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Category Archives: mental-health

Kwanzaa 2020: Kujichagulia

Habari gani, fam?

Today we focus on the principle of kujichagulia, or self-determination. Any people that have struggled to throw off the legacy of slavery and institutional racism fundamentally struggle for the right to determine who they are themselves, instead of accepting the role the dominant culture pushes on them. As Black Americans, we deal with these false narratives all the time because we live in a country that has not been able to properly reckon with its own racism. We’re not human beings to many people; we’re an inscrutable other prone to behaviors that are impossible to understand. We’re not fathers, mothers, sons, or daughters. We’re felons, welfare recipients, gang members, hoodrats. Our individuality is stripped from us every time one of us is pulled over because we “fit the description”, every time someone mispronounces our names, every time our accomplishments are overshadowed by our political reality.

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

The basic power to define ourselves is under assault every day for black Americans. The dominant culture wants to put us in a box that absolves them of facing history one way or another. Our own culture demands us to be the perfect defiance of that narrative, tells us that there’s only one way to forge our own path. Within these twin pressures bearing down on us, it’s vital to remember that we get to say who we are — no one else. The power of self-determination can only be used, though, if we bear the responsibility of behaving in accordance with what we’ve named ourselves. These labels often only have the power of the will behind it. 

There’s a diagnostic for this concept that I actually really like. In order to truly wield the power of self-determination, we must ask ourselves three questions.

Who am I?

We’re starting off with the most basic and difficult questions, right? In order to answer it honestly, we have to spend some time getting to know ourselves: not just the people we want to be, but the people we are right now, flaws and all. We have to have a sense of perspective about ourselves that might be humbling. We’re all the heroes of our own stories, of course, but no hero can be blind to the reality of their situation. 

This year I turned 40 years old. I am not who I thought I would be at this age; nowhere near as successful or driven, nowhere near as much wealth as I thought I’d have. I don’t have the experience or talent I wanted to have cultivated by now. I’m a lot more naive than I thought I’d be, a lot less perceptive, a man frozen by fear far more often than I’d like.

I also know that I am incredibly resilient, and I am persistent towards the goals that really matter to me; it might take me a while, but if I want to do something I’ll eventually figure out a way to get there. I’m kind, and earnest, and care a great deal about doing the right thing well. I’m smart — in my way — and I have a natural aptitude for numbers, details that are easy to overlook, and maybe even social dynamics. I’m devoted to my loves, my friends, my chosen family. 

It’s taken me a long time, but I’ve learned to be comfortable within my own skin, with its limitations and destructive loops and vast, unrealized potential. I know that the worst vices within myself are harder to fight because of where and when I was born, and what my culture has decided me to be. I have decided to accept this burden with as much equanimity as I can muster, hoping that the way I live my life can be a refutation of this grave social injustice. I am as decent a human being as I can be, and I am always striving to be more decent than that. I have chosen to tell you who I am by what I say, what I write, what I do.

Am I really who I say I am?

This is the reality check. How do we know we are who we say we are? It’s recommended that we have and employ a cultural criteria of authenticity, i.e., criteria of what is real and unreal, what is appearance and essence, what is culturally-rooted and foreign.

But what the hell does that mean?

It means that we must have a way other people can decide whether or not we’re being true to ourselves. Others, trusted within our communities, tell us if we’re actually resilient or if we’re just presenting the illusion of resilience. If we determine who we are as a culture, we have to agree what’s a part of it and what’s not; what others can participate in and what they can’t; how to tell someone “of the culture” and someone who’s not. 

Self-determination, by nature, is an act of artifice. We decide how we want to present ourselves to the outside world, but we also have to back it up with action. We construct ourselves through our words, then by the deeds we perform to back up those words. The way we define ourselves is not how we find out who we really are; it’s merely using a common language to form an image others can relate to. This language is built on what we value and how we reflect those values. If there’s a gap between what we value in ourselves (decency) and how we define decency by our actions (being an all-purpose jerk), we mislead others and make it harder to truly know ourselves. 

I love this check because it marries the theoretical (what we say) to the tangible (what we do). Once I’ve defined myself, it makes my choices a lot easier. If I’m, say, roasting someone online, and I think “Is this who I really am?” — I’m likely going to answer “No.” I am not the kind of dude that just roasts people online. If it’s fine for you, great, I’m sure you have your reasons. But that’s not me. 

Am I all that I ought to be?

Now that you’ve taken care of who you are really, you have to take stock of who you want to be. If you’re exactly the person you want to be, keep on rocking! But what’s the next step in living your virtues? How can you make that happen? What would your life look like if you took the things you cared about to the next level?

This is an excellent time of the year to check in on that. If I’m not really who I say I am, I have to reckon with that and change what I’m doing. If I’m not all that I feel I ought to be, I have to take stock of why not and how that can be changed. 

These three questions also force you to think about what’s within your control and what isn’t. Ultimately you can’t control how other people see you, or whether they accept you or not. But if they don’t see you the same way you see yourself, it helps to think about why that’s so. Are you invisible? Or do the effect of your deeds differ from your intentions? 

It also provides you with a way to think about your ideal self with a built-in reality check. You look at where you are and where you want to be, and you think about how to bridge that gap. It may take time — years, decades — but just the progress is enough to make you feel better about yourself. When that happens, it’s easier to shrug off the pressure of being told who you are. Because you know. You’ve thought through it, and you’ve aligned your will and effort into being your best self. No one has your experience being you, except you. And if you’re honest with yourself, you know what’s true and what’s not. 

At least, I hope so! Living with mental illness means living with the fact that my perspective may be distorted heavily, so I need to lean on the people I trust more than most to tell me when I’m not being who I want to be. For some reason, you may be in the same situation. But, at least for me, the more I check in with myself, the more I practice radical self-honesty and self-acceptance, the easier it is for me to just ken when I’m on my track and when I’m not. 

