RSS

Tag Archives: generalized anxiety disorder

(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.

 
1 Comment

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

 

Tags: , , , , , ,

(Mental Health) My Anxiety

Myth 150When I was a little kid our family had an ancient brown Chrysler my mom called “Nellie”. I wasn’t sure if it was actually brown, or if the car was covered in that much rust, but Nellie was a formidable vehicle, a 20-foot land yacht with leather seats that gave you frostbite in the winter and third-degree burns in the summer. The space on the floor in front of the seats was so wide we actually sat there during long drives sometimes, watching the sky speed by through the windows. There are a lot of things about that car I miss, but I did not miss the joy-buzzer sound of its alarm system.

Nellie bleated about everything whether it was a problem or not: the oil gauge would light up even when she was half-full, and so did the gas. The temperature gauge was lit no matter what, so we just learned to ignore it. But the bane of my existence was the “door ajar” alarm, which would sound sometimes even when you just bumped the door with your elbow. Sometimes, during long trips, it would just buzz until we stopped and shut it again — and that wasn’t something a seven-year-old bookworm could do easily. Mom would turn up her Motown tape to try to drown out the noise, but really it just made it worse. Even today, “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” just doesn’t sound right without that buzzy whine.

As ancient as she was, Nellie was a good car — even if her gauge system was completely shot. I think fondly of her these days because I identify with her so much; like her hypersensitive open door sensor, my anxiety trigger will go off for like, no reason.

I am one of about seven million Americans with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, a mental illness that is often found in people with Major Depressive Disorder. People who cope with GAD are natural-born worriers, with anxiety flaring up over just about anything. The anxiety is excessive for the given situation and many of us feel like we can’t control how much we worry. Symptoms often include a feeling of restlessness or edginess, difficulty with concentration or your mind going blank, muscle tension, difficulty with sleep, and/or being easily fatigued. That worry and accompanying symptoms have to be present for at least six months before diagnosis.

GAD is one of those disorders that develops gradually, so the typical age of diagnosis is right around 31. It affects women more often than men, though it’s not entirely clear why. In fact, not much is known about how GAD develops in general; the best guess is that combination of biological factors, family background, and life experiences — especially stressful ones.

In general, GAD is treated with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), mindfulness training and/or medications like SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, which prevent your brain from cleaning up free-floating serotonin in your synapses). Cognitive behavioral therapy helped me understand my anxiety disorder much more clearly, and gave me a good framework to deal with it.

I find it helpful to think of my emotions like the gauges and alerts on a car’s dashboard; when they light up, it’s my mind telling me that I need to pay attention to something. Happiness is basically Cruise Control; everything’s good, just keep doing what you’re doing and you’ll be fine. The temperature gauge warns me when I’m getting too hot and need to cool down; the gas gauge warns me when I’m hungry and so on. When the sensors are working properly, emotions are a useful way to bring mindful attention to a situation that might need to be changed. For those of us with mood disorders like depression or GAD, however, the sensors are over-sensitive and tend to light up when they really don’t need to.

Those of us with anxiety disorders tend to have trouble with uncertainty; what’s unknown is dangerous, and our minds tend to jump right into hypothetical catastrophes. So we try to plan or control as much as possible, getting out ahead of any situation that might arise. This can be put to good use in a lot of different ways when the anxiety is mild or even moderate; but when it tips into severe anxiety things get a lot harder.

My biggest stressors are failing at something I really want to be good at, forgetting to do something I’m supposed to, and disappointing someone. For the longest time I refused to move into a position that required more expertise at my day job because I knew in my heart I wouldn’t be able to do it — I’m not detail-oriented enough and the consequences of failure can be pretty high. I didn’t want to be the one person who couldn’t keep up and forced other members of my team to drop what they were doing to bail me out.

Deadlines are a nut I have never been able to crack, especially with writing. I stress about everything when working on a story, and all too often I get caught in a loop where I’ll get stuck on a single aspect of the process, revising again and again and again until I’m exhausted. As the deadline grows closer, that anxiety grows until it feels like I’m physically unable to concentrate on what I need to do: my monkey-brain leaps all over the place, or my mind simply goes blank and I can’t hold on to a thought. Almost always, I’ll freeze in the face of the deadline and watch the opportunity pass me by. Having never tried is almost a relief compared to the imagined hell of really going for it and failing completely.

