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The Overnight Walk to Prevent Suicide 2019

I’ve attempted suicide twice — once a short time after I was disowned by my mother for being gay, and again after a bad break-up with my first real boyfriend. Both times, I felt completely unmoored after severing fundamental relationships that also disconnected the fragile support networks that came with them. There was no one I could tell about the persistent, gnawing pain that hollowed me out until there was only numbness, which felt even worse.

It got to the point where I didn’t just want to feel nothing; I didn’t even want to be aware of feeling. There was no way to step outside of myself, no way to know that I could eventually feel different. There was only the awful, disintegrating pain and the cold fog beyond it. Oblivion had to be better.

It took a long time to put my life back together again. While I still have a brain that I struggle against constantly, I also have a loving husband, an incredible community of friends, and the great fortune of health insurance that covers mental health services. I feel incredibly lucky and grateful every day for these blessings and the sense of perspective they’ve given me.

But there are so many people like me who aren’t as lucky. People of color have to navigate a hostile country that looks at them with disdain and suspicion. People with mental illnesses have to bear the torture of misfiring synapses with no idea what’s happening — much less how to manage it. LGQBT people of color not only have to deal with the isolation that comes with their race; they also have to face isolation from their communities because of their sexual preference or gender presentation.

Every year over 45,000 Americans commit suicide. Most of them are men, and LGQBT youth are at a much heightened risk. Without access to mental health services or an understanding support network, they’re as disconnected as I felt at my lowest points. Even though I’m doing so much better than I was, I can’t forget about the people who are trapped in cities like Baltimore or small towns like Fayetteville, AR without any tools to cope with their situations. There are so many people out there who wrestle with the idea that oblivion might be better.

That’s why I’ll be participating in the Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk to Stop Suicide in San Francisco on June 8th, 2019. Hundreds of us will be walking across San Francisco that night to raise awareness and money for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, an organization that educates the public and medical professionals about mood disorders and suicide prevention. Their work is extremely important, offering a way to remove the stigma surrounding mental health issues and showing both therapists and patients how to connect in ways that help those suffering feel less alone.

I know there are a lot of causes passing the hat around these days, for issues as huge as climate change or as personal as helping someone pay for their medical costs. But if you have any funds to spare for a worthy endeavor, please consider this one. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has an 89% rating from Charity Navigator, so this isn’t an outfit that squanders the good will of the people who donate. If you would like to give what you can, please visit my walker’s page here:

https://www.theovernight.org/participant/David-Cowan

Thank you all so much for helping out and spreading the word. I appreciate all of you!

 
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Posted by on May 13, 2019 in mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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Depressional Confessional

Myth 150I like to think I’m a pro at being depressed. Some of my earliest memories as a kid, looking back, suggest to me that I’ve had severe depressive episodes all the way back to elementary school. One particular experience I had in middle school, now that I think about it, had to have been an emotional breakdown. As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned to recognize the shifting weather in my brain much the same way a village elder can sense a storm coming in their bones. It’s not any one thing — it’s a bunch of small things that point to a vague, indescribable feeling that my brain is fixing to turn sour.

There was an inkling last Tuesday that my mind was curdling. It’s hard to describe, but I’ll try anyway. My depressions typically start with an increased paranoia and some obsessing — it’s like my brain is catching on a thought that it keeps circling back to. The thought itself can be anything from “I’m fat and broken” to “All of your friends think you’re lame.” but the effect is the same. It’s a whisper underneath the usual chatter that I can’t help but listen to. It starts to color my interactions with other people. I start to get really…nervous.

My experience with long-term depression is that this voice never really goes away, but you learn to accept it and move on with your day. There are some times, though, where the coping mechanisms you’ve built begin to fail and your ability to accept this voice becomes more difficult, requires more concentration. Over the course of hours and days, the constant refrain saps your energy and other things begin to slip. You’re a bit less patient with the people you meet. You don’t have enough willpower to make good choices. You begin to beat yourself up about the things you do to perpetuate the spiral. Your perspective gets skewed; the voice is joined by other voices, happy to remind you about every failing you have or every big mistake you’ve made. Eventually, you just collapse. You can’t fight your own brain any more, and you’re back in the pit.

The worst part about the whole process is that I’ve been through it often enough to recognize it, to know that this is the manifestation of a chemical imbalance in my brain. The knowledge doesn’t stop it from happening, and that’s its own kind of frustration. You see people with better coping mechanisms, or no inkling of the problem, and it makes me wish that I didn’t have this broken brain that required me to put so much energy into just managing to be a functioning adult. You try to eat right, you try to get enough sleep, you exercise, you take your pills — and sometimes, that’s still not enough. There are still days, weeks, months that disappear into a black void.

When I’m in the worst of it, it feels like there’s no possible way for other people to understand what this feels like. A lot of folks see depression as having no energy, or being unable to feel happy, or being a lump on the couch. What isn’t seen is all the mental work that goes into trying to get off the couch, or scrounging for enough energy to get things done, or maybe to keep from crying at work for no reason. The shut down isn’t necessarily from a lack of spoons; the spoons are being eaten up to put on clothes, have a conversation with someone else, to smile. The energy we have is being depleted by an internal process that most never see or experience. Depression isn’t laziness or lethargy: it’s exhaustion.

Thankfully, mindfulness training and therapy has taught me to recognize these stretches for what they are, and experience has given me a toolset to use so I can mitigate the “damage”. It’s easier for me to push through when I get depressed, so I can go to work and take care of chores and even try to keep up meditation and exercise. The pit isn’t as deep as it used to be, and I can find my way out of it a bit more quickly. I’m grateful for that, even when I wish I didn’t have to fall into it at all.

But that’s not something within my control. Depression is a disease. For some of us, it only happens once or twice after a big change. For some, the cycle can give us years where we never have to think about it. For me, it’s a constant factor in my everyday life. Every thought — especially any negative one — has to be tested. Is this depression? Is this legitimate? Do I feel as bad as I do because I should, or because of this illness?

It’s a hard thing to accept, but I’m working on it. Even though I feel as if I’m clambering up out of the pit now, I know that it’s possible for me to slide back into it again. When I get out, I know that there’s another pit up ahead waiting for me. Despite my best efforts, I will fall again and again and again. But I have trained myself to see them, to navigate around them, to climb out as best I can when I fall in. And I have a support network of friends and professionals that I can trust to have my back. That’s something a lot of us don’t have, and words can’t describe how grateful and lucky I feel when I think about it.

If you’re dealing with depression, please know that you are not alone. Please know that you won’t feel this way forever. Please know that with patient persistence, you can build coping mechanisms that will make the depressions shallower and less frequent. Maybe they can’t go away completely, but at least you can weather them. Your strength and resilience is better than you know. It helps me when I’ve fallen in and can’t see a way out. After all this time, I have faith that there is.

 
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Posted by on January 16, 2019 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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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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