That being said, I know I’m not all that I ought to be. But I’m happy with who I am, even as I take steps to be better. Being able to define myself, and hold myself to that standard, is a big reason why.

 
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Posted by on December 27, 2020 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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The 40-Year-Old Version

What can I say about this year that hasn’t already been said better by someone else?

A novel coronavirus has spread across the world like a less-virulent (and less-deadly) Captain Tripps, wreaking havoc on the already tattered social fabric of this country. The President of the United States thinks it either doesn’t exist, will go away on its own, and can be cured by hydroxychloroquine, depending on the day you ask him about it. Under his mismanagement a good 35% of the country think that basic public health practices are some political oppression that must be stopped, and we’re the only country in the world still struggling to bring the rising infection rate under control. Honestly, this reboot of The Stand is simultaneously less believable and more depressing.

Like the rest of us, I thought I would use my time sheltering in place productively. Without the distraction of a commute or a social life, I could finally catch up on all the reading and writing I’ve been wanting to do for years. Now almost six months later I’ve written maybe 2,000 words total and half-read three books or so before diving back into my latest pastime, helplessly doom-scrolling through Twitter so I can keep up with how bad things are and despair that there’s nothing I can do about any of it.

The pandemic isn’t the only thing we’ve been dealing with this year, though that’s been bad enough. There’s also a severe economic recession that the government is using as an excuse to accelerate the increasing wealth gap between the uber-rich and well, the rest of us; there’s the still continuing protests all around the country after yet another string of murders by police officers have claimed the lives of even more Black Americans; there’s the dawning recognition that so many facets of American life, from health care to education to the social safety net to the legal system, are incredibly broken with no will from the people in charge to fix it; there’s the still-looming threat of climate change dangling over the planet like a sword of Damocles.

Oh, and there’s Russia doing incredibly shady shit. White supremacists showing their whole asses in public. Murder hornets. Salmonella in our onions. Kanye running for President. Joe Biden running for President. Ellen’s mean now; always has been. The Australian wildfires. The destruction of the Amazon rainforest. Brexit. The list goes on.

Today I celebrate the 40th anniversary of my birth and I have no idea how to feel about that.

I’m a middle-aged jackalope watching the seemingly solid institutions of democracy crumble around me. I’ve never been more shocked and dismayed at the naked, guiltless selfishness and proud ignorance of my fellow Earthlings. I’ve taken multiple hits to my mental health this year and while I’m surviving, I can’t say I like the person I’ve become.

Living through this year with an anxiety disorder is not fun. Half of the energy I have is devoted to keeping myself upright and coherent; the other half goes to, you know, work and eating and stuff. More evenings than not I’m exhausted by four o’clock in the afternoon and I want something — anything — that will make me feel like I’m not trapped inside a slow-motion apocalypse. I can’t think of being creative; I can barely handle my day job. Making it through a normal day feels like an achievement in and of itself — probably because it is. And while I recognize the need to be gentle with myself, a huge part of me is incredibly disappointed that these times haven’t forged me into something harder and sharper.

It’s very easy for me to become overwhelmed and exhausted. I’m scattered in my relationships with friends, frequently disappearing without notice in the middle of conversations. I fight a constant urge to withdraw into a fugue state, to run out the clock on my days until it’s time to go to sleep. I am tired and scared and sad all the time.

I hate that I can’t be there for my friends, all good people who are also suffering through this shitbox year like I am. I hate that I can’t do something that helps others make sense of what’s happening, or feel less alone, or more hopeful, or even sufficiently distracted. There are so many folks out there rising to these times with passion and clarity, fighting for the future they believe in. Me? I just want the shouting to stop for like, two minutes. Just long enough for me to take a beat and wrap my head around what’s happening.

Earlier this year, Armando Iannucci debuted his follow-up to Veep on HBO, a bizarrely-prescient sci-fi satire called Avenue 5. There’s a scene in a late episode where the panicked passengers on the titular spaceship become convinced they’re actually on a reality show. Against the emphatic pleas of the ship’s crew, a few of them decide to leave the “set” through the airlock. After their departure, more people “leave the show” in similar horrific fashion. Even after seeing what happened, the mob is so convinced of their own beliefs they refuse to accept the evidence right in front of them. Repeatedly. By the end of the season, we leave the Avenue 5 with several crewmembers pressed against a window, screaming helplessly into the void of space. It’s an image I was dismayed to relate to so strongly.

We’re all trapped in this malfunctioning spaceship that even the best of us barely knows how to function, and the people with power think their power trumps expertise or, you know, basic reality. Everyone’s shouting to be heard, and no one’s listening. Anything I could say would just get swept up in this existential scream of the cultural moment.

But scream I must. I’ve got a good bit of air in my lungs, and I have to use it for something. As a birthday present to myself, I’m giving myself permission to do the things that bring me comfort and happiness. I’ll try to be more present with people, or at least tell them when I have to recharge. But I’m not my best self right now, and I ask you all to be patient with me. I have no idea how to fly this spaceship, but I can at least make some small corner of it somewhat more calming and hopeful.

 
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Posted by on August 6, 2020 in mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

The Anxious Person’s Guide to Political Discourse

Politics 150Personal confrontations among friends are a special kind of hell. No matter how much you brace for the conflict, or how hard you try to keep calm, eventually the anxiety takes hold and restraint goes out the window. It’s such an awful experience most of us will do anything to avoid it. Unfortunately, in today’s political landscape, avoiding conflict is increasingly impossible.

After the 2016 election, I found myself struggling to interact with a lot of online friends I had known for a long time. As Trump’s particular brand of bigotry took hold in the US government and we were assaulted with increasingly brazen, cruel policies, a lot of the people I thought were in my corner stepped back and tried to downplay their apathy — or even tacit approval. As 2017 rolled on, I found myself in surprise confrontations that still stress me out to remember. I still struggle with being able to speak openly about my values because I fear the inevitable conflicts they will lead to.

