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(Mental Health) My Depression

Myth 150Back when I was 14 or 15, my sister ran away from home for a month and it straight-up wrecked me. We had no idea where she was or if I would ever see her again, and it was the first time we had been apart for that length of time. Growing up, we were pretty close; she protected me from the neighborhood bullies because she was a little spitfire and I told her stories and made our meals when Mom was occupied. We had often made a game of running away together, planning our escape route and the best time to steal away; but this time, she left without me and I had never seen it coming. She was one of the only people I felt I could rely on.

During that month I was in a haze. I remember being even more quiet than usual, and it felt like I was moving and thinking through cotton — slow, muffled, distant. When I got home from school, I didn’t know what to do or what I had the energy for, so I would sit on the floor and stare at the back of the couch until it was time to go to bed. Looking back through decades of experience, I can say that was the first time I ever had an episode of major depression.

Major Depressive Disorder is a mental illness that affects over 200 million people worldwide; it can strike anyone at any time, but it tends to affect women more than men and first diagnosis frequently happens between 20 – 35 years old. Common symptoms include a persistent, inescapble low mood; anhedonia, or an inability to experience pleasure — even with things that you used to love; feelings of guilt and worthlessness; insomnia; fatigue; loss of appetite. There are a number of depression disorders, besides. Atypical Depression, for example, tends to manifest earlier and sufferers will respond to good news with an increased mood, but also eat more with low moods and tend to sleep more during episodes. People with atypical depression also have a very high sensitivity to social rejection.

There’s Persistent Depressive Disorder or dysthmia, a less-severe but chronic state of depression lasting for over two years. There’s Bipolar Disorder, where a depressive state “swings” into a normal mood or manic state. There’s Post-Partum Depression, in which a woman experiences a disabling episode of low mood after giving birth. There’s Seasonal Affective Disorder, where bouts of depression happen during a particular season. All of these conditions can cause real difficulties in the lives of people who are coping with them. They affect our ability to be consistent with our work, attentive in our relationships, resilient with our setbacks, content with our lives. These mood disorders make it hard for us to maintain an even perspective about ourselves and the world around us, even with treatment.

That’s because depression is a disease that affects the brain, the one organ we rely on to interpret all the stimuli we get everywhere else. Because the brain is so complicated we’re not entirely sure how depression is caused, but we do know there are several areas of the brain that tend to be affected. Neurotransmitters — the chemicals that stimulate brain activity and give us the ability to think, feel, and make connections — tend to have a harder time working in depressed people, and some areas of the brain are different. The hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for long-term memory and recollection, tends to be smaller in depressed people; the amygdala, a group of structures associated with base emotions like fear, sadness, and arousal, tends to be more active as well. This combination, especially in depressed people, could explain why it’s easier for us to remember past events that are associated with intensely negative emotions while we tend to forget the things that counteract the internal narrative that preserves our low self-esteem.

Because depression can be caused by either having too few neurotransmitters, or having receptors that are too sensitive or not sensitive enough to them, or an overly-aggressive reuptake system that sweeps them our of our synapses, it’s difficult to say with any clarity which treatment works best; every one of us who deals with depression has a distinct mix of physical, neurological, genetic and environmental factors. Some of us that respond well to medication might have a lot of trouble with talk therapy, while some of us who can manage quite well with lifestyle changes and behavioral therapy might suffer intense side effects with medication. For most of us, some combination of therapy and medication often does the trick — though it can be a process finding the right therapist and/or medication. No one treatment is better than any other; the best treatment for your depression is the one that makes it more manageable for you.

Depression can manifest differently depending on your age, gender, environment and cultural background, but there are no hard and fast rules. Men tend to be more irritable or have trouble controlling anger; women might become more withdrawn; young people might become more reckless or less able to concentrate. It can be really difficult for Black Americans with depression to receive proper treatment for a host of reasons — we are often expected to “fight through” emotional pain, and the cultural stigma about mental illness is still fairly strong. There is a distrust of doctors, especially psychiatrists, and there is too little value placed on openly discussing our feelings. Beyond that, the dominant culture often misreads the expression of a mental illness and either misdiagnoses it or misses the diagnosis completely. While the field is just starting to take a culturally competent approach to mental health care, it still has a long way to go.

It can be easy to dismiss depression as an “imaginary” disease simply because the factors that determine its causes, diagnosis, and treatment are so complicated and can often feel subjective. I understand how it can look from the outside that those of us within the mental health space are just stumbling around in the dark, guessing at definitions and such. But just because something isn’t well-understood doesn’t mean it isn’t real; just because our understanding about something is fuzzy doesn’t mean that thing can’t be pinpointed exactly.

I’ve been dealing with depression for my entire life, and I’ve only recently been fortunate enough to have the ability for treatment. I’ve attempted suicide twice due to my depression, and I still fight through it every day in order to live the best life I can. I know that I’m more likely to have depression because I’m the child of a schizophrenic, and the hereditary link between that mental illness and offspring is well-established. I’ve seen every one of my siblings suffer with their own issues; I know one of my nephews will need to learn how to cope with it. These are facts.
My personal experience with depression has taught me a few things about how to relate to it. All the stuff they tell you about sleep, diet and exercise? Absolutely true, with perhaps sleep being the most important. Being active really does help, especially if it gets you outdoors and in the sun for some time. I can often feel when an ’emotional trough’ is coming on, because it becomes harder to concentrate and I find myself unable to be interested in things; when this happens, I can ‘prepare’ for what’s coming by making sure I focus more on self-care than productivity. It doesn’t stop it from happening, but it becomes easier to ride out.

