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(Friday Fiction) Veniamin Kovalenko, Werebear Dectective #3

May is Mental Health Awareness Month! I wanted to devote The Writing Desk towards that effort all month long, including Friday Fiction, and Veniamin Kovalenko Werebear Detective is a perfect candidate for this. Venia comes from a long line of werebears who traveled from their home country of Russia to Sitka, AK and finally to center-west California. Like most immigrants, the Kovalenko clan considers itself part of the state’s foundation and in a way they’re right. However — like their human immigrant counterparts — they also caused great harm to California’s native population with its displacement.

The Kovalenkos have a complicated relationship with the state they love so dearly. California reveres bears as its symbol, but at the same time most would rather see them on the flag, a picturesque postcard or as a rug in a cabin. Interactions between bears and humans rarely go well, and Venia learned that lesson the hard way at an early age when an uncle got a bit too drunk and shifted during a fight; he killed two people before forest rangers put him down. The trauma of that experience set Venia’s course — first, as a supernatural ‘fixer’ and then ultimately as a private detective.

In our Dresden Files game, I played Venia as someone with limited intelligence who was just trying to do the right thing. However, unresolved anger, anxiety and depression warped his perspective more often than not and made him an enjoyably hot mess to play. There was a run of sessions based in Sitka where he learned the town’s long-time residents treated his family like local royalty, and it was interesting to note how…unnerved Venia felt by the experience of being not only accepted, but embraced for who (and what) he truly is.

Venia usually hated authority figures, and over the course of the game he had built quite a file for himself with local law enforcement. At one point he was sentenced to court-appointed therapy sessions with a mysterious, disturbing psychologist named Mabel Watney. This month, I wanted to write short scenes that unpack the messiness of dealing with a mental health issue that’s been exacerbated by being relegated to the margins of society.



Veniamin slumped in his chair as he watched the woman sit down at her desk, turn to her computer and begin typing. After a moment, he glanced at the clock — 10:02 AM, it said. He opened his mouth to speak, but she held up a finger without looking away from her screen. He sighed. She kept typing.

When she stopped a few moments later, she turned to a journal on her desk and began writing. Veniamin shifted with a grunt; he felt the anger inside him, a bubble of pressure in his stomach that made him squirm, pushed the hair on the back of his neck straight up. It was 10:05 AM. Forty minutes left in their session.

She seemed content to let him seethe for a couple more minutes, writing deliberately in tense silence. She set down her pen. She closed her journal. She adjusted the small owl statue on her desk so that its big round eyes were pointed at him. Then she folded her hands and smiled at him.

“So does this mean that my charge for this session will be prorated?” Veniamin couldn’t keep the growl out of his voice as he leaned forward. The sensation had spread to the rest of him, controlling his movements so his mind could focus on the object of his annoyance. He didn’t feel the way his hands gripped the arms of the chair, or the way he had positioned himself to leap out of his seat at any moment.

His psychologist, Mabel Watney, raised an eyebrow and lifted the corners of her mouth. She ran her palm underneath the tight ponytail that sprouted from the back of her skull, as silken and shining as its namesake. “If you wish,” she said. “Thank you for waiting.”

Venia leaned back in his chair, the spell of anger broken. He was confused about why that worked, but found comfort in the anger that rose from the fact that she had manipulated him without him having any idea how. “Fine. You’re welcome.”

Dr. Watney nodded. She watched him with an unwavering but open and curious stare. Venia found he couldn’t meet her eyes for very long, and didn’t like the feeling of being pinned under that gaze. There was a clarity in it that disturbed him; it felt like she had him figured out from the moment he had walked into that door. He could have shifted right now and it wouldn’t have surprised her.

The seconds ticked by. When Dr. Watney spoke, it was with a suddenness that suggested she had waited for the precise moment when his wariness dropped. “So, what’s on your mind?”

Veniamin sighed and shook his head. “Nothing.” He rested his head on his fist. It felt like he was being waited out, a child coaxed into confessing something his mother already knew he had done.

“You look uncomfortable.” Her voice was deep and rich, authoritative and concerned at once. “Why is that?”

“I don’t see the point of me being here.” Venia spoke the words before he thought them. “I don’t have any problems you can help me with, and I’m not going to talk about them. And I’m not crazy.”

“No one said you were.” Dr. Watney sounded surprised he would even say that. “You’re here because a judge thinks you could benefit from a little bit of help managing your anger.”

“I don’t have a problem managing my anger,” Venia snapped. “I just don’t like putting up with things I shouldn’t have to.”

