mental health

Think Before You Think

Theatre monologue
Image by bigter choi from Pixabay

How often do you find yourself having a conversation in the back of your mind? Not in the “crazy” way of talking to yourself, and I don’t mean hearing voices that aren’t yours. Just the standard internal monologue everyone uses throughout the day. Maybe to catalog your schedule. Or as you’re getting yourself out of bed in the morning and preparing for the day ahead. Or the (always popular) derogatory remarks you make to yourself for every hiccup and bump in the road, laying heavier and heavier weights on your shoulders.

Yup, we’re talking about THAT internal monologue.

The one that flattens your mood and leaves you looking for a blanket fort and a pint of ice cream. It’s saturated with sarcasm. You can even picture the twisted sneer on the face (well, YOUR face, since it’s your voice you’re hearing) as the zingers whisper in your ear. The words pour out non-stop, growing louder and louder as you move from an innocent trip to a full-out crash. Because the internal monologue’s distracting. It starts to take over more and more of your thought processes. Before you know it, it’s dominating your brain. You miss outside conversation. And you lose focus on the things you ARE supposed to provide your attention to. Which only serves to feed back into that maniac.

Not everyone possess an internal monologue. Some people go through their day with radio silence. And if you cope with depression? Well – like me – you envy those people. I know, others look at them strange and can’t conceive of the possibility of a quiet mind. But when all you hear is a constant barrage of negativity, you’d gladly sever a limb for five minutes of peace. Five whole minutes without your brain informing you of everything you’re doing wrong. (Did you know you can BREATHE wrong?)

People without an internal monologue don’t realize the blessing they have.

For the rest of us, we’re stuck with that actor in the spotlight, determined to speak to a trapped audience. And it’s usually overwhelming. If we could hand our ticket over to someone else (or, you know, LEAVE the theatre), we would. Anything to avoid the constant litany of failure. Because hearing about mistake after mistake beats you down. And just when you think you’re finally numb, the voice reaches a new spot and digs in a fresh wound. It’s agony! Listening to someone rattle off all of your worst qualities – 24/7 – is draining. And your body tells you in the form of exhaustion, insomnia (as if you WANT to stay awake and listen to the late show in your head), and illness.

I’ve attempted some pretty ridiculous things to break the cycle of negativity that runs on a constant loop in my mind. Blaring music? The theory seemed sound. Except that your internal monologue is capable of shouting over even the best headphones. (Turns out your mind’s WAY more powerful than anything technology can produce) Plus, high volumes aren’t safe for your hearing. And don’t get me started on the health risks of banging your head against hard objects. (Seriously, don’t try that one) Nothing shut that voice off. If anything, it ENCOURAGED the verbal barbs.

I needed to try a different angle.

Have you ever witnessed a stand-up comic getting heckled? It’s horribly rude. And the best performers out there handle the situation with grace and professionalism. But the speaker of your internal monologue? Yeah, they’re – well, they’re you. And let’s face it: they aren’t the BEST aspect of you. Derailing them is surprisingly easy, once you get the knack of it. (Okay, so this sounds strange, and, yes, I’m advocating that you “argue” with yourself. As long as you don’t do it aloud, you’re in the clear on the strange looks from strangers and friends category)

You need to throw those negative comments off track. And you do that by challenging the statements the SECOND you hear them. Or, if that’s not something you feel comfortable with yet, shift the train of thought they’re working on. For instance, when my internal monologue starts down the road of, “You’re never going to finish this story,” it’s time to step in. I can call a bluff and think of everything I HAVE finished and shut things down that way. Or I can jump to a fresh path and look at a new project I’m excelling at. Either way, that negative personality loses momentum and dissolves into the background. They lose their material.

Like those “I am” statements, it’s WORK. And I’m so used to getting bogged down in my internal monologue, that it might take me too long to implement a switch. Then it’s a matter of soothing the mental bruises and moving on, promising to remain more observant next time. But I FEEL better for not letting myself get dragged under all the time. Don’t get me wrong, I still feel beaten down by the things that inner voice says. (We’re the most accurate critics around) But at least I’m not dragging the negativity around with me throughout the day.

Give it a try. Put your internal monologue on a stage – with a spotlight – and then deprive them of their glory. Throw tomatoes or rotten fruit. Or break out your phone in the middle of the show and ignore them. Be a rude, disrespectful audience. If they can’t support you and behave, then you don’t need to listen. It’s a training process – for both of you. It’s the only way you’ll learn to speak nicer to yourself.

mental health

Channeling Ironman

"I am" notebook

When your feet hit the floor in the morning, what’s the first thought that crosses your mind? After you cycle through the usual litany of, “Holy crap, why am I awake?” (obviously). Are you the kind of person that starts running through the tasks you have lined up for the day? Or do you groan over the job you need to drag yourself to? Either way, you’ll find the word “I” working it’s way into those statements. And you fall into one of two possible camps: positive or negative. (And, no, I’m not referring to chipper morning people and those who require a caffeine infusion to function)

Now, before you start fretting, I’m not going to go into that nonsense about needing to smile first thing in the morning to create a rainbow for the day. I’m firmly opposed to smiling at dawn; that shit needs to get banned. How a person decides to crawl out of bed is entirely up to them. And the fact you growl and scowl through your routine doesn’t mean you’re going to strike out the rest of the day. (Karma doesn’t work that way) If it did? I’d be dead by now.

