The “Nothing” Trap

“Don’t underestimate the value of Doing Nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.”

~ A. A. Milne

Everything in your mind and body rests in complete peace. For the first time today (maybe this week), you can think straight. There’s no surge of excess adrenaline coursing through your veins, making you jittery and anxious. You’re not spiraling through endless loops of self-critical statements. It’s a perfect, crystal-clear moment where you and the world come together and recognize one another. Which is when a voice in the back of your mind starts screaming out an alarm:

Holy shit! You’re doing NOTHING!

And thus ends that fragile moment of perfection. Anxiety starts pumping panic into your system, and you jump up to pace. You look around you to count how many people noticed your slacking. The self-recrimination kicks in. How DARE you sit down and do nothing? You lazy bum! What the hell were you THINKING?! (Oh, right – you weren’t) A frantic search ensues to find something – anything – to do so you don’t find yourself permanently labeled a slacker. Even if NO ONE ELSE IS AROUND.

Meanwhile, the happiness and calm your mind and body found shatters into little pieces. Your poor system tries to figure out what happened. Because that moment of nothing? You NEEDED it! You WERE accomplishing something, however invisible. Sitting in the quiet let your system recharge and reset. It dropped the excess levels of unneeded chemicals in your body. For the first time in who knows how long, you listened to yourself.

Doing nothing matters!

Unfortunately, doing nothing carries a nasty stigma. Only lazy people slack off and laze about with nothing to do. They’re bums without ambition or drive. No one wants that image attached to them. Productive people constantly move forward, checking off lists. Time to sit around? Obviously you lead an easy life. People set up a ridiculous competition of who has more to do. And if you happen to mention that you have an open slot in your schedule, you’re the envy – but NOT in a good way.

So we adopt this programming. And when we doze off in the afternoon, or binge an entire television series in a weekend, we cringe and abuse ourselves for doing so. The fact that we NEEDED that down time? Doesn’t matter. We find a reason to dose ourselves with guilt for doing nothing. (And don’t you dare TELL anyone you slacked off! Sacrilege!) It’s a secret embarrassment we carry around.

I still struggle with the “nothing” trap. Most weekends, I’m barely awake. Why? Because I push myself so much during the week that my system crashes. And even though I KNOW that’s what’s going on, I batter myself for doing nothing. I should be getting chores done. There are projects I could work on. ANYTHING to achieve productivity. But constantly dozing on the couch? That’s what a lazy person does.

Or, you know, a person trying to recuperate.

Doing nothing is OKAY. You put in energy, resources, and mental strength minute after minute ALL THE TIME. If you find yourself with free time, park your ass and DO NOTHING. Let everything fall down. The world won’t end (I promise – it hasn’t yet). And DON’T lecture yourself when you do. You need those empty moments. They’re what keep you strong. Without the empty quiet, you’ll fall apart. Which benefits NO ONE.

It’s time to break out of the “nothing” trap. Embrace your down time. Celebrate it and treasure it. View those empty moments for what they are: the recuperation of your mind and body. And if people say anything or make comments, ignore them. Because, honestly – for all their talk – you know they park their ass on the couch and DO NOTHING themselves. They just don’t want to admit it.

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.

A Fool’s Performance

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

~Mark Zusak, The Book Thief

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

Because, of course, the majority knows best.

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

Nope – Just keep smiling!

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

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

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

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

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

Admit the way you feel.

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

Annual Madness

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

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

Pure madness!

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

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

Oh, sure, perfectly rational and obtainable goals.

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

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

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

Which is STUPID!

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

STOP THE MADNESS!

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

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

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

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

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

The Other F-Word

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

~Sabaa Tahir, A Torch Against the Night

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

The perfect holiday mood.

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

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

Mental, emotional, physical: failure checks every box.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Step by Step

“I can’t eat and I can’t sleep. I’m not doing well in terms of being a functional human, you know?”

~Ned Vizzini, It’s Kind of a Funny Story

Regardless of the mental battle you wage, all of us find a point where we break. The weight of that skyscraper finally sinks into our shoulders, taking our breath away. It can manifest as sinking into that pit of despair people with depression are so well-acquainted with. Your arms drop into the muck, and you lose sight of the ladder – or anything that resembles a ladder, rope, or vine. It can look like the anxiety spiral – one that gets away from you. Your entire body freezes into immobility as your brain tears off on roads even fantasy and science fiction writers wouldn’t think of.

