Big-Brained and Beautiful

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

Big mistake.

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

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

Never let on how smart you really are.

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

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

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

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

Madness, right?!

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

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

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

And it’s WRONG!

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

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

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

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

For Shame

Photo by Ian on Unsplash

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

And Catholics INVENTED guilt.

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

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

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

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

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

People see the shame on your face and seize control.

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

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

It’s a wretched sickness.

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

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

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

Known and Unknown

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

~Patrick Ness, The Rest of Us Just Live Here

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

A little unfair, but not far off the mark.

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

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

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

One more time when the spiral won.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Bees with Honey than Fire

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

~Thomas Edison

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

PRECISELY what I wanted prior to my WEDDING!

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

What’s a girl to do?!

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

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

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

Fucking heaven forbid you even LOOK at a doughnut!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biggest Piece of the Puzzle

Stop me if this sounds familiar: you spend HOURS reciting conversations in your head. Whether they be arguments, lengthy discussions for ways to better things at work, or just elaborate plans for your future. In your mind, your carriage is always upright, you don’t stumble over your words, and the other participants always hang on your every word. (They also don’t interrupt, talk back, or break from the script – something they fail to do in real life)

Do you recognize that person in those flights of fancy? (I’m not trying to demean your exercises, but if you never follow through on them, they are little more than imaginings) That’s who you WANT to be. It’s the confident person you carry around inside, buried under layers of self-doubt, questions, and years of ridicule. Which is why those rehearsed speeches never see the light of day.

Which is an absoltute crime.

Those words MEAN something to you. You wouldn’t take the time to craft those speeches if they didn’t. You don’t stand in front of a mirror and talk to your reflection for nothing. (Yeah, I know you do that; I’ve done it, too) That core of SELF is trying desperately to reach the surface, to break through the abuse and lack of self-confidence. YOUR voice wants to be heard, to come through into the atmosphere. It’s why you spend so much time in your head. It’s the only life that voice gets (most of the time).

Anxiety KILLS confidence. That niggling condition buries those speeches under an avalanche of “what if” scenarios until you crawl away to the shadowy corner where you’re happiest. And most of those situations are ridiculous. (I mean, what are the odds of Godzilla bursting through the building because you suggested a new chart to hold people accountable for tasks?) Meanwhile, your confidence is screaming in its cage, asking you to be reasonable. But you can’t hear it. Because it’s often too small, too quiet in comparison to that thundering roar of insecurity and doubt.

Freeing your confidence is HARD.

Taking the step off the ledge to becoming a freelance writer took me four months. Not because I needed to figure out how to write. I’ve had that down since I took home my first award in the second grade. It wasn’t even a matter of figuring out the freelance system. I read articles and advice columns starting in January when the idea first took root (and I realized I no longer wanted to do my previous line of work). No, what took so long was having the confidence to admit I COULD do the job. Having the confidence to stand up and assure people I was the right person for the their projects.

That scared the SHIT out of me.

My anxiety went into overdrive at the very thought. What if I was wrong? What if I wasn’t the right person? What if I couldn’t write after all? (As I said, anxiety gets kind of crazy) What if no one wanted to take a chance on me? What if I had to give up and go crawling back to that hateful job? What if I was going to be miserable for the rest of my life? I circled down the drain for weeks, convincing myself out of the very idea. And depression decided to join in on the fun. Pretty grim.

I’d love to tell you some magical switch flipped to pop confidence out from under the mountain. I wish I could say I had a spontaneous moment of clarity. But I’m not a liar. The truth is, I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and jumped off the damn cliff. Because I wasn’t getting anywhere in the anxiety spiral. Because it was something I WANTED enough to try. Because, in the famous words from We Bought a Zoo:

“Sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrasing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.”

~Benjamin Mee

And, in the end, that’s what confidence IS: stupid, ridiculous courage. The courage to embrace YOURSELF. It’s getting to your feet, opening the cage, and letting your voice come out. I won’t deny that confidence is frightening (horrifying, and your anxiety passes out from conjuring possible scenarios), and it doesn’t get any bigger even if you use it daily. I wish it did. Maybe for people that don’t crawl out from avalanches every day – maybe it’s a larger concept for them. For those of us that battle other monsters, it’s feeble and needs coaxing and protection.

