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(Mental Health) My Comorbidity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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(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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(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.

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

 

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(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.

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

 

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(Personal) What I Learned by Being Alone

Buddhism 150There’s this idea in Buddhism about the Noble Eightfold Path — after you’ve taken every step along the path, what comes next? You’ve attained Right View and Intention, Right Speech and Action and Livelihood, Right Effort and Mindfulness and Concentration. Where do you go from there?

You attain Right View after that.

Like the wheel of karma, the Noble Eightfold Path is also a circle; reaching one spoke of the wheel brings you to the place where you can reach the next one. There is no completion, even after you attain enlightenment; there is only the work of realization of the present. One of the reasons I identify with Zen Buddhism so strongly is its acknowledgement that perfection is an illusion. Being alive is a constant balancing act, maintaining your stance while rolling with whatever bumps and turns ripple through the wheel.

It also reinforces the concept of interconnectedness. One thing leads to another, leads to another, leads to another. In this way, one act — however small — sends ripples through the wheel of your life that shape everything that comes after it. This is really what karma is; the awareness of the consequences of your actions, large and small, predicted and unintended.

So: my dear husband Ryan has been in Japan for nearly two weeks. He’s been planning this trip for months, and I’m tremendously excited to have him back with me so I can hear about his experience and see the places he’s visited. I also miss him terribly. For the past two weeks, I’ve lived as a bachelor — it’s just been me and my rabbit Puckles, watching TV and eating whatever we felt like sprawled out together in bed.

Except not really. The home we share is in a condominium complex that scheduled a fumigation for the weekend after he left, which meant that I would have to get everything ready for that. All of our food and medicine had to be double bagged in special material in order to avoid contamination. And I would have to clean up as much as I could, because there’s no way I’m going to let strangers know just what kind of things we let slide in our household.

The work was more intensive than I expected, so it meant many late nights. I don’t sleep well without Ryan anyway, so that meant trying to snatch just a little more rest well after the alarm went off. That meant being unable to meditate and ease into the day before work, which meant that I arrived at the office tired, harried and rootless. That meant being less resilient to stress, which there was plenty of last week. And that meant coming back home with my willpower depleted, my brain fried and unable to rest because there was more preparation to do. Which meant more late nights…

You get the idea. For the past two weeks I slipped into a cycle where I had all but abandoned the self-care mechanisms I had been building for a while, and the effect was dramatic. My mood plummeted, my anxiety skyrocketed and my coping mechanisms disappeared. All from staying up too late.

Except, of course, not really. The contradiction here is that I made a series of choices that put me into that cycle. I could have made more efficient use of my time, or gotten up early anyway to make the best of so little sleep. I could have asked for more help with getting the apartment together before that weekend. I could have simply sacrificed precision (I couldn’t ignore the opportunity to throw away expired food and medicine) for time. Each choice I made along the way nudged me a little more firmly into that cycle, until momentum made it easy to remain there.

And once you’re there, you feel stuck. Life doesn’t pause for you to get your head on straight; there was still work and fumigation and everything else. Taking the time to put in the effort to get yourself off of a bad path can be difficult to find, but at a certain point it’s necessary. You have to stop and take a breath.

This past weekend I managed to slow down enough to consider the choices I make. I went to bed earlier, caught up on sleep, re-established my meditation practice, and took the mindfulness I gained off the bench and into the rest of the day. I’m in a better place mentally and emotionally, but I’m still recovering. Pausing and changing momentum is still energy that must be expended. I believe I’m applying Right Concentration now, making a concerted effort to make sure the changes I make today stick.

Eventually, I’ll get to a place where I can work on attaining the Right View.

 
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Posted by on April 11, 2016 in Buddhism, Self-Reflection

 

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(Personal) San Francisco by Starlight – Walking for Suicide Prevention

Myth 150The first time I attempted suicide was the lowest moment of my life. I was sprawled out on the couch of a relative stranger, miles away from home, certain that I would never see my family again. It was the summer of 1999, and I had been outed by my therapist to my mother as gay (long story); after several months of put-downs and pretty awful behavior, my mother told me not to come back home when I left for college in August. I moved out that week, and I’ve never been home since.

A few friends who lived nearby offered to pick me up and let me crash at their place for the summer. They were generous with their space and resources when I had no one else, and I’ll always be grateful for that. But they were also dealing with their own fairly severe emotional, psychological and relationship problems — it was a dysfunctional household, and I was facing down the rest of my life without ever seeing my family again.

