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

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.