mental health

Not a Molecule Out of Place

“She also said that people who try to control situations all the time are afraid that if they don’t, nothing will work out the way they want.”

~Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Certain people you can spot a mile away: They nudge crooked pictures to rights – in public venues and stranger’s homes. A strange tile in a floor mosaic causes them to twitch. You need to restrain them from tucking tags under collars for random people on the street. Left unattended, they rearrange pens in order of color on reception desks. And (generally) no one wants to tackle a project with them. Two little words follow them wherever they go, spoken in different tones depending on the observer:

Control freak.

There’s one way for everything to get handled, and it’s THEIR way. They usually nitpick the world around them, showing zero concern for the particular environment they find themselves in. Clearly, the host didn’t realize the books on the shelf needed to go in alphabetical order. Or maybe the store owner grew lax and failed to observe the dreadful state of their display. And, of course, no one else in the group has any clue on what they’re doing. It’s better if everything remained in THEIR capable hands. That’s how things get accomplished and turn out perfect and polished, after all.

People HATE control freaks. It’s why the term has developed a negative connotation over the years. Getting saddled to a work shift or group assignment with one of these individuals is pure hell. (Ask anyone) Even those with controlling traits protest the term, denying any identification with the words. Because “control freak” immediately brands you as a monstrous demon, bent on destruction.

As if having your shit together is something to revile.

Because control freaks get work DONE. They look at a situation, analyze the steps required, and then roll up their sleeves. While most people mill around or stare at the ceiling, waiting for some kind of divine inspiration to strike, those with a controlling nature have already broken down the situation and anticipated potential problems. It’s that drive people resent and frown upon. (Nothing worse than motivation, am I right?)

Yes, I get it: having someone point out flaws and constantly inform you of what you’re doing wrong grates on the nerves. That’s where control freaks cross the line. But the negative stigma doesn’t belong. Rather, it needs understanding. And maybe a touch of support.

If you look at people with controlling natures, you’ll usually find underlying cases of anxiety. The ability to shred a situation and find EVERY possible problem comes with that constant whirlpool cycling in the back of their brain. That’s why they demand you do things in a certain way. By keeping everything in a precise order, they’re deflecting one of the tragedies their brain cooked up. (Okay, so the odds of aliens landing in the backyard is slim. But there’s still a 0.000001% chance. So keep your stupid photos aligned!) The order in the chaos soothes the demon in their mind.

But the twist of the lip and scornful tone when people say “control freak” forces people to deny the trait. And, in the same breath, they attempt to deny their anxiety. “I don’t demand people to keep the counter set up this way” is the same sentence as, “I’m not trying to prevent the worst from happening by being prepared.” But people only hear the first defensive statement. And they turn their backs. It doesn’t encourage dialogue. And it won’t help the anxious work through their fears.

Personally, I embrace being a control freak. My way IS the right way. Because I get things done, without mistakes (most of the time; no one’s perfect – though we know I try), in a timely manner, with brilliant results. You can always find everything you need without scrambling, and Cthulhu won’t destroy my house because the books on my shelves are in alphabetical order. (There’s a slight risk of zombie dinosaurs, though, as my husband continues to fold the towels in weird ways) But it took me a long time to embrace the title and recognize the superpowers that rigidity brings.

Don’t get me wrong: I know the negative aspects, too. (For one, everyone hates me) My anxiety often leaves me paralyzed and struggling to take the next step toward my goals. And I need a constant reminder that what flies in MY space isn’t accepted in someone else’s home or workspace. It’s physically painful to sit in a room with a crooked picture. And seeing the damned fast food sign with the reversed words for WEEKS?! Yeah, almost had a coronary.

But control freaks AREN’T the enemy!

We’re the ones you turn to when everything goes to hell. Who do you want when your project falls apart at the last minute? The popular idiot you voted to lead you? Or the control freak who can navigate the problem and bang out a champion solution at minute zero? People with that laser eye for detail are the ones that achieve so-called miracles. They get the spiral working and spit out solutions. And all you have to do is grit your teeth and tolerate them barking orders. (Is that so much to ask?)

Here’s the thing, though: If “control freak” wasn’t so negative, maybe anxious people wouldn’t end up quite so rigid. When I can stop and explain WHY I need things a certain way, I don’t “bite” as much. It lets me get out of my head and explain my fears – hostile dolphin takeovers and all. (Okay, so the fears aren’t this ridiculous. I’m trying to make a point) How often have you stopped and asked someone WHY they need pens lined up in a pentagon? Or why their fingers itch to align books with the edge of the shelf? When did you swallow the words “control freak” and TALK to the person about who motivated their actions?

The drive behind hyper-organization usually comes from anxiety and fear. SOMETHING in our brains urges us to impose restrictions. And once everything’s in line, our brain decides to send the “homeostasis” signal. But if you don’t TALK to us, you can’t understand that. And derisively labeling someone a control freak won’t encourage them to open up. (Nor will it break them of the habit)

Too many negative sentiments find their way into mental health issues. And it’s one of the reasons people hide. Why talk about the anxiety you feel when you see a skip in a pattern if someone’s going to glare at you? More people need to STOP and take a moment to sit down and engage in conversation. One quick question could end SO much stigma. “Why do you feel that way?” (And NOT said in a nasty way!)

The more we set aside our irritation and anger, the better our chances of breaking down the walls and stigmas around too many mental health disorders. Even if that means letting someone instruct you on how to fix your twisted necklace chain.

mental health

Remember Who You Are

“Adults follow paths. Children explore.”

~Neil Gaiman

When someone mentions the words “adult” or “adulthood,” how do you define them? Don’t reach for your dictionary; I’m looking for your personal thoughts on this one. What makes up the bullet points of an adult life in your world? (You don’t need to overthink this one, either. I’m not going to collect a written essay or anything)

Ready to compare answers?

