An Endless Cycle

“One person’s craziness is another person’s reality.”

~Tim Burton

Even on good days, people with anxiety undergo complicated thought processes. They look around at the world and see a million different possibilities. Not all of them are negative, either. (Something critics overlook) Each action comes with a seemingly endless list of reactions. And that’s a lot for one fragile brain to cope with.

So it shifts some of the energy.

Have you ever seen someone break or pick at their fingernails? How about a person pulling out their eyelashes or eyebrows? (And I don’t mean people that choose to pluck their eyebrows for whatever fashion trend happens to flood social media) Some run the edge of their fingernail along another finger, occasionally breaking the skin. Others pull on their joints, almost unconsciously. (Not cracking knuckles – that’s different…and highly annoying, I might add) I could go on and on, listing more destructive habits. Tiny acts of self-mutilation that don’t gain attention because they slide under the radar.

And then there are even more sinister habits.

Things people do that those around them never know of or even suspect. Desperate acts that grow worse and worse with mounting anxiety. Because the brain gets overwhelmed and needs to push the frenetic excess SOMEWHERE. Into a quasi-OCD. Me? I write out words on my fingertips. Except there’s a strict rule: I can only go two letters at a time. And if the word comes out uneven? Yeah, my anxiety goes up. So then I search through the sentence and add more words…or punctuation. Anything to hit an even number. Feeding my anxiety what it craves – and distracting my addled brain from the whirlpool it was already stuck in.

And not one person around me has a clue.

The nails? The pulling of my fingers? The eyelashes? Yeah, people have noticed those. My husband watches for when I start twisting my fingers together. And I don’t even know I’m doing it at times. Panic sets in, and it’s an unconscious reaction. He’ll reach over and pry my hands apart. And other people would comment on the state of my fingernails or say it was disgusting I was pulling out eyelashes. It took FOREVER to break those habits. They never asked WHY, simply felt the actions were repulsive.

Are they elements of self-harm? Of course they are. Are they intentional? No. That’s the difference. It’s a spontaneous response of the body to the emotion built up beneath the surface. So’s my spelling obsession. I don’t exhibit OCD tendencies anywhere else. But when my anxiety hits it’s limit, I start writing words out on my fingertips. It’s my signal of, “Holy shit, we’re in trouble!” And trying to STOP? I’d have better luck stopping a train at top speed.

Anxiety comes with consequences people NEVER realize.

Figuring out the link between the two took me YEARS. And I don’t know why the spelling started in the first place. (I LOATHED spelling bees in school) Nor do I know why I pull on my fingers. It HURTS, and I’m not really a fan of pain. But the signals eventually DO get through. It’s a desperate plea from the brain that I’ve failed to cut off the anxiety flow.

Everyone has coping mechanisms their body develops. And they’re not always healthy. You start to puzzle them out. And then you have to figure out how to break them. The spelling may not cause any damage physically, but it drives me NUTS. I’ll spend HOURS writing out every sentence I hear! WHILE telling myself the exercise is insane. But getting my fingers to stop moving feels impossible. I trade one anxiety for another. Not the healthiest practice in the world.

But, as the say, acknowledging the problem is the first step. And while I may spend A LOT of time screaming in my head (or laughing at myself), I’m at least aware of the issue. The distraction shakes things up – and it gives my poor thoughts a break of SOME kind. And at least the spelling is a safer coping skill than the self-mutilation my body picked out before.

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.

Our New Normal

The human world – it’s a mess.

Sebastian, THE LITTLE MERMAID

Right about now, everyone’s definition of “normal” has shifted a few degrees. I’m one of the lucky ones: both my fiance’ and I already work from home, and our children have four feet and don’t require school (in fact, the little black and white one is already too smart for her own good), so those aspects of our lives didn’t change. But we lost our ability to go to the gym, our grocery habits had to change, we’re still planning for our wedding, and we like to have a monthly game night with friends.

Enter a level of chaos.

My fiance’ reads the news, and I can feel his stress level increasing (for the sake of my sanity and everyone around me – not to mention inanimate objects in the immediate vicinity – I avoid the news).

I encountered people on Facebook that I thought better of suddenly deciding they were entitled to “hazard pay” and extra vacation time when other friends and family members are working on the REAL front lines, in ACTUAL hazards, without any extra pay or benefits – just begging for proper PPE, and I wanted to scream and demand they take their piece of shit petition down and replace it with an apology (frankly, I still do).