No, I’m focusing in on the words that tumble around in your head in those first few moments. The coherent ones, anyway. (I’ll give anyone a pass that can’t form a functional sentence until they get their first cup of coffee. I share a house with one of you) Not because they set a tone or anything, but because they DO influence the way you view yourself. Those words determine how you’re going to hold yourself for the rest of the day and interact with the world. More importantly, they decide how you’re going to speak to yourself as the hours progress.

And how you continue to talk to and about yourself.

The average person finds positive ways to describe themselves. They get out of bed, look in the mirror, and smile. “I am going to ace that presentation today.” Or they pour a mug of tea and think, “I am confident I can sell that pitch.” The slant of the words they cycle around their brains trends UP. Even if they encounter a bump in the road, they’re able to shrug things off and keep working. The constant reinforcement from their minds buoys them through adversity. It’s why you see a smile on their faces all the time. And why they’re usually morning people, encouraging you to start your day with a grin plastered on your face.

A nice theory, but not always practical.

For those of us with depression, we don’t get a positive voice in the back of our minds. That first glance in the mirror? It’s accompanied with, “I am a disaster. Why did I get out of bed?” Our morning beverage of choice gets stared at with thoughts of, “I am grossly incompetent. No one’s going to hire me.” And that sinister whisper continues to plague us. We get frown lines between our eyes, hunch our shoulders, and avoid eye contact. Hurdles throw us into despair because the only thing waiting to catch us is a mud pit and laughter. All we hear are doubts and reminders of every moment of our lives in which we failed. So getting up in the morning? That’s an ACCOMPLISHMENT in the first place. Asking for a smile on top of things is absurd.

Anyone with depression knows you need to change that inner dialogue. I know, it’s easier said than done. (I’m in that boat, too – remember?) So you start with something small. And something I’ve found that helps is narrowing my focus to two little words: “I am.” What you add after those words can determine which way your mood bends. And it grounds your mind into YOU, forcing you to examine a situation from YOUR point of view. It’s frightening, challenging, and requires supreme effort (we’re talking marathon strength here). But the end reward?

Well, you tell me what you think.

The notebook in the picture? It’s mine. I picked it up in my annual school supply splurge. (I’m not an addict or anything. If you don’t understand, talk to a writer) Within the pages, I keep a few different tallies for my writing, including the number of brave steps I accomplish each week. On Fridays, I then sit down and analyze how I did: with my business, with my mental outlook, and with my emotions. And at the end, I write out an “I am” statement. No matter how I feel the week went, that word MUST be positive. Sometimes it takes me an hour to come up with a way to finish the sentence, especially when I feel frustrated. (Believe me, I want to use “frustrated” ALL the time) But I refuse to accept anything less than a positive shift in my thinking.

This simple (okay, it’s not simple; it’s brutal and exhausting) exercise is already rewriting the patterns in my head. I catch myself reverting to the old way to speaking to myself and cut the flow of words off. It doesn’t mean I WON’T write out those frustrations in my analysis, but I’m not allowed to dwell on them. I HAVE to cycle around to a positive. It’s leading to a fight to keep my thinking on track.

And it’s EXHAUSTING!

But it’s helping. Instead of getting sucked into my usual pit of despair, I’m looking UP to the next step. And I don’t find those voices as overwhelming as I used to. Yes, they’re still there. (Let’s face it, no one’s cured depression) They just don’t own as much real estate in my thoughts as they have in the past.

So take some time out of your day and find an “I am” statement. Write it down. You don’t need to do it in a notebook; a scrap of paper will do. Steam up a mirror and write it there. Look at it and hold it in your mind. And then do it again tomorrow. And the next day. And the next. Train your brain to find a positive assessment about yourself. It’ll quiet all of the negative we battle.

Even if you’re not waking up with a bright, sunny smile every morning.

mental health

Toss the Red Pen

To err is human.”

~Alexander Pope

Everyone with a perfectionist streak can pinpoint the exact point in their life where the habit burrowed into their brain. Sometimes it showed up early, developing from demanding parental figures. Other times it makes a later appearance, courtesy of managers or co-workers with an inability to compromise. As fear of disappointing someone (to say nothing of the repercussions) sets in, you learn to hold a microscope – much easier to spot flaws with than a magnifying glass – up to your work and life and pick up the specks of error before they go out into the world. Because mistakes? They’re not tolerated.

Where did your need for perfection begin?

