mental health

Breaking Boxes

Broken Box
Image by neo tam from Pixabay

What better way to kick off the family holiday season than with a bit of controversy? Isn’t that what family togetherness is about, anyway? (Seems like the usual foregone conclusion) Get more than two people in a confined location for over an hour, and conflict will inevitably break out over something. It isn’t because you don’t love each other; you do, of course. It’s simply a matter of differing opinions and viewpoints. And if you can’t be yourself in front of family members (biological or otherwise), who can you let your hair down for?

Let’s try YOU.

Have you paid attention to the way you write, speak, and even think? The language you use when considering new ideas or certain points? (Say, controversial topics?) Do words flow freely from a passionate stance? Or do you add in clarification, such as “just,” “I think,” “for me,” or “perhaps?” You know: the kind of phrasing that allows you to back away from the edge. You voice your opinion, but – at the last moment – you step into a comfortable box that keeps you safe. No one can turn daggers on you because you added in a few “softening” blows.

It’s like gearing up for a long jump, racing down the stretch, and then stopping at the line. You have the passion, the momentum, but not the commitment. You’re too afraid to make the jump. (And I’m not even suggesting you leap off a cliff!) Too many people are watching, waiting to see how far you’ll make it. Or maybe they’re waiting for you to fall flat on your face. You can’t take that chance. So you perform a graceful little bow or curtsy and return to the bench.

Sound about right?

I didn’t realize I behaved that way until recently. (So don’t feel like I’m calling you out) This tip-toeing around, wanting desperately to shout and raise my fist – provided no one noticed. Even in the safety of my personal thoughts, I trimmed away the ragged edges of my speech. How crazy is that? I made myself small, safe, and easy to tuck into a box. And I never paid attention to the habit until someone else ranted over the common behavior. (Not in me, but in general) Suddenly, I saw those words popping up EVERYWHERE. An entire plague of language designed to keep me quiet and contained.

So I started looking for the source of the infestation. Such dialogue comes from SOMEWHERE. And I found the roots in my childhood (of course). Not from my family – ironic, I know – but from my peers. My parents and siblings never minded my outspokenness. (Immediate family, anyway. Once you get outside of that circle, you’ll find plenty of relatives who break out words like “outspoken” and “liberal” and “over-the-top”) But in school, kids looked down their noses. I was too loud, too passionate, too smart, too [insert adjective here] for my own good. And NO ONE liked that. If I knew what was good for me, I’d button up.

Thus, the box appeared.

I wanted acceptance. I didn’t like eating lunch alone, or spending recess huddled in the shadows. So I obediently climbed into the corner they offered. And I stayed there. Because more and more people reinforced the message. Don’t speak up. Don’t stand out. Don’t show a spine. Any time I ventured out of the box, I received a slap on the hand. And even the most primitive creatures learn to recoil from punishment. Voila – those nasty little language devices entered my vocabulary.

But things go deeper than that. We allow the messages to penetrate our behavior, our thoughts. We don’t see ourselves the same anymore. Those boxes are cramped and cold and dark. And climbing OUT of them creates horrific anxiety. People out there will HATE us (everyone says so). It isn’t safe. We’ll face ridicule, ostracization, mortification. Isn’t it better to peek out, hedging our words with qualifications?

It’s this vicious cycle implanted into the psyche. And the real mortification is recognizing that you allowed it to happen. You crawled into the box willingly – and stayed there. When I broached the topic with my husband, he told me it drives him crazy that I do this. He wants to shake me each time I add those words into the language I use, or when I step back from the fiery edge of something. Talk about humiliation! Something I thought only I knew was visible to the outside world this whole time!

Time for a shake-up.

I’ve started combing through the language I use each day. And I catch myself when I start the “waffle” game. If I back away from a stance, I call a halt. Because I HATE living in that box. It’s not who I want to be, nor does it represent the life I want to have. It’s time to break it beyond repair and get out of the bounds set on me all of those years ago.

And that’s the challenge I set for everyone this holiday season. No cowering in the corner. No biting your lip, fearing what someone may think of the words coming out of your mouth. You obviously feel THAT strongly; so say what you mean. How long have you trimmed down edges of yourself? Do you want to keep at it until there’s nothing less? Until there’s a sliver in a box in a forgotten corner? Come on! That isn’t healthy – for anyone.

Yeah, it’s going to shock and startle people. But, in the long run, it’ll make for better mental health for YOU. And they’ll come around. Maybe you’ll even inspire THEM to stop confining themselves.

