mental health

Roar

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

Even today – NOW – women STRUGGLE with social standards.

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

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

Women are EQUAL to men!

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

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

It HAS to stop.

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

And I said NOTHING.

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

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

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

mental health

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

Embrace the Happy

"Just Be"
Image by John Hain from Pixabay

Let me set up the scenario for you: something amazing just happened (you choose the amazing because that definition is different for everyone), and you are dancing on air. You can’t wait to share the news with everyone around you, hoping for the same cheer and light to infuse their day, even if it’s just for a fleeting moment. You can barely keep still, and the words jumble together. If you battle depression, this moment shines even brighter for you because it means you’ve climbed out of the pit and felt the sun on your face for the first time in days, weeks, maybe even months. Your face feels like it might split wide open, you’re smiling so bright. Your present your news and pause for the reaction.

And they just stare at you.

The entire world falls back around you in shatters, and you feel like a complete and utter fool. If you’re really unlucky, you receive a lecture about having the nerve to be so cheerful during “this time” (I’m not referring to any time in particular – sure we’re experiencing COVID-19 right now, the upheaval of race relations, the trauma of LGBTQ rights being revoked, but there are also individual times that get thrown at you). All of the life goes out of you, and the chasm splits under your feet to cast you back into the pit.

How DARE you be happy?

Because no one on this planet is ever allowed to be happy (well, except for them, of course – don’t you dare ever consider doing the same thing to them). Happiness must be squashed out at every turn, crushed into the mud and silenced lest it brighten the world. You spend 95% of your life depressed and miserable, and – dammit – people want to push that to 100%. What’s the phrase: misery shared is misery halved? Yeah, that’s bullshit; misery shared is misery compounded.

The truth is you have every right to be happy, regardless of when it happens. It’s not like you have a crystal ball to predict and plan out your moments. Happiness is random, spontaneous, and, frankly, the times it needs to be shared are when everything is falling apart. You can’t just save it up until “time is right” – who knows when that might happen? Do you want to wait months to share the news that you got a job? Got engaged? Are pregnant? Bought a house? Finished a story? Will you still feel the same rush of joy months down the road?

Of course not!

Share the news when you have it (not before – you’ll jinx it). Don’t feel guilty about your happiness, and don’t let anyone rob you of your joy and excitement. You’re entitled to be happy! Every person on this planet has that right! If the people around you feel a need to lecture, then they aren’t the people you need in your circle. You should be allowed to be yourself at all times with the people who support you, and that includes being allowed to share good news – whenever it happens.

If you wait until the “right moment” for something…are you prepared for that moment to never happen?

mental health

Dream Out Loud

Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay

Our dreams are one of the few things we don’t mind sharing with people. I’m not talking about our nightly dreams (though we often share those, as well – especially the weird ones); I’m referencing our dreams for our lives. I mean the dreams that follow the fateful words, “What I really want to do is…” The words are said in wistful tones, as if we feel they’re completely impossible.

NOTHING is impossible.

We conceived of those dreams – those GOALS – for a reason, and it wasn’t so we could stare longingly at them for eternity. You might have put that dream up on a pedestal, but somewhere, in the deep recesses of your mind, it was a finish line – ACHIEVABLE. No, it wasn’t necessarily achievable tomorrow or even next week, but marathons aren’t sprints (and I don’t run, anyway). Sure, people laughed or scoffed, but those hypocrites have their own dreams – they just didn’t tell you between their derision.

To quote Tangled: “Everyone has a dream.”

And you have two choices on what to do with that precious little star: you can continue to stare at it on the pedestal for the rest of your life (it’s a popular choice – plenty of people opt to do so), or you can pull up your britches and actually DO SOMETHING that carries you towards that finish line. Not many people choose that second option. Why would they? It involves work, it involves risk, and it’s scary as hell. Sitting on your butt and admiring the image of the dream from afar is much simpler, and there’s no chance involved. There’s also no gain, no achievement, and no satisfaction.

See where I’m going?

I sat in the former group for a long time. I was terrified of taking the step off the edge of the cliff, and I believed all of the detractors who scorned me. I’m an intelligent person, and I knew the odds of success – it wasn’t hard to accept my failure. Except that you ARE a failure when you don’t even try (fun little caveat). And I don’t accept failure – I’m not that kind of person. So I summoned every drop of courage, crept up to the very edge of the cliff, and got some encouragement to slide my foot off the edge (read that as one of friends THREW me off the cliff – and she didn’t check to ensure I had a parachute first, either).

Guess what happened?

I fell to the bottom of the chasm, mangled and bleeding.