I fall into that first group. The eldest child, I got to serve as the “example” for my siblings (don’t you love when parents trot that phrase out?). Throw in a natural aptitude in school systems ill-prepared to handle above average intelligence, and it’s a recipe for disaster. Adults LOVE success. I suppose you can’t blame them, but when they see it, they expect the pattern to stick. One straight-A report card sets precedence. Before you know it, you hear, “If you get a B, we’re sending you to Siberia.” And, intelligent or not, a child brain can’t process the empty threat behind the words. All you hear is the implied disappointment. And a perfectionist is born.

The first time I DID see a B on an assignment? I ended up in a full meltdown. Where I knew kids in my class tore up and hid D or F papers, I contemplated the same with something the average family wouldn’t bat an eye over. All I could see was a monumental mistake, though. My world came crashing down. Everything – my dreams, my hopes, my plans – ended. All because I fumbled too many answers on an advanced math quiz (setting up my hatred for the discipline for years to come). It never even occurred to me that I was working on skills two years ahead of my age. I screwed up, and I needed to go home and pack my bags for a nebulous destination on the other side of the world. (Incidentally, my math skills didn’t extend to the fact that one B couldn’t tank my average score)

And this defeatist attitude followed me to adulthood.

Mistakes equaled abysmal failure. Naturally, I fought tooth and nail to avoid making a mistake in the first place. That meant driving everyone around me up the wall. Why did I need to spend an extra ten minutes on something? No one wanted to take a trip to the library to check a reference for a paper. (Yes, yes – I attended college before Google took off) What idiot stays up until 1:00 AM triple-checking a PowerPoint presentation for consistency? Even worse, when I spotted something I missed, I felt an uncontrollable need to point the error out – to EVERYONE. As if the people in the audience gave two shits about a misplaced bullet point. I stored up the rolled eyes, snickering, and “are you kidding me?” expressions as evidence of my failure.

Since a kid, I’ve chased the concept of perfect, deciding that a lack of mistakes meant success. And, tied with it, I’ve frozen my brain with the fear of destroying everything by tripping up over inconsequential tidbits. It’s something I KNOW other people cope with. You wind yourself up over every big assignment. And when you send an email to your boss (or an editor or a prospective employer), noticing at the last second that you spelled something wrong? You feel a mountain fall on your head. You’re positive the universe paints it in neon, flashing lights. And, of course, the person’s going to laugh, share it with the rest of the world, and turn you down.

Because that’s how mistakes work.

Except – as I’ve started figuring out – they don’t. If they DID, no one would succeed. How many books, newspapers, or magazines do you read with errors? Editors miss things all the time. People type slower than their brains work. And the more you work on something, pushing your mind and body past the point of exhaustion, the greater the odds you’ll fail to notice a mistake sliding into your work. But you still have a job, right? You still earn your paycheck. Clients still approach you. Because THEY don’t pay attention to the minutiae you obsess over!

Courtesy of other people hammering the lesson into ME, I’ve been working to break this need for perfection. And while it requires gritting my teeth, breaking a sweat, and enduring the shakes, I’ve allowed myself to MAKE mistakes. (Not berating myself about them is taking more work, but it’s also part of the process) For instance, I write both of my blogs stream-of-conscience. While I plan the topics ahead of time, I don’t write, review, and edit them ahead of time. So if they come out sloppy, with weird errors, so be it. I need to calm down the shrieking in the back of my head that tells me I sound like an incoherent moron, but it’s the best exercise I’ve done. It FORCES me to allow mistakes into my life.

And the Apocalypse hasn’t happened. (Go figure)

I’m ruthless about my work. I review, and review, and review everything – determined to please my clients. And I do a solid job. I also exhaust myself in the process. And if they notice something that needs tweaking? I go into a full-blown panic. That ISN’T how a person’s meant to behave. It tells me I still have PLENTY of work to do on breaking this habit. People make mistakes – and then they move on. You can fix boo-boos without a problem. Everyone does. So why should I hold myself to a higher standard?

If you find yourself in the same anxiety loop because you misspelled a word, you know what I’m talking about. And you need to get to work on a similar exercise. Find something you can do that might lead you down the road toward a mistake. (I don’t mean deliberately make a mistake, but leave the door open) And if you see one? Let it be. You can fix it, if someone asks you to. But if they don’t? Hey, guess what? You don’t need to pack your bags for Siberia. Who knows? Eventually, we might even approach something close to normal with our thinking.

mental health

Another?

Rejected
Photo by Kulbir from Pexels

Given the choice between acceptance and rejection, no sane person would run towards the person with their arms crossed in an emphatic “NO.” (Let’s set aside for the moment the fact that no one’s going to consider me a sane person) That’s basic human nature. We covet approval. The Millennial Generation, in particular, arose from a need to get a gold star for everything. People don’t like getting a door slammed in their face, especially when they’ve invested time and effort on a project they’re insanely proud of. That immediate repulse sends a negative message into their brain that lingers for days (weeks, months, years).

But rejection? It’s healthy.

