mental health

Flattery

Photo by Tara Winstead from Pexels

Yes, I’m about to trot out an old saying: “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” If you’re anything like me, you heard the phrase for the first time as a child. Say, when your little sister starts wearing the same outfits as you, joins the same swim team, or attempts to read the same books (despite a five-year age difference). You voiced a complaint and your parents pulled out that old gem to attempt to quell your indignation. And you ignored the sage advice because NOTHING’S more annoying than someone copying everything you do (especially little sisters).

So you missed the lesson.

The phrase dates back to the early 18th century. And while plenty of people twist it into a sarcastic meaning, the origins centered around an unintentional flattery. A person adopts aspects they see in another because they feel they’re POSITIVE. And while it ends up getting viewed as imitation (and usually in a negative light), the intent’s far from it. Younger siblings adopt the mannerisms, habits, and looks of those around them because they ADMIRE them and want to BE them. And while it’s obnoxious to walk into the mall with a “mini me” trailing behind you, it’s an artless form of flattery. (Yes, I know – no one goes to the mall anymore. It used to be a thing, okay?)

These days, everyone’s obsessed with being unique. And I’m entirely for finding and being yourself at all times. But when you exude that kind of confidence, it attracts attention. People turn their heads to watch you walk by. They see things they’ve never thought of. And you INSPIRE them to try the same thing. It’s imitation, sure, but for the RIGHT reasons. And getting defensive about it helps no one – least of all a person brave enough to climb out of their shell. Yet that’s what seems to be happening most of the time.

Everyone develops their social media presence. And – I get it – you work hard to carve out a different space from what already exists. Then you see something SIMILAR and lose your mind over it. (Note: I’m not referring to outright plagiarism here. I DON’T support that in any way, shape, or form) Suddenly, you’re attacking that person, crushing their self-image and turning them into piles of anxiety. All because they took a few of your IDEAS for inspiration. Imitation that FLATTERED the work you did in the first place. And now it’s a quivering pile of misery and depression.

Good job.

I’ll pull from my writing roots here for an example. I participated in a critique group ages ago, before I found the beta-readers I have now. I was still learning the ropes and figuring out the best way to write up my critiques to make them beneficial to the writers. And then I received one of my critiques back. The way the writer broke everything down? It was beautiful. Not to mention providing all of the information I needed to fix the short story. I took their format, made some tweaks for the way I read/edited, and I started using that for my critiques. And I couldn’t wait for the chance to review on of their stories and show them how I’d adapted their template.

Well, that opportunity arose a few weeks later. And, holy hell, you would have thought I committed a crime. They didn’t even pay attention to a word of my critique. Instead, I received a scathing message about how I’d STOLEN their review format. They were going to report me to the head of the group, get me banned, tell every other writer they knew so I wouldn’t find a welcome in any other critique group – it went on and on. Being the fragile newbie writer I was, I couldn’t apologize (or cry) enough. I felt WRETCHED. And I slunk away. I didn’t attempt to find a new critique group for YEARS.

And I did NOTHING wrong!

First, their precious format? No copyright. (And if you DO copyright that kind of thing? You’re a colossal moron) Second, I didn’t plagiarize it. I modified it to work with how I reviewed stories. I LOVED the way they set things out, so I adapted it to work for me. Third, stealing? That implies something malicious. And my intent was far from negative. Exactly like my sister, I was looking up to someone I admired and attempting to follow in their footsteps. And – as much as I hate to admit it – like I did to my sister, they slapped me in the face for my innocent imitation.

People can genuinely demonstrate flattery. They pick out things they admire, enjoy, or find intriguing. And rather than roaring in defiance, I think it’s important to pause and look for those possibilities FIRST. There’s no such thing as an original idea. EVERYTHING exists out there already. Does it have your unique twist on it? Probably not. But the same holds true for someone else. And if you look close enough (take off your angry eyes), you’ll probably see it. Odds are YOU took inspiration from someone – whether you want to admit it or not. Weren’t you trying to flatter them?

Someone somewhere looks up to you. And as long as they’re not photocopying you (with the exception of siblings – you’re out of luck there), what’s the harm? A little bit of imitation isn’t going to kill you. Destroying them, though? You could damage someone in ways you can’t imagine. It took me years to regain my writing confidence. And daring to trust another writing group? I felt like I was stepping in front of a firing squad! I suffered a horrific anxiety attack when I submitted that first short story.

While I’ll allow that there are exceptions to everything, imitation’s not worth getting your blood pressure up. Even if someone’s doing it out of sarcasm, they’re not going to keep it up if you don’t react. Keep being you – 100% – and smile. Accept the flattery and move on.

And remember that siblings WILL grow up…eventually.

mental health

A Necessary Evil?

