mental health

The Other F-Word

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

~Sabaa Tahir, A Torch Against the Night

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

The perfect holiday mood.

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

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

Mental, emotional, physical: failure checks every box.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mental health

“We Go Together Like…”

Ice cream sandwich cookies
Photo by Henry Geddes from Burst

Forget whatever crazy nonsense you might have heard from fairy tales, social media, or your even your own family members. Relationships are meant to be partnerships. Yes, that means an even share of give and take. If you’re involved in anything else, it’s time to BAIL!

I believed the hype for a long time, convinced that that Prince Charming was going to swoop in on a white horse and carry me off to a dream castle. Not only does Prince Charming not exist, his useless cousins drag in on run-over turtles, incapable of asking for directions. And that castle? It’s a run-down apartment in a building without an elevator. (Imagine my disappointment when that particular reality waltzed through the door) Worst of all, I faced a series of morons that either expected me to cater to their every whim, claimed we were equals (and then settled into the former’s habits), or checked out completely and decided our relationship only existed when it was convenient.

Little tough to believe in fairy tales then, believe me.

It took me a long time to realize the Grimm Brothers and Disney got everything wrong. Even worse, I failed to see that my friends who were “blissfully happy” were all lying through their teeth. They just didn’t have the backbone to venture out on their own. So they stayed where they were. And so did I. Clearly, that’s how relationships worked. One person shouldered abuse, misery, and the bulk of the work while someone else sacked out on the couch with their phone or video game controller of choice. Oh, yeah, pure bliss at work!

When I finally came to my senses and recognized my full worth, I saw the situation with fresh eyes. I was being incredibly stupid. Not only was I selling myself short, I was allowing behavior I KNEW was wrong! My parents provided a perfect example the entire time I was growing up of how partnerships worked. How had I lost so much in the translation? Oh, right – because I was terrified of being alone. I let society’s dictate of HAVING to be involve thrust me into bad relationships where mental abuse and cheating got excused – just so I wasn’t single.

So much stupid.

When I woke up and started demanding better, an amazing thing happened: I GOT BETTER! (Crazy, right?) No, my fiance’ does not worship at my feet and give me everything I ask for without hesitation. Frankly, I’d smack the shit out of him if he did. I don’t need someone to do that – it’s not healthy. He DOES work beside me all the time and support my dreams and endeavors without hesitation. THAT I need, in spades. And I do the same for him. We complement one other, filling in the weak places for each other and shoring up the rough edges. Because that’s what a partnership is meant to do. That’s what the fairy tales fail to describe, and it’s why we need to set them aside.

Without saying a word, we divide household chores. We push one another when one of us lagging at something. (Such as physical therapy stretches someone might not be doing – I refuse to admit anything) We keep tabs on how the other is doing when everything decides to fall apart because the world’s experiencing a pandemic. The balance is as delicate as the tang of a sword and as strong as a mountain. If I have to work a little late on a project, he doesn’t ask questions. He might send our youngest cat in to pester me, but he isn’t phased. If he needs to adjust his schedule to take a phone call for work, I balance my workload accordingly.

There’s no complaining, no screaming, no yelling. Everything falls out in a perfect balance – exactly like the ice cream sandwich in the picture (peanut butter and jelly felt too pedestrian). It’s what a relationship is meant to be. It’s what you should aim for. If you don’t have that perfect give-and-take, then ask yourself why not.

mental health

Count to…

“Anybody can become angry — that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way — that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.”

~Aristotle

My father is a blunt person (I inherited a lot of his personality – to the chagrin of my mother). When we were growing up, he took a frank stance with all of us. No, we weren’t supposed to get into fights. Why? Because the person that starts a fight is always the person that gets caught. (Definitely a fact) However, while we were never to throw the first punch, he had no qualms if we threw the second. (Metaphorically or physically)

I took the lesson to heart. While I never laid a finger on anyone (siblings don’t count), I knew exactly where to use my words. I’m a writer, after all, and I always have been. A few well-placed phrases, and I cut people to pieces. (Girls are mean. Anyone that says differently lives in a dream world) With rare exceptions, my emotions built over weeks and even months – gifting me plenty of time to build my arguments. My opponent felt blind-sided, assuming I was working off the top of my head.

And that’s the kicker, isn’t it?

Gut punches fail us. Our brains shut down, overwhelmed with furious emotion. We might as well revert back to grunting Neanderthals. The ability to express our message, our feelings, or even conduct a coherent argument vanishes. Instead, we sputter, our blood pressure surges, and we’re left with kindergarten-level taunting. It isn’t until later (in bed or in the shower), when our body regains homeostasis, that we’re able to construct the sentences we WANTED to use.

Hours too late.