However, near the end of Trump’s first term, as the damage to our social values continues to deepen, I feel it’s more important than ever to be vocal about how unacceptable this is. We have to talk about the bigotry spilling unchecked into our streets and on our computers, and stand up against the violence it has inspired in emboldened right-wing extremists, white supremacists, and Christian fundamentalists. But in order to do this we have to be mindful about our engagement, and that means understanding how our anxiety expresses so we can work with the often counterproductive instinctive actions we take.

As someone with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, my trigger for the fight-or-flight reflex is much more sensitive — think of it like your car’s low tire pressure going off if it’s anywhere close to the minimum PSI. Mildly stressful situations feel like stomach-churning ordeals; real intense confrontations are simply overwhelming. Everyone who has GAD may have a different experience, but for me even a roll of the eyes or a terse response can be enough to make my heartbeat quicken with worry. The lizard brain takes over and provides you with two options: fight or flee.

In social justice discussions, ‘fight’ can look like arguing with someone online well past the point of productive discourse, or ruminating on an exchange so much it ruins your day, or even lashing out at friends and allies because agreement wasn’t swift or complete enough. ‘Flight’ can look like being silent in the face of unacceptable behavior, or avoiding any news because it’s just too upsetting. Sometimes, it can even mean withdrawing from social contact altogether. The behavior varies, but can often be distilled down to one or the other. I’ve learned that whatever your instinct, the best way to break the reflex and become more mindful is to do the opposite. Engage instead of withdrawing, or hang back instead of going all in.

If, like me, you’re conflict-avoidant in the extreme, sometimes that means you have to stop looking for the exits and stand your ground. I know, I know — it’s stressful just thinking about it. But it really does help to think about different ways you can engage an issue according to the amount of conflict you can handle. There’s absolutely no shame in bypassing direct engagement to find a way to fight back that works for you.

Indirect engagement can be as simple as thinking about the messages you spread on social media, and whose voice you decide to boost. We live in an age where the most enraging take spreads the fastest and farthest; making the choice to be more considerate with what you say online is a wonderful way to push back against that trend. Are the people or organizations we’re sharing and retweeting honest and direct about what’s happening? Do they offer ways to channel anger into action? Are we engaging in discussions in an open and constructive manner? Do we try to keep our focus on solutions, understanding, or finding common ground? If we look through our social media feed and find that the things we retweet frequently make us feel angry or despairing, choosing to change the word we spread can be a subtle but effective way of fighting back against our coarsening discourse.

Another way to fight is by donating your time, money, or effort to a worthy cause you feel passionately about. I really like this method because it keeps you focused on working towards solutions and helps you learn about what people are doing all around us to build a better world. Your time is the most precious finite resource you have, so spending time with volunteer work is honestly one of the most important things you can do. Some of us don’t have the time to spare, so money can work just as well in those cases. Donating to organizations like the ACLU, RAICES Texas, or The Nature Conservancy makes sure that there’s enough in the tank for these groups to keep fighting the good fight.

Sometimes, though, direct action is what’s called for — especially if inappropriate language or behavior is directed towards an underprivileged group you’re not a part of. It’s up to me to make sure other men know it’s not OK to be misogynist or transphobic; it sends the message that even people who aren’t personally affected by an issue stand in solidarity with those who are. And as much as I hate confrontation, I take that responsibility seriously. I think we all should. That being said, there are a few things we can do to make the confrontation as productive as possible.

Remember that you’re interacting with a person. This person is making bigoted remarks, and they might even have a history of bigoted behavior, but try to avoid branding this person a bigot (even though they likely are). Empathy matters, even towards people who we feel might not deserve it. Think about how you would want to be confronted if your behavior needed correction? At the very least, respond the way you would want to be responded to in that situation. Concentrate on the action or statement, and be firm in your disapproval of it — but don’t extend that value judgement to the person. This makes it more likely they’ll be put on the defensive, and defensive people harden against criticism. In order to change someone’s behavior, they have to be receptive. Finally, choose your limit for the interaction. If you decide that a line has been crossed and things aren’t productive anymore, simply restate your disapproval with the action and walk away. You get to decide how to interact with others, and you don’t owe them any more of your time or attention than you’re willing to give.

I’m a runner. I avoid confrontation whenever I can because it stresses me out and ruins my ability to engage with people for a long time afterwards. But over the course of these last three years, I’ve had to learn how to push past that anxiety to have difficult conversations with others. I wish I could say that it gets easier, but it doesn’t; we just get better at handling the anxiety and doing what’s right anyway. And even if a particular exchange doesn’t result in any real change, the encouragement and support I’ve received from others really helps. There’s a community of us out there who are appalled at what’s happening in the world, and who want to do whatever we can to make things better. Just knowing you’re not alone, and that by speaking up you’re letting others know you’re with them, is often enough to remove the block and push me forward.

 
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Posted by on August 5, 2019 in mental-health, Politics

 

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The Overnight Walk to Prevent Suicide 2019

I’ve attempted suicide twice — once a short time after I was disowned by my mother for being gay, and again after a bad break-up with my first real boyfriend. Both times, I felt completely unmoored after severing fundamental relationships that also disconnected the fragile support networks that came with them. There was no one I could tell about the persistent, gnawing pain that hollowed me out until there was only numbness, which felt even worse.

It got to the point where I didn’t just want to feel nothing; I didn’t even want to be aware of feeling. There was no way to step outside of myself, no way to know that I could eventually feel different. There was only the awful, disintegrating pain and the cold fog beyond it. Oblivion had to be better.

It took a long time to put my life back together again. While I still have a brain that I struggle against constantly, I also have a loving husband, an incredible community of friends, and the great fortune of health insurance that covers mental health services. I feel incredibly lucky and grateful every day for these blessings and the sense of perspective they’ve given me.