I stare at the wedding prep calendars and the boxes that are unchecked as tasks are delayed due to businesses being closed down as non-essential. It wasn’t too bad when the first orders came out, but now the orders have been extended into June, which eats into my timeline. I’m an organized person who lives by checklists and deadlines, and my stress level is starting to bubble.

Kickboxing has been one of my biggest stress relievers, but that’s closed now, and my only consolation is the classes via Zoom…without a bag. Shadow-boxing isn’t the same, I don’t burn the same level of calories, my living room feels cramped compared to the studio, and I have interference in the form of my four-legged children. I have two other exercise routines via my Nintendo Switch and my Wii U, but it feels lacking, and I miss my partner drills and the camaraderie of the studio. We could kayak, providing we could find somewhere to park the car, but there’s that question mark.

I find myself looking at the frustration, the uncertainty, and my anxiety and depression hover right above my shoulders, waiting to pounce. There’s a lot of negativity feeding both of them, and the outside world is doing it’s damnedest to provide fodder. It is the easiest thing in the world to succumb to either one right now, and those of us who suffer from either are the most susceptible.

So what do you do?

I don’t know what YOU can do, but I can tell you what I’M doing. Maybe somewhere in there you can find something that will point you in the right direction.

First, much as I want to, I’m not giving in to the worst of my desires (other than removing those people from my Feed so I don’t have to see the crap I don’t want to). We have the power to choose what we see and don’t see, what we accept and don’t accept – much as we like to forget that. Clean out the trash. I felt better for it.

Second, I’m helping the people I can. That means, where we can, we’re ordering things for the wedding from Etsy – finding people who are local (i.e., this country) who can use the income. Artisans are hurting right now, small businesses are hurting right now, and going to them helps. We’re ordering take-out/pick-up from restaurants that are still open to provide income to those workers. We’re being smart and ordering ahead of time and not fussing about any delay in the pick-up process. We’re being patient with every person we interact with when we go to the store because we know they’re stressed.

Third, I’m maintaining my routine. I have my schedule set for myself, and I’m sticking to it. Sure, it’s hard to get motivated to write at times, and I know that I’m going to edit a lot of what I’ve written because my heart’s not in it – at least I’m getting words on the screen. If I don’t dissolve into a lump on the couch, I hold the clouds at bay a little bit longer.

Fourth, we’re looking at the things we CAN do. My fiance’ picked up corn hole boards from our local Feed and Seed store (they’re an essential store) that are blank, so we get to paint them ourselves. I have the paint leftover from my craft projects, and now we get to figure out what to paint on them (actually, I already know – my business logo). We’re going through our To Do Lists for the inside and outside of the house and figuring out what can reasonably be accomplished (Lowe’s is open, after all). The outdoor painting has to wait for the idiotic pollen to die down, but we can still plan.

Finally, I’m just doing whatever makes me feel like ME. Whether it’s wearing something fun (I love this moto jacket I just got), playing around with my hair (face it – we’re going to have some scary hair by the end of this), or just dancing around the office for a song – five minutes of feeling great is five minutes that the anxiety and depression don’t stand a chance.

Everything is a mess and chaos right now, and we’re all going to have to face a new normal for a while. It sucks – no one is going to deny that. But it doesn’t mean we have to spiral down into our dark places. We know what waits for us there. Good can wait for us here, if we’re willing to adjust.

The End of the World

Rejection SUCKS. There’s no way I’m even going to try to deny that fact, and I’m sure that Dame Rowling, The Beatles, and Mr. Jobs wouldn’t have bothered to deny it, either. Getting rejected sends a shrapnel-covered ice spear straight through to the very core of your soul that sits there, slowly melting away and reminding you – day in and day out – of its presence. Even worse, you swear that everyone around you can see the damn thing; everyone has to somehow know that you were rejected. Pull that monstrosity out and eliminate the pain sooner? Are you kidding? That shrapnel acts like barbs, and you’re just going to shred everything in the process, and who wants to endure TWICE the pain? Even worse, there’s all of these “flavors” of rejection: professional, personal, relationship, even casual (remember when that taxi driver drove straight past you like you didn’t even exist?). At any given moment, you could be carrying around over TEN spears at once!

Insanity!

