in the medical field, would never use the word “healthy” in a list of adjectives – and I’ll even take my mental faculties off the table for this post. I, like a large percentage of the population, suffer from an invisible illness: an insidious monster that does its worst work under the surface where the only one who knows what’s going on is the person suffering the invasion. To the casual eye, we look like everyone else; we even look HEALTHY, which is the real scam. Meanwhile, our own bodies are turning against us in sick, twisted, and malicious ways. And the absolute worst part? We spend every day fighting and putting on a show to continue to appear normal.

I have fibromyalgia.

Some invisible illnesses out there are “lucky” (multiple sclerosis, Lyme disease): the cause is known; fibro is still bouncing around in the dark taunting researchers. Originally, patients were told they were crazy (true story: my mother is an example), that they were making their symptoms up in order to get attention, get pain medications, etc. (You’d think human medicine would find better excuses for people to have after hundreds of years, but there you go.) Finally, some doctors/researchers stepped up, acknowledged the condition was real, and they decided it was a problem in the musculature (hence its name). Then they changed their minds and decided it resided in the nerves – really great considering you have those throughout your entire body. Now, the current theory is that the bugger exists inside of your blood vessels – and we thought the previous theory was a blow! Oh, it sounds great, all of this research, there’s a problem: patients are bounced around from quack therapy to quack therapy in the meantime. My mother almost died being treated by a complete idiot of a doctor who didn’t understand the illness. They’re essentially throwing darts at a dartboard, hoping one might stick – not sound medical therapy (wait, didn’t I use that line in my talk about depression?). I want to stay angry at these medical professionals – and I can at the idiots, that’s easy – but it’s difficult. Why?

Because fibro SUCKS!

Let me try to illuminate what it’s like to be a fibro patient for you. I’m currently in the middle of a flare (which is why this post is late, actually), brought on by a combination of stress, a change in the weather, overdoing things in the middle of a flare, and possibly alignment of the stars (seriously – fibro is that weird). I have overheated electric wires extending down three of the fingers on my left hand; my right forearm is so fragile that the lightest breeze could fracture it into pieces; both of my legs have been boiled just shy of third degree burns so that even a cat whisker touching them makes me want to scream…which is at least an improvement over last night when they were repeatedly run over by rush hour traffic and then beaten for an hour with a sledgehammer. At least, that is the level of pain my brain is communicating to me because it doesn’t process pain appropriately (wherever the signals are coming from: nerve or blood vessel). I’m having trouble walking today, and just balancing my laptop of my lap is taking an effort of sheer will right now. I also fell asleep for two hours after waking up…probably because trying to sleep last night was an ordeal (remember the description of my leg pain from last night). I admit that this is a flare, so this is pretty bad, but I have some level of pain on a daily basis…and, believe it or not, it can also get worse.

Nothing helps, though.

Oh, I tried the silly fibro medication on the market – it made me sick as hell (and it didn’t work, anyway). I have tried soaks with Epson salt (which is never relaxing as it involves shooing cats away from the tub since they try to drink it), but they don’t help. Meditation is a joke (sorry for believers, but it is). This is the reality for so many people with invisible illnesses: no cure, no solution, and a lot of unsolicited advice from people who don’t share the same battle. Is it any wonder that we push ourselves to behave and appear as normal as possible? Believe me, I’d rather grit my teeth and force myself to walk across the room as smooth as possible than listen to one more person tell me eating a Keto diet will “fix me.”

The reality is that what we actually want is understanding. We would like people to understand when we’re having our flare days – and the fact that, when our bodies our under that much pain, our brains don’t always work so well (your mind can only process so much and still function properly). We would like people to understand that OF COURSE we look normal on the outside! Our battle is occurring on the INSIDE! If we actually looked the way we felt, EVERYONE would believe in the zombie apocalypse. We would like people to understand that, yes, some of us register for and need those disability placards. There are people out there that have difficulty walking more than ten steps without excruciating pain, or that need to walk slowly but refuse to take wheelchairs from people that genuinely need them (remember what I said above about appearance before you open your mouth and complain that you had to park a little further away).

I don’t want to belittle cancer because it’s horrible, and it has touched my own family (my sister is a breast cancer survivor), but people with cancer have options and therapies and hope. People with invisible illnesses…we don’t. So, before someone opens their mouth to ridicule a person who isn’t sporting a freshly-shaved head or puffy cheeks, maybe they should consider that.