And you just STOP.

Getting air in and out of your lungs is about all you can mange. And even that process requires conscious thought (forget that automatic reflex bullshit). In an understanding, balanced world, people would understand and give you time to recover and find your center once again. But we live in this world, where society doesn’t even comprehend mental illness. So you get side-eye and raised eyebrows. You’re expected to continue with your “normal” life, regardless of the fact that you have a planet sitting on your chest, slowly crushing the life out of you.

Obviously, reform is needed, but that tends to happen at a glacier pace. Most of us don’t have the time to wait for global enlightenment. Which means we get to add ONE MORE responsibility to the tower balanced on our shoulders. (Yay us) Is it any wonder breathing gets to be such a struggle?

I’ve been there: lying in bed with ZERO motivation to even open my eyes. Forget anything beyond that step. My mind, my body, every part of me has hit rock bottom. I just can’t do it. Except I’m an adult, with a job, with a husband, with FurKids. And while some of them may understand the state of my depression and anxiety, others don’t. (Plus, immobility isn’t the healthiest thing in the world) Never mind that the THOUGHT of moving feels like a Herculean task. Somewhere, deep inside, a part of me is screaming that I NEED to.

And I’ve gotten up every day – to my own surprise.

No ladder appeared in the pit, and I’ve certainly never championed a fit of despair in a few moments. That mountain? Still perched on my shoulders. I shift it through a simple (stupid) process: breaking my day into a series of steps. It’s a way to distract my mind away from the misery and cycle it’s trapped in, allowing me to function in the world demanding my attention. All of those thoughts may remain, but they don’t get front-and-center position if I have to focus on how to get from Point A to Point B.

Sounds crazy, I know. But when you start to break down even your morning, how many steps are involved? Keep in mind that, when you feel overwhelmed, EVERYTHING is a step. We’re talking opening your eyes, lifting each individual leg and arm, sitting up, taking each step, etc. My morning involves over a hundred steps. I counted on one of my bad days, forcing myself to think through. Because if I could make it from THIS step to THAT step, I knew I’d be okay.

If you can wash your hair, you can comb your hair.

If you can put your socks on, you can put sweatpants on.

Little, minute progresses that got me moving as a functional person. But they did something else – something more important that the outside world doesn’t get to see. Every little accomplished step reassured me I was okay. I could do SOMETHING after all. Maybe it was just tying my stupid shoe, but I did it. And when you’re buried so deep in that depressive pit, ANY accomplishment is a big deal. Managing to scramble eggs when your brain’s panicked over every decision calms anxiety – because NOTHING went wrong.

Each step was a tiny, mended link.

It sounds simple, and it looks…well, it looks mundane and useless to the outside world. After all, small children accomplish most of those steps without supervision, right? But when you feel like you can’t do ANYTHING, it’s a huge deal. It heals fractures and wounds inside. It gives you pieces of a ladder to build upon and get OUT of that pit. It silences the spiral in your mind. A collection of Band-Aids that may not cover the gaping hole, but it’s a start.

To this day, when things get rough, I walk through my steps. And, every day, I get out of that bed and go through my day. I check off my To Do List. And I feel better than I did when I woke up, staring at the backs of my eyelids. I know there are jokes out there of, “I showered today” and such. But, honestly, if you managed that step, I’m proud of you. For a lot of us, it’s a big step and important. Maybe, eventually, the rest of the world will understand that.

The Taint of MHD

“You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.”

~Buddha

The last place I worked allowed employees to take “mental health days.” (Of course, you had to schedule them in advance, get coverage for your shift, and your manager looked at you sideways for making the request, but that’s beside the point). It was the first job to introduce the concept – however imperfect a concept it turned out to be. I mean, the days came out of our general pool of “time off” so we didn’t receive a set amount or anything. But at least we didn’t need to produce a doctor’s note. It was a way to admit you were at your wit’s end and needed a quick breather.

With the taint of “mental health” applied.

Reality check: EVERYONE needs to take a break now and then. From work, from family, from responsibility. When anxiety, depression, obligations, pain, everything pile up and become too much, we need to step back and take care of OURSELVES. Because most of us set ourselves on the back burner, neglecting mental and physical health. But workplaces don’t have “self-care days.” Instead, they dress them up as “mental health days” and frown at you when you admit you need a break. And those two words – “mental health” – tar you with a glaring light for the rest of your career.