Yes, that statement sounds completely and utterly INSANE. Why would you EVER want to invite rejection into your life? It’s painful. It leads to mental anguish (not to mention the physical repercussions of that mental instability). And it sets up roadblocks on the path to whatever you’re struggling towards. I won’t deny any of those statements. Every time laughs, hangs up the phone, tears up your email, or slams a door (even if those actions are only metaphorical), you feel the physically bruised. Sitting alone in a room, you swear a spotlight goes up the entire world can see. (And, of course, there’s a speakerphone to allow everyone to listen in) Everyone out there ends up privy to your humiliation. It’s ripe fodder for the nasty voice in the back of your mind to remind you of how pathetic a person you are, what drivel your dreams are, and how you’re likely NEVER going to accomplish anything.

Each time you hear that variation of rejection, it goes to work on your mind and body. As they pile up, you get a fresh anxiety loop. And trying to push through that tornado to attempt something new? It’s pure hell. We’re talking a full-blown panic attack just to submit a short story to a new market! Ask your boss for a raise when they gave you that look the last time? You’re positive your heart will stop. Approach a gallery about displaying your work? You can feel the aneurysm. Given the option, you’d rather baby-sit an entire gymnasium of small children than go into a situation promising rejection. So WHY am I suggesting you step out of the gym and walk down the street?!

Because it’s the only way to defeat that knee-jerk anxiety reaction. You can’t push through the wall of fear and panic and misery without an outer layer of numb skin. And that means learning to step up and EMBRACE rejection.

Like a BOSS!

I thought I had the rejection concept down. Writers either learn to accept it, or they stop writing. You can’t take those form letters – or even the personally-written letters – to heart if you plan to make it. Famous authors ALL received scathing responses at some point in their careers. Odds were they felt the sting of the words, but they didn’t let someone’s opinion drive them into a shadowy corner. Instead, they charged forward, continuing to fight for their place on a shelf. It’s what I told myself. And my stack of rejections? I track them and count them as progress. So I assumed I was immune to the entire process.

Ha! Maybe in THAT part of my life. But in everything ELSE? Nope. I was boxed in by this horrendous fear of someone looking at me, laughing, and then divulging in a global voice everything wrong with me. The panic paralyzed me, preventing me from taking a single risk with my freelance career (ironic, considering I write there, too). What if I made a fool of myself? I’d have to admit defeat. And then the entire world would know. (We always think the planet’s aware of what we do – funny, isn’t it?) I couldn’t MOVE. And I spiraled into this depressive state, convinced I’d made a mistake from the very beginning. A mistake in pursuing my DREAM.

Until someone made the remark that you NEED to look for opportunities FOR rejection. It sounded absurd and horrifying. Why in the world would I WANT someone to tell me no? I was supposed to be looking for a YES. The answer? Because the fear of that “no” was holding me back. And once I confronted the horrible “No Monster” head-on, I’d realize it wasn’t as terrible as I’d built it up to be in my mind. Instead, I could move on to the next potential no, and the next, and the next. Because the reality is, there’s a good chance somewhere in there is a yes I didn’t realize existed.

Dumbest thing I’d ever heard.

And I ignored the words for a long time. Well, I ignored FOLLOWING the words, anyway. They stuck in my brain. And when I finally hit a corner, with nowhere else to go, some tiny brave part of me decided it was worth a shot. I put myself out there for a rejection. I knew the odds were high I wouldn’t get the job. Guess what happened?

I didn’t get the position. And the world didn’t end. I also didn’t feel anywhere near as badly as I thought. For one, I’d prepared myself for the “no.” Two? The cataclysmic repulsion I’d built up in my mind didn’t occur. Instead, the response was a polite refusal with a request to keep my information on file for the future. I can live with that (it’s not something I’d rehearsed in my mind). More importantly? That heavy shadow I’d been dragging around? It got a little lighter. Maybe only a touch, but enough for me to notice.

It’s made me start the snowball rolling. Before, when I saw something I KNEW would yield a “no,” I passed it by. Now? I push myself to go for it. If it’s a no, it’s a no. All that means is that I’m back where I started. Okay, that’s not hurting anything. I can’t go BACKWARDS by trying. And I think that’s what they meant. I’m not one of those people where everything rolls off my back (not yet – maybe not ever), but at least I’m not cowering in the corner anymore. And while I’m still working on that first “yes,” I am at least working.

You can do the same. It takes WORK to push through that wall of anxiety (believe me). You need to give yourself multiple pep talks to knock on that first door. But the next door? You need less chatting. And your shoulders stay back a little easier. And I’m predicting that – down the road – you reach a point where you don’t even knock; you simply walk in with a smile on your face. How far that mile marker is, I don’t know. But if we don’t start hitting those doors NOW, we’ll never know.

mental health

Pumping the Breaks

“I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.”

~Douglas Adams

Mention the word “vacation” and everyone sits back and begins to think of their perfect retreat. Some people picture tropical beaches, complete with an iced beverage and glittering white sands. For others, it means a mountain trail to a quiet lake, roaring waterfall, or a rocky overlook. Maybe it translates to days running around an amusement park, standing in line for the newest roller coasters (or waiting for your phone to let you know you’re clear to enter Galaxy’s Edge). And a break can even end up as something as simple as sitting on a porch or deck, enjoying your view of choice. That’s the EXPECTED reaction to the word.