“There are positive things that come of social media as well as negative.”

~Millie Bobby Brown

Maybe this will demonstrate my age, but when I was a kid (and even a teenager), social media didn’t exist. No smart phones, no digital cameras even – at least, not until the latter part of my youth. Instead of spending every day glued to a mechanical device, flipping through posts, tweets, and photos, we ran around outside like heathens. When you took a picture, you needed to wait for the roll of film to get developed to figure out you looked like a goof. (At the very least, you wafted the Polaroid around for a minute) People traded gossip behind whispers and scribbled notes passed from hand to hand in the back of the classroom. And when someone disliked you? You usually found out via marker on your desk or locker – anonymous bullying.

Sounds vaguely familiar, right?

While social media claims it’s a step ahead of the game, everyone knows the pattern grew out of those high school corridors. And while you’re supposed to register and prove your existence with official emails to prevent anonymous bullying, everyone knows that doesn’t happen. With endless sources available, people create plenty of accounts with the aim to harass or promote themselves. It’s the modern equivalent of gangs and sending yourself flowers on Valentine’s Day. And people continue to get trampled into the dirt, thrown into the corner of the bathroom, and pitched down the stairs. The only difference is no one gets a physical bruise anymore. Oh, right, and there’s no Principal to report to.

I’m not going to lie: I hated school. But I also didn’t fall into any circle of acceptance. As a military brat, I moved throughout my youth, entering and exiting grades. While my peers usually grew up with one another, I stumbled in on established friendships. And, yes, I was weird. I didn’t have the right accent. I knew different histories than the teacher kept reciting. (Newsflash: every region slants things and picks out the elements they want to focus on) I’d traveled from one end of the country to the other and seen and done things no one else had even heard of. As it turned out, no one cared about those things, either. And when I took a few steps away after bubbling about this, that, or the other, I could hear the giggles and ridicule.

Social media? It’s more sinister.

Some people WILL laugh at you directly. But you have the potential to interact with people from around the world. And that means you won’t see them sitting at their computer, falling out of their chair at your remark. Instead, you stumble across the sarcastic video where they mimic the way you talk, or quote something you said. And you get to see everyone else laughing in response. Or you attempt to join a conversation and find yourself squeezed out (or ignored). It’s the bullying of the past multiplied by an infinite number. And it’s ACCEPTED by the masses! Because social media found its niche with generations that never experienced the real thing. So they thrive within the safe walls of their little worlds where there’s no genuine repercussions for their actions. (Remember: no Principal)

I know, all of the heads of every company promise they have checks and balances in place. It sounds good, but you only need to observe for a few moments to witness the blatant failures. Cyber bullying has sent how many people to their deaths? False news (something so rampant it’s now an official definition) has created how much chaos? Social media took the game of Telephone we played as kids and morphed it into a living, breathing monster and loosed it on the world – with no containment plan. And when someone tries to point out the problem, the “fixes” usually only create a bigger issue.

Social media isn’t going anywhere. Those little wires are firmly embedded into everyone’s brains (coming soon, I have no doubt). And while I despise the damage it wreaks every day, I have to wince and acknowledge the positives it’s brought at the same time. The opportunity the global reach extends for artists is invaluable. Regardless of budget or location, writers, sculptors, painters, and sewers (and everything else you can imagine) have a chance to carve out a small space for themselves. If they can snag ONE person’s interest, the potential exists to grow an audience. Before long, social media grants them a platform and a following. They gain popularity and opportunities to expand their work.

It’s something they often struggled with before.

I resisted the social media fiend for YEARS. While everyone I knew was playing around on MySpace (don’t laugh), I skipped that era entirely. My Facebook account existed simply so I could exchange photos with friends and family around the country. To this day, my friend count? It’s under three digits (shocking, I know). But as a freelancer, I’ve had to admit the platforms out there can help me. And that means gritting my teeth and dropping into the deep end of the pool – with all of the piranhas. These people are VICIOUS, too! As you do everything you can to promote a positive image of who you are and what you have to offer, all you get slammed with is silence, bots (my personal favorite to deal with), or ignorance. It’s enough to make a person give up!

But you see the same story from other artists out there. They’re learning TikTok, Discord, and Twitch. People are setting up Kickstarter projects to branch out projects and flooding social media to spread the word. The persistence drives you to find new ways to market yourself and call attention to the work you’re doing. And (eventually) it pays off. You just have to keep struggling through the quagmire that exists.

