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Friday, November 27, 2015

Hug Your Fear (It Wants You To Live)

This week I have been grateful to feel my depression lifting.  As I type this, it’s becoming easier to breathe with each passing minute.  When I listen to the birds singing, I actually hear them singing again.  

I had therapy last Friday, my second session with the adorable and very bright woman, and I wasn’t nervous, I was hopeful.  I still felt the prickles of shame bounce throughout my body as I walked into the entrance, but I was also proud of myself.  

I am proud of myself not only for showing up today to therapy but also for preventing a downward spiral that could have occurred for a number of reasons.  I received news this week of another person I know committing suicide, another very well-loved man.  (I have another post in the works about this, but that’s for another day.)  When I saw on Facebook of this man’s passing, I instinctively knew he committed suicide.  I scoured the Facebook page, sifting through family and friends expressions of love and prayer looking for proof.  I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what happened, how everyone was feeling, what his kids were doing, etc.  I felt the fear creep in that this is what my brain could do to me too.

I explained this to my therapist who said, “I am not worried about you.  Do you know why?  You wouldn’t be afraid of this, if you didn’t want to live.  Your fear means that you want to live.”  She said this in a light, cheery voice that indicated her full confidence.  I felt a gust of comprehension that made me shake my head and I felt my eyes pop open in revelation.  I suddenly wanted to hug my fear, grateful for its presence and its proof that my body ultimately wants to live in the most primal of ways.  I have never wanted to hug my fear before today.

This goes for fear about anything.  I am terrified to post on this blog, but I’m doing it anyway.  I’m terrified that you’ll all judge me, shame me, completely ignore me, or think, “who does she think she is!”  But I’ve figured out what I fear the most about this blog.  It’s not judgement for my depression or my vulnerability, it’s not fear that you won’t accept me (although these fears are present too), what frightens me the most is that you’ll judge my writing.  I’m afraid that you hate it and I’m afraid that you will love it.  I am still exploring this, but in the meantime I need to write this:

There are some days that the writing just flows and I can create some of the most beautiful pieces of writing that I’m proud to call mine.  Other days, it’s difficult getting a sentence out, let alone a decent one.  This is part of the creative process.  Not every post is going to be as beautiful as Temporary Stop or Reflections and Rice Cakes.  If I’m going to continue to post, I need to be okay with this.  But I’m also very vulnerable.  I’m writing this here, now, to remind myself that it’s okay.  It’s all okay!  I’m writing and I’m creating and I’m putting it out there.  My fear is just trying to protect me, but that doesn't mean that it needs to control what I do.  I'm familiar with this.  I mean, I didn't quit my job, go to graduate school at 30, or move to another country without fear.  I've never gone out solo-traveling completely without fear, I just don't let the fear make decisions for me.  I'm not letting it make decisions for me now.

If you, like me, want to create something, anything, and you’re looking for permission.  This is it!  Some of what you create will be beautiful, other times it will not be as great.  This is how creativity works… really, it's how life works.  

Now, go play!

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Interview with a Phone Vampire.

I had a phone interview this morning for a job I’d be very good at and a situation that seems ideal for this time in my life.  The phone interview did not go very well, I’m rubbish on the phone and always feel much better in person.  In addition, one of the interviewers was, well, a bit of an ass.  He started sucking the confidence out of me throughout the phone call like a weird phone vampire.

Now, I’m fighting a downward spiral into depression that has been slowly lifting.  I've been asking myself today why.  How did this guy, and this interview, have such an effect on my confidence?  Logically, I know that I am really adaptable and can just get a job somewhere else, so what’s with this spiral?  Yes, it’s normal to be sad, disappointed, even to grieve a little, but there’s a difference between those emotions and spiraling down into depression.  So, when I start to spiral downward, like I started to today, I’ve started asking myself, “What am I making this mean?”  In this case:

I’m dumb.
I’m worthless.
I’m awkward.
I don’t deserve good things.
I always fuck it up.