After all, what’s a family gathering without a lot of yelling?

mental health

The Other Vampires

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

~Garbage, “Only Happy When it Rains”

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

You got it: Depression for everyone else.

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

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

“Normal” humans, at any rate.

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

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

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

I’m happy in the dark.

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

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

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

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

mental health

Who?

Among Us Imposter
Image by Diego Alvarado from Pixabay

Everything starts sunny. You finish a piece of work, sit back, and admire your handiwork. This can be anything: a sketch, a sculpture, a short story, a section in a novel, a blog post, an article, a painting, lines of code, a page of editing, a new recipe; fill in the blank with whatever swells your chest with pride. You’re riding high on a wave of accomplishment. And then it happens: Someone walks in with a similar project – and you judge it better than yours. Suddenly, you don’t feel so hot. Maybe you delete your work – or destroy it. Or you might shove it into a closet somewhere. Then you slink to the back of the group, determined to avoid the notice of your peers. You clearly entered the room by mistake, and you need to escape before anyone catches sight of your miserable presence.

You’re nothing but an imposter.

Imposter syndrome dogs the feet of those in creative fields. (And I’m using a broad definition of “creative” here. If you produce ANYTHING out of nothing, you’re a creative) People with genuine talent invariably find themselves doubting their skills at various points in their lives. Confidence flags and they crash into pits of depression where nothing they produce feels worthwhile. Their peers are (obviously) laughing at them, no one will ever take them seriously, and they’ll end up living in a cardboard box on a street corner, forgotten by the rest of the world. It prevents them from recognizing their actual worth, and they can spend days, weeks, or even months trapped in wells of doubt. They look around, convinced they don’t belong in whatever circle they blundered into.

Ironically, people WITHOUT a specific talent – throwing shit at a wall because it sticks – don’t suffer from imposter syndrome. They happily put every piece of crap on display, making those with a gift feel worse and worse by comparison. (That’s an entirely different tirade, though)

It’s easy to find people discussing imposter syndrome in artists or writers or even technicians. The strike of waning self-confidence is typical, and enough people have overcome the problem to offer advice and support. But it’s trickier to unearth the fact that people feel like frauds in their everyday existence. And no one seems to want to extend their “tips and tricks” to their neighbors.

Because who feels like an imposter at home?

We forget that niggling self-doubt can pop ANYWHERE. How is a mother supposed to feel when she takes time out to make a healthy lunch of a sandwich, fruit, and vegetables only to have her child rush home to chatter about their friend’s carefully-packed bento box? Oh, sure, her lunch was nutritious. And she didn’t throw it together at the last minute. But is anyone going to snap a photo and turn it viral on social media? Probably not. (And if you’re not going viral these days, you’re an absolute failure) Suddenly, that mom wonders what she’s doing wrong. Her own child carries on for hours about another mother’s lunch-packing capabilities. Definitely time to turn in her “Mother” card.

You clean your house regularly. Nothing’s out of place, and no one will find a dust bunny in the corners or under the bed (even if you share a home with pets). It means sacrificing some of your idle hours to devote to scrubbing, dusting, and vacuuming, but you’re proud of the gleaming surfaces around you. Then your friends come over for a game night and gush over someone else’s hermetically-sealed home. They insist microbes run in fear from the front door. No one’s ever seen kitchens or bathrooms so shiny in their lives. You look around and wonder where you went wrong. Not one person congratulates you on your work. They don’t even notice. You obviously didn’t work hard enough – or you’re doing things wrong. You probably shouldn’t invite people over.

It goes on and on. Despite doing your best, you start to look around and question your work. Before you know it, you feel like an absolute fraud. You’re an imposter. And no one offers insight on how to defeat the negativity crowding into your mind. Instead, you notice all of the headlines on the newsstands telling you how to be a better parent or new ways to clean your home. The world seems to agree with the assessment you’ve made of yourself. And that imposter syndrome starts spiraling out of control.

Break out the cape and duck out the window.

The need for comparison is what lies at the root of imposter syndrome. And it’s a slippery slope. There’s ALWAYS someone better out there, especially to our eyes. We have idols and ideals. That’s how we learn and grow. But developing that scale allows us to slide to the bottom. If we can’t measure up to the top, we’re obviously complete shams. Time to slink away. Except the logic rings false. You ARE good at the things in your life. You wouldn’t do them, otherwise. (For instance, I don’t grow plants. They die every time. I have proof that gardening doesn’t work for me) And that’s the mental pep talk creatives use when they’re facing the anxiety of imposter syndrome. “You made it this far, dummy. Obviously, you’re doing something right.”

