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.

mental health

Big-Brained and Beautiful

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

Big mistake.

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

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

Never let on how smart you really are.

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

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

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

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

Madness, right?!

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

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

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

And it’s WRONG!

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

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

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

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

mental health

Out of the Box

“The further you get away from yourself, the more challenging it is. Not to be in your comfort zone is great fun.”

~Benedict Cumberbatch

There are plenty of people out there that like to stick to their plans, never deviating from the precise details they spent so much time working out – and that is definitely one way to go about things. Hell, I spent a lot of my life following that pattern; I accomplished exactly what I set out to achieve.

Yay.

If that’s all you want – the success of a job well done – then, by all means, keep to the paved path. However, if you want to flex your muscles even the tiniest bit, you’re going to have to grit your teeth and set some challenges. I don’t mean goals (you do need those, of course) – I mean out-of-the-box, out of your comfort zone, risky challenges. These are steps that still coincide with your ultimate dream, but they’re not on that careful map you worked so hard on. They involve a stretch of your creativity, and they’re probably scary (in fact, the more they scare you, the better). Those kind of challenges.

You want your blood pumping.

Why? Because, ultimately, those challenges make you a stronger person. They push you to grow beyond the boundaries you thought you had (crazy when you discover how far you can really go), and they teach you skills you never imagined you were capable of.

Maybe you’ve only ever written fantasy or literary fiction. This time, you sit down to try something new, a strange idea you’d never consider normally because it’s not what “you’re known for.” Did you know you could write that level of horror?

You help tinker around with electronics every day, and you can repair just about anything someone hands you. You have endless boxes of parts and equipment stacked up in your garage, collecting dust, so you decide to go through them, just to see what’s there. Did you imagine you could assemble an entire computer from scratch?

Whenever you’re bored, you putter around in the kitchen. You’ve made cookies dozens of times, and you can bake a mean cupcake – everyone tells you this on a regular basis. You’ve never attempted anything “significant,” though because you’re just a home baker. Did you have any idea you could bake a tiered cake with your own two hands?

You love attending cons, and you marvel at the ingenuity in the people around you; they’re so talented. You wish you had more to offer than your comic t-shirts and cat ear-headband. You’ve glued some foam together before, but you’ve never even touched a sewing machine. Did you realize you could sew a unique costume from a design in your head?

Stop sitting in the box!

Yeah, the outside of the box is unknown territory, and the challenge is as daunting as scaling a mountain. The feeling you get when you reach the peak, though…nothing feels that good. You amaze yourself, and you start to wonder more, to ask yourself more questions.

“If I did this, what else can I do?”

Suddenly, your checklist of dreams gains color and depth, and it becomes even better than it was before. Those challenges drive you forward in a way you wouldn’t believe. They have a way of silencing doubt and bolstering confidence. Yes, you have to overcome the shivers and hesitation each time, but the risk is worth it. I challenge myself with my writing all the time: can I handle this topic? Should I pitch this article? Maybe I should try setting this in this genre? The rewards have paid off each time, and my writing has continued to improve. If I hadn’t challenged myself, I wouldn’t have some of the contracts I do, I’d only have a handful of insipid short stories, and I wouldn’t have half of the novels I’m working on. I would have hamstrung myself.

Think about what you’re trying to accomplish, and then think of something just outside of reach, something that scares you. Then go do it.

mental health

Write It, Mean it

“Aim higher in case you fall short.”

~Suzanne Collins, Catching Fire

So we’ve set out our dreams, and we have that finish line clear in our minds. Odds are even fair that you have some goals in mind that will provide the rungs on the ladder you need to ascend the pedestal to achieve that dream (at least, I hope you aren’t one of those people sitting on the floor and expecting the dream to just fall in your lap). A reasonable checklist is perfect, and it breaks down the journey into manageable “bites” that makes that dream feel achievable. But there’s a critical problem people tend to forget when they set goals:

They leave those goals in their head.

I have a great memory (not bragging, just stating a clear fact), but even I lose things into a black hole at times. Guess which things are usually the first to go? Everything really important – like that super-important checklist of goals I worked so hard on. (You know that super-safe place you put things in and then promptly forget? Same concept) It’s self-sabotage at it’s best, and you end up shrugging and waving at your dream.

I’m not advocating you share your goals on social media, because I’m not – that’s stupid. Never share your goals with other people. People will sabotage you, too, especially if you start doing well. Share your goals AFTER you’ve accomplished them, when people can’t do anything to interfere. However, you have to get the checklist out of your brain and commit it to reality (not that I’m suggesting your brain doesn’t exist in reality, but…well, you get the idea).

Write your goals down!

Whether this means writing it out in a notebook, writing it across a whiteboard you keep in your work space, or even painting it across a wall – so long as it is printed out in your hand somewhere you can see it EVERY SINGLE DAY. What does this do? This wonderful concept called self-responsibility. It’s hard to avoid working on those goals if they’re staring you in the face day after day (seriously – can you avoid a cat or dog sitting in your face? No). Guilt will start to build up if you put things off, and it will drive you forward.