There is a big difference between worrying about things happening that are out of your control, and worrying about things happening that are out of your control and THEN making them MEAN that you’re worthless.

So, if I start making a bad interview mean that I’m worthless, then I start making up scenarios of my worthlessness.  

I can’t ever get a job anywhere.
Andy will think I’m dumb and leave me.
My friends think I’m lazy and useless.
I end up homeless and crazy. 
And on... 

Pain doesn’t come from the fear of the unknown nor from the failure itself, it comes from what I make those things mean about myself.  

I now recognize that I don’t get nervous for things I really want.  I get passionate and animated for things I really want.  I get nervous for things my ego needs in order to feel good.  My ego wants this job because it looks good, because it works well for me, because I think Andy would be proud of me, etc, but truthfully, my heart doesn’t really care!  My heart would rather not be bothered by nerves at all, because my heart wants to play.  My heart wants to write, connect with friends, connect with strangers, travel, walk my dog, dance, sing, cuddle, play play play!  I can play with data.  I can play with computers and projects and basically anything.  If it’s all play, and I don’t make anything that happens MEAN anything about who I am, there is absolutely no reason to be nervous.  

It’s understandable to get nervous, after all, things change so quickly in this world.  Our sense of security, much like our happiness, cannot be dependent on anything external.  But trust me on this: if you have the ability to imagine, usually on the fly, of hundreds of ways in which things could go wrong, you also have the creative ability to pull up a plan of action if and when things do go wrong.  This is where your sense of security lies, in your ability to adapt, to formulate a new plan of action, to creatively step into life unfolding.  If you have the ability to worry about it, you also have brains to handle whatever is thrown at you.  Believe this about yourself and you will find your sense of security within you.

All this to say, I’m really proud of how I turned my thinking around today.  I stabbed that confidence vampire with a wooden stake.  Well, not literally.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Temporary stop

This morning, like almost every morning these days, I hear Katherine’s voice in my head.

You can do it, baby. Put your feet on the floor. Yes! I’m so proud of you!

Katherine messaged me these words a few months ago when I had another bout of really bad depression. I had called in sick, again, because I couldn’t face the world, couldn’t get out of bed, couldn’t feed myself, and because I was thinking about that bottle of muscle relaxers. I threw them into the garbage as Katherine messaged me. We message each other on Viber every day. It was easier for me to admit to her how bad it had gotten because she doesn’t judge, she is safe. It also helps to reveal these things over message when a face-to-face conversation with anyone seems daunting and exhausting.

I told her I hadn’t showered in four, or was it five, days. I couldn’t imagine mustering up the energy and motivation to shower. I knew I had to go to work the next day or I would sink so far down this dark hole, I would need serious help or…I don’t know.

Katherine’s messages, her voice, saves me. When I think about harming myself, I always think, I couldn’t do that to Katherine, or my dog, or my mom, or… breathe… Andy. But I also can’t go another day like this. I swallow hard to conjure courage and determination.

Katherine messages me to stand up and walk to the bathroom, to message her when I get undressed. I do.

You’re doing so gooooood! She messages me. I feel a tiny bubble of pride. I start thinking of myself as a small, sick child. She tells me to get in the shower, just get in it, and to message her as soon as I’m out. I start taking everything one tiny task at a time. Turn on the water. Breathe. Stand under the water. You’re doing good. I get out and dry my hands and immediately text her. She is so proud of me. She knows how hard that was and thinks I’m so brave. She encourages me without being patronizing somehow, gently, lovingly, and firmly.

She is the voice I need in my own head because the only voice I can hear right now is trying to kill me. 

She tells me to text her as soon as I wake up in the morning, to give her updates on everything I am doing, and to imagine her cheering me on. She is two hours behind me in time, so I don’t expect her to be awake when I text her shortly after six the next morning. However, she responds shortly after with more words of encouragement, more hand holding. Tears of gratitude and relief that I am not alone fill my eyes.