No matter where or what you feel useless at, the argument works. Fine, you don’t pack a lunch that wins photography prizes. Do your children get a meal? Hey! You’re ahead of some “parents” out there that don’t even care if their kids eat. And food doesn’t need to be viral-worthy to taste good. (Some of us grew up in the decades before cellphones. We survived) Is your home comfortable? Doesn’t that seem better than living in a cleanroom? (After all, your friends came over to YOUR place, not the BL5)

I fight imposter syndrome with my writing ALL THE TIME. And I have awards on my walls and a page of testimonials! It’s pure madness. Yet the doubt creeps in when I encounter other people’s success and brilliance with words. But I also find myself feeling like a fraud in other aspects of my life. I see wives who concoct elaborate birthday celebrations for their husbands. All I did was come up with a game night – and the cake I ordered got screwed up for delivery. (Actually, my husband helped me make the replacement. Talk about epic fails) Other kids organize stunning anniversary gifts for their parents. I come up with lame family photo ideas. It reinforces my belief that I’m an imposter of a creative. If I can’t be more imaginative about those ideas, how can I possibly write well?

Everyone’s different, though. What stands out in other families – and gains rave attention on social media – doesn’t really work in ours. We’re quiet and reserved. There’s nothing my mom loves more than family so that photo idea I kicked myself for? Yeah, it went over better than imagined. And my husband loved my intent (not like it was my fault the delivery went screwy) and enjoyed pitching in on making his cake. Little reminders that I’m not in those “rooms” by accident. And that’s what you look for when you feel like you slipped up and entered where you don’t belong.

There ARE imposters out there. But they’re the ones bragging and carrying on. People who belong and carry gifts with them? They don’t need to say so. If you feel doubts about yourself or what you’re accomplishing? Turn around and see how far you’ve come. Look at the people around you and what they say. Odds are you’re where you’re supposed to be.

mental health

Turning the Volume Down

“‎You’re not the same as you were before,” he said. “You were much more…muchier… You’ve lost your muchness.”

~Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass

Odds are, at some point in your life, SOMEONE asked you to turn your music down. It didn’t even need to be your parents. Siblings don’t always share the same taste. (If you shared a room, that usually goes double) And just because friends get along well, it doesn’t mean all of you loved the same bands. I adored the people I hung out with in college, but any time I hear N’Sync or the Backstreet Boys to this day, I start twitching. (Yes, I realize that dates me – I’ll cope) That request to lower the volume represented a subtle remark on your choice of tunes. The person didn’t want to outright confront you on your poor taste, though, so they went the polite route. (Unless you happened to be my father who had no qualms – and still doesn’t – in pointing out I listened to “noise”)

Subtle, yes. Effective, yes. And NOT confined to musical taste.

See, we don’t think twice about reaching for the volume knob. Someone winces and thinks the music’s too loud? No problem; we can always grab headphones if they’re THAT irritated. We’ll roll our eyes, and we may even ignore the request (the first five times), but no one’s going to outright convince us to switch things OFF. Most of us identify so strongly with our musical identities that the subtle messaging slides off our backs. It’s one source of rebellion that seems to hold, regardless of the decade. (Don’t believe me? Go look at movie themes as far back as you want) The taste we choose in songs identifies our personality. And we’re not willing to compromise on it.

But when someone deploys the same subtle messages toward OTHER aspects of our lives, we aren’t as defensive of our personal identity. The tone of voice doesn’t change, nor does the language. Yet we throw in the towel and accept the judgment – no questions asked. They request we turn down the volume on our clothing, our voices, the messages we use in our daily lives, how we present ourselves, and we rush for the knob like sprinters. Then those same people see how effective their “hints” worked, so they deploy them again. And again. And AGAIN. Suddenly, you reach for that volume and realize you’ve turned everything OFF. Precisely the way they wanted.

“Are you sure that’s what you want to wear?” Hear that question, and your first inclination is to step to a mirror and check. As you stare at your reflection, doubt settles in. Even if you thought you looked fantastic when you pulled the clothes on, now the nasty voices in the back of your mind go to work and start picking you apart. No one needs to say anything more, either; YOU do all of the work. Before you know it, you’ve settled for something else – usually something less loud, not quite as “risky” or bold. And if your critic delivers a smile? Well, that reassures you. They turned your volume down. No derisive comments, no rude remarks, and no outright commands.