But for some people? It’s anything but.

Ask some of us what “vacation” means, and we shake, hyperventilate, and break out in hives. Take a break from work? Are you serious? Turn off the phone, step away from email, and pretend there aren’t any responsibilities? Pretty sure that only occurs in movies – and it usually doesn’t end well when it DOES happen. What if something critical happens and you miss it? Maybe someone will see your Out of Office reply and decide you’re lazy or unmotivated. (A dedicated worker would snap to respond at any moment of the day or night – accepting work on vacation) And what if you’re somewhere with NO internet signal? (They exist – I found pockets of them) The chances for a lack of work skyrocket. The anxiety spirals set in, and you run screaming from the suggestion of a vacation – almost as if someone suggest you spend a week in a torture chamber.

Why? Programming, what else? Way too many of us spend years working in careers where “vacation” ends up a taboo subject. Sure, you have vacation days or hours as part of your benefits package. But the reality is Management DOESN’T want you to use them. (Paying you for NOT working? It’s not something they’re fond of) That’s why you see that disapproving expression when you submit your Time Off request. Sometimes you get the bonus of a sigh – as if you’re asking for a promotion to Owner of the Company. And some places make you jump through elaborate hoops to get that time off. You may need to submit your request MONTHS ahead of time. In other places, you have to find someone to cover your shift – even AFTER you’ve followed the other rules. And you may even have to compete with more senior employees for time; if someone else decides they want a week off? You’re out of luck.

The system is designed to KEEP you working.

And (as a hard-working employee) that’s what you do. It’s not like you get many hours off, anyway. (At least, I usually didn’t) Then you grit your teeth when Management stands up in meetings, talking about the importance of self-care. And when you finally get a precious vacation here and there? You take phone calls from work. Or you walk back in (because you know better than to go too far from home). Your brain learns that you’re not supposed to do anything EXCEPT work. Until your anxiety starts screaming any time you’re NOT working. It’s a sadistic system, and it’s rampant in the careers out there.

The worst part? I STILL fight with this concept. And I’M my boss now! I call the shots and have the right to take a vacation whenever I want. But when my husband and I started discussing plans for a break, that familiar anxiety was waiting for me. I didn’t feel right leaving everything behind. It got to the point he made me PROMISE not to work while we were away. No checking (or answering) email. No new writing. No phone calls. I was to RELAX and turn my brain off. (Such a novel concept)

I felt like an outright criminal. An entire week without focusing on my job? Seven days spent away from my computer? My brain braced for lectures, frowns, disapproving glares. None of them came, of course. And around the third day, I realized how STUPID that system is, and how much damage it did to my mental health.

I lost SO MUCH enjoyment on vacations in the past, constantly feeling chained to my phone and needing to check in with my job. Whenever I found a moment of tranquility or joy, that stupid piece of technology would break in and ruin everything. But this past week? That never happened – because I refused to let it. So I got the chance to laugh, NAP, and reset my system. You know – the things you’re SUPPOSED to do on a vacation. Making that promise was the best thing I’ve ever done.

And the world didn’t end!

If a client feels I’m lazy for taking a much-needed vacation? I don’t want to work with them. But someone that wants to work with me will respect my time off. That’s the way the working world SHOULD function. If people want us to thrive, they need to allow us time away to unplug and regenerate. Sitting over a laptop in a panic attack – even on a beach – isn’t HEALTHY! Why don’t corporations understand that? People DIE every year from stress and overwork. And it’s due to the system they’ve created.

Yeah, I’ve broken free from the insanity at this point. But not everyone can do the same. If you’re not self-employed, you need to feel empowered to stand up for your vacation time. (I can’t advocate breaking the rules they’ve set; you don’t want to get fired) When you punch out of that clock? TURN OFF YOUR PHONE! You’re NOT available any more. They have plenty of other employees they can contact for an answer. And while you’re at it? Unplug your brain. Your work worries will wait for you (don’t worry about that). When you sit back at your desk, you can pick them up again. But for the time you’ve carved out? You don’t need them.

It’s WELL past the time that we took back our vacation time. We are NOT robots with endless programming. And management structures need to understand that. Preferably before they land their top employees in a hospital – or a grave.

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

Living vs. Surviving

“Some things in life are like ice cream:
They’re only good for a while and then they melt.
The trick is enjoying it and making the most of it while it’s still ice cream.”

~Anonymous

Okay, I’ll start with a disclaimer: when the whole “YOLO” thing broke? I had NO idea what people were talking about. I didn’t know if it was a person, a music album, a physical place, or maybe even a book. (I admit, I probably should have figured the last was a long shot, given how little people reach for written words these past couple decades) It took weeks of seeing those four letters everywhere before I broke down and asked Google what the hell everyone was talking about. Even then, I walked around, mystified. Why was the phrase so popular all of the sudden? Sure, reincarnation features in a few religions. But, for the most part, you DO only get one life. So why was the phrase “You only live once” taking on a new revolution?