I still haven’t fed myself. When I think about feeding myself, I realize that nothing sounds appealing, and the actual act of finding food in the kitchen and feeding myself is so overwhelming, I give up. It sounds insane. It feels insane.

But soon, Katherine’s voice helps me do that. Slowly, Katherine’s voice is turning into a part of my own. I am able to get myself up the next day and make it into work, one small task at time. I am doing so goooooood!

I still echo Katherine’s voice every single day.

Yesterday, I went to the community health clinic for those of us with low or no income because I know I need more help, yet I’m jobless and insurance-less after moving to Indiana to be close to Andy. I know I need a medication adjustment, and I need to find a therapist here. I don’t want to go. I am scared, isolated. I feel like I will be walking into a building with people like me, yet I also want to scream that I am nothing like them. This is a temporary stop for me. I close my eyes to try to separate myself from the trickling thoughts of panic and flight. I open my eyes and realize that safety precautions are taken everywhere: all doors are locked, employees are kept safe behind inaccessible desks, “absolutely no weapons” is posted everywhere. This only encourages the feeling of panic. I remind myself that I feel crazier than I am. I know I am privileged. I’m currently living off of my savings account, I have a masters degree, a friendly personality, I’m quick and adaptable, and I have various skills that will certainly provide me with job opportunities. This is a temporary stop for me.

I turn my head to see various sorts of people in the waiting room and wonder why they’re here too. I suddenly actually feel crazy. I look down at my hands resting on top of the clipboard and think how absurdly small they look. I’m wiggling my fingers nervously when a blonde woman calls my name and leads me to a locked door. She unlocks it with a quick twist of her wrist and tells me to sit. She uses the same voice I use to tell my dog to sit when she’s on the verge of getting in trouble. I feel my eyebrows raise and then scowl as I tuck my chin slightly. She walks around to the side through another locked door and hurries to sit behind the desk that keeps the patient blocked between door and desk. It’s claustrophobic and I begin to sweat as I feel the lump in my throat grow. My chest hurts and breathing becomes painful and shallow. The woman is cute and looks painfully naive. She looks about seventeen years old. I glance at her left hand. She is married. I wonder how she got this job. I wonder what it takes to receive mental health patients with little or no income every single day.

She asks me smile-less questions about my income, my past, if I’m homeless, what’s my address, if I’m here for mental health or substance abuse, if I’m looking for work, my level of education, questions about my health and my mental history.

She asks me if I would like to give permission to release any of my information to anyone else. I give her Andy’s information and say, “yeah, in case anything happens.” I suddenly choke back a sob and swallow it. I’m certainly not planning on harming myself, but I’m at the point where my own brain scares me so much sometimes, I almost feel as though it could harm me without me agreeing to any of it.

I answer the questions but my voice sounds small and hoarse. I make a joke in my head about sounding like a pony. I make jokes in awkward and uncomfortable situations, usually out loud. It helps me. This time, I can’t joke out loud because I’m afraid the young girl will think I’m even more insane than I already feel. I feel weak. My knees are numb and I’m already afraid of the end of the interview when I have to stand, I envision my legs giving out and me dropping me to the floor, only to be carried off in an ambulance, my arms and legs strapped to a gurney. I feel a little dizzy, maybe because I haven’t eaten since…? I continue to answer her questions automatically. The answers come from a part of my brain that I’m so grateful seems to be able to communicate with the rest of the world, to function without much of my conscious effort. It’s as though someone is stepping in and carrying me through the interview. I’m so grateful. Good job.

I sign papers, and then it all ends abruptly with the child saying, “you can go.” I feel foolish. I feel crazy and small and alone. I choke back another sob as I leave the room. Swallow it. Get out. I think as I shuffle, dazed, through the waiting area. Not a single person looks up in the room of ten or so people. I think I might be invisible, which makes me feel both extremely alone and also safe again.

