mental health

A Thousand [Wrong] Words

My Wedding Picture

Take a look at the photo above and let me know what you see. I’ll tell you my first impressions. The left strap of her dress has come down (she really should have fixed that before the photographer snapped the picture). And I think she needed to pull the dress up, it’s showing too much cleavage. Then there’s the fact that she isn’t smiling (though maybe her smile’s hideous, so who knows – this may be the better option). Her shoulders are rolled a little forward, showing poor posture. She’s incredibly pale, too. You’d think she’d have tanned, right? And while there’s some hint of bone structure at her collar bone, you can easily tell she’s not a thin and trim girl.

Harsh or just realistic?

Now, before you start condemning me to the depths for judging someone like this, the photo’s mine. It’s from my wedding, actually. And I’ve spent plenty of time looking at it and dissecting it. (This is one of my better assessments, truth be told) I’m also the only person to analyze it this way – to my face, anyway. Most people that saw it when I shared it gushed and went on an on about how beautiful I looked. I responded the way I always do: I deflected the compliment by assuring them it was only due to the work of my hairstylist (who also did my makeup – and she DID accomplish an amazing job). And, mentally, I told myself they were saying the words you’re supposed to on someone’s wedding day.

I’ve always picked photos of myself apart. And it goes back to my issues with self-image. Use whatever lens or filter you want: all I’m going to see is the distortion my brain’s programmed with. It zeroes in on every millimeter of cellulite and loose skin (translate that to “fat” – though my husband glares when I use the word), every stray hair, every imperfection – and I fully admit they’re usually imagined. It made me duck away and hide from cameras. And the words, “Let me take your picture” turned my stomach.

So I developed bad behaviors.

I always drifted to the back of group photos so I could hid as much of my body as humanly possible. (And since I’m tall, I told myself it was acceptable) I’d sneak an arm behind my back to try to tug loose clothes tighter so I wouldn’t look misshapen and fat. (News flash: when you wear scrubs, it doesn’t work) I turned sideways as much as possible – at least until I realized that did nothing to disguise the fact I was overweight. Because I always seemed to end up with people thinner than me, so comparisons were inevitable. And trying to focus on my face alone? Forget it. I’ve resigned myself to the fact I will never master the art of the selfie. The angles never come out right, making me look wrong no matter what I try.

The number of pictures I’ve deleted could fill a warehouse. But I can’t do anything about the photos other people take. Except stare at them, and hate them, and pull them apart. The phrase, “I hate having my picture taken” became my motto. It was easier to hold up my hand in front of a lens than to explain the resulting photo would land me in a fugue of depression. And I know plenty of other people out there struggle with the same problem. If you can’t look at yourself in the mirror, a picture is ten thousand times worse.

Because you can spend HOURS hating it!

The longer you stare at a picture, the more you find wrong with it. It doesn’t matter that other people use photo programs and filters to alter their images (that idea never occurs to us). All we see is perfection on one hand and every flaw on the other. Oh, we KNOW the pictures we see on those social media accounts aren’t real. But our minds aren’t wired to let that understanding through. Instead, all we can hear are the whispers telling us what’s wrong with US. And self-preservation encourages us to stay away from the source of our misery.

Then I came across this picture. It wasn’t posed like the other. (I didn’t know our friend took it) And when I sat down to start pulling it apart and cycle through my usual depressive spiral, I didn’t make it very far. Not because I couldn’t find things wrong (Please: my brain had a list within 5 seconds). It was more because something else clicked. I look HAPPY in this picture. That doesn’t happen in most pictures. And that’s where the key turned.

I went back over other photos, looking for similar smiles. And I remembered a few my husband took when I wasn’t looking. They were different from those horrible “let’s take a picture!” images I’ve always despised. I still WANTED to pick out the flaws, but the overwhelming feeling was more, “Gee, I look like ME.”

And I changed my mind about pictures.

It’s HARD, I won’t deny that. My gut reaction whenever I see a photo is to break out my mental magnifying glass and start taking notes. But I’m getting better about stopping myself and stepping back. I’ve even managed to share some progress photos on my weight loss with my coach. (My anxiety won’t let me share them with the entire group yet) I didn’t see the progress until she helped me, but now? I get it. And that allowed me to see things differently in the mirror.