I still rehearse conversations in my head, but I think I do it a little less. My hands shake every time I compose a pitch, but I DO submit pitches for my writing. I’ve stood up for my abilities more and more often. I feel that my confidence in my writing has grown. I proudly call myself a successful freelance writer, at this point. (I mean, I’m not world-reknowned or anything) I’m brave enough to use MY voice.

Is my confidence still on life support? Yeah. But it’s alive. And that’s the most important part. Take your twenty seconds and give yours a chance. You won’t regret it. I promise.

Even if Your Voice Shakes

“We need someone who is going to stand up, speak up, and speak out for the people who need help, for the people who have been discriminated against.”

~John Lewis

No one is ever going to question that I have ZERO qualms speaking my mind. Actually, most people that know me would prefer I had a mute button, off switch, or at least a little modicum of tact to moderate the words that come out of my mouth. I won’t deny that my words (spoken and written) have gotten me into trouble. Has it stopped me or curbed the habit? Not a bit.

Why?

Because I spent A LOT of my life with what I felt buttoned behind my lips. I was afraid to speak up. Even if I felt something was wrong, or saw a cause that needed support, I sat in the corner in silence. I didn’t want to “rock the boat” or draw attention to myself. After all, people who raised their hands became the target of everyone around them. I didn’t want to deal with opposition or ridicule. My psyche wasn’t capable of handling the abuse. And silence was (is) so much easier.

But it doesn’t accomplish anything.

Once I found the ability to accept myself for ME – which meant acknowledging my anxiety and depression – my voice came with it. So did my spine, oddly enough. I’m not saying I enjoy the heckling (no one does), or that the barbs don’t still play directly into my depression’s hands. I have to pry every spine out of my brain at the end of the day and push the resultant shadow back. I have to swallow my panic before I utter a single word, cope with shaking hands (okay, my entire body vibrates like I’m having a seizure), and go through breathing exercises to reassure my body the world isn’t ending. But I still SPEAK UP.

And I’m BETTER for it!

Why? I’m finally standing up for what I believe in. Instead of holding those causes inside (where they do absolutely no good), I’m letting them out into the air and providing one more voice where it’s needed. I place my feet, stand up, and meet opponents directly in the eye. I reaffirm myself as a person by saying “yes” or “no” to something that defines ME.

Starting this blog took a lot of debate in my head. Acknowledging that you have a mental illness is still taboo. People look at you sideways. They laugh, they cross to the other side of the street, or they do much worse. There’s a negative stigma attached to mental health, even in this so-called advanced age we live in. Making the decision to openly discuss and PROMOTE discussion of mental health took weeks, three nervous breakdowns, and multiple silent pep talks. What if people reacted negatively? What if I faced nasty pushbacks? What if no one responded? I went around in circles. But I kept coming back to a single thought:

I felt it was important.

This meant something to me. I wanted to put my voice out there. I wanted to reassure someone – anyone – out there that I, at least, understood what it was like to cope with such things. That’s what standing up for a cause DOES. It tells other people you get it. You understand. No one says you need to champion a major cause if you don’t feel up to it. But I bet there’s something you feel strongly about. Something that you catch behind your teeth for fear of ridicule. Something you want to say but hesitate to out of fear. Believing in something is part of who you are. And denying those words denies a part of you.

I had someone close to me remark that they were glad I had made a post that wasn’t about mental health last month. It stung. BECAUSE of how important a topic it is to me. And also because of the hell I endured through my younger life coping with anxiety and depression. When I was afraid to speak. When it was taboo. When you shut such things behind locks and bars and pretended it didn’t exist. The comment told me that they still believed I shouldn’t speak about the state of my mind. That I should confine my thoughts to whispers, at best.

Which is why I SPEAK UP.

