mental health

A Different Kind of Ceiling

“Children have a lesson adults should learn, to not be ashamed of failing, but to get up and try again. Most of us adults are so afraid, so cautious, so ‘safe,’ and therefore so shrinking and rigid and afraid that it is why so many humans fail. Most middle-aged adults have resigned themselves to failure.”

~Malcolm X

Storytime! At my high school, the end of the English year meant term paper time. Everyone knew and expected it. You’d get a general topic, and you had a few weeks to turn in at least five pages of double-spaced work, complete with citations and references. It was pretty standard for an Honors class, and everyone knew the drill. So when Junior year rolled around and the teacher gave us the option of writing about any author we wanted, it felt like a jackpot. I’d just finished reading Les Miserables, and my brain was surging with joy for Victor Hugo and his way with words. I dove into the library (yes, library – we didn’t have Google back then) with a giant stack of notecards.

And then things started to unravel.

For some of my classmates, that year was their first experience in an Honors class. And they weren’t prepared or – if I’m being honest – qualified. They complained about EVERYTHING. Quizzes ended up open book to accommodate the fact they hadn’t read the material or studied. She offered Pygmalion as a substitute when they whined that Waiting for Godot was too hard to understand. (I read both – mostly because I loved My Fair Lady) And the term paper? They threw a fit. Within a week, the teacher cut the pages down to three. Three, double-spaced? That was nothing! I protested. I sat down and wrote a long letter to the teacher, outlining every way she’d let down the advanced students. It was the first time I dared to stand up to any adult, much less an authority figure. (And, really, one of the first times I took a chance on standing up for MYSELF)

She ratted me out.

If you aren’t a female and didn’t attend a public school, allow me to clarify things for you. Girls? They’re EVIL. Mean Girls gets it right. The teacher stood in front of my desk, looked straight at me, and announced that “someone” (she didn’t use my name – I’ll give her that much) was unhappy, so the term paper limit was reinstated. I didn’t have the best school life prior to that point, but it went to rock bottom from that point on. Everyone knew who she was referring to. (Why couldn’t she have stood behind her desk to make the announcement?)

I tried to make the best of things. After all, I was already used to threats of being shoved down the stairs. People already slammed my locker shut, narrowly missing my fingers. I got tripped in the hall on a routine basis. And I learned by Sophomore year to wear my hair in a bun to prevent things from getting put in it. (Sometimes I wonder if that trauma is why I’ve chopped it ruthlessly short now) I threw myself into writing one of the best papers of my school career. I was incredibly proud of it. And despite my teacher’s behavior, I expected professionalism from her.

I received my first harsh lesson in learned helplessness.

When our graded papers came back, I flipped to the last page. There was a red “A” written there. I was happy, of course. Until I started to go back through the rest of the paper. Nothing. No marks whatsoever. No notes, no edits, NOTHING. She never read it. Because I know for a fact it wasn’t a perfect paper (no one writes THAT well) I made it to the restroom before I started crying. And I tore the paper to shreds.

As I got older, others reinforced the lesson. I’d attempt something I thought was amazing or noteworthy, and they’d shrug. I’d hold out my accomplishment with a smile, and they’d snatch the rug out from under me. It built up a sense that nothing was ever good enough. Everything I did was actually a failure. I was a dog chasing her tail – never catching it, and with zero chance of doing so. Slowly, the lesson set in: that bar was always going to be out of reach. So why bother trying?

And this happens to people all the time!

It’s a subtle, sinister form of bullying that often goes without notice. Why people do this I have no idea. I don’t know why that teacher behaved as she did. I didn’t go to the Principal with my complaint. I didn’t report her to anyone else, or even threaten to do so. I was a student going to the source. While I understand she probably felt called out, was it worth squashing a person under her heel and leaving her to the mercy of the student body? (And if you want me to believe a teacher doesn’t know what happens in a school environment, you’re crazy) She knew exactly what she’d done. She watched me flip through my paper, looking for a critique that didn’t exist. It was more damaging than if she’d cut it apart and failed the assignment – and she knew it. After all, she was aware of the intelligence level of who she was dealing with.

You can’t hold a carrot out for someone and then tell them you ate it. It’s cruel. People are PROUD of their accomplishments. When they come to you, delighted that they managed to overcome something, and you YAWN?! You might as well stab them; it’d be cleaner. It’s a sadistic practice. But it slides under the radar. People enforce a learned helplessness every day. And the victims sink further and further into depression. They get anxious over attempting anything new. They stop trying.

And maybe that’s the point.

If you’re afraid, if you stop trying, you won’t accomplish anything anymore. Which means you stop running the risk of making them look bad. I crawled into the shadows after that paper. I dropped my head and closed my mouth. I continued to turn in my assignments, of course, but I never said another word when she adjusted the curriculum to suit the class. My acts of rebellion were miniscule. (When our idiot Teaching Assistant decided we needed to play “Head’s Up 7-Up – which I hadn’t done since elementary school – I read and stared her down when she encouraged me to participate) Whatever spark of determination I might have had fizzled and died. She won.