Mirror, Mirror

Warning: Reflections in this mirror may be distorted by socially construed ideas of beauty.

My favorite time of year: resolution time; that glorious period when everyone spews list of changes that they intend to make and which end up being kept for all of, on average, five days. Most of those fantastic claims center around the body: attending the gym more frequently, eating better, attempting one (or more) fad diets that have yet to be discredited by science. And why not? It’s not as if our entire social culture were structured around norms of expectations of beauty, right? Oh, wait, it is. We have entire channels of YouTube that explain how to contour your face, dress appropriately for your age, shop thriftily so you can emulate the looks of the stars. Don’t get me started on what you can find on Instagram (and, yes, I’m old enough that I had to research both because I don’t actually utilize either one on a regular basis).

I don’t believe in resolutions, in general, but I really avoid the ones in relation to the body. Why? Because I have major body image issues, the same as most other people who suffer from depression. The crazy part is that I probably shouldn’t, at least according to logic. After all, I weigh a solid 100 pounds less now than I did even ten years ago when I was in a terrible relationship; that equates to 10 sizes smaller (and the real annoyance of having to buy new clothes every time I lost a significant amount of weight). Instead of reveling in the loss, though, I freaked out. I kept pushing against newly-appeared bones and ligaments, trying to figure out what in the world the protrusions were; I ended up with a lot of bruises. And I continued to avoid mirrors at all costs – because I still saw the same girl in the mirror as always.

And I still do.

This past year, everyone was posting their 10-year challenge photos to show the difference a decade can make. Now, I hate having my picture taken (see above in case you were under some delusion as to why that might be), but I finally caved to the pressure and found an old picture as well as one from this summer. It was the first time I was able to see the difference in weight, mostly because the evidence was sitting in front of me. The shock was overwhelming, but the bigger shock was walking to the bedroom, looking in the mirror and seeing that same enormous hippo staring back at me. Nothing had changed, not even moments after glimpsing the truth! My mind insisted that I was still an unattractive blimp. All of the broken thinking came right back: the taunting from school, the embarrassment from the playground (you know – when no one else can lift you on the see-saw?), the humiliation of walking past women your own age as you go to the Plus section while they traipse to the Juniors section, all while your much thinner friends insisted that size is just a number and prance around in crop tops, skinny jeans, and bikinis. So I put my sweats on and went back to avoiding the mirror – standard procedure.

The grip that thinking has on a person is insane. I’ve continued to lose weight, I’ve toned my arms and legs some more, and I STILL see the same horrible image in the mirror. Every now and then, I catch a brief glimpse of someone else, but I don’t know who she is. And the really crazy thing is, if I just look at my arm or my leg, I see changes (we won’t talk about my stomach – that’s insanity); but the entire picture…it falls apart. Trying to rewire my thinking has failed every attempt I’ve made. Those hurtful remarks are embedded deep in my psyche, along with every rejection.

If I were to consider making any resolution this coming year, it would be to root out all of those horrible sentiments and banish them from my way of thinking. Because, honestly, I would really like to look in the mirror and at least see MYSELF, as I am.

The Broken Compass

This is the way.

~THE MANDALORIAN

When I was in high school, preparing for college, I had a plan for my future: I had selected my school, I knew I was going to major in Marine Biology, and I knew I was going to become a researcher, focusing on behaviors of great white sharks. My future was laid out as a beautiful, manicured path with sunshine beaming down at regular intervals. Unhappily, when I arrived at college, I experienced a minor setback when my adviser informed me that Marine Biologists were a dime a dozen; if I wanted any chance at a career in the field, I was going to have to add a second major to my curriculum to distinguish myself.

Enter the first change in plans.

Surprise, surprise: I’m not a researcher working with sharks; I’m not actually working in the field of Marine Biology, at all. Those beautiful, naive, plans ended up derailed time and time again as reality and my need to make other people happy intruded. And each time I ended up cringing and feeling disappointed because I changed my plan. After all, I believed that you were supposed to go to college, get a job, and then progress with that job for the rest of your life. That was the example I had from my elders, from television, from literature; I didn’t know of any other option. The fact that I wasn’t fitting into that mold – over and over – made me feel like a failure. My jobs were leaving me to switch paths entirely: concrete, dirt, gravel, stone. I even made the dreaded error of going back to school and getting another degree…a crazy, “old” adult sitting among a bunch of kids.

The audacity, the insanity…the reality?