It’s as if NO ONE in the history of the planet ever reached a breaking point. Because (news flash) every person, regardless of whether or not they have a form of mental illness, hits a wall at some point. Everyone is capable of a mental breakdown. Stress KILLS, and there isn’t a job anywhere devoid of stress. There may be different levels, but people also have different tolerances.

Me? If you removed all of the stress from my life, my body would give out and die, at this point. My system doesn’t know how to survive WITHOUT stress. Some people start hyperventilating if you smile and ask them to have something completed within a week. But admitting to a need for a “mental health day?” People don’t want that stigma attached to them. So they push through the pain, the anxiety, the depression, the agony, and they break.

It’s a horrible thing to watch.

And I understand. I only used a mental health day once – and I regretted it immediately. I’d spent the entire night before in the emergency room. I was in severe pain, but the ER doctor dismissed me as a hypochondriac. (Fibromyalgia patients struggle with this battle constantly) I KNEW something was wrong, but I couldn’t convince the idiot to listen to me. I couldn’t lie down, could barely sit up, and the doctor couldn’t touch my back without me trying to tear her arm off. She dismissed the test results and told me to take Advil. I was beyond my pain tolerance, I was broken down by her attitude, and there was no way I could face work (never mind my exhaustion).

My managers? Yeah – more of the same dismissive attitude. It didn’t seem to matter that I HAD the note from the hospital; it didn’t say I couldn’t work – just that I’d been there. I was being a baby and trying to get out of work. It didn’t matter that I had the time to use, or that the policy was in place. I was instantly tarred as a slacker and whiner. (Turned out – after a week of further testing and a laparoscopic procedure – that I had a cluster of ovarian cysts and the worst pocket of endometriosis my doctor had ever seen. He had to CUT it out)

No judgement? Really?

I needed the day to reset and take care of myself so I COULD get back to work. I knew I was in no shape to face people, that I would hinder the work flow. I thought I was making a reasonable, adult decision. (Not to mention making a good call for MYSELF) Why have “mental health days” for employees if we weren’t allowed to take them? I learned those days were a tool for management to label us – and not in a good light. So I never took another. No matter how horrible I felt, how badly things might have been going for me, or how much pain I was in (and I went to work with a severe seroma following another surgery at one point). I didn’t want to feel that judgement ever again.

This is why people burn out. Why break downs occur. Self-care disintegrates in the face of fear. No one wants their co-workers or superiors to think less of them. So we push forward, scraping at brick walls with our fingernails. And then we wonder why pass out, collapse, or just plain shut down. (As if we don’t get weird looks for THAT!) “Mental health days” carry this horrible taint – and it’s right in the name! If employers honestly wanted to help us, they could approach the concept in a better way.

For one, they could change the name. A “self-care day” has a better connotation. Instead of giving us the side-eye and making marks in our record, they could smile in understanding and congratulate us on recognizing a need to reset our system. (Granted, I know some people abuse such systems, but this isn’t directed at those kinds of people) Hell, how would they feel in our shoes?

Now that I don’t have a time-off pool, I’m the not the best at remembering to take days when I need them. I honestly should have taken the entire week after the wedding off to recuperate (my husband was smart enough to do that…of course, he has paid time off). Instead, I told myself to dive right back into work. With the holidays approaching, though, I’ve forced myself to build in days off. To clients, I’ve said their days for family. In reality, though, their days for ME. Time to restart my brain and system. A chance to relax and get myself back to square one. It’s also why I refuse to work on weekends, much as it may inconvenience some clients. I need that time for ME.

No, I don’t call the days “mental health days.” As a self-employed writer, I can call them whatever I want. And after my experience, I refuse to use that hated label. So I call them what they are: ME DAYS. Maybe corporate worlds aren’t keen on that title, but I think it works better than the tainted title they use now. It might encourage more people to take the time they need – before they smash into the wall face-first.

For Shame

Photo by Ian on Unsplash

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

And Catholics INVENTED guilt.

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

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

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

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

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

People see the shame on your face and seize control.

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

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

It’s a wretched sickness.

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

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

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

Known and Unknown

“Feelings don’t try to kill you, even the painful ones. Anxiety is a feeling grown too large. A feeling grown aggressive and dangerous. You’re responsible for its consequences, you’re responsible for treating it. But…you’re not responsible for causing it. You’re not morally at fault for it. No more than you would be for a tumor.”

