mental health

The Other Vampires

I’m only happy when it rains
I’m only happy when it’s complicated
And though I know you can’t appreciate it
I’m only happy when it rains

~Garbage, “Only Happy When it Rains”

Like clockwork, Daylight Saving Time rolls around in the latter half of the year, and people start complaining. Not about gaining an hour of sleep (what person in their right mind fusses over that?). No, the whines start in about the sun going down earlier and earlier in the evening. People HATE losing the light of day. It’s a reminder that shorter days (in the Northern Hemisphere, anyway) equate to colder temperatures. (That’s the theory, anyway. Where I live in Virginia, winter tends to be a crapshoot) All of those protests circle around the common diagnosis of SAD: seasonal affective disorder.

You got it: Depression for everyone else.

Seasonal affective disorder crops up when human beings don’t get enough sunlight in their lives. They start to experience mood changes and a general lack of interest in the world. For those around the Arctic Circle, where daylight makes a brief appearance during the winter months, communities put in significant efforts to stave off SAD. You’ll find plenty of indoor activities – complete with LIGHT – to engage the interest and engagement of the residents as they sit in perpetual darkness. (I can’t speak for the Antarctic region as I’ve never lived down there. I’m assuming the scientific outposts do the same thing. Everyone knows penguins entertain themselves with dance competitions) Seasonal affective disorder increases the risk of suicide in those areas, so the need for SOMETHING to distract people from their melancholy is considered vital. (I know, I see the irony, too)

When we lived in Alaska, you found everything you could think of: indoors. Recess shifted inside once winter settled in. Of course, that also correlated with the fact that we’d freeze to death in a matter of minutes. (Try explaining that to a bunch of kindergartners with cabin fever, though) Gathering INSIDE was normal. And, on occasion, you ducked outside to glimpse the Northern Lights. Seeing a vibrant display of color in the sky boosted the mood, though. Because human beings thrive on LIGHT.

“Normal” humans, at any rate.

I don’t want to minimize seasonal affective disorder. It’s a real form of depression, and I believe ANY mental health issue deserves attention. (Do I think it’s unfair that SAD gets news and sympathy? Of course! That’s utter bullshit. It’s also the world we live in) But I’m not here to hold the hand of the people queueing up to register their complaint of the dwindling light. Because I don’t add seasonal affective disorder to my roster of feelings. This time of year? I LIVE for it. It’s my favorite. Because of the decreasing temperatures (never mind that fibro means I’m constantly cold). And because all of that wretched sunlight finally disappears.

I LIKE the dark. Overcast skies, rain, snow (I’ll pause when it comes to ice, simply because it’s a nightmare to drive on) are the things that make me happy. The sun rising over the horizon and prompting your eyelids awake in the morning? Yeah, not so much. Give me a night sky with the moon and stars. That’s what settles my mind and makes me feel at home. I do my best work with rain pouring outside the window. And not for the reason you think. I don’t get distracted by a beautiful sunny day outside. (Why would I want to stand around, squinting in bright light?) The sound of water hitting the glass is soothing. It makes me feel comfortable and relaxed.

It sounds strange, perhaps. My depression leaves me feeling bleak, trapped in a dark place most of the time. So why would I gravitate toward more shadows? Shouldn’t I WANT the daylight and sunshine? It’s certainly one of the first remedies people like to suggest when I’m feeling down. (Never mind that standing under the beating rays of a summer day has NEVER improved my mood) And maybe that works – for some people. But my mind doesn’t work that way.

I’m happy in the dark.

I feel comfortable wrapped in the shadows. Because it’s where you SEE those pinpricks of light. Have you ever been away from a city? Somewhere you can actually glimpse a night sky? There’s SO MUCH to see. More stars than you imagined possible. You can SEE clouds swirling in the sky. Lightning moves from one bank to another, or it strikes full through the sky. The darkness amplifies the available light.

By the same token, the cold brings forth warmth. Snow and winter allow the earth to rest and rejuvenate for the coming spring. Without the months of ice and chill, you don’t see the refreshing of the planet. It’s a necessary part of the circle. Besides, that gorgeous “quiet” of snow falling is my favorite sound in the world. It softens and muffles everything else, bringing a perfect peace. How do you dislike that?

I get that people love the light. Midwinter festivals champion the return of the light to the world. But it’s OKAY to love the dark. You need both halves in the world. And NOT having seasonal affective disorder is okay. You don’t need to hide that or feel ashamed. Everyone’s different. Finding and accepting EVERY part of yourself is what allows you to breathe each day.

Whether it’s dark or light out. Raining or sunny. Winter or summer.

mental health

A Fool’s Performance

“Imagine smiling after a slap in the face. Then think of doing it twenty-four hours a day.”