But there are so many people like me who aren’t as lucky. People of color have to navigate a hostile country that looks at them with disdain and suspicion. People with mental illnesses have to bear the torture of misfiring synapses with no idea what’s happening — much less how to manage it. LGQBT people of color not only have to deal with the isolation that comes with their race; they also have to face isolation from their communities because of their sexual preference or gender presentation.

Every year over 45,000 Americans commit suicide. Most of them are men, and LGQBT youth are at a much heightened risk. Without access to mental health services or an understanding support network, they’re as disconnected as I felt at my lowest points. Even though I’m doing so much better than I was, I can’t forget about the people who are trapped in cities like Baltimore or small towns like Fayetteville, AR without any tools to cope with their situations. There are so many people out there who wrestle with the idea that oblivion might be better.

That’s why I’ll be participating in the Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk to Stop Suicide in San Francisco on June 8th, 2019. Hundreds of us will be walking across San Francisco that night to raise awareness and money for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, an organization that educates the public and medical professionals about mood disorders and suicide prevention. Their work is extremely important, offering a way to remove the stigma surrounding mental health issues and showing both therapists and patients how to connect in ways that help those suffering feel less alone.

I know there are a lot of causes passing the hat around these days, for issues as huge as climate change or as personal as helping someone pay for their medical costs. But if you have any funds to spare for a worthy endeavor, please consider this one. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has an 89% rating from Charity Navigator, so this isn’t an outfit that squanders the good will of the people who donate. If you would like to give what you can, please visit my walker’s page here:

https://www.theovernight.org/participant/David-Cowan

Thank you all so much for helping out and spreading the word. I appreciate all of you!

 
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Posted by on May 13, 2019 in mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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What I Learned This Month (January 2019)

Self Improvement 150January is usually dominated by two things for me: stress-testing the routines I’ve developed to fall into better habits, and Further Confusion 2019. The convention this year was actually pretty fun: I enjoyed myself at my panels, met a lot of really awesome people, and rediscovered my love of selling books (I was a relief volunteer at the FurPlanet table). As I get older, I become more aware of the ways in which I can stretch myself and which avenues for experimentation are just not going to work out for me. Parties and dances are for younger, more extroverted animals: give me a few quiet gathering amongst good friends and I’m much happier. The routines I wanted to build for the first month of the year didn’t quite fare as well, and that’s mostly because of the depression that blindsided me early and lingered on until…well, a few days ago.

I’ve talked a bit about it in a previous post from the month, but living with chronic depression is a bit of a balancing act. On one hand, you build coping mechanisms and treatments that make the depressive spells less frequent and less severe, to the point that you start to let your guard down. And on the other hand, there’s a small part of you that knows a depression could happen at any time, triggered by anything — an off-hand comment from a friend, or a particularly bad day at work, or a string of unsatisfying evenings at home.

Not that the triggers are ever really the things that, well, trigger it. The chemical networks inside the brain are so complex and mutable it feels like a global weather pattern inside my head, one that’s prone to fronts that will stall and dump a ton of rain where it’s least needed. Sometimes, conditions become just right for a storm. You get better at watching out for the signs, and the lead time you have to prepare increases, but nothing changes the fact that these storms are a fact of life and when they come there’s nothing you can do but hunker down and wait it out.

And that’s what January felt like, mostly — losing half the month to a storm that developed quickly but lingered once it arrived. I fell into a lot of bad habits during that depressive spell. I woke up and checked the Twitter outrage machine instead of meditating. I kept emotions bottled up thinking that I could deal with them, until I really couldn’t. I didn’t even try to do things that would make the depression less severe; I simply indulged a lot of my worst impulses. I could only tell how bad the depression was once I was out of it, and could actually hold a perspective that included other people. It’s not exactly fun to come back to yourself and find out that you weren’t holding things together nearly as well as you thought.

This month I learned that it’s important to carve out more time and space for self-care even when things are going well. A lot of issues that came up during my depression were lingering for a while, but I set them aside because I thought I could handle them — and I could, as long as the weather held. As soon as it broke, though, my ability to deal with things went straight to hell. So did, unfortunately, my ability to handle disagreements in a measured way. I’ve learned that while there’s value in not sweating the small stuff, for folks like me it’s also important to know there’s no such thing when you’re stuck in a depression.

I’ve also learned that my skewed perspective in depression can make it very easy for me to catastrophize criticism, which makes me hyper-defensive. So much of my anxiety is wrapped up in how I’m perceived by the people whose opinions matter to me — managers at work, friends and colleagues I admire, even you, dear reader. I want to present an image of this deep thinker who is earnest and strives to live his life according to Buddhist principles, but in reality I’m…just as selfish and prone to cognitive biases as the next person. I’ve had this deep and abiding fear since childhood that if anyone ever got to know “the real me” they would hate it and leave, and I suppose that never went away. In a depression, if someone criticizes me, even gently, I hear “I’ve learned something about you that I don’t like so you’d better change it or I’m out.”

This is not, I know, what my friends are saying. I can even understand that to a degree in the throes of depression, but it’s impossible to check that first panicked reaction. The instinct to PRESERVE MY IMAGE overrides any better, rational response. I know that I should care less about what people think, that I should be true to myself, and that part of the Buddhist practice means being as clear and honest as possible. I’m working to dismantle the thought patterns that were built to survive my childhood, and making progress. But when I’m unable to cope, they’re still there, deep down. There’s more work to do.

Through it all, I’ve also thought a lot about writing and what kind of stories I want to put out there. Thinking a lot about Terry Pratchett and his Discworld novels, and what makes them so good. How I can incorporate the things I love most about them (his characterization! His world-building! His crackling dialogue!) into my own writing. And also, realizing that it’s kind of essential for me to get ahead of my Patreon serial so I can actually put in some editing work as well.

All of this prepares me for a February of deeper engagement and self-reflection. I think next month I might go a little slower, but work harder to make the things I do that little bit better. I will also need to think about the things I really need to have in order to do the things that matter to me. Mostly, this will involve identifying my favorite means of self-sabotage and working against them whenever possible.

