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The Anxious Person’s Guide to Political Discourse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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(Gaming) Finding My Path

Gaming 150The first game I ever ran was a Changeling: the Dreaming campaign way back in high school. My players were an eshu, satyr, redcap and sluagh, and somewhere in there I ended up crossing things over with The X-Files because I was young and didn’t know any better. Do you remember those metal spikes they killed people with by stabbing it into the back of their necks? It was cold iron given to government agents to snuff out faeries. Yeah. I know.

I’ve run sporadically since then — mostly Dungeons and Dragons in its various incarnations or Pathfinder. This latest campaign was an old idea that I dusted off and spruced up, thinking that I would finally get to tell it right this time. I quickly discovered, though, that Pathfinder can be just as crunchy with numbers as D&D, thank you, and that if you don’t really understand the system home-brew rules will seriously fuck you up.

My players are a bunch of wonderful people — they’re smart, creative, passionate and fun. I’m not ashamed to admit that there is a huge amount of performance anxiety around running something for them. I want to do something that makes one friend feel like a bad ass, gives another friend the chance to explore psychological terrain he finds interesting, provide another friend with the political drama he’s discovering an affinity for, and let another friend find an ingenious way out of a difficult situation. All while keeping a whole set of rules and story beats in my head, improvising characters and plot details on the fly, and struggling to keep track of what has happened, what needs to happen, and what CAN’T happen. Running a tabletop RPG is really difficult you guys, especially if you have good players.

I’m also not ashamed to admit that I often let that anxiety get the best of me. I’ve snapped at players once or twice for trying to tweak their characters to maximum benefit when really, that’s just how they find enjoyment in the game. I’ve taken feedback badly, and let constructive criticism blow my perception of how poorly things were going out of proportion. I take storytelling very seriously, and perfectionist tendencies, chronic anxiety and an unfocused, disorganized ADHD brain is quite possibly the worst mix of traits to tell an improvised and collaborative story with people who are in all likelihood way smarter than you.

Now that I’m diving back into the pool, I’m trying to ease off the idea of telling a perfect story. I’ve learned a great deal about the way the story delivery mechanism influences what works best, and with tabletop RPGs I’ve found it works best to keep things a bit simpler. We’ve trained ourselves to think medieval fantasy has to have these sprawling, complicated worlds with rich societies and a gigantic number of characters, but when you’re getting together with a bunch of friends for six hours once a month there is no way people can hold these little plot and story seeds in their heads. Dense, sprawling mythologies work well in stories that are a bit more permanent — TV shows, novels, even movies. But I’ve found they work less well when you’re basically sitting around a campfire.

The direct approach tends to work better. The immediacy of creating the story around the table lends itself to scenes and situations that grab your emotions by the throat. The games that are most memorable and fun are the ones where you have a bad guy you clearly hate, a tough struggle that you barely make it through, and a reason for triumph that’s personal and reaffirming. The patience required to lay down a complicated story, brick by brick, is better spent parsing how characters can grow, change and excel within the confines of the system and the world you’ve built. Making sure your story is clear enough that your players know the next thing they need to do and why they need to do it goes a long way towards making sure they can get invested in what’s going on. Shadowy figures and mysterious conspiracies work for a few games, but at some point there needs to be clear progress and a strong sense of momentum pulling the characters from scene to scene.

So what I’ve focused on with this latest attempt at verbal storytelling is crafting scenes that make for fun jumping-off points for the characters while having hooks that appeal to my players or at least their characters. It’s been fun taking the metaplot, distilling it down to a series of actions, and then breaking up those actions into progressable goals from scene to scene. It makes the skeleton of the story strong but flexible, capable of carrying us all along but bending to suit the needs of the people around the table.

I’m so nervous about running this weekend, but really excited as well. I can’t wait to put what I’ve learned to use and see how I’ve progressed as a storyteller. Wish me luck for this Saturday, folks!

 

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(Personal) A Rabbit Thinks About Fear

Self Improvement 150Earlier this year I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and I’m still wrapping my brain around it. I never thought of myself as a particularly anxious person; sure, there were a lot of things that I had an outsized reaction against, but I always thought that was tied up with self-esteem issues or concentration trouble. It never occurred to me that my anxiety response was a significant piece of the puzzle — until I went to a group therapy class about it and learned how GAD works.