“Don’t you think you should smile more?” (Boy, do I love that one) You freeze like a deer in headlights. Does that mean you walk around like a serial killer all the time? (Or do serial killers smile? I guess it depends) Panic sets in as you start analyzing everything negative that’s happened in your life. Were all of your failures due to a lack of a smile? (By the way, your anxiety WILL find a way to blame ignored emails on not smiling; it’s THAT good) You start losing chunks of time as you practice smiling in the mirror – trying NOT to look like a psycho. And even though you feel like a complete fraud, you’re given praise for your cheerier demeanor. Once again – nothing more than a “friendly” suggestion. But you jumped to adjust yourself to capitulate.

“Should you say that?” It doesn’t matter if you’ve rehearsed, edited, or planned the words; they vanish from your brain. Maybe you feel strongly about a cause. You could want to leap to defend a friend. Or your emotions could demand a response. Doesn’t matter. A raised eyebrow and that phrase slam your brakes. Your anxiety goes to work, constructing apocryphal outcomes. And you close your mouth, delete the document, and sit down. You don’t want to stand out from the crowd and potentially draw the wrath of the masses. Turn off the bullhorn, switch off the loudspeaker. Turn the volume down.

In short, stop being YOU.

People learned ages ago that outright criticism doesn’t always work. (Granted, it’s occasionally effective. Plenty of minds suffer the emotional blows and collapse) But gradually chipping away by undermining self-confidence? Introducing subtle questions that worm their way into a person’s brain? Yeah, that works a treat. And when someone battles anxiety and depression, the method’s deviously successful. In no time, they withdraw and settle down into the ideal image whatever slice of society wants. It’s an evil genius everyone accepts.

I turned down the volume on who I am so many times, I went subsonic. I lost sight of ME. If you can believe it, I owned a closet of conservative clothing. I listened to inoffensive radio stations (we’re talking basic pop, people). My hair remained its original blonde, twisted up in a bun at the back of my head. And I refused to say anything controversial for fear of reprisal. (Admit I was struggling with my mental health? Are you freaking insane?) The people around me nodded and applauded, but I was MISERABLE. I didn’t know the person looking back at me in the mirror. I felt lost, suffocated. And I went through so many breakdowns – always in silence. (Fun fact: none of those people want to know their experiment’s failed)

Turning your volume back UP isn’t as easy as lowering it. Because until you’re willing to scream, “This isn’t me!” you can’t get anywhere. And then you have to fight for every millimeter on the dial. It’s experimenting with EVERYTHING, deciding what suits you and what doesn’t. Not to mention installing an alarm to detect those digs into your psyche (and they’re EVERYWHERE). You have to program yourself to hear them, smile, and come up with a response. (For the record, the answer is usually, “YES!”) And you have to own every part of yourself, walking around with your head held eye – even as people stare, sneer, or roll their eyes.

It’s the worst uphill battle in the world.

And it never ends. My fingers still hesitate on the keyboard at times. I find myself uttering, “Should I say this?” under my breath. The old programming lurks under the surface, and I have to shove it back in the closet where it belongs. You need to do the same thing. Claiming your personal identity means asserting your strength over the old patterns. Dig your heels in and declare in a LOUD voice, “This is who I am.” Find your muchness and embrace it. And then refuse to budge. And do that day after day after day.

Don’t turn the volume down. You deserve to keep it as loud as you want – no matter what we’re discussing. Yes, even if it means the latest boy band. (I’ll just step into the next room)

mental health

Not a Molecule Out of Place

“She also said that people who try to control situations all the time are afraid that if they don’t, nothing will work out the way they want.”

~Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Certain people you can spot a mile away: They nudge crooked pictures to rights – in public venues and stranger’s homes. A strange tile in a floor mosaic causes them to twitch. You need to restrain them from tucking tags under collars for random people on the street. Left unattended, they rearrange pens in order of color on reception desks. And (generally) no one wants to tackle a project with them. Two little words follow them wherever they go, spoken in different tones depending on the observer:

Control freak.

There’s one way for everything to get handled, and it’s THEIR way. They usually nitpick the world around them, showing zero concern for the particular environment they find themselves in. Clearly, the host didn’t realize the books on the shelf needed to go in alphabetical order. Or maybe the store owner grew lax and failed to observe the dreadful state of their display. And, of course, no one else in the group has any clue on what they’re doing. It’s better if everything remained in THEIR capable hands. That’s how things get accomplished and turn out perfect and polished, after all.

People HATE control freaks. It’s why the term has developed a negative connotation over the years. Getting saddled to a work shift or group assignment with one of these individuals is pure hell. (Ask anyone) Even those with controlling traits protest the term, denying any identification with the words. Because “control freak” immediately brands you as a monstrous demon, bent on destruction.