I hope all of you had a great month that taught you a lot about yourselves and the world! What was the best thing you learned since 2019? Let me know!

 
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Posted by on January 30, 2019 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection, Writing

 

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Depressional Confessional

Myth 150I like to think I’m a pro at being depressed. Some of my earliest memories as a kid, looking back, suggest to me that I’ve had severe depressive episodes all the way back to elementary school. One particular experience I had in middle school, now that I think about it, had to have been an emotional breakdown. As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned to recognize the shifting weather in my brain much the same way a village elder can sense a storm coming in their bones. It’s not any one thing — it’s a bunch of small things that point to a vague, indescribable feeling that my brain is fixing to turn sour.

There was an inkling last Tuesday that my mind was curdling. It’s hard to describe, but I’ll try anyway. My depressions typically start with an increased paranoia and some obsessing — it’s like my brain is catching on a thought that it keeps circling back to. The thought itself can be anything from “I’m fat and broken” to “All of your friends think you’re lame.” but the effect is the same. It’s a whisper underneath the usual chatter that I can’t help but listen to. It starts to color my interactions with other people. I start to get really…nervous.

My experience with long-term depression is that this voice never really goes away, but you learn to accept it and move on with your day. There are some times, though, where the coping mechanisms you’ve built begin to fail and your ability to accept this voice becomes more difficult, requires more concentration. Over the course of hours and days, the constant refrain saps your energy and other things begin to slip. You’re a bit less patient with the people you meet. You don’t have enough willpower to make good choices. You begin to beat yourself up about the things you do to perpetuate the spiral. Your perspective gets skewed; the voice is joined by other voices, happy to remind you about every failing you have or every big mistake you’ve made. Eventually, you just collapse. You can’t fight your own brain any more, and you’re back in the pit.

The worst part about the whole process is that I’ve been through it often enough to recognize it, to know that this is the manifestation of a chemical imbalance in my brain. The knowledge doesn’t stop it from happening, and that’s its own kind of frustration. You see people with better coping mechanisms, or no inkling of the problem, and it makes me wish that I didn’t have this broken brain that required me to put so much energy into just managing to be a functioning adult. You try to eat right, you try to get enough sleep, you exercise, you take your pills — and sometimes, that’s still not enough. There are still days, weeks, months that disappear into a black void.

When I’m in the worst of it, it feels like there’s no possible way for other people to understand what this feels like. A lot of folks see depression as having no energy, or being unable to feel happy, or being a lump on the couch. What isn’t seen is all the mental work that goes into trying to get off the couch, or scrounging for enough energy to get things done, or maybe to keep from crying at work for no reason. The shut down isn’t necessarily from a lack of spoons; the spoons are being eaten up to put on clothes, have a conversation with someone else, to smile. The energy we have is being depleted by an internal process that most never see or experience. Depression isn’t laziness or lethargy: it’s exhaustion.

Thankfully, mindfulness training and therapy has taught me to recognize these stretches for what they are, and experience has given me a toolset to use so I can mitigate the “damage”. It’s easier for me to push through when I get depressed, so I can go to work and take care of chores and even try to keep up meditation and exercise. The pit isn’t as deep as it used to be, and I can find my way out of it a bit more quickly. I’m grateful for that, even when I wish I didn’t have to fall into it at all.

But that’s not something within my control. Depression is a disease. For some of us, it only happens once or twice after a big change. For some, the cycle can give us years where we never have to think about it. For me, it’s a constant factor in my everyday life. Every thought — especially any negative one — has to be tested. Is this depression? Is this legitimate? Do I feel as bad as I do because I should, or because of this illness?

It’s a hard thing to accept, but I’m working on it. Even though I feel as if I’m clambering up out of the pit now, I know that it’s possible for me to slide back into it again. When I get out, I know that there’s another pit up ahead waiting for me. Despite my best efforts, I will fall again and again and again. But I have trained myself to see them, to navigate around them, to climb out as best I can when I fall in. And I have a support network of friends and professionals that I can trust to have my back. That’s something a lot of us don’t have, and words can’t describe how grateful and lucky I feel when I think about it.

If you’re dealing with depression, please know that you are not alone. Please know that you won’t feel this way forever. Please know that with patient persistence, you can build coping mechanisms that will make the depressions shallower and less frequent. Maybe they can’t go away completely, but at least you can weather them. Your strength and resilience is better than you know. It helps me when I’ve fallen in and can’t see a way out. After all this time, I have faith that there is.

 
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Posted by on January 16, 2019 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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I Resolve to Suck This Year

Writing 150Being a writer with an anxiety disorder is a hell of a thing. Writing is already a really difficult endeavor; those of us who can’t imagine doing anything else with our lives likely have a pantheon of influences and beloved authors that have shown us just how powerful the written word can be. But our own works frequently fall short of that brilliance. It can be almost impossible to get the words out the way they appear in our heads. Add to that the process of editing your own work for flaws, accepting critiques at every stage of the process, and submitting your work for judgement by editors and audiences, and…it’s a minor miracle most writers ever leave the bed in the mornings.

But when your brain is wired for MAXIMUM SENSITIVITY TO DANGER, coping with the worries that come with being a writer can feel literally impossible. I’ve struggled with this all my life, and it’s the biggest reason I’m so bad at finishing stories and pushing them out there. If I’m completely honest with myself, I have to realize just how much it matters what other people think of the words I write. There’s the garden-variety vanity, sure, but there’s also a sense of responsibility to deliver on the promise of my intentions. If I want my writing to be a comfort to others who feel alone and invisible, then I have to work extra hard to make sure they feel seen and understood. That can’t happen with my current level of craft, and I know it. So I noodle around with ideas, realize that I don’t have the chops to execute them, panic about my own suckiness, and shut down.