Just kidding – I’m now working my dream job. My stress level has bottomed out (I’m not going to discuss the current quarantine stress – that’s separate), my health has improved, and my happiness has skyrocketed. I feel like MYSELF for the first time in eons, and my confidence has returned. All because I took the risk of standing up and deciding I wanted to follow that dream. I defied the naysayers, the odds, and my nagging doubts and took the chance on that glittering finish line.

Would I say I’ve achieved everything I dreamed of? Of course not, but that’s the beautiful thing about dreams – you get to keep dreaming. You get to keep moving that finish line further out and running towards it (okay, walking towards it – I’m still not going to run). The only person standing in your way is you.

So are you going to continue to stand there, or are you going to MOVE?

mental health

Nothing Ventured…Everything Lost

If you dare nothing,

then when the day is over,

nothing is all you will have gained.

~Neil Gaiman, THE GRAVEYARD BOOK

Everyone out there has dreams: little dreams, big dreams, supposedly impossible dreams (okay, if you’re dreaming about being made ruler of the entire world, that one is impossible – because my tiny demon has that one in the bag). Everyone has probably also shared those dreams with other people and heard variations on the following theme, “Yeah…that’s not going to happen,” or “Do you know what that would cost you?”

Then one of these happen: you bury that dream in the backyard (with or without funeral rites), you laugh it off as a joke (“I can’t believe you thought I was serious!”), you channel your disappointment and/or frustration into about twenty pages of journaling that no one will ever see, or you turn those words into a fire of determination to prove the idiot wrong.

Guess which one is LEAST likely?

Risk is scary, and following a dream is crazy-risky. It takes hard work, commitment, and sacrifice – not just on your part, but on the part of the people around you. You may be the one standing on the edge of the cliff, ready to jump, but those people have to be prepared to LET you. They don’t know that you have any idea of what you’re doing (frankly, neither do you), but you have to convince them to untie the safety line, stop holding your hand, and let you take that leap.

Not to mention, then YOU have to jump.

Taking risks is what makes us ALIVE; it gives our existence MEANING. Otherwise, we’re just plodding along a set path like robots. And following a dream – no matter how large or small – involves taking a risk. Maybe it means choosing a different career, or starting your own business, or showing your artwork (whatever the medium) to a critic…or just the public. It’s a risk that invites failure, and that is HORRIFYING. People don’t want to fail, don’t want to have to scrape back to those nay-sayers and admit you screwed up.

Which is why we often end up huddled on that cliff, looking over the edge and just sit there…for days…for weeks…for months…for years. Eventually, our friends and family get tired of watching us, and they drift away (can you blame them? How long are you going to stand there and watch for something amazing to happen?). They took a risk in believing, and it isn’t panning out.

Take the jump!

What’s the worst that can happen? Okay, yeah, you can fail and plunge to the bottom of the cliff. You’ll learn something, at least. Maybe you’ll be a little battered and bruised when you climb back to the top and try again, but you’ll have some rudimentary wings to help the second time around. You’ll have a new energy, a new drive to take that chance again. And maybe, this time, your jump won’t end in disaster.

The best part is, when you’re willing to take a risk, people are willing to stand behind you and cheer you on. People love determination, and they cheer for people who face up to fear. You can inspire someone else to take their own risk, to reach for their own dream.

Or you can huddle on the edge of that cliff for the rest of your life, wondering what could have been. The choice is yours.

mental health

Open Brain – Insert Reason

Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.

~Martin Luther King, Jr.

By now, you have probably had the unfortunate experience of witnessing first-hand what happens when human beings go into idiotic panic mode. It is really easy to point fingers at governments or media as the source of the problem – and I won’t deny that they have a share in the blame – but the truth is that the majority of that blame comes right back home to rest with each and every individual who ran out blindly without a single thought in their head. They forgot they were rational creatures, capable of reason, and turned into a mob of insanity that generated an entirely new problem.

Because we really needed a new problem.

When I was getting my Wreck Diver certification, they put us through an exercise that has stuck with me ever since, especially in these kinds of situations. Our masks were lined with aluminum foil so we couldn’t see out of them, and then we had to dive in a pool full of obstacles – this simulated a dive where visibility was lost and you needed to navigate blind (a real possibility in caves or wrecks). We ended up tangled in ropes, caught on pool hooks, and our instructors would turn off the air on our tanks (lots of fun). The purpose of the exercise was to teach us one simple thing: when a situation arose, our first reaction wasn’t to panic (that gets you dead), but to stop and think about what was going on first and THEN figure out how to react.

Every last one of us failed the first time.