I had never felt so alone. I grew up in a religion that encouraged its adherents to keep a distance from the rest of the world, so my congregation was my life in many ways. I didn’t have many friends; I didn’t have many appreciable skills; I didn’t have any money. As far as I knew, I would live on campus, struggle through classes as best I could, and sleep on couches for the forseeable future.

The thought of that, barely surviving through a series of tests with few friends and no prospects, was too painful to contemplate. Who could possibly love me? I was sad all the time. I knew nothing and I couldn’t learn. In a very real sense, my life was over and I had no idea what could replace it.

So I bought sleeping pills, and took as many as I could swallow. I slept like the dead for ten or twelve hours, and when I woke up I took more. Then more, and more. After three or four days, one of my hosts shoved a sandwich into my hands. I ate automatically. And I began to recover.

Before I dropped out of college at the end of the year, I lost a friend to suicide and another friend made an attempt on her own life. I’ve known others — friends of friends, people in the furry community, folks from back in the old neighborhood — who have tried to kill themselves. Almost every single person I know has been touched by suicide, an act of desperation made by people who say no other way out of their deep suffering.

A 2005 study found that suicide was the third-leading cause of death among young black males in this country. A CDC report found that between 1999 and 2004, the suicide rate among black males was the highest in the land. There is a whole culture of us who feel trapped in broken neighborhoods, targeted by those in authority, with no hope of anything getting better for us. In addition to turning to crime, drugs and anti-social behavior, suicide is a recourse that so many of us consider.

The same holds true for LGBTQ youth. Those brave teenagers and young adults who are open about their alternative sexuality and gender expression face bullying, rejection from friends and family, isolation, confusion about their own minds, and depression almost routinely. So many of us have felt like there is simply no place to go, no other option left to us. We have no idea what kind of help or resources are out there.

There is a stigma about mental health and suicide in the black community, and in the fandom/geek community. There is so much misinformation about there about the nature of suicidal thoughts, expressions and actions; there’s an incredibly damaging attitude about self-harm and what it means. It’s incredibly important to me to change that. I need to speak up about my own experiences and advocate a more responsible and compassionate conversation about this. I want people to know that they’re not facing this alone, that people see and support them, that we understand and want to help.

So I’ll be participating in The Overnight, an event in San Francisco that begins at sundown on May 21st. I and hundreds of others will walk 16 – 18 miles across the city, visiting landmarks by moonlight and connecting with others by sharing our experiences and losses. At sunrise we’ll gather one final time to reflect, share, mourn and celebrate the fact that we’re still here.

If you’re in the Bay Area — or New York, where an Overnight Walk will take place on June 4th — I highly encourage you to join me. If you can’t, please donate whatever you can to support me and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The AFSP is a charity that focuses on education and outreach about mental health and suicide, provides support for those who have been affected by it, and promotes legislation that encourages a more compassionate response towards those of us dealing with mental health issues or suicidal thoughts. If you would like to help me raise money for this important work, please visit my participant page here: http://theovernight.donordrive.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=donordrive.participant&participantID=18579

Every little bit helps, and I’d be incredibly grateful for your support.

 
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Posted by on March 9, 2016 in Buddhism, Self-Reflection

 

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Self-Care and Conventions

Fandom 150Further Confusion 2016 will begin tomorrow, and for most of us furries we’re just counting down the hours until we can head to San Jose to immerse ourselves in fandom for four glorious days. I know I’m itching to get there myself. But one of the things that rarely gets talked about at these conventions is how big a disruption they are to our daily lives, and what that disruption can do for those of us coping with mental illness. While the potential is there for a brilliant weekend, the craziness of the convention alone can throw us off-kilter.

For many of us, FC 2016 is one of our only chances to be with people we feel truly understand us; for four days we can put aside the problems of our regular lives and enjoy company and kinship in a way we rarely get to experience. We become so attached to the promise of a non-stop great time that any disappointment or gap in pleasure can send us spiraling into dark places. Unfortunately, downtime and disappointment are both facts of life; we can do ourselves a huge favor by learning to roll with them.

I want folks who are going through rough times at the convention to know that I see them, and I sympathize with what they’re dealing with. I’d like to share a few things that have helped me get through conventions and have made sure I have the best time possible.

