A Favorite Lie to Tell

I’ve learned that there is hope and that when I feel that there isn’t hope my brain is lying to me.

-John Green, “On Mental Illness (and the end of Pizzamas)”

It seems like most mental health issues have a favorite myth to perpetuate in the sufferer’s brain.  Friends with anxiety have described to me the baseless urgency, the panic without a catalyst, the lie of a magnified threat.  In John Green’s talks on his personal experiences with OCD, he tells of the intrusive thoughts, the lie of an underlying capacity for terrible things.

My depression tells me, as I slide further down the dark spiral, that I am dragging others down with me.  The first time this happened, my sophomore year of college, it told me that I was a terrible girlfriend, that remaining in this relationship would sap the Engineer of his emotional energy as he tried to help me back up the spiral of my quickly numbing mind.  (At the time, I wasn’t exactly the most supportive partner, but that’s because it’s pretty hard to be emotionally available when you don’t have emotions anymore.)  It was kinder, the depression said sagely, to let him go.

Thank God he didn’t let me do that.

Even after I started going to counseling, I tried not to talk about it.  Not because I was ashamed of the depression, exactly, but because I was ashamed to demand anything more from my friends and family.  The depression kept telling me that I would drag them down with me, and that I should at least go through the motions of generosity even if I couldn’t remember how that felt.  Since I no longer felt any real impulse toward either kindness or cruelty, my brain held up the abstract concepts and said, “You used to want to be a nice person.  A nice person wouldn’t do this to her loved ones.”  If I had to be dragged down this path, at least I wouldn’t be bringing anyone with me.  I had forgotten, of course, that emotionally stable and healthy people have more strength to help pull others up.

“Don’t drag them down with you.”  It has a slogan-y ring to it.

A nice person wouldn’t do this.  A nice brain wouldn’t do this.

I’ve learned how to better tell when my brain is lying to me.  I’ve learned that emotional states are not personality traits.  I’ve learned that my family and friends want to help and they do not resent me, nor have I pulled them into the spiral with me.

There are tools available to make the lies more apparent.  That doesn’t mean they can’t sometimes be convincing.

If you suffer from mental health problems, there is hope; when your brain says there isn’t, I promise you, it is lying to you.  And if you know someone who struggles with mental health, help remind them of the truth.

 

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Top 5 Self Care Habits I’m Bad At

These are the things that pop into my head whenever I see an article about self-care, the things that I immediately know will make me feel better and more at peace, the things I somehow can’t seem to do consistently despite knowing their benefits.

1. Journaling. I definitely notice a difference when I keep this up for even a few days in a row. My emotions seem more reasonable and orderly if I take time to name them and examine their origins in writing, especially at the end of the day. But my usual excuse is that I’m too tired.

2. Going to bed on time. I am a toddler when it comes to getting myself to bed. The more tired I am, the more likely I’ll stay up reading or scrolling through Pinterest. (And then I’m too tired to journal.)

3. Keeping in touch with family and friends. I love my friends and I like to think I’m close with my family, but I don’t reach out or respond to them as often as I should.

4. Exercise. Cliche, I know, but this is another one that leaves me feeling a positive difference when I do it…but is still hard to keep up past a week.

5. Prayer. My faith is a foundational part of my life, so when I take the time to recenter my thoughts and motivations on God, I’m reminded that I am not the one in control. (Maybe that’s why I approach this habit halfheartedly, given my love for control.)

Bonus! 6. Hydration. It exasperates the Engineer to no end, but I hardly ever drink water unless it’s heated and poured through coffee grounds.

All of these little things make a noticeable difference in how I feel both physically and emotionally. But even knowing that, I can’t seem to make myself keep up the habits. The inertia is too hard to break through.

What good habits do you have trouble with even though you know they’re good for you? Got any tips to get over that inertia of Not Doing Things? 

Never-ending Easter Egg Hunts

“In, two, three, four, out, two, three, four, five, six yourefineyourefineyourefine seven, eight.  In, two, three four…”

I said the words in my head like a crazed conductor, sternly scolding my chest when it tried to contract again too soon.  My lungs preferred hyperventilating to this slow, rhythmic exercise.  I felt like I was choking every time I breathed out for too long.  But eventually my heart rate slowed.  The air stopped feeling oppressive.  I stopped counting as I drifted off to sleep.