I open the door to the outside world slowly, the handle feels cold and the door is heavy as I lean back to open it, tugging on it with my weight. I step outside, and the sun is resting somewhere behind the clouds, like my happiness, I think. I glance up and down the sidewalk and feel the lump in my throat sink all the way to my navel. I have a hard time holding my head up and I want to hide my face. I pull my hood up over my head and stare down at the sidewalk as I pick up the pace toward home. My entire body is filled with a numbing sort of tingle, like when novocaine starts to wear off. My cheeks are hot. I know this feeling. The lead in my navel, the need to hide, the numbness, the heat in my face, and the distinct awareness of the space my entire body takes up in this world. It is shame. My body feels as though it’s not my body anymore but a foggy, fuzzy, tangled grey mass of shame.

I’m sharing this now because I am tired of feeling this shame around my depression. I’m tired of feeling like I need to hide my face and avoid eye contact when I talk about how I really feel. I don’t want anyone else suffering anywhere to feel ashamed either. I’m not sharing this for advice. It’s not intended as a neatly wrapped package of “this is what I learned” nor is it meant for a conclusion. It’s just the raw story of today I needed to share. And to remind myself, this is a temporary stop for me.

The Wicked Witch

I called in sick today.

I dread when I go back into work.   Not because of the emails waiting for me, or the pile of work, or even the daily drama of the place, but because of the question, “what was wrong?”  What am I supposed to say?

“I have Depression.  Some days, I can’t get out of bed.  It was one my dark days.”  No.  I can’t say that.  Mental illness is either taken not seriously enough by minimizing one’s experience, or way too seriously in the form of whispers and rumors behind the ill one’s back. 

“Oh, some days I don’t want to get out of bed either!  Mondays, right?”
“I heard she is depressed.  She doesn’t seem depressed.  She missed work for it?  Eesh.”
“You just need to change the way you think.  You just need to think positively.  You just need to take better care of yourself.  You just need to find something you love.” 

Depression is like a mold that latches on to the soft spots in my self-esteem and begins eating away at all my healthy parts until it feels like there isn’t much left of myself. 

It’s physical. 

It sinks onto my chest, pressing down on my lungs until the moment swells enough to slide its way into my belly, making food unappetizing at best.  It makes my arms and legs feel heavy and watery.  It makes the line between me and the rest of the world stark and harsh.   In the throes of Depression, I feel like I’m in the world, but not part of it.  It seems like I am travelling the world encased in a glass box.  I can see everything, but nothing really gets through to me.  My own thoughts echo in the glass chamber and drown out any attempt to connect to the outside world.  And the words of other people become my own thoughts and I find it harder and harder to find my own voice.

“You just need… You just need… You just need…”

It’s isolating, it’s painful, and it feels permanent.

The loving people close to me try to help by asking things like, “What triggered it this time?”  Hormones, overwhelm, not enough rest, too much thinking, alcohol, bad memories, sickness, death, the change of season, summer’s oppressive heat, Big Life Changes… the list could go on.  The truth is, I’m not really sure how much I buy into the whole “trigger” thing.

The human brain is inundated with information from the external world and internal world.  The brain filters through this information, looking for patterns.  In a “healthy” brain, the brain can take unpleasant, obsessive, socially inappropriate, and useless information and basically ignore it so that one can consciously pay attention to important patterns of information.  This happens mostly unconsciously.  In an “unhealthy” brain, unpleasant, obsessive, socially inappropriate information doesn’t get filtered the same way, if at all in severe illnesses.  Sometimes, especially when I get tired, overwhelmed, exercise too little, have a change in hormones, or basically do anything that results in that filter getting “tired”, I get Depressed and/or Obsessive.  Some days I need to rest so my brain filter can sort through the crap and catch up.  It’s as though my brain’s immune system is run down.  So, when I call in sick for Depression, yes I’m really sick.  The mold has latched on and I need time and rest to be able to save the good bits of myself, to pick off the mold growing on my self-esteem and to heal the raw and newly exposed pieces of myself.   Yes, I have simplified this by breaking it down, but make no mistake, episodes of Depression (and Obsession) are complicated and engrained.

