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Category Archives: mental-health

(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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(Politics) Your Light is All You Have

Politics 150The world is on fire and nothing is okay. At a time when climate change is chugging along exactly as scientists said it would, when we’re running out of fresh water and the crude, polluting oil we’ve built our entire society around, the world is caught up in a wave of xenophobia, authoritarianism and weaponized resentment. Instead of looking at our planet and wondering how we can live on it more sustainably, or looking at each other and rolling up our sleeves to figure out how we can take better care of each other, we’re rolling back protections for the last bits of unspoiled land and taking increasingly drastic measures to make sure no one else can ever take what we have. The Internet — a platform that could lead us to come together as one people and stand up for each other — is a hornet’s nest of outrage-memes, rhetorical back-alley brawls, tribal cheering and jeering. It is getting increasingly hard to look anywhere without cringing at the sight of what it’s become.

The current frame of the unending debate between Right and Left in the United States is “civility”. A few representatives of the Trump administration have been challenged in public, or refused service in restaurants, and now conservative pundits (aided by the media) are wondering what happened to our civil discourse. These are the same people who assassinate the characters of unarmed black people who’ve been killed by the police; who have targeted Democratic leadership with misogynist and racist rhetoric for a generation; who have tacitly or directly approved the coarsening of our political discourse by courting racists, “men’s rights” activists, Tea Partiers, Christian supremacists, and all manner of people who have refused to offer almost anyone the basics of respect and decency. When they went low, we went high — and lost 33 Governor’s mansions, 31 state legislatures, the House of Representatives, the US Senate, the Supreme Court, the White House.

Republicans have taken control of the American government on just about every conceivable level by being shameless and unrepentant about taking power and fixing the system — through gerrymandering, voting restrictions, blatant lying, and the consistent corrosion of the people’s faith in our institutions. Their grip on American politics is anything but civil, and it rightly makes those of us on the Left angry when, after a decade of increasingly-blatant racist backlash against our first Black American President, they’re suddenly worried about the tone of protest in the air.

As angry as I am, as disgusted as I am at their blatant hypocrisy and social manipulation, I have to admit that I’m worried too. As I watch the feeds of my friends, fellow activists, and fellow minorities, I see the tone subtly but steadily changing. Words like “fear” and “hate” are becoming more prominent. Where before we were angry at the abuses of the administration and the feeble justifications for them by complicit parties, now it feels we’re just angry. At everything. And in a time where the news is nothing but the well-catalogued descent of democracy peppered with perspectives of the people who voted for this to happen and finger-wagging about how we need to understand them better, I understand that. The idea that we were building a just and equal society — or that we’re even capable of it — feels faint and fragile and hopelessly naive now. The belief that we could overcome our problems if we just worked harder and smarter feels ignorant and dumb. For so many of us, these past two years has been the dissolving of a dream we were glad to be a part of; getting woke is a nightmare.

What’s left but anger when you realize how firmly entrenched, how deeply rooted and mutable, the connection to white privilege is in American life? How can you not be angry when you watch people you know quibble about whether or not to compare Trumpists to Nazis when refugee families are being torn apart and children put in cages? How can you still believe in America when the institutions we’ve built over hundreds of years have been powerless to stop the unchecked stripping of rights and protections for our most vulnerable citizens? Wouldn’t you be furious too if you realized your country had been lying to you for your entire life about what it stood for?

I can’t read the news, not because the suffering of other people makes me uncomfortable, but because I can barely tolerate the heat of the anger I feel. I felt myself flaming out through most of last year, and I’ve tried hard to pull back from letting that rage consume me completely. And I see so many of us losing that battle, letting the light of our kindness and empathy grow red and smoking with the fury of watching an unjust world kill people because they were different, or powerless. We’re afraid of what America is turning into, and angry about what it’s been for far too long, and the space we have for anything besides that fear and fury is dwindling. I get it. I feel it too. But if I let it happen, if I give myself over to it, then the fear and the fury consumes everything I am. There will be nothing left. And that’s just as good to the parties that want me (and people like me) gone as them eliminating me themselves.

The light that gives me the ability to be angry about these things is the same light that can be extinguished by that anger. Anger chokes our ability to be kind, open, and self-aware; fear freezes our perspective. In order to build the kind of society we want, we must be able to imagine it — and that requires seeing past our fear and fury and frustration. We have to imagine the kind of people we would need to be in order for that society to work. We have to work on ourselves in order to become those people. I think that means being aware of our anger and fear, accepting these emotions as just another part of ourselves, of working with them in healthy and helpful ways.

People might think that’s a whole different kind of work from social justice, but it’s not. It means fixing ourselves as much as fixing the world around us, because anything that’s not right within us will not be right with the world. If we want to live in a world where we’ve dealt with our worst impulses, we’re going to have to deal with our worst impulses. The things we do based on anger and fear are often just those things. If we find those emotions guiding our actions with fewer checks from other influences, we have to stop and consider if that’s what we want.