For a few weeks, this was my bedtime ritual.  As soon as I got under the covers, I would immediately feel guilty that I hadn’t completed all these tasks.  But during the day, when I had the time and energy (and daylight) to devote to working, I only remembered a fraction of them.  They seemed to hold back, waiting to rush at me the second I turned out the light.

It was like a protracted Easter egg hunt.  Some eggs, hidden in obvious places, were easily spotted and placed safely in my basket – the completed tasks that I had already planned on doing.  Then there were others that I glimpsed as I went about my day – the random, little things I suddenly remembered and addressed even though they weren’t part of my original list.

And then, when it got too dark to look for Easter eggs, my workaholic little brain piped up: “You can’t go to bed yet.  We didn’t find all of them.”

“It’s fine.  They’re plastic.  They won’t hurt anything if we don’t find all of them until tomorrow.”

“But what if we don’t find them in time and the candy in them melts?  Or what if someone gets annoyed that we didn’t collect them all?  No, we should keep looking.”

“I promise you, it’s fine.  We’ll look with fresh eyes tomorrow.”

“Did you check under the sofa?  I think I saw one under the sofa.”

And on it went.  As much as I told myself that I had time, that I hadn’t missed any deadlines or accidentally forgotten to reply to someone, my anxieties had a new worry for every one I dismissed.  The most compelling of these was, “But if you forgot to do it today, what if you keep forgetting until you completely forget?”

Cue racing heart and shallow breathing.

My mental state, whether in the midst of my depression or just a lot of stress, has always been the most frantic at night.  I have trouble with the concept of “rest” when I feel I haven’t earned it, whether that be letting go of emotions until I am better equipped to address them or getting some sleep even though I haven’t exercised/written/worked “enough” that day.  So bedtime, when I put away all distractions and wait alone with my thoughts before falling asleep, is a great time for my mind to rebel.

Some nights found me up with that damn basket, hunting the rest of the Easter eggs (e.g., all-nighters on projects that weren’t even due the next day, just because they were worrying me).

Other times I’d stay up long enough to map out a plan for exactly where to look for the eggs the next day (putting together a specific schedule for the next day to address all the random tasks I was suddenly remembering).

On occasion, I do manage to shush my brain entirely, with exercises like breathing (fun fact: exhaling longer than you inhale is supposed to disrupt the fight-or-flight response) or doing something similarly meditative like saying my rosary.

Melatonin supplements work too.

I’m still learning how to negotiate with my own mind and body in order to get some sleep.  But even just recognizing that this time of day can be difficult – that’s a start.


What stress-reduction/brain-quieting strategies work best for you?  What time of day do you find it hardest to deal with stress and anxiety?

 

Crying in Spin Class

“Well this is new.”  I sniffled and smiled at the gym employee holding out some protein bars.

It was new.  I had decided to try a new class, cycling, at the gym.  Workout classes like SoulCycle seem so popular, so I figured I’d give it a try.  I could pick a bike in the back, take it easy, watch other people and take my cues from the more experienced participants.

Except there were only three other people in the class, so hiding in the back didn’t really work.  Not knowing how to adjust the bike properly, I felt like I was going to fall over every time I tried to lean forward and reach the handlebars.  This also meant I couldn’t reach my water bottle, which was jammed into the holder just forward of the handlebars, so I kept having to dismount to get some water.  And there were no breaks.  In Zumba, we have breaks between songs.  But this was just trying to keep my balance and honestly wondering how on earth the other three girls were making their legs move so damn fast.

That was what eventually broke me, I think.  Stand up and pedal?  Sure.  Increase the resistance?  Great.  But every time the instructor said, “Sprint!” I could not physically make my legs go faster.  And as I leaned forward and saw spots and hoped I wouldn’t somehow slide sideways off my bike, I noticed that tears were starting to gather.

Hoping to make a quiet, dignified, inoffensive exit, I dismounted and grabbed my towel and water bottle.  Unfortunately, since there were only four of us in the class, the instructor caught my eye.  She asked, “You OK?”

And that’s when I started crying in earnest.

