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(Mental Health) How to Help Yourself

Myth 150If I could have readers leave the Desk at the end of the month with only one new piece of information, it’s that mental illnesses are actual, physical ailments in the brain. While the way we think and perceive has something to do with how the illnesses are expressed, the fact remains that most conditions come down to processes in the brain working in ways that cause significant suffering. For folks like me, these ailments are going to stick around for a while; that means one of the best things we can do for ourselves is develop coping mechanisms and routines that help us have as few bad days as possible. Now that I’ve talked at length about the conditions I have, I’d like to talk about a few of the things I’ve learned to do that help me most.

Before that, though, I do want to make a few disclaimers. First of all I’m not a licensed professional and none of the advice you find here should be taken as gospel; feel free to discard any or all of this if your psychiatrist or psychologist tells you different. Second, this shouldn’t be viewed as the equivalent of professional help. If you have (or think you have) a mental illness, the best course of action is seeking professional treatment if at all possible. Finally, taking these steps won’t guarantee that you’ll never have issues with your mental illness. I still have bad days and I still fall into depressive episodes myself. Hopefully, though, these can help shallow out the emotional valleys and make it easier to recover from them.

THE BORING STUFF

Sleep. Sleep has been the most important thing for me to get under control for my mental health. Back in college during my worst periods I had functionally no schedule for sleep; I would instead spend as much time as possible in my dorm’s computer labs seeking out some kind of human connection to make myself feel better. But the lack of consistent sleep made it so hard to regulate my emotions, pay attention in class, or absorb the day-to-day stresses that come with a full courseload.

While the exact function of sleep is not entirely understood, we do know that a number of important “brain maintenance” processes happen during rest. For those of us who have problems with brain function, a consistent sleep schedule is one of the easiest ways we can help our brain manage what it can. Our internal clocks are different, and for those of us working jobs with variable schedules or have some other function that doesn’t let us adopt a stable routine, it might not be possible to set a consistent bedtime for, say 10 PM – 6 AM. Do what you can, but do something; seven or eight hours of sleep a night are a must before just about anything else.

Diet. Again, I know that this is some loaded advice. There are so many folks who are simply unable to eat well because they can’t afford or find fresh produce, don’t have the time or will to cook for themselves, or have other legitimate reasons preventing them from making big changes to their diet. I get it; I’m not going to ask you to go vegan or only buy organic. But small changes to your diet that recenter focus on nutrients that help your body function better can be made. A good rule of thumb is the classic quote from food writer Michael Pollan: “Eat real food, not too much, mostly plants.”

At minimum, I’d recommend eating less salt, sugar and processed foods; drinking fewer sodas and juices (even diet and sugar-free versions); eating more lean meats and whole grains; drinking more water and tea. Most carb-heavy processed foods tend to convert into sugars within our bodies (at least, to my understandings) and the simpler or more processed the carb, the faster that process tends to be. In the United States we’re all about our processed carbs, and breaking away from them can feel like swimming upstream. It’s hard, I know. But if you can have fruits, vegetables and lean meats — have as much of them as possible.

Exercise. Exerting ourselves can often trigger the body into releasing dopamine, endocannibanoids and other chemicals that lift our mood, and the best part about exercise is that there’s a near-limitless variety of things we can do to work ourselves out. There’s weight training, sure; but there’s also running, sports like basketball or soccer, yoga or tai chi, cleaning the house, or walking along a favorite trail. In addition to the benefits of regular exercise, getting outdoors also helps our bodies to make Vitamin D (which helps build our bones and protects against cancer) as well as serotonin (one of those neurotransmitters I’ve been talking about).

Personally, I love running, but the spirit might move you to try something different. I understand how hard it can be to make time for regular exercise — I still struggle with it myself. But taking even ten minutes a day to walk around the block during the day can help lift your mood and give yourself more energy.

Getting more sleep, eating better food, and developing a regular exercise routine are all suggestions that any of us who’ve gotten professional help for our mental illnesses have heard time and time and time again — but there’s a reason for that. Taking care of our most basic needs is incredibly important. Not only does it help our body develop the tools it needs to manage the imbalances in our brain, but it also encourages us to change our relationship with ourselves. I’ve found that making sure I eat, sleep and move well helps me to think of myself as someone worth caring for and also helps to make me more sensitive to those needs. I have a better gauge for when I’m hungry, or really need sleep.