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess you have some variation of the following: responsibility (i.e., paying bills, maintaining a home, showing up for a job every day), respect (okay, so youngsters need to obey laws and demonstrate respect toward authority figures, but they don’t get hit with the consequences as heavily as adults), providing an example for the future generation (assuming you can pry their attention from their screen of choice), or projecting a proper image – whatever that looks like. Did I come close?

Now, obviously, there are a few numerical milestones that separate an adult and child. Legally, an adult can purchase alcohol, vote in political elections, and rent a vehicle. (If you work – even part-time – you get the joy of paying taxes. So kids get to experience that responsibility, whether they like it or not) And, eventually, adults get to retire. But that’s about it. If you strip away those defining characteristics, there isn’t anything that divides an adult from a child.

Sounds crazy, I know, but I’m going somewhere with this.

You’ll find kids out there who end up taking on responsibility at incredibly young ages. They assume the care of their siblings (or themselves). Getting whatever work they can, they take on bills and management of a household – sometimes while scrambling to get to class. It’s a rough life and worse than plenty of adults juggle on a regular basis. And (though it seems to be an infrequent thing these days) kids DO get raised with a demand to show respect to those around them. It’s a demand in certain cultures and family lines. The definitions we use to describe an adult work equally well for younger ages, if we’re willing to turn and look around.

So it goes without saying that the flip side should function, too. If youngsters can step up to the plate and exercise a healthy work ethic, why can’t WE shrug off a suit and jump into a fountain for a few minutes of play? Why do we cross some imaginary threshold and decide we’re above being a kid? Is it the peer pressure thing? Or something else? Maybe that silly “title” of adult? (As if it appears anywhere on your resume or license) I’m going to go with the fact you feel a crazy obligation to look and behave like – well, like an adult. As if anyone actually has a concrete example of what that looks like. (It’s not like you’ll find the costume for sale anywhere)

When we graduate from college (or high school or get our GED), society tells us we’re an adult. You have ZERO preparation for the real world, but you’re shoved out in the cold and told to “do some good.” You stare around at the “adults” and start imitating their behavior, assuming they know what they’re doing. (Newsflash: They have no clue) Of course, you don’t see their crippling depression, the weight of anxieties on their shoulders, or the crumbling family issues they lock behind the front door. Because they struggle to put on a stunning display of carefully kept homes, with art books on tables, conversation pieces on the walls, and furniture that prioritizes form over function. They step outside without a single hair out of place, rattle off every label on their clothing, and wouldn’t dare appear in a photo or video without makeup.

And you buy into this definition of “adult!”

I did. I struggled for years to meet that ideal. It meant waking up early to struggle with cosmetics (to this day, I barely know what I’m doing). I rolled my ankles in heels. I hid my stuffed animals and toys in a corner of the bedroom. And let’s not get started on the weird art I agreed to display on the walls. Slip up and mention I was hitting the movies to see Montsters, Inc.? Everyone looked at me like I’d suggested placing a bomb in the building. Run to the swings at the zoo playground? They asked if I needed to get some water (because, clearly, I had heat stroke). When I wore a pair of dragon earrings, I was pulled aside and asked to remove them; clients might get the wrong impression.

Over and over, the message came clear: being an adult meant a constant cycle of SHAME. At least, when I tried to be myself. And even when I “fell in line,” I received a list of improvements. Nothing remained “right” for long. Is it any wonder those years were filled with the worst of my depression? My highest anxiety? The adult world SUCKED! I couldn’t make anyone happy – least of all myself.

So I stopped trying.

I took a moment to reflect on when I’d been happier. That was easy: as a kid. When I fully embraced being myself. Those times when I threw away the cares and concerns of the world around me and did what I wanted. (Okay, so it didn’t last long in those years, but the brief moments of freedom lingered in the brain) Something in my head clicked: as an adult, no one would hold me back NOW. I could do whatever I wanted. And if I was willing to brave those tongue-clicks from my frowning peers, I had nothing left to fear.

It’s when I decided to was time to be a kid again. I stopped apologizing for ME. No more fighting to duplicate cat eyes or smoky eyes or whatever makeup trend people were espousing. I decided I liked my face without junk on it (and it meant getting to sleep later in the morning). My home underwent a purge, clearing out everything that made no sense to me. And I stopped trying to hide my stuffed animals and toys. My goofy jewelry? Yeah, it’s always going to remain my favorite. (I love that my husband tries to get me artsy stuff) And I have no problem walking up to whatever movie I want to see – or bragging about it.

When I embraced the kid I was – have always been – I took a huge breath in. It was an amazing sigh of relief. And I found this amazing gem you don’t realize exists when you’re young: you care less and less about those raised eyebrows and “for shame” remarks. Kids are bulletproof at some point in their lives. And you can tap into that, if you’re willing to abandon the regiments of being an adult. If you can laugh and play and be YOU, you can find that nugget. It means playing on the swings, dancing in public, dressing up in costumes, and laughing too loud. Which takes guts. But it’s SO worth it.

I don’t think anyone considers me a “stellar example” of an adult. My home won’t show up in any magazine features. And I’m not anyone’s model or muse. I don’t have a giant following on social media. But I also don’t care. I love the life I have. It makes me happy. And I have an outer layer of armor – courtesy of that little girl I decided I wanted to be again. It’s worth ditching the long list of bullshit I was attempting to follow before.