I used to get annoyed when my husband would sneak a photo when I wasn’t looking. But they’re some of the best pictures out there. Because they’re REAL. So I’ve stopped protesting. And I’ve learned to smile – when I see them. (Let’s be real – I’m not the kind of person to walk around with a goofy smile on my face) They’re a part of who I am, and they represent what HE sees in me. It’s a new lens I can use in MY mind. And it’s healthier than the shadows my depression wants to use.

Even a year ago, I never would have dreamed of sharing my face with complete strangers. Oh, sure, I have a headshot for my freelance work. (It’s actually from our engagement photo shoot – another set of pictures I found myself loving, even though some of them WERE posed) But this is different. And I’m proud of the progress I’ve made. The negative voices still circle in my head, of course. But I can also drown them out with a few positive shouts. And that’s my hope for other people.

Don’t worry about filters or PhotoShop or whatever other programs are out there. And don’t let the voices in your head get to you. Somewhere in your phone or a shoebox or an album, there’s a picture that encapsulates YOU. And when you find that happy moment, it’ll lead you to the next and the next and the next. Once you pick up the thread, you’ll find a way to see your pictures differently. And maybe you’ll stop hiding from the camera. Just a little.

mental health

Circling the Sun

Congratulations: if you went exist on this planet, you have a birthday. It’s one of those inane things you’re awarded or arbitrarily assigned – whether you like it or not. The Earth makes it around the sun one more time, with you attached. Woo-hoo. The reality is you survived for one more cycle around the sun, which may or may not be worth celebrating.

And whether you want to or not, you damn-well better celebrate!

Birthdays were created by the card industry. (I’d say Amazon had a hand in there, too, but I know they didn’t exist back then) It’s an inane and preposterous ritual that’s only enjoyed by certain people. For everyone else, it’s another day on the calendar, and it represents nothing more than dread and aggravation.

Surprise, surprise: I hate my birthday. And it isn’t the getting older bit, either. Everyone has to do that, whether they choose to mark the occasion with a celebration or not. (Getting older is mandatory, acting older is optional) It’s the stigma that comes attached to the day that’s always tainted the word and everything I associate with it.

Birthdays are for spoiled people.

I was the weird kid who always moved around, so I was the one left off birthday lists. Or I was the one included so they had someone to make fun of (an important guest at parties, particularly for girls). Then I was just the kid who never fit in, so I wasn’t wanted around. I read too much. I didn’t care about trends. I refused to make fun of other people. I didn’t lie. The list went on and on, and so no one wanted me at their birthday parties. And they sure as hell didn’t want to come to mine. “Birthday” turned into a hateful word.

Things didn’t improve into my adult years. I dared to let anticipation build that something wonderful might happen. Then something nice. Finally, that something wouldn’t go wrong. Disappointments piled up until I decided crossing the day off the calendar was easier than facing it. Why get excited over a day that reminded me of misery and abuse? Oh, sure, I wasn’t dead – and? I didn’t die the day before or the day after, either. In fact, I was still alive the MONTH after, and no one made a big deal then. Why make any noise over it on one day and not another?

Hell, for people with depression, EVERY day you’re alive is an accomplishment.

Yet no one sees the cringes when they start asking what I want to do. People remain upbeat and excited when asking where I want to go to dinner. They expect a certain level of enthusiasm as the day approaches. While I duck my head and plan to work as always. As I grit my teeth enough to break my jaw. And find time to hide where they can’t find me.

If you enjoy your birthday and look forward to it – good for you. But don’t expect the same of everyone. Not everyone has the same programming or memories. There are people that see their birthdays approaching like the Apocalypse. And berating them DOESN’T help. Let people feel the way they want. If they want to stay upset, if they want to skip gaudy celebrations, let them – WITHOUT JUDGEMENT!

Frankly, I wish the people around me would figure that out. It sure beats my trying to find fake enthusiasm to keep them from digging at me for weeks.

mental health

The Other F-Word

“Failure doesn’t define you. It’s what you do after you fail that determines whether you are a leader or a waste of perfectly good air.”