LESS BORING STUFF

Meditation. There are a lot of misconceptions about what meditation is, and that might be because everyone who practices it has a slightly different concept of what it is. In popular culture, meditation is the emptying of mind and communion with everything around you in the present moment; it’s an act of peaceful enlightenment that you have to do perfectly the first time you do it or you just can’t.

I’m here to tell you that meditation is messy and disorganized. I’ve meditated (almost) every day for seven years or so now, and most days are still a struggle against “monkey mind”. Meditation is not the mechanism we use to force ourselves into mindfulness and peace; it’s the mechanism we use to watch and accept our own thoughts as they arise.

When I sit on the meditation bench, I replay past arguments I’ve had with people; I think about the many mistakes I’ve made; depressed and obsessive thoughts pop up all the time. That’s completely fine — that’s what I’m on the bench for. However, so many of us believe that the thoughts or feelings we have are inherently bad and meditation is the way we rid ourselves of these thoughts. That’s not the case: these thoughts and feelings are natural, and it’s OK to accept that we have them. Acceptance of these difficult emotions and the thoughts they’re associated with is the first step we need to take in order to make peace with them.

Meditation as a daily practice allows us to gain better insights into the deeper layers within our thought process. We might notice, for example, that the same kinds of situations trigger a specific memory or regret; or we might notice that there’s a common thread in the things that make us angry or sad. If we accept this, we can then explore these insights with a gentle and compassionate curiosity. Perhaps, in time, we can even resolve the things that cause us suffering.

That definitely takes work, persistence, and faith in the process. But it’s been worth it to me. Due to my meditation practice, I have a much better understanding of when I’m in a depression or particularly rough bit of anxiety; that allows me to handle myself better when I’m in those spaces so I’m not as likely to do something that I’d later regret. That alone makes the depressions easier to deal with.

Making a care packet. One of the things that I like to do for myself when I’m feeling fairly well is making a “care package” for a future version of myself struggling through a bad depression or anxiety day. This can include one package of my favorite candy, a story or novel that I love, a playlist that lets me “lean in” to that feeling of sadness and turn it into a cathartic experience, or a Snuggie, or a really sweet letter or gift from a friend. Your mileage may vary with this, of course, but now that I can somewhat anticipate when I’m hitting a downward spiral I can look into the small things I’ve left myself to feel better and use them.

Of course, the things in your care packet don’t have to be physical objects: it could be permission to cancel a social engagement without feeling guilty, or a day to binge-watch a show in your pajamas. The main idea is to accept that there will be moments where despite your best efforts you hit a rough patch, and to do little things in advance that will help your future self ride out those times. In addition to giving yourself presents, it also helps retrain your brain to treat yourself a bit more kindly and to recognize that these “flare-ups” aren’t your fault. Sometimes they happen, and it’s important to be kind to yourself when they do.

Engage and learn. For most of us with mental illnesses, it can feel like we’re the only people who have this messed up thing where our brains lie to us about how the world works every once in a while. The terrible thoughts, the embarrassing emotions, the situations that are surprisingly common for those of us with deep depressive episodes — all of these can make us feel alienated and broken beyond the possibility of repair. The stigma that surrounds these illnesses can make it hard to open up about them, to share experiences even with other people we know going through the same thing.

That’s why learning as much as we can about our conditions and engaging with others who are also coping with them can be so important. The messed up things we do or think at our worst might be a fairly common experience; or we might, through the course of consoling a fellow sufferer, learn how to be gentler with ourselves dealing with a similar problem. There are a large number of online resources for depression, anxiety, and ADHD — even grouped by location, background, or lifestyle. The Internet is a wonderful gift here, in that it’s given us the capability to share our struggles in ways we’ve never been able to before. It might help knowing more about what you’re going through, and that you’re not the only one going through it.

These are some of the things that have helped me build better coping strategies and resilience against my mental illness. I sincerely hope they help a few of you out there, as well.

 

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(Fandom) My Mental Health Game Plan for FC 2017

Myth 150Further Confusion 2017 begins tomorrow! I’ll likely be in downtown San Jose Thursday evening registering at con because I completely spaced on pre-registering like some kind of silly guy — hopefully the wait won’t be too terribly long! If you see me staring at my phone and playing Marvel Puzzle Quest, feel free to pull me out of my addiction and say hi!