While this kind of performance anxiety is fairly common, it’s not the reason GAD is so troublesome for me. Like Nellie’s constant open door buzzer, my worry is ever-present and all-consuming. I am in a near-constant state of fight or flight, ready to box any perceived threat or run screaming from it. Right now, as I type this, I’m worried about the following things: the possibility of marijuana addiction; the spectre of a progressively worse anxiety disorder that blossoms into a full blown obsessive-compulsive disorder; all of the people I haven’t spoken to in a while and what they think of me; the last work project I need to turn in; my Patreon; my Pathfinder game; countless other projects I’ve committed to and should be working on; my mother; my brother-in-law; my bank account; my new job; the possibility of dementia at an old age; Trump; Iran developing nuclear weapons; my rabbit; how this post will be received; how much I still need to do before bed; whether or not I’ll sleep well; how much I can get done tomorrow; my upcoming trip to Europe; the possibility of nuclear war or a terrorist attack; my weight; my libido; the length of this paragraph.

My mind gnaws over these worries all the time, from my first thoughts in the morning to those last troubled, fuzzy ones that pop up when I’m lying in bed. I’m constantly thinking about the things that could go wrong, the things that have gone wrong, what’s my fault and how bad it will be when the consequences are due. I’m not going to lie, it’s exhausting; whenever I find something that makes me more relaxed, it’s like discovering Narnia. People who can just wing it, or not care about what happens, are straight-up aliens to me.

But simply knowing that my brain has this hypersensitivity to stress helps me deal with that. It means that building a less stressful life is not just an idle dream; it’s a necessary component of self-care. I’m a bit more watchful for the symptoms of high anxiety, like unfocused near-panic just waiting for something to latch onto or the tendency to take a small annoyance and make it exhibit A for a major problem that we’re screwed if we don’t solve. And when I catch myself feeling overwhelmed, I know that I need to take a breath and a step back, then force myself to take things one step at a time.

Still, it’s a struggle. Knowing that my amygdala is intensely hyper-active doesn’t necessarily make the effects any easier to deal with, especially when they prevent you from doing so much. Anxiety frequently overwhelms the techniques learned through CBT because there’s no one thing that causes it; it really is an omni-present entity, a background static that makes it really easy to be thrown into a state of high anxiety and all that comes with it.

While I’ve been dealing with depression for long enough that I feel comfortable with the coping mechanisms I’ve developed for it, Generalized Anxiety Disorder has proven to be much more difficult to deal with. It prevents me from trying new things readily, or producing stories that I would want to show people. It makes it harder to be relaxed or confident; it affects my ability to be social. I wish it weren’t so, and I wish I had a better way of managing it, but that’s the way it is.

Over 40 million Americans — roughly 18% of the population — has some kind of anxiety disorder, whether it’s GAD, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or a Specific Phobia. We are a very anxious country, and it shows. I think one of the best things we can do for ourselves and our neighbors, coworkers and fellow citizens suffering silently under this epidemic is foster an environment of safety and acceptance wherever we can, however we can. Making sure those of us who are anxious have concrete feedback that the consequences aren’t as bad as we fear for failure sure helps, but it also helps to ease the ‘background anxiety’ in our culture. That might be the most important thing we can do: removing fear from our lives and our communities as best we can.

This post is part of Mental Health Awareness Month; I’m writing to share my personal experience with my mental health and hopefully ease the stigma around the very real illnesses I and millions of other people cope with on a daily basis. If you’re interested in helping with this work, here are a few things you can do: support the National Alliance for Mental Illness; visit The Siwe Project, which aims to reduce the stigma of therapy and mental illness in the African diaspora; visit and support The Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective (BEAM); and, if you like, chip in a dollar or two through Ko-fi for the blog. I appreciate your support, no matter what form it takes.

 
4 Comments

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

 

Tags: , , ,

(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?