Depression, for me, is intensely associated with self-worth. I become paralyzed by the idea that I have nothing worthwhile to say or that I can’t say anything in a way that engages or affects other people. I feel stupid and boring and permanently, unfixably broken. It becomes too much effort to do more and more basic things, and my world shrinks steadily because so much becomes unreachable. Cooking something to eat feels like an ordeal; talking to someone to explain how you feel is impossible; doing something for the joy of it feels pointless, and doing something productive feels inconceivable.

My worst spells have all heavily featured unchecked emotional eating (candy and salty chips in alternating waves), being unable to leave my bed or couch, and an overwhelming desire to just sleep forever. Being active, sticking to my routine, finding something to stimulate different parts of my brain — that’s something other people can do. I can’t. Sometimes, even breathing feels painful and exhausting. I need some kind of stimulation, like a TV show or music, but the stimulation doesn’t bring pleasure — just a reprieve from my own thoughts.

Thankfully, I haven’t had a really bad spell in about ten years thanks to Prozac and cognitive behavioral therapy. But I know that it’s unlikely I’ll be off medication at any point in the future, and I’ll need to constantly work on myself to develop better habits and coping strategies. For many others, depression can be a more-intense but less-chronic condition. Some of us have very long cycles that enable us to be fine for years before something knocks us back into that headspace. Some of us will have to wander in the wilderness for a very long time before we find a treatment that works for us.

No matter what, it’s important to remember that depression is a real illness and those of us who cope with it must do so with significant complications. We might not be able to put energy into practices and routines that would help our brain chemistry. We might not be able to afford proper treatment or medication. We might not have a support network to rely on for the things we need. We might have cultural barriers that prevent us from seeking the help we need or getting the proper treatment. It’s a hard enough illness on its own; combined with social, economic and environmental factors it can be that much harder to deal with.

So please, if you can, be easy with the people who are dealing with depression. Recognition and encouragement are vital to shift not only our perspectives, but the perspectives of those around us as well. People with depression aren’t hopeless or crazy; more likely, we’ve just never been given the chance to get the knowledge and help we need.

This is part of a series of post for Mental Health Awareness Month. For more information about what you can do to help build awareness for this often-neglected aspect of our personal health, go to this website: http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/may.

 
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Posted by on May 7, 2018 in mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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(Personal) Hello, April

Self Improvement 150Floating in a sensory deprivation tank for an hour was long enough for me to realize that a great deal of my problem is overstimulation. It’s tough for someone sensitive to sensory input to live in a world like this, geared towards making sure something is grabbing your attention all the time. We live at a time where it’s seen as largely acceptable to pay for something with our focus instead of money; think about all of the services we use for ‘free’ in exchange for ads, or the data that companies can use to make ads that much more irresistible. Corporations have learned to use our attention as another potential revenue stream; it’s time we start thinking of it the same way we do our hard-earned money. That’s why this month, I’d like to focus on budgeting my attention and focus the same way I budget my money.

I admit it’s a harder thing to do. Money is a finite resource (just like our attention), but it’s a lot easier to quantify and measure. We know exactly how much money we get in our paychecks, and we can subtract our expenses from our income to know when we’re stepping outside of our means. With attention, it’s not so straightforward. We can’t wake up every day with the intention that we only ‘spend’ 2 hours’ worth of attention on social media, or that today is a ‘no advertisement’ day where we refuse to pay attention to any form of advertising. We can’t slice our focus into discrete chunks, and then decide what parts of our environment we give those chunks to.

But we can be more mindful about when and where something is asking for our attention, and what our reaction to that request might be. On our phones, what apps and games buzz to draw our focus back to the screen? When we’re browsing a website, what links do we click to stay engaged with it, and how do we end up following article after article? When we’re walking or driving outside, what things grab our eyes and hold them? When we watch TV, how many times do we notice ads — especially ones that work around our ability to fast-forward through them?

Any time you notice something using obnoxious or obvious means to attract your attention, think about the process that created the situation. Why would a company risk the ill will of a potential customer just to force us into having to engage with its advertisement? Why on Earth would so many websites auto-play videos when we visit pages? What’s to be gained by forcing us to engage with something?

There are some websites that we might feel are worth paying for with our attention. When they ask us to whitelist them from ad blocking programs, we might be inclined to do so. When Google or Facebook asks for our information in order to better serve ads to them, we might think it’s a fair trade for the useful and convenient services they offer. That’s fine. But it really should be our choice, and I think our modern experience online and in real life isn’t set up in the interest of offering us that choice. Everywhere we go, there is something trying to get us to engage with it; we don’t have the ‘right’ to choose where our attention is going when we enter a public space.

I’m really not sure how we can address this on any big level, but I do know that I will take better notice of things that try to force my attention away from what I’m doing — whether it’s YouTube offering me other videos to watch, IGN auto-playing videos, movies with egregious product placement, or ad ‘stunts’ tricking me into investing time or focus towards something. One of the biggest pet peeves I’ve developed recently is a company taking advantage of my fandom in order to sell me a pile of crap; the endless rebranding initiatives of Marvel Comics and the “mystery box/alternate reality” model of Bad Robot properties immediately comes to mind.