And other people won – over and over. I kept dropping my head and crawling away in shame. I stayed out of the way. The fire grew so cold I’m amazed I ever got it warm again. Because I refuse to let that helplessness rule my life anymore. And it’s a HEAVY blanket to burn away – believe me. I cringe when I hold out something special, expecting the same “meh.” It takes every drop of confidence I’ve scraped together to stand there and say, “Look, I did this!” And if someone DOES shrug, I have to shrug in response and find someone who won’t.

There are different glass ceilings out there no one talks about. The invisible barriers people concoct when they teach you to feel like a failure. They make you ashamed and helpless – for no good reason. And, yeah, it takes hindsight to look back and realize what an amazing badass you were the entire time. Hell, I stood up to a teacher! When no one else would point out her errors, I did. (And I had ZERO confidence back then – believe me) I demanded the education I deserved. How freaking awesome was I?

And how disappointing was she to take that moment away from me? I can’t rewrite history. The years of pulling shadows over my head so no one would see my embarrassment and “failure” aren’t going to suddenly vanish in this new enlightenment. But I CAN break the cycle moving forward. I CAN hold every single thing I do right close and put it up on a shelf to admire it. And I have people who’ll stand beside me and “ooh” and “ahh.” That’s how I move on and burn the damn misery out of the way. And you can do the same thing.

mental health

Annual Madness

No more New Year's Resolutions
Photo by freestocks.org from Pexels

New Year’s Resolutions. Quite possibly three of the most disgusting words in the English language. Seriously – does hearing that phrase ever make anyone smile? No. People cringe, make excuses to duck out of the conversation, or dissolve into tears. And yet the concept circulates this time of year with the same fervor and insanity as the other holidays.

Pure madness!

Because let’s be honest: how many people keep those ridiculous resolutions? Actually, let’s go back further than that. How many people set reasonable expectations for themselves in the FIRST place? No one. Alcohol, leftover holiday treats, and an abundance of positively-worded memes on social media inflate a person’s ego and set their imagination on fire. Fiction starts flowing from their fingertips that would shock speculative authors.

  • “Lose 500 pounds?”
  • “Get 6 promotions?”
  • “Become independently wealthy in 3 months?”
  • “Marry a billionaire?”

Oh, sure, perfectly rational and obtainable goals.

The brain checks out, locked behind a soundproof barrier while some primal force takes over. People write out pure garbage and proudly share their fantasies with the world. The list gets posted somewhere prominent – so you can slowly cave in on yourself throughout the year as reality sets back in. Months tick by, and you start to realize how unrealistic of a bar you set for yourself. Anxiety creeps in, reminding you that the clock’s speeding up.

You told everyone you’d be a champ by now, but you’ve barely scratched the surface. A 5K? You can’t even jog to the end of the driveway. A raise? Your boss just implemented salary cuts throughout the department. You’re scrambling to meet your fatalistic deadline and hitting a brick wall. And now depression crawls in. Because you know you’re going to fail. There’s absolutely no way you’ll succeed. (And you shouldn’t feel bad – NO ONE would achieve such impossible dreams, even with every drop of luck on their side)

December rolls around, and you’ve shredded that list, burying it in the backyard (or you burned it). But now everyone’s forcing a cheerful note into their voice and asking how you did. They’re acting like they’re any different – disguising the fact they failed just as epically. And you want to crawl into a hole rather than admit you didn’t check a single box. Misery wraps around you, inviting that feeling of failure.

Which is STUPID!

You never stood a chance! You weren’t thinking straight when you made those resolutions! (Actually, you weren’t thinking PERIOD) You had grandiose plans the Avengers would fail to accomplish. But trying to convince yourself of that? Hard to do when you’re sinking into a pit of depression. Instead, you look at the calendar and DO THE SAME THING ALL OVER AGAIN!

STOP THE MADNESS!

New Year’s Resolution are pure evil, and I, personally, don’t make them. I used to. I used to participate in this endless spiral of insanity. I made grandiose plans, failed, and felt foolish and embarrassed. Everyone bounced up to me after Christmas, asking how I did on my resolutions, and I made excuses to get out of the conversation. Obviously, I didn’t publish a novel. (No one publishes a novel in one year – not with a major company when they’re brand new to the scene) And I clearly wasn’t a size 0 (nor will I ever be – duh). Oh, and that winning lotto ticket? Yeah, the odds weren’t in my favor.

It took me a long time to finally LOOK at the resolutions I was writing out and realize they were absurd. I wasn’t expecting anything REAL out of myself. I was demanding tasks of myself Hercules couldn’t accomplish. And then I was berating myself for failing – for no good reason! If you set that bar on Mount Everest, how can you expect yourself to pole vault it? Especially if you’ve never pole vaulted in your life? Idiotic madness!

So I stopped making resolutions. Because I knew I wasn’t capable of asking REASONABLE of myself. It’s easy to think you can, that you can apply thought and rationality to yourself, but when you’ve established a pattern? Nope. (Trust me – I tried one year)

And now? Now this time of year isn’t the nightmare it used to be. And if I accomplish something during the year it’s a delightful surprise. I can work toward something because I WANT to, not because I have a list taped on a wall with a deadline. It takes that anxiety off my shoulders.

Sure, I get weird looks from people when they ask about my resolutions. But at least I’m not lying the way they are. And I leave a new year breathing easily. Which means I enter a new year the same way. Feels a lot better to me.

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.