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

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

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.

mental health

Impossible Things

Anything new can mean feeling better about youself
Image by armennano from Pixabay

Everyone take a moment and consider something in your life you’ve NEVER changed. Because, odds are, you can come up with at least one answer. Maybe it’s a habit (cleaning chores don’t count – those are important). Or it could be a hair style you’ve clung to for decades. And let’s not forget a job you’ve planted yourself in (I won’t count it if you’re genuinely happy there). Something you’ve worn a TRENCH into the ground with your repetition and used some form of the words, “Well, I can’t…” when someone asks why you haven’t changed or done anything about it. Got it in your mind? Good.

WHY are you doing that?!

Don’t worry, I already know the answer. It’s because anxiety and fear have made it easy to stay on that old familiar path. Change is HARD. Sticking to what you know? That doesn’t require any effort or special talent. You simply do what you’ve always done. And it’s comfortable, in a strange sort of way. You’re not entirely happy, but you’re not miserable, either. It’s a functional limbo. But the trench gets deeper every month. Eventually, you’ll wear it down deep enough that you may never find a ladder tall enough to climb out of it. And that’s a frightening place to be.

We NEED to shake things up periodically. For ourselves. It’s healthy – much as people will try to convince you otherwise. (Newsflash: They’re in their own trenches and want the company) We need to bite the bullet, set the anxiety aside, and decide change is in order. It elevates your spirits and SELF to a higher level – one you’re not capable of imagining from the darkness of that old familiar shadow. You gain a new perspective when you decide you’re willing to try something different. That little (or big) something new peels away a scale from your eyes. The world looks different. YOU look different – to yourself. And that’s HUGE.

But you have to take the first step.

For the majority of my life, my hair was LONG. We’re talking ridiculous lengths, here. I refused to cut it more than my stylist deemed absolutely necessary. Which was, honestly, stupid because I always wore it up in a braid of ponytail, anyway. (Mostly because if I didn’t, people knotted things in it while I sat in class) Finally, the summer before my senior year of high school, I’d had enough. I came to a place of personal growth and decided I needed to make a change. I cut it off – ALL of it. The weight – literal and figurative – was liberating. I walked with my head held high for the first time. I looked people in the eye. And I took that confidence with me through college, maintaining the pixie cut all four years.

Until I lost my confidence again following graduation. Funny how something like hair length can tell the outside world what’s going on in your mind. As my hair returned to its previous length, my mental state plummeted again. I crawled back into the shadows. It took me SIXTEEN YEARS to get myself sorted again. And, yeah, it ended up chopped off. And I haven’t looked back since. It’s stayed ruthlessly short for the past five years. And my confidence? It wobbles now and then, but – for the most part – it hasn’t tanked.

I needed that dramatic of a change, though.

People were shocked. Others looked at me strange. Some said they couldn’t believe I’d gone to such a new extreme (we’re talking waist-length to a severe pixie). A few even wondered if my mental health was stable (never mind that they never asked when I was hiding behind my hair). And when I started coloring my hair? Yeah, those questions popped up again. Was I having a midlife crisis? (When IS your midlife, anyway? It’s not like you get a piece of paper with your death age on it. So I think that concept is ridiculous) Had something happened that made me feel rebellious? (I love how hair color is rebellious) No one ever asked if I suddenly felt like ME. No one smiled and said I looked like myself. (FYI – I did, and I still do)

And last week, when my stylist asked what color we were going with this time? I felt like something different. I’ve gone with blue for close to three years now. Something in my brain decided it was time for something new. And while I would have protested up, down, and sideways in the past, my hair is now bright pink. And I LOVE it! I feel amazing and have a renewed sense of self and purpose. From something as simple as a new hair color! All I needed to do was decide on the change and not let ME hold myself back.

It’s that easy!

I’ve heard the phrase, “I could never do that” so many times, it gives me a migraine. The only thing that ever stops you is YOU. Anxiety and fear stand in front of you, and you let them! I don’t say that to be cruel. I say it because I’ve been there. I talked myself out of short hair. Then it was hair color. I’ve argued myself away from clothes I genuinely wanted. And my dream job? I spent DECADES telling myself that’s all it was – a dream. There wasn’t a word of truth to any of it. But I was afraid of what other people would say. I worried what perfect strangers would think (as if their opinion means two cents). Anxiety after anxiety piled up. And instead of using them as a LADDER out of that stupid trench, I used them as shovels to dig deeper.

Every time I’ve silenced the fears and worries, embracing the change – the CHANCE – I’ve come out happier on the other end. Does it take a whole heap of courage and bravery? Of course. You’re doing something new! You close your eyes and take a deep breath. But when you open your eyes again? The view is so spectacular. Your heart swells in your chest, and you BREATHE. And the air at the top of that trench is WAY sweeter than the must inside it.