Never feel ashamed of the things you believe in. Never hide parts of who you are. Keeping the truth behind closed lips denies everything of who you are. The world deserves to hear you, to see you. Get out of the chair and speak up. Scream your words. Make the world acknowledge you. Your voice WILL shake. Your hands will tremble. You’ll tear up. But you’ll feel like yourself.

And THAT is what’s most important.

Brain 180

Collection of blue arts and crafts supplies
Photo by Shopify Partners from Burst

Overcoming the need to constantly achieve perfection is difficult. Remembering to take a time out and allow the brain and body to reset is crucial to our general well-being (and sanity – though that’s overrated). I’m the first to admit that I continue to struggle with both on a daily basis. However, I’ve found an outlet that’s set me on the right path:

Creativity.

Now, I could cheat and say that my speculative fiction fills that creative outlet, but that’s an outright lie. Writing is writing, no matter how your dress it up. Sure, I have complete creative freedom with my own writing (though, to be honest, I have pretty loose reins with most of my freelance work). It’s still work, though. I demand nothing short of perfection from myself. Watching me edit makes a deranged serial killer look like an angel. I’m ruthless. I hack and slash with the best horror movie monster. Even the writing process is terrifying; no character is safe. (Not even main characters – no one gets my sympathy!)

No, when I say you need a creative outlet to escape to, I mean something outside of your wheelhouse. Something you maybe aren’t good at but enjoy. (Don’t torture yourself – that’s bad for your anxiety and depression) Something that engages the other half of your brain, taking pressure off your overworked synapses. An art form that sparks your imagination and gets you excited in a different way than your usual goals.

A break that isn’t a break.

Sneaky, right? You’re still actively participating in SOMETHING, but you’re not driving yourself crazy with work. You step away from assignments and a need for perfection (that’s a cardinal rule, by the way), and you just PLAY. It’s not a complete reset, which appeals to those of us who struggle with the need to STOP, but it gives your brain breathing room.

The kicker is finding something creative you WON’T stress over. You have to relinquish the reins of perfection and be willing to create a mess. Remember, this isn’t something you’re pursuing as a goal. This isn’t a lifelong dream. This is just a creative outlet. Something that catches your interest. A 180 from your usual interests and work pursuits. Something you’re willing to complete suck at. (No one else has to see the results except you)

I have a couple of creative retreats. I have a scrapbook I’m slowly moving my old pictures into. Is it Pinterest worthy? Not by a long shot. Am I proud of it? Of course I am! I love all of the papers, stickers, and various scissors. Looking through the old pictures relaxes my brain, flares old memories, and drops my shoulders back where they belong.

I sketch and draw. Are any of the pictures going to sell on Etsy? Not even for a penny. But I like them. The movement of the pencils across the page does something to my body. I feel my blood pressure come down, synapses quiet, and my lips curve into a smile. The sound blends with the music I listen, soothing the thoughts in my head until there’s nothing troubling me.

I’m trying to learn to crochet. I have the chain down, but I haven’t figured out any further. The feeling of the yarn under my fingers is soothing, even if the hook and I aren’t sympatico. (Not to mention that fending off cats from the yarn gets annoying after a while) And, while it sounds crazy, knowing that I’m struggling with something my sister is a sheer genius at (she even creates her own patterns!) calms my brain. I SUCK at something! It’s humbling.

Simple, uncomplicated, and WORTH it!

When everything starts overwhelming me, I go to my creative outlets and resettle. When I feel like I can’t take time out (guilt’s a terrible thing, by the way), doing SOMETHING eases the feeling. It’s a break, don’t get me wrong, but it’s an active break. My brain still gets the chance to reset some of the circuit breakers, and I get to wake up some of the breakers that were asleep. It’s a win-win, of sorts. And I’m creating SOMETHING! I’m using my hands to create something of my own that has meaning to me.

Find a creative outlet that works for you. You won’t regret it. And your brain will thank you.

STOP!

“Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for.”

~ Maya Angelou

Have you ever reached a point where you opened your eyes and had absolutely no clue where you were or what you were doing? I’m not suggesting you lost consciousness, just that your brain completely blanked out and abandoned you. Not a fun experience, am I right? Especially because those moments like to come when you LEAST need them (exams, interviews, traffic lights). Your brilliant intelligence leaves you looking and feeling like a complete and utter moron. All because of one simple fact:

You pushed yourself too far.