 
1 Comment

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

 

Tags: , , , ,

(Buddhism) We’re All Mad Here

Buddhism 150I’ve been thinking a lot about anger over the past month and a half. Ever since Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, MO way back in 2014 I’ve been increasingly political with my online presence — and the candidacy and ultimate inauguration of Donald Trump has pushed that side of my digital identity much more to the forefront. Politics, and the anger it generates, has crept into every aspect of my existence here. Largely, this has been due to social media and the breakneck speed with which outrageous news is being circulated there. There have been entire days spent tweeting and retweeting about the latest controversy in the furry fandom, in sci-fi and fantasy publishing, in Washington; agreeing with or challenging comments from folks about them; trying to find just the right point to make that might win hearts and minds. But now, four years later, I’ve hit outrage exhaustion: what’s left in its wake is a weary, frightened resignation. This can’t continue the way it has. We need to seriously think about how our current Internet culture is encouraging, even normalizing, constant and unreasoning anger.

First, let me say that we have a lot to be angry about. The police brutality we’ve seen through Brown and a parade of other victims hasn’t abated. The Trump Administration has been openly corrupt, incompetent, and vicious in its attacks on marginalized populations of just about every stripe — and it’s been largely aided by the Republican Party. Our ability to solve problems with even bipartisan support has become impossible. Meanwhile, authoritarianism, xenophobia, anti-social and anti-environment behavior has spread through the United States and the rest of the world in ways I wouldn’t have thought possible even back four years ago. There are far too many people who think we’re going in the right direction — or, at least, that there aren’t actually any problems with what’s going down right now.

This is an incredibly scary time, and it can be incredibly frustrating to see just how many things are going wrong and how few people care. In light of what’s happening to our country and the world, I think anger is a completely acceptable response. We’re right to be angry. But we’re not doing the right things with our anger, and that’s the problem.

One of the best things I learned from my group class for Anxiety Disorder is thinking about emotions like the lights on your dashboard. We don’t chastise our cars for telling us that our oil is low, that we need a new battery, or that we need gas. Those alerts are telling us that we need to attend to something in order to keep our cars running smoothly. Emotions are the same way; they’re our mind’s way of telling us that something within us needs attending to. In my case, the ‘anxiety’ dashboard light is way too sensitive but that’s another story. If we shift our thinking about our emotions to this framework, categorizing them as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ no longer makes sense. They’re simply calls for action.

Anger, in particular, can be a very difficult emotion to allow mostly because it’s so immediate and powerful. It drives us to do things at the moment we later regret, and I’m no different. Last year alone I can immediately think of three or four different occasions where my anger got the better of me and caused a difficult situation to become that much worse. When this happens again and again, we begin to mistrust that emotion. We see it as a problem, as something that we must ignore or excise in order to be healthy. But that’s just as damaging as flying off the handle.

It is important to allow yourself to be angry. It is important to understand that anger, like any other emotion, is a call to pay attention to something inside yourself. Exactly what that is might be different from person to person, but for me it’s a sign that one of my values has been offended or, as Tara Brach so wonderfully put it, a deep need is not being met. When we feel ourselves getting angry, if we sit with the feeling and follow it towards its source, we can learn surprising things about what we value and what we need. Once we’ve made that discovery, we can frame our reaction around that instead of making sure whoever angered us is ‘punished’. That impulse to punish is what happens when our desire to make the world a better place is carried through thoughtlessly.

I know that I have a problem with anger; it flares up fast but dies just as quickly. Over time, I’ve learned to wait out the emotion without taking action through it. Most of the time, whatever angered me won’t seem like such a big deal once I’ve calmed down. These past few years, though, I’ve been getting angry over things that are very much a big deal. These offenses to my values aren’t easy to get over, and when there are new offenses every day — sometimes multiple times in one day — it feels impossible to take a step back and calm down. Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr all seem to be designed for stoking that anger, keeping the coals hot, because we pay attention to the things that anger us. Algorithms designed to keep us on websites for longer have hijacked our focus and severely eroded our ability to deal with anger constructively.

It’s very important to take a beat when we find ourselves getting angry, if only to ask ourselves a few basic questions. Why does this make me so angry? Who benefits from my anger? What can I do to really address what’s causing this response? Tara Brach calls this “the u-turn”, a necessary and conscious choice to direct our attention inwards instead of outwards, to sit with our anger and learn what it’s asking us to attend to. Sometimes, before we can even do that, we have to forgive ourselves for being angry, or give ourselves permission, or just reckon with the unpleasant physical and mental sensations that come with it. Either way, none of that happens without taking a pause.

This can be very difficult on social media. Twitter moves so fast, and often taking a moment to consider our responses can mean that the conversation moves on without us. But this isn’t a bad thing; that can teach us that not every exchange or idea needs our input. Sometimes, it’s better for everyone involved to let the moment go.