I am not saying that it’s wrong to be angry, or that we shouldn’t be afraid. Those are both completely normal reactions to what’s happening right now. But we do have to think about where anger and fear leads us, what kind of people we are when we’re nothing but anger and fear. We have to think about how we get from here to some place better, and how we’re going to light the way. If we’ve been immolated by our rage, all that’s left is smoke and ash. We still need our values to guide us. We really do.

I’ve been trying very hard to think about what I’m fighting for — not just the things I’m confronted with and fighting against. What do I want? What do I believe? Why do I believe my values are the right ones? And does the form of my protest align with the answers I come up with?

I want to be civil not because I give a shit what those hypocrites think, but because civility is something I value. I want to believe that my principles can be tested against the crucible of reality, and that they’re strong enough to endure. I want to be the kind of person that still believes we can overcome these problems if we work harder and smarter, if we’re clear about the sacrifices that need to be made and the compromises we cannot allow. I know that the United States isn’t the land of the free or the home of the brave — that’s a lie we’ve been sold to allow the cowardly and the greedy to do what they want. But I also know that it can be, and that if it’s going to be each and every one of us must be free from our anger and fear.

Reminding ourselves and our brothers and sisters to be positive, to hold fast to the values we hold dear, is a necessary component of our protest. So please, think about what the world could be like, and think about what you can do to get us a little bit closer to that, and do it. Lift up your allies as much as you tear down the institutions that have failed us all this time. Tend to your light. Keep the light of your fellows safe. Let in a little sunshine so that we don’t choke on the smoke of our collective anger. Find something — anything — to smile about. Remind yourself why this world is worth saving, why YOU’RE worth saving.

Our voices can be loud and firm without rancor. We don’t have to put up with injustice, but we do have to live with ourselves in a more just world. Saving the world, and the United States, is not just about reshaping society. It’s about preserving ourselves and our sanity so we can keep doing the work that needs to be done.

Let’s hold the things we love in our hearts while we’re out on the streets protesting the effects of Trump in ways both large and small. As long as we do, we save a little space for the goodness we’re working so hard to preserve.

 

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(Mental Health) How to Help Others

Myth 150When I look back on the person I was in college — during the worst period of my depression — I am honestly amazed that I still have so many friends who knew me back then. I spent most of my time in the computer lab talking to folks online, and barely had enough energy to eat, sleep or bathe. Everything I talked about centered around how awful life was, how insurmountable my problems were, how much of a failure I had been. When folks were kind enough to apologize when they offended my hypersensitive emotions, they were treated to small passive-aggressive jabs instead of gratitude. It was awful. I was awful. And it makes me so grateful that there were people who stuck with me through all of it.

I try to take that knowledge with me whenever I’m dealing with someone in the throes of depression or anxiety, because I know how much it helped to have people who never gave up on me even when I wasn’t capable of showing my appreciation at the time. They made one of the worst times of my life a little more bearable, and I know now that it was at considerable expense on their part. The energy and patience required to deal with me when I was in my worst depressions are more than I could ever expect from anyone, even close friends. But those people who spent it on me are people I would do anything for now.

There is no shortage of people in geek spaces suffering from depression, anxiety, or another mental illness; supporting us can be very difficult, especially if you can only do so online. It can feel so inadequate to put encouraging words on a screen when someone tells you that they just want to die, and it’s really hard to be sure you understand what they’re going through when they bring up a problem. And, quite honestly, it’s a rough deal to spend so much time and energy consoling someone when you’re online to gain some measure of relief from the world yourself — especially if it feels like all of that time and energy is being sucked into an emotional void with no measurable improvement. Still, most of us are good people who don’t want to see our friends and fellow fans suffer, so we do what we can to ease the misery where we can.

With that in mind, what can we do to make sure we’re helping friends who are having a hard time coping with mental illness? There are a few things I can recommend from my personal experience on either side of that conversation, combined with suggestions from professionals and mental health advocates. I can’t guarantee that your friend will be cured if you follow this advice, of course, or that it will even result in a marked improvement. I do think that they will help you understand what your friend might be going through and offer the best assistance you can.

Listen actively. It takes work to be a good listener. Most of us only practice what I call “surface listening”, where we pick up the generalities of what’s being said while planning the next thing we’re going to say. Deep listening, the kind where you not only hear what’s being said but work to understand the intent behind what’s being said, is both more rare and more difficult. However, for those of us stuck in a bad headspace, it can mean a lot for someone to understand what we don’t have the vocabulary or insight to say.