It was hard – especially when you realized air was no longer flowing through the regulator – to think first instead of reacting first. Once they hauled us out of the pool and told us that we were killing ourselves, though, things started to make sense. No, air wasn’t flowing, but we still had air in our lungs, and provided we DIDN’T panic, we weren’t going to suffocate instantaneously. The second time around, when we stopped, thought about where the tank was on our backs, and how to reach the valve, we did fine. The same with all of the other obstacles. It didn’t even take long to stop and think before puzzling out the problem and how to correct it (crucial when you’re diving and might have a limited air supply).

Guess what? Lesson works in real life.

For some strange reason, people want to panic first and think…well, they don’t want to think; they decide that thinking is overrated, that Fake News, or an idiot with a big mouth is good enough for them. For some, it does go back to school and the fact that we’re failing to teach children to think for themselves anymore. For others, they slip into hysteria and forget that they ever learned the skill in the first place. Either way, it’s damaging – to everyone. I’m not saying that you have to adopt the pose of The Thinker and write out a 10-page essay on the topic, but take a breath and ask yourself, “Wait a second – what am I reacting to?”

I’d like to say this has always benefited me, but since not everyone in the world thinks, it hasn’t. I can say, with a clear conscience, that I have employed this lesson to myself before I’ve done anything – though I stretch it a bit into the overthinking realm (you do have to learn where to stop). People don’t like to think – it’s uncomfortable (for some, it’s painful – you can see it on their faces), it makes them responsible, and it sets them against the grain of the mob. However, if the mob is hurtling off the cliff, why do you want to go with them?

Thinking is not illegal – yet. And as soon as it DOES become illegal, we need to stand up and question why because there’s a problem. It doesn’t take much time or effort to ask a single question of yourself before you react to anything. Thinking is a quick process, for the most part, and it saves you from looking like a complete and utter moron.

Or you can always blindly follow the mob off the cliff. But it’s a little late to question why when you’re falling onto the rocks.

mental health

Be Anyone but Yourself

I've always loved the idea of not being what people expect me to be. - Dita Von Teese

One of the biggest lies you will ever hear from another human being has to be, “Be yourself.” Those two little words come from everyone: family, friends, teachers, motivational posters in medical offices. The words come in the form of empowered scripts, cute kittens, every range of emoji, and endorsement by any number of celebrities. Indoctrination begins way back in kindergarten and follows you into adulthood, becoming more and more of a parroted line with every recitation. Now, I’m not condemning the sentiment or even every person who tells you to, “Be yourself,” because there probably are people who were – and are – genuinely honest. Let’s be real, though: the vast majority of people say those words with a little tiny caveat attached.

Be yourself…with the following conditions.

People really don’t like us to be ourselves; they like it when we’re THEIR version of ourselves. So, be yourself…but don’t wear that, don’t say that, don’t speak up, don’t join that group, do join that group, don’t write that way, don’t associate with those people, don’t vote for that person, do vote for that person, don’t support that cause, don’t color your hair that shade, don’t color your hair at all, don’t wear your hair in that style, don’t wear glasses, do wear glasses but not that style, don’t listen to that music, etc., etc., etc. The list goes on and on and on, and suddenly you’re no longer yourself, you’re a ridiculous clone of the person who told you to, “Be yourself.” Sometimes, you can’t even remember who you actually ARE. Did I really like Top 40 music? Do I even like reading mysteries? Have I always liked the color green? When did I sign up as a member of the Walking History Tour Fans? How did I ever end up with green braids in my hair? Suddenly, you find yourself staring in the mirror, struggling to figure out who the hell that person is looking back at you – not because of depression or any other mental imbalance, but because you’ve lost your personal identity under a tidal wave of, “Be yourself!”

Actually being yourself means NOT listening to those people. It means closing out all of the other voices when you make your daily decisions, not worrying about what someone else is going to think about your choice. Not everyone is going to agree with you (that’s a good thing, by the way), and they’re going to make faces, and they’re going to roll their eyes, and they’re going to say things – usually worded quite cleverly – to make you question yourself. They do that because they want you to BE LIKE THEM! Consider that when you hear that slight inflection at the end of their words questioning your decision. After all, cutting your hair super short and dyeing it ice-blue isn’t going to end the world (personal experience, here). Speaking your mind, rather than keeping things bottled up and eating you alive inside, may or may not be detrimental – depends on how you say things – but it’s a thousand times better than keeping pain inside, allowing it to fester and destroy you. Honesty isn’t going to win you a lot of friends, but it is always, always, always the best policy.

If you can look in the mirror and see YOU – 100%, genuine, YOU – and be content, then that’s a win. It likely means disappointing people, annoying people, aggravating people (all of which has the potential to be fun, if you look at it the right way), but where lies the greater peace? Making everyone else happy, or making yourself happy? Looking in the mirror and seeing the Indianapolis 500 version of yourself, created by everyone around you, or looking in the mirror and seeing the you that you have worked so hard to create yourself?