Of course, I already know the answer to this dilemma. In order to be a good writer, you have to be a bad one first. You have to let yourself be derivative and hackneyed; you have to populate non-sensical worlds with flat characters. By doing your best and still falling short of the mark, you learn perspective on how to shape things a little better the next time; most importantly, you train yourself to let a story go out into the world even though you’ll never feel it’s ready.

Tell that to my anxiety-riddled brain, though. Every story must be perfect in its first draft or it’s worthless. Rough drafts are simply failed stories. Published work is a desperate cry for approval, not anything to be proud of. Putting out work now will destroy any audience I might have who were somehow duped into thinking I could string sentences together. I’ll never be published. I’ll never get better. I don’t have whatever it is that makes a great writer. I’ll never be able to do what I want with my work.

All of this, in my head, crowding out my thoughts whenever I sit down.

While it would be really nice to just not care what other people think and fall into the writing, I’m not sure my brain works that way. Still, if I’m going to be a writer I have to find a way to make peace with the part of myself that screams “DANGER!” whenever I sit down at my desk. I’m hoping that by standing up and making a formal declaration about my intention to be a bad writer, I can deal with that fear.

So here goes: 2019 is the year where I will be a terrible writer. I’m going to write bad stories with disappointingly written characters, and I’m going to publish them here and elsewhere. But you know what? I’ll learn from each failure and, hopefully, by the end of the year, I’ll have a few stories that aren’t so bad.

Writing is a profession where there’s no way around it; you learn by doing. This year I’ll focus on the action and try not to worry so much about the results. There will be a lot this year that I’ll be embarrassed by later, and that’s fine. Even folks like Vonnegut, Bradbury and Due have works they’d rather not talk about floating out there. What makes me think I’m any better than that?

I know I’m not, and there’s a freedom in allowing yourself to think small. 2019 is the year of the small victory; consistent days of writing, constant output, incremental improvement. Eventually, I truly hope, through the work I’ll figure out how to beat my anxiety around it. Wish me luck.

 

A Letter Of Intent

Self Improvement 1502018 was a challenging year for a whole lot of different reasons. The biggest, of course, is the challenge of watching our society continue to fracture and become more acidic under the “guiding hand” of the Trump Administration. The frequent attacks — from all quarters — against people of color, QUILTBAG individuals and allies, religious and cultural minorities has been exhausting. Over the past two years, the persistent stress of making it through America today has made me angry, colder, more withdrawn. It’s been difficult watching myself let fear and anger take over my actions, and I don’t like the person I’ve become. That’s why this year I want to renew my focus here and elsewhere. I want to use stories to spread peace and compassion through this blog by sharing my experiences coping with mental health, writing, and social justice; sharing thoughts and lessons about being a better writer and reader; and deconstructing the stories I read and watch to discuss their impact on me and the wider world.

It is not easy dealing with mental health issues under our current political environment, and I hope being more open about my particular struggles will encourage more of us to discuss them openly and without judgement. My depression, anxiety, and ADHD all combine to express in fairly specific ways through my experience, but one aspect of this expression I share with many others is the feeling of isolation, of being invisible. We see this all the time on social media; those of us in bad spaces crying out to the dark and hoping that someone understands what we need. What makes these times so hard is not having a clear idea of what it is we actually do need; sometimes it takes sitting down and examining our thoughts to figure that out. I hope that being open about my process will help someone else as they untangle theirs.

This is especially true when it comes to my writing. The anxiety that’s been bundled up in my craft has prevented me from being productive for far too long, and I want to devote a huge chunk of my focus this year to learning how to deal with that. I realize I’m still in that space where I’ve thought a lot about stories and I know what well-told ones look and sound like; but I haven’t practiced nearly enough to polish them to the point they shine. Learning to let go of my perfectionism and anxiety is as necessary as it is hard. Learning to become a better writer means working harder but caring less about the result. Figuring out how to do that will be a big topic for me this year.

Of course, my writing has been and will continue to be political — social justice will be at the top of my mind because how could it not be? I’ll be writing a lot about that here, too; putting down my thoughts about the state of the union helps me not only figure out what I think and why, but it provides an underserved perspective that needs more light on it. I’m under no illusions that what I think is correct or even that interesting. But I’m in a unique place not only in the furry and sci-fi/fantasy communities, but also the Afro-Futurist and African diaspora. I know I have angles on things that most of us might not see. I hope that by talking about things as I see them, I can encourage others to pay more attention to different perspectives.

I’m hoping that my perspective will be challenged, and that I can use those challenges to temper my beliefs or discard them if they don’t hold up to scrutiny. I’m also hoping that these discussions will help me figure out my own writing process. I’m still figuring out the best way to actually produce stories that I’m proud of, and in order for me to do that I’ll need to write about experiments and insights that have worked (or not worked) well. Since writing is such a subjective and personal practice, what works for me might not work for others; what hasn’t worked for other people might be just the thing I need. I want The Writing Desk to be a place where we can compare notes and encouragement, to share ideas that might leads us all a little further down the path.

The most important way to improve writing, besides talking about it at length, is reading a LOT. One of my major goals for 2019 is to read at least 25 books; I’ve spent far too long away from being an avid reader, and I think that’s seriously hurt my ability to write but also be engaged in the world around me. It’s way too easy to become insular and inert as we age, and reading the perspectives and stories of other people is an excellent way to remind ourselves to be a bit more mentally spry. I sincerely believe that art is dialogue, a continuing conversations artists have with society, other works, and their own audience. Being a part of that dialogue is necessary in order to be a well-rounded artist.

So I’ll be doing my best to write specific reviews more often here — not just of books and short stories, but of movies, seasons of TV shows, comic books and the like. Making these reviews a more regular practice helps to train me towards thinking critically about stories as well as thinking more clearly about what sorts of impact I want a story to have. If I know what I find most important in the stories I fall into, then I have a stronger guiding principle towards my own writing. Reviewing reveals as much about the reviewer as it does the work, as often as not, and I’m curious about what my reviews would reveal about me.