Kind of like surviving to graduation.

mental health

Unicorn Without a Horn

Inspirational clothing
Photo by Jane Pham from Pexels

Spend even a few moments in the rabbit hole that is social media, and you’ll find any number of sources of inspiration. People carve out their individual niches for fashion, health and wellness, travel, and (of course) their adorable pets. Maybe you don’t think of those things as “inspiration,” but the images provoke emotions and thoughts – both positive and negative. Oh, sure, some people have shallow aspirations behind their work (i.e., profit), but if you dig deep enough, you’ll stumble upon the artists and thinkers. You can find minds and contemplations worthy of admiration. Maybe you even click those “follow” buttons because of the twinge of inspiration they struck in your thoughts.

That’s how charisma works.

It’s the same principle at work with motivational speakers. Whatever the topic, you find yourself swept up and riveted. Energy zips through your veins and you walk out of the room, ready to conquer the world. Even in a stadium of thousands, you feel an immediate connection to that person. You KNOW they held eye contact – even for a brief moment. The words form a bond with some part of your life. These people inspire you and make you feel that anything – goals, dreams, aspirations – are easily attainable. Charisma and ease infuse their bodies and voices. Without it, you wouldn’t pay attention to more than a sentence of their message – if that.

You can probably name at least five people that inspire you, because of that passionate fire. And they don’t even need to bring it out with a bullhorn. Charisma carries through in art, photography, and writing. Something about the person or their work catches your attention and makes you want to follow them (not literally, of course – that’s stalking and against the law). The people we hold as inspirations make huge impacts on our lives.

But BEING an inspiration? That’s a different story.

Unless you’ve determined to fall into one of those categories, you don’t expect to hear that you inspire someone. In general, people don’t get out of the bed with a eye on their actions and behaviors. Sure, you appreciate recognition for a job well-done, and acknowledgement of your accomplishments always makes your day. But that’s not the same thing as someone stepping out of the woodwork and saying, “You inspire me.”

Wait – what?

I struggle every moment of every day to get my life in order, battle inner demons (who usually win), drown in anxiety loops, and fall down endless steps of failure. Am I inspiring you to NOT be like me? (THAT, at least, makes sense)

The truth is, though, someone somewhere probably DOES look up to you. Even while you’re looking at the shattered disaster of everything wrong in your life (because that’s what people with depression are best at), they’re zeroing in on one thing you did right – and conveniently overlooked. Or, because they aren’t in your head 24/7, they manage to see things from a different perspective than you do. YOU focus on the events that caused all of the scars, but they see the strength it takes to survive the battle to emerge on the other side. And while you feel like a battered disaster area who only just limped over the finish line, they view you as an inspiration who accomplished something other people find impossible.

Crazy, right?

This argument’s been churning around in my head for a few weeks. I didn’t do more than answer a friend’s question. But before I knew it? We were comparing “war wounds” regarding anxiety and worrying about what other people think of us. Suddenly, she threw out that comment of, “You inspire me so much.” I didn’t know what to do, so I sat there like an idiot. I’m NOT an inspiration to anyone. I still go through at least one breakdown a day over SOMETHING. In fact, her words sent me down a new spiral of panic. (Was she making a joke? Did someone put her up to that? Was I misunderstanding the words? What subtext was I overlooking?)

In the end, I fell back on my old stand-by: I’ve gotten where I am through a TON of work and fighting. It deflected the compliment, but it wasn’t a complete lie. But it also didn’t admit how uncomfortable I was with her statement – or the fact that I felt like a complete fraud. I WANTED to tell her that I’m not an inspiration to anyone. I screw up all the time. I make the wrong decision. And figuring out the answers? I’m still working on that. But those all sounded…not inspirational? So I ran and hid (which, you know, is VERY inspirational).

Since then, I’ve thought more on the topic. I’ve looked at the times I’ve spent with my niece and nephew, and the things they say. Kids choose fictional characters for inspiration all the time, and we don’t bat an eye. No one (okay, not NO ONE – but rational individuals) stops them from that admiration. Hell, my niece is a complete and utter badass, and she’s only seven. She inspires me every time she talks or charges out into the world – completely fearless and determined to carve out her place. The time she dressed as Batman for Halloween and corrected everyone that tried to call her Batgirl? Yeah, that’s my girl.

Maybe you DON’T need qualifications to inspire.

So I wrote down a list of other people who check one or two boxes of some sort of inspiration in my life. Whether they make me smile, get me moving, drive me forward in my work, or make me feel like a human being. And while a few motivational speakers popped up, as well as some of my favorite artists, most of the list? Probably not anyone the general public’s heard of. If they’re on MY list, maybe it makes sense that I can show up on someone else’s list. For whatever reason they have (most likely as a cautionary tale).