The instructor led a bewildered, quietly sniffling me to a recumbent bike, adjusted it so I could just use it as a regular seat, and told me to take deep breaths while she got someone to check on me.  In a few minutes, the front desk lady brought over a handful of protein bars and asked if I’d eaten that day.

“Yes, I had dinner right before this,” I said.  She smiled, but still looked concerned, so I added, “This is new.  I honestly have no idea why I’m crying.”

I often forget the link between the physical and the emotional, probably because I spent a lot of my adolescence doing my best to ignore the former and rein in the latter.  But as a counselor pointed out, suppressing negative emotions or reacting to unwanted thoughts takes physical energy.  And I had been a little stressed with wedding and moving planning, so I had been suppressing more negativity than I’d realized.

Until I exerted myself physically and lost the energy I was putting into keeping up the emotional barrier.  At least, that’s my working theory.

I didn’t tell the nice front desk lady this.  I told her that I’ve never been able to lean too far forward (which is true – I can’t do a somersault or a cartwheel, and I always think I’m going to fall when I try to touch my toes) and that was probably it.

But it was an interesting reminder to pay attention to how my body reacts to stress.

Is This Really the Story We Want to Keep Telling?

When I first saw the trailer for Split, I knew I wouldn’t be going to see it.  For one thing, the scene shown in the teaser where three girls are abducted in a parking lot marked it clearly as Horror, and I hate scary movies.  (Not to mention that I already check under, behind, and around my car before I get in, lock my doors, and immediately drive away from any given location, so thank you Hollywood for reinforcing my paranoid safety check.)  Then there was James McAvoy’s character, who apparently is yet another example of Hollywood’s fascination with (and frequent mistaken representation of) dissociative identity disorder (DID).  It seemed unlikely to me that situating a person with mental illness as a kidnapper and probable villain could involve tasteful representation of mental health problems, so that gave me another reason not to bother.

Last week, two of my coworkers began discussing the movie.  They expressed their admiration for the apparent “twist” ending, praised James McAvoy’s acting, then turned to me and asked if I’d seen it.

“No, and I don’t plan to.”

“Why not?” one coworker exclaimed. “It’s awesome!”

“I don’t like thrillers,” I started, “and even more importantly,” louder over their protests that it wasn’t that scary, “I think it’s contributing to social stigma surrounding mental illness by continuing to portray people with those illnesses as automatically dangerous or monstrous.”

They looked at me.  “It’s actually sooooo good!” one of them said, but her voice was quieter.

“I’m sure it’s an interesting story,” I said, “and I’m sure that as far as movies go it has all the drama and suspense that it needs to.  But I don’t agree with perpetuating damaging stereotypes to do that.”

There was a slightly awkward pause.

“His acting was, like, insane, though,” the other coworker finally said, and they were off again.

I have no doubt that McAvoy’s acting in this movie was impressive; just watching the trailer, I was amazed by his ability to differentiate and fully inhabit even the few personalities shown there.  I have no doubt that the writers constructed a compelling enough storyline to accomplish all the goals of the genre.

My problem is with the priorities that this movie represents, the priorities that keep allowing movies like this to be made instead of giving us popular culture filled with realistic and non-shameful pictures of mental illness.  My problem is that even this article in The Guardian outlining cinematic misrepresentation of DID through the years ends with praise for McAvoy’s acting.  We keep putting “It’s a good story!” and “It’s a chance for the actor to show off their talent!” above the damage done by shoving mental illness into the same old categories.  And mental health deserves better from our popular culture.

Individuals with illnesses other than DID suffer from this idea of the “mentally ill monster” too.  Schizophrenia is the most directly affected, since it is often mistakenly conflated with DID and therefore seen as farther along on the “crazy” spectrum.  Depressed people are often assumed to be suicidal, even though the reality is that symptoms vary widely in intensity and depending on the individual.  As for anxiety, our society already mistrusts people who cannot conform to the Extrovert Ideal, so sufferers of anxiety are often watched as though they might “snap” at any moment.

This isn’t just me over thinking things, either.  The American Psychological Association has done studies interpreting the link between media and the perception of mental illness as dangerousness.  While conclusions vary, the researchers agree that this link does exist and that it is actively contributing to continuing stigma against mental illness.