When I’m in a bad depression, it’s hard to open up about what I really feel. Sometimes I don’t even know what that is, so I end up talking around the problem or trying to get to the precise feeling from different angles. It can be frustrating to have this strong emotion roiling inside of you without the means to express it, only to have a conversation that leads you further away from it with someone else.

I know this sounds like depressed people might expect you to be a mind-reader, which isn’t fair. But you don’t have to be — sometimes, all it takes is really listening to what someone is saying to understand what they mean. Active listening is difficult, and like any skill it takes practice to get good at it, but it reaps dividends not just for helping a depressed friend but for pretty much any other conversation you could have.

Offer support, not solutions. This is a bad habit of mine that I’m constantly trying to curb, but when someone comes to me with a problem my brain immediately kicks over into “solution mode” where I try to attack the problem with the person who brought it to my attention. This often just causes that person to be frustrated and frequently dismiss my suggestions for one reason or another. This frustrates me because I’m too deep into “solution mode” to get what’s happening there. If this person didn’t want my help solving their problem, why did they even come to me in the first place?

The kicker here is that I’ve been on the other side of this conversation, and I know how frustrating it is to bring a problem to someone only to have them immediately go into a list of solution suggestions. It’s so strange to me that it’s so easy to be disappointed in someone for doing the same thing I do all the time when the roles are reversed; if nothing else, it’s proof that we’re just not the rational creatures we think we are.

This might not be true all the time, but for a significant portion of the cases I bring a problem to someone I’m just looking for a safe space to vent — especially in the grips of a depression. It’s comforting to have someone else offer support and understanding, to acknowledge a problem you’re having as difficult to deal with. Sometimes, it helps to know that someone cares about you and that they’re on your side.

Know your boundaries. Having a friend with a mental illness lean on you heavily for emotional support can be exhausting. It’s all right to acknowledge that. Sometimes, we just don’t have it within us to be the outlet for someone going through a tough time — while that can be a difficult realization if you feel partially responsible for someone’s well-being, it’s also important to recognize when you’re getting burned out and unable to cope with the workload.

Having a firm handle on what you can and can’t handle is important for your own emotional well-being, and when you’re getting close to your limit you have to step back to preserve your own peace of mind. It’s noble to want to be right there in the thick of things with your friend, but compromising your own emotional health for the sake of someone else doesn’t solve their problem; it only creates more to be dealt with. If you need to take some time to recharge, tell your friend as kindly and compassionately as possible, and let them know that you’ll be available some time later.

If possible, it might help to find a support group online or in person to join. This can help you learn how to cope with caring for someone better, and that you’re not alone. There might be other resources you can share with your friend or a common support network, as well.

Encourage treatment. Most of us with friends who are dealing with a mental illness aren’t equipped to handle helping them on our own. Part of knowing our own boundaries is knowing when we’re in over our heads and professional help is needed; we wouldn’t offer a diagnosis or treatment for someone with a mysterious pain in their chest, so we shouldn’t do that for mental illness either.

Recommending a visit to the psychiatrist can be a tricky subject. Even if someone has health insurance, there’s no guarantee that mental health services are easily available. Besides the resistance to seeking treatment to begin with, there might be legitimate social, logistical or financial barriers to getting the care they need. Those of us in a bad spiral might see going to a therapist as a defeat, or be reluctant about sharing intimate and painful details of our lives with a stranger. Sometimes, though, it’s the best option we have for getting help.

If you feel your friend needs to see a mental health specialist, see if there’s a low-cost or no-cost resource available and what (if anything) would need to be done in order to take advantage of it. If they’re in a position where they can see a specialist with relative ease, talk with them about their reluctance to do so and see if that can be worked through. While treatment for a mental illness can be a long process that requires patience and trust, it’s worth sticking with. Helping a friend seek the help they need might be the best thing we can do to support them.

Discourage abuse. One big hazard of being emotional support for someone is the very real possibility of being subjected to abusive or manipulative behavior. I’ve known a number of people who feel that their mental illness is a valid excuse for treating the people around them poorly, and far too often the people in their support network enable that behavior by letting it slide. It breaks my heart to see this. No one deserves to be verbally or emotionally abused, and mental illness is no excuse for being an asshole. Letting this go unaddressed hurts everyone involved.

If a friend is engaging in inappropriate or manipulative behavior, it’s our duty as their support to let them know they’re crossing a line — especially if it’s with us. It can be very difficult to do so in a compassionate way, and it may take some delicate handling to do so, but it’s worth it every time. It helps to make sure the behavior is addressed as separate from the individual (“you did a bad thing,” not “you’re being a bad person” for example) so the person doesn’t internalize the action to the point that it’s a part of their identity. And it might help to remember that the behavior needs to be addressed in order to truly help your friend; keeping the goal of the conversation in mind might work to keep it from derailing.