~Sabaa Tahir, A Torch Against the Night

One year ago, I hit the lowest point I’ve achieved yet. Turns out that pit of muck has a deeper level, one devoid of branches, vines, or anything remotely resembling a ladder. And the closest you get to a glimpse of light is a tiny pinprick that Depression insists might be a trick of the mind. It’s cold, you don’t want to move, and shutting out the endless cycle of abusive statements playing through your head? Impossible. And while I kept hoping my toe might touch a firm stone foundation at some point, it never did. I just kept sinking deeper and deeper – further and further into abject misery and self-hatred.

The perfect holiday mood.

Torn down to pieces by people I trusted, faith stripped away in moments, I found myself confronted by abject failure. I felt less than a millimeter tall, and I wanted to disappear. Everything fell apart, and I ended up adrift. No plan, no ideas, no comprehension. Just a mountain’s worth of self-doubt, humiliation, and the certainty that I’d never crawl out of that pit ever again.

No one enjoys failing. It doesn’t matter if you struggle against chemical imbalances in your brain or not. Perfectionist or casual seat-of-the-pants mind set – failure throws you off your game. You hit a solid brick wall, and it HURTS in every possible way. You find excuses to avoid discussing the issue with your friends and family. You look at your resume and try to invent creative ways to disguise the blip. You break out a thesaurus and write out long passages to cover the gaffe in your experiment. All while you curl up in a ball inside, wincing and flinching.

Mental, emotional, physical: failure checks every box.

Unfortunately, fails hit some of us harder than others. Yeah, I feel like every failure in my life was the end of the world. Realistic? Maybe not. (Okay, obviously not since I’m still here, but we know convincing my brain takes extra work) Those moments opened every door and window to my depression and a FLOOD of voices swept in. Statements I haven’t even heard before slammed into my head, causing me to shrink down tighter and tighter. The fact that last year came out of left field, consisted of multiple lies, and snapped several bonds of trust? Yeah, talk about an internal meltdown. Every safety net broke like a spiderweb in a hurricane.

Honestly? I was convinced this was the failure that was going to take me down for good. I saw no way out. (Not to mention ruining my holidays) Clearly, I was a useless, worthless human being. I had no future. Nothing I attempted to do would matter, because everything I touched was shit and would turn to shit. (And while people tried to convince me otherwise, failure and depression DON’T mix!)

I’m not gonna lie: it took me almost four months to figure out how to get out of the pit. FOUR MONTHS to silence the voices, to cobble together the mud and muck into a ramp I could crawl up. And the fear of failure? It hasn’t left – not once since then. It hovers over my shoulder every time I decide to send in a proposal or accept a new contract. I’m constantly terrified that I’m going to fail and destroy everything again.

I can hear you from here: “Wait, WHAT?!”

I know: you wanted an answer on defeating failure and moving on to success. That’s the thing, I don’t have the solution. Have I succeeded since I decided to stop going down the wrong path? Of course. Have I smashed every goal I set for myself this year? You bet. But did I shake that vise of failure for even a moment? I don’t think so. (Other people might disagree, and I’m sure they’d lecture me)

I still made mistakes this year. And, in my head, I’m still a screw-up. Coming into December, my body cringed in on itself. Every muscle, every nerve, every cell remembered, and it went into protective mode. My mind collapsed in on itself, and each day has been harder and harder to get up, to function, to keep going. It feels like permanent damage, like some twisted PTSD (please don’t lecture – I know it’s not, and I’m not making light of the condition).

I look at my white board calendars, covered in assignments, and try to remind myself of how far I’ve come. I scroll through my list of completed assignments – well over 150 for the year – and encourage my brain to cheer. I tell myself, “You’re not a failure. Look what you’ve accomplished in eight months!” But the shadow continues to perch on my shoulder and whisper in my ear. And I’m not sure it’ll ever go away.