Absolutely take care of the basics. 6/2/1 is a mnemonic I’ve seen floating around recently to remind people about the basic things you should do every day during a convention. 6 hours of sleep, 2 meals a day (at least), 1 shower. Making sure you’re well-rested, well-fed and well-groomed can have a profound effect on your mood — this goes doubly so for those of us with mental issues.

If nothing else, making sure you get enough sleep and enough to eat is absolutely essential for managing your mood. Sleep allows the brain to recover from daily stresses, and your body needs nutrients to keep it running properly while you’re awake. And making sure you’re clean and wearing comfortable clothing you feel good about being seen in helps tremendously with self-esteem. Those three things alone are vital, easy things we can do to keep us on a stable footing emotionally.

I know that sleep and showers can go by the wayside pretty easily, especially for those of us stricken by FOMO — the Fear of Missing Out. It can feel like leaving our friends is a guarantee of not getting to see or do something awesome. But it’s important to remember that the convention (and your friends) will be there when you’re awake, cleaned and your hunger is satisfied. It’s a trade-off of quantity of time for quality time. When you feel better, you will have more fun. Trust me on this! I’ve stuck around for things way longer than I should have, when I was hungry or tired, just because I didn’t want to leave. It was miserable.

For those of us who need a little extra self-care, I would recommend sleeping at least 7 hours a day, eating 3 square meals, taking 1 shower and making absolutely sure you take any medications that you’ve been prescribed.

If possible, adapt your routine for travel. One of the ways I manage my mental state is by doing my best to establish a routine. I get up at a certain time, I go to the bathroom, I meditate, take my medication, then get to writing. Doing this every day gives me a nice foundation to center on through the craziness of the day; it’s how I try to put my best foot forward. Obviously, it’s a lot harder to stick to it when traveling, but I give it my best shot and I recommend you do the same.

If you have a small set of activities you do at certain times, find ways to stick to them when you’re traveling — especially if it helps to center and calm you. If that’s just not possible, think of alternate activities that provide you with the tools you need to be mentally resilient through the day. It can really help you through the marathon of interaction that conventions tend to be.

Learn to be OK with being alone or having downtime. This can be difficult, especially if the convention is the one time you get to spend with friends you only know online. But the fact of the matter is sometimes your friends will be doing something else or you’re waiting to join up with someone; you will find yourself alone with nothing to do. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing; there’s an enormous convention happening all around you, with new people to meet and all kinds of interesting things to do.

If you find yourself having downtime — unexpected or otherwise — take advantage of the events being set up by the hard-working convention staff. Take a look at the schedule to see what’s open and where things are; the gaming area tends to be open most of the day and night, and there’s a number of meeting areas that you can camp out in and hang out. If nothing grabs your fancy, pre-planning an “alone time” activity or two to fall back on can help keep you occupied for a while. Take advantage of downtime to center yourself and collect your thoughts. Being alone doesn’t necessarily mean being lonely.

Allow yourself to feel what you’re feeling. Sometimes, despite our best efforts and careful planning, we’ll fall into a bad mental state. That is OK! No one — not even at a world-class furry convention — feels great all the time! Sometimes we’ll be sad, or bored, or angry and frustrated. There’s a huge emphasis on avoiding the negative feelings we have, but that can make things worse. I know for me, I’ll think that I “shouldn’t” feel the way I do and that guilt or frustration (What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I just be happy?) just makes things that much worse.

If you’re having a bad time, or you’re feeling low, take a moment to tell yourself that it’s OK you feel this way. It’s a valid emotion to have, and it’s only temporary. It will pass in time, even though it might not feel like it. What’s more, you don’t have to necessarily *do* anything about what you’re feeling. It can be a powerful thing to accept your feelings, even when they hurt. You may not feel better, exactly, but it can ease the pressure that we can feel about our emotions.

Further Confusion is a wonderful con, and I hope that everyone who attends has an amazing time. If you find yourself struggling to deal with emotions, please reach out to someone. You are not alone, even though it may feel like it. But you have to take care of yourself before you can expect others to take care of you.

Make sure you get enough sleep, get enough to eat, and present yourself as best you can. Plan to take care of your needs ahead of time if at all possible. Accept who you are and how you feel. It can be difficult work, I know, but the work is worth it. I’ll see you folks in San Jose in about 24 hours.

 
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Posted by on January 13, 2016 in Furries

 

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