Even if it’s a little change you’ve been contemplating, don’t let your anxiety stand in the way. You have that idea for a reason. It’s a part of your mind driving you forward. Don’t let what your fear – or anyone else – says stand in your way. You only get so many ladders.

mental health

The Socialization Pill

Anti-social board
Photo by Sarah Pflug from Burst

Everyone without mental illness has a solution for curing depression. And most of those answers don’t usually come in the form of therapy, medication, or communication. Nope. They’re usually sunshine, exercise, diet changes, or (my personal favorite), socializing. Because when you feel like the world is collapsing in on you, the one thing that’s going to make you feel better is interacting with a horde of people.

WRONG!

We crawl into our blanket forts to get AWAY from people. It’s not a subliminal call for others to come join us. Getting thrown against a wall of humanity won’t do anything for the crippling misery boring through our skulls. Think about it: how does getting forced to interact with complete strangers make you feel better? You have to dredge up socialization skills. Then you have to force a cheer you KNOW you don’t have because people don’t want to deal with depression. And you’re usually confronted with topics you A) have no knowledge of (remember, these are strangers) or B) couldn’t care less about. And introverts do NOT have a mastery of small talk.

You’d have better luck pitching one of us into a ravine with starving predators. Our odds of survival are MUCH higher. We’d also come out on the other end with a better perspective. (Attempting to survive a genuine threat tends to to do that for you) Social interaction won’t fix things for those of us coping with a bad day/week/month/season. It’s not the answer we’re looking for. We’d TELL you if we wanted that kind of thing. You’d see us put on our “going out” clothes.

Everyone is NOT a social butterfly.

It drives me up the wall when people tell me I need to “get out more.” (And, yes, I realize the irony of discussing this during our current pandemic. You’re just going to have to transcribe this to a different time and place) Getting dragged to parties, dinners, and get-togethers made me skin crawl. I’d come up with every excuse in the book to decline an invitation. But since I hate lying (and I’m particularly BAD at it), that meant finding REAL reasons not to go. Or it meant I had to go – kicking and screaming.

Then I sat in a corner, twisting my fingers into knots and wishing I was anywhere else. I couldn’t start conversations (another introvert habit), and sneaking out the door is difficult when you’re trapped behind a wall of people. Conversations dropped within a few moments because I lacked that small talk ability. And people KNOW when you don’t want to be there. (Which is why this “solution” FAILS!) My eyes would dart back and forth, looking for my opening to leave. As soon as ANYONE made their farewells, I seized my chance to bolt out the door. I looked like a prisoner making a jail break!

It’s ridiculous!

And it’s completely unfair. To me, to the person who invited me, to everyone around me. I have no idea if they were trying to be polite, if they thought they were doing something good (that supposed “cure”), or if it was some joke to place bets on how long I’d last in a social situation. But the result was always the same. I used the same brittle tone of voice. You know the one: “I can’t believe I’m sitting here, and I wish I was anywhere else, but I’m trying to be polite – please stop talking to me.” I’d catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror and think of a deer in the headlights. (VERY complimentary)

There’s a difference between being around the people you love and being thrown into a social situation. One relaxes you, makes you laugh, and makes you feel safe and secure. The other tenses you up, makes you want to cry, and cranks your anxiety past eleven. What’s the difference?

Your CHOICE!

When someone pressures you and throws you into the socialization coliseum, nothing good comes from it. If YOU decide you want to form a get-together, it’s different. You’re selecting the people, the place, and the situation. There’s no awkwardness, no forced conversation, and the anxiety settles to a manageable level. (Let’s face it – you’re organizing something, so there’s going to be SOME panicking) And you’re not going to do it when you feel like the world’s falling apart. It’s THAT simple.

Don’t let people pressure you to go out in the masses. (Especially now – but that’s a different story) You know it won’t help, no matter what nonsense they spout. Are they living in your head? No. So why in the world would you take their advice? You know better than that. Shake your head and tell them no. You don’t need to make an excuse, just say no. It’ll save you in the long run – BELIEVE me.

mental health

A Different Kind of Ceiling

“Children have a lesson adults should learn, to not be ashamed of failing, but to get up and try again. Most of us adults are so afraid, so cautious, so ‘safe,’ and therefore so shrinking and rigid and afraid that it is why so many humans fail. Most middle-aged adults have resigned themselves to failure.”

~Malcolm X

Storytime! At my high school, the end of the English year meant term paper time. Everyone knew and expected it. You’d get a general topic, and you had a few weeks to turn in at least five pages of double-spaced work, complete with citations and references. It was pretty standard for an Honors class, and everyone knew the drill. So when Junior year rolled around and the teacher gave us the option of writing about any author we wanted, it felt like a jackpot. I’d just finished reading Les Miserables, and my brain was surging with joy for Victor Hugo and his way with words. I dove into the library (yes, library – we didn’t have Google back then) with a giant stack of notecards.

