mental health

Left, Right, Wrong

Choices of your integrity are difficult
Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

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

Now what do you do?

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

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

And NOT making a decision? Not an option.

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

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

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

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

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

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

You have to make your choice.

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

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

mental health

Hiding Away

“I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I’m awake, you know?”

~Ernest Hemingway

For some people, sleep is ordinary. They have a set schedule that never deviates. And falling asleep? That happens at the drop of a hat – no matter what took place during the day. (And if you’re one of those people, know that I secretly hate you – even though we’ve never met) They get in those doctor-mandated eight hours without a problem, waking refreshed and ready for the next day. Sleep is one more checkbox on the list of vital necessities that keep them functioning in the world.

Then there’s the rest of us.

Some of us? We’re pretty sure sleep is a mythical creature. There’s a better chance we’ll encounter a unicorn offering us three wishes and a ride to Oz. Even if we go through every rite ever conceived or mentioned in obscure scrolls, the best we manage is a nap here or there and a few brief minutes before the alarm goes off. Those “eight hours” doctors tell you to get every night? We might manage them – if we add up all of the scattered minutes over the years. Trying to turn off the frantic energy of an anxious mind (or coping with genuine sleep disorders) makes sleep impossible. And so we have to face the new day with a negative deficit of energy. One that continues to grow worse and worse.

Then there’s another side of the spectrum. Other people dive into sleep every chance they get. (And, no, I’m not referring to people with narcolepsy – that’s a bonafide medical issue) The oblivion of unconsciousness provides a respite from the negativity of the depressed side of their mind, the pressure of the outside world. And it beats having to confront what’s facing them. So they curl up in blankets and shut out everything else. Which SOUNDS awesome, because one assumes they’re banking up recovery and energy with each nap. But it doesn’t work that way. The kind of “rest” those people attempt does NOTHING to restore the mind OR body. Instead, it drags down the resources – because the mind circles around and around whatever issue they’re trying desperately to avoid.

Two lessons in sleep FAILURE.

And I’ve done both. True, I have diagnosed sleep disorders that land me in the first camp. I’ve battled insomnia and sleep apnea for years. My sleep doctor does everything possible to get me SOME semblance of a rest pattern. But looking at my FitBit report some mornings is depressing. I never reach that 100 score you’re supposed to get. Most of my pattern bounces between “light sleep” and “awake.” Rarely do I achieve the “deep sleep” the body needs to recover. And my “REM sleep” moments (where your mind restores itself)? Those are usually blips. I go through my days exhausted, with a blurry mind. And it’s been that way for as long as I can remember. My body needs a major surgical overhaul – something I’m not willing to go through (nor are my doctors comfortable taking that step).

But I’ve also tried to hide in sleep. (And, trust me, the irony that I can nap at those moments but not sleep at night isn’t lost on me) When I couldn’t face things weighing on my shoulders, I shut the curtains and pulled the blankets over my head. And I woke up feeling worse and MORE tired than when I climbed into bed. Because all my brain did was spiral around the issue I was trying to AVOID. Words and situations and “plans” played over and over in my dreams, sucking away whatever energy I might have managed to bank. Because I wasn’t resting appropriately. Instead, I was interrupting my body’s normal rhythm.

Now, don’t get me wrong – sometimes naps ARE important. My body crashes plenty of times (weekends) when it’s had enough. You can’t NOT sleep all the time and expect to function. But when YOU try to take the reins, your body doesn’t cooperate. You can’t hide from things that way. Well, you CAN, but it’s going to sit outside the door, waiting for you. Which is something we like to forget. Sure, while we’re asleep, nothing happens. But nothing CHANGES, either. The sleep doesn’t magically correct the issue and make it disappear. The fears, the depression, the anxiety – they sit beside your bed, waiting patiently for you to wake up. And most of the time? They get BIGGER in the process.

Hiding? Doesn’t work.

You can’t abuse sleep that way. Your mind DOESN’T recover and gain strength. And while your body MAY get some recuperation, it won’t stockpile energy. Honestly, what happens as soon as you wake up? You DEFLATE. Because you’re hit with the wall of everything you tried to push away. All you did was lose those minutes (or hours). Time you COULD have spent sitting, BREATHING, and maybe figuring out what you needed to do about the situation. Even if you didn’t do anything EXCEPT breathe, you’d do yourself a better favor than trying to hide in sleep. Trust me (seriously – I’m speaking as a person who would cheerfully slaughter any person if I was promised I could sleep like a normal person).