I’m not sharing this because I want sympathy.  This is not a cry for help.  If I’m being honest, most attempt at sympathy from someone who doesn’t experience any form of mental illness tends to feel patronizing (though probably through no fault of one’s own).

I am not weak.

I don’t “just need to” do anything.

Don’t minimize my experience and please don’t ignore it.

I have a lot of shame around this.  I have shame around my dark days, around my medication, around me calling in sick because, even though now as an adult I know how to best take care of myself, there is the part of me speaking VERY LOUDLY that tells me that I don’t deserve to be taking care of myself.  I’m shining a light on that shame right now by writing this. 

I see you, shame.  And now so does everyone else who reads this.

As Glinda says to the Wicked Witch of the West, “You have no power here, be gone… before somebody drops a house on you, too.”

It doesn’t get rid of the Depression.  Actually, over the years I have begun to regard my Depression as a misguided but well-meaning mold creature who is trying to point my attention toward something.  What is really more painful is the shame around it.  That shame keeps me from being fully authentic, and that gives the Depression mold a little more food. 

I hope that by writing this, the shame surrounding it has a little less power over me.

I’m sharing this because I feel like maybe the only way I can make my own situation better is to share it.  Maybe I’ll go to work tomorrow and maybe I’ll say, “I have Depression.  I had my first diagnosis when I was sixteen years old.  Some days are really dark.” 

There it is.  Some days are really dark. 

Reflections and Rice Cakes

Last night, while thinking about my upcoming birthday, I was reflecting on a Wednesday evening in Cardiff in 2012 that, in retrospect, was a turning point in my life.

The week I moved to Cardiff, I found a place to live in Llandaff North, outside of Cardiff city centre (with a housemate who would later become one of my dearest friends and a soul sister who shows me what owning your power with kindness looks like). My father had come with me initially in the hopes that we could get some quality father-daughter-adventure-travel time in the week before I started my University activities. First, we explored Cardiff, walking the city centre, the University, and the Bay by eating, drinking, and merry-ing our way through the city. Then, we took a train to bluebell hill-nestled Caerphilly where we ate delicious soft cheese and drank even more beer in a stuffy, crowded pub full of old men with thick accents and dancing eyes. We shuffled through the rain to Caerphilly castle, first constructed in the 13th century with its own (now) leaning tower and a real mote. The castle had very recently been the site of a Doctor Who episode. I excitedly, and a bit mournfully, stood on the patch of dead grass that the Tardis had just left behind. 

Our next venture took us west on a train to Swansea, birthplace of Dylan Thomas, home of Wales’ first football team to enter the Premier League, and location of Wine Street (where I would months later stumble through a drunken crowd with four friends, get pushed to the ground, vomit on the street, and then put back up on my feet by the largest man I’ve ever seen in real life). On that rainy day, my dad and I ducked into a pub on Wine Street to stop and eat lunch. The pub was warm and welcoming with its old, worn pine floors, small rooms, low ceilings, and had a lit fireplace in every room. As we were ordering our beer, a shorter man wearing a fedora walked in and waved hello to the bartender. He looked a bit younger than my dad but he was dressed as though he were much younger. He had the flair of an artist of some sort. I had just ordered cockles and laverbread from the server, when the man in the fedora directed the question at my dad and me, “are you American?” The man introduced himself as Ady. This began a whirlwind of an afternoon that lasted until after midnight. Ady was a lifelong musician, resident of nearby Port Talbot, and apparently knew everyone, everywhere. He took us to pub after pub, introducing us to Welsh men and women full of character, colorful stories, Welsh phrases, and drinking tips. Before we knew it, we had new friends buying us rounds of Welsh whiskey and inviting us to Sunday roast. Next, we grabbed a taxi with Ady, our entertainment tour guide, to Port Talbot. I remember thinking that Port Talbot reminds me of most rundown, small towns in Michigan if the buildings were older and closer together and everyone were driving on the other side of the road. We sang robustly with our new friends into the night before they generously offered us their couches and spare bedrooms. However, my dad and I left Ady to take the very last train back into Cardiff exchanging looks that said, “what the hell just happened?!” I'm inclined to have adventures like these.