Most importantly, it makes sure that you maintain your equanimity as that friend’s support. Some of us have a tendency to make other people see the world in the same skewed ways we do when we’re depressed. Sometimes we’re driven to these actions by the irrational fear that controlling someone else’s behavior or lowering their self-esteem is the only way we can keep them associating with us. Making sure it’s known that behavior won’t be tolerated AND that the relationship is one built on positive shared values (and not fear or control) provides a clear counter-narrative to that internal monologue, and might help that friend come around a bit sooner than they would otherwise.

Even then, if the abusive behavior continues or a line is crossed that makes the relationship untenable, it’s important to establish your boundary and make it clear there are consequences for those actions. If that means ending the relationship, as difficult as that is, then the relationship must end. Supporting someone else should not come at the cost of your own emotional health. Only give what you’re willing to part with, and make sure your loving relationship with yourself remains intact.

I hope these suggestions help, and offer some small insight into the difficulties of emotional support. I’d also like to take this time to thank all the people who’ve helped me through the worst times of my life, from the bottom of my heart. I wouldn’t be where I am without your continued faith and support, even when I really didn’t deserve it. Thank you Ryan, Kyle, Odis, Brian, Matt, Mat, Cy, Sherri, Crystal, Virginia, Joe, Kaycee, and so, so many others. I think about all of you all the time, and I appreciate all you’ve done.

 
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Posted by on May 23, 2018 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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(Mental Health) How to Help Yourself

Myth 150If I could have readers leave the Desk at the end of the month with only one new piece of information, it’s that mental illnesses are actual, physical ailments in the brain. While the way we think and perceive has something to do with how the illnesses are expressed, the fact remains that most conditions come down to processes in the brain working in ways that cause significant suffering. For folks like me, these ailments are going to stick around for a while; that means one of the best things we can do for ourselves is develop coping mechanisms and routines that help us have as few bad days as possible. Now that I’ve talked at length about the conditions I have, I’d like to talk about a few of the things I’ve learned to do that help me most.

Before that, though, I do want to make a few disclaimers. First of all I’m not a licensed professional and none of the advice you find here should be taken as gospel; feel free to discard any or all of this if your psychiatrist or psychologist tells you different. Second, this shouldn’t be viewed as the equivalent of professional help. If you have (or think you have) a mental illness, the best course of action is seeking professional treatment if at all possible. Finally, taking these steps won’t guarantee that you’ll never have issues with your mental illness. I still have bad days and I still fall into depressive episodes myself. Hopefully, though, these can help shallow out the emotional valleys and make it easier to recover from them.

THE BORING STUFF

Sleep. Sleep has been the most important thing for me to get under control for my mental health. Back in college during my worst periods I had functionally no schedule for sleep; I would instead spend as much time as possible in my dorm’s computer labs seeking out some kind of human connection to make myself feel better. But the lack of consistent sleep made it so hard to regulate my emotions, pay attention in class, or absorb the day-to-day stresses that come with a full courseload.

While the exact function of sleep is not entirely understood, we do know that a number of important “brain maintenance” processes happen during rest. For those of us who have problems with brain function, a consistent sleep schedule is one of the easiest ways we can help our brain manage what it can. Our internal clocks are different, and for those of us working jobs with variable schedules or have some other function that doesn’t let us adopt a stable routine, it might not be possible to set a consistent bedtime for, say 10 PM – 6 AM. Do what you can, but do something; seven or eight hours of sleep a night are a must before just about anything else.

Diet. Again, I know that this is some loaded advice. There are so many folks who are simply unable to eat well because they can’t afford or find fresh produce, don’t have the time or will to cook for themselves, or have other legitimate reasons preventing them from making big changes to their diet. I get it; I’m not going to ask you to go vegan or only buy organic. But small changes to your diet that recenter focus on nutrients that help your body function better can be made. A good rule of thumb is the classic quote from food writer Michael Pollan: “Eat real food, not too much, mostly plants.”

At minimum, I’d recommend eating less salt, sugar and processed foods; drinking fewer sodas and juices (even diet and sugar-free versions); eating more lean meats and whole grains; drinking more water and tea. Most carb-heavy processed foods tend to convert into sugars within our bodies (at least, to my understandings) and the simpler or more processed the carb, the faster that process tends to be. In the United States we’re all about our processed carbs, and breaking away from them can feel like swimming upstream. It’s hard, I know. But if you can have fruits, vegetables and lean meats — have as much of them as possible.

Exercise. Exerting ourselves can often trigger the body into releasing dopamine, endocannibanoids and other chemicals that lift our mood, and the best part about exercise is that there’s a near-limitless variety of things we can do to work ourselves out. There’s weight training, sure; but there’s also running, sports like basketball or soccer, yoga or tai chi, cleaning the house, or walking along a favorite trail. In addition to the benefits of regular exercise, getting outdoors also helps our bodies to make Vitamin D (which helps build our bones and protects against cancer) as well as serotonin (one of those neurotransmitters I’ve been talking about).