As you know, I’ve become increasingly focused on the intersection of mental health and fandom culture. Like so many subcultures — especially in the United States — these issues can often be overlooked and poorly understood. While we’ve taken great strides in illuminating what these issues are really like, there’s still a lot of work to be done to make sure those of us who are coping with mental illnesses have the tools and support we need to take care of ourselves. I thought it might be a good thing to talk about my own experience, and what I plan to do for self-care at the convention.

I cope with chronic depression that manifests as emotional and physical exhaustion, deep feelings of guilt and shame, and a deep-seated belief that I simply have no redeeming qualities. I can’t communicate in a way that people find interesting or relatable, I’m too aloof and fake warmness that I don’t feel, and I’ll never be able to get myself together enough to fix any of this. When I’m at my worst, a fatalism takes hold; there’s no point to trying anything because I know I won’t be able to sustain the effort or finish anything I start. When depression takes hold, I believe that I am stupid, lazy, boring and annoying.

I also cope with generalized anxiety disorder that manifests as an almost pathological avoidance of things I find difficult. For the longest time, I never finished my writing or tried to do anything I really cared about because I was certain of failure. I would make commitments as a way of forcing myself to do the things I was afraid to do, but when the time came to do them I found myself physically unable to concentrate on them. At work, deadlines crept by with work half-finished or completed with only the most basic objectives. I developed a habit of putting things off until it was simply impossible to put them off any longer. My relationship with work has been atrocious for most of my adult life, and it’s something I’m only now beginning to fix; of course, that means a lot of the goals I set for myself aren’t met.

I also cope with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder; this manifests in an extremely distractable nature and an inability to focus on any one thing for too long. If I find my current project too difficult, then I’ll find something else to do by falling into Twitter or Wikipedia for a certain length of time. At conventions, this is especially bad; I’ll often leave conversations in the middle of a sentence to say hello to someone passing by. The visual and auditory stimulation in most meeting spaces can be too much for me to handle because of so many distractions. The more my attention shifts, the more effort it takes to get back to the task at hand. In a convention setting, it often feels like I’m being pulled by a string towards whatever feels the most stimulating. It’s a real problem.

These conditions interact in various ways all the time; my low self-image brought on by my depression makes me extremely anxious in situations where something’s at stake, and my instinctive reaction is to distract myself (or anyone else) with something that can grab our attention long enough to make us forget whatever it was we were doing. Convention days, as fun as they are, can be exhausting. I’m fighting against my own brain to keep focused, ignore the voices that tell me I’m fucking things up, and settle down to have the deep conversations I’d really love to have with the people I meet.

In order to make sure that my problems with focus and anxiety don’t cause huge problems at conventions, there are a few things I need to do every day to give my brain its best shot at coping with its flaws. Here’s my plan for the convention.

Remember my medication. I take Prozac for depression, Adderall for ADHD and ashwagandha (an herbal supplement) for my anxiety. All three help me immensely in keeping an even mood, and I feel tremendously fortunate to have access to them. There is a lot of misinformation about medication for mental health, and while it’s true that finding the right prescription is a bit of a process, when a medication works it helps your brain work better. Period. We don’t demonize medication that regulates our blood pressure, insulin levels, or cholesterol — we shouldn’t demonize medication that regulates our brain chemistry.

Get enough sleep. I’ve been going to enough conventions to know that I will never catch every cool and fun thing there is to do and see, so I’ve shifted my focus to having quality experiences over staying for a long time, hoping that a good time is right around the corner. Sleeping for seven hours — even during a convention weekend — helps me reduce my inclination for stress, keeps my brain sharper and more resilient, and makes it less likely that my mood is going to crash sometime in the evening. I don’t mind being the old man who starts thinking about bed before midnight; the convention will be waiting for me in the morning.

Pay attention to my appearance and grooming. My taste in clothing and personal style has changed a lot over the years, but one thing that remains constant is the connection between how I look and how I feel. If I’ve missed a shower or go out without shaving or brushing my hair, I feel a lot more self-conscious and prone to the negative self-talk that triggers my depression and anxiety. On the other hand, putting on clothes that I like and making sure I’m so fresh and so clean makes me feel better about myself and makes me less likely to spiral through the day. It’s an often overlooked aspect of self-care, especially during conventions, but it makes enough of a difference that I’m going to start planning my outfits for FC right now.