Given all these perceptions and pictures of mental illness surrounding us, no wonder few people seek help when they need it.  Who would want to seek out a diagnosis or admit to having one of these problems?  Who would voluntarily categorize themselves as a monster?

I congratulate James McAvoy on his talent in his chosen profession.  But I refuse to pretend that admiration for a complete stranger is more important than the work we need to do to alter the perception of mental illness in our popular media.  Now, a movie about a man with DID figuring out how to live everyday life despite the society he lives in constantly viewing him with fear?  That’s a movie I’d go see.

Disabling the Exasperation Filter

Whenever I decide to call in sick, my brain immediately turns on what I call the Exasperation Filter.  This filter colors every email, text message, and Facebook chat from my boss or coworkers with a tint of irritation on their part, stemming from and reinforcing my assumption that I have horribly inconvenienced everyone and therefore everyone must be annoyed with me for not sucking it up and coming in anyway.

Some of this probably comes from the classic Impostor Syndrome, which gives me the sense that I am the only person to ever call in sick without being in the hospital, clinging to life.  Never mind that I know that’s not true.  Never mind that logically I know my workplace is more caring than that.  Never mind that catching whatever has left me unable to do my job would probably inconvenience everyone far more than covering for me for one day.  No, the Exasperation Filter adds a layer of guilt and nervousness to every piece of communication on a sick day, which just makes everything worse when I’m already fuzzy-headed and exhausted.

When I caught The Death going around campus (that’s what we all call the annual virus that makes the rounds at the beginning of spring semester) immediately after getting back to work from Christmas break, I tried to push through it.  I tried to read students’ papers and direct small group workshops and ask my coworkers how their holidays had been.  But pretty soon it was clear I needed rest.  So (with the Engineer sitting supportively beside me) I sent out the dreaded sub request.  It was a Monday, one of my longest days, so I worried that not all of my hours would get covered and they would be understaffed and the Writing Center would go up in a ball of flame.  (The Exasperation Filter comes packaged with the Worst Case Scenario Upgrade.)

Instead, my boss, B., sent me a nice email with a smiley face saying not to worry and to feel better, that they would manage without me.  The next day that I did drag myself into work, B. heard me coughing and asked, “How many hours do you have after this?”  I told her.  “Any classes today?”  Yes, I was facilitating one small group.  “Go home when you’re done with that,” she said.  “You need to get better.  We’ll be fine.”

I started to protest, but she said she needed me at 100% when she would be out of the office later that week.

Her genuine concern for my wellbeing made me squirmy, especially knowing I was about to miss quite a bit of work to tour grad schools with the Engineer.  My work has always been a wonderfully affirmative place, particularly when I first started after my super-stressful and toxic internship sophomore year.  But I worried that as I started preparing to leave, the Writing Center would have no reason to keep being nice to me.  I didn’t want to damage any relationships in my last remaining months.  So I pointed out that I’d be gone a lot in the next month already, so I didn’t want to miss any more work.

B. tilted her head and looked at me.  “All the more reason you should go home and rest.  You absolutely need to go with your boyfriend and you should try to get well by then.  Those visits are important too.”

Turns out that was the phrase I needed to disable the Exasperation Filter.  Now I manually replace it with the B. Filter, forcing myself to read her emails in her actual tone of voice, not the false accusatory tone I’ve never actually heard her use, and reminding myself that she and the rest of the Writing Center actually do want the best for me.

It’s a much more pleasant way to read my emails.

Review(ish): L.M. Montgomery as Unexpected Mentor

I’m not really sure how to categorize this post, because the extent to which I identified with Lucy Maud Montgomery throughout the first volume of her selected journals had an enormous impact on my impression of that collection. From her opening entry declaring that she had burned all of her childhood diaries (I have more than a few I would like to shred) to her descriptions of the “melancholy” that seized her when she was older (and sounded hauntingly like my experiences with depression), I felt like this woman was my “kindred spirit,” as her most famous character would say.

Anyone who loved Anne of Green Gables will essentially find bonus material in this collection of the beloved author’s journals from 1889 to 1910.  It’s easy to find the places where Montgomery drew on her personal experiences to create Anne’s world, using her own memories and sometimes brutally honest depictions of her own feelings to remember what the emotional turmoil of childhood really feels like.  It’s also easy to see her writing style as it grew into the L.M. Montgomery we know and love.  I could recognize phrases she used directly or in altered form in the Anne books, as well as general sentiments that Anne would later echo.