Literal thinking? It doesn’t always do you a favor.

That niggling irritation under my thoughts refused to go away. And I found myself skimming through social media posts that used the hashtag. (Note: NEVER do this – it’s a recipe for disaster, particularly when you don’t grasp the concept) Rather than finding myself inspired – as I’m sure the intent was behind the craze – I ended up disgusted and even horrified. Did none of these people have PLANS for their lives? Weren’t they thinking five years, FIVE MINUTES down the road? Considering the stupid phrase popped up among the youth the majority of the time, I wondered whether they thought of the consequences of their actions in the slightest. Or were they simply jumping on a bandwagon – one careening over a cliff…while on fire…and stocked with explosives.

I wasn’t in the same position as most of them, though. (First person to label me as “old” is getting a lecture) I’d already experienced enough of what the Real World had to offer to know better than to throw caution to the wind. Any action I undertook? They all came with hours of anxiety loops as I went through every possible outcome. I was too busy focusing on my career, the bills stacked on my dining table, and wondering if I’d fall down my stairs (don’t laugh – I’m one of the clumsiest people you’ll meet). I couldn’t abandon responsibility for even a few minutes of fun or excitement or life because I was too busy surviving.

And that’s the kicker.

Whether the person to coin the “YOLO” term had the intent (I know the groupies didn’t catch on), the idea behind it or the phrase Carpe Diem is the same: you’re supposed to LIVE. Otherwise, all you’re doing between birth and death is surviving. And while I’ll admit survival’s important (Darwin got that right), you need a stronger goal. We don’t exist in horror or action movies. We get to have more options that making it from Point A to Point B. And it took me FOREVER to figure that out. Actually, I’m still working on getting that concept through my brain.

I’ve passed up more opportunities than I can count because I allowed my anxiety and sense of responsibility to get in the way. Sitting down with a piece of paper, writing out pros and cons, I’ve actually held an internal debate on the merits of buying an article of clothing. And I’m not talking something a I needed (though I’ve done that, too – never mind that every pair of jeans in my dresser didn’t fit); this is a dress or skirt I fell in love with and WANTED but didn’t NEED. My survival instincts kicked in and informed that, as the skirt couldn’t get me through the Apocalypse, there was no point to adding it to my cart. Meanwhile, the tiny voice in the back of my head, begging me to live a little, screamed at me to have a little fun, live a little, and reminded me that zombies aren’t real. But survival won out in the end. Over and over, my need to make it to the grave as a rational, responsible adult took precedence.

Because, you know, they have an entrance exam when you die.

Instead of living my life, I’ve survived it – and not always well. I mean, I’ve never gone to jail, never skipped out on my taxes, and never been implicated in a major act of treason, so I figure I’ve covered the basics. But checking off some of items on my bucket list? That’s fallen into a heavy pile of dust. And not for a lack of opportunity. I turned away from my chances, arguing that I needed to use my time or money for more reasonable options. And some things? They only come around ONCE. Kind of like living. (Ironic, no?)

Trying to get past your screaming anxiety is a major battle. Then you have to fight the responsibility drilled into you from birth. (Side note: being the oldest child SUCKS) It leaves you exhausted, battered, and bruised on the other side most of the time. And you’re usually shaking like a chihuahua when you finally step up to the edge. But when you take that final leap? It feels amazing! You inhale this huge breath of LIFE. Energy rushes through your veins and zaps into your brain. It doesn’t matter how old (or young) you are. You bounce around with the enthusiasm of a five year old. And suddenly? All of those doubts in your mind go quiet.

Well, at least until you find yourself with the next opportunity.

I’m still working on this whole “YOLO” thing, trying to find the proper balance between life and survival. Because I don’t want to sacrifice having a LIFE. And I’m tired of missing out on fun and laughter and enjoyment. I spent over 30 years practicing responsibility. Yippee. You don’t get anything to show for that. No one appears out of the mist to hand you a shiny diploma for “accomplished adulthood.” There’s no special identification card. But the regret? That weighs a TON. And it bends your mind as much as your shoulders.

At the same time, you can’t go insane. Throwing complete caution to the wind is going to compromise the survival part of the equation. And if you don’t allow anxiety and responsibility SOME voice, that cliff with the bandwagon? Yeah, you’re getting a seat in the front row. It’s a careful learning experience. You want to give EVERYONE a chance to speak up – in moderation. And it means learning to ask yourself the right questions. Not, “Am I being frivolous?” (Obviously, you are – that’s how living works) But “Will I regret passing this up?”

When you start learning the feel of those LIFE moments? You can pick them out. And then you can turn to your anxious side and lay out counterarguments. That usually calms down your responsible side (since you clearly thought things through). And the result? A life experience you’ll get to look back on in your final moments.

Sure beats closing your eyes and thinking, “Well, I paid my bills on time.”

mental health

Scripted in Stone

“The trauma said, ‘Don’t write these poems.