There’s an easy solution, of course: never put yourself out there. If you never ask any questions, if you never try anything, if you never lift your head, that spear assassin will never get you in their sight. Well, sure, that removes the anxiety of rejection pain, but it also guarantees that you are never going to get anywhere in life. In fact, you may as well start checking out real estate options for a cave and pricing out plastic bubbles to live in, but that’s basically your future. I’m not positive that will stave off all depression, but you won’t be depressed that that particular someone you’ve had your eye on will turn you down. You won’t have to worry about being turned down for your dream job (or, well, probably any job), and no one will ever tell you, “No,” because…well, you’ll never ask any questions (I’m guessing there isn’t a big demand for living in caves – just don’t pick a nice one). I don’t know about you, but this sounds like a really bleak existence, to me.

Why endure that kind of madness?

This is why taking the risk of rejection exists. Yes, it hurts like hell to get rejected. You feel like you’re entire world is collapsing, you feel like a complete failure/ idiot/ loser (insert your insult of choice), and you slink home to your blanket fort to hide in shame. That “melting time” from the ice spear grants you something, though: reflection. The majority of the time (I’m exempting the relationship section here because some people really just are assholes), there is a reason behind the rejection, and it’s a useful bit of knowledge you can carry forward. Read through or mentally review whatever conversation took place and find keywords or phrases – they’re likely in there, and they likely weren’t personal. Use that information to apply towards the next time.

Writers, artists…well, all professionals do this all the time. Your work gets rejected CONSTANTLY; it’s considered a badge of honor (sometimes, it’s funny – very famous authors were rejected and called hacks by publishing companies). You develop a thick skin (or you give up because the rejection overwhelms you), and you learn to look for those clues. No, you don’t listen to everything, because you don’t necessarily agree with everything, but there are notes you can use to make your work better. The same applies in your life, once you get past that initial wince of gut-wrenching pain. You don’t need to over-analyze (that’s an entirely different kettle of fish), but run things through your head at least once, and ask, “Does this make sense?” It pulls the sting out of the rejection, and it redirects you to a new direction. With luck, that new pathway will get you an acceptance.

Even if it leads to another rejection, just remember: at least warm and safe in your blanket fort, eventually, that ice spear is going to melt; you just have to give it a little time.

An Inconvenient Lie

Always speak the truth, even if your voice shakes.

From the beginning, we’re taught that telling the truth is good and telling lies is bad; it might be lesson one, even before we learn the alphabet. That lesson is supposed to be ingrained on our brains from a very young age – reinforced at periodic intervals by teachers and respectable adults, lest we forget – so that we carry it through with us our entire lives. And I don’t have a problem with that; in fact, I applaud that system because I believe that truth is an important foundation of our society. No, the problem comes in with the fact that no one actually means a single word of the lesson in the first place. That’s right – it’s another case of a statement with an unspoken caveat:

Tell the truth…but only when it meets these specific criteria.

Those little asterisk start to pop up all over the place – a veritable constellation of excuses to water down, “little white lie,” or out-right ignore the facts (and, no, I’m not about to get into politics, so don’t panic). You’re not supposed to, “hurt someone’s feelings,” so people encourage you to skim off the truth when they ask you for an honest opinion. No one wants to be told they’re newborn baby looks like a bright red, screaming, wrinkled potato (I’m sorry, but unless you are pumped full of mommy-to-be hormones, a newborn looks like a newborn…and, just to complete the picture, NO ONE who has just been through labor looks like anything other than a war victim). I am the only person on the face of the planet who WANTS an honest opinion of how I look in a bathing suit (for the love of the Universe, do NOT let me walk out of that dressing room looking like a complete disaster!). As soon as someone uses the words, “give me your honest opinion,” they’re looking for anything else. What they’re really telling you is, “tell me what I want to hear.”

It gets worse than that, though, because there are repercussions to being honest that no one mentions in those oh-so-important lessons. Honesty and telling the truth come back to bite you in the ass in the form of isolation, nastiness, and gossip. People will do everything in their power to convince you NOT to tell the truth ever again. It doesn’t just come from your peers, either: people in positions of authority – people you have been taught your entire life to trust – will encourage you tell the truth and then penalize you for doing so by ignoring it in favor of someone else’s lies or discount your words entirely. Over and over, you are hammered with reasons to back down, to tuck the honesty away; after all, dishonesty gets rewarded and praised all around you on a constant basis. Examples surround us everywhere: television, newspaper, social media, popularized in movies and television shows, in books; lying is placed on an epic pedestal. Truth, in contrast, limps along in the dirt and mud, feebly trying to gain attention, usually without success.

But WHY?