Personally, I love running, but the spirit might move you to try something different. I understand how hard it can be to make time for regular exercise — I still struggle with it myself. But taking even ten minutes a day to walk around the block during the day can help lift your mood and give yourself more energy.

Getting more sleep, eating better food, and developing a regular exercise routine are all suggestions that any of us who’ve gotten professional help for our mental illnesses have heard time and time and time again — but there’s a reason for that. Taking care of our most basic needs is incredibly important. Not only does it help our body develop the tools it needs to manage the imbalances in our brain, but it also encourages us to change our relationship with ourselves. I’ve found that making sure I eat, sleep and move well helps me to think of myself as someone worth caring for and also helps to make me more sensitive to those needs. I have a better gauge for when I’m hungry, or really need sleep.

LESS BORING STUFF

Meditation. There are a lot of misconceptions about what meditation is, and that might be because everyone who practices it has a slightly different concept of what it is. In popular culture, meditation is the emptying of mind and communion with everything around you in the present moment; it’s an act of peaceful enlightenment that you have to do perfectly the first time you do it or you just can’t.

I’m here to tell you that meditation is messy and disorganized. I’ve meditated (almost) every day for seven years or so now, and most days are still a struggle against “monkey mind”. Meditation is not the mechanism we use to force ourselves into mindfulness and peace; it’s the mechanism we use to watch and accept our own thoughts as they arise.

When I sit on the meditation bench, I replay past arguments I’ve had with people; I think about the many mistakes I’ve made; depressed and obsessive thoughts pop up all the time. That’s completely fine — that’s what I’m on the bench for. However, so many of us believe that the thoughts or feelings we have are inherently bad and meditation is the way we rid ourselves of these thoughts. That’s not the case: these thoughts and feelings are natural, and it’s OK to accept that we have them. Acceptance of these difficult emotions and the thoughts they’re associated with is the first step we need to take in order to make peace with them.

Meditation as a daily practice allows us to gain better insights into the deeper layers within our thought process. We might notice, for example, that the same kinds of situations trigger a specific memory or regret; or we might notice that there’s a common thread in the things that make us angry or sad. If we accept this, we can then explore these insights with a gentle and compassionate curiosity. Perhaps, in time, we can even resolve the things that cause us suffering.

That definitely takes work, persistence, and faith in the process. But it’s been worth it to me. Due to my meditation practice, I have a much better understanding of when I’m in a depression or particularly rough bit of anxiety; that allows me to handle myself better when I’m in those spaces so I’m not as likely to do something that I’d later regret. That alone makes the depressions easier to deal with.

Making a care packet. One of the things that I like to do for myself when I’m feeling fairly well is making a “care package” for a future version of myself struggling through a bad depression or anxiety day. This can include one package of my favorite candy, a story or novel that I love, a playlist that lets me “lean in” to that feeling of sadness and turn it into a cathartic experience, or a Snuggie, or a really sweet letter or gift from a friend. Your mileage may vary with this, of course, but now that I can somewhat anticipate when I’m hitting a downward spiral I can look into the small things I’ve left myself to feel better and use them.

Of course, the things in your care packet don’t have to be physical objects: it could be permission to cancel a social engagement without feeling guilty, or a day to binge-watch a show in your pajamas. The main idea is to accept that there will be moments where despite your best efforts you hit a rough patch, and to do little things in advance that will help your future self ride out those times. In addition to giving yourself presents, it also helps retrain your brain to treat yourself a bit more kindly and to recognize that these “flare-ups” aren’t your fault. Sometimes they happen, and it’s important to be kind to yourself when they do.

Engage and learn. For most of us with mental illnesses, it can feel like we’re the only people who have this messed up thing where our brains lie to us about how the world works every once in a while. The terrible thoughts, the embarrassing emotions, the situations that are surprisingly common for those of us with deep depressive episodes — all of these can make us feel alienated and broken beyond the possibility of repair. The stigma that surrounds these illnesses can make it hard to open up about them, to share experiences even with other people we know going through the same thing.

That’s why learning as much as we can about our conditions and engaging with others who are also coping with them can be so important. The messed up things we do or think at our worst might be a fairly common experience; or we might, through the course of consoling a fellow sufferer, learn how to be gentler with ourselves dealing with a similar problem. There are a large number of online resources for depression, anxiety, and ADHD — even grouped by location, background, or lifestyle. The Internet is a wonderful gift here, in that it’s given us the capability to share our struggles in ways we’ve never been able to before. It might help knowing more about what you’re going through, and that you’re not the only one going through it.