And, crazy as it sounds, it’s done wonders for my skin. (I’m just saying)

mental health

Channeling Ironman

"I am" notebook

When your feet hit the floor in the morning, what’s the first thought that crosses your mind? After you cycle through the usual litany of, “Holy crap, why am I awake?” (obviously). Are you the kind of person that starts running through the tasks you have lined up for the day? Or do you groan over the job you need to drag yourself to? Either way, you’ll find the word “I” working it’s way into those statements. And you fall into one of two possible camps: positive or negative. (And, no, I’m not referring to chipper morning people and those who require a caffeine infusion to function)

Now, before you start fretting, I’m not going to go into that nonsense about needing to smile first thing in the morning to create a rainbow for the day. I’m firmly opposed to smiling at dawn; that shit needs to get banned. How a person decides to crawl out of bed is entirely up to them. And the fact you growl and scowl through your routine doesn’t mean you’re going to strike out the rest of the day. (Karma doesn’t work that way) If it did? I’d be dead by now.

No, I’m focusing in on the words that tumble around in your head in those first few moments. The coherent ones, anyway. (I’ll give anyone a pass that can’t form a functional sentence until they get their first cup of coffee. I share a house with one of you) Not because they set a tone or anything, but because they DO influence the way you view yourself. Those words determine how you’re going to hold yourself for the rest of the day and interact with the world. More importantly, they decide how you’re going to speak to yourself as the hours progress.

And how you continue to talk to and about yourself.

The average person finds positive ways to describe themselves. They get out of bed, look in the mirror, and smile. “I am going to ace that presentation today.” Or they pour a mug of tea and think, “I am confident I can sell that pitch.” The slant of the words they cycle around their brains trends UP. Even if they encounter a bump in the road, they’re able to shrug things off and keep working. The constant reinforcement from their minds buoys them through adversity. It’s why you see a smile on their faces all the time. And why they’re usually morning people, encouraging you to start your day with a grin plastered on your face.

A nice theory, but not always practical.

For those of us with depression, we don’t get a positive voice in the back of our minds. That first glance in the mirror? It’s accompanied with, “I am a disaster. Why did I get out of bed?” Our morning beverage of choice gets stared at with thoughts of, “I am grossly incompetent. No one’s going to hire me.” And that sinister whisper continues to plague us. We get frown lines between our eyes, hunch our shoulders, and avoid eye contact. Hurdles throw us into despair because the only thing waiting to catch us is a mud pit and laughter. All we hear are doubts and reminders of every moment of our lives in which we failed. So getting up in the morning? That’s an ACCOMPLISHMENT in the first place. Asking for a smile on top of things is absurd.

Anyone with depression knows you need to change that inner dialogue. I know, it’s easier said than done. (I’m in that boat, too – remember?) So you start with something small. And something I’ve found that helps is narrowing my focus to two little words: “I am.” What you add after those words can determine which way your mood bends. And it grounds your mind into YOU, forcing you to examine a situation from YOUR point of view. It’s frightening, challenging, and requires supreme effort (we’re talking marathon strength here). But the end reward?

Well, you tell me what you think.

The notebook in the picture? It’s mine. I picked it up in my annual school supply splurge. (I’m not an addict or anything. If you don’t understand, talk to a writer) Within the pages, I keep a few different tallies for my writing, including the number of brave steps I accomplish each week. On Fridays, I then sit down and analyze how I did: with my business, with my mental outlook, and with my emotions. And at the end, I write out an “I am” statement. No matter how I feel the week went, that word MUST be positive. Sometimes it takes me an hour to come up with a way to finish the sentence, especially when I feel frustrated. (Believe me, I want to use “frustrated” ALL the time) But I refuse to accept anything less than a positive shift in my thinking.

This simple (okay, it’s not simple; it’s brutal and exhausting) exercise is already rewriting the patterns in my head. I catch myself reverting to the old way to speaking to myself and cut the flow of words off. It doesn’t mean I WON’T write out those frustrations in my analysis, but I’m not allowed to dwell on them. I HAVE to cycle around to a positive. It’s leading to a fight to keep my thinking on track.

And it’s EXHAUSTING!

But it’s helping. Instead of getting sucked into my usual pit of despair, I’m looking UP to the next step. And I don’t find those voices as overwhelming as I used to. Yes, they’re still there. (Let’s face it, no one’s cured depression) They just don’t own as much real estate in my thoughts as they have in the past.

So take some time out of your day and find an “I am” statement. Write it down. You don’t need to do it in a notebook; a scrap of paper will do. Steam up a mirror and write it there. Look at it and hold it in your mind. And then do it again tomorrow. And the next day. And the next. Train your brain to find a positive assessment about yourself. It’ll quiet all of the negative we battle.

Even if you’re not waking up with a bright, sunny smile every morning.

mental health

Flattery

Photo by Tara Winstead from Pexels

Yes, I’m about to trot out an old saying: “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” If you’re anything like me, you heard the phrase for the first time as a child. Say, when your little sister starts wearing the same outfits as you, joins the same swim team, or attempts to read the same books (despite a five-year age difference). You voiced a complaint and your parents pulled out that old gem to attempt to quell your indignation. And you ignored the sage advice because NOTHING’S more annoying than someone copying everything you do (especially little sisters).

So you missed the lesson.

The phrase dates back to the early 18th century. And while plenty of people twist it into a sarcastic meaning, the origins centered around an unintentional flattery. A person adopts aspects they see in another because they feel they’re POSITIVE. And while it ends up getting viewed as imitation (and usually in a negative light), the intent’s far from it. Younger siblings adopt the mannerisms, habits, and looks of those around them because they ADMIRE them and want to BE them. And while it’s obnoxious to walk into the mall with a “mini me” trailing behind you, it’s an artless form of flattery. (Yes, I know – no one goes to the mall anymore. It used to be a thing, okay?)