Is it really that difficult to tell the truth? Is honesty that difficult a concept? The majority of little kids manage it just fine (seriously – if you ever want to know how you look in something, just ask a small child). True, if you ask them who broke something in the other room when no adult was present, you’re bound to get a whopper of a story, but when it comes to the rest of life, they have truth down pat. So why have so many people failed at keeping that lesson? And why has it twisted into this cynical point of view where people turn on the truth-teller, ostracizing them and threatening to burn them alive? Are people honestly that afraid of…well, honesty?

"No one is more hated than he who speaks the truth." - Plato

The Neverending Battle

Perfection, to me, means you spend much too much time trying to be perfect.

~Walter Matthau

Truth time: I AGONIZE over these posts. I spend hours and hours thinking through what I want to say, how I want to say it, deciding whether to go with an image or a quote, coming up with just the perfect clever title (side note: I am terrible at titles – not just here but in my other writing), re-writing what I wrote, fixing the formatting, all before letting myself hit that Publish button. And, honestly, half the time I then go back and make edits anyway because I feel like what I said isn’t good enough, or I notice something was worded wrong. Why?

I’m a crazy perfectionist.

I am the kind of person who gets hives if there isn’t a dot above every “i” and a cross over every “t.” And don’t get me start about pictures that are just that nth degree off of center in people’s homes – we’re talking nails on a blackboard. I am that person who has their DVDs, music, and books in alphabetical order (books by author, of course – I’m not psycho…well, manga is by title), and woe-betide the prankster who dares to touch that system. When I hung the pictures in my house, you bet I used the tape measure to make sure everything was precise and even…and then I dared to let someone else move in, and everything went to hell. Now, I gave him a full course on how the house was laid out, where everything went, and how things were to be done. Did he listen? Of course not. He just did as he pleased, and I had to cope with absolute chaos and towels that weren’t folded right. It’s a wonder I ever agreed to marry him (there will DEFINITELY be a part of the vows where I promise to never look at his desk – for my sanity…and his continued existence).

I’ve survived, though – and, more importantly (to him), he has, too (with a lot of suppressed screaming and some additional tutorials). It still doesn’t stop my nasty habit of trying to inflict perfection on my day-to-day life. There is nothing quite so aggravating as finishing cleaning the entire house and watching one of the cats scatter food all over the freshly mopped floor. (Cats, by the way, while believing themselves to be the most perfect creature on the planet do not strive for perfection – fun fact) You want to really destroy a perfectionist? Ask them to sweep up cat litter with a broom and dustpan; that damn last line of litter dust NEVER goes into the pan! The spice jars have to be turned with the label facing forward, the plates and glasses have to be in a line, and don’t get me started on the labels from the Good Thins boxes in the cabinet. It’s order, it’s organization, it’s PEACE. When everything is exact and precise and PERFECT, then the world is set to rights, and everything is okay.

Perfectionism is a cousin of anxiety.

If everything isn’t JUST SO, then worry and nerves start to get into our way, and we start to go into our spirals of panic. It’s a coping mechanism (and I am the first to admit it isn’t a healthy one, but there you have it) to keep that hulking monster of fear and anxiety at bay. If everything is exactly perfect and in its place, then everything is OKAY. If I get 100% and straight As, then Mom and Dad won’t have any reason to yell at me. If I get into a good college and get a degree, then I’ll get a job and become a worthwhile human being. If I do everything I’m told and follow all of the rules, then I’ll never get in trouble. It sounds good, right? I certainly thought so, and it was the model I followed through my life…but it doesn’t work in the real world. Because no one else follows that model. Not everyone follows the rules or even cares about the rules. Not everyone cares about working to full potential. Mom and Dad will always find a reason to yell at you (parents are parents for a reason – it’s their job). You can do everything right and still fail. Perfect FAILS you. And then what do you do?

You set up a new standard of perfect, and… No, forget I said that. You start to realize that maybe that lesson Dad threw your way all those years ago (when you were too young and stupid to actually listen) was accurate: you don’t have to be perfect. Maybe you can let the picture be a tiny bit off-center. Maybe you can let your husband-to-be’s desk look like ground-zero of a massive disaster without yelling at him. Maybe you can write out 3000 words of that next book chapter without deleting all 3000 words and just acknowledge you’re putting sand in the box to build with. Maybe you can realize that people are genuinely idiots, but that’s okay; no one ever said you had to be one of them. You’re a crazy bundle of anxiety with a need to succeed – well, okay. So do it in your own fashion and make THAT your perfection.