You don’t know how someone else views what you’re doing. While you’re standing on the edge of the cliff, gasping for breath and staring at the blisters and cuts and cursing the climb, someone else is gazing in wonder that you managed something so monumental. And maybe, MAYBE if you take a second to look at things from their side, you won’t beat yourself up quite as much as normal. It’s a theory, anyway – one I’m trying to implement. Not to be an inspiration to anyone (I have no desire to be one of those), but so you can feel better about yourself and what you’re accomplishing every day.

mental health

The Socialization Pill

Anti-social board
Photo by Sarah Pflug from Burst

Everyone without mental illness has a solution for curing depression. And most of those answers don’t usually come in the form of therapy, medication, or communication. Nope. They’re usually sunshine, exercise, diet changes, or (my personal favorite), socializing. Because when you feel like the world is collapsing in on you, the one thing that’s going to make you feel better is interacting with a horde of people.

WRONG!

We crawl into our blanket forts to get AWAY from people. It’s not a subliminal call for others to come join us. Getting thrown against a wall of humanity won’t do anything for the crippling misery boring through our skulls. Think about it: how does getting forced to interact with complete strangers make you feel better? You have to dredge up socialization skills. Then you have to force a cheer you KNOW you don’t have because people don’t want to deal with depression. And you’re usually confronted with topics you A) have no knowledge of (remember, these are strangers) or B) couldn’t care less about. And introverts do NOT have a mastery of small talk.

You’d have better luck pitching one of us into a ravine with starving predators. Our odds of survival are MUCH higher. We’d also come out on the other end with a better perspective. (Attempting to survive a genuine threat tends to to do that for you) Social interaction won’t fix things for those of us coping with a bad day/week/month/season. It’s not the answer we’re looking for. We’d TELL you if we wanted that kind of thing. You’d see us put on our “going out” clothes.

Everyone is NOT a social butterfly.

It drives me up the wall when people tell me I need to “get out more.” (And, yes, I realize the irony of discussing this during our current pandemic. You’re just going to have to transcribe this to a different time and place) Getting dragged to parties, dinners, and get-togethers made me skin crawl. I’d come up with every excuse in the book to decline an invitation. But since I hate lying (and I’m particularly BAD at it), that meant finding REAL reasons not to go. Or it meant I had to go – kicking and screaming.

Then I sat in a corner, twisting my fingers into knots and wishing I was anywhere else. I couldn’t start conversations (another introvert habit), and sneaking out the door is difficult when you’re trapped behind a wall of people. Conversations dropped within a few moments because I lacked that small talk ability. And people KNOW when you don’t want to be there. (Which is why this “solution” FAILS!) My eyes would dart back and forth, looking for my opening to leave. As soon as ANYONE made their farewells, I seized my chance to bolt out the door. I looked like a prisoner making a jail break!

It’s ridiculous!

And it’s completely unfair. To me, to the person who invited me, to everyone around me. I have no idea if they were trying to be polite, if they thought they were doing something good (that supposed “cure”), or if it was some joke to place bets on how long I’d last in a social situation. But the result was always the same. I used the same brittle tone of voice. You know the one: “I can’t believe I’m sitting here, and I wish I was anywhere else, but I’m trying to be polite – please stop talking to me.” I’d catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror and think of a deer in the headlights. (VERY complimentary)

There’s a difference between being around the people you love and being thrown into a social situation. One relaxes you, makes you laugh, and makes you feel safe and secure. The other tenses you up, makes you want to cry, and cranks your anxiety past eleven. What’s the difference?

Your CHOICE!

When someone pressures you and throws you into the socialization coliseum, nothing good comes from it. If YOU decide you want to form a get-together, it’s different. You’re selecting the people, the place, and the situation. There’s no awkwardness, no forced conversation, and the anxiety settles to a manageable level. (Let’s face it – you’re organizing something, so there’s going to be SOME panicking) And you’re not going to do it when you feel like the world’s falling apart. It’s THAT simple.

Don’t let people pressure you to go out in the masses. (Especially now – but that’s a different story) You know it won’t help, no matter what nonsense they spout. Are they living in your head? No. So why in the world would you take their advice? You know better than that. Shake your head and tell them no. You don’t need to make an excuse, just say no. It’ll save you in the long run – BELIEVE me.

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

Blue Christmas

Between Thanksgiving and the start of the New Year, there are fourteen celebrations that take place among different belief systems. (Which comes as a shock to a lot of people with narrowly-focused minds – not that it changes anything) Some have solemn, dignified practices. Others are boisterous and loud. And a few mix those emotions together. The majority, though, concentrate on a singular theme of family, togetherness, and reflection.

Beautiful, right?

