mental health

Cue Annie

At some point in time, everyone uses the word “tomorrow.” Usually, we break it out when confronted with a chore we HATE: dusting, organizing the closet, weeding, rearranging the books to fit new ones on the shelf. (Let me clarify: I only hate that because it involves hauling heavy tomes back and forth across the den…and I usually don’t anticipate the space required the first time) Setting a new deadline soothes the guilt in the back of our minds. We’re not procrastinating – not really – we’re scheduling the task for a more appropriate time. Then we can go about our day, proud of our organization skills.

As long as we DO attend to things tomorrow.

That’s always the kicker, though, isn’t it? Because when tomorrow DOES show up, our enthusiasm for the chore hasn’t spontaneously manifested. Then we’re faced with a new quandary. Do we put off the task for one more tomorrow? Or can we sigh, roll up our sleeves, and get to work? How you answer that question depends on your motivation in the moment you stare at the garden patch, dust rag, closet door, or book shelves. And the internal dialogue you engage in will determine your next course of action.

It’s easy to think the pattern works the same when you look at the bigger goals in your life. You know you need to address the next step on that climb toward the top. And you WILL – tomorrow. You equate it to the thought process you use when looking at a sink full of dishes. But are you afraid scrubbing the dirty plates and glasses will lead to absolute failure? Possibly (I try not to judge), but more than likely not. Most of us DO panic that pushing over the boulder on our journey WILL result in a tumble back to the bottom, though. So we’ll confront the obstacle tomorrow – when we’re better able to handle the implications.

And the tomorrows start piling up.

When you’re considering a fear, it’s always easy to find an excuse to delay a task. (For instance, I know that giant spider probably has friends in the front yard. So I’m not about to head out and weed the beds until the coast is clear. Say after the first hard freeze) It gets harder and harder to unearth the possibility of success and write a firm action to DO something. Having a nebulous idea of “tomorrow” settles things easier. We calm the guilty side of us that insists we need to accomplish something, but we also settle our fearful side by refusing to attach a time. And before long? It’s been a month…two months…a year.

I’m a CHAMP at the tomorrow game. I sit in seminars, feeling excitement well up as I learn new techniques and ideas. My mind churns with plans; I can SEE the steps I need to take. I step away to work on an assignment or sleep for the night. And when I come back and confront those steps, worries surface. Maybe my enthusiasm was misplaced. Did I really think I could pull off something so ambitious? I should probably table things until tomorrow – give my brain a chance to marinated.

Then tomorrow arrives, and my anxiety spiral’s had 24 hours to work. The single fear I started with has multiplied. WAY easier to convince myself I need more time to sort through the possible ramifications of each new possible doomsday scenario. (You can’t take action without backup plans, can you?) I need to wait until tomorrow – when I’m DEFINITELY ready. So the cycle begins. And it lasts until I’m willing to call a halt to the madness.

IF I make it stop.

There’s always another tomorrow. That’s the beautiful thing about trying something new. If you encounter a hiccup, you get another try tomorrow. But when you refuse to make the jump, you can end up standing on the edge of the cliff FOREVER. And the only person that can convince you one way or the other is YOU. Do you face your fear and take the risk that, yeah, you might fail? Or do you refuse to move forward? Which action offers the better state of mind?

On one hand, you stay safe and sound. You’re never going to fail. There’s no need to push through anxiety, fear, and potential depression. And, believe me, I get the allure! But you hate that stagnation, remember? If you didn’t, you wouldn’t have set your goals in the first place.