These are some of the things that have helped me build better coping strategies and resilience against my mental illness. I sincerely hope they help a few of you out there, as well.

 

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(Mental Health) My Comorbidity

Myth 150One of the reasons it can be difficult to talk about mental illness is the simple fact that so many diagnoses feel poorly defined, or that just when our understanding of terms starts to stick in the public consciousness experts change the game on us, or that those of us with mental illnesses seem to collect diagnoses like Pokemon. Staying on top of the proper terms for mental illnesses or the latest consensus on what those illnesses even are can be frustrating and exhausting, and I get that. It’s even more difficult for us who are having to deal with it.

I’ve said this again and again, but one more time for the folks in the back: the brain is a tremendously complicated organ and our understanding of it is limited for a number of reasons. It can be really hard to know exactly what’s going on in there in real-time, or to concretely map activity in one area of the brain to a specific function. Even when an area of the brain or a neurotransmitter is isolated and understood, the interaction with other areas of the brain shade those known functions to a degree that it gets…murky knowing how one part of the brain influences another. Our ability to gather information about the brain directly is restricted — and rightfully so — by our ability to poke around within it and get feedback from the volunteer. And with something as subjective as personal experience, how can we assign a concrete, scientific measurement to self-reported data?

These are huge challenges that don’t have an easy solution, but scientists work hard to find every scrap of information they can. Through that work, we’ve come to understand a lot more about how the brain works and that’s resulted in a radical shift within the psychiatric disciplines. Filthy, poorly-run sanitariums are a thing of the past, and we now know mental illness affects large segments of the population who nonetheless manage their symptoms to lead productive lives. We have a range of treatments, from medication to talk therapy, that we can lean on to learn how.

Over the past several entries, I’ve talked about my personal experience with Major Depressive Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Each one of these disorders affects my life in distinct ways, but together they interact with one another in ways that make it much easier to fall into a destructive loop. Comorbidity, in psychology, is the term we use for the presence of multiple disorders in one individual — but it’s also a term that points to the lack of concrete understanding for the underlying causes of many disorders.

Comorbidity frequently occurs because the cause of one disorder can also affect other aspects of the way our brain functions. For example, increased amygdala activity has been noted in individuals with both depression and anxiety disorders; it’s possible that what started out as an anxiety disorder became depression due to an individual’s experience struggling with one issue, or a lack of help, or the effects of anxiety disorder such as isolation, sleeplessness, poor diet and exercise.

Because of the way we classify mental illnesses, and the fact that it can often take a long time before a proper diagnosis is made AND proper treatment begins to take effect, it’s a fairly common thing for comorbidity to occur in those of us with mental health issues. Major Depressive Disorder, for example, is often the first diagnosis and subsequent ones are found through the course of treating it. I learned about my Generalized Anxiety Disorder and ADHD through talk therapy for my depression, when I spoke about my fear about stepping into a new position at my day job, my certainty that I would screw it up somehow.

I’ve thought a lot about the nature of my mental illness, why it’s happened to me. I’ve mentioned that my biological mother was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when I was very young, and I only found out about it as a teenager. For years I was terrified that I would become schizophrenic too, that I would slowly and steadily lose my grip on reality over time. Living through the effects of that myself, and seeing how similar ailments like Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia affect a patient’s loved ones, that kind of progressive and incurable deterioration is still something that keeps me awake at night. The idea of losing myself to a disease that could make me hostile and cruel to the people I love the most is the scariest thing I could imagine for myself.

So I’ve done a lot of digging. I know now that the children of schizophrenics are genetically predisposed to other mental illnesses and yes, do have a higher chance of being schizophrenic themselves. It’s why I’m comfortable saying that my mental illnesses are largely biological; my brain is simply wired differently and that’s something I can’t help. But it’s not the only part of the story. Your environment and experience plays a tremendous role in whether or not these issues develop.

One of the big theories that I find really compelling is the idea of mental resilience — that the mind has variable success with bouncing back from traumatic experiences. If, like me, there’s a predisposition towards depression or anxiety, then these kinds of experiences make it much more likely for that to happen. Someone who is more neurotypical might be able to absorb that kind of trauma better and recover more quickly — again, that’s not guaranteed, but some might be better psychologically equipped to deal with really stressful times.

This is why it’s such a dick move to tell someone to “just get over it” if they’re struggling to recover from a bad experience. For some of us, it might be psychologically impossible to do that without help or a significant amount of time and effort. We might have the ability to absorb some stressors better than others as well, or we might have been marinating in a stew of stress for some time, barely keeping above it before something causes us to sink.