For most people, it is. The vast majority count down the days to their holiday with anticipation and excitement. Halloween barely makes it out the door before they start planning decorations, meals, and gifts. (Okay, so I’m leaning heavily on Christmas here. I honestly can’t say I’ve encountered anyone going overboard on Chanukah or Kwanzaa decorations) They pummel you daily (hourly), asking if you’ve finished your shopping, your baking, your cards. You can see the phrenetic energy coming off them, making you wish you had some kind of force field or protective bubble to hide in. Because those people drain YOUR energy and heighten your anxiety the longer you spend in their presence.

Because the holidays AREN’T always happy and joyous occasions for everyone. Those same messages of family, friendship, and togetherness become reminders for people who are struggling with those very concepts. The enforced joy and happiness hammer at people struggling with their depression. And that constant badgering? Not so great for people with anxiety. (Seriously, how are you supposed to feel getting asked the same question every two seconds?!)

But denying the holidays? Sacrilege!

If you attempt to crawl away from the lights and garland and tinsel (fucking tinsel gets EVERYWHERE – it’s worse than glitter), people stare and shame you. Because who hates holidays? They can’t take a moment to listen and realize that there are underlying issues at play. That overwhelming cheer makes you feel WORSE. That you possibly aren’t on speaking terms with your family (or maybe you don’t HAVE family – 2020 took a lot of them away). Or – craziest of all – perhaps you celebrate differently from them.

WHAT?!

I’ve walked a careful balance for almost two decades now. Since I broke with my upbringing and elected to follow a different belief system from my family, I’ve encountered a lot of stubbornness, ugliness, and ignorance. Which sucks the joy right out of the holidays. And when I dare to point out the pagan origins of A LOT of those people’s habits, they REALLY get nasty. It makes me not want to participate in the first place.

The approach of the holidays equates to stress, anxiety, depression, and misery, for me. It means waiting for endless questions, hearing the same spouted nonsense (for crying out loud – “Happy Holidays” is not a “liberal cop out” – I’m being polite and respecting the fact that I have no idea what you might celebrate!), and rolling my eyes so much I get a headache. I spend more time crying during the holidays than I do the rest of the year.

And I know I’m not alone.

I think, if everyone stopped for FIVE SECONDS, and looked around at everyone around them, things might be different. STOP forcing a bright, cheery demeanor on these weeks. TALK to those around you – find out what’s going on in their minds. LISTEN to people about their beliefs, and maybe learn about a different culture and celebration for once. Take moments out to BREATHE, in peace and quiet with no one around. If you have to, tell people to go away so you can gain those moments (they’ll survive).

And, if you need to, feel bad during the holidays. You’re entitled to your emotions and what’s going on in your mind. Never let anyone tell you differently. Because, when you get down to it, they’re just one more day.

mental health

The Guilt Trap

“Saying no to something is actually much more powerful than saying yes.”

~Tom Hanks

Everyone recite after me: “No means no.” You know that phrase – you practiced it in elementary school. In fact, it followed you all the way up to college (if you attended – no judgement). Teachers, mentors, and counselors applied it to everything from drugs to sexual advances. We proudly stood tall and assured our authority figures we could utter the words in clear tones.

And we do – in THOSE situations.

But get us cornered in an office setting and thrust a giant stack of reports into our arms, and the word “no” disappears from our vocabulary. Confront us with a shift that needs to get covered, and two little letters no longer exist in the alphabet. Ask us to remember to take care of ourselves, to prioritize our health (mental, physical, spiritual) above ANYTHING else, and we wilt and collapse under the pressure.

Epic fail.

Figuring out how to say no violates the guilt centers of our brains. Someone’s approaching and asking (demanding?) assistance, and we’re incapable to backing down. After all, we know no one else is going to step forward. A lot of people with depression, anxiety, or other conditions HATE seeing someone else in distress. We know what it feels like. So we bow our heads and take the burden on ourselves. To the detriment of ourselves, but – hey, we’re used to it. And better us than someone else.

Suddenly, we’ve created a pattern. Everyone learns that we’ll say “yes” to everything. No need to check elsewhere, regardless of the work piled up on our desk. They know the guilt will nibble at our conscience and prompt us to accept ONE MORE task without hesitation. Who cares if we’re dissolving into ill health and crumbling into despair? Just so long as they don’t have to bother with handling something themselves. And we don’t disappoint them.

We just sacrifice ourselves.

Because saying “no” is HARD! You have to fight that disappointment that’s going to flicker over the other person’s face. And you know they’re going to unfurl a guilt trip if you so much as form that hard “n” sound with your mouth. You’ve established a routine of always doing everything they ask. And now you’re daring to refuse? What the hell’s gotten into you? You’re supposed to work yourself into the ground – burn the candle down into a pool of wax!