As if having your shit together is something to revile.

Because control freaks get work DONE. They look at a situation, analyze the steps required, and then roll up their sleeves. While most people mill around or stare at the ceiling, waiting for some kind of divine inspiration to strike, those with a controlling nature have already broken down the situation and anticipated potential problems. It’s that drive people resent and frown upon. (Nothing worse than motivation, am I right?)

Yes, I get it: having someone point out flaws and constantly inform you of what you’re doing wrong grates on the nerves. That’s where control freaks cross the line. But the negative stigma doesn’t belong. Rather, it needs understanding. And maybe a touch of support.

If you look at people with controlling natures, you’ll usually find underlying cases of anxiety. The ability to shred a situation and find EVERY possible problem comes with that constant whirlpool cycling in the back of their brain. That’s why they demand you do things in a certain way. By keeping everything in a precise order, they’re deflecting one of the tragedies their brain cooked up. (Okay, so the odds of aliens landing in the backyard is slim. But there’s still a 0.000001% chance. So keep your stupid photos aligned!) The order in the chaos soothes the demon in their mind.

But the twist of the lip and scornful tone when people say “control freak” forces people to deny the trait. And, in the same breath, they attempt to deny their anxiety. “I don’t demand people to keep the counter set up this way” is the same sentence as, “I’m not trying to prevent the worst from happening by being prepared.” But people only hear the first defensive statement. And they turn their backs. It doesn’t encourage dialogue. And it won’t help the anxious work through their fears.

Personally, I embrace being a control freak. My way IS the right way. Because I get things done, without mistakes (most of the time; no one’s perfect – though we know I try), in a timely manner, with brilliant results. You can always find everything you need without scrambling, and Cthulhu won’t destroy my house because the books on my shelves are in alphabetical order. (There’s a slight risk of zombie dinosaurs, though, as my husband continues to fold the towels in weird ways) But it took me a long time to embrace the title and recognize the superpowers that rigidity brings.

Don’t get me wrong: I know the negative aspects, too. (For one, everyone hates me) My anxiety often leaves me paralyzed and struggling to take the next step toward my goals. And I need a constant reminder that what flies in MY space isn’t accepted in someone else’s home or workspace. It’s physically painful to sit in a room with a crooked picture. And seeing the damned fast food sign with the reversed words for WEEKS?! Yeah, almost had a coronary.

But control freaks AREN’T the enemy!

We’re the ones you turn to when everything goes to hell. Who do you want when your project falls apart at the last minute? The popular idiot you voted to lead you? Or the control freak who can navigate the problem and bang out a champion solution at minute zero? People with that laser eye for detail are the ones that achieve so-called miracles. They get the spiral working and spit out solutions. And all you have to do is grit your teeth and tolerate them barking orders. (Is that so much to ask?)

Here’s the thing, though: If “control freak” wasn’t so negative, maybe anxious people wouldn’t end up quite so rigid. When I can stop and explain WHY I need things a certain way, I don’t “bite” as much. It lets me get out of my head and explain my fears – hostile dolphin takeovers and all. (Okay, so the fears aren’t this ridiculous. I’m trying to make a point) How often have you stopped and asked someone WHY they need pens lined up in a pentagon? Or why their fingers itch to align books with the edge of the shelf? When did you swallow the words “control freak” and TALK to the person about who motivated their actions?

The drive behind hyper-organization usually comes from anxiety and fear. SOMETHING in our brains urges us to impose restrictions. And once everything’s in line, our brain decides to send the “homeostasis” signal. But if you don’t TALK to us, you can’t understand that. And derisively labeling someone a control freak won’t encourage them to open up. (Nor will it break them of the habit)

Too many negative sentiments find their way into mental health issues. And it’s one of the reasons people hide. Why talk about the anxiety you feel when you see a skip in a pattern if someone’s going to glare at you? More people need to STOP and take a moment to sit down and engage in conversation. One quick question could end SO much stigma. “Why do you feel that way?” (And NOT said in a nasty way!)

The more we set aside our irritation and anger, the better our chances of breaking down the walls and stigmas around too many mental health disorders. Even if that means letting someone instruct you on how to fix your twisted necklace chain.

mental health

Soundtrack the Day

Playlist on phone
Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

How do you find yourself working through the day? Do you keep a television on in the background, maybe tuned to the local news so you’re aware of what’s happening in the world? Are you one of those who prefer silence? (If you are, please tell me how you cope with only your thoughts for company) Or do you pop in a musical selection on your streaming service of choice? (If you use CDs, tapes, or records, I’m not one to judge)

Most people opt for the latter – complete with preferred playlists.