And then things started to unravel.

For some of my classmates, that year was their first experience in an Honors class. And they weren’t prepared or – if I’m being honest – qualified. They complained about EVERYTHING. Quizzes ended up open book to accommodate the fact they hadn’t read the material or studied. She offered Pygmalion as a substitute when they whined that Waiting for Godot was too hard to understand. (I read both – mostly because I loved My Fair Lady) And the term paper? They threw a fit. Within a week, the teacher cut the pages down to three. Three, double-spaced? That was nothing! I protested. I sat down and wrote a long letter to the teacher, outlining every way she’d let down the advanced students. It was the first time I dared to stand up to any adult, much less an authority figure. (And, really, one of the first times I took a chance on standing up for MYSELF)

She ratted me out.

If you aren’t a female and didn’t attend a public school, allow me to clarify things for you. Girls? They’re EVIL. Mean Girls gets it right. The teacher stood in front of my desk, looked straight at me, and announced that “someone” (she didn’t use my name – I’ll give her that much) was unhappy, so the term paper limit was reinstated. I didn’t have the best school life prior to that point, but it went to rock bottom from that point on. Everyone knew who she was referring to. (Why couldn’t she have stood behind her desk to make the announcement?)

I tried to make the best of things. After all, I was already used to threats of being shoved down the stairs. People already slammed my locker shut, narrowly missing my fingers. I got tripped in the hall on a routine basis. And I learned by Sophomore year to wear my hair in a bun to prevent things from getting put in it. (Sometimes I wonder if that trauma is why I’ve chopped it ruthlessly short now) I threw myself into writing one of the best papers of my school career. I was incredibly proud of it. And despite my teacher’s behavior, I expected professionalism from her.

I received my first harsh lesson in learned helplessness.

When our graded papers came back, I flipped to the last page. There was a red “A” written there. I was happy, of course. Until I started to go back through the rest of the paper. Nothing. No marks whatsoever. No notes, no edits, NOTHING. She never read it. Because I know for a fact it wasn’t a perfect paper (no one writes THAT well) I made it to the restroom before I started crying. And I tore the paper to shreds.

As I got older, others reinforced the lesson. I’d attempt something I thought was amazing or noteworthy, and they’d shrug. I’d hold out my accomplishment with a smile, and they’d snatch the rug out from under me. It built up a sense that nothing was ever good enough. Everything I did was actually a failure. I was a dog chasing her tail – never catching it, and with zero chance of doing so. Slowly, the lesson set in: that bar was always going to be out of reach. So why bother trying?

And this happens to people all the time!

It’s a subtle, sinister form of bullying that often goes without notice. Why people do this I have no idea. I don’t know why that teacher behaved as she did. I didn’t go to the Principal with my complaint. I didn’t report her to anyone else, or even threaten to do so. I was a student going to the source. While I understand she probably felt called out, was it worth squashing a person under her heel and leaving her to the mercy of the student body? (And if you want me to believe a teacher doesn’t know what happens in a school environment, you’re crazy) She knew exactly what she’d done. She watched me flip through my paper, looking for a critique that didn’t exist. It was more damaging than if she’d cut it apart and failed the assignment – and she knew it. After all, she was aware of the intelligence level of who she was dealing with.

You can’t hold a carrot out for someone and then tell them you ate it. It’s cruel. People are PROUD of their accomplishments. When they come to you, delighted that they managed to overcome something, and you YAWN?! You might as well stab them; it’d be cleaner. It’s a sadistic practice. But it slides under the radar. People enforce a learned helplessness every day. And the victims sink further and further into depression. They get anxious over attempting anything new. They stop trying.

And maybe that’s the point.

If you’re afraid, if you stop trying, you won’t accomplish anything anymore. Which means you stop running the risk of making them look bad. I crawled into the shadows after that paper. I dropped my head and closed my mouth. I continued to turn in my assignments, of course, but I never said another word when she adjusted the curriculum to suit the class. My acts of rebellion were miniscule. (When our idiot Teaching Assistant decided we needed to play “Head’s Up 7-Up – which I hadn’t done since elementary school – I read and stared her down when she encouraged me to participate) Whatever spark of determination I might have had fizzled and died. She won.

And other people won – over and over. I kept dropping my head and crawling away in shame. I stayed out of the way. The fire grew so cold I’m amazed I ever got it warm again. Because I refuse to let that helplessness rule my life anymore. And it’s a HEAVY blanket to burn away – believe me. I cringe when I hold out something special, expecting the same “meh.” It takes every drop of confidence I’ve scraped together to stand there and say, “Look, I did this!” And if someone DOES shrug, I have to shrug in response and find someone who won’t.