The therapist leading the class told us that our emotions are like the warning lights on our cars — they’re general indications that we should pay attention to something. If we get angry, it more than likely means our sense of order about the world is being upended and we should probably react to that. If we get sad, it means that we’ve lost something or must pay attention to something’s absence. And if we get anxious, usually it means that there is something coming towards us with stakes that we care about — our survival, our success, or our happiness.

You know how sometimes our low-pressure tire gauge comes on even though the air pressure is fine? Our how we can’t rely on our gas indicator because it comes on way too late to do anything about it? A lot of mental illnesses can be related to our car’s warning systems going out of whack in some way. In this case, my anxiety light is really sensitive and this can cause me to over-react to certain issues in ways that don’t really help me to deal with it.

At work, this manifested as a resistance to doing more technical work for years. I was convinced that I didn’t have the attention to detail necessary to be good at that job, and if I did something wrong I could royally screw up a customer’s system. Other, better support people would have to come in and save the situation and it would be all my fault. What if I did something that couldn’t be fixed? What if I never actually learned how to work with the command line? What if I disappointed friends I worked with, or troubles at the job followed me into my personal relationships? It would be better if I never touched the command line and left it to people who were inclined towards such things.

In my personal life, that anxiety kept me from writing. I could never finish anything because I wasn’t sure how endings were actually supposed to go. I tended to write from the hip, and the endings I loved most were the ones that felt like the only possible one for the story. You could see how each bit of the track in a story lead to this inevitable place that was both surprising and satisfying. I wanted to do that, and I wasn’t sure I could; when I tried to outline my work, I would often end up surprised by what a character did. They would tell me that they simply didn’t work that way, or would do something that caught me completely by surprise. Often when I’m writing a story, the characters “grow legs” and start wandering all over the place. Control over these guys is an illusion; an outline is a joke. I’m not the kind of writer who can plan meticulously.
So what does that mean for my work? Will anything I write just never be as good as I want it to be? If I don’t have the ability to tell the kind of stories I want to tell, what’s the point of writing in the first place? If I can’t get behind my writing, then who will? What if I put something out there and it’s so bad, people realize that I’m nowhere near as smart or wise or thoughtful as they might think? What if my own writing exposes me as the fraud I feel like?

When I stepped back to think about it, most of the anxiety I feel comes from a singular place: the realization that people will realize I don’t have the control it seems I do. That I’m all too often lost and frightened and that I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing. The command line scares me because it’s a binary — either the command you put in works or it doesn’t. Putting my writing out there scares me because in many ways it’s something I can’t take back — it either succeeds in what I’m trying to do or it doesn’t; either the audience reacts positively towards it, or it doesn’t. It either connects me to my audience through shared or expanded values, or it divides us.

I learned that I tend to “catastrophize” a lot. Possible mistakes I could make taking a course of action will have consequences far greater than the mistake warrants. If I can’t be perfect doing something that I’ve set out to do, then I would rather not do it at all. It was the main reason I could never push myself into doing something different, something more. Thinking about stumbling outside of my comfort zone gave me the worst feeling, and my immediate reaction was to retreat somewhere safe.

Realizing just what GAD is and how to deal with it is a process I’m still learning. Over the past year I’ve learned how to be comfortable with discomfort, and to even see it as a blessing — being unmoored with an activity is actually a sign that you’re stretching yourself and trying something new, and that’s one of the best things to do in life. Dealing with a situation not completely inside your control is just the price you pay for stretching yourself and learning new things.

Still, progress is slow. My tolerance for the new and different is rising, but it’s still lower than most. I still catch myself retreating to the familiar and the easy far more often than I should. But that’s a part of the process, too. We’re never going to get it right the first time we try something new; making mistakes are a part of the refinement and learning portions of building a new habit.

I’m still quite frightened about working with the command line at work. And I’m still nervous about posting up the stories that I’ve written online. I’m still worried about the endings of short stories I haven’t even begun to write. And I’m still learning how to deal with all of that. For now, it’s enough to recognize the anxiety is there, take a few deep breaths, and move through the discomfort to push myself anyway.

 
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Posted by on November 23, 2015 in Self-Reflection, Writing

 

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A Look Into the Future

Fandom 150I’ve been a little more quiet on the writing front than I feel comfortable with, but there’s a reason for that. When I get deep into various projects, I tend to talk about them less because I guess I don’t want to reveal how the sausage is made before it’s presented. When I push a story out into the world, I want the story to stand on its own — I don’t think the audience should have any thoughts on the author and the trouble or decisions he made to have the story turn out the way it did.