I know that in addition to my genetic predisposition, I’ve had a number of experiences that have knocked me flat. I was bullied almost constantly from elementary school to high school; my relationship with my mother was almost perfunctory; my sister ran away several times; my adoptive parents were divorced and my dad went missing five years later; I learned about my mother’s diagnosis; I was outed before I was ready and disowned by my mom; one of my first real relationships ended incredibly badly; I’ve been sexually molested multiple times; I lost my sister to an overdose. I’ve survived quite a lot, but it hasn’t been without significant consequences that I’m still dealing with to this day.

Despite that, I consider myself incredibly lucky. I’m in a community of wonderful, creative people who support me. I’m in a stable long-term relationship with an amazing man. I have health care that covers mental health services and makes prescriptions for medication affordable. I’m able to build an environment for myself that minimizes stress and allows me the space to find the best coping strategies that work for me.

So many family members, neighbors and friends from back home don’t have this. They’re still stuck in an environment that leaves them up to their necks in stress without the support network, mental health services, or cultural understanding they need to deal with that. Illnesses that could be resolved through therapy and lifestyle adjustments are left to progress, and they’re forced to do the best they can with little to no understanding. There’s no wonder to me that so many of my brothers and sisters turn to reckless behavior, drugs and alcohol, or even antisocial behavior to deal with everything that’s going on.

Mental health is a complicated subject that science is challenged by even under the best of circumstances. When you put the messiness of life on top of that, and the terrible sociopolitical situation we find ourselves in on top of THAT, it becomes clear that this is a big problem that will only get better if we make a concerted effort to address the things that block us from looking after ourselves. Mental illness is almost never just one thing. Sometimes it’s everything, at once, beyond our capacity to cope.

This is part of a month-long series about mental health for Mental Health Awareness Month. I’ve previously talked about my personal experience with depression, anxiety and ADHD; next week, I’d like to talk about ways those of us dealing with mental illness can help ourselves and how our friends and allies can help us in our efforts. If you’d like to know more about mental illness and what could be done to help the nearly 44 million Americans who are coping with them in any given year, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the National Institute on Mental Health, and the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention. And finally, if you appreciate what I’m doing here feel free to buy me a Ko-Fi to keep writing.

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

 

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(Mental Health) My Executive Function

Myth 150Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is a bit of a misnomer; I think the name is a big reason why ADHD is so poorly understood and controversial as a mental illness. Those of us with the disorder aren’t necessarily hyperactive, and it isn’t always characterized by a deficit in attention. We aren’t bouncing off the walls from one thing to another, never able to finish a project because we have so much energy to burn off and no way to actually direct it. I mean, it’s partially true — but never in the way that people unfamiliar with the disease or its critics imagine it to be. ADHD is, like almost all other mental illnesses, a fairly complex disorder that can have a variety of expressions.

Also like so many other mental illnesses, the exact cause and nature of ADHD is poorly understood. However, there’s been a lot of research for it possibly because it’s such a controversial subject, with a number of scientists spearheading research to better classify it. We do know that ADHD expresses itself differently in children than it does in adults, primarily because undiagnosed children develop internalization mechanisms in order to “hide” symptoms, cope with them in increasingly complex social or professional environments, and attempt to deal with the lack of support or understanding for their difficulties.

We do know that ADHD is primarily a dysfunction of the parts of the brain that govern executive function, which leads to problems sustaining attention, being organized, and procrastinating. It affects planning, prioritization, time management, impulse control, decision making and mood regulation. In children, this can look like they’re incredibly hyperactive and impulsive, with a tendency to lash out and ignore instruction. In adults, this often looks like someone who is a ‘space cadet’ — lazy and unfocused with no capability of remembering the things they need to.

In any case, it’s generally accepted that the frontal lobes in the brain handle executive functioning. While there may be differences in the structure or volume of brain matter in this region, there might also be really hyperactive dopamine and norepinephrine reuptake mechanisms there. Since those neurotransmitters are very important for brain function in these regions, this can result in the neurons in that part of the brain working “sluggishly” because there simply aren’t enough chemicals within the synapses needed to promote enough electrical activity. This is why, paradoxically, stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin work so well. They increase the level of dopamine and adrenaline (epinephrine) in the brain. It’s also why folks with ADHD tend to seek out constant stimulation; it’s the brain trying hard to get its fix.

People with ADHD tend to have other mental illnesses, either as the direct result of the physical/chemical issues within the brain or due to the struggle to understand and cope with the illness. Depression and other mood disorders, anxiety disorder, low self-esteem and other issues all tend to pop up; I know for the longest time, before my diagnosis, I thought I was simply broken. I couldn’t make my brain do the things I know it needed to, and my focus would just slide off a task that I knew would require sustained, intense effort. This has been the case ever since I entered high school, to be honest — it was then that I realized I couldn’t simply coast through lessons, but I had never learned how to actually work for the consistently high grades I had gotten before. It was a pretty hard crash, and I never managed to recover from it.