Figuring out how to stand up for yourself and say “no” takes an effort of will. The first time I refused to accept a shift that needed to be filled, I honestly felt like I was dying. I couldn’t stop sweating, my pulse raced faster than during my hardest HIIT workout, my vision blurred, and I thought I was going to pass out. (Sound familiar? Oh, wait – that’s an anxiety attack!) But I had no choice – my body was beyond its limits. I was in so much pain that BREATHING hurt, and my system was going to take me out one way or another. I knew the refusal was needed for my own safety – and the simple act of saying no made me feel like I was dying! (Dead if I did and dead if I didn’t – such an awesome place to be!)

And my manager made me feel like shit for it. She gave me the worst disappointed look and pointed out that I had always stepped up before. (Talk about pouring salt in a wound!) I had to stand my ground and defend my decision – defend a simple “No!” I had co-workers that lied through their teeth to get out of covering shifts, and they never had to justify their answers. I was coming apart at the seams, and I needed to explain that – because I’d set a pattern of “yes.”

Learning to say “no” might save your life!

I started looking at everything I was asked from that point forward. I took stock of my body and my mental state. And I started saying “no” more often – for ME. Amazingly enough, my health improved. My body recovered, and I spent less time sobbing into my pillow at night. My depression eased up on me, giving me a chance to breathe. I realized I was BURYING myself in all of those “yes” and “sure” responses!

It’s still difficult for me to say “no.” My brain is wired to help and say “yes” to whatever someone asks me. I have to gut-check myself to STOP and look at calendars and think through how things are going. Because sometimes that need to step in still trips me up. And I pay for it.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be there for someone (don’t misunderstand me there). But you have to keep yourself at the top of the list. If you go down, you can’t help ANYONE. If you bury yourself, eventually the dirt’s going to tumble over. No one’s a superhero – much as we want to all try to be. Finding the courage to square your shoulders and say “no” is the smallest act of heroism you can accomplish – for you. Your mind and body will thank you.

mental health

Last Tile

Fallen tower of blocks
Photo by Samantha Hurley from Burst

As I’m sure everyone is already aware, September is National Suicide Prevention Month. A month in which people organize walks, share and copy suicide prevention phone numbers, and loudly proclaim their willingness to listen to anyone who might need to talk. It’s one of the months I cringe at having to endure, and I avoid participating in those events at all costs, manufacturing excuses if anyone succeeds in cornering me.

And not for reasons people like to guess.

I don’t promote suicide as an answer to any situation. Speaking as a person who attempted suicide on five separate occasions, I can certify that it doesn’t accomplish anything. (Yes, this would be the first time I publicly acknowledge that fact – lucky you) The desperation and rock bottom level of depression you reach to determine suicide as your only option is something that defies description. It’s something that the people who organize these events have ZERO concept of. And as much as they insist they’ll sit with you through such quagmire, they won’t. Because depression isn’t pretty.

Depression LOOKS pretty on television and in the movies. It’s crying, eating disorders, and closed curtains. It’s skipped social obligations and broken marriages. No one has yet captured the reality, though. Nothing captures the true depths of crushing misery a person undergoes when their mind twists in on itself and pummels every part of themselves. It’s a suffocating tar pit that sucks you down, pulling you tighter with every tiny movement. You’re fighting a person who actually knows everything about you – YOURSELF.

And you LOSE.

Friends claim they’ll sit with you while you abuse your image. They say they’ll support you as you brutalize yourself. But they get tired. They can’t endure the days, weeks, and even months as you struggle against the image in the mirror. It gets OLD for them. They don’t want to put up with it. “Can’t you just be happy already?” It’s tiring, and it saps their energy. So they drift away. They find excuses (sound familiar?) to skip being in your presence. Your depression infects them, and they escape to preserve themselves.

Good news: the guilt from that knowledge buries you deeper.

Suddenly, saving everyone from the monster you are sounds like a good idea. Ending the burden you’ve become feels like an answer. You’ve proven that sickening voice correct: no one wants to be around you. No one wants anything to do with you, and they’ll be better off without you. It feeds into the dark loop playing in your mind. Instead of helping, their failure to understand the twisted logic of depression has created the very problem they said they’d solve.

The world doesn’t like depression. They roll their eyes at anything that isn’t bright and cheerful. You’ll even get called out for pessimism. “Why can’t you just be positive?” I faced cold reality at my previous job when I was informed my subtle cries for help “made people uncomfortable.” I was told I needed to stop.

No concern, no sympathy – I was clearly the problem, upsetting others.

Yet there’s all this shock when someone succeeds. People wonder how they “never noticed” or “never knew anything was wrong.” As if the world hasn’t created a place where asking for help, showing we need help isn’t strictly forbidden. Rose-colored glasses encourage you to see NOTHING. And you thrust them at us as if it will make that soul-sucking pit go away. Newsflash: a rose-colored pit full of spikes and slime is still a pit of spikes and slime.