These days, everyone’s obsessed with being unique. And I’m entirely for finding and being yourself at all times. But when you exude that kind of confidence, it attracts attention. People turn their heads to watch you walk by. They see things they’ve never thought of. And you INSPIRE them to try the same thing. It’s imitation, sure, but for the RIGHT reasons. And getting defensive about it helps no one – least of all a person brave enough to climb out of their shell. Yet that’s what seems to be happening most of the time.

Everyone develops their social media presence. And – I get it – you work hard to carve out a different space from what already exists. Then you see something SIMILAR and lose your mind over it. (Note: I’m not referring to outright plagiarism here. I DON’T support that in any way, shape, or form) Suddenly, you’re attacking that person, crushing their self-image and turning them into piles of anxiety. All because they took a few of your IDEAS for inspiration. Imitation that FLATTERED the work you did in the first place. And now it’s a quivering pile of misery and depression.

Good job.

I’ll pull from my writing roots here for an example. I participated in a critique group ages ago, before I found the beta-readers I have now. I was still learning the ropes and figuring out the best way to write up my critiques to make them beneficial to the writers. And then I received one of my critiques back. The way the writer broke everything down? It was beautiful. Not to mention providing all of the information I needed to fix the short story. I took their format, made some tweaks for the way I read/edited, and I started using that for my critiques. And I couldn’t wait for the chance to review on of their stories and show them how I’d adapted their template.

Well, that opportunity arose a few weeks later. And, holy hell, you would have thought I committed a crime. They didn’t even pay attention to a word of my critique. Instead, I received a scathing message about how I’d STOLEN their review format. They were going to report me to the head of the group, get me banned, tell every other writer they knew so I wouldn’t find a welcome in any other critique group – it went on and on. Being the fragile newbie writer I was, I couldn’t apologize (or cry) enough. I felt WRETCHED. And I slunk away. I didn’t attempt to find a new critique group for YEARS.

And I did NOTHING wrong!

First, their precious format? No copyright. (And if you DO copyright that kind of thing? You’re a colossal moron) Second, I didn’t plagiarize it. I modified it to work with how I reviewed stories. I LOVED the way they set things out, so I adapted it to work for me. Third, stealing? That implies something malicious. And my intent was far from negative. Exactly like my sister, I was looking up to someone I admired and attempting to follow in their footsteps. And – as much as I hate to admit it – like I did to my sister, they slapped me in the face for my innocent imitation.

People can genuinely demonstrate flattery. They pick out things they admire, enjoy, or find intriguing. And rather than roaring in defiance, I think it’s important to pause and look for those possibilities FIRST. There’s no such thing as an original idea. EVERYTHING exists out there already. Does it have your unique twist on it? Probably not. But the same holds true for someone else. And if you look close enough (take off your angry eyes), you’ll probably see it. Odds are YOU took inspiration from someone – whether you want to admit it or not. Weren’t you trying to flatter them?

Someone somewhere looks up to you. And as long as they’re not photocopying you (with the exception of siblings – you’re out of luck there), what’s the harm? A little bit of imitation isn’t going to kill you. Destroying them, though? You could damage someone in ways you can’t imagine. It took me years to regain my writing confidence. And daring to trust another writing group? I felt like I was stepping in front of a firing squad! I suffered a horrific anxiety attack when I submitted that first short story.

While I’ll allow that there are exceptions to everything, imitation’s not worth getting your blood pressure up. Even if someone’s doing it out of sarcasm, they’re not going to keep it up if you don’t react. Keep being you – 100% – and smile. Accept the flattery and move on.

And remember that siblings WILL grow up…eventually.

mental health

A Necessary Evil?

“There are positive things that come of social media as well as negative.”

~Millie Bobby Brown

Maybe this will demonstrate my age, but when I was a kid (and even a teenager), social media didn’t exist. No smart phones, no digital cameras even – at least, not until the latter part of my youth. Instead of spending every day glued to a mechanical device, flipping through posts, tweets, and photos, we ran around outside like heathens. When you took a picture, you needed to wait for the roll of film to get developed to figure out you looked like a goof. (At the very least, you wafted the Polaroid around for a minute) People traded gossip behind whispers and scribbled notes passed from hand to hand in the back of the classroom. And when someone disliked you? You usually found out via marker on your desk or locker – anonymous bullying.

Sounds vaguely familiar, right?

While social media claims it’s a step ahead of the game, everyone knows the pattern grew out of those high school corridors. And while you’re supposed to register and prove your existence with official emails to prevent anonymous bullying, everyone knows that doesn’t happen. With endless sources available, people create plenty of accounts with the aim to harass or promote themselves. It’s the modern equivalent of gangs and sending yourself flowers on Valentine’s Day. And people continue to get trampled into the dirt, thrown into the corner of the bathroom, and pitched down the stairs. The only difference is no one gets a physical bruise anymore. Oh, right, and there’s no Principal to report to.

I’m not going to lie: I hated school. But I also didn’t fall into any circle of acceptance. As a military brat, I moved throughout my youth, entering and exiting grades. While my peers usually grew up with one another, I stumbled in on established friendships. And, yes, I was weird. I didn’t have the right accent. I knew different histories than the teacher kept reciting. (Newsflash: every region slants things and picks out the elements they want to focus on) I’d traveled from one end of the country to the other and seen and done things no one else had even heard of. As it turned out, no one cared about those things, either. And when I took a few steps away after bubbling about this, that, or the other, I could hear the giggles and ridicule.

Social media? It’s more sinister.