Take social breaks. There are times where my social battery gets awfully low during a convention. I’m overstimulated, and the constant noise and movement makes it impossible for me to calm down. During those times, I might take a walk to a coffee shop or find a relatively quiet corner of the convention to chill for a moment or two. While it’s awesome to hang out with as many people as possible for as long as I can, the fact remains that I’m an introvert; I’m going to need to hide somewhere and recharge at some point. And there’s no shame in that.

So that’s my game plan for the convention — keep current on my medication, make sure I sleep enough, make sure I look and smell great, and take some time for quiet contemplation. This should get me through the weekend with enough focus and energy to have the best time, and I’m genuinely looking forward to the craziness of the next five days.

Now, it’s over to you — what practices, tips and tricks do you recommend for convention survival? What sort of things do you do to keep your mood up? Are there any particular issues that you have to prepare for ahead of time? Let me know!

 
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Posted by on January 11, 2017 in Furries, Self-Reflection

 

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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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(Mental Health) When Depression Strikes You

Myth 150Chronic depression is one of those things that can be very difficult to deal with, mostly because those of us who suffer from it exist in two states. When things are fine, we might think that we’ve rounded the bend and things will never be as bad as our last valley again. And then, when we find ourselves descending towards another crash, we have no idea how to stop it or make the cliff feel any less steep. I think most of us have an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude towards things that are big problems; when we’re not actively battling our depression, we prefer to forget we have it.

But the fact is that chronic depression is a disease; an invisible one, one whose symptoms might not show up for days or weeks or months, but a disease that most of us will have to cope with for a major part of our lives. When a diabetic has his glucose levels under control, the diabetes isn’t cured — it’s just managed so that the symptoms aren’t making it difficult to function.

I think it’s useful for those of us with mental health issues to think of our illnesses like that. The symptoms might not be bad enough to prevent us from functioning most of the time, but it’s still doing its thing under the surface. There are things that we can do to help ourselves manage it; taking care of ourselves can make depressive episodes less frequent and less severe. I can’t guarantee that we’ll ever be completely free of it, but we can develop a number of coping mechanisms to help.

Learning how to live with depression is a process. Sometimes it might feel like we’re making no progress at all; sometimes it can feel like we’re sliding backwards into our worst places. But it’s important to have patience with the process and with ourselves. There is nothing fundamentally broken about us; there is nothing that we can’t handle. There are just a lot of considerations we must make that most others might take for granted. This can be a gift of practice; learning how to appreciate many aspects of our life that we wouldn’t even notice otherwise.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned to do over the course of several years. You might find that different habits work better for you, and that’s fine. It’s not important to do every single thing that people recommend for you. It’s important to find your own way of managing your mood and getting to a place where you feel comfortable and capable within your own skin. Take my advice, or discard it and forge your own path. But please try. It’s worth it, I promise.

Sleep. This is single biggest piece of advice I would recommend for people dealing with mental illness: sleep well. I can’t overstate the importance of rest in helping yourself to get on a more even keel. If you don’t have a sleep routine, or you’re having issues with getting regular or quality sleep, I really do think this should be a top priority. Sleep allows us to settle our emotions and builds our ability to cope with fluctuations in mood or changes in our environment that would cause anxiety. It is one of the best things we can do to care for ourselves.

Building a good sleep habit takes time and practice. The chemical imbalance that can lead to depression also impairs sleep function, so we end up sleeping too little or too much. However, keeping a regular sleep practice is a great foundation for routine that we can use to help us weather those times. Listen to your body; notice when you start to feel tired or your brain tells you it’s time to get to bed. Notice when you’re most likely to wake up without an alarm clock. If at all possible, build your sleep time around your own circadian rhythm. If it’s not possible, determine when you need to get up and count back nine hours — start getting ready for bed at that time.

It’s not easy, and it’s not quick, but it is effective. Once you’re sleeping regularly, your body can begin the work of stabilizing itself.

Eat well. I know in a lot of situations this can be exceedingly difficult. Even for those of us in the United States, we might live in a food desert where fresh produce or lean meat might be hard to come by. Many of us simply don’t have the money or time to make our own meals. I get it. But making sure we at least eat food that gives us a good balance of proteins, fats, carbohydrates and fiber will give our body its best shot at managing itself.