I know enough about myself to know that it’s easy for my attention to be drawn away, and it’s best if I cultivate an environment where I choose when and how to switch my focus from one thing to another. I’ve already disabled almost all notifications on my phone, and whenever a website offers me desktop notifications I decline and resolve to use that website less in the future. I use apps like Ghostery and AdBlock Plus to clean the pages of the sites I visit, and I whitelist only the ones that I use frequently and don’t have obnoxious intrusive ads that pop up, play sound, or ‘trick’ you into being redirected by shifting the close button or using intentionally misleading UI. When I finish one task, or an article or a video, I try to take a breath to recenter myself and make a mindful decision on what to do next. That’s not always successful, for sure, but I’m getting better at this the more I do it.

There are a few other things I’d like to do this month, too. In the interest of making sure I’m on a more solid foundation for life, I’d like to double back and refocus on the basics: meditating every day, reading and writing every day, eating well every day, exercising as often as possible. The very basic building blocks of self-care that give you the best possible shot at being emotionally resilient. So far, it’s…still a process, but failure is bundled into that of course. The trick is to not let failure discourage you; take the lessons you can from it, then move on with a better idea of how to succeed.

So that’s it; being very judicious about my attention and how I’m spending it, then putting that attention to where it will do the most good. How about you folks? What would you like to work on this month?

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

 

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(Personal) Goodbye, March

Self Improvement 150The crisis point hit right in the middle of the month. We were coming out of a big Services meeting when my manager scheduled a one-on-one meeting right afterward. I had assumed it would be the follow-up on our annual reviews and talk about merit increases; in a way, I was right. The management structure in our department is in flux right now, so the colleague who had been my direct manager was starting to offload his responsibilities behind the scenes while my new direct manager was stepping in to take the reins of my little slice of the day job.

The two managers — let’s call them Cain and Abel to protect what little innocence they have left — make a pretty effective good-cop/bad-cop pair. Cain is one of those folks who knows a scary amount about computers and online culture, has seen just about everything there is to see in the dark underbelly of the web, and generally gets along with you if you’re competent in the way he’s looking for. Abel is an aging punk and family man who has a bottomless and unironic love for professional wrestling. They’re both really great with their jobs, and really good with people in their own way; they go out of their way to build a personal relationship with the folks they’re managing. Unfortunately, they’re both now part of a structure that seems to force people to say one thing while doing another.

Cain was my direct manager at the beginning of the month, and he had given me a heads up that my performance at the day job was dangerously close to unsatisfactory; that being said, he would put me on an ‘unofficial’ probation to get my success metrics back up and train me how to work a bit more efficiently. After a month, if things were back to where they should be, I could skip a more ‘formal’ probation process and resume business as normal. That was the plan, and I could see I was in a bit of trouble. I was working through it, trying to corral the depression and anxiety, working hard to prioritize self-care, and nearly through the latest emergency with Mom.

In fact, the day after Mom had been placed in long-term care at the nursing home, Abel and I had the meeting that put me on the Performance Improvement Plan. If you’re not a part of corporate America, the Performance Improvement Plan (or PIP) is a really scary thing: some say its only purpose is to build a paper trail that ultimately ends with you being pushed out of the company, while others say it’s an actual disciplinary step designed to get you back on track and the company wouldn’t go through the trouble if it didn’t want you to stay. Abel assured me the latter was the case, but given the track record with my company I couldn’t fully put my trust in that. For every reassuring comment, there was another that set off alarm bells in my head. Even if I made it through the PIP, I got the feeling that my days at my current position were numbered.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I freaked out — wouldn’t you? But after that, I dug in. I asked questions about how to navigate through it; I did research on different perspectives and advice on how PIPs should be handled; I built a plan to make sure I hit (or exceeded) my goals for the plan; and I brushed up my resume and started to look for another place to be in earnest.

This past month has been dominated by the day job and my continuing recovery. I’ve been working hard to realize the source of my anxiety and deal with it directly, and while that progress has been slow there has been progress. I’m working hard to make sure that I get enough sleep, my diet is improving steadily, and that I build habits that help me to become more emotionally resilient. I’ve done my best to be more consistently mindful.

I also tried float therapy for the very first time. Float therapy is the new marketing term for putting yourself into a sensory deprivation tank for some time; most people only know about it through the 1980 science-horror film Altered States or through Fringe, the surprisingly fun science-fiction show that ran on FOX a few years ago. In real life, float therapy supposedly helps you with rehabilitation; it’s also supposed to help with anxiety, deeper meditative states and lucid dreaming.

My dear husband gave me a gift certificate for three floats as a birthday present, and this was the first time I actually remembered to make an appointment. The FLOAT Center in Oakland is (according to them) the very first of its kind in the Bay area, and it’s more of an old-school experience; while other tanks have LED lights and music and such, here it’s just you and a huge light- and sound-proof tank filled with a slurry of Epsom salts and heated water. It’s completely dark, extremely quiet, and pretty humid.

I was shocked by how well it worked. I’m fairly sure everyone has something they’ll need to get used to at first, and for me it was the humidity inside the tank. The strange sensation of weightlessness was actually really pleasant, and the complete darkness conjured strange, flashing images that grew more intricate as time went on. It was ridiculously easy to lose track of time in there, but when the knock came to let me know my hour was up I was almost dreamily relaxed.