Some people WILL laugh at you directly. But you have the potential to interact with people from around the world. And that means you won’t see them sitting at their computer, falling out of their chair at your remark. Instead, you stumble across the sarcastic video where they mimic the way you talk, or quote something you said. And you get to see everyone else laughing in response. Or you attempt to join a conversation and find yourself squeezed out (or ignored). It’s the bullying of the past multiplied by an infinite number. And it’s ACCEPTED by the masses! Because social media found its niche with generations that never experienced the real thing. So they thrive within the safe walls of their little worlds where there’s no genuine repercussions for their actions. (Remember: no Principal)

I know, all of the heads of every company promise they have checks and balances in place. It sounds good, but you only need to observe for a few moments to witness the blatant failures. Cyber bullying has sent how many people to their deaths? False news (something so rampant it’s now an official definition) has created how much chaos? Social media took the game of Telephone we played as kids and morphed it into a living, breathing monster and loosed it on the world – with no containment plan. And when someone tries to point out the problem, the “fixes” usually only create a bigger issue.

Social media isn’t going anywhere. Those little wires are firmly embedded into everyone’s brains (coming soon, I have no doubt). And while I despise the damage it wreaks every day, I have to wince and acknowledge the positives it’s brought at the same time. The opportunity the global reach extends for artists is invaluable. Regardless of budget or location, writers, sculptors, painters, and sewers (and everything else you can imagine) have a chance to carve out a small space for themselves. If they can snag ONE person’s interest, the potential exists to grow an audience. Before long, social media grants them a platform and a following. They gain popularity and opportunities to expand their work.

It’s something they often struggled with before.

I resisted the social media fiend for YEARS. While everyone I knew was playing around on MySpace (don’t laugh), I skipped that era entirely. My Facebook account existed simply so I could exchange photos with friends and family around the country. To this day, my friend count? It’s under three digits (shocking, I know). But as a freelancer, I’ve had to admit the platforms out there can help me. And that means gritting my teeth and dropping into the deep end of the pool – with all of the piranhas. These people are VICIOUS, too! As you do everything you can to promote a positive image of who you are and what you have to offer, all you get slammed with is silence, bots (my personal favorite to deal with), or ignorance. It’s enough to make a person give up!

But you see the same story from other artists out there. They’re learning TikTok, Discord, and Twitch. People are setting up Kickstarter projects to branch out projects and flooding social media to spread the word. The persistence drives you to find new ways to market yourself and call attention to the work you’re doing. And (eventually) it pays off. You just have to keep struggling through the quagmire that exists.

Kind of like surviving to graduation.

mental health

Unicorn Without a Horn

Inspirational clothing
Photo by Jane Pham from Pexels

Spend even a few moments in the rabbit hole that is social media, and you’ll find any number of sources of inspiration. People carve out their individual niches for fashion, health and wellness, travel, and (of course) their adorable pets. Maybe you don’t think of those things as “inspiration,” but the images provoke emotions and thoughts – both positive and negative. Oh, sure, some people have shallow aspirations behind their work (i.e., profit), but if you dig deep enough, you’ll stumble upon the artists and thinkers. You can find minds and contemplations worthy of admiration. Maybe you even click those “follow” buttons because of the twinge of inspiration they struck in your thoughts.

That’s how charisma works.

It’s the same principle at work with motivational speakers. Whatever the topic, you find yourself swept up and riveted. Energy zips through your veins and you walk out of the room, ready to conquer the world. Even in a stadium of thousands, you feel an immediate connection to that person. You KNOW they held eye contact – even for a brief moment. The words form a bond with some part of your life. These people inspire you and make you feel that anything – goals, dreams, aspirations – are easily attainable. Charisma and ease infuse their bodies and voices. Without it, you wouldn’t pay attention to more than a sentence of their message – if that.

You can probably name at least five people that inspire you, because of that passionate fire. And they don’t even need to bring it out with a bullhorn. Charisma carries through in art, photography, and writing. Something about the person or their work catches your attention and makes you want to follow them (not literally, of course – that’s stalking and against the law). The people we hold as inspirations make huge impacts on our lives.

But BEING an inspiration? That’s a different story.

Unless you’ve determined to fall into one of those categories, you don’t expect to hear that you inspire someone. In general, people don’t get out of the bed with a eye on their actions and behaviors. Sure, you appreciate recognition for a job well-done, and acknowledgement of your accomplishments always makes your day. But that’s not the same thing as someone stepping out of the woodwork and saying, “You inspire me.”

Wait – what?

I struggle every moment of every day to get my life in order, battle inner demons (who usually win), drown in anxiety loops, and fall down endless steps of failure. Am I inspiring you to NOT be like me? (THAT, at least, makes sense)

The truth is, though, someone somewhere probably DOES look up to you. Even while you’re looking at the shattered disaster of everything wrong in your life (because that’s what people with depression are best at), they’re zeroing in on one thing you did right – and conveniently overlooked. Or, because they aren’t in your head 24/7, they manage to see things from a different perspective than you do. YOU focus on the events that caused all of the scars, but they see the strength it takes to survive the battle to emerge on the other side. And while you feel like a battered disaster area who only just limped over the finish line, they view you as an inspiration who accomplished something other people find impossible.

Crazy, right?

This argument’s been churning around in my head for a few weeks. I didn’t do more than answer a friend’s question. But before I knew it? We were comparing “war wounds” regarding anxiety and worrying about what other people think of us. Suddenly, she threw out that comment of, “You inspire me so much.” I didn’t know what to do, so I sat there like an idiot. I’m NOT an inspiration to anyone. I still go through at least one breakdown a day over SOMETHING. In fact, her words sent me down a new spiral of panic. (Was she making a joke? Did someone put her up to that? Was I misunderstanding the words? What subtext was I overlooking?)