On the other hand, you have to confront the sweating palms, the shakes, and the racing heart. You have a 50:50 chance of things working out on the other side. (And, no, I can’t predict your outcome) You’re rolling the dice, moving out of your comfort zone, and placing your hopes and dreams in the hands of fate. It’s horrifying! But it’s growth, and there IS that chance of success. You could move forward with your dreams. And even if you DO fail, you’ll learn something out of the process. (We like to forget that part)

When I start noticing that more than two tomorrows have happened, I force myself to immediately stop what I’m doing and take action. It’s the only way to break the habit. And, yes, it’s terrifying. I find myself with gritted teeth (don’t do that – it’s bad for your jaw) and a massive stress headache. But I’ve made “progress” each time. No, I haven’t always succeeded, but I HAVE continued to learn and grow. So that means I’m not sitting back on the path, shifting from foot to foot in indecision. And it does feel good to admit that.

That’s how you break the pattern. As soon as the word tomorrow hits your brain, you STOP and implement a plan. Make appointments. Start the research. Take notes. Buy the supplies. Whatever you need to get yourself on the path to that next step, DO IT. Because if you use the word “tomorrow,” you’re verging dangerously close to “never.”

(Incidentally, this advice does not apply to weeding gardens where spiders may or may not be present)

mental health

Another?

Rejected
Photo by Kulbir from Pexels

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

But rejection? It’s healthy.

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

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

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

Like a BOSS!

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

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

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

Dumbest thing I’d ever heard.

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

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

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

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

mental health

Scripted in Stone

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

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

~Andrea Gibson, The Madness Vase

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

So, yeah, funny.

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

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

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

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

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

The light bulb went off.

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

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

And how many lose the fight?

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

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

mental health

Cracked Vessels

“What is grief if not love persevering?”

~WandaVision

For decades now, I’ve found a trend emerging: odd-numbered years bring the most grief. Line up everything negative and positive that happens, and everything tips down in those years. Even with a pandemic shaking loose last year, 2020 didn’t manage to bring the same crippling blows as the first half of 2021. (And, yes, I’m aware there are still six months remaining to slog through) Going into odd-numbered years requires bracing myself for a never-ending onslaught of abuse from the universe – whether I put on a hopeful outlook or not.

And this year? It’s a winner.

In a handful of months, I’ve witnessed the loss of so many people. Friends and my own family have lost people close to their hearts. I’ve touched on grieving practices before; the myriad ways people handle coping with the holes in their lives. And I’ve seen every possibility, participated in each one. I’ve watched the usual phrases emerge – and had friends come to me because they can’t handle hearing them anymore. I reached a point of not handling them anymore and withdrew. Have we really nothing new to say to one another when our worlds collapse?

The worst phrase I’ve encountered is a variation on, “time will heal the wound.” Excuse me? You’re trying to tell me that, given enough years, I’ll stop feeling the loss? What utter bullshit is that? I look at friends who have experienced the unimaginable this year. Why is there an expectation for them to close up that CRATER and get back to “normal?” Normal fucking went out the window! It’s GONE, permanently. They can’t get it back. NEVER use those words for people undergoing supreme grief.

Because grief doesn’t go away.

I think that’s something I’ve come to realize in the past couple months. As I wrote a farewell letter to my uncle, I reflected on other relatives who’ve slipped away in past years. The pain? It doesn’t hurt any less when I poke at it. Even losses from DECADES ago. So this theory that time closes over chasms within us and puts them to rest is complete bullshit. Perhaps we grow around the wounds, rising above them. But dissolving them away like a wound? No, that doesn’t happen.

Someone shared a post of social media this week that explained grief in a way that makes more sense to me. It showed a series of jars with a ball inside. In the first row, the ball grew smaller and smaller and disappeared. In the second, the ball never changed size. Instead, the jars grew larger. It struck a chord. The first row represents that stupid phrase – and it’s wrong. Time doesn’t heal ANYTHING. The second row is more accurate. The grief remains, often constant. What time does is allow us grow AROUND it.

When I sit in a room and look at the ghosts of those I’ve lost, the pain aches – every bit as fresh as the day they stepped away. Coming from a medical background, I can assure you that doesn’t represent “healing.” Healed wounds cease to cause pain. So why do we still use that stupid phrase? How is that supposed to offer comfort to someone enduring something so horrific?