Once we understand the mechanisms that trigger our anger, we can do better about expressing that anger in a way that fosters connection and collaboration. Tara Brach believes that anger, at its source, is about us — what we need, what we care about, how we express ourselves. I agree with that, but up to a point. While there are so many things in the world that should not be, we also have greater control over our personal experience than we think. Anger might be a completely justified response to an external stimulus, but how we handle our anger can be brought under our control. It’s not easy, and it’s not always possible to know the best way to express it, but with time, effort, practice and patience we can get better at it.

This has all been brought up through a few different things. One, Tara Brach’s wonderful talk on “Anger: Responding, Not Reacting“; two, an episode of the “Where There’s Smoke” podcast that explores how social media has become a Skinner box for impulsive, expressive rage. I highly encourage you to take a listen to both of these whenever you have a chance — and let me know what you think. How can we express our anger more productively? How can we change our behavior on social media to tackle the things we find most important without contributing to the ‘noise’ of outrage culture?

 

Tags: , , , ,

(Writing) Writing and the Anxious Rabbit

Writing 150Generalized Anxiety Disorder is a mental illness that can be difficult to talk about, mostly because it looks like one of those ‘special snowflake’ disorders that someone claims to have in order to justify certain behaviors. Even with an official diagnosis and some significant time in a group therapy class, it’s the aspect of my mental health that I understand the least but still has a huge effect on my ability to get things done from day to day. I’m not sure what to say about it, though, especially these days when it feels like everyone is on edge for very good reason. Still, I’m going to try to talk about my anxiety disorder — especially as it relates to my quest to develop a consistent and productive writing practice.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder is, for me, a constant tension that travels with me every day, all day. It most often settles around performance anxiety — making sure that I send an email just right so the person I’m speaking to doesn’t get offended, or trying to tackle a case at work in a manner that’s quick and thorough, or replaying conversations back through my head to pick out possible indications that it didn’t go at all how I thought, or thinking about all of the things I should be doing, or all of the things I forgot to do, or an undiscovered asteroid that could plow into the planet, or being stopped by the police, or suddenly being fired, or the possibility that I could just lapse into depression or insanity, or something might happen to my husband, or….and so on. No matter what I’m doing, or how happy I might be otherwise, there is always some part of my brain that is screaming with worry.

Now that I know what it is, I know that I’ve had this since I was a teenager. I could never relax when I was a kid, because there was no place that felt safe to me. Even when I was alone, I worried about a home invasion, or a fire, or being abducted by aliens, or… There’s always something that needs to be done, or always a way something can be handled better. The constant pressure regularly becomes too much for me to handle, and I end up doing something mindless for hours because I can’t think about anything without freaking out.

This all happens under the hood. It’s difficult to put across how relentless worry can fray you, especially when you’ve been dealing with it for so long you’ve learned how to function through it.

However, without chemical help (like alcohol), it’s…impossible to relax. I’ve developed coping mechanisms over time, like zazen, ashwaghanda supplements, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), but the disorder is still there — I just have an expanded toolset that allows me to deconstruct the underlying thoughts behind the worry, cope with stress, and forge ahead with whatever triggers performance anxiety a bit more easily.

This month I’ve been working hard to build a more consistent meditation and writing practice; I would love to bring more readers to The Writing Desk, have more folks sign up for my Patreon, and submit short stories to various publications. Doing that requires me to confront my anxiety about writing in a very real way. Every day is a battle against that screaming part of my brain that tells me I’ll never be good enough to do what I want to do; that whatever I publish will be mocked as both pretentious and pathetically deviant; that what interests me is not even interesting enough for other people to hate it.

I created my Patreon, for example, as a means to hold myself accountable for producing content on a deadline. For the most part, that’s been a failure. The first serial I wrote was scrapped after 14 or so “weekly” installments over the course of six months, and it’s been really hard to build any kind of momentum with it. The folks who have stuck with me over the past two years are saints of the highest order, and I appreciate them every day. But anxiety clearly has won out here so far. Because of it, there is no way that I can possibly write something “just for fun” — I really wish I could, but everything I put to paper eventually gets stuck in the weight of that self-imposed pressure.