Eventually, I want to start talking about popular culture in general — the kinds of stories we tell ourselves, and what can be gleaned about our society by looking deeply into that. If art is a conversation, then it pays to look at what our conversations tend to be about. What does it mean if, say, fantasies have fallen out of fashion, or if werewolves are the hot new monster? How does our celebration of the latest “It Person” reflect on us? How does the tone and content of our condemnation reveal our collective values? To be honest, overthinking pop culture is one of my favorite things, and I’m hoping that by putting a personal focus on how I relate to it I can begin developing the vocabulary to really dive into that.

This year, I want The Writing Desk to be a place where people go to find perspectives they haven’t encountered before. I want this to be a community of good friends having interesting conversations about what we love and what it means to love the things we do. I want to frame genre fiction and pop culture through a Buddhist lens to show how universal it is to center compassion and mindfulness. I want this to be a mechanism through which I know myself, and come to be known by others. If you’re along for the ride, welcome. I’m really looking forward to our conversations, all year long.

 

(Personal) Tharn

Myth 150It’s been a rough summer for me, anxiety-wise. The news is full of terrible stories from the current president’s administration in the United States, and it’s coming so fast the scandals just bleed together. Saying the President or his Cabinet has done something awful that threatens the fabric of democracy is like saying water is wet at this point — it’s hard to keep up the outrage and drive to do something when you feel like anyone in power won’t do anything to resolve the mess we’re in. Honestly, the best I can do is hang on for the 2018 midterm elections in the hope that the Blue Wave manifests and Democrats take the House and/or Senate. For now, it’s hard to know how we stop anything — even the atrocious Supreme Court nominees.

If political news isn’t bad enough, environmental news fills me with an existential dread. This summer has already been extraordinarily hot, with a number of records broken all over the world. Hurricane season has started, and there are so many people in island nations who have yet to recover from the last round of devastation. We’re seeing the first obvious effects of climate change right now, and these effects will only become more pronounced over the years. Here in the US, our government’s response is to remove all references to the phenomenon from all departmental documents.

Despite the fact that police officers are still killing unarmed people of color, we’re still at the part of the conversation where we need to convince people it’s a problem. People of color are being harassed in the street, reported to the police for anything from doing their jobs to using the community pool, beaten and killed through racist criminal actions; but we can’t seem to convince people that the racist rhetoric of the President and others associated with him are responsible for the rise in white supremacist terrorist activity. Newspapers would rather legitimize ignorant, irresponsible, bigoted thinking in editorials and human interest articles than hold the administration accountable for what it has enabled. Trump voters, the people responsible for this state of affairs, are still having their feelings centered while the poor and disadvantaged suffer horribly.

Most days, it’s more than I can take. I can’t look at the news because there’s nothing I can do about the knot it generates in my stomach. I can’t look at Twitter because my timeline is full of anger about the terrible things that people in the various communities I belong to are saying, or what the social media platforms are letting others get away with. It’s difficult to talk about something I love or promote what I’m writing when I see retweets for someone’s GoFundMe to pay for medical expenses, or the latest in jaw-dropping evil from the people in power. The idea of engaging in a world that feels so cruel, so aggressively and stubbornly ignorant, so inhumane — it fills me with dread.

I don’t want to be the person who looks away from the pain in the world and chases what fleeting, shallow pleasure he can manage while everything burns down around him. But it feels like this is what I have to do in order to stay sane these days. What good does it do to spread awareness about problems I could never hope to fix? What’s the point of arguing with someone who isn’t interested in understanding your experience, only shutting you up so they don’t have to feel bad about what they do? Why contribute to all the noise when no one’s listening anyway? Why try to save the planet when those with the actual means to do so would rather figure out how to build bunkers to survive the apocalypse?

It’s been so hard to see a way out of this predicament. Even if our current President is impeached and removed from office, the Vice-President is still a religious zealot who would do many of the same things but with far more socially-acceptable language. We still have an entire political party that enabled this disaster for the sole purpose of hanging on to power. We still have at least a quarter to a third of Americans who support what’s happening, who will refuse any attempts we make to fix this. We’re still just one bad election from having all of this happen all over again.

I don’t know what to do with that. I truly wish I had more faith in us as a species. I wish that I could be more hopeful about our ingenuity, our ability to come together, our resilience. I wish I could see us becoming a society that prizes intelligence and expertise again, that honors the sacrifice of personal comforts so that we can actually take care of the people in our community. But I just can’t from where I’m sitting. There’s always going to be a sizable chunk of people out there who only care about devoting themselves to their worst impulses, and those people will likely have the money and power needed to keep the rest of us from doing anything about that.

I’m tired, and I know that there’s a very long way to go before anything will be OK. I don’t know how to change the minds that need to be changed at this point — certainly not in time to prevent the death of our civilization at our own hand. It feels inevitable, and the only thing to do is decide what kind of people we will be when it happens.

I know how this sounds, and I want to be clear that I’m not giving up. I still write, I still try to be the change I want to see, I still help where and when I can. But the fatalism is something I’ve had to push through in order to motivate myself, and that kind of sustained effort takes a lot out of you after a while.

What’s strange is that this doesn’t feel like depression, though I’m fairly sure it is. It just doesn’t feel irrational to think this way; things are terrible, and those in power are pretending they aren’t, and there’s not a lot we can do to change that. Still, there’s nothing for it but to keep trying to make the world around us better. We can’t do nothing, even when it feels like anything we could do won’t matter.

That’s where my head’s at right now, and I know it’s not the best place. Still, I thought I’d write about it here just to put it out there.