I could also recognize myself in Montgomery’s inner life, as I said before.

It wasn’t just the melancholia that gripped her in the winter, leaving her without the motivation even to get off couch, as the worst of my own depression has done to me.  It wasn’t just the way she felt about books as friends, the way my own bookshelves act as a comfort when I feel lonely.  It was little things, little dislikes for irritating classmates and frustrations with unseen obstacles to her dreams.  Reading her journals even went so far as to comfort me for my own sporadic entries (I cannot seem to maintain a daily habit no matter how good it is for me).

Maybe I just connected to her as a fellow woman writer.  Maybe this is just one of those things among writers, to seek out a mentor version of yourself in the ranks of those who have gone before.  Maybe it’s just a more generic writer thing (it’s well known, for instance, that many writers have struggled with depression).  Maybe I just felt close to this real person who had created one of my favorite childhood characters.

Whatever the reason, I was not expecting such a personal level of connection when I picked up these journals on a whim at Half Price Books – but I’m glad I did.

Brain in Revolt

I just finished rereading the entire Calvin and Hobbes collection for the umpteenth time.  I’m so familiar with the eponymous boy and tiger that I found myself looking forward to specific strips, especially the Sunday ones with their bold colors and creative layouts.

Some of my favorites are when Bill Watterson shows little Calvins running around with goggles and helmets in Calvin’s brain.  These mini versions of Calvin operate his life like the crew of a spaceship.  They attempt to recalculate when Calvin missteps and falls down the stairs.  They descend to the subconscious, a cluttered dump of a place, to retrieve movie reels for that night’s dreams.

I like this imagery.  There’s something appealing about personifying the decisions and operations of one’s brain, perhaps because it makes it seem like there are little allies inside one’s head working to one’s consistent benefit.  After all, if they’re part of you, they must want your wellbeing, right?

Depression, to me, feels like a mutiny.  It feels like I can never quite trust the little workers running around in my head because they get bored, or they get lazy, or they get moody, and without consulting the protocol for Normal Operations or checking in with Management (which would ideally be, y’know, me) they decide that the Mood Balance should shift to sad.  Or irritable.  Or let’s just throw the whole system into neutral, and coast for a while, which is not as bad as sadness or anger but is still less than ideal for a productive, happy life.

I can do certain things to prevent these shifts.  I can be mindful of my stress levels, my eating habits, my sleep schedule, my exercise routine.  I can watch that Christian the lion video if I need to cry.  I can read Calvin and Hobbes if I want to cheer up.

But all of that feels like placating the tiny workers, keeping them in check.  It feels like I am not in control.  And shouldn’t I be?  This is my brain, mine, but I’m not calling the shots.

This, I think, is the problem with mental health.  It’s invisible, and even when it is made visible, whether through the images of neurons firing in our high school textbooks or through the imagined Mini-Me workers of a cartoonist, there remains a certain expectation of ownership.  The owner of the brain in question is supposed to be able to squash any rebellion.  But how do you do that when the center of control is the part of you that’s rebelling?