Dr. Watney opened her book again and began writing. “I see,” she said. “And you feel this therapy session is one of the things you shouldn’t have to put up with?”

There was something about her tone that softened something inside of him. He glanced at her. She was staring right at him, pen in hand. It looked like she had stopped mid-word. He felt a flash of panic and looked down into the eyes of her owl figurine, then further at a safe, nondescript side of her desk.

“Listen, I’m sure you’re a good woman and you help people who need it and all that, but…I don’t need this. I just have a lot on my plate and it’s stressful is all. It got to me once or twice, and now I’m here. That’s all. I haven’t hurt anyone.”

“You haven’t, but you have done a few things that are cause for concern. It’s not any one action that’s brought you to me, Mr. Kovalenko — anyone can have a bad day. What the judge is worried about — what I’m here to help with — is the pattern of behaviors that you seem to be exhibiting. Stress is a serious issue, Mr. Kovalenko. If you’re stressed and not angry, fine; we can work on managing your stress, then.”

Veniamin considered this. He wasn’t sure how to talk about what stressed him, at least not in a way that this woman would understand. He was part of a world she had no idea existed, and the attempt to introduce her to it would bring even more stress. That was, perhaps, the most frustrating thing; even if Dr. Watney could help, it would make things worse telling her how.

He took a deep breath and looked at her. She watched him attentively. At least the pen was down for now.

Could he find a way to talk about what was on his mind without having to explain the things she wouldn’t understand? Was it even worth the effort? He wasn’t sure he had much of a choice in the matter. She would have to report his progress back to the court, and if he resisted the process the entire time it probably wouldn’t reflect well on his record.

“Fine,” he snorted, looking away to stare at the painting of a stylized bow and arrow half-hidden by a potted plant. “How do I learn how to manage my stress?”

 
 

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(Writing) A Writer’s May

Self Improvement 150The month of April was…not great for me as a writer. I didn’t make much progress on anything of note, though I *did* resume a long-dormant Pathfinder game that I’ll take as my big win. I could attribute the lack of writing to my day job, or family stress, or the general pressures of being an adult with obligations and such…but to be honest, the biggest reasons are fear and a lack of discipline. I didn’t write because writing has become this internal battle between my willpower and anxiety, and I’m just not mentally equipped to win that battle consistently.

It’s possible that I’m simply trying to do too much. In addition to an ultimate goal of three missives a week on this here Writing Desk, I’m trying to find a way to write consistently for my Patreon project, the Jackalope Serial Company; I’m working on a Pathfinder game that, at this point, is firmly mid-level and I’d like to take to level 20; I’m starting another Pathfinder game that aims to be more of a loose pick-up style campaign; I’m trying to write short stories for two anthologies that I’d love to be included in; I’ve been asked to contribute to other fandom projects and while I’ve said yes I have yet to take any concrete steps to do so. Then there’s the Udemy courses that aim to teach me more about blogging and tech, the Rosetta Stone course for French I’d like to get back to, SO MANY comics, books and short stories I want to read, the clarinet I want to practice, the cleaning and paring down of all my stuff I’d like to get to, the TV and movies I’d like to watch (and maybe review)…

I’m not sure that ADHD/anxiety is a big reason why I commit to so much and achieve so little, but it really can’t help. Because our executive function is compromised, it’s really difficult to set proper priorities and stick with them when we’ve been interrupted; splitting our attention just can’t happen, because we need to be rooted in one thing or else we go flying all over the place. That’s why off-loading your executive function to things like to-do lists and routines is so important; we have to find a way to make an instinctive internal process external and conscious.

I live and die by my Bullet Journal, though that has to be supplemented by other things like Todoist and Google Calendar to make sure I have an eye on deadlines. If I don’t make sure I have some place to put specific information, it’s pretty much gone — but even then, I can write down, say, a submission deadline for an anthology, but unless I take the time to break down the steps I need to take to actually GET to that submission AND make time for it in my schedule it’ll just sneak up on me and then I’m scrambling to meet a deadline. That kind of surprise triggers my anxiety disorder, which makes it more likely for me to just freeze up and watch the deadline go by.

Good project management practice can help with that, but building a project schedule can only do so much when you’re trying to juggle multiple projects at once. When it’s time to put pen to paper (or paws to keyboard in this case), it’s really hard to make productive use of my time. I know that my time with this project is limited, and my goal is…to just get it done. Not to have fun with it, not to engage with what I’m doing — if I’m being honest, most of the time I already have one eye out on the next thing I need to do. That ain’t no way to write.