The proprietor is wonderfully liberal and New Age; I rather like her, even if the metaphysical explanation of what happens with the tank is a little suspect. Given how badly I’ve needed a healthier way to manage stress and the fact I have two more free floats in store, I wasted no time in booking my next session along with an hour-long massage. I have the feeling I’ll need to be poured into my car by the time it’s all over.

It’s been a hard month, but things have steadily gotten better — or at least, my attitude has. There is still a lot to untangle with Mom’s finances, and I get the feeling that now she’s staying some place local family will drop the threads we had been working on; it’ll be up to me to keep the momentum. The focus on my day job has been paying off, and I’m in good shape with my PIP. There is at least one promising lead on the job search, and if all goes well I might have excellent news on the other side of May.

Most importantly, I feel more capable of focusing on the things that are important to me and I have a solid framework of determining how and why that focus gets broken. One of the things I’d really love to do in the month ahead is find a way to bring this realization to action. Attention, especially for someone like me, is a precious and finite resource. It’s important to make sure that I protect it and spend it as judiciously as possible.

That’s my March. What big successes did all of you have this past month? What was the most important lesson you learned? How did the last 31 days or so prepare you for success this month?

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

 

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(Personal) Goodbye, February

Myth 150The last time I spoke to my mother on the phone, she sounded lonely. But in typical Mom fashion, mostly she complained about the people with her at the in-patient rehab center. The white woman who had roomed with her was a racist. The nurses checking in on her were stealing her clothes. She just wanted to be by herself.

Her hearing isn’t good and the phone in her room is even worse, so most of my questions — half-hearted attempts at small talk — were answered with “Huh?” and “What did you say?” over and over again. I repeated myself louder and louder, until I was screaming at the phone enough to feel angry and anxious. After about ten minutes of that I opted for a different tack — soft and gentle noises of acknowledgement. “Mm-hmm,” I said. “OK.”

Mom has been in and out of hospitals and rehab centers for nearly a year at this point. This latest run was a particularly hard one. She had been invited to stay with her sister, my aunt, while we worked out arrangements with Baltimore City to get an elder-care nurse to check in on both of them. That lasted about three days before she was back in the hospital with an infection. Two weeks later, she was released to a rehab facility. Three days after that, back in the hospital with a more severe infection that had reached her blood.

Through it all she’s been at turns gravely ill, terribly uncooperative, and demanding in the way that only very old people can manage. My aunt (the title you give to any family member who is also an older woman) has quickly realized what a handful my Mom is, so she’s been pretty hands off about all of this even though she said she would take care of her. I can’t blame her. Mom IS a handful. Most of the trouble she gets into is the kind she creates for herself and expects other people to get her out of.

Her most recent stay in rehab is scheduled to end in three days. Neither of my aunts are all that interested in taking her back, but there’s nowhere else for her to go. According to her social worker, she’s too independent for a nursing home and too poor for assisted living. At least she realizes she can’t go home now. The last time I asked her where she wanted to go it never came up in the conversation. But there was a weary resignation in her voice as she fumbled for an answer; she can’t think of any place she’d rather be.

I’ve been telling anyone who would listen for months now what a rotten year I’ve had. My sister died of a drug overdose last April, I say. I had to organize the funeral while trying to find a place for my invalid mother. I had to try to get my sister’s youngest children out of foster care even though I couldn’t take them. I had to confront all the stuff in my past that never got closure.

But after answering my mother’s pleas to call her anytime, day or night, with promises that I would, it hit me that she’s had an even more awful year. I lost my sister, but she lost her daughter. And before she could even grieve properly she was ripped out of her house and away from her neighbors and support. She was forced to rely on help from someone she really didn’t like all that much. Her life has been an endless procession of strange places and overworked health-care workers, a litany of pain in her back, her hips, her stomach, her heart. When the physical pain isn’t too bad, the grief rushes in to take up a shift. There are so many people she lost: her husband, her first son, her daughter, her grandchildren, and me.

Sometimes when the sun goes down the stress chases away her awareness. She can’t eat, she can’t sleep, she can’t do anything but wonder where she is and why she’s there. She gets mean. She refuses to take anything but medicine for the pain. She never gets enough of it.

I know if I were in my mom’s situation, I would want to die. I couldn’t take knowing that all the chances I’ve ever had in life have been taken, and this is where they’ve lead me. I don’t think I could handle the regret and the bewilderment, the ache of a failing body on top of the ache of loss. I think of her every day in some room that smells like industrial cleaners and is probably way too cold, waiting for a familiar face to make her feel better. It breaks my heart.

But I can’t let go of all the choices she’s made, all the things she’s said and done to push me away and ultimately cut me adrift. I can’t forget all the terrible things she said and did to my sister as she struggled with mental illness and addiction. I can’t rally a scattered family around someone they decided they didn’t want anything to do with years ago, or navigate a labyrinth of bureaucracy from across the country.

And I can’t write stories while trying to sort through this tangle of anger and guilt and frustration. I can’t write blogs about politics or geek culture. I can barely get it together enough to stay out of trouble at my day job. It’s hard. I don’t know what to do. In three days Mom could be wheeled out in front of a building to wait for a new home that doesn’t exist yet. It feels like a massive failure for her to be this close to that.