In the end, I fell back on my old stand-by: I’ve gotten where I am through a TON of work and fighting. It deflected the compliment, but it wasn’t a complete lie. But it also didn’t admit how uncomfortable I was with her statement – or the fact that I felt like a complete fraud. I WANTED to tell her that I’m not an inspiration to anyone. I screw up all the time. I make the wrong decision. And figuring out the answers? I’m still working on that. But those all sounded…not inspirational? So I ran and hid (which, you know, is VERY inspirational).

Since then, I’ve thought more on the topic. I’ve looked at the times I’ve spent with my niece and nephew, and the things they say. Kids choose fictional characters for inspiration all the time, and we don’t bat an eye. No one (okay, not NO ONE – but rational individuals) stops them from that admiration. Hell, my niece is a complete and utter badass, and she’s only seven. She inspires me every time she talks or charges out into the world – completely fearless and determined to carve out her place. The time she dressed as Batman for Halloween and corrected everyone that tried to call her Batgirl? Yeah, that’s my girl.

Maybe you DON’T need qualifications to inspire.

So I wrote down a list of other people who check one or two boxes of some sort of inspiration in my life. Whether they make me smile, get me moving, drive me forward in my work, or make me feel like a human being. And while a few motivational speakers popped up, as well as some of my favorite artists, most of the list? Probably not anyone the general public’s heard of. If they’re on MY list, maybe it makes sense that I can show up on someone else’s list. For whatever reason they have (most likely as a cautionary tale).

You don’t know how someone else views what you’re doing. While you’re standing on the edge of the cliff, gasping for breath and staring at the blisters and cuts and cursing the climb, someone else is gazing in wonder that you managed something so monumental. And maybe, MAYBE if you take a second to look at things from their side, you won’t beat yourself up quite as much as normal. It’s a theory, anyway – one I’m trying to implement. Not to be an inspiration to anyone (I have no desire to be one of those), but so you can feel better about yourself and what you’re accomplishing every day.

mental health

Living vs. Surviving

“Some things in life are like ice cream:
They’re only good for a while and then they melt.
The trick is enjoying it and making the most of it while it’s still ice cream.”

~Anonymous

Okay, I’ll start with a disclaimer: when the whole “YOLO” thing broke? I had NO idea what people were talking about. I didn’t know if it was a person, a music album, a physical place, or maybe even a book. (I admit, I probably should have figured the last was a long shot, given how little people reach for written words these past couple decades) It took weeks of seeing those four letters everywhere before I broke down and asked Google what the hell everyone was talking about. Even then, I walked around, mystified. Why was the phrase so popular all of the sudden? Sure, reincarnation features in a few religions. But, for the most part, you DO only get one life. So why was the phrase “You only live once” taking on a new revolution?

Literal thinking? It doesn’t always do you a favor.

That niggling irritation under my thoughts refused to go away. And I found myself skimming through social media posts that used the hashtag. (Note: NEVER do this – it’s a recipe for disaster, particularly when you don’t grasp the concept) Rather than finding myself inspired – as I’m sure the intent was behind the craze – I ended up disgusted and even horrified. Did none of these people have PLANS for their lives? Weren’t they thinking five years, FIVE MINUTES down the road? Considering the stupid phrase popped up among the youth the majority of the time, I wondered whether they thought of the consequences of their actions in the slightest. Or were they simply jumping on a bandwagon – one careening over a cliff…while on fire…and stocked with explosives.

I wasn’t in the same position as most of them, though. (First person to label me as “old” is getting a lecture) I’d already experienced enough of what the Real World had to offer to know better than to throw caution to the wind. Any action I undertook? They all came with hours of anxiety loops as I went through every possible outcome. I was too busy focusing on my career, the bills stacked on my dining table, and wondering if I’d fall down my stairs (don’t laugh – I’m one of the clumsiest people you’ll meet). I couldn’t abandon responsibility for even a few minutes of fun or excitement or life because I was too busy surviving.

And that’s the kicker.

Whether the person to coin the “YOLO” term had the intent (I know the groupies didn’t catch on), the idea behind it or the phrase Carpe Diem is the same: you’re supposed to LIVE. Otherwise, all you’re doing between birth and death is surviving. And while I’ll admit survival’s important (Darwin got that right), you need a stronger goal. We don’t exist in horror or action movies. We get to have more options that making it from Point A to Point B. And it took me FOREVER to figure that out. Actually, I’m still working on getting that concept through my brain.

I’ve passed up more opportunities than I can count because I allowed my anxiety and sense of responsibility to get in the way. Sitting down with a piece of paper, writing out pros and cons, I’ve actually held an internal debate on the merits of buying an article of clothing. And I’m not talking something a I needed (though I’ve done that, too – never mind that every pair of jeans in my dresser didn’t fit); this is a dress or skirt I fell in love with and WANTED but didn’t NEED. My survival instincts kicked in and informed that, as the skirt couldn’t get me through the Apocalypse, there was no point to adding it to my cart. Meanwhile, the tiny voice in the back of my head, begging me to live a little, screamed at me to have a little fun, live a little, and reminded me that zombies aren’t real. But survival won out in the end. Over and over, my need to make it to the grave as a rational, responsible adult took precedence.

Because, you know, they have an entrance exam when you die.

Instead of living my life, I’ve survived it – and not always well. I mean, I’ve never gone to jail, never skipped out on my taxes, and never been implicated in a major act of treason, so I figure I’ve covered the basics. But checking off some of items on my bucket list? That’s fallen into a heavy pile of dust. And not for a lack of opportunity. I turned away from my chances, arguing that I needed to use my time or money for more reasonable options. And some things? They only come around ONCE. Kind of like living. (Ironic, no?)