If possible, eat three squares a day that includes lean protein, unsaturated fat and complex carbohydrates. Think a turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread, multigrain chips and fruit. Try to limit caffeine intake after 2 PM; we all know that caffeine plays havoc with the ability to sleep and too much of it will definitely exacerbate anxiety issues. Drink more water, and cut back on sodas and sugary drinks.

You hear this kind of advice all the time, and I know how much of a drag it can be to try and follow through. But it’s definitely important. The better fuel you give your body, the better it will be able to function. That’s the simple fact. And I know that the instant you begin to control your diet it feels like you’re swimming upstream, and we just can’t put in the effort all the time. But try. And keep trying. Notice how you feel — how you really feel — after you eat. Does the food sit heavy in your stomach? Do you feel gassy or bloated? Greasy? Light? Satisfied? Focus on the foods that make you feel good — not just emotionally, but biologically. The more you listen to your body, the more it will tell you what it needs. To be a god-damn hippie about it.

Exercise. I know, I can hear the groaning from here, but trust me — being active when you can really helps. Just going outside or getting the blood flowing helps just about every part of your body, including your brain. When you find the activity that works best for you, your brain learns how to release endorphins that tell you that you’re doing a good job. And again, pushing yourself to pay attention to your body will help you recognize how it speaks to you — how it tells you that it’s in pain, or needs food or water, or what kind of shape or mood it’s in. Learning your body is the first step to being comfortable with it, realizing and accepting its limitation, and appreciating the things you like about it.

Most people think of exercise as a slog; huffing on the street during a grueling run, or sweating through some terrible routine that you can’t begin to keep up with. But it really doesn’t have to be; it can be any activity that gets you moving and makes you happy. For me, it actually IS running. I get a wonderful high and a sense of accomplishment after putting in my miles. But for you, it might be anything from playing tennis, basketball or football to playing Dance Dance Revolution or Rock Band on your XBox. If it gets your heart rate up and your body moving, it’s fair game. Do it as regularly as you can without hurting yourself.

Therapy. This is another suggestion that takes on almost limitless forms. For you, it might be therapeutic to write your feelings down in a journal or talk to the spiritual leader of your congregation. It might be reading, walking in nature, talking to a therapist or taking medication. Whatever works for you, seek it out and do it; develop a self-care routine, arm yourself with coping mechanisms, engage with the world and community around you however you see fit.

Again, I understand how difficult this might be for some of us. We might live in places where mental health professionals are hard to find or prohibitively expensive; we might not have access to an understanding or capable support network; we might not know where to begin to develop a framework of self-care. But if you’re reading this, you probably have access to the Internet and that gives you a leg up. Research things that might help you and try them out; describe the results when you use them, and determine if it would be useful to keep doing them. Seek out communities online if you can — there are a number of websites and forums for those of us dealing with depression and anxiety. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it. Try.

Sleeping regularly, eating as well as you can, doing active things you find enjoyable and engaging in a therapeutic practice are all basic things we could all do to help stabilize our mood as much as possible. Again, these are a lot easier said than done for many of us, but please — do what you can when you can. Seek out help and support where you can find it. And keep trying. What helped me most with my depression is seeing it for what it is. It allowed me to engage with it, really understand it. And by doing that, I understood myself a lot better. Self-awareness is perhaps the most powerful tool we have against our mental illness. It helps us learn how to cope with it and to live happy, full lives even while we struggle.

If you have depression, anxiety or another mental illness difficult to endure and tough to make people understand, I see you. I’m with you. I want to help. And I’m not the only one.

But the best way to get help is to help yourself. We can support you, but we can’t “fix” you. There’s nothing to be fixed. You’re a human being, wonderful and complete just as you are. You deserve to live, to be happy, to be loved. For people like you and me, it takes more work and care. But it makes the results of that work so much sweeter.

 

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(Personal) Retaining Mindfulness Under Stress

Buddhism 150So far this year has been an obstacle course, as I’ve mentioned a few times here. Work has flared up significantly as I shift positions and my company makes fairly major changes on an organizational and product level; priorities have been shuffled accordingly, and even though I’m getting better at juggling many things at once my ability to remain organized and focused still leaves a lot to be desired; and I still have a problem with saying “yes” to too much, underestimating the amount of resources and time each new thing will take. I can’t pretend that I’m on the verge of figuring things out, but I do think I’m making steady (if slow) progress addressing everything.