Does it mean I’m going to give up? No. I’m determined to keep it at bay. To fight against the fear it engenders. And – somewhere, buried deep inside the anxiety – I have no intention of letting that failure define me. Which means forward momentum. Is that an answer? For me. It’s a better solution than drowning in that pit, at any rate.

mental health

Someone Else

“I have said that he has the power to deliver a compliment and make it hurt. So, too, he can say something that ought to be insulting and deliver it in such a way that it feels like being truly seen.”

~Holly Black, The Wicked King

You know when someone’s about to say something sweet about you. Their eyes light up, the corners of their lips curve, and a light emanates from their face. Meanwhile, your skin feels like it’s trying to crawl away from you, and your stomach drops out of your body. Your shoulders hunch up around your ears, and you drop your gaze to their feet. Maybe (just maybe) if you avoid eye contact they’ll stop talking.

Nope, too late – they spout that compliment.

Now you’re left standing in an awkward hunch, curled inward and mumbling incoherently in protest. If you’re lucky, the person’s a friend or acquaintance who’ll give you an odd look and move on. If the stars are misaligned, the person’s a boss or superior who’s going to continue to stand there and stare at you – wondering if you suddenly took leave of your senses. Because who in their right mind doesn’t love getting a compliment?

It makes sense, right? Compliments are positive statements made to buoy a person’s ego and heighten their day. The bulk of the population walks around collecting them with a fervor that matches PokemonGO. You can almost see the trophy case they install each statement inside, the time and care they invest in polishing the best ones. Bored? Ask a person to trot out their best compliments, and you’ll get entertained with hours of details and perfect recitations. That’s how normal, functional people behave. Because compliments are GOOD things. They’re meant to be treasured and enjoyed.

And then there’s the rest of us.

People like me treat compliments like bombs. We start hunting for the closest fallout shelter as soon as we detect that upbeat tone of voice. Excuses bubble up from our throats in a desperate attempt to head off those words. Anything, ANYTHING to prevent the other person from speaking. Is there a glass wall nearby we can dive through? A cliff we can jump off? A hole we can fall into? (Laugh if you want, but we honestly look for any escape route we can find) Compliments twist up our minds and bodies into knots, leaving us feeling beaten and broken.

It’s not because we’re wired wrong (although people with depression have that working against them). The problem comes from deeper in our pasts. See, not every compliment is spoken with sincerity. Girls, in particular, like to wield sweetness as a blade. Girls are MEAN (if you aren’t one or haven’t been one, you have no frame of reference). They’ll speak words they don’t mean, then turn around and laugh when you straighten your spine. Over time, your trust breaks. You assume every compliment is a lie, a joke. It’s another way for people to laugh at you behind your back.

So you stop accepting compliments.

Your brain teaches you to curl up in defense. You build walls and seek a way out. And it cripples you down the road. To this day, I flinch at compliments – even from the people I love the most. I look away and turn my head when my fiance’ tells me I look beautiful. (I rarely ask him if I look nice – so I guess he wins there) I cringe when clients praise my work – though I luck out there as most of our communication happens via messaging and email, so they never see. I dismiss family members, insisting they have to say nice things due to the familial bond. Friends? My teeth are always clenched (which is super awesome for my TMJ, incidentally).

I’ve never figured out how to accept a compliment. I parrot the expected “Thank you” in an effort to end the conversation. I scoot away. And in my mind (at least, I hope it’s in my mind), I roll my eyes and dismiss every word. I have never fit in to any group, and so I’ve always found myself the target of jokes. THAT I have no problem accepting (crazy, right?). And so even when a part of me screams that the words are true, I can’t accept them. I make excuses and the rest of my brain tells me it’s just people being polite.

Not a great mindset for someone getting married in 11 days.

People don’t think about the damage they cause with their pranks. And people don’t understand those like us. They think our reaction is rude, egotistical, or backward. Instead of looking beyond our awkward response to the motivation behind it, they sniff and walk away (or question our sanity – always fun). It isn’t fair – on either side. Speaking up and admitting you don’t know how to take a compliment helps. It lets the other person know you’re struggling, and that you’re uncomfortable. If no one says anything, the miscommunication continues. Opening a dialogue can help you lance the wound, at least. Not everyone will get it, but some people do.