Music provides variety, speaks to memory, and taps into emotion. (Not to mention avoiding dangerous triggers the news is famous for) Courtesy of the internet, you can find any genre you want – as I proved to my father in one experiment. Feel like sitting down with jazz? You’re only problem is deciding what era to choose. Want to curl up with folk yodeling? You’ve got it. Ready to dive back into the music of your childhood? Pop the year into a search bar and let nostalgia enter. Maybe you won’t get anything accomplished, but you’ll enjoy the trip down Memory Lane.

Researchers invest years and years into the science of music. What tempos encourage shoppers to purchase more? (What? You thought those songs were random?) Are there pitches or tones that irritate? Do certain voices attract people? It’s science and marketing we don’t think about when we hit play. At least, not until it affects us personally. For instance, on my internship at the Zoo, the summer started with an instrumental clip that lasted 10 minutes. It wasn’t unpleasant, but when you hear the SAME BARS repeated over NINE hours? You lose your grip on sanity. Visitors didn’t notice because it took them an average of 10 minutes to move through the exhibit. We finally protested, and the team added two additional pieces for a total of 30 minutes. It made the difference on our nerves.

My point? Music’s powerful stuff!

This is why the playlist you choose for yourself plays such a dramatic part of your day. The key, tempo, pitch, and lyrics work their way into your brain and influence your mood, perception, and even the narrative you set for yourself. Yes, it’s subliminal. No, you don’t usually realize it’s working. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

Think about it: When you listen to something powerful or dramatic, how do you feel? Do you get a sense of strength and that ability to take on the world? Of course you do! Your brain sucks up the confidence within the melody and translates it into your mood. The opposite happens when you listen to sad songs. Gradually, you find yourself sinking into quiet and despair. It’s mood osmosis, and you don’t realize WHY it’s happening.

I maintain an insane number of playlists. Every novel I write gets its own “soundtrack.” And short stories usually have at least one song assigned to them. The music sets the tone for scenes, allowing me to get in touch with the characters and the presiding emotions. (Plus every writer out there – whether they admit it or not – develops a movie script for their work. This is simply part of the process) But I also keep music running when I do my freelance writing work. And that doesn’t fit nicely into a pre-programmed playlist. I still need SOMETHING to keep my mind “distracted” while I work, though.

I can’t work in silence.

And – over time – I’ve learned to recognize my mood shifting depending on what’s playing. As keys drop, lyrics swoop low, or voices slow down, so does my outlook. My fingers stutter on the keyboard, and I start losing faith in my work – or myself. If I punch up the beat, assignments churn out in record time, and I can take on the world. I find myself confident in everything I face. And it’s all a result of what’s churning out of my speakers. My playlist impacts which way my brain decides to jump.

It’s forced me to get picky on what I set each day. Yes, I LOVE my showtunes. The number of musicals I know by heart is – well, not surprising for a theatre nerd. But too many heartbreaking songs come up on the playlist. Perfect when I need to write a miserable scene, but terrible when I’m trying to work through copy, network, or cobble together a pitch. I’ve set them aside in favor of 80s pop, upbeat tunes, and even dance favorites. And I’ve seen my productivity and mood swing up.

What about you? Look at your playlist (or note the songs you hear throughout the day). Where do you place the music you hear on the emotional scale? And how are you feeling in response? Can you make changes to improve things? (I get it if you’re stuck somewhere without control of the sound system. But if you’re feeling this way, odds are other people are, too) Try it and see how the way you view the world changes.

What’s the worst that could happen? You might start chair dancing? (Or, you know, actually dancing) Not to worry – there’s ALWAYS a worse dancer out there in the world.

mental health

Remember Who You Are

“Adults follow paths. Children explore.”

~Neil Gaiman

When someone mentions the words “adult” or “adulthood,” how do you define them? Don’t reach for your dictionary; I’m looking for your personal thoughts on this one. What makes up the bullet points of an adult life in your world? (You don’t need to overthink this one, either. I’m not going to collect a written essay or anything)

Ready to compare answers?

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess you have some variation of the following: responsibility (i.e., paying bills, maintaining a home, showing up for a job every day), respect (okay, so youngsters need to obey laws and demonstrate respect toward authority figures, but they don’t get hit with the consequences as heavily as adults), providing an example for the future generation (assuming you can pry their attention from their screen of choice), or projecting a proper image – whatever that looks like. Did I come close?