So this month I’ll have to pull things back a bit and focus on fewer things that I can root myself well in. I have four big goals for this month — write for The Writing Desk consistently; resume regular updates for the Jackalope Serial Company; finish short stories for “The Rabbit Dies First” anthology as well as one other anthology.

Here at The Writing Desk, I’ll be focusing on Mental Health Awareness Month with posts about depression, anxiety and ADHD from my personal experience as well as the things that have helped me deal with them, or the things that I still need to work out. For the Jackalope Serial Company, I’ll be writing four “first issues” of various possible serials to see what folks take to, then continue on the most popular serial through June. With the short stories, I’ll devote as much time as I can to both of them once I’ve made sure the blog and Patreon are squared away.

I’ll also be working through my sky-high book stack as much as possible this month. I’ve got quite a lot of time off this month and I’ll be doing some international travel, so I’m fairly sure there’s a lot that I can knock out. Hopefully I’ll finish “Bluebird, Bluebird” by Attica Locke; “Steppenwolf” by Hermann Hesse; “Radical Acceptance” by Tara Brach; and “The Upward Spiral” by Alex Korb. If I can manage that, there should be a few good bits of reflection out of them.

So what’s your plan for May, writers? What’re you hoping to have finished by the time June rolls around?

 

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(Personal) My Sister, One Year Later

Myth 150

One year ago today, my sister died. My mother, my two nephews and their father were gathered in the conference room down the hall from her room in the hospital when we got the news — even though her heart was beating and she was breathing (with help), her brain hadn’t registered any activity for long enough that the presiding physician called time of death. Everyone cried. It was the first time I had hugged my Mom since I had come out to her. It was the first time I had ever hugged either of my nephews.

I rushed to Baltimore with the small hope that I would get to see my little sister alive one more time. It had been eighteen years; we spoke on the phone sporadically, but we hadn’t seen each other since I left home. The worst thing for me, at the time, was knowing that the last time I saw my sister was when I was being disowned. Between then and last year, she gave birth to four children, tried to take care of my difficult and increasingly frail mother, had a nervous breakdown. For the longest time she had been self-medicating for mental health issues, and in the end that’s what had brought us here.

I think about Teneka every day. I think about how hard it must have been to struggle against your own brain without a support network of people who understood and accepted what she was going through, who were committed to helping her find what she needed to get better. It could have been talk therapy, or cognitive behavioral techniques, or medication. It could have been changing her lifestyle so that she had room to take the time she needed to cope with everything on her plate. It could have been a community of people willing to give her help when she needed it without asking or judgement.

Instead, she was under a system that punished her for finding any way she could to ease her pain without giving her access to the tools she needed to do so in a healthy and sustainable way. The people around her dismissed very real issues she was having and encouraged her to do the very things that would make them worse. Her own mother took whatever help she offered and said it wasn’t good enough, accused her of being selfish and lazy and untrustworthy. My sister was a good woman who needed help, someone to orient her. But there was no way she could get that.

It breaks my heart, because my sister is part of a narrative that’s been used to blame black Americans for our problems since the end of slavery. The truth is, however, much more complicated. The immediate cause of her passing — what’s on her death certificate — is not the reason she died. The real reason is that we, as a civilization, are far more interested in judgement and punishment than compassion and assistance. Instead of recognizing the very real problems Teneka suffered under, we made her feel broken for not being able to cope with them.

Her experience isn’t uncommon. There are so many black women who have to shoulder extraordinary burdens — motherhood and everything that comes with it, often totally by themselves — while being told that they are wrong in every way. Our sisters don’t look the way they should; they don’t talk the way they should; they don’t act the way they should. Their names are wrong, their hair is wrong, their clothes and makeup are wrong. They’re hoes, or they’re stuck-up; they’re too angry and too loud, too ignorant, too dark, too ugly.

Misogynoir took my sister away from me. The stigma around mental health took my sister away from me. Our social inability to address the pain felt by our most vulnerable citizens while placing them under impossible stress took my sister away from me. I’m still grieving about that, because I’m reminded of it every day.

Remember this story about two women being racially profiled at an Applebee’s?

Or this story about a black woman detained by police on the tarmac because the police were called on her for no reason?

Or this story about a black woman being mistreated at a Waffle House and the police receiving no repercussions?

What about the responses Kelis received when she detailed the abuse she received at the hands of Nas?

What about what our sisters have suffered at the hands of powerful men like Bill Cosby and R. Kelly?