For me, ADHD expresses itself in the form of intense procrastination on projects that I know will be difficult and require sustained focus, detailed effort and a lot of moving pieces. The kinds of stories I like to write are the worst for this, and I genuinely wish I could adopt a style closer to, say, Vonnegut or Douglas Adams or Charlie Jane Adams. But stories with tightly-written plots and thoughtful, nuanced takes on difficult themes often require great care, and I so badly want to make sure that I’m treating these subjects with the mindfulness they require. It’s been a great struggle to fight through a brain that simply doesn’t have the equipment to be as organized and detail-oriented as it needs to be.

It took me a long while to come to grips with the possibility that I had ADHD, mostly because of the stigma and controversy that exists in the media. There’s a steady diet of hot takes out there suggesting it’s a made-up disease, or that it’s especially overdiagnosed in children who are just being regular kids, or that drugs like Adderall and Ritalin are abused by people who are looking to stay up all night and crush that exam or work project.

There’s also a heavy stigma around the use of Adderall. Do you remember that (likely doctored) Calvin and Hobbes comic where Calvin is prescribed medication and it forces him to ignore Hobbes? I’m not going to lie, that scared the shit out of me — the thought that my ability to daydream, to be creative, would have to be sacrificed in order to be productive haunted me for a long time.

calvinhobbes

Seriously, this is nightmare fuel.

But now, of course, I know that’s a false dichotomy. ADHD actually hinders your ability to be creative; if you’re like me, you get hyperfocused on one aspect of the story and (because of my anxiety disorder) fall into a loop where you feel you need to rewrite again and again and again before you’re allowed to move on to the next aspect. Then, you get burned out or distracted and end up with three paragraphs that have been polished to within an inch of their lives.

Medication is absolutely a viable option for treating ADHD, especially in adults, but it’s only one avenue of treatment. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and other techniques are needed in order to unlearn all the bad habits that our own stumbling about to deal with our brains might have introduced. It can also give us a greater understanding of our individual challenges with ADHD and offer ways to cope with them.

Now that I know that my executive function is impaired and that makes it really difficult for me to stay on task, resist distractions, stay organized and deal with my impulses in a healthy manner, I’ve taken steps to address those. Developing routines that teach you how to consciously do what many others can do in their own heads has been a lifesaver; it’s how I make sure I take my medication, meditate, feed and water my rabbit; it’s how I make sure I’ve broken down projects into bite-sized chunks that I can actually handle one at a time; it’s how I make sure I write down just about everything I need to remember and keep on top of my to-do list. It’s still a struggle to get things done, but I’m no longer wondering why things are so hard or what’s wrong with me. There’s nothing “wrong” with me; my brain works differently from most and while that offers certain challenges it also opens up a lot of benefits too.

Hyper-focus, for example, is a tremendous tool. I know that if I’m emotionally invested in something or fascinated on a certain level it’s a lot easier for me to enter a state of flow where that’s all there is in the world. If I can find a way to access that feeling for a certain project, it’s much easier for me to devote a significant chunk of time to it. Learning how to be organized and mindful is also a strange fringe benefit, but it’s served me well. My Bullet Journal and I are super-best-friends, and the organization, mindfulness and productivity it has brought me feels so much sweeter because it’s been so hard won.

It’s also enabled me to recognize problems with executive function in other people. If someone can never seem to be on time, or forget things if they don’t write them down, or constantly misplace things, it doesn’t bother me nearly as much as it used to. Understanding myself and how I work allows me to be more compassionate towards the difficulties that other people face. It’s so very hard to be an adult, where it feels like you’re juggling balls and spinning plates all the time, and people only notice the kind of job you’re doing when something goes crashing to the ground. All of us are trying to keep too many things in our heads at once; it’s kind of a blessing to know how impossible this is and stop trying.

Symptoms and issues of ADHD can happen to anyone, but that doesn’t mean that ADHD isn’t a “real” illness. Multiple symptoms have to be present for a long time in order to be diagnosed, and medication can also have a weird ‘calming’ effect. For example, meditation and Adderall enables me to focus much more easily than I would be able to otherwise and I’m much more resilient against distractions.

If you think you might have ADHD — or even just an issue with your executive function — it’s best to learn more about how executive function works, what it looks like when that region of the brain isn’t working as expected, and schedule an appointment with your doctor to discuss the possibility. Even if it turns out you don’t have that diagnosis, there might be other issues or more information that might help you improve your focus, organization, and memory. Regardless of whether you’re neuro-typical or coping with a mental illness, proper nutrition, regular exercise and enough sleep are foundations for better mental health.

This post is a part of Mental Health Awareness Month; all month long I’m writing posts about my personal experience with mental illness, the stigma that prevents conversation and treatment, and bits of fiction that highlight these issues. If there’s a subject or aspect that I haven’t covered, please leave a comment!

 
 

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