mental health

Not a Molecule Out of Place

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

~Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower

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

Control freak.

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

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

As if having your shit together is something to revile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But control freaks AREN’T the enemy!

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

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

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

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

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

mental health

Annual Madness

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

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

Pure madness!

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

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

Oh, sure, perfectly rational and obtainable goals.

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

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

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

Which is STUPID!

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

STOP THE MADNESS!

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

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

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

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

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

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.