Does it hurt when our depression gets out of control? Of course it does. And when the anxiety spiral kicks in? You want to scream. But trying to bury yourself in pillows to get away from them? That doesn’t work. SCREAM! Stand outside (or inside – your choice) and scream. Maybe it won’t solve anything, but you’ll feel better and accomplish more for your body and brain than trying to sleep a problem away. Then sit down and breathe. Oxygen will help WAY more than oblivion.

mental health

The Socialization Pill

Anti-social board
Photo by Sarah Pflug from Burst

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

WRONG!

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

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

Everyone is NOT a social butterfly.

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

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

It’s ridiculous!

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

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

Your CHOICE!

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

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

mental health

A Different Kind of Ceiling

“Children have a lesson adults should learn, to not be ashamed of failing, but to get up and try again. Most of us adults are so afraid, so cautious, so ‘safe,’ and therefore so shrinking and rigid and afraid that it is why so many humans fail. Most middle-aged adults have resigned themselves to failure.”

~Malcolm X

Storytime! At my high school, the end of the English year meant term paper time. Everyone knew and expected it. You’d get a general topic, and you had a few weeks to turn in at least five pages of double-spaced work, complete with citations and references. It was pretty standard for an Honors class, and everyone knew the drill. So when Junior year rolled around and the teacher gave us the option of writing about any author we wanted, it felt like a jackpot. I’d just finished reading Les Miserables, and my brain was surging with joy for Victor Hugo and his way with words. I dove into the library (yes, library – we didn’t have Google back then) with a giant stack of notecards.

And then things started to unravel.

For some of my classmates, that year was their first experience in an Honors class. And they weren’t prepared or – if I’m being honest – qualified. They complained about EVERYTHING. Quizzes ended up open book to accommodate the fact they hadn’t read the material or studied. She offered Pygmalion as a substitute when they whined that Waiting for Godot was too hard to understand. (I read both – mostly because I loved My Fair Lady) And the term paper? They threw a fit. Within a week, the teacher cut the pages down to three. Three, double-spaced? That was nothing! I protested. I sat down and wrote a long letter to the teacher, outlining every way she’d let down the advanced students. It was the first time I dared to stand up to any adult, much less an authority figure. (And, really, one of the first times I took a chance on standing up for MYSELF)

She ratted me out.

If you aren’t a female and didn’t attend a public school, allow me to clarify things for you. Girls? They’re EVIL. Mean Girls gets it right. The teacher stood in front of my desk, looked straight at me, and announced that “someone” (she didn’t use my name – I’ll give her that much) was unhappy, so the term paper limit was reinstated. I didn’t have the best school life prior to that point, but it went to rock bottom from that point on. Everyone knew who she was referring to. (Why couldn’t she have stood behind her desk to make the announcement?)

I tried to make the best of things. After all, I was already used to threats of being shoved down the stairs. People already slammed my locker shut, narrowly missing my fingers. I got tripped in the hall on a routine basis. And I learned by Sophomore year to wear my hair in a bun to prevent things from getting put in it. (Sometimes I wonder if that trauma is why I’ve chopped it ruthlessly short now) I threw myself into writing one of the best papers of my school career. I was incredibly proud of it. And despite my teacher’s behavior, I expected professionalism from her.

I received my first harsh lesson in learned helplessness.

When our graded papers came back, I flipped to the last page. There was a red “A” written there. I was happy, of course. Until I started to go back through the rest of the paper. Nothing. No marks whatsoever. No notes, no edits, NOTHING. She never read it. Because I know for a fact it wasn’t a perfect paper (no one writes THAT well) I made it to the restroom before I started crying. And I tore the paper to shreds.

As I got older, others reinforced the lesson. I’d attempt something I thought was amazing or noteworthy, and they’d shrug. I’d hold out my accomplishment with a smile, and they’d snatch the rug out from under me. It built up a sense that nothing was ever good enough. Everything I did was actually a failure. I was a dog chasing her tail – never catching it, and with zero chance of doing so. Slowly, the lesson set in: that bar was always going to be out of reach. So why bother trying?

And this happens to people all the time!

It’s a subtle, sinister form of bullying that often goes without notice. Why people do this I have no idea. I don’t know why that teacher behaved as she did. I didn’t go to the Principal with my complaint. I didn’t report her to anyone else, or even threaten to do so. I was a student going to the source. While I understand she probably felt called out, was it worth squashing a person under her heel and leaving her to the mercy of the student body? (And if you want me to believe a teacher doesn’t know what happens in a school environment, you’re crazy) She knew exactly what she’d done. She watched me flip through my paper, looking for a critique that didn’t exist. It was more damaging than if she’d cut it apart and failed the assignment – and she knew it. After all, she was aware of the intelligence level of who she was dealing with.