~Mark Zusak, The Book Thief

People attach expectations to different times of the year. When the new year shows up, they brim with (false) optimism for the future. Everything is supposed to be shiny and new, and you need to have a brightened outlook for the horizon. Smile and bounce on your toes, cheering on this “new” future that finally arrived. (Let’s discount the fact that all that actually happened was the Earth circled the sun one more time – something it’s managed to do for millions of years…without any assistance from us) And if you DARE to do less than cheer and get excited, you find yourself inundated with memes and treacle-laced sayings encouraging you to get on the bandwagon.

Because, of course, the majority knows best.

There’s no admission that it’s okay if you can’t manage to feel positive. Maybe you’re feeling frightened about something going on. Right now, COVID-19 is still raging out of control. Numbers continue to climb, medical professionals are exhausted and no longer receiving the support and love they got at the beginning of the pandemic, and the vaccine is trickling out. (I won’t get into the fact that the vaccine will take time to go to work) People have died, are dying, and will continue to die. Others survived, but they’re struggling with long-term complications – some of which doctors are puzzling over. That’s overwhelming for people, and it’s scary. But if they dare to speak up, others shush them and tell them to focus on the positive. Their fears are marginalized or discounted entirely.

Nope – Just keep smiling!

Perhaps you’re still struggling with depression lingering from the holidays. Or simply fighting to get out of the pit, in general. That dark shadow shows up unannounced and without warning. You could look at the horizon and see nothing to feel good about. Whispers in your mind could be telling you you’re stuck in the same rut as always. You know this will pass, and you’re fighting, but, right now, smiling and optimism are too much to ask. And those mindless idiots can’t comprehend that. Oh, no – the future’s shining bright with possibility – can’t you see it?

Get out in the sunshine – it’ll fix everything!

This moronic insistence on being happy and positive simply because it’s the new year is damaging. People need be allowed to feel how they feel – and supported for those feelings. Discounting the emotions in favor of forced cheerfulness is damaging. Sometimes things AREN’T bright with possibility. And whatever idiot dreamed up the notion that you can WILL good things to happen should have been drawn and quartered. Because I seriously doubt the people who died from COVID-19 or lost their jobs during lockdown willed that to happen. (You won’t convince me positivity is willed and negativity is not. All things in balance, people)

Feel how you want to feel. Give the emotions a voice. And if people try to shut you down and throw those clichés down your throat, ignore them. Odds are they’re trying to paint over their own true feelings in the first place.

I LOATHE odd-numbered years. I didn’t step into 2021 feeling bright, cheery, or optimistic. I braced myself for a bomb going off. I’m not saying that I expect everything to go wrong (I’ve had good things happen this week), but I’m not smiling or sharing positive messages everywhere. Hell, I’ve already received word I need surgery, and we’re not even a week into the first month!

Admit the way you feel.

Forced cheer won’t help you feel better. I look at friends who are trying to say they’re frightened or sad, and in tromp the Pep Squad. And when I push to encourage them to vent and pour out their feelings, those Pom Poms descend like glitter bombs. It’s a tragedy. You DON’T have to be happy. You DON’T have to feel optimistic. So what if it’s the beginning of the year? It’s a day on a calendar – nothing more. Feel how you want to feel. Being true to yourself matters more than keeping those idiots happy.

mental health

Talk

“I usually know almost exactly how I feel. The problem is, I just can’t tell anyone.”

~Meg Cabot, Princess in Love

So here’s the thing: mental illness carries a stigma. We’re supposed to be enlightened and advanced in this day and age. (Pardon me while I pause to laugh hysterically) If you dare to stand up and admit to having a mental illness – any kind of mental illness – people look at you sideways. I’m not really sure what they picture, but you can visualize the box they shuffle you into.

“Uh-oh, crazy person right there.”

Imagine the shock when the majority of people opt out of standing, speaking up, or bringing any kind of attention to themselves. Why would you? Why would you voluntarily welcome getting tarred and feathered? Why would you step onto a stage and wait to get doused in a bucket of misconception and hatred from an uninformed public?

Odds are, you wouldn’t.

Here’s the catch-22. Mental illness and mental health demand conversation. Not just for people to understand they’re being morons (that’s a big part, though). No, we need to stand up and talk because that’s how we HEAL.

Oh, yeah – HEALING? Remember that?

Not a single person with mental illness is happy with their diagnosis. Not a single person battling with anxiety or depression or manic-depression or ADHD or any number of other illnesses is HAPPY. They don’t wake up, cheerily greeting the imbalance in their brain. We confront our reflections every day cursing our biochemistry to the ends of the universe and beyond. We run through checklists to even GET OUT OF BED! You think we want to exist like this every day?!

We want to heal. Which means admitting a need to talk about the things going on in our screwed-up brains. It means sitting down and discussing the thoughts rattling around in ours heads. We know they aren’t always logical (somewhere), but until we get them out in the open, we can’t deal with them.