I think, as I’ve said before, that society is so afraid of “negative” emotions. They refuse to recognize grief as anything positive. There’s no room in our programming to see the pain of loss as anything other than something to get over and move beyond. But I think we need to change that. We feel grief because of the bonds created. That’s positive. And holding that connection, that energy tight? There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a positive asset to a person’s character, I’d say. Why would you want someone to throw away that aspect of themselves?

Yes, I’m a huge geek (I never deny that). And when Vision uttered that quote, I came apart. It captured everything I wanted to say so perfectly. I’ve also held onto the words so much these past few months. They’re the best I’ve been able to share with people – and with myself. I don’t know which writer came up with them, but they’re a genius.

Stop asking people to let go of grief.

Grief is love. And holding onto that love – as strongly and deeply as it started? That isn’t weakness. It isn’t negative. We should promote it.

mental health

The Pause Button

“I second-guess and overthink and rethink every single thing that I do.”

~Taylor Swift

There are two camps of thought when it comes to achieving your dreams. On one hand, you ride off into the sunset, blissfully happy. But on the other, you realize it wasn’t quite what you thought. At least, that’s what the predominating themes of Hollywood and literature would have you believe. Reality throws a third wrinkle into the mix, though. You can climb that mountain and feel joyful and vindicated – and then realize the work isn’t FINISHED.

There’s another peak hiding in the mist.

The problem isn’t that you didn’t aim high enough. And you may not even need to set a new goal. You’re not upset or disappointed with the accomplishment. But there’s a negative in there, all the same. Because you’re wearing a rut into your little mountain paradise. You kind of settled into home base and switched off your brain. And in the process? Your ambition went with it.

There are gradations and levels to a dream. And, yes, additional mountain peaks. They’re not as difficult to scale (usually – everyone’s different), but they exist all the same. And when you finally stop dancing around over victory, you have to look at them and take stock of things. It’s time to rethink where you are, what you want to do, and how you get to the next stage of things. Or even if you WANT to. Maybe that rut’s so comfortable you DON’T have any desire to leave it. And there’s nothing wrong with that, especially if you are content and satisfied.

But pretending that you don’t have to think anymore? That’s dangerous.

This hit me like a ton of bricks the other day. I was writing out my work assignments for the new month, when I sat back and realized I haven’t looked for new work in AGES. Of course, I haven’t needed to. Clients have sought me out and added to my plate. (And don’t get me wrong – that’s pretty awesome) My schedule is comfortably full, too. So it’s not like my dream isn’t realized. But it’s also not GOING anywhere. And my anxiety climbed onto my shoulder and started poking me in the brain. A writer’s only as good as their next assignment. And if you’re not constantly bettering yourself, you’re not really a writer.

I started rethinking everything. And then I started making a new plan for myself. No need to throw out what I’m doing (that route leads to madness), but I DO need to get out of the current rut – at least a little bit. This means dividing up my time to allow for researching new writing possibilities. I also took a critical look at my speculative fiction (following a helpful critique) and realized it needed an overhaul – and devoted time, rather than the “as I can manage” time.

Same mountain, different view.

I’m not any less satisfied with what I’m doing. I wake up, amazed that this is my life. But there are still tiny checkmarks in the back of my mind that I haven’t crossed off. And that’s where rethinking comes in. It’s a little like stepping back from a painting you’re working on and realizing you could add a touch more shading. The image is fine, and most people would probably consider the painting acceptable. But your eye? It knows there’s a touch more you could do to achieve perfection. (Bearing in mind I know perfection is never achievable)

Every so often, you need to step back and look at your life with a critical eye. Have you missed something? Is there a “more” you might want to consider? Are you content with that rut, or do you want to step out of it? And you have to remember, there aren’t right or wrong answers to those questions – especially if you’re where you want to be. (If you’re NOT, then you want to really pay attention to your answers)

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.