Nobody wants to hear you cry about the grief inside your bones.’”

~Andrea Gibson, The Madness Vase

Trauma’s a funny thing. (Okay, NOT literally) Everyone views it in their own way, and each person will come up with a different definition on what they’d consider “traumatic.” And what IS funny is that, despite that variability, it’s almost universal that society wants to bury traumatic responses – such as PTSD – as thoroughly as they do any other mental illness. We know all of us undergo these experiences, carrying away SOMETHING, but we don’t want to acknowledge it, talk about it, or bring it out into the open where a person might feel comfortable admitting they’re struggling.

So, yeah, funny.

And I’m the first to stand here and say that I’m as guilty as the next person. Not about the “big” things out there. I come from a military family, and I accept PTSD in soldiers without a second thought. I’ve seen first-hand the changes wrought by war in the men and women that set foot in theatre. That’s the kind of environment that defies description – even for someone that thrives on their imagination. And while family members sit in front of a television and hold their breath through the glimpses of news stories the media allows to trickle through to the public, it isn’t a TENTH of what those people experience.

But I’ve overlooked smaller traumas. Things that can reach in and twist a person’s guts while leaving their outward appearance unchanged. Because – again – everyone has different tipping points. What you may handle without a second thought can unhinge someone else. And while you’re shaking apart inside, another person can handle with complete calm. That’s where we fail one another. And it’s where the failure to acknowledge trauma starts. If you can’t look into the glazed eyes of someone and see them unraveling, you’ll never notice the silent cry for help down the road.

At least, not until it’s staring you in the mirror.

Trauma response ISN’T healthy. And until you recognize the symptoms, you can’t break them. Such as reliving the moment – however unintentionally. Or cycling through the self-loathing prompted by the trauma event. And triggers? They don’t always make sense – at least not to people around you. Because you didn’t talk about the trauma in the first place. So no one understands why you’re curled up on the couch, staring into space. (And they can’t hear everything your brain is shouting at you) All because of something benign that triggered you. Now you’re stuck in a loop of anxiety or a depressive fugue, and your friends and family are bewildered as to what’s happening.

I never catalogued the traumas I experienced in the past. Mostly because I thought PTSD was for BIG things. And I wasn’t going through those things. It wasn’t until I started paying attention to these loops that I realized they had patterns – and roots. They went back to horrible moments in my life that I didn’t label “traumatic” – because I didn’t want to sound dramatic. (Why do those words sound so similar?) But they DID strike blows to my psyche. And they carved out WEEKS of my life, demanding intense recovery. I lost time, dwelt in intense misery, and suffered horrible self-loathing and depression as a result. Yet, not one was my fault.

The light bulb went off.

What words was I using during my loops? The same ones OTHER people did. I was taking on the blame for things that weren’t my fault, too. One thing went wrong, and, out of the blue, the entire world was falling apart because of ME. I was wrong, and terrible, and unwanted, and worthless. HOURS spent cycling around in my head, examining every tiny fault in my life and character. (Because that’s ALWAYS productive) I was reliving those moments. It was a fucking trauma response!

People don’t realize how small a trauma can be. And while the response may not impact someone’s life to the point of PTSD, it still isn’t something rational or safe. I’ve lost hours to a response. Hours of self-loathing and self-hatred! And they come out of the blue! For no good reason, the bottom falls out of the world. It isn’t a gradual drop, the way my depression works. Nope – no warning, and I’m stuck. And fighting out again? It’s difficult as hell. I KNOW other people go through the same thing. But because trauma’s such a taboo – on top of the squirmy topic that is mental health – how may suffer in silence?

And how many lose the fight?

Recognizing the stupid loops is tough. Mostly because I have to be IN one to catch on. And then it’s a battle to get out. Meanwhile, my depression perks up its ears and joins in on the fun. So that leaves TWO battlefronts to face. (Yeah, I know – plenty of military metaphor there) And all of it devolves around the fact that I can’t figure out how to heal the original trauma. How am I supposed to get past that kind of damage? When you have a major betrayal that leaves a giant CRATER in your emotional sense of self, how do you even narrow the gap? Can you close it? Because, right now, it doesn’t feel like it. Which leaves me scrambling to try to notice triggers before they happen (hasn’t worked yet), and then struggling to get out of the quicksand after.

Maybe if the world discussed trauma more, this wouldn’t feel so difficult or overwhelming. People could talk openly about the way they feel. (I’d like to add that the trauma wouldn’t happen in the first place, but I’m aware that’s a pipe dream) Instead, it continues to get buried. Leaving those of us who experience ANY kind of blow (big OR small) to suffer in silence. Which, to me, kind of feels like another trauma – don’t you think?

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

Left, Right, Wrong

Choices of your integrity are difficult
Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

Some decisions in life are simple: “Do you want a piece of cake?” Of course you do. (Who says no to cake?) Others feel like life or death situations, even if they aren’t: “Want to come to the party?” (Okay, so some people find that an easy decision to make. But introverts agonize over it) Every day, you come across multiple points where you need to decide to go one way or another on a situation. And, for the most part, you feel good about your choices. But then you have those moments where you find yourself confronted with a crisis of conscious. Someone lays a concept out at your feet that tears at your sense of self, your integrity, and everything you believe in.