If you have anxiety, you know there’s a limit to what your brain can handle. Trip that line, and the system goes down. Then you’re left struggling to put two syllables together. Same with depression: drop too far down the hole, and standing goes out the door. We KNOW this! Yet we still let ourselves get worked up to the edge, and we even trip right off the cliff, over and over again. And the payment is a system shut-down while the brain tries to reboot and make sense of the gibberish we’ve created.

Even without the struggle of a mental illness, you can overload your thought processes and crash your brain. Everyone has a threshold of tolerance, and so many of us push and work right up against that line. We set unrealistic deadlines, impossible standards of perfection, and bars so high that even Godzilla couldn’t reach them (if you know of a taller monster, feel free to sub their name). Exhaustion depletes our brains of resources, frazzles our nerves, and the body has no choice but to shut down.

Why?! Why do we do this?!

We’re clearly intelligent, and yet we forget the importance of STOPPING and TAKING A BREAK! Even a five minute breather to let the system cool down! We deprive our more cells of a chance to settle and reset before returning to the grind. We know the importance of that break, of stopping to reassess and think, but we ignore it and plow forward like an idiot. Then we wonder why our brain abandons us. It’s smart, that’s why! It’s trying to preserve function! Instead of letting us completely burn out and collapse, it’s enforcing the break we skipped!

This is probably a good time to mention this is one of those posts where you should do as I say and not as I do. I’m TERRIBLE at remembering to take a break. I panic at the very thought of stopping to breathe. If I pause…you know, I’m not really sure there’s logic applied to my thought process. I think if I pause, the entire world will collapse into chaos. So I work late. I throw myself into assignments until I’m cross-eyed and mind-blurry (a great frame of mind for working, I might add). Then I have to redo everything, taking MORE time.

And my brain goes into self-preservation mode.

I’m still learning the importance of taking my fingers off the keyboard and walking away. Closing my eyes, breathing, and letting my poor synapses collapse into overworked puddles. Which is hysterical because the times I DO take those breaks, I function better. My work flows better, and I FEEL better.

You’d think I’d have the system down by now. But that drive for perfection, the anxiety to get things done still raise their heads. It’s difficult to overcome. And so I get those blank moments of, “Where the hell am I?” Eventually, I might learn my lesson. I’m hopeful.

Talk

“I usually know almost exactly how I feel. The problem is, I just can’t tell anyone.”

~Meg Cabot, Princess in Love

So here’s the thing: mental illness carries a stigma. We’re supposed to be enlightened and advanced in this day and age. (Pardon me while I pause to laugh hysterically) If you dare to stand up and admit to having a mental illness – any kind of mental illness – people look at you sideways. I’m not really sure what they picture, but you can visualize the box they shuffle you into.

“Uh-oh, crazy person right there.”

Imagine the shock when the majority of people opt out of standing, speaking up, or bringing any kind of attention to themselves. Why would you? Why would you voluntarily welcome getting tarred and feathered? Why would you step onto a stage and wait to get doused in a bucket of misconception and hatred from an uninformed public?

Odds are, you wouldn’t.

Here’s the catch-22. Mental illness and mental health demand conversation. Not just for people to understand they’re being morons (that’s a big part, though). No, we need to stand up and talk because that’s how we HEAL.

Oh, yeah – HEALING? Remember that?

Not a single person with mental illness is happy with their diagnosis. Not a single person battling with anxiety or depression or manic-depression or ADHD or any number of other illnesses is HAPPY. They don’t wake up, cheerily greeting the imbalance in their brain. We confront our reflections every day cursing our biochemistry to the ends of the universe and beyond. We run through checklists to even GET OUT OF BED! You think we want to exist like this every day?!

We want to heal. Which means admitting a need to talk about the things going on in our screwed-up brains. It means sitting down and discussing the thoughts rattling around in ours heads. We know they aren’t always logical (somewhere), but until we get them out in the open, we can’t deal with them.