Plus, hello? Checklists!

How can you resist the lure of getting to mark off an empty checkbox? I certainly can’t! I love getting to put an X in that box, and it feels AMAZING. Even if it was for something simple (i.e., a work assignment), I get a shivery feeling of accomplishment. You get the same sense when you write out your goals and check off each step. Then you get to look back and see how far you’ve come – bonus feeling!

You create the ladder toward your own success, and you see your journey of accomplishment. It boosts your confidence, it boosts your sense of self, and it brings that dream within reach. With that checklist drifting around in your brain – a nebulous concept – you don’t have the same feeling. Did you come up with that step a month ago or yesterday? Did you remember to do that step yet? Did you think about how to break down that goal into individual parts? It’s just more difficult, and it can become more frustrating – to the point that you skip it entirely.

You want that dream – you know that – so sit down and write out how you’re going to get there. Write out every goal, every step you need to get there. Then make sure you can see those goals every day. Otherwise, your dream is going to stay on that pedestal forever, and you’re going to stay miserable.

mental health

Stage This

‘And if one day, she said, really crying now, ‘you look back and you feel bad for being so angry, if you feel bad for being so angry at me that you couldn’t even speak to me, then you have to know, Conor, you have to that is was okay. It was okay. That I knew. I know, okay? I know everything you need to tell me without you having to say it out loud.’

~Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls

Grief impacts everyone at some point in their lives, and it can come in a lot of different forms. We experience loss of loved ones: family members, friends, pets (though I rank them in the first category), significant others. We lose jobs or opportunities that meant the world to us. We have property taken from us through various means. All of it strikes us to the soul, and we’re plunged into despair – which people understand. After all, psychology informs us that there are five stages of grief we’re allowed to experience.

And then we move on and get over it.

Except that’s a load of crap. We aren’t robots – we don’t follow programming, regardless of what doctors with medical degrees tell us. Stages or no, everyone goes through the grieving process differently. Maybe we mix up those stages, maybe we skip stages entirely, or maybe we decide to stay in a single stage and never progress beyond it. Does that make us wrong or backward or [insert medical jargon here]?

Of course not!

Everyone experiences grief differently. How you go through the grieving process depends on the kind of person you are, the loss you experienced, and how the loss came about. I have not grieved the loss of any of my cats the same way because I haven’t lost them in the same manner (you may not relate, but I can’t have children, so they are my kids). Mischief was hospitalized for several days for a condition called diabetic ketoacidosis and rapidly declined. Nimue had lymphoma, and the second round of chemotherapy was failing. Talisman developed acute renal failure. Necile declined over several months (likely cancer) and was wasting away.

Each time, I had to make the decision, and each time was pure agony that ripped out my heart. But the grief wasn’t the same. I wasn’t prepared for Mischief or Talisman because their conditions were sudden – Tali’s more so than Mischief’s. I knew Nimue and Necile were coming, and the knowledge hovered in the back of my head for months, but the grief was no less for that. Did it hit me any less when the time came? Maybe, but it still ripped through me.

To this day, I see pictures of them, and I cry. I hear the song, “Memory” from Cats and think of Mischief (she always sat with me when I listened to the soundtrack). I watch the live-action version of Beauty and the Beast and sob because Tali sat with me when I first brought the DVD home. I can’t let go of the sadness attached to the memories and “move on” as everyone insists I should. They were a huge part of my life, and I cannot detach that and pretend it’s gone. What insane moron would expect that?!

When the grief was fresh, I isolated myself and ignored everyone around me. They all wanted to hug me and say the same exact thing:

“I’m sorry.”

“I’m thinking about you.”

“I know how you feel.”

Tripe.

It’s what’s said when you have nothing better to say – when you’re mind goes blank because you KNOW you can’t say anything. You have NO IDEA how that person feels! You have NO IDEA what they’re going through! But not saying anything is frowned upon. And if they continue beyond the proscribed grieving period, you’re supposed to nudge them forward into sunshine and light.

Leave them be!

Let a person feel the emotion they need to feel! Don’t spout the conventions! Be honest: Tell them you can’t imagine what they’re feeling! Let them scream, let them break things, let them cry for hours or days or weeks. Let them sit in silence. Let them experience the grief how they need to. If you’re a friend, let them do what they need to, and be there for them.

It rips my heart out every single time I read it, but A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness is the best book I have ever read on the subject of grief and letting go. It’s a quick read (a couple hours), but don’t read it before bed because you’re not going to sleep, you’re going to cry. It’s a realistic portrayal of grief, and the movie was a faithful representation, though it does leave a couple of key scenes out.

Take the time and the means you need and grieve your losses. The world is still going to turn (I know that sounds harsh, but it’s true) while you do. If you make people uncomfortable, good – more people need to be.