These are all stories that have been in the news for the past two weeks. If I started going into the recent and not-so-recent history of mistreatment of black women, we’d be here all day. If I started going into the institutional problems that prevent our sisters from getting the mental health treatment they needed, we’d be here all week.

I don’t want anyone else to feel trapped in a private and invisible hell the way my sister was. It’s so important for me to speak up about mental health because I know first-hand that not doing so literally kills people. We have to be better about this. The lives of our women depend on it.

Dr. Amber Thornton is a licensed black American psychologist who has devoted so much of her time to addressing the stigma of mental health in our communities while also advocating for better cultural competency within the professional psychological community. Her podcast, “A Different Perspective”, has invaluable information about depression, anxiety, and the black experience.

Journalist Imade Nibokun heads up the Depressed While Black Twitter and Tumblr pages, creating an online community of folks across the diaspora who have to deal with the personal struggle of depression and the social struggle of institutional racism at the same time.

The Black Mental Health Alliance is an organization of licensed black American mental health practitioners, activists and organizers dedicated to dealing with mental health issues on a personal, professional, and institutional level.

All of these people are doing much-needed work, helping our community see the problems we face clearly while adapting perspective and solutions built by institutions with little to no insight into how these problems manifest through our shared culture and history. On the anniversary of my sister’s death, I vow to support them and their work and I ask that you please do the same. I want my sister’s legacy to be one that spurred us into action, to finally address this blind spot within our own community.

I love you so much, Teneka. I’m so sorry that we failed you; I will work hard so that we fail far fewer people like you.

 
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Posted by on April 30, 2018 in mental-health, Politics, Self-Reflection

 

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(Politics) Mindful Resistance

Politics 150Ever since Michael Brown was shot dead by a police officer in Ferguson, MO I don’t think I’ve been able to reflect on our political situation without a mix of anger, horror or despair. It’s been tough to know what to do with these very difficult emotions even at the best of times; when the news cycle seems designed to draw them out of you multiple times every day, it can be almost impossible. Progressives in America have been emotionally and ideologically battered by the storm of Trumpism, and I think a lot of us have become unmoored from our principles and ability to cope with the constant thundering of awfulness. However, in order to effectively brace against the gusts of bigotry and hypocrisy, we have to be anchored to our core beliefs and values. It’s more important than ever to be considerate, deliberate, and careful in the ways we engage the big problems of the day.

Having compassion for the people we engage with, especially online, centers us in a place of empathy. There are so many corners of the Internet where perpetual outrage has become the norm, and we’re encouraged to think of the people who disagree with us as a faceless, perhaps inhuman ‘enemy’ undeserving of consideration. As we grow more estranged from folks with different perspectives, the criteria for being spared our wrath becomes smaller and smaller. Over time, we might find ourselves having knock-down, drag-out fights with close friends we’ve known for years over relatively small disagreements. We might cut ourselves off from people who might only need patience, understanding, and connection.

I notice these days that my temper is a lot shorter than it used to be, and I’m not saying there aren’t good reasons for that. It can be exhausting advocating for your right to equal protection and consideration, especially to people who refuse to acknowledge there’s inequality in the first place. There’s nothing wrong with being angry about this; anger is an indication that my sense of order in the world has been disrupted, that there’s an injustice that needs to be rectified.

It’s what we do with that anger that causes issues. Anger can be a great motivator for real change in the world. Protests and movements that have forced power to reckon with the abuses it has perpetuated gain momentum because of our anger, given direction and a purpose. But far too often our anger is simply expelled towards the closest targets, and far too often those closest targets are our friends. Even if our anger at something a friend says or does is justified, it’s worth holding that anger mindfully to consider how it can best be expressed.

Anger can be balanced with compassion for our fellow human beings. So many people we know have grown up in a racist society, unaware of their privilege or the fact that they benefit from it. It’s hard to see that for what it is, and harder still to reconcile that with the story we’ve told ourselves about our lives. Hardest of all is knowing exactly what to do about it; there are so many white progressives painfully aware of their privilege but with no idea how to make peace with it, or how to use it to erase the structures that have provided them with it. When we ask people with privilege to recognize it, we’re not just asking them to admit the existence of an institutional injustice. We’re asking them to admit their personal history is a lie; that they benefit from something they never asked for.

Dismantling our self-image is a process, and it’s different for everyone. It took me years to understand and accept transgender ideas, and longer still to come to terms with my privilege as a cisgender male. There are still issues that I need to deal with, still things that I get wrong all the time. To be honest, it’s frightening and exhausting wading into all of that; there’s so much to untangle, much of it a fundamental understanding of sex and gender expression, and the punishment for doing or saying the wrong thing is so high.