The next time I talk to my mother on the phone, I hope I can shout good news at her. I hope we can find a place for her to settle down, work through that grief and pain. I sincerely hope this is the bottom.

God, it’s been a hard year.

 
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Posted by on March 6, 2018 in mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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(Personal) Perpetual Tharn

Myth 150We’re three weeks in to 2018 — just long enough to settle into the new year and whatever new habits or goals we’ve set for ourselves. I wanted to push myself towards more mindful behavior this year, doing my best to really dive into right speech, action, and livelihood. While last year was definitely stressful, a lot of unresolved anger bubbled towards the surface in so many interactions. I didn’t like the way that made me behave, and I can’t help feeling that my relationships suffered because of that. I ended up retracting socially through a good bit of the year; while a lot of that was probably for the best, I have the feeling that I could be handling these difficult interactions with a lot more equanimity — but that’s way easier said than done.

My anxiety has been very hard to deal with over the past several months. The current state of our country, and the world, has elevated the level of ‘ambient’ anxiety I’m dealing with and that makes it a lot more difficult to take on additional stressors. Surprises or an increase in workload are harder to absorb, and recovering from those episodes of anxious lashing out or simply being overwhelmed takes longer.

So much of the time I feel like I’m in a state of perpetual tharn, so overwhelmed by anxiety that I freeze up and simply can’t do anything. Today, for example, my mind is racing with thoughts about the government shutdown and why it’s such a terrible thing. I’m worried that Republicans will successfully shift blame for this to Democrats, who are taking all the wrong lessons from this and seem to be allowing the public discourse to be pulled further to the right. I’m worried about what this means for all of us — especially those of us who are self-employed, need health insurance, or just happen to be federal employees.

I’m worried about our environment and the fact that the weather has been so obviously unusual over the past year or so. I’m worried about my finances and how I’ll be able to meet my obligations there. I’m worried about so many friends who are going through a difficult time and my diminished emotional capacity to help them. I worry about our ability to talk to one another in a way that connects us instead of dividing us. I worry about my family, who I avoid talking to because I simply can’t handle the possibility of more stress.

I worry about the promises and obligations I’ve made and my ability to keep them. I worry about trying to maintain a balance between being principled and being too rigid; I worry about standing up for myself in a way that doesn’t make other people feel bad. I worry about our apartment and keeping it clean. I worry about learning the technical skills I need in order to move to the next stage of my career. I worry about the people I know on Twitter, and can’t shake the feeling that most people only tolerate me because I’m so frustrating and weird and hesitant. I worry that I talk a good game but can’t deliver when push comes to shove. I worry that I’m just a fundamentally untrustworthy person.

This is what anxiety is like for me. Almost every action I take is connected to a worry that is never far away from taking over my thoughts. Am I talking too much about myself here? Is there a better way to communicate this? What kind of response am I after? Is this just for attention, or reassurance, or am I really just trying to help people understand how anxiety works so that others can deal with those of us who suffer from this better? What are my motivations? Are they corrupt and selfish?

Existing in this state of paralyzing doubt is exhausting, and it just doesn’t leave me with much energy for other things. It can be difficult when I’m struggling with anxiety to remember my promises, or keep my focus away from distractions, or not to simply bail and spend large chunks of time chasing idle happiness. It’s hard to put in the work because setbacks and obstacles are a lot harder to handle rationally.

For the next few weeks, I’ll be focusing on building and rebuilding the habits that help with anxiety. Taking care of the basics is essential, which means that I need to get good sleep, eat good food, and exercise regularly. On top of that, building a meditation, reading, and writing practice will help provide some measure of virtuous stability that always keeps mindfulness with me. This might mean that I’ll be quiet and withdrawn for a bit longer; I need time and mental energy to put these into practice, and that may mean less to deal with other people. So, apologies in advance if I’m a bit slower to respond to things, or have to decline requests for favors for a little while.

Ultimately I would like to be able to interact with people, help them wherever I can, and find ways to have difficult conversations without surrendering to anger and fear as drivers of behavior. But in order to do that, it’s clear that I need to get on a more stable emotional footing. That means mindfully withdrawing to renew the foundation of my practice and hopefully coming back in a better, more hopeful frame of mind.

 

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(Politics) What I Want From White People

Politics 150When I write about contentious subjects here at The Writing Desk, I try to make sure that I use a tone that comes across as collaborative and inclusive. I know what a minefield sociopolitical topics are — especially on the Internet — and you can find someone shouting another person down anywhere you can find a comments section. But in order to engage in an actual dialogue, where people actually listen to one another, you have to find a way to show there’s no need for defenses; things that are hard to talk about get easier when you’re talking about it with someone on your side.

It’s important to me to talk about the political situation we find ourselves in because it directly affects me. It’s important to me to be heard because my background and community are far too often ignored. I’m black, I’m gay, I’m Buddhist, and there are a lot of things I see from outside the dominant culture that needs to be talked about. It’s hard for me to speak up because I abhor conflict; but it’s necessary because I want to help make the world a better place and that won’t happen by staying silent.