You can’t hold a carrot out for someone and then tell them you ate it. It’s cruel. People are PROUD of their accomplishments. When they come to you, delighted that they managed to overcome something, and you YAWN?! You might as well stab them; it’d be cleaner. It’s a sadistic practice. But it slides under the radar. People enforce a learned helplessness every day. And the victims sink further and further into depression. They get anxious over attempting anything new. They stop trying.

And maybe that’s the point.

If you’re afraid, if you stop trying, you won’t accomplish anything anymore. Which means you stop running the risk of making them look bad. I crawled into the shadows after that paper. I dropped my head and closed my mouth. I continued to turn in my assignments, of course, but I never said another word when she adjusted the curriculum to suit the class. My acts of rebellion were miniscule. (When our idiot Teaching Assistant decided we needed to play “Head’s Up 7-Up – which I hadn’t done since elementary school – I read and stared her down when she encouraged me to participate) Whatever spark of determination I might have had fizzled and died. She won.

And other people won – over and over. I kept dropping my head and crawling away in shame. I stayed out of the way. The fire grew so cold I’m amazed I ever got it warm again. Because I refuse to let that helplessness rule my life anymore. And it’s a HEAVY blanket to burn away – believe me. I cringe when I hold out something special, expecting the same “meh.” It takes every drop of confidence I’ve scraped together to stand there and say, “Look, I did this!” And if someone DOES shrug, I have to shrug in response and find someone who won’t.

There are different glass ceilings out there no one talks about. The invisible barriers people concoct when they teach you to feel like a failure. They make you ashamed and helpless – for no good reason. And, yeah, it takes hindsight to look back and realize what an amazing badass you were the entire time. Hell, I stood up to a teacher! When no one else would point out her errors, I did. (And I had ZERO confidence back then – believe me) I demanded the education I deserved. How freaking awesome was I?

And how disappointing was she to take that moment away from me? I can’t rewrite history. The years of pulling shadows over my head so no one would see my embarrassment and “failure” aren’t going to suddenly vanish in this new enlightenment. But I CAN break the cycle moving forward. I CAN hold every single thing I do right close and put it up on a shelf to admire it. And I have people who’ll stand beside me and “ooh” and “ahh.” That’s how I move on and burn the damn misery out of the way. And you can do the same thing.

mental health

Building a Wall

Brick wall of self-sabotage
Photo by Madison Inouye from Pexels

All of us have multiple checklists in the back of our minds. There’s the daily To Do List, consisting of average tasks you go through on a regular basis. The outside world may think nothing of that list, but if you battle any mental illness, the To Do List is critical. It gets you out of bed and through the day. Then you have checklists for the various goals you want to accomplish. You have small, immediate goals all the way up to your major dreams. And as you get over each individual hurdle, you check off those lists. It feels good (accomplishment always does).

You’re cruising along, moving down the path. Maybe you stumble over an obstacle or two, but you DO get past them. (No one’s watching or judging, anyway) You’re spirit’s soaring, and you start feeling good about yourself. Maybe you even shake off some of the anxiety you felt towards those goals. There’s a renewed sense of belief in yourself. You might reach the finish line.

Until you smack into a wall.

You back up and stare in disbelief at this hulking wall that showed up out of nowhere. It wasn’t there a second ago. Maybe you weren’t exactly watching the road up ahead, but you’re pretty sure you would have noticed an obstacle this substantial. All of your positivity starts to drain away. Hurdles are one thing, but this is a WALL. It blocks everything, and there’s no way of climbing over it that you can see. Everything in your mind comes to a screeching halt. It’s so unfair. How could the universe throw down something so impossible? Because, of course, that wall came from somewhere else.

Nope.

Unfortunately, the wall snuck in from YOUR mind. It’s the result of the anxiety and depression you thought you conquered. The two combined into self-sabotage. And we’ve all done it. We get in the way of our success and triumphs ALL the time. Because we’re afraid of that finish line. Doubt creeps in, and we question our ability to take the final step. The wall becomes a safety blanket to hide behind. If we can’t get around it, we don’t have to face the consequences of stepping over the finish line. So while we’re staring at the wall, wondering where it came from and cursing whatever universe came up with the idea, we brought it with us the entire time.