~Patrick Ness, The Rest of Us Just Live Here

When Pixar created the character Fear in Inside Out, I felt an immediate connection. The heightened awareness of everything going on around him. The jittery nerves (with or without coffee – though they clearly made him a caffeine addict). And the mile-high reports on every conceivable outcome for the situations being presented. Even the disbelieving stares of those around him at the more “outlandish” possibilities he listed in the reports. It was anxiety personified, but given a label of “fear” to appeal to every age group.

A little unfair, but not far off the mark.

Fear resides in the heart of anxiety. The tightening spirals we spin down develop out of fears. Ironically, the deeper we get into our whirlpools, the greater those fears become. We start on the fringe with “rational” concerns for every situation we encounter. Then we start to branch out into those possibilities the people around us start laughing at. The kind of things everyone assumes impossible and irrational. (Of course, the way 2020’s been going, I’m not sure how many people are still laughing at us)

It’s hard to interrupt those spirals. People with anxiety are always aware of them. We know when we’re generating our tornadoes. But stopping the process, putting on the brakes and forcing ourselves to breathe…it’s damn near impossible. Trying to do so is like – well, it’s like trying to stop a tornado. What if we overlook something? What if we forget to plan for an eventuality?

Pulses spike, our lungs take in less air, the brain clamps down in the skull, and our body starts shrieking a warning. (We forget to include that possibility. Ironic, right?) Now we’re lying on the floor with people standing over us, staring in shock. And the odds are the situation was minor.

One more time when the spiral won.

I panic over EVERYTHING. I have a 100% satisfaction rating and constant five-star ratings for my writing. Yet each time I turn in an assignment for a new client, I freak out until they respond. And if it’s more than a day, my brain twists in my skull. This is the time my words failed me. The assignment flopped. This client will hate my work and break my streak. I had an off day. I missed an edit that killed the entire article. I’m a complete hack. I’m an utter failure who can’t string one sentence together. It goes on and on until drinking water makes me nauseous. Suddenly, they’re reaching out to my other clients questioning why they’ve hired me.

And then they tell me it’s wonderful, and they’re pleased with my work.

And I repeat the spiral with the next new client. My track record means nothing to my anxiety-fueled brain. Hell, I conjure fifty horrible possibilites for why someone rings the doorbell in the space of walking from my desk to the front door! (It’s usually the postman) And don’t get me started on the phone ringing. I know the gut-check reaction isn’t rational, but trying to stop the flow of concocted possibilites is almost impossible.

While I’m aware elevated cortisol levels aren’t doing my body any favors, I’m pretty sure my system’s adapted to them by now. Let them drop, and I think I’ll crash. (See? The spiral really never stops) However, that cursed way of thinking comes in handy now and then. Thinking of everything means I PLAN for everything. I have a contingency for the bulk of my concerns. (I have no plans for aliens – not yet, anyway) Most people with anxiety work the same way, once they learn their thought patterns. It’s a pseudo-coping method that works with their brain chemistry.

“Okay, we’re going to overreact, but we’re also going to over-respond.”

I rationalize through the fear. It calms the racing pulse, and it keeps my brain from spasming. And it makes me a valuable person to bounce ideas off of. Maybe I come up with situations that aren’t always rational (odds are computers won’t gain awareness and seize control of your company), but most of the contingencies WILL. I can play Devil’s Advocate with the best of them, forcing you to think through things you normally won’t when you’re riding high on a dream. It’s one of the reasons I honestly believe I’ve been so successful in MY dream.

I sat down and wrote through every pitfall. (And at least a dozen that weren’t very likely) With them staring me in the face, I had a chance to think around them. It made stepping off the cliff’s edge easier. It also lessened the tension in my shoulders, around my skull. The practice drives my fiance’ crazy at times, but it gets him thinking. And it’s even made him pause a time or two when I’ve voiced a (real) possibility he didn’t consider. It’s a secret superpower those of us with anxiety have tucked away.

Yes, we’re frustrating. When we tell you we’re concerned about getting mauled by a bear on the subway, we drive you up the wall. But if you take a second to breathe and ask us to think through that statement (and what we can do to avoid it), you’ll steer us AWAY from a deepening spiral. We know the idea’s absurd (we honestly do). We just need help switching tracks in our brain. Figuring out a solution helps. And USING our gift of seeing possible problems when you need to plan – that makes us feel useful.

The spirals are always there. They don’t go away. We see them EVERYWHERE. We just need people to understand them.