Want an example? My anxiety amps up beyond my limit to control it. Worries stack up and stack up and stack up. If you think I haven’t thought of something to worry about, you are in for a surprise – I’ve got EVERYTHING mapped out with every possible scenario. And I know I can’t control 90% of those things. But I CAN control a lot of things. Like the way the towels in the kitchen and bathroom are folded. Like the way the dishes are stacked in the cabinet. Like the way the books and movies are organized. That order is my way of staying calm and organized and in control in a world that is literally planning to fall apart around me.

So when my fiance’ decides to ignore that order, my world comes apart. And I break down. It took me a long time to finally open up and explain why the towel folding was so important. That it keeps my tiny part of the world SANE. I had to TALK to him, to sit down and TALK through my insane logic. Is it his logic? Of course not. But when I finally talked to him, he understood. He laughs, but the towels are always in place now. He understands he’s keeping my world safe.

If you don’t talk, people don’t know. They don’t understand what you need. They don’t know what you’re feeling, what you’re going through. And so they can’t help. People out there DO want to help, they really do. They just need to understand. Which means opening your mouth.

No, not everyone.

But we fix that by talking, too. Mental health is repaired by making discussion open. By not shuttling it into the shadows. By not stigmatizing it as “crazy,” or “disturbed,” or any other number of fucked up labels. The world has done those of us battling these diseases a disservice. And we fix that by standing up and speaking up. It’s the only way things are ever going to get better.

mental health

DON’T Conceal – FEEL

Eggs displaying emotional expressions
Photo by Tengyart on Unsplash

When you’re bright and happy and full of hope, the people around you are content to join in and encourage those feelings. In fact, that’s the dominant message expressed all the time: be happy, be hopeful, look at the bright side of life. Everything is one big rainbow of glitter and possibility. Right?

WRONG!

Okay, there’s nothing inherently wrong with those messages, but they whitewash over and obscure the fact that the emotional rainbow actually contains a lot of darker pigments. The range of emotion doesn’t stop with “Just Okay” – it continues on down through sadness, grief, fear, anger, and even fury, with all of the requisite shades of grey and darkness smeared between.

And all of those emotions are okay!

The problem is the general public HATES those emotions and likes to bury them and shove them behind corners or into closets as if they don’t exist. People will tell you that you shouldn’t feel a certain way, that you shouldn’t express yourself a certain way (keep in mind I don’t condone violence or self-harm, okay? There are limits, people), and then they spout some spiritual guru nonsense that leaves you feeling like shit…usually worse than you were in the first place. They tell you they’re making you feel better – or, my personal favorite, that they’re making you a better person – when all they’re actually doing is overlooking your feelings, overlooking YOU.

Guess what – we’re all human (much as Wal-Mart people and the internet, in general, might prove otherwise). We have feelings and emotions that run the gamut – sometimes all in a single day (single hour?).

And that’s OKAY!

It’s a GOOD thing to not be full of sugar and glitter all of the time – frankly, that’s terrifying. We are NOT My Little Ponies! (Seriously, they are horrifying) We feel EVERYTHING, and we should be allowed to do so. Instead of denying a person’s anger, a person’s sadness, a person’s fear – LET THEM FEEL THOSE EMOTIONS! How would you feel if someone denied your feelings and slapped a rainbow sticker on your forehead instead? That’s exactly what you’re doing when you pat them on the head and then quote Annie…or worse, scripture.

I believed people when they did this to me, in the past. I swallowed my emotions, thinking I was wrong to be upset, to be angry. I also ended up adding the burden of guilt for having felt those things to the mix. I FELT GUILTY FOR FEELING?! All that happened was that I made myself even sicker, more depressed, and I damaged my psyche – I inflicted mental wounds on myself because I wasn’t allowed to express my true feelings.

That’s SICK!

And this happens all the time – to children, to teenagers, to ADULTS. They’re feelings are dismissed or belittled, and they internalize them in shame. It’s wrong.

Especially right now, people need to be allowed to feel how they feel – whether you agree or not. Let people vent, let them cry…and for those that are in that state, let them spout about rainbows and flowers. You don’t have to agree – and, no, you can’t kill the latter – but you can LISTEN. The majority of the time, that is ALL a person is asking for. They don’t expect you to agree with them, they just want you to listen – THAT is validation for them.

Talking through a feeling will usually help a person unravel the core, even if it doesn’t provide an answer. And if they don’t want to talk, build them a blanket fort and just sit with them.

Just stop with the Bob Marley music and stickers, and stop telling people to only focus on the positive side of the spectrum. Emotions get dark and murky, feelings get scary, and ACCEPTANCE is the answer, not bullshit.