Why is there such a negative connotation against changing your mind, your path, though? The humorous world is built on mocking work life because people are often miserable existing inside of cubes and offices (I can attest to that – I did spend over a year in a cubicle, watching my life slowly get sucked out of me). So why do we insist on staying at hopes we hate? Is it because we’re all bought into the same example I did – that we’re supposed to lock into a single pathway? Is it because we have the same “support” systems telling us that we have good salaries, great benefits, and ample opportunities where we are, so why would we give that up for uncertainty? Is it because we’re afraid of the unknown?

Yes.

I have been there – I AM there. It’s terrifying to contemplate switching away from the comfortable path you’re on to one that is completely shrouded in fog and mist. Is there even another path on that other side, or is it just a chasm with a bottomless pit? At the same time, though, is it worth continuing being exhausted, aggravated, and frustrated when there is a possibility for genuine happiness? Sure, people look at you strange and question your motives (regardless of your age, really) whenever you decide to deviate from the expected norm. Where did expectation get you in the first place, though?

Confidence and the Invisible Army

They win by convincing you that you’re alone.

— STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER

The invisible army.

I never realized the impact of the invisible army until recently or how much power it has over a person. I think we’ve all encountered the invisible army at one point or another in our lives: someone uses a line similar to, “everyone else feels…” and BOOM! the entire Imperial Army is ranged against your lowly, crippled X-Wing. There is no response to those statements, no way to defend yourself when everyone shares an opinion opposite to yours. It’s an instant blow to your entire system, leaving you stunned, and the only thing you can do is quietly accept your fate and limp home, never realizing the full impact of what’s happened until later.

Your confidence is shaken.

Before those words were spoken, you thought things were going pretty well; your spine was intact, you held your head up high, and you felt a measure of pride in yourself and your work. Now, knowing that EVERYONE is ranged against you, you’re cowering, you can’t look anyone in the eye, and you doubt everything you’ve ever done. That person robbed you of your confidence, shattered it (hopefully didn’t erase it entirely, but that is a possible outcome, too – it depends on the size of the invisible army), and the worst part is, that was their intent from the beginning. People use the word “everyone” because it has impact, because it’s difficult to argue against, because we know that majority rules. Now, that person has the upper hand, while you’re left slumped in defeat in front of them.

It’s a cruel trick, and it’s one I’ve experienced many times – surrendering pieces of my confidence over and over again. I would slink home, sit on the couch, and analyze every life choice I had ever made, wondering what led me to be such a screw-up. To be honest, I’m doing it right now – it’s what prompted me to start this blog, to consider a new path (I’m not even sure the Empire ever had an army this big). My confidence is currently being held together with a couple pieces of old tape and sheer force of will. Why? I know my worth; I can recite all of my best qualities, all of the positive things I bring to the table, and I have a hefty list of accomplishments. I have a list of people reminding me on a daily basis of my talents, reassuring me that I can do anything I set my mind to. So why am I trying to hold my shaky confidence together with fraying string?

Because an invisible army said I was wrong.

It looks ridiculous when it’s written out, but that’s exactly how much power that invisible army HAS. It’s a throw-back to elementary school when kids told you no one liked you on the entire playground, and you spent recess sitting on a corner of the blacktop making patterns with the rocks. It’s a reminder of asking a guy to senior prom and hearing him proclaim, loudly, that no one was stupid enough to go with someone as ugly as you. “No one” and “everyone” are hulking beasts with fists and mallets that hammer away at your self-confidence, and every blow leaves a bruise on your psyche. People use those words because of the power they convey, because they know you’ll cave when you hear them. If they can break your confidence, they win. They win, and you’re sitting at home analyzing every choice you’ve ever made in your life.

And it has to STOP.

So now I’m sitting here, wondering why I let those people do that to me. Why did I surrender my confidence to bullies? Why did I compromise a part of who I was because I was afraid of an invisible army? How many people were REALLY in that army? What were their strengths? Their stats? Their ranks? Was there even an army at all or was it a foil to “keep me in line?” I wasn’t brave enough to ask the questions, to plant my feet and show some of that spine. Which is how I ended up here, looking at a fissured self-confidence and hoping I have enough glue and staples to repair it.

The Sound of Silence

These are my four "kids" - and the closest thing I have to therapy these days.