Now what do you do?

Actually, let me increase the odds a little. That person holding the cards out to you? They aren’t the average individual off the street. Nope. You’re looking at a manager, a client, someone with genuine authority. They possess the ability to influence your job, livelihood. The decision you make will follow you throughout your career, probably the remainder of your life. And that person? Isn’t interested in YOUR ethics or beliefs. They have their own agenda to advance.

Gets the anxiety going, doesn’t it? You can feel your heartbeat speeding up. And is it getting harder to breathe? You may as well have been handed an active bomb and asked to defuse it – with no training or knowledge of how to do so. (Oh, and there aren’t any red wires – in case you wanted to hope Hollywood gets it right) Do you follow what YOU know is right? Or do you fall in line like a good little sheep? Can you look yourself in the mirror if you break with your integrity? Can you stand up straight and face the consequences if you refuse?

And NOT making a decision? Not an option.

I know it sounds like the plot of a novel or movie, but this happens ALL THE TIME. And it crops up in every field. People present you with tasks that make your spine lock up. Every part of your mind and body say, “No!” as you stare at their face and visualize your “permanent record.” (You know, that thing that isn’t visible but somehow manages to exist) Your brain starts whirring a million miles a minute, arguing back and forth, while your palms sweat and your stomach turns. How much is your integrity worth? What value can you assign to it?

I’ve felt so afraid of reprisals when this happened. Actually, let me rephrase that: I FEEL so afraid of reprisals when this HAPPENS. And that sick sensation? I get it regardless of WHICH side I choose. Because on the one hand, I’m going against what I feel is right. On the other? I’m terrified I’m going to lose a job. You know the phrase, “damned if you do, damned if you don’t?” Yeah, very apropos for this situation. Which doesn’t necessarily make a person feel better.

But I’ve learned that holding the line on my integrity? That matters MORE.

And I know, for some people, the decisions I’ve made seem “simple.” A lot of the time, they were sales-type issues. Encouraging visitors to purchase photos when they were in the lorikeet station. Despite the fact I knew full-well no one wanted to pay for pictures they could take themselves. And after two days of coming home sick to my stomach? I stopped. I walked around with the camera untouched around my neck, even offering to take photos for other people. And I had fellow interns report me, received a lecture from my mentor about salesmanship (I have NEVER been a salesperson) – and wasn’t assigned to that rotation for the remainder of the summer. (Secretly, I wasn’t disappointed. Lorikeets view interns as personal chew toys – and I loathe birds in the first place)

Or when a manager made up cards for us to hand out to clients, encouraging them to give us five-star reviews. She was obsessed with our rankings on Google, Yelp, and Facebook. And she wanted as many positive reviews as possible. Personally, I believe people will write the reviews they feel, without any prompting or incentive. So, despite getting an entire box handed to me, I never delivered one. The box remained untouched in the drawer beside my computer. It meant frowns whenever I was asked how many I had left. And every meeting? A lecture on how our reviews sat. I’d say I felt bad about my decision, but I didn’t. At least the people that DID choose to go to those ranking sites did so of their free will (well, some of them did, anyway). I wasn’t pushing people to artificially inflate a score.

Recently? I found myself with an article that runs counter to knowledge I have. I started and stopped it at least six times, trying to match the tone of similar pieces. But that sick feeling wouldn’t go away. Was I really going to write BAD information? All of my background and first-hand experience, and I was going to toss it away for fear that my client might get upset? What mattered more? My integrity – displayed with my bio on the bottom of the page? Or following a popular trend? I decided my integrity, my NAME counted for more. So I wrote an honest article. And this isn’t the first time, either. I worked in the veterinary field for ten years. That means I’ve witnessed PLENTY of genuine science. Things other writers don’t know or grasp. And I’m not afraid to buck the system and tell readers the truth – even when it’s not popular.

You have to make your choice.

Is it scary as hell to look at those two sides and pick? You bet. And, as I said, it doesn’t matter which way you go, you end up feeling nauseous and horrible. But DEEP down, when you hold to your integrity, you BREATHE. There’s no compromise on who you are and what you believe. Instead, you draw a line in the sand that you refuse to cross. And, in the grand scheme of things, that stands for more than making someone in authority proud.

Your voice shakes when you tell that person you can’t go against yourself. Hell, your whole BODY shakes. And while they frown, lecture, and carry on, SOMEONE out there admires your inner strength. Your ability to maintain integrity goes on your permanent record, too. Maybe that person feels it’s a negative, but someone down the road will view it as a positive. And THAT’S what you need to remember. YOU need to view it as an accomplishment. Instead of losing something, you retained an important piece of yourself. Do you know how difficult that is? People fail to do so ALL THE TIME. They fall in line without a second thought. But when you choose you, your integrity? You win.