Want an example? My anxiety amps up beyond my limit to control it. Worries stack up and stack up and stack up. If you think I haven’t thought of something to worry about, you are in for a surprise – I’ve got EVERYTHING mapped out with every possible scenario. And I know I can’t control 90% of those things. But I CAN control a lot of things. Like the way the towels in the kitchen and bathroom are folded. Like the way the dishes are stacked in the cabinet. Like the way the books and movies are organized. That order is my way of staying calm and organized and in control in a world that is literally planning to fall apart around me.

So when my fiance’ decides to ignore that order, my world comes apart. And I break down. It took me a long time to finally open up and explain why the towel folding was so important. That it keeps my tiny part of the world SANE. I had to TALK to him, to sit down and TALK through my insane logic. Is it his logic? Of course not. But when I finally talked to him, he understood. He laughs, but the towels are always in place now. He understands he’s keeping my world safe.

If you don’t talk, people don’t know. They don’t understand what you need. They don’t know what you’re feeling, what you’re going through. And so they can’t help. People out there DO want to help, they really do. They just need to understand. Which means opening your mouth.

No, not everyone.

But we fix that by talking, too. Mental health is repaired by making discussion open. By not shuttling it into the shadows. By not stigmatizing it as “crazy,” or “disturbed,” or any other number of fucked up labels. The world has done those of us battling these diseases a disservice. And we fix that by standing up and speaking up. It’s the only way things are ever going to get better.

Finding the Closure Store

How many times in your life has someone insisted you “need closure?” You end a relationship – you need closure. You get in an argument with a friend (or even just an acquaintance) – you need closure. You have some kind of incident (I’ll leave the details up to you) – you need closure. Your barista hands you the wrong cup of coffee in the morning? Dammit – you need closure!

Closure starts to sound like a physical object after awhile doesn’t it? Either that, or it starts sounding like some kind of talk show “professional” advertised on late-night television. (Personally, I’d prefer the kitschy object) Everyone has the opinion you need it, they strongly recommend you seek it out, but no one quite knows where the store selling this magnificent solution is located.

Where IS that elusive closure store?

Allow me to clear things up for you. Closure is different for every person and every situation. Which is probably why you’re having so much trouble tracking down that store. (And please DON’T try booking yourself onto a talk show) Also, whether you NEED it or not is entirely up to you. You NEED to breathe. You NEED shelter. You NEED food. You NEED water. Closure? Nah, not in the essential pyramid.

So what is closure?

Closure is nothing more than the point where you can finally move on from a bad situation. (Which means you should probably let your barista off the hook. Seriously, was one wrong order THAT detrimental?) That is the entire magical definition. It’s also why it’s different for every person and every situation. Some people do have physical objects – like baseball bats to their ex’s heads (please note: I’m NOT advocating this!). Some people are subtler: they finally manage to tell their story without crying. You might even achieve closure and NEVER REALIZE IT! All of a sudden you look back and realize you’re miles away from that nightmare. Who knew!

If you’re still fixated on something, then you haven’t achieved closure. No magical store is going to do it for you, either. Trust me. You think I haven’t hunted for that store over the years? Of course I did! I wanted that wand (baseball bat – I’ll admit it; I wanted a baseball bat) in my hands SO many times. I never found it. Instead, I found paper shredders (paper shredders are awesome – just watch your fingers and remember they overheat), Unfriend buttons, and weeds in the yard. Did you know you can rip weeds out of the yard without any repercussions? True story.

You do what it takes to mark something OVER.

The point of CLOSURE is to END it. You don’t revisit it, you don’t bring it back to conversations, and you don’t give it space in your mind. You want that anxiety OUT of your head space. If that means visiting a gun range and turning a target to Swiss cheese, so be it. If it means turning old records to confetti, do it! Take the burden of liars, manipulation, and misery OFF your shoulders. Dump it in a hole and bury it out in the woods where no one can find it ever again. (No physical people – I’ve been informed this is illegal)

But stop looking for the store. It’s just not there. And what works for one person won’t work you, anyway.