There’s nothing WRONG with you. Damage takes time to repair. Hell, I’m still struggling, and I’ve been fighting to fix this problem for YEARS. But knowing that I’m not the only person makes a difference. And even if my brain spends hours arguing after the fact, at least I’m not searching for that bomb shelter anymore.

mental health

For Shame

Photo by Ian on Unsplash

As a kid, I spent my formative years receiving a Catholic upbringing. Every Sunday, we trooped down to church. (So, yes, I’m a familiar with the routine of kneeling and sitting and standing) I even spent a few years at a Catholic school, complete with a uniform and the overriding fear of Mother Superior swooping in on the classroom. I didn’t make my break with organized religion until after college. Which means a hefty indoctrination of healthy Catholic guilt.

And Catholics INVENTED guilt.

While I’ve successfully shrugged off most of the teachings jammed into my head during those early years, breaking that guilt chain hasn’t been so successful. And it’s tempting to blame the religion, but the world, in general, likes to beat you with guilt – especially when they know you’re susceptible to it. It’s like sharks scenting blood in the water. They see you twitch, watch the light in your eyes dim, and they know you’re a prime target for well-placed words or a specific tone of voice. Suddenly, you’re shouldering the blame for things that you barely glanced at. You’re carrying the weight of embarrassment and shame for something blown out of proportion. All for the glee and enjoyment of others.

Guilt serves a purpose. It’s the niggling voice of your conscience reminding you when you’ve screwed up. (And, according to Catholics – you’re always screwing up. Fun times) You SHOULD feel guilty when you fuck up, and you need to make reparations where you can. There’s nothing inherently wrong with guilt, when you think about it. But society has embraced the concept in order to torture people. And some of us are prime targets. We’ll feel regret over ANYTHING.

Bump someone’s coffee mug and cause it to spill? That’s worth a week of apologies and a gift card. (When, in reality, a simple apology and cleaning the mess is all the accident is worth)

Knock over a stack of folders on a desk when you trip? Clearly, you need to devote yourself to that person for the remainder of the month. (Never mind that accidents happen. And, honestly, who balances folders on the edge of a desk like that?)

Forget someone’s name? Oh, that’s the end of the world. You’d better order a bouquet of flowers and grovel for forgiveness. (Because that’s never happened in the entire history of the planet)

People see the shame on your face and seize control.

I speak from experience. I’ve turned myself inside out for every mistake I’ve ever made. I damn-near tack myself up for crucifixion! (To be fair, the Catholics don’t require that anymore) Every single slip-up is nuclear, and I crawl over coals and broken glass. And very few people stop me from doing so. Most add additional obstacles for the glee of the entertainment. They know I feel a bottomless, horrible shame, and they milk every second out of it. Notice a glimpse that I may feel better? Oh, no – time to mutter some choice phrases and knock my anxiety back into the stratosphere where it belongs.

And, ironically, those people feel no guilt over their actions. They consider it justification for the mistake, regardless of how minimal it may have been. It feeds into a loop that wasn’t healthy in the first place. Which makes breaking the cycle difficult, if not impossible. How do you stop feeling like a monster when people treat you like you’re an inch tall because you mispronounced a word?

It’s a wretched sickness.

I have to catch myself now. “Is their reaction appropriate to what I did?” The majority of the time (surprisingly), the answer’s coming up a resounding, “NO!” For my own mental health, I have to learn to apologize and walk away, leaving them and their nasty remarks in the rearview mirror. (Shaking apart the entire time because it’s still not easy to accomplish) I can’t let my guilt swamp up and choke me anymore. Of course, breathing through that gut reaction takes more effort than it should.

Some of us are programmed to accept a heavier burden of shame and embarrassment than others. It’s easier than standing up to someone else and point out their overreaction. When you already believe the worst of yourself, it’s easy. So people take advantage of it. And the loop tightens up – usually around our necks.

But most of those hiccups in the day? They’re nothing. They happen to everyone – including the people dragging out our torture (and you won’t see them groveling). We don’t need to balance a giant block of stone on our shoulders in response. If we stop to think for half a second, we’d realize that. Apologize (feel bad, because it’s an ingrained response), and move on. Don’t let the assholes get to you.