Brace yourself, complete and unvarnished honesty is coming: I have depression. *gasp* I fully admitted it! I put it out there in print – in this day and age when there’s this huge taboo against mental health! What am I thinking?! Well, frankly, I’m thinking that the stigma against depression and other mental health disorders is unfair and one of the reasons that we have a high suicide rate in this country. I’m thinking of the injustice of people battling horrendous demons, frequently on their own, without a voice. I’m thinking of the too-familiar phrases uttered of, “I never knew there was anything wrong with him/her.” I’m thinking that’s what happens when a blind eye is turned to people like me when we don’t speak up and admit that we spend most of our lives tumbling around in this black void of our minds.

Ah, but there are so many answers for us in this day and age! We have come so far from the horrors of electroshock therapy – a veritable cornucopia of solutions! Let’s see, there’s the always popular psychological sessions where your every thought (however mundane) is scooped out and examined from every angle until you can’t remember what your original feelings might have been in the first place. Psychologists inevitably lead to psychotropic medications with their endless lists of side effects and titrations…usually followed by recalls when someone figures out that one of those side effects isn’t so benign. We can’t forget the neutraceutical industry, either (coconut oil fixes everything…or is it CBD oil now?) with herbs, tinctures, soaks, and even prescriptions for sunshine. Depression frequently locks you into a world of immobility, which is why people like to remind you to exercise, to boost your endorphins to “feel better.” Nothing cures feelings of worthlessness and doubt like squeezing into Spandex and venturing into the public eye, after all. And then there’s my personal favorite: the circulating memes of people insisting that they will always be there to listen, regardless of circumstance…until you hit that really bad day, or your stretch of bad days turns into a bad week, or they realize that depression doesn’t go away after a couple of sessions of sitting on the couch with chamomile, or they realize you’re not going to stop crying regardless of what they say, or…well, you get the picture. Plenty of options, plenty of answers to “fix” us and allow us to join society.

So do I have the answer?

Yes! And for the low, low price of just $19.99 and a subscription fee of only $7.99… Please, come on! No, of course I don’t have an answer because I don’t think there is one. I spend every single day battling against those demons in my head that tell my I’m a failure, I’m worthless, I’m ugly, I’m incompetent, and I’m better off dead, and there isn’t a single item on those lists that I haven’t tried. They never worked, not even a lingering placebo effect. The closest I’ve come to effective therapy are those four “kids” in the picture above (I’d like to say they’re free, but the costs of caring for them is actually kind of ridiculous…and I’m not even allowed to claim them on my taxes!). They let me cry on them as much as I need, they sit with me no matter how long the darkness pushes down on me, and regardless of what I might think of myself on a given day, they think I’m amazing and wonderful.

The battle is daily, though. Sure, some days are easier than others; not every day is the battle of Helm’s Deep. This is a reality that I and a lot of other people cope with, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. We perform some of the best acting in the world, finer than any actor in Hollywood could dream because most of those around us have no earthly idea there is anything wrong. We smile, we complete our daily routines (often with a perfectionist streak), we laugh, we engage in conversations we have zero interest in, and we appear functional and ordinary. While inside our heads we’re dying a little bit more with every grin, with every forced giggle, with every completed project. We realized a long time back how uncomfortable people are when we show our “depression side;” they want to cross to the other side of the street and put up warding signs! So we hide the tears, hide the grimaces, hide the downcast eyes, hide the slumped shoulders and put on a fantastic performance.

Meanwhile, inside our heads, we’re screaming at demons most people could never imagine in their worst nightmares. We’re sitting inside of swirling voids that would swallow entire cities whole if they escaped the confines of our brains. We’re sinking slowly into the coldest, thickest murk that never seems to have a bottom, clutching at rungs of a ladder that continually snap apart in our hands. We’re curling up into balls and wedging ourselves into corners of pitch black rooms, clutching our hands around the tiniest slivers of light that shrink every time we breathe. We’re suffering self-flagellation at the hands of someone who knows every tiny detail of our lives – every mistake, every regret, every flaw. We are tearing ourselves apart, piece by piece, while also frantically trying to save the scraps and put them back together, praying we haven’t lost any of the pieces.

That is what the silence sounds like in our minds.

I don’t have an answer. I fight my battle every day – same as many, many others. I’m not sure there is an answer, to be honest. All I can do is provide an insight into the battle and share one of the voices. If the taboo is broken, maybe more will be done. I don’t mean these sweep-it-under-the-rug “cures” they champion today, but actual in-depth research and understanding. Or maybe it’s as simple as opening a few more minds, creating a little more reality in the world.