Over the past year, I’ve had a number of contentious conversations with friends, acquaintances and strangers about all kinds of things — but mostly about race. I’ve learned a lot through those conversations, even though it’s been hard for me to absorb and apply those lessons. Race is still a hard thing for people to talk about, especially white people, because there’s a misunderstanding about the goals we ascribe to each other when we talk about it. I think — and correct me if I’m wrong — white people feel guilty when the subject comes up and you think that we want you to feel guilty. As a black man, I’d like to tell you now that’s just not the case.

So…what do people of color actually want when we bring up race in a conversation? I can’t speak for everyone, but I can tell you what I want when I bring up race. I’m hoping that this is a good starting point for a conversation about conversation. We need to step back and take a look at how we think about discourse so we can jump into the hard stuff secure that we’re trying to hash things out in good faith. I know that a good deal of my white friends are paralyzed by fear of making a mistake and having someone take offense, and I get that. The Internet be scary! But here are a few things that might help make sense of my perspective — and others’ as well.

A couple of caveats first: I’m speaking from my experience of a cis black gay man, but that doesn’t mean I speak for ALL cis black gay men. Black culture is not a monolith, and what I say here may not apply to every black guy you see. If you have friends of color, talk to them about what you read here if you have questions to get their perspective. It’ll likely be different, and that’s a good thing. Having a broader range of perspectives allows you to find what’s consistent and what’s different.

Just as I expect you to know that not all black people are the same, I also know that not all white people are the same. I’m going to use the term ‘white people’ here to categorize a small subset of the white people I’ve interacted with — I know not all white people think a certain way or do things as described here. But I’ve had enough experience with white people to feel pretty confident that most do. If this doesn’t describe you, consider this a pre-emptive acknowledgement alright? Don’t come into my comments with anecdotal counterexamples, because I’m just going to point you to this paragraph.

Cool? Cool.

One of the hardest things for white people to do is to simply admit that racism as an institution exists and it still affects the lives of people of color to this day. But guys, I’m going to need you to acknowledge this is reality. Here in the United States, racism has been a huge part of our social fabric since before the founding of the country. European settlers decimated the Native American population, took the land, and brought over my ancestors from Africa to till the soil and grow the crops that made the US rich in those early days. That history of exploited labor has touched just about every other ethnicity, too — Chinese immigrants worked to build infrastructure for trains to bring people and supplies to the West; Mexican and Latin American immigrants are an essential part of our food production right down to this day; people in Asia, South America, and Africa work on poverty wages to build our clothes, technology, and baubles.

Even though slavery has ended, institutions designed to disenfranchise black Americans, Native Americans, and immigrants have been in place ever since. In the south during Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era (and right now), barriers have been in place to make sure people of color either can’t vote or have an incredibly hard time doing so. The justice system targets people of color much more often for infractions and punishes them far more harshly when they’re convicted, and this has been the case for decades. Banks and businesses are far less likely to hire people of color — especially in positions of power — or give them loans that might help them build successful businesses. The historical redlining of America’s cities have segregated communities of color into the worst neighborhoods with the lowest property values, which means that children of color are forced into underfunded, overcrowded schools where they receive substandard education. It’s harder to learn the skills needed to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps; it’s harder to build successful businesses or influence industry; it’s harder to exert political will to actually change the policies that make this so.

Racism affects almost every aspect of civic life for black Americans. Harmful stereotypes are perpetuated by politicians and media; our attempts to correct these problems are dismissed and deflected; our increasing anger is used as justification to keep ignoring us. It’s not OK to be forced to present proof of our own oppression in a manner that white people find acceptable, especially when the goalposts keep moving.

So white people, the very first thing you can do for me is to just admit that racism isn’t over, it’s never been over, and a lot will need to change before it CAN be over. Trust me, I’d LOVE to stop talking about race and I’m pretty sure other black people would love it too. But we didn’t make everything about race in the first place; white people did, and still do, and won’t even acknowledge it happening so we can move on to dismantling racism.

One of the reasons white people have such a hard time even acknowledging racism is a lack of perspective. So many of the conversations I’ve had went nowhere because white friends have not been able to step outside themselves to see what the world looks like to someone who isn’t them. It can feel like you’re saying “I’m not racist, so therefore racism can’t be a problem” or perhaps “If it’s not a big deal to/for me, it really shouldn’t be a big deal to/for you”.

But racism, especially as an institution, actually has object permanence. It exists even when you can’t see it. Racism isn’t just a white person using slurs against a person of color in a hateful or demeaning way; it’s not just burning crosses or beating up or killing us. Racism is having a double standard for how white and black people behave; it’s taking aspects of different cultures while marginalizing the people in those cultures; it’s a complex network of attitudes and policies that keep us from being treated as equal even though those same policies were built in a framework supposed to promote equality.

Racism is bigger than any one person, and if you have never been exposed to its effects that doesn’t mean those effects aren’t there. It just means that your social position insulates you from them. White experience in America is a fundamentally different thing from black experience; it’s not an accusation, or a judgement, it’s a fact. That’s what we mean when we bring up the dreaded ‘white privilege’. The term doesn’t mean that white people get $100,000 a year automatically and their own team of servants; it means that the system we all live under gives you a different experience than it gives me.

If you’re white, you don’t have to be terrified of the police. I do. If you’re white, you don’t have to watch talking heads on TV argue about whether ideology painting you as inherently inferior or sub-human should be allowed in the public square. I do. If you’re white, you don’t have to keep up with a list of code words and symbols that might mean you’re dealing with someone who subscribes to that ideology. I do. I could go on, but there are many MANY different aspects of the black experience that are virtually invisible to white people and are never thought of. That’s the privilege.