I think we all have our blind spots. Some of us are blissfully unaware of the immense amount of human suffering beyond the borders of our own country, while others struggle with recognizing the need for deeper consideration of our environment. Some of us are tone-deaf when it comes to racial justice; others don’t take into account how difficult it is to deal with poverty at an early age, or hidden disabilities, or even the difficulties of being a woman. Knowing our own difficulties in the journey towards undoing the damage of the bigotry we’ve been taught can help us understand how hard it is to do, and have greater empathy for those who may not be malicious — just ignorant.

That kind of consideration can also allow us to pick our battles. The Trump Administration and the forces that have given rise to his particularly odious brand of politics presents us with an overwhelming multi-front assault daily. Environmental regulations are being stripped; scientific expertise is being devalued; criminal justice issues are becoming worse as police forces are emboldened by the empty ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric coming from the Attorney General; people of color are being systematically targeted through countless initiatives; our privacy rights have been severely compromised; reproductive rights are being challenged at every level; cultural enrichment initiatives are being threatened and defunded; corruption, hypocrisy and sophist arguments have made reasonable debate about this in the public square all but impossible.

We now know that bad-faith actors online exploit our desires to try to bridge the gulf between ideologies, forcing us to provide evidence for minute details and batting them away when they’re delivered. We know that the thundering waterfall of awesomeness is designed to wear down our ability to resist. We know that the people who want to enable Trump’s agenda are counting on our eventual burn-out; once the heat dies down, they move forward after we’re too spent and discouraged.

We have to know our limits. We have to understand that our energy to resist is a finite resource, and that it’s important to give ourselves the space we need to recharge. If we’re incensed at every new scandal, or sound the alarm over every new development, we not only exhaust ourselves — we exhaust our allies and others who might come to our aid. Sometimes, taking a moment to understand what’s happening and what still needs to happen for terrible consequences to come due can help us prioritize the issues and decide where and how we fight. We’ve done an amazing job fighting so much bullshit from the administration, but there are three more years before removing them from office is a viable option. This is a marathon, not a sprint. We are ready for battle, but maybe we haven’t considered how to be ready for war.

It’s simply impossible to resist everything Trump is throwing at us. Sure, it’s awful that the President of the United States is getting into a Twitter war with athletes and rappers, entertainment figures and journalists, but we know that dignity is a foreign concept to him already. Will getting angry about it change anything? How much does that matter compared to, say, making sure that voting restriction laws aren’t rammed through various state legislatures or that our immigrant friends and neighbors have what they need to find a legal path to remaining here?

I don’t mean to advocate for letting important stuff fall off the radar. But it’s better to devote our limited time and energy to a few causes that are really important to us than try to do everything at once and extinguish the fire that keeps us going before we can see our actions produce results.

We have to be careful about our resistance. It’s great that so many of us have become so passionate about the direction of our country and committed ourselves to turning it around. But we must also be the changes we want to see in the world around us, and that can’t happen if we’re buffeted by the political currents day in and day out, unable to remain rooted to our principles and see things clearly. We sacrifice our mental health, our relationships, our ability to create true and lasting change by acting without thinking. We have to take a long look at our core values, what it means to live those values on a personal and societal level, and how we can take our communities from where we are to where we know they can be.

This can’t be done by the expression of anger or the rejection of the people who make us angry. Careful thought is needed, and planning, and eventual solutions to our biggest problems. How can we curb greenhouse gas emissions in this country before we incur the worst effects of climate change? How can we encourage big, multi-national corporations to keep their headquarters in the country while paying their fair share of taxes and their workers a living wage? What does a society that has dismantled the institutions of racism and bigotry within government and culture look like? What does justice look like for the corrupt, the racist, the hateful at all levels of society? Is there a way back for people like Chris Christie, or Louis CK, or that friend from high school who fell into the clutches of the alt-right? What does that path towards reconciliation look like?

I honestly don’t know how effective our resistance will be until we think about these questions and discuss the answers we come up with. I don’t think we can keep screaming at each other to make things better without thinking about how we can do that, all together. We have to be mindful with our anger, our calls for justice, ourselves, our friends and neighbors. Otherwise we’ll end up doing some of the very things we can’t abide seeing from the other side.