Around two months later, as I made my way to class down the tree-lined Taff trail, I received a text from an unfamiliar number. It was Ady. He was coming to Cardiff for the day and was wondering if he could buy me a nice dinner. Although the guy had to be in his late fifties, he was very interesting and was good company. Plus, I was a starving grad student who would really appreciate a nice, real grown-up dinner out. So, I agreed and met him later that night at the city centre. 

The dinner was at a nice restaurant on Mill Lane and we were seated at a cozy window table lit by candles and fairy lights. The dinner started lightly and happily enough with a bottle of wine and appetizers. Ady told funny stories about gigs he’s played, places he’s travelled, beaches he's slept on, girlfriends he’s had, girlfriends he wished he had, girlfriends he wish he didn’t have, and “helpful tips” for me about men. After the start of the second bottle of wine, the conversation got deeper. I noticed that Ady told stories as though he were performing them. He was charming and entertaining and although he had many stories, he was still intriguingly mysterious.

Finally, at the bottom of the second bottle, Ady confessed to me, “Today is my sixtieth birthday.”

This interesting, funny, talented Welsh musician spent his sixtieth birthday dinner with an American woman he’d met only once…two months prior.

That. That was the turning point. Sure, I had a fine evening, Ady went back home and I took a taxi back to my house with a wine buzz and a full belly, but I felt unsettled, as though something inside me had finally woken up after a long nap and began stirring restlessly. I wasn't sure what it was at first.

Although he made it clear that he didn’t feel sorry for himself as he went home alone, I recognized the hint of loneliness in Ady that creeped out of his eyes, threatening to give him away. Ady had all the freedom in the world, a feeling I had been chasing my entire adult life. I knew that I was walking straight down the same path he, and so many others I had met, had already cleared. It actually turns out that Ady didn’t have the freedom he thought he did. He didn’t realize he was trapped by fear, pride, habits, and beliefs that kept people just close enough yet still at arm’s length. Ady knew everyone, but no one knew Ady. Not really. And I suddenly knew that I didn’t want to be Ady. Finally I saw that I wanted a different way. 

I realized just how good I had gotten at keeping people just close enough so that I could get a bit of relief from loneliness yet I kept them far enough away to stay "free" and "safe". I didn't want anyone to see my weaknesses, my failures, my inadequacies, or my heart.  

I was living the emotional equivalent of eating rice cakes: it was leaving me hungry and unsatisfied. 

For people like Ady and me, it’s not difficult or risky to make new friends or to get people to like us and enjoy our company. It’s not frightening to travel anywhere alone, to have wild stories about strangers with accents, to try food from a different culture and not be exactly sure what's in it. That's actually very easy. For people like us, the real adventure is in baring ourselves fully, authentically. The real wild story for me is when I let someone see me give it my all, only to fail; to let he or she see that I might not be as clever as I wish; to let someone know that walking away would indeed break my heart. For me, true adventure is when I disappoint someone in order to finally understand that it doesn’t mean he or she stops loving me, and then practicing the same when he or she disappoints me. I plan to continue to wander and collect new adventurous stories and memories, of course, but to step in front of someone and have them see my faults, my mistakes, my fears, my weaknesses, my vulnerabilities, my ignorance, and my dark side is my biggest adventure yet. 

I never saw Ady again, sadly. I think about him sometimes, grateful that I had him to show me who I didn’t want to become. I think I’m traipsing down my own path now, machete in hand, clearing my way forward. I’ve got an amazing partner who is sticking around as I slowly and bravely bare my many layers. It's frightening and uncomfortable but instead of feeling confined, I actually feel even more free.  

Best of all, instead of settling for rice cakes, I’m enjoying full course dinners.

Snail Steps

Snail Steps