So with the stuff that matters to me, the pressure can quickly reach the point of being unbearable. Over the past few months, I’ve tried to focus on ‘making friends’ with that discomfort, knowing that anything worth doing, anything that would help me to change and grow, would be uncomfortable. It’s a sign that I’m pushing myself to do something difficult. And that has helped, honestly. It’s allowed me to progress — but that progress is still very slow.

The best thing I’ve found to combat my anxiety is to focus on the story I’m telling, the characters that I’m working with, the setting, or structure, or feeling that I’d like to evoke. The more I think about the work itself instead of how it’s going to be received, the easier it gets to push that screaming aside until it fades into the background. At some point, you have to realize just how much about a situation is outside of your control; all you can do is make sure what’s under your control is handled as best as you can. It’s a really difficult lesson to learn, and I’m still in the middle of that process, but it’s worth learning for sure.

I’m still not sure what to do about this anxiety. I think I need to go back into therapy to deal with it and a number of other issues that are increasingly difficult to fight against. But for now, the march of progress goes ever on.

 
1 Comment

Posted by on October 25, 2017 in mental-health, Self-Reflection, Writing

 

Tags: , , ,

(Personal) Cracking Myself Open

Myth 150One of the earliest memories I have about my mental illness is breaking down in the middle of lunch in sixth or seventh grade. Things were not going well for me. I was a shy and awkward kid who loved reading fantasy books. I was really sensitive, so I didn’t hold up to bullying very well. And I had gotten into trouble enough that in addition to homework and everything else, I had to write a sentence “I will not…something something something.” 1000 times.

I was sitting alone, trying to think of what impossible task I should do over lunch and how I could justify putting off the others, when I just needed to put my head down. It didn’t help. Tears welled up and I let them fall. My entire body locked up. All I wanted to do was curl up tighter. Someone found me, stood me up, and asked me if I had eaten anything. Then they marched me up to the lunch line.

It felt like my entire body had fallen asleep. I didn’t have full control over the way I moved, so I just lurched around like Frankenstein’s monster. I couldn’t stop crying. There was no way I could eat, or speak, or open my mouth. When the lunch lady asked if I needed anything, all I could do was sob and shake my head and lurch back to my seat.

To this day I have no idea what to call that episode. A panic attack? A nervous breakdown? Who knows. But it happened again when my sister ran away from home, and again shortly after I dropped out of college and moved to Arkansas.

I’ve been dealing with depression and anxiety for my entire life. Most of the memories I have of my childhood are unhappy ones, where something in my brain just snapped and a response rose from within me that I still don’t understand. What’s more, I can remember similar things happening to the people around me; my father’s mind going after his divorce, retreating further into himself; my mother disappearing for hours to sleep off depression; my sister’s mood swings; the strange rumors that dogged certain neighbors. When I was growing up, our understanding of mental illness was little more than being able to identify “crazy” behavior; if someone did something “crazy” once too often, then they were branded. And there wasn’t anything they could do to shake that off.

Even now, knowing what I know about my family history and the struggles that my siblings and I face, I see that for the most part that understanding hasn’t deepened much. My sister is on medication that makes her incoherent or sleepy. My brothers still do things they don’t understand. And, now that she’s reaching the end of her life, my mother is beginning to forget things and become confused.

It’s taken me a long time to come to grips with my mental illness, to accept it and learn how to incorporate it into my self-image. But there are so many black Americans and others in the diaspora who either can’t or won’t for a constellation of reasons. Most of us simply can’t afford treatment for mental health issues, and wouldn’t know where to begin even if we could. There is a stigma, even now, around therapy and medication that makes it difficult to encourage folks to seek out. There is still this narrative that those of us with mental illnesses are just “weak” or “whining” and only need to “get your mind right” to overcome them. We know so little, but we have such strong opinions.

Talking about my personal struggle with these things is still frightening to me, even though I do it so much. But it’s important that I do. Within black circles, and geek circles, and even Buddhist circles, there is so much misinformation about mental illness and what people who deal with them are like. If being open about them can help to dispel that, then that’s what I have to do. For my family, for my friends, and for my community.

If you are dealing with a mental health issue, please know that you’re not alone. There are more of us than you know, willing and able to lend a hand. If at all possible, do what you can to lessen the stigma around these issues — especially in minority groups. There is no shame at all in having a chronic mental illness, or in seeking treatment for it. There is no shame in doing what you need to do in order to be the best person you can.