Now, obviously, there are a few numerical milestones that separate an adult and child. Legally, an adult can purchase alcohol, vote in political elections, and rent a vehicle. (If you work – even part-time – you get the joy of paying taxes. So kids get to experience that responsibility, whether they like it or not) And, eventually, adults get to retire. But that’s about it. If you strip away those defining characteristics, there isn’t anything that divides an adult from a child.

Sounds crazy, I know, but I’m going somewhere with this.

You’ll find kids out there who end up taking on responsibility at incredibly young ages. They assume the care of their siblings (or themselves). Getting whatever work they can, they take on bills and management of a household – sometimes while scrambling to get to class. It’s a rough life and worse than plenty of adults juggle on a regular basis. And (though it seems to be an infrequent thing these days) kids DO get raised with a demand to show respect to those around them. It’s a demand in certain cultures and family lines. The definitions we use to describe an adult work equally well for younger ages, if we’re willing to turn and look around.

So it goes without saying that the flip side should function, too. If youngsters can step up to the plate and exercise a healthy work ethic, why can’t WE shrug off a suit and jump into a fountain for a few minutes of play? Why do we cross some imaginary threshold and decide we’re above being a kid? Is it the peer pressure thing? Or something else? Maybe that silly “title” of adult? (As if it appears anywhere on your resume or license) I’m going to go with the fact you feel a crazy obligation to look and behave like – well, like an adult. As if anyone actually has a concrete example of what that looks like. (It’s not like you’ll find the costume for sale anywhere)

When we graduate from college (or high school or get our GED), society tells us we’re an adult. You have ZERO preparation for the real world, but you’re shoved out in the cold and told to “do some good.” You stare around at the “adults” and start imitating their behavior, assuming they know what they’re doing. (Newsflash: They have no clue) Of course, you don’t see their crippling depression, the weight of anxieties on their shoulders, or the crumbling family issues they lock behind the front door. Because they struggle to put on a stunning display of carefully kept homes, with art books on tables, conversation pieces on the walls, and furniture that prioritizes form over function. They step outside without a single hair out of place, rattle off every label on their clothing, and wouldn’t dare appear in a photo or video without makeup.

And you buy into this definition of “adult!”

I did. I struggled for years to meet that ideal. It meant waking up early to struggle with cosmetics (to this day, I barely know what I’m doing). I rolled my ankles in heels. I hid my stuffed animals and toys in a corner of the bedroom. And let’s not get started on the weird art I agreed to display on the walls. Slip up and mention I was hitting the movies to see Montsters, Inc.? Everyone looked at me like I’d suggested placing a bomb in the building. Run to the swings at the zoo playground? They asked if I needed to get some water (because, clearly, I had heat stroke). When I wore a pair of dragon earrings, I was pulled aside and asked to remove them; clients might get the wrong impression.

Over and over, the message came clear: being an adult meant a constant cycle of SHAME. At least, when I tried to be myself. And even when I “fell in line,” I received a list of improvements. Nothing remained “right” for long. Is it any wonder those years were filled with the worst of my depression? My highest anxiety? The adult world SUCKED! I couldn’t make anyone happy – least of all myself.

So I stopped trying.

I took a moment to reflect on when I’d been happier. That was easy: as a kid. When I fully embraced being myself. Those times when I threw away the cares and concerns of the world around me and did what I wanted. (Okay, so it didn’t last long in those years, but the brief moments of freedom lingered in the brain) Something in my head clicked: as an adult, no one would hold me back NOW. I could do whatever I wanted. And if I was willing to brave those tongue-clicks from my frowning peers, I had nothing left to fear.

It’s when I decided to was time to be a kid again. I stopped apologizing for ME. No more fighting to duplicate cat eyes or smoky eyes or whatever makeup trend people were espousing. I decided I liked my face without junk on it (and it meant getting to sleep later in the morning). My home underwent a purge, clearing out everything that made no sense to me. And I stopped trying to hide my stuffed animals and toys. My goofy jewelry? Yeah, it’s always going to remain my favorite. (I love that my husband tries to get me artsy stuff) And I have no problem walking up to whatever movie I want to see – or bragging about it.

When I embraced the kid I was – have always been – I took a huge breath in. It was an amazing sigh of relief. And I found this amazing gem you don’t realize exists when you’re young: you care less and less about those raised eyebrows and “for shame” remarks. Kids are bulletproof at some point in their lives. And you can tap into that, if you’re willing to abandon the regiments of being an adult. If you can laugh and play and be YOU, you can find that nugget. It means playing on the swings, dancing in public, dressing up in costumes, and laughing too loud. Which takes guts. But it’s SO worth it.