It’s taken me 25 years to reach the point I’m at now. That’s 25 years of being thrown to psychologists that wanted to know why I hated my parents so much (clearly, attempting to end my life was about them and not me). A full 25 years of weighing whether or not to tell friends, boyfriends I had depression, and watching many turn their backs on me. I endured horrific medications that destroyed my body, and then suffered through cold withdrawal when I realized they weren’t worth it. I learned to drag myself back from the edge on my own, facing and fighting those demons every moment of every day. When I failed, I learned to keep my head above the muck, breathing until I could find a way to climb out of the pit again. I finally found someone I could talk to – someone who WOULD sit with me through pure hell, regardless of how long it took. Someone who gently deflected every incorrect phrase that came out of my mouth (not contradicting them, just turning them aside – something that monster hasn’t figured a way around yet).

25 years, in which I wanted to die 5 times.

Even I know those aren’t the best odds. I’ve hidden my struggles. I’ve put on the positive face people want to see while falling apart inside. Despite the cutting remarks people made, I’ve held my head up high. It’s what we do. So you can stand up and look shocked and say, “I had no idea” down the road.

The walks? The events? The fundraisers? I’m not trying to burst bubbles, but they’re not going to fix the problem. You fix the problem by opening your eyes. By not getting fatigued with us. By MEANING it when you say you’ll be there. By doing your homework and learning what depression means in the first place. By picking up on subtle cues and derailing our thought processes before we end up in the sludge. You help us more by earning our trust (and KEEPING it) than walking a thousand miles. By being friends and stepping in when we need you than telling us to go outside and get sunshine. (I could be in the fucking tropics, and it ain’t going to do shit, people – STOP making that suggestion!)

You help by opening your eyes and your ears. Not by opening your wallet.

mental health

Dancing on the Line

Black and white image of trees fading into fog
Photo by Vlad Bagacian from Pexels

Black and white. Us versus them. Right and wrong. This or that. Ever notice how many extremes things appear to come in? People like to turn ANYTHING into an issue with polar opposites, and they set up camps in the two extremes. Then they look at you and expect you to choose one option or the other. Failure to do so, or (universe-forbid) failure to choose the “correct” option results in abuse, sneering, and insistence that you fix your way of thinking.

Because, of course, there’s a giant chasm in the middle.

Oh, wait – no there isn’t. Between those two poles is an entire gradient of colors (or, if you can’t see color, a spectrum of greys). The view from the middle lets you see EVERYTHING. Which, frankly, isn’t a bad thing. In fact, if more people took the time to stand on THAT line, maybe we wouldn’t have to cope with so much sniping and nastiness. (Go figure)

Unpopular truth: There’s no one right way.

Crazy, right? Probably why I spend a lot of time with people casting ugly looks in my direction (don’t worry – I get over it). But it’s how I was raised. I look at things from every angle before I make a decision (and sometimes that decision is to park myself in the very middle). I don’t necessarily LIKE considering issues from the other side (because sometimes the other side is incredibly stupid), but it’s the only way to be fair. It’s a necessary dance in order to remain objective.

Wait, objective with idiots? Yeah, I know – it sucks. My fiance’ shakes his head a lot when I start a conversation with the words, “But think of it from their side.” Does it mean I agree with them? No, not a lot of the time. But it means I need to take five minutes to stop and consider things from the other side. I can’t rush into an argument screaming from my heart. I have to give my brain time to process every angle first. (Don’t you wish everyone did this?)

It won’t win you any friends.

Want an example? I’ve read Mein Kampf. (Not in the original German, but a faithful translation) Hitler was an extremely intelligent man, and the book is a brilliant read – I recommend it to anyone. When I say those words, people act like I’ve executed a country in front of them. Do I agree with what he did? Of course I don’t! But can I admire the brain of the person who wrote that book? Yeah, I can. Can I point out the fact that someone so simple was able to corrupt an entire nation (an entire region) using simple rhetoric and propaganda? Yeah, I can. I can look at BOTH sides of something.

It takes practice and a backbone to dance on the line of objectivity. Standing still while someone rails in your face that you’re a horrible person is difficult. (Of course, unless you agree with them in the first place, you’ll probably have to do the same thing) You need a strong stomach to look at the other side of some issues, too. Again, you DON’T have to agree with them (I don’t support racism, religious intolerance, discrimination of ANY kind, and in our current pandemic situation, I support science and doctors – NOT politicians).