Trying to get past your screaming anxiety is a major battle. Then you have to fight the responsibility drilled into you from birth. (Side note: being the oldest child SUCKS) It leaves you exhausted, battered, and bruised on the other side most of the time. And you’re usually shaking like a chihuahua when you finally step up to the edge. But when you take that final leap? It feels amazing! You inhale this huge breath of LIFE. Energy rushes through your veins and zaps into your brain. It doesn’t matter how old (or young) you are. You bounce around with the enthusiasm of a five year old. And suddenly? All of those doubts in your mind go quiet.

Well, at least until you find yourself with the next opportunity.

I’m still working on this whole “YOLO” thing, trying to find the proper balance between life and survival. Because I don’t want to sacrifice having a LIFE. And I’m tired of missing out on fun and laughter and enjoyment. I spent over 30 years practicing responsibility. Yippee. You don’t get anything to show for that. No one appears out of the mist to hand you a shiny diploma for “accomplished adulthood.” There’s no special identification card. But the regret? That weighs a TON. And it bends your mind as much as your shoulders.

At the same time, you can’t go insane. Throwing complete caution to the wind is going to compromise the survival part of the equation. And if you don’t allow anxiety and responsibility SOME voice, that cliff with the bandwagon? Yeah, you’re getting a seat in the front row. It’s a careful learning experience. You want to give EVERYONE a chance to speak up – in moderation. And it means learning to ask yourself the right questions. Not, “Am I being frivolous?” (Obviously, you are – that’s how living works) But “Will I regret passing this up?”

When you start learning the feel of those LIFE moments? You can pick them out. And then you can turn to your anxious side and lay out counterarguments. That usually calms down your responsible side (since you clearly thought things through). And the result? A life experience you’ll get to look back on in your final moments.

Sure beats closing your eyes and thinking, “Well, I paid my bills on time.”

mental health

Cracked Vessels

“What is grief if not love persevering?”

~WandaVision

For decades now, I’ve found a trend emerging: odd-numbered years bring the most grief. Line up everything negative and positive that happens, and everything tips down in those years. Even with a pandemic shaking loose last year, 2020 didn’t manage to bring the same crippling blows as the first half of 2021. (And, yes, I’m aware there are still six months remaining to slog through) Going into odd-numbered years requires bracing myself for a never-ending onslaught of abuse from the universe – whether I put on a hopeful outlook or not.

And this year? It’s a winner.

In a handful of months, I’ve witnessed the loss of so many people. Friends and my own family have lost people close to their hearts. I’ve touched on grieving practices before; the myriad ways people handle coping with the holes in their lives. And I’ve seen every possibility, participated in each one. I’ve watched the usual phrases emerge – and had friends come to me because they can’t handle hearing them anymore. I reached a point of not handling them anymore and withdrew. Have we really nothing new to say to one another when our worlds collapse?

The worst phrase I’ve encountered is a variation on, “time will heal the wound.” Excuse me? You’re trying to tell me that, given enough years, I’ll stop feeling the loss? What utter bullshit is that? I look at friends who have experienced the unimaginable this year. Why is there an expectation for them to close up that CRATER and get back to “normal?” Normal fucking went out the window! It’s GONE, permanently. They can’t get it back. NEVER use those words for people undergoing supreme grief.

Because grief doesn’t go away.

I think that’s something I’ve come to realize in the past couple months. As I wrote a farewell letter to my uncle, I reflected on other relatives who’ve slipped away in past years. The pain? It doesn’t hurt any less when I poke at it. Even losses from DECADES ago. So this theory that time closes over chasms within us and puts them to rest is complete bullshit. Perhaps we grow around the wounds, rising above them. But dissolving them away like a wound? No, that doesn’t happen.

Someone shared a post of social media this week that explained grief in a way that makes more sense to me. It showed a series of jars with a ball inside. In the first row, the ball grew smaller and smaller and disappeared. In the second, the ball never changed size. Instead, the jars grew larger. It struck a chord. The first row represents that stupid phrase – and it’s wrong. Time doesn’t heal ANYTHING. The second row is more accurate. The grief remains, often constant. What time does is allow us grow AROUND it.

When I sit in a room and look at the ghosts of those I’ve lost, the pain aches – every bit as fresh as the day they stepped away. Coming from a medical background, I can assure you that doesn’t represent “healing.” Healed wounds cease to cause pain. So why do we still use that stupid phrase? How is that supposed to offer comfort to someone enduring something so horrific?

I think, as I’ve said before, that society is so afraid of “negative” emotions. They refuse to recognize grief as anything positive. There’s no room in our programming to see the pain of loss as anything other than something to get over and move beyond. But I think we need to change that. We feel grief because of the bonds created. That’s positive. And holding that connection, that energy tight? There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a positive asset to a person’s character, I’d say. Why would you want someone to throw away that aspect of themselves?

Yes, I’m a huge geek (I never deny that). And when Vision uttered that quote, I came apart. It captured everything I wanted to say so perfectly. I’ve also held onto the words so much these past few months. They’re the best I’ve been able to share with people – and with myself. I don’t know which writer came up with them, but they’re a genius.

Stop asking people to let go of grief.

Grief is love. And holding onto that love – as strongly and deeply as it started? That isn’t weakness. It isn’t negative. We should promote it.

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

Permanent Stories

“I am a canvas of my experiences, my story is etched in lines and shading, and you can read it on my arms, my legs, my shoulders, and my stomach.”