 
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Posted by on April 11, 2018 in Buddhism, mental-health, Politics

 

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(Personal) Hello, April

Self Improvement 150Floating in a sensory deprivation tank for an hour was long enough for me to realize that a great deal of my problem is overstimulation. It’s tough for someone sensitive to sensory input to live in a world like this, geared towards making sure something is grabbing your attention all the time. We live at a time where it’s seen as largely acceptable to pay for something with our focus instead of money; think about all of the services we use for ‘free’ in exchange for ads, or the data that companies can use to make ads that much more irresistible. Corporations have learned to use our attention as another potential revenue stream; it’s time we start thinking of it the same way we do our hard-earned money. That’s why this month, I’d like to focus on budgeting my attention and focus the same way I budget my money.

I admit it’s a harder thing to do. Money is a finite resource (just like our attention), but it’s a lot easier to quantify and measure. We know exactly how much money we get in our paychecks, and we can subtract our expenses from our income to know when we’re stepping outside of our means. With attention, it’s not so straightforward. We can’t wake up every day with the intention that we only ‘spend’ 2 hours’ worth of attention on social media, or that today is a ‘no advertisement’ day where we refuse to pay attention to any form of advertising. We can’t slice our focus into discrete chunks, and then decide what parts of our environment we give those chunks to.

But we can be more mindful about when and where something is asking for our attention, and what our reaction to that request might be. On our phones, what apps and games buzz to draw our focus back to the screen? When we’re browsing a website, what links do we click to stay engaged with it, and how do we end up following article after article? When we’re walking or driving outside, what things grab our eyes and hold them? When we watch TV, how many times do we notice ads — especially ones that work around our ability to fast-forward through them?

Any time you notice something using obnoxious or obvious means to attract your attention, think about the process that created the situation. Why would a company risk the ill will of a potential customer just to force us into having to engage with its advertisement? Why on Earth would so many websites auto-play videos when we visit pages? What’s to be gained by forcing us to engage with something?

There are some websites that we might feel are worth paying for with our attention. When they ask us to whitelist them from ad blocking programs, we might be inclined to do so. When Google or Facebook asks for our information in order to better serve ads to them, we might think it’s a fair trade for the useful and convenient services they offer. That’s fine. But it really should be our choice, and I think our modern experience online and in real life isn’t set up in the interest of offering us that choice. Everywhere we go, there is something trying to get us to engage with it; we don’t have the ‘right’ to choose where our attention is going when we enter a public space.

I’m really not sure how we can address this on any big level, but I do know that I will take better notice of things that try to force my attention away from what I’m doing — whether it’s YouTube offering me other videos to watch, IGN auto-playing videos, movies with egregious product placement, or ad ‘stunts’ tricking me into investing time or focus towards something. One of the biggest pet peeves I’ve developed recently is a company taking advantage of my fandom in order to sell me a pile of crap; the endless rebranding initiatives of Marvel Comics and the “mystery box/alternate reality” model of Bad Robot properties immediately comes to mind.

I know enough about myself to know that it’s easy for my attention to be drawn away, and it’s best if I cultivate an environment where I choose when and how to switch my focus from one thing to another. I’ve already disabled almost all notifications on my phone, and whenever a website offers me desktop notifications I decline and resolve to use that website less in the future. I use apps like Ghostery and AdBlock Plus to clean the pages of the sites I visit, and I whitelist only the ones that I use frequently and don’t have obnoxious intrusive ads that pop up, play sound, or ‘trick’ you into being redirected by shifting the close button or using intentionally misleading UI. When I finish one task, or an article or a video, I try to take a breath to recenter myself and make a mindful decision on what to do next. That’s not always successful, for sure, but I’m getting better at this the more I do it.

There are a few other things I’d like to do this month, too. In the interest of making sure I’m on a more solid foundation for life, I’d like to double back and refocus on the basics: meditating every day, reading and writing every day, eating well every day, exercising as often as possible. The very basic building blocks of self-care that give you the best possible shot at being emotionally resilient. So far, it’s…still a process, but failure is bundled into that of course. The trick is to not let failure discourage you; take the lessons you can from it, then move on with a better idea of how to succeed.

So that’s it; being very judicious about my attention and how I’m spending it, then putting that attention to where it will do the most good. How about you folks? What would you like to work on this month?

 
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Posted by on April 9, 2018 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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(Personal) Goodbye, March

Self Improvement 150The crisis point hit right in the middle of the month. We were coming out of a big Services meeting when my manager scheduled a one-on-one meeting right afterward. I had assumed it would be the follow-up on our annual reviews and talk about merit increases; in a way, I was right. The management structure in our department is in flux right now, so the colleague who had been my direct manager was starting to offload his responsibilities behind the scenes while my new direct manager was stepping in to take the reins of my little slice of the day job.