The latest hurdle has been entirely tech-related. My laptop went out of commission when the screen was broken, and the backup laptop I brought out of storage worked for a little while before simply turning off one day and never coming back on. My desktop has been having crazy performance issues where the hard drive is pegging at 100% usage for no discernable reason, and I’ve eaten up so much time troubleshooting it. Depending on where you go, it could be the “Show me Windows tips” feature in Windows 10, the Superfetch or Windows Search services, Google Chrome’s pre-loading capabilities or Skype doing whatever it is Skype does. It could be the AHCI driver for the Intel chip I have getting stuck in a loop, or it could actually be malware. I’ve tried nearly a dozen things for the past two weeks without success; Ryan and I eventually determined it has to be corrupted files on the HDD causing the OS to freak out.

Long story short, I’ve purchased a new laptop (at a great deal) and a new solid-state drive for the desktop that should improve things drastically. Hopefully, I’m out of the woods for now with my tech issues. But that still leaves me with a ton of sunk time where it was difficult to get anything done.

Life has been stressful for a few months now, and it doesn’t look like things will abate any time soon. Stepping back to take stock of the first four months of my year, I’ve noticed that despite a minor crash last month I’ve been holding up pretty well. I’d like to think that improved diet and exercise, better sleep and a recommitment to my meditation practice has helped with that a lot — and it has. But also, my perspective has shifted on being kept off my feet and I think this more than anything has helped me become more resilient.

The world is not a perfect place. I consider myself an idealist; there are ideals and goals that I strive to achieve and I genuinely believe the world would be a better place if everyone did the same. Not necessarily MY ideals, but some set of values that they would like to embody. I won’t even pretend that the things I care about are the things that others should, too.

But those ideals can often get in the way of my ability to deal with situations where I need to adapt on the fly or respond quickly. If something goes wrong and my instinctive response is to sink into anger or depression because my vision of an ideal world has been challenged, that’s a problem. Of course it would be great if all of my stuff worked, or if other people respected my time and boundaries, but that’s not quite the world we live in. The only world we have is the world of what is, and we are best served accepting what is in front of us and determining the best thing to do with it.

That’s not to say that I don’t get angry or frustrated; I certainly have these past few weeks. But it’s important for me not to get attached to those emotions, or the idea of a perfect, fair world where things are the way I prefer. I allow myself to express my frustration, vent a little, and then try to deal with whatever I need to. Giving myself space to be frustrated is important, but so is letting go of that frustration so I can see the situation as clearly as possible.

There’s always a solution to a problem. Sometimes, that solution is “Walk away from this!” or “Learn to accept this will not work the way you want it to.”, but there’s still a solution. Really bringing this in to my understanding of the world has helped me stick with a problem longer without feeling helpless, exasperated or depressed.

This is actually something I learned at my day job in tech support. Learning how to troubleshoot is an incredibly useful skill, and while I’m not great at it I’m leaps and bounds over where I was just last year. It’s a set of techniques that can be adapted for just about anything — figuring out tech problems, or home repairs, or car problems, or even why audiences aren’t flocking to your blog or story or comic. Being able to step back and look critically at something helps us to pinpoint problems and address them as best as we are able.

For example, my current serial for the Jackalope Serial Company isn’t one I’ve been terribly happy with. After some time taking the story apart, I’ve realized that my protagonist is as bland as Wonder bread, and that the supporting characters who’ve been introduced aren’t quite engaging enough to pick up the slack. This is mostly because I set out to be a discovery writer, which really hurts me when trying to write a story on a regular basis. In order to be excited about the story, I have to know where the plot is moving. In order to know that, I have to understand how the characters relate to one another and the world around them.

The Jackalope Serial Company hasn’t been a rousing success exactly, but instead of giving up on it (like I probably would have a couple years ago) I’ve been able to troubleshoot some problems and come back more excited and with more direction. This latest run might not live up to my ambition, but that’s totally fine. I’ll take stock, learn what’s wrong and try a few more things to fix it.

Detaching from ideals about the way the world should be or our own meager abilities has really helped me have a healthier relationship with my mistakes and flaws. And even though 2016 is going to stay super-challenging, I feel that the challenges are shaping me up instead of wearing me down.

 
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Posted by on May 4, 2016 in Buddhism, Self-Reflection, Writing

 

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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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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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