Once you learn to look at both camps, you find yourself sitting outside of them – even when you pick one. They WON’T let you stay inside the tent if you utter a single “but.” And a lot of times, you’ll end up in that fictional middle ground they told you didn’t exist. It gets lonely, but you’ll be stronger for it. While the others are busy screaming at each other, you get to note how similar they actually are (and refuse to acknowledge).

Plus, when you’re willing to learn more, you become a stronger ally. You know what to say to shut someone down when they try to abuse a person you’ve elected to defend. After all, you understand that side as well as they do, right? So you know where to aim your words. (Maybe it’s a LITTLE petty, but I personally take joy in watching bigots deflate and skulk away)

You DON’T have to pick a side, not if you don’t feel comfortable. There’s no chasm between them. You don’t have to remain ignorant of what the other “side” has to say. Knowledge doesn’t make you a traitor, it makes you smart. If your friends can’t accept that, are they the friends you want to keep?

mental health

There’s Sorry and There’s Stupid

“Trust is like a mirror, you can fix it if it’s broken, but you can still see the crack in that mother fucker’s reflection.”

~Lady Gaga

I spent a lot of time thinking through this post, considering it from different angles and reflecting back on my own personal experiences and lessons. The one truth I came to realize was that there will be a number of people that won’t agree with my perspective. Which is fine – I don’t claim to be the only answer out there. All I can say is what I’ve learned and realized over the years.

Trust is a tricky thing. Some people claim it’s something you earn, others that it’s something you hand out indiscriminately. Some people feel it’s strong, nearly unbreakable, while others consider it delicate and fragile. Some people think it can be repaired once broken, and others stare at the shattered fragments and see nothing but an incomplete jigsaw puzzle.

What do I see?

When I was younger, I believed that everyone deserved to be trusted. I handed it out to everyone with a smile, confident that I’d receive the same treatment. I was taught by those with authority around me that I was supposed to trust: my peers, my elders, my friends (not strangers – that was going too far). I was blissfully stupid, and I got exactly what I deserved: betrayal. And that first lesson was hard.

Know those trust falls?

My so-called friend thought it would be funny to let me fall. And I guess it was a riot because everyone else in the class laughed and made fun for days. Meanwhile, I was left with a sore back, sore head, a bitter taste in my mouth, and the first twist of the knife in my heart. Oh, the teacher scolded, but that was the end of things. One more betrayal. After all, kids will be kids, right?

No one can see the knife – be it in the heart or in the back – but it stays. Each betrayal buries it deeper until the trust that exists between those two individuals shatters completely. That’s the only thing that saves you from the damage being wrought by the knife. Whispered conversations behind the back (which you’re not supposed to hear but ALWAYS get around to you), “forgotten” promises, blatant lies – they all add up. People decide they’re “harmless,” and wave away the fact that they’re breaking your trust.

And then it snaps (or you do).

You stare at the destructive remains of the trusting bond you shared with a person, and you don’t know what to feel. Relief that they can’t hurt you anymore? Anger that you allowed them to hurt you for so long? Sadness that the bond is gone? Misery that you were manipulated? Despair that you’ll never be able to put those pieces back together? Everything at once? Fragile or strong, the trust is now gone.

Sometimes, that trust stays gone. Friendships die without trust (well, any relationship does). Is that a loss? No. True friends don’t behave that way, and you’re better off without them. Other times, those same people bounce back into your lives with big smiles and offer you the bond of trust again. Often, they act as if nothing ever happened, as if they never thrust a knife into your back and destroyed some part of your life.

And you know there’s another knife in their hands.

Do you extend that trust again? Or are you smart enough to walk away?

I spent a lot of my life being stupid, and I paid for it – over and over and over again. My back is covered in the metaphorical scars of betrayal. As time went on, I stopped trusting people, stopped extending it to those who showed smiles that were too big, used the words, “trust me.” Does that mean I made the right decisions all the time? No. I’ve removed knives from my back in the past year.

And it still sucks every time.

Now, I might accept apologies from liars, but I never trust another word from their mouths. I expect manipulators to continue doing so, and I watch everything they do. Promises made from people I know that don’t keep them are expected to be broken, and I make alternate plans. New people that come into my life are watched like a hawk, and I don’t trust them – not for a long time. I refuse to do trust falls.

Is this healthy?

I’m the first to admit it probably isn’t, but it’s what people have taught me. I spent too much of my life being stupid, and I’ve finished with that phase of things. There ARE people in my life I trust. They’ve stuck with me through everything and proved there are decent individuals in this world. Is the list long? No. Am I worried that it’s a short list? No. A tight, small, STRONG circle beats a big, weak, floppy circle any day.

So, yeah, maybe you won’t agree with my view on trust. That’s okay. If you haven’t experienced the same level of betrayal, I’m glad – and I mean that. I hope that continues in your life. No one deserves to carry a back full of scars.