Understanding this means decentering yourself and trying to see the same situation from a different point of view. As hard as it can be to grasp, a lot of the problems we’re talking about are literally not about you. They’re about us, and what we go through, and why that is. So, unless I’m specifically referring to something you said or did, please try to check the impulse to defend your words and actions and heart. This isn’t about that.

So once you acknowledge that racism is still an active institution, and put aside your experience to engage with someone else’s, there’s one last thing I’d love to see: empathy. Note I didn’t say pity, or guilt, or even anger at the thing I’m angry about. I’m specifically stating that I would like white people to have more empathy for black people and the things they must go through.

Imagine getting up in the morning and having it reinforced — in so many ways large and small — that this culture doesn’t fully accept you because of your background. When you take a shower, shampoo and conditioner might work differently on your hair; if you’re a woman, finding makeup or skin care products for your skin tone is harder. On the news, the President talks about how crime is ‘out of control’ in the ‘inner cities’ and you know the image he’s conjuring — one of young black men in the streets of Chicago or Detroit or Atlanta shooting each other. The crowd cheers when he says he’s going to ‘take care of it’. Meanwhile, family in New Orleans or southeast Texas or Puerto Rico is still struggling to recover from hurricanes.

At work, you find out you make less than a colleague of another race and you have to wonder if it’s your skillset or your skin color that’s caused that. Throughout the day there are dozens of interactions — with coworkers, service folks, customers and strangers — that might have been peppered with racially-coded comments ranging from innocuous to offensive, but you’re not sure. Instead of talking about it, you decide to let it slide but it still rankles you and you can’t stop thinking about it. After work there’s more news and commentary about your race, mostly from people who are of a different one. The TV shows, movies, books and games you use to have fun or feel better mostly feature people who aren’t like you; on a forum for one of your favorite sci-fi universes, a debate rages on why there needs to be a reason to make a main character someone of your race or else it’s just political correctness being shoved down the collective throat of the community.

Despite all of this, you love your life and you feel lucky to have it. You’re in a stable relationship, you make enough money to live comfortably, you have great friends and so many things you’re excited about. You love the country you were born in, even though there are no authorities you can expect to be friendly or helpful, even though your race hasn’t been treated kindly — let alone equally — by your country in the entirety of its history, even though protests and successes by members of your race are almost always dismissed or rejected or destroyed. You love your country, but you wish your country loved you back, and that your friends understood it doesn’t, it never did, it likely won’t for a long time.

You have a good life, but it’s complicated and painful in ways that most don’t see. And it’s hard to know what to do with that — because illuminating it might just blow it all up. It makes your friends more distant and nervous; it invites hostile and ignorant demands from others; it just makes you feel more alienated, frustrated, sad.

Imagine being that person. Imagine what that’s like. Sit with that feeling; hold it, remember it. Access that feeling the next time a person of color talks to you about race, white people. Treat that person the way you would want to be treated if you felt that way. Can you do that? Because it’s really all I want. Not guilt, or shame, or even an apology; just acknowledgement, perspective, empathy. That’s it.

 
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Posted by on January 10, 2018 in Politics, Pop Culture, Self-Reflection

 

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(Personal) My 2017

Self Improvement 150Happy New Year! Congratulations to all of us for making it through 2017 with our sanity mostly intact. It was a really rough year, wasn’t it? I don’t know about you, but just when I thought I was getting a handle on things, something else would come along and knock me off my feet. There was a marathon of awfulness from the current presidential administration, starting with lies about the size of its inauguration and ending with lies about winning the War on Christmas. In between there were unprecedented wars of words with former allies and aides, the media, protesters and members of Congress; over 90 days on a golf course; shockingly provocative statements made on Twitter; leaks and firings from the White House; a rise in racist and totalitarian rhetoric in the public square; and a sustained assault on equal rights for women, minorities, Americans with disabilities; access to health insurance for more Americans; environmental and corporate deregulation; tax cuts for the wealthy; disastrous foreign policy; and a massive grass-roots resistance fighting against all of it for the entire year.

My therapist said that she had never seen so many people come in for psychological services precisely because of our political situation, but this is where we are as a nation. So many of us feel threatened by our own fellow citizens that it’s affecting our mental health. We fear for our friends and family, our autonomy, and our lives. We live in a world that feels hostile, cruel and crazy. To say this year has been a shock is an understatement.

Personally, this has been compounded by derailments in my plans for secondary education, my family situation, my day job, my writing, and my mental health routine. I dropped out of college (again) due to the sudden loss of my sister, and I’ve been struggling with the consequences of that for my family ever since. My finances have been wiped out pretty much entirely, which means that I’ll need to make some changes in my lifestyle and stay the course with an unsatisfying job (at least for the time being) in order to recover. Familial obligations, emergencies, and continued depression has made it almost impossible to build a consistent writing practice. The stress and anxiety has overwhelmed my coping strategy, meaning several depressive episodes, anxiety attacks, and a general struggle with anger and despair over the year.