The two managers — let’s call them Cain and Abel to protect what little innocence they have left — make a pretty effective good-cop/bad-cop pair. Cain is one of those folks who knows a scary amount about computers and online culture, has seen just about everything there is to see in the dark underbelly of the web, and generally gets along with you if you’re competent in the way he’s looking for. Abel is an aging punk and family man who has a bottomless and unironic love for professional wrestling. They’re both really great with their jobs, and really good with people in their own way; they go out of their way to build a personal relationship with the folks they’re managing. Unfortunately, they’re both now part of a structure that seems to force people to say one thing while doing another.

Cain was my direct manager at the beginning of the month, and he had given me a heads up that my performance at the day job was dangerously close to unsatisfactory; that being said, he would put me on an ‘unofficial’ probation to get my success metrics back up and train me how to work a bit more efficiently. After a month, if things were back to where they should be, I could skip a more ‘formal’ probation process and resume business as normal. That was the plan, and I could see I was in a bit of trouble. I was working through it, trying to corral the depression and anxiety, working hard to prioritize self-care, and nearly through the latest emergency with Mom.

In fact, the day after Mom had been placed in long-term care at the nursing home, Abel and I had the meeting that put me on the Performance Improvement Plan. If you’re not a part of corporate America, the Performance Improvement Plan (or PIP) is a really scary thing: some say its only purpose is to build a paper trail that ultimately ends with you being pushed out of the company, while others say it’s an actual disciplinary step designed to get you back on track and the company wouldn’t go through the trouble if it didn’t want you to stay. Abel assured me the latter was the case, but given the track record with my company I couldn’t fully put my trust in that. For every reassuring comment, there was another that set off alarm bells in my head. Even if I made it through the PIP, I got the feeling that my days at my current position were numbered.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I freaked out — wouldn’t you? But after that, I dug in. I asked questions about how to navigate through it; I did research on different perspectives and advice on how PIPs should be handled; I built a plan to make sure I hit (or exceeded) my goals for the plan; and I brushed up my resume and started to look for another place to be in earnest.

This past month has been dominated by the day job and my continuing recovery. I’ve been working hard to realize the source of my anxiety and deal with it directly, and while that progress has been slow there has been progress. I’m working hard to make sure that I get enough sleep, my diet is improving steadily, and that I build habits that help me to become more emotionally resilient. I’ve done my best to be more consistently mindful.

I also tried float therapy for the very first time. Float therapy is the new marketing term for putting yourself into a sensory deprivation tank for some time; most people only know about it through the 1980 science-horror film Altered States or through Fringe, the surprisingly fun science-fiction show that ran on FOX a few years ago. In real life, float therapy supposedly helps you with rehabilitation; it’s also supposed to help with anxiety, deeper meditative states and lucid dreaming.

My dear husband gave me a gift certificate for three floats as a birthday present, and this was the first time I actually remembered to make an appointment. The FLOAT Center in Oakland is (according to them) the very first of its kind in the Bay area, and it’s more of an old-school experience; while other tanks have LED lights and music and such, here it’s just you and a huge light- and sound-proof tank filled with a slurry of Epsom salts and heated water. It’s completely dark, extremely quiet, and pretty humid.

I was shocked by how well it worked. I’m fairly sure everyone has something they’ll need to get used to at first, and for me it was the humidity inside the tank. The strange sensation of weightlessness was actually really pleasant, and the complete darkness conjured strange, flashing images that grew more intricate as time went on. It was ridiculously easy to lose track of time in there, but when the knock came to let me know my hour was up I was almost dreamily relaxed.

The proprietor is wonderfully liberal and New Age; I rather like her, even if the metaphysical explanation of what happens with the tank is a little suspect. Given how badly I’ve needed a healthier way to manage stress and the fact I have two more free floats in store, I wasted no time in booking my next session along with an hour-long massage. I have the feeling I’ll need to be poured into my car by the time it’s all over.

It’s been a hard month, but things have steadily gotten better — or at least, my attitude has. There is still a lot to untangle with Mom’s finances, and I get the feeling that now she’s staying some place local family will drop the threads we had been working on; it’ll be up to me to keep the momentum. The focus on my day job has been paying off, and I’m in good shape with my PIP. There is at least one promising lead on the job search, and if all goes well I might have excellent news on the other side of May.

Most importantly, I feel more capable of focusing on the things that are important to me and I have a solid framework of determining how and why that focus gets broken. One of the things I’d really love to do in the month ahead is find a way to bring this realization to action. Attention, especially for someone like me, is a precious and finite resource. It’s important to make sure that I protect it and spend it as judiciously as possible.