 

Tags: , , , ,

(Personal) What Makes Me Anxious

Myth 150One of the new podcasts I’ve picked up recently is Fear The Boot, this great gaming podcast that talks about aspects of role-playing in tabletop games, MMORPGs and other things. It’s really a bunch of gamers who get along really well shooting the shit and offering their perspective on games both modern and…historical? They recently had this deep dive into one of the first D&D boxes that one of them found at a yard sale, and it was really interesting.

Their most recent set of podcasts talk about RPGs and mental health, and they’re amazing. I’m all about talking openly about mental health issues in geek spaces, and it makes me so happy that other people are relating the experiences and perspectives that have shaped them. The gang talks about depression, anxiety and PTSD, offering perspectives that hadn’t occurred to me before. One of the biggest things I took away revolves around talking to people who don’t quite understand the irrationality of these things: if there were a legitimate cause for my depression or anxiety, it wouldn’t be a disorder — it would be a rational response to the things that are happening to me. The thing that makes depression and anxiety disorders is the outsized response they force us to make.

Since learning about my anxiety disorder last year, I’ve been trying to pay more attention to the anxiety responses within myself. They typically manifest as avoidant behavior; when I sit down to confront something that makes me anxious, my brain develops a Teflon coating that makes the task slide off until I focus on something else. This can happen with difficult issues at work, interpersonal communications (it’s a big reason I’m so bad at email), or projects and hobbies I’ve given myself deadlines for.

This is especially bad with things that need to be done by a certain time. I get anxious about them, procrastinate, and feel guilty about not being productive. When I try to work on them again, I’m *more* anxious because I know that I’ve failed to work on it before and the deadline is even closer, so I can’t take the pressure and procrastinate some more. I miss deadline after deadline, because the worry that I won’t be able to perform this task perfectly freezes me until I just…don’t do it.

I really hate that this prevents me from doing what I want to do, or being as present as I’d like to be with the folks that I know — especially in difficult situations. I can be paralyzed by the desire to say the right thing or do the right thing; when it really matters what I say or do, the worry of doing the wrong thing is so strong. A lot of the time, it’s irrationally strong; during normal things, where the consequences for mistakes aren’t so bad, I still can’t figure out how to move forward.

This feels like the result of a few things in childhood — the fact that I was considered gifted when I was a kid and the expectation was to excel; the time when I misspelled a word during a spelling bee and my mother stopped coming to any of those competitions because “I always lose when she’s there”; the stress of going to a really tough high school without learning how to work hard on anything I didn’t get right the first time. When anything less than perfect is viewed as a disappointment through most of your primary education, you tend to develop a bit of a complex around these things.

I don’t want to make this another “My mother didn’t love me enough and it fucked me up” kind of posts, but…it’s true. I know that this is a really common narrative in geek circles, and everyone navigates their way through and past it in different ways. But for me, the fact that I had no one who I felt loved me no matter what I did made it very difficult for me to accept myself for who I was. And when it comes to anything I do — whether it’s fixing a customer’s problem or finding just the right order of words — anything less than perfection is a disappointment, and disappointment can lead to abandonment and rejection. If I don’t do things perfectly, I cannot be a person worthy of love. So it’s better to do nothing than to make mistakes.

Of course this isn’t healthy or productive, but the behavior has been ingrained within me beyond a rational point. Uncovering that rock to see what’s there, then doing the difficult work of cleaning out the toxic self-talk, is one of those things that takes time and persistent effort. It also tends to happen in stages; cleaning it out might only enable you to see there’s more there, more deeply ingrained, stuff that will be even harder to scrub out.

I am a fundamentally anxious person. I care about getting things right. While that’s a reasonable impulse, the fear of getting things wrong is not. It’s time to start working on that, which means leaning in to the things that make me uncomfortable, making mistakes and learning how to recover from them. I know that my husband loves me no matter what; I know that I have friends who support me no matter what; I know that no matter what, I am someone worthy of love and life. But there is some scared little child deep within me that believes none of these things, and it will take a lot of coaxing to change his mind.

I’ll talk about more of my progress here occasionally, as part of that work. If you have issues with anxiety, performance or other mental issues, please consider this a safe space to share your experience and perspective. I welcome you. Let’s work through this together.

 
1 Comment

Posted by on July 6, 2016 in mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

Tags: , , ,