Purpose

the reason for which something exists or is done, made, used, etc.
an intended or desired result; end; aim; goal
determination; resoluteness
As the Engineer waits to hear back from grad schools and I wait to hear what part of the country I’ll be living in come September, I itch to start a job search.  But not just any job search.  At the risk of sounding like An Entitled Millennial, I admit that I want a job that gives me a sense of purpose.  I wouldn’t mind working as a waitress, a barista, a data entry person – at least, not at first.  There are many necessary jobs that make our society run smoothly in the ways that we are used to, and I respect the people who fulfill those needs.
But it turns out that I am the kind of person who, if she is unsatisfied in her job, is unsatisfied in general.
I blame some of this on my brain’s deeply entrenched habits.  I’m already much better at exaggerating negative emotions, consequences, and difficulties than celebrating and remembering victories and little happy things.  And if I spend a week writing down good things for my Gratitude Jar and journaling every night and Naming and Recognizing My Emotions, I do notice that life is not quite as Blah as it seemed the week before.  So I do try to do that.
The problem continues, however, when I try to make my job relate too closely to my passion.  I have already figured out that I don’t want writing to be my career in a traditional sense, at least not now, so I thought working at the Writing Center would be a good way to earn money while sticking close to the field that already provides me with a sense of purpose.  So I spend several hours a day showing students how to better put words into sentences, and then I come home and I open my laptop and I open my own Work In Progress…and the last thing I want to do is put words into sentences.
I read an article in a magazine a while back about the concept of “reservoirs of energy.”  The gist was that everyone has three reservoirs: Mental, Emotional, and Physical.  A full day at work might deplete your Mental reservoir, so coming home and being asked to figure out what the heck is wrong with the refrigerator because it’s making that high-pitched noise again is only going to demand Mental energy from an empty reservoir, making you feel more exhausted.  The trick is recognizing activities that might drain one reservoir and not pushing yourself past your limit in using that type of energy; for instance, you might exercise after work because your Physical energy is still nearly full, giving your Mental and Emotional energy a chance to refill in time for dinner with your family.
I think working too closely with writing on a daily basis does something similar.  I think it depletes my Writing Energy (more probably just Mental energy, but humor me).  This, of course, wouldn’t be a problem if my job were only focused on my own writing projects, where I could finish the day tired but satisfied at a job well done.  But right now, I’m so focused on helping other people with their writing that I still feel dissatisfied with my day’s work because I so rarely manage to make progress on my own projects.
C.S. Lewis wrote, “A vocation is a terrible thing.”  He was talking about the call to one day join God in Heaven, to go through the difficult work of preparing for that kind of relationship, but I think the quote applies equally to those of us who know what we are meant to do on this earth but don’t know how, exactly, to go about it.
Writing, it has long been clear to me, is my God-given purpose.  It is “the reason for which [this person, Grace] exists.”  But while this gives me a long term goal, a desired result for my life (fantasy books, and maybe a historical fiction or two), and though I have been determined and resolute in this goal for years (despite every unoriginal snarky comment in the book), that leaves a bit of a gap in my daily life.  Because I’m still trying to figure out how, exactly, I’m supposed to find a job that gives me a Daily Sense of Purpose without sapping energy from my Big Picture Purpose.

Misfits

something that fits badly, as a garment that is too large or too small.
a person who is not suited or is unable to adjust to the circumstances of his or her particular situation

It’s bothered Bird and me for years.  Every Christmas Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer comes on and every Christmas we wonder what on earth is wrong with the doll on the Island of Misfit Toys.

Turns out, according to producer Arthur Rankin, it’s psychological.  In a 2007 NPR interview, he said that Dolly’s problem was low self-esteem and doubting herself.  Depending on the backstory, it sounds like a similar situation to Jessie from Toy Story 2: after being rejected by her human owner, Dolly doesn’t trust her ability to be a good companion to another person.  She’s hurt and depressed.

Some people dismiss this as inserting modern psychobabble into a cartoon from 50 years ago.  This post claims that the alternative explanation is “as plain on the nose on your face” because the thing that actually makes Dolly a misfit is her lack of a nose.

I disagree.  For one thing, plenty of cloth dolls in that style and time period didn’t have noses, or eyebrows, for that matter.  And for another, the majority of the misfit toys are not simply missing something.  Some fundamental part of them has been replaced with something different that interferes with their traditional function.  The train has square wheels.  The cowboy rides an ostrich.  The bird swims but cannot fly.  (OK, the elephant has the addition of polka dots, but he’s also a white elephant, which suggests being historically unwanted in the first place.)  These toys are misfits because something in them has changed to the point that they no longer fit the mold, and something would have to change again for them to be considered “normal.”  It’s not a one-step fix.

That’s why Dolly’s psychological misfit-ness rings true (for me, at least).  She needs more than a few stitches or a new dress.  There is something about her, as with the rest of the toys on the Island, that fits badly, that is not suited to her situation.  The visibility or invisibility of her struggles does not alter their validity.

And even if the explanation was inserted later to cover up some forgetfulness on the writers’ part, I’ll take any opportunity to point to well-known characters in popular culture who can help me normalize mental health.