I don’t think anyone considers me a “stellar example” of an adult. My home won’t show up in any magazine features. And I’m not anyone’s model or muse. I don’t have a giant following on social media. But I also don’t care. I love the life I have. It makes me happy. And I have an outer layer of armor – courtesy of that little girl I decided I wanted to be again. It’s worth ditching the long list of bullshit I was attempting to follow before.

And, crazy as it sounds, it’s done wonders for my skin. (I’m just saying)

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

Brain Food

“I am the greatest. I said that even before I knew I was.

~Muhammad Ali

Even if you (like me) subscribe to streaming services so you can avoid the annoyance of commercials, you don’t get away from subliminal messages in your life. Advertisements are EVERYWHERE. Introverts still have to venture out of the house to seek sustenance now and then, and that means seeing billboards, ads on the sides of bus stops, and all of the sandwich boards and glaring posters in, on, and around stores. Produce and cereal get taglines these days. Everything’s designed to provoke a feeling, a message, and emotion. And people devote their careers to getting that reaction from you.

Meanwhile, all you wanted was a doughtnut.

Unwittingly or not, you DO take in those words. They leave an impression on your brain that you carry with you throughout the day. (Nothing better than a dose of guilt with your morning coffee, am I right?) Running errands with a blindfold on isn’t the best advice out there, though. That means you’re going to find yourself confronted by potentially negative words and images when you step out of the house. And – depending on your working environment – you could face the same problem in your office. So is it any wonder you walk around with the weight of the world on your shoulders? You’re subconsciously feeding your depression the food it CRAVES!

Think about it: What do you have around your home and work space? What are the words you see as you walk around? Are they affirmations of the fantastic job you did on your last project? Or are you surrounded by calendars with red ink – shrieking that you have five seconds to complete twelve more deadlines? Which one provokes your anxiety, do you think? We can do all of the work in the world to prod our thinking in a positive direction. But if we’re not “feeding” our thoughts a decent meal, it’s going to fall flat every time.

We have to get the “diet” right.

I know it sounds silly and corny and – okay, it sounds like some self-help nonsense. But you want to find affirmations that work for YOU and put them EVERYWHERE. Remember how you used to stick those sayings in your locker so you could drag yourself through class every day in school? Yeah, same principle at work here. You’re counteracting all of the negative that bombards your brain in the world. Even if you don’t stop and READ the words, your mind absorbs them as you catch them out of the corner of your eye. And those affirmations start to beat back the doom-and-gloom monster that is the depression lurking in the shadows. You sit up straighter. Your shoulders roll back and feel lighter. And you stop wanting to beat your head into the desk.

If you happen to follow my writer website, you know that I’m a sticker fiend. When I started adding those cute little images to my computer, I noticed my spirit lifting every time I sat down to work. Yes, they express my personality (and turn otherwise boring boxes into a colorful workspaces), but there’s more to it than that. Two, in particular have messages that hit me whenever I sit back:

“You are BRAVER than you believe, STRONGER than you seem, and SMARTER than you think.”

That one is nothing more than a simple circle. My husband got it for me when I started my writing business – and spent most of my time feeling worthless. Too much time wandering around, letting myself absorb the negative ads that pop up all over. Stopping and looking at the words have gotten me through SO many difficult days.

“Never Never Quit”

This one? It’s an original illustration from Karen Hallion. Three little words that goad me along when I feel sunk. If I sit and stare at my screen, struggling to find words, my eye hits that sticker, and my body relaxes. A simple affirmation that means EVERYTHING.

You can do the same thing. Maybe stickers aren’t your thing. Post-It notes cost nothing. Find quotes or words that strike you and put the Post-It where your eye will hit them. Your mirror, beside your bed, next to your computer, on your cubicle wall. Add a decorative border, or leave it plain. Whatever works to get your attention. Put them up at home AND at work. Because you need those affirmations EVERYWHERE. And then let those words sink into your brain when you feel your mood sinking. Give them the chance to feed your thoughts.

You’ll notice a change. You’ll feel the lift starting to happen. And it’ll fend off the misery you usually battle throughout the day. You don’t need to justify the presence of those affirmations to anyone else, either. If they ask, you can explain what the quote means to you. Maybe they need some affirmations in their life, too. Or you can just smile. (Everyone gets weirded out by the quiet smile – it’s awesome) As long as you’re protecting YOUR mind, that’s what’s important.

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.