 
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Posted by on July 16, 2018 in mental-health, Politics, Self-Reflection

 

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(Self-Improvement) In Praise of Mistakes

Self Improvement 150Mistakes are a fundamental part of the human condition — almost as much as our fear of making them. Because of the way we’re designed and the reality we live in, we’re imperfect creatures limited by our experience, perspective and the momentum of habit. It’s natural that these things would push us to do something we regret from time to time, and there’s nothing wrong with that. As long as we learn from our mistakes and apply those lessons to what we do moving forward, they act as a valuable tool for self-improvement. So why are we so often paralyzed by the mere possibility of screwing up, and why do we find it so hard to own up or forgive others for what they’ve done? I think it’s because we’re socially conditioned to think of mistakes as an aberration that we somehow have the power to avoid, and until we recognize that and reckon with it our relationship with our mistakes will be unbalanced.

It’s simply impossible to avoid making any mistakes at any point in our lives, but we all live with the unspoken narrative that we must aim for perfection and nothing less than success will do. As we move through school, we’re conditioned to learn that mistakes lead to lower grades and failed classes, parental disapproval, disappointment from your teachers, the limiting of future opportunities. We’re constantly under the threat of dire consequences resulting from our mistakes, to the point that it’s more important to study for the test than it is to actually absorb information. Even when we leave the gauntlet of testing, that template for life informs everything we do. Through a crucial 12-year period of our lives, a deeply seeded fear of being wrong is cultivated within us.

We walk through our lives terrified of being wrong or worse, being seen as ignorant. One of the fascinating things I’ve learned as a tech professional is how much energy is spent at work covering our own mistakes and deficiencies; instead of admitting when we’ve messed up or that we don’t know something (even when maybe we should), we forge ahead without stopping to take the opportunity to better ourselves. Maybe this inclination isn’t entirely down to our history. Maybe our managers or colleagues foster an environment where asking questions or addressing mistakes are an annoyance at best and career-ending at worst. Because no one makes room for our imperfection, we never think to give that space to ourselves.

So our mistakes and ignorance become a source of shame, something we have to hide. And when there’s a risk of exposure, we panic — the subconscious memory of bad grades, parent-teacher conferences, ostracization and ridicule seizes our lizard brain and short-circuits our ability to cope. There’s this implication of a “set mindset”, that we as adults should be fully-formed and know about anything we come across. If we don’t, then we’re failures; everyone can see the “F” branded on our foreheads. Because the state of our knowledge is frozen, we freeze when we learn our knowledge is incomplete.

We internalize the idea that no one will forgive us for the mistakes we make, or the things we do not know. We learn that we can’t forgive ourselves for them. And if we can’t forgive ourselves, we sure as hell can’t forgive other people. If we’re expected to know everything and get it right the first time, how can we expect anything less from other people?

So when the mistakes and imperfections of others are exposed, we try to make it as visible as possible so the offense can never be hidden or denied. We demand that they look at what their ignorance has led them to and apologize for it. We demand the most severe consequences — expulsion from our communities, the end of their careers, exile into the social and professional desert. We demand the performance of remorse, the acceptance of their punishment, the enforcement of their disappearance. But what if one of our mistakes was exposed in all of its ugliness? How hard would it be to reckon with it, all laid bare for everyone to see? How impossible would it be to deal with the personal shame and self-doubt while the harshest criticisms rain down from the people in your community? Could you have the presence of mind to construct the perfect apology, accept the hyperbolic disparagement of your character, submit to the exile demanded of you? Could you resist the urge to push back or deflect blame, even a little?

I’m not saying that we should simply brush off mistakes or ignorance — when spotted, they should be exposed. We have to look our flaws honestly, but we have to know that we’re trying to do so in order to learn the lessons we need from them. If we’re too paralyzed by fear of exposure and deep shame, there’s just not enough room for us to grow.

I should also be clear that not every transgression is a “mistake” or the result of ignorance. Some actions are the result of willful malice, and some people use ignorance as cover for the consequences of that. It’s a bad-faith tactic that must also be exposed for what it is. Acceptance of mistakes and tolerance of ignorance can be tempered with with the expectation that all of us be accountable for our actions and their consequences.

But we don’t have to make those consequences so drastic that honest mistakes upend the lives of the people who make them. We can allow for our imperfection while still working to make sure we learn how to be mindful of it. Accepting our own ignorance and capacity to really fuck up every once in a while softens the tension we have with our own flaws. We can learn to embrace the messiness of our condition gently, with compassion. We can extend that compassion from ourselves to others. We can forgive ourselves and other people, and in the space that creates we can develop into braver, kinder people.

I think it has to start with us, so I’d like to recommend an exercise that consists of three basic steps. One, think about the last mistake you made or the last time you tried to cover up your own ignorance. Two, accept the mistake or ignorance by stating aloud (or as publicly as you’re comfortable with) what it was honestly. Three, forgive yourself by saying “I forgive myself for my mistake (or ignorance). I accept my imperfection with compassion.” and then state what you’ve learned from it.

I’ll start. I often make commitments — explicit or implicit — to help people or collaborate but then end up being very inconsistent or late with my end of things. I can think of so many people who’ve been disappointed by this, and whose work has been affected by my shortcoming. I sincerely apologize for not delivering the things I’ve promised in a timely or consistent manner.

I also forgive myself for this mistake. I accept my imperfection with compassion. I’ve learned to be more careful about my commitments, and to work harder to do the things I say I do when they’re expected of me. I’ll do my best to be better in the future.

We all make mistakes, and we’re all wrong at some point. Demanding perfection from ourselves and others, or demanding severe punishments for mistakes or ignorance, only deepens the training we’ve received to think of our natural imperfections as something unacceptable. It’s an unhealthy mindset that leads to unhealthy actions and a bad relationship with our own selves. In order to be kinder, more fearless, and happier, we have to examine our ingrained response to mistakes and give ourselves (and others) the room to grow and change.

And there’s no time like the present to start doing this. What mistake or bit of ignorance would you like to forgive within yourself?

 
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Posted by on July 11, 2018 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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