~Kat Von D

Certain things fall out of your notice after awhile. For instance, I forget that my hair’s blue all the time. When I first dyed it, I was always conscious of the color, and I felt people’s eyes on me constantly. Some of the people who saw the color narrowed their eyes in disapproval, and I hunched my shoulders. (Never mind that I loved it and felt like myself for the first time in ages) Others took the time to come over and compliment me, which made me smile and relax. And kids – especially little girls – loved it, which tickled me to no end. It’s been a few years now, and I’ve gone through several other colors, but blue is the most common. And since it’s ALWAYS colored at this point, I forget about it. So I don’t think anything of people turning to look my way – and I stopped caring about their opinion. It only matters when someone comes over to ask me how I did it (and I feel bad when I admit I don’t – that I rely on my fabulous hairstylist to keep me from looking like a Smurf)

My tattoos are the same way.

Now, there’s a slight caveat there. When I got my first tattoo, my mother was panicked. She was afraid I’d risk losing my job. Even in our current “age of enlightenment,” she felt that tattoos equated to rejection by employers. And she wasn’t entirely wrong. The clinic I worked at had a strict “no visible tattoos” policy. We weren’t in the Bible Belt (where damn near everything is against the rules), but they didn’t want clients getting offended. I’m not sure how a tribal shark and Calico Jack’s Jolly Roger might offend someone, but people can get weird about anything. So I brought my scrub top to the appointment, and we made sure the tattoo wouldn’t be visible when I was working. And I did the same with my second (dragon triquetras being horrific images and all).

Every time I got another tattoo (if you’ve never experienced the process, they’re like potato chips – you can’t stop at just one), I made sure it would remain covered by my scrubs so my mom could rest easy. Because the prejudice against ink kept cropping up. Unlike questions about your marriage status and children, it’s acceptable for an employer to ask if you have ink. And they can demand you cover it up. (So much for enlightenment) I decided it didn’t bother me, but I noticed a difference when out in public – where no such restrictions are in place. During the winter, when my arms and legs were covered (and thus no tattoos were visible), I ended up with those annoying kiosk people at the mall coming up to me ALL THE TIME. My Resting Bitch Face did nothing to deter them. (Yes, I am a master of that expression – most Capricorns are) However, during the warmer months when I had on shorts and tank tops, they decided to avoid me. The only difference between the situations was the visibility of my tattoos. I didn’t change how I walked, the expression I wore, or anything else.

The difference was THEIR perception.

Obviously, I’m not hemmed in on tattoo placement restrictions anymore. While I DO have client conversations via Zoom now and then, I feel zero need to worry that a person might decide I can’t write because I have a tattoo here or there. (And I have grand plans for two more – at least one of which will be my forearm) But the prejudice hasn’t stopped – even within my family.

In December, I added my fifth tattoo. I know I discussed it with my mother, and I even posted pictures on my social media accounts (because it’s adorable and came out fantastic. It’s also my first color tattoo, which I was a little nervous about). Earlier this month, we had a surge of warm temperatures, so I had shorts on when my father dropped by to help us with some home improvement things. It’s hard to miss the tattoo since it takes up most of my thigh, and he immediately commented that he didn’t know I got a new one – in a disapproving tone. I was shocked. One, that he wasn’t already aware of it (I mean, it’s been months – the thing’s completely healed). And two, that he sounded like one of those people on the street that ask if you realize tattoos are permanent. I carefully explained when I’d had it done, and that I’d told Mom about it (assuming she’d tell him). It did nothing to change his expression.

Which sums up the reactions I get out in public. It’s like my hair: some people offer positive comments, while others turn up their noses. Why, yes, as a matter of fact, I know they’re permanent. (For that amount of pain, they damn well better be) I’m not a spur-of-the-moment tattoo person. I plan them over MONTHS. I think through what I want and why. Every tattoo has multiple meanings and reminders for me. I put them where I can see them for that reason. It’s why I’ll never get one on my back – what good is it if I can’t see it every day? These are important stories for me, marking moments in my life that I don’t want to forget. And I know it’s the same for other people that decide to go under the needle.

Tattoos are a person’s identity.

It amazes me, in the age we’re in, that you can still find pockets of prejudice. If hair color, piercings, or tattoos aren’t your thing, that’s fine. But does that give you permission to judge the people who DO want to embrace them? These are people expressing their personal identity. For a lot of us, it’s finally embracing our self-expression – people we’ve hidden away for decades. Your judgement? That’s not needed. We aren’t walking around telling you you look ridiculous buttoned up to the chin and wearing…oh, I don’t know, a wristwatch. (I have no idea where to go with that – mostly because I don’t engage in this behavior) I’m proud of the hours I’ve sat for my tattoos – because it isn’t easy! They fucking HURT! We’re talking holding incredibly still, trying to distract your body as it screams, “What the fuck are we doing?!” Not to mention the weeks after as you engage in care while it heals, and peels, and ITCHES.

Left WITHOUT parental interference, kids don’t judge. They come up to you and examine hair, earrings, and tattoos with interest. They ask questions – and a lot of them are intelligent questions. Have I EVER told a small child they could get a tattoo? No. I always explain it’s something they need to think carefully about and WAIT until they’re 18. With hair, I say they need to ask their parents. I’m not an irresponsible individual (though parents like to make me out to be one – thanks ever so much). Prejudice is LEARNED, it’s not innate. And it needs to stop. People need the freedom to be themselves – whatever that looks like.

Do you want to cover every inch of your skin with ink? Then do it. Want to experiment with every color on your hair? Go for it. Maybe you want to shave your head entirely. Why not? Self-expression represents who you are at your core. There’s nothing wrong with it. Do you need to open yourself to the potential questions? Yeah, you do. But – barring the ignorant – is that such a bad thing? I don’t think so. It gives you an opportunity to open up about YOU. Embrace your self-confidence. You never know when THAT might catch on. And maybe you’ll inspire one of those kids to do the same – away from that misguided parental influence.