There are different glass ceilings out there no one talks about. The invisible barriers people concoct when they teach you to feel like a failure. They make you ashamed and helpless – for no good reason. And, yeah, it takes hindsight to look back and realize what an amazing badass you were the entire time. Hell, I stood up to a teacher! When no one else would point out her errors, I did. (And I had ZERO confidence back then – believe me) I demanded the education I deserved. How freaking awesome was I?

And how disappointing was she to take that moment away from me? I can’t rewrite history. The years of pulling shadows over my head so no one would see my embarrassment and “failure” aren’t going to suddenly vanish in this new enlightenment. But I CAN break the cycle moving forward. I CAN hold every single thing I do right close and put it up on a shelf to admire it. And I have people who’ll stand beside me and “ooh” and “ahh.” That’s how I move on and burn the damn misery out of the way. And you can do the same thing.

mental health

Building a Wall

Brick wall of self-sabotage
Photo by Madison Inouye from Pexels

All of us have multiple checklists in the back of our minds. There’s the daily To Do List, consisting of average tasks you go through on a regular basis. The outside world may think nothing of that list, but if you battle any mental illness, the To Do List is critical. It gets you out of bed and through the day. Then you have checklists for the various goals you want to accomplish. You have small, immediate goals all the way up to your major dreams. And as you get over each individual hurdle, you check off those lists. It feels good (accomplishment always does).

You’re cruising along, moving down the path. Maybe you stumble over an obstacle or two, but you DO get past them. (No one’s watching or judging, anyway) You’re spirit’s soaring, and you start feeling good about yourself. Maybe you even shake off some of the anxiety you felt towards those goals. There’s a renewed sense of belief in yourself. You might reach the finish line.

Until you smack into a wall.

You back up and stare in disbelief at this hulking wall that showed up out of nowhere. It wasn’t there a second ago. Maybe you weren’t exactly watching the road up ahead, but you’re pretty sure you would have noticed an obstacle this substantial. All of your positivity starts to drain away. Hurdles are one thing, but this is a WALL. It blocks everything, and there’s no way of climbing over it that you can see. Everything in your mind comes to a screeching halt. It’s so unfair. How could the universe throw down something so impossible? Because, of course, that wall came from somewhere else.

Nope.

Unfortunately, the wall snuck in from YOUR mind. It’s the result of the anxiety and depression you thought you conquered. The two combined into self-sabotage. And we’ve all done it. We get in the way of our success and triumphs ALL the time. Because we’re afraid of that finish line. Doubt creeps in, and we question our ability to take the final step. The wall becomes a safety blanket to hide behind. If we can’t get around it, we don’t have to face the consequences of stepping over the finish line. So while we’re staring at the wall, wondering where it came from and cursing whatever universe came up with the idea, we brought it with us the entire time.

Most of the time, you’re the only thing standing in your way. Actually, I shouldn’t say “most of the time.” ALL of the time. No one can prevent you from success except yourself. You make the decisions regarding your life – or you don’t. You set that wall in your path. And you CAN take it down. Even if it looks impossible to shift. After all, it’s a construct of your mind. That means you can decide what the wall’s made of. Maybe it’s an illusion. Or perhaps it’s constructed of gelatin, and you can push through it. What if it crumbles as soon as you touch it? Or, hell, conjure a sledgehammer and SMASH your way to the other side!

I’m a master of self-sabotage. I make excuses for not taking that next step:

  • “Maybe they won’t like my proposal.”
  • “The story isn’t good enough for that market.”
  • “I don’t have enough experience to compete with other professionals for that job.”
  • “My style’s too off-beat for them.”

Sometimes, I spent so much time behind the wall, the opportunity slipped away. A few times, I shattered the wall in time to succeed. But even those successes haven’t stopped me from putting up walls and doubting myself. The underlying lack of self-confidence holds me back. Which is crazy! Is there a guarantee I’m always going to succeed? Of course not. But if I NEVER take the chance, I fail 100% of the time!

The wall’s comfortable; I won’t deny that. It’s a safe refuge where nothing happens. But that’s just it – NOTHING happens. No forward momentum. Everything exists on the other side. And I’m stuck pacing around with my anxiety and depression. Why? I can look back and see how far I’ve come, and I’m going to stop so close to my goals?

Sounds silly when I think of it that way.

It’s easier to blame the wall on an outside force. And it’s definitely easier to engage in self-sabotage. We won’t fail. And no one likes failure. But staring at a wall for eternity? Who wants to do that? Pick up your sledgehammer and get to the other side. And do it sooner rather than later. Too many opportunities come with expirations. The last thing you want to do is kick yourself for missing out on them.