That’s my March. What big successes did all of you have this past month? What was the most important lesson you learned? How did the last 31 days or so prepare you for success this month?

 
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Posted by on April 2, 2018 in mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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(Personal) Goodbye, February

Myth 150The last time I spoke to my mother on the phone, she sounded lonely. But in typical Mom fashion, mostly she complained about the people with her at the in-patient rehab center. The white woman who had roomed with her was a racist. The nurses checking in on her were stealing her clothes. She just wanted to be by herself.

Her hearing isn’t good and the phone in her room is even worse, so most of my questions — half-hearted attempts at small talk — were answered with “Huh?” and “What did you say?” over and over again. I repeated myself louder and louder, until I was screaming at the phone enough to feel angry and anxious. After about ten minutes of that I opted for a different tack — soft and gentle noises of acknowledgement. “Mm-hmm,” I said. “OK.”

Mom has been in and out of hospitals and rehab centers for nearly a year at this point. This latest run was a particularly hard one. She had been invited to stay with her sister, my aunt, while we worked out arrangements with Baltimore City to get an elder-care nurse to check in on both of them. That lasted about three days before she was back in the hospital with an infection. Two weeks later, she was released to a rehab facility. Three days after that, back in the hospital with a more severe infection that had reached her blood.

Through it all she’s been at turns gravely ill, terribly uncooperative, and demanding in the way that only very old people can manage. My aunt (the title you give to any family member who is also an older woman) has quickly realized what a handful my Mom is, so she’s been pretty hands off about all of this even though she said she would take care of her. I can’t blame her. Mom IS a handful. Most of the trouble she gets into is the kind she creates for herself and expects other people to get her out of.

Her most recent stay in rehab is scheduled to end in three days. Neither of my aunts are all that interested in taking her back, but there’s nowhere else for her to go. According to her social worker, she’s too independent for a nursing home and too poor for assisted living. At least she realizes she can’t go home now. The last time I asked her where she wanted to go it never came up in the conversation. But there was a weary resignation in her voice as she fumbled for an answer; she can’t think of any place she’d rather be.

I’ve been telling anyone who would listen for months now what a rotten year I’ve had. My sister died of a drug overdose last April, I say. I had to organize the funeral while trying to find a place for my invalid mother. I had to try to get my sister’s youngest children out of foster care even though I couldn’t take them. I had to confront all the stuff in my past that never got closure.

But after answering my mother’s pleas to call her anytime, day or night, with promises that I would, it hit me that she’s had an even more awful year. I lost my sister, but she lost her daughter. And before she could even grieve properly she was ripped out of her house and away from her neighbors and support. She was forced to rely on help from someone she really didn’t like all that much. Her life has been an endless procession of strange places and overworked health-care workers, a litany of pain in her back, her hips, her stomach, her heart. When the physical pain isn’t too bad, the grief rushes in to take up a shift. There are so many people she lost: her husband, her first son, her daughter, her grandchildren, and me.

Sometimes when the sun goes down the stress chases away her awareness. She can’t eat, she can’t sleep, she can’t do anything but wonder where she is and why she’s there. She gets mean. She refuses to take anything but medicine for the pain. She never gets enough of it.

I know if I were in my mom’s situation, I would want to die. I couldn’t take knowing that all the chances I’ve ever had in life have been taken, and this is where they’ve lead me. I don’t think I could handle the regret and the bewilderment, the ache of a failing body on top of the ache of loss. I think of her every day in some room that smells like industrial cleaners and is probably way too cold, waiting for a familiar face to make her feel better. It breaks my heart.

But I can’t let go of all the choices she’s made, all the things she’s said and done to push me away and ultimately cut me adrift. I can’t forget all the terrible things she said and did to my sister as she struggled with mental illness and addiction. I can’t rally a scattered family around someone they decided they didn’t want anything to do with years ago, or navigate a labyrinth of bureaucracy from across the country.

And I can’t write stories while trying to sort through this tangle of anger and guilt and frustration. I can’t write blogs about politics or geek culture. I can barely get it together enough to stay out of trouble at my day job. It’s hard. I don’t know what to do. In three days Mom could be wheeled out in front of a building to wait for a new home that doesn’t exist yet. It feels like a massive failure for her to be this close to that.

The next time I talk to my mother on the phone, I hope I can shout good news at her. I hope we can find a place for her to settle down, work through that grief and pain. I sincerely hope this is the bottom.

God, it’s been a hard year.

 
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Posted by on March 6, 2018 in mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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