Most of the time, you’re the only thing standing in your way. Actually, I shouldn’t say “most of the time.” ALL of the time. No one can prevent you from success except yourself. You make the decisions regarding your life – or you don’t. You set that wall in your path. And you CAN take it down. Even if it looks impossible to shift. After all, it’s a construct of your mind. That means you can decide what the wall’s made of. Maybe it’s an illusion. Or perhaps it’s constructed of gelatin, and you can push through it. What if it crumbles as soon as you touch it? Or, hell, conjure a sledgehammer and SMASH your way to the other side!

I’m a master of self-sabotage. I make excuses for not taking that next step:

  • “Maybe they won’t like my proposal.”
  • “The story isn’t good enough for that market.”
  • “I don’t have enough experience to compete with other professionals for that job.”
  • “My style’s too off-beat for them.”

Sometimes, I spent so much time behind the wall, the opportunity slipped away. A few times, I shattered the wall in time to succeed. But even those successes haven’t stopped me from putting up walls and doubting myself. The underlying lack of self-confidence holds me back. Which is crazy! Is there a guarantee I’m always going to succeed? Of course not. But if I NEVER take the chance, I fail 100% of the time!

The wall’s comfortable; I won’t deny that. It’s a safe refuge where nothing happens. But that’s just it – NOTHING happens. No forward momentum. Everything exists on the other side. And I’m stuck pacing around with my anxiety and depression. Why? I can look back and see how far I’ve come, and I’m going to stop so close to my goals?

Sounds silly when I think of it that way.

It’s easier to blame the wall on an outside force. And it’s definitely easier to engage in self-sabotage. We won’t fail. And no one likes failure. But staring at a wall for eternity? Who wants to do that? Pick up your sledgehammer and get to the other side. And do it sooner rather than later. Too many opportunities come with expirations. The last thing you want to do is kick yourself for missing out on them.

mental health

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.

mental health

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.

mental health

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.

Uncategorized

Fear the Spiral

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

~Frank Herbert, DUNE

We’ve all been there: ambling along, happy as can be, everything going our way, when out of nowhere we find ourselves standing on the edge of a cliff unable to see the other side. Is there an other side? Is the path on the other side as nice as the one we’re currently standing on? What’s at the bottom of the cliff, just in case we can’t make that jump? Will something terrible come up behind us if we don’t jump? We start up a spiral of fear that plants us firmly on our spot, paralyzing our brain’s ability to function properly.

Why do we do that?

Right up to that cliff, we were intelligent, rational, thinking human beings. We could problem-solve with the best of them, and we found solutions for the issues that cropped up in front of us. Now, though, doubt and fear are worming their way into our minds, and we’re stuck. It’s amazing the power fear, especially fear of the unknown, can exert over us.

What if we make the wrong choice? Fear of failure is crippling for a lot of people. There are people you’ll disappoint (real or imagined…and, let’s face it, for most of us, it’s more imagined than real – we just don’t want to admit that). The mind conjures up this giant, flashing red “F” that you’re positive the entire world is going to be able to see. Except…well, we know that isn’t real, on some plane of our rational thinking. People fail all the time; it’s how you learn and grow, and, sometimes, it’s how you go on to succeed. The fear is still there, though, grinding you into the ground and convincing you that making that jump could be the worst mistake of your life. If you miss the jump and fall – there are no save points and restarts in the real world. Your mind tells you that you have to get it right the first try; you can’t screw up – and you believe it.

What if something worse is coming? Things were going great, so Murphy’s Law dictates that there’s an end to that waiting somewhere. Maybe if you just hunker down and close your eyes, the monster won’t see you. It always worked when you were a kid, right? Except you’re not a kid anymore, and you’ve watched too many horror movies now, so you know that monster is going to see you out there in the open on that cliff. That horrible thing is going to come right for you, and all you can do is sit there, staring at it, and waiting for it to tear you apart. You’ll never outsmart it, you’ll never outrun it, and you can’t defeat it, so what can you do? You honestly believe that this horrible thing is going to happen, and you wait for it; you let it consume your entire life. You forget to go on with everything else, you stop trying to figure out a way to the other side of the cliff (just in case you can make it), and you let your mind convince yourself the end is coming.

And we lose every time we do this.

Our minds are so amazing, so strong, but they can turn against us in a heartbeat. We give them a drop of fear, and they turn that drop into a tsunami. I’m not saying fear isn’t healthy – it is. Fear gives us something to fight against; it’s the enemy we conquer when no one else is looking. We get stronger when we face our fears, as absolutely terrifying as it is to close our eyes and make that jump. The problem is when we let the fear get the best of us. If we never take a step forward, we’re forever stuck in that same place: waiting for the worst, clutching our precious “F” to our chests.