Right now, I’m working on “A Stable Love” and having a lot of fun with it. The characters are surprising me, and that presents new challenges for me to think about, and the writing has been relatively smooth as I march towards its conclusion. I was having a lot of trouble with the first part, which I thought I needed for set-up, to establish the characters and the central issue, but when I got rid of it and moved the beginning of the story ahead, the world just opened up and things became a lot easier. I’ve shown the customer what I have so far and received an enthusiastic response, so that’s incredibly encouraging.

I’m working on another story for MegaMorphics, an old-style APA, and its fall issue. I want my work appearing there to be a bit more polished and considered, which means working on it before the deadline! I have an idea for a Halloween story that I’m pretty excited about; I hammered down the idea with another contributor in hopes of a collaboration contribution — I work the story, he works the art. I’ve never written a story like this before (it’s horror), and I’m trying to do a few things that I’m not sure about. It’s exciting but difficult work, and I’m looking forward to how it will turn out.

After that, working on a story for People of Color Destroy Science Fiction that I’m really excited to tuck into, and the prize story for a very generous fellow who donated the most towards my Clarion Write-A-Thon during week 6. I’ve given both of those some thought, and I think when I actually sit down to write them, the work will come relatively easy.

This is a completely new experience for me. As much as I love writing, it’s always been extraordinarily difficult. I have perfectionist tendencies that have caused storms of anxiety, and that makes it hard to see anything but the mistakes. I’ve never been able to write shitty first drafts; I know writers who create such polished work right off the top of their head, and it’s impossible not to compare yourself against that. My character work is never where I want it to be, and when the characters actually begin to live and breathe and deviate from the plot it legitimately freaks me out. I have no idea how to handle that.

But that’s the state that I’ve always given lip service to wanting to go. Writing, for me, feels like being a conduit for something. When the ego drops away and I’m connected directly to the story, it feels like I’m possessed by something, transcribing an event as being dictated by someone “not me”. When a story is really flowing, it’s an out of body experience. And I know how crazy that sounds, but it’s true.

For the longest time, I’ve never trusted myself to tap into that. Knowing the history of mental illness within my family, and dealing with my personal experience there, I’ve been very afraid of indulging any tendencies that could exacerbate those issues. Does writing make me crazier? Is it likely that one day, when working on a particularly intense story, I could have some kind of schizophrenic break? My life unfolded the way it did because my mother did not have any semblance of reality, was paranoid, unable to take care of me. I couldn’t live with myself if I forced my husband and my friends to go through that.

I didn’t even realize I was having that thought before doing the work I’ve been doing in my Anxiety group class. And realizing that writing, mental illness and anxiety had coalesced into this huge mental knot is ultimately freeing. I’m more willing to take risks with it, just because the feeling I have when writing is worth it. And that means I’m more willing to make mistakes and learn from them. I no longer catastrophize the consequences; if I fail, I can come back from that. With my mental illness, I trust my medication, I trust my self-care process, I trust my behavioral therapy, and I trust my support network.

For the first time, being a writer isn’t some distant dream for me. It’s who I am, and it’s what I do. And I’m so very excited that I have an opportunity to do the things I’ve always wanted to do, that I get to be the person I’ve always wanted to be.

I have an idea for a serial story originally released on-line. It’ll be furry stories, sci-fi and modern fantasy, adult. Right now, I would love to write about 1500 words a week, release that part in certain places, then collect three or four parts into a chapter that’s released in a more polished form elsewhere. Once the story is finished (I’m thinking anywhere from 8 – 13 chapters per serial), hopefully I can polish it further, and release it as an ebook or self-published novel.

In order to work on this project, I’m launching a Patreon. Folks familiar with my furry work should know what to expect from the Jackalope Serial Company: stories about growth, personal and otherwise. When I’m ready to go live and work on the serials directly, I’ll post a link with more information. But for now, I just wanted it out there. I’m expecting to be ready to go with it by the beginning of November.

I’ve also reached out to a few friends about the Furry Mental Health podcast; the person I know with the best equipment and knowledge for it suggested that I present a proof of concept to him for six shows, with subject matter, segments outlined, all of that. It’s a solid recommendation, and I’m working on that. I would like to start recording THAT at the beginning of the new year, with episodes coming out in February or March.

So that’s my plan for the rest of the year. Full steam ahead on short stories, getting the Jackalope Serial Company off the ground, putting together a first season of the Furry Mental Health podcast. I’m incredibly excited about all of this, and I can’t wait to actually share finished stuff with you very soon.

 

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