Which is where the adage “count to ten” starts to make sense. When you stop, breathe, and think, you regain common sense. Your blood pressure may not return to normal in that time, but at least it won’t surge into stroke-risk zones. Some call it holding a grudge to bank embers over time before releasing statements. I call it reasonable. You save your brain, you maintain better health, and, honestly, they’re just pissed they can’t respond to your eloquence. Patience is a virtue, after all.

I’m not a person that believes anger is unacceptable or has no place. It’s an emotion, same as happiness or misery; you have a right to feel and express it. I’m not one to condone violence, but getting angry has it’s place. You FEEL angry for a reason, and people have a right to know they’ve pushed you past your tolerance limit. There’s no guarantee they’ll change, but at least you let that frustration into the open.

Holding anger in ISN’T healthy.

Take your time to examine WHAT, exactly, bothers you. Think through your reasons and arguments. THEN let your words out. You won’t dissolve into name-calling and ridicule (or, at least if you do, it’ll be elevated above schoolyard terms), and the vein in your forehead won’t threaten to explode. Calm anger IS a thing. It’s damn hard to react to (and a lot of fun, frankly). Staying ice cold while the other person pushes themselves towards a stroke is therapeutic.

I don’t apologize for feeling and expressing my anger. I’m a human being, and I’m entitled to EVERY emotion I’m capable of. I won’t start a fight. I never have. But I have finished a lot of them.

mental health

Dancing on the Line

Black and white image of trees fading into fog
Photo by Vlad Bagacian from Pexels

Black and white. Us versus them. Right and wrong. This or that. Ever notice how many extremes things appear to come in? People like to turn ANYTHING into an issue with polar opposites, and they set up camps in the two extremes. Then they look at you and expect you to choose one option or the other. Failure to do so, or (universe-forbid) failure to choose the “correct” option results in abuse, sneering, and insistence that you fix your way of thinking.

Because, of course, there’s a giant chasm in the middle.

Oh, wait – no there isn’t. Between those two poles is an entire gradient of colors (or, if you can’t see color, a spectrum of greys). The view from the middle lets you see EVERYTHING. Which, frankly, isn’t a bad thing. In fact, if more people took the time to stand on THAT line, maybe we wouldn’t have to cope with so much sniping and nastiness. (Go figure)

Unpopular truth: There’s no one right way.

Crazy, right? Probably why I spend a lot of time with people casting ugly looks in my direction (don’t worry – I get over it). But it’s how I was raised. I look at things from every angle before I make a decision (and sometimes that decision is to park myself in the very middle). I don’t necessarily LIKE considering issues from the other side (because sometimes the other side is incredibly stupid), but it’s the only way to be fair. It’s a necessary dance in order to remain objective.

Wait, objective with idiots? Yeah, I know – it sucks. My fiance’ shakes his head a lot when I start a conversation with the words, “But think of it from their side.” Does it mean I agree with them? No, not a lot of the time. But it means I need to take five minutes to stop and consider things from the other side. I can’t rush into an argument screaming from my heart. I have to give my brain time to process every angle first. (Don’t you wish everyone did this?)

It won’t win you any friends.

Want an example? I’ve read Mein Kampf. (Not in the original German, but a faithful translation) Hitler was an extremely intelligent man, and the book is a brilliant read – I recommend it to anyone. When I say those words, people act like I’ve executed a country in front of them. Do I agree with what he did? Of course I don’t! But can I admire the brain of the person who wrote that book? Yeah, I can. Can I point out the fact that someone so simple was able to corrupt an entire nation (an entire region) using simple rhetoric and propaganda? Yeah, I can. I can look at BOTH sides of something.

It takes practice and a backbone to dance on the line of objectivity. Standing still while someone rails in your face that you’re a horrible person is difficult. (Of course, unless you agree with them in the first place, you’ll probably have to do the same thing) You need a strong stomach to look at the other side of some issues, too. Again, you DON’T have to agree with them (I don’t support racism, religious intolerance, discrimination of ANY kind, and in our current pandemic situation, I support science and doctors – NOT politicians).

Once you learn to look at both camps, you find yourself sitting outside of them – even when you pick one. They WON’T let you stay inside the tent if you utter a single “but.” And a lot of times, you’ll end up in that fictional middle ground they told you didn’t exist. It gets lonely, but you’ll be stronger for it. While the others are busy screaming at each other, you get to note how similar they actually are (and refuse to acknowledge).

Plus, when you’re willing to learn more, you become a stronger ally. You know what to say to shut someone down when they try to abuse a person you’ve elected to defend. After all, you understand that side as well as they do, right? So you know where to aim your words. (Maybe it’s a LITTLE petty, but I personally take joy in watching bigots deflate and skulk away)

You DON’T have to pick a side, not if you don’t feel comfortable. There’s no chasm between them. You don’t have to remain ignorant of what the other “side” has to say. Knowledge doesn’t make you a traitor, it makes you smart. If your friends can’t accept that, are they the friends you want to keep?