2017 sucked. A lot. My sister Teneka died of a drug overdose in late April, leaving behind four children and an elderly mother who can’t take care of herself. Knowing Teneka struggled with many of the same mental health issues I did — Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder, for example — highlighted just how lucky I am to have a job that allows me the chance to address those issues at a reasonably low cost. I also have a support network that understands and empathizes with that struggle, where she didn’t. Instead she tried to raise a son with special needs and an impossibly hostile mother all on her own, while two of her children were taken from her and placed in foster care. Trapped by her mental illnesses, struggling to do what was extremely difficult at the best of times, caring for a mother who emotionally abused her — it’s no wonder to me that she turned to drugs as an escape. Where else could she go?

I learned about all of this from February to April, and the week in Baltimore as she died was the hardest week I’ve ever spent. But I got to see my two oldest nephews for the first time, gained a brother-in-law who is passionate, dedicated, and wild, and reconnected with my family after over a decade of estrangement. I’ve gained a measure of closure with my mother, even though I continue to struggle with finding a way to care for her that doesn’t involve an emergency cropping up at least once a month. Her finances are beyond repair, but I only came to that decision after depleting my own.

My mother has been difficult ever since coming back from Baltimore. Our time together was surprisingly positive. She met Ryan as my husband, and it turns out she really liked him — she still asks about him. And I thought that I had been able to speak to her in a way she understood and short-circuited a lot of the tantrums she tends to throw when things don’t go her way. She can be astonishingly mean when she’s unhappy or surprised. However, as the months dragged on and she caused scramble after scramble when refusing to do something we had agreed on a few days before, it became clear that she hasn’t really changed and she’s still the same self-absorbed, stubborn person she was when I left home.

Dealing with my mother and the loss of my sister took up most of my energy throughout the year, and I spent a great deal of 2017 in a pretty bad headspace. Frustration, anger, grief and guilt have been swirling within me with no good outlet or expression for it. I’ve become resentful of the stress and lost time and money Mom has demanded without thanks or any note of appreciation. Only recently, when other members of my extended family became involved, have I felt a measure of relief and understanding about how difficult this situation has been.

That anxiety has bled over into every other area of my life. I haven’t been writing consistently at all; I’ve been short with a lot of “problem” colleagues at work; I’ve become less talkative online and flighty or confrontational. My anxiety and depression have blown right past my coping mechanisms this year, and it’s affecting my ability to work and be mindful with my relationships. I haven’t really liked the person I’ve become over this past year — even understanding how it happened.

The other major thing that happened this year was spending two weeks in Belgium for work training. It was the very first time I had been to Europe, and it was a fascinating, enriching experience. Two weeks was just enough to get a sense of how people live in the Flemish part of Belgium and I have to say I rather liked it. Things are so much more laidback there, but in a way that actually promotes productivity. Instead of trying to do a million things at one time, there seems to be more of an effort to allow people to focus on one thing and manage that as well as possible. Expertise, built through considerable time and effort, matters.

It’s something that I’ve been struck by and have been trying to incorporate into my life ever since. I’ve attempted to put more energy into focus and deliberate practice, knowing that while it might mean I work more slowly I can also learn and grow a bit more quickly. This has been (not-so-)surprisingly difficult with my ADHD, but I get that. It’s a process, and I’ll need to develop mine a bit differently in order to make it work.

However, learning more about the new ‘flagship’ product at my company seriously tanked my morale. Our company was purchased by a holding company and merged with a European one in a somewhat similar space, but we got the ‘short end’ of the deal. Europe had the control, and it became clear that they weren’t interested in working with their American colleagues on how to support the product; they had no understanding of American business culture and were openly dismissive of their stereotypes of it; and the product itself was a shambles, but the only thing we were allowed to sell in the United States. It convinced me that the place I work for doesn’t really have a future, and I should probably prepare to leave sooner rather than later.

My attitude has cooled somewhat, and I’m content to stick around for a little bit while I build up my technical skills to make a proper run at a new job in 2018. But knowing that I was ‘stuck’ in a work environment that triggered my anxiety pretty fiercely (because I felt like I was set up to fail at my job with little to no recourse) because my finances are in pretty bad shape was not a great feeling and became a major contribution to my overall levels of stress.

As difficult as this past year has been, I have to say that I’ve also grown so much closer to so many people over the year, even as I’ve shrunken my social circle a bit. My love for Ryan has deepened further still, and the life we’ve built together has been an anchor allowing me to maintain some sense of perspective. All of the people who have been kind and patient and compassionate towards me have helped so much more than they know. So many days this year have been spent feeling hopeless, nihilistic, doomed. Those small kindnesses, those moments of connection, have been essential for carrying me through those times. I can’t thank all of you enough.

I went into 2017 expecting it to be hard. I knew that the incoming President would be no friend of mine and I would need to prepare for a grinding political resistance against the worst abuses of power and trust. I knew that we would need to band together as a community in order to protect one another and help each other survive. But I had no idea how much of an emotional toll it would take, turning to a friend to find out a fundamental disagreement meant I would need to advocate for my rights and perspective. I had no idea dealing with my family would be so exhausting and fruitless. I had no idea that I would have to give up my dream of becoming a psychologist for the time being and find other, more immediate ways to help people.

Through it all, though, I’ve learned so much about myself. I’m stronger than I thought I was. I have learned the value of discomfort and how to push through it. I have rededicated myself to compassion and equanimity. And I know who’s in the trenches with me. My sense of self (and self-worth) have deepened, and I feel ready for the uncertain times I face in 2018.

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

 

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