Succulents and Stress Spirals

I potted some plants the other day.  I pulled on my brand new neon orange gardening gloves, scooped Miracle-Gro into an azure blue pot, and settled some spiky purple blooms around a central plant with trumpetlike white flowers.  Promptly forgetting the names of the plants, I have dubbed the spiky purple ones dragonsbane after a plant described in Dealing With Dragons.  I haven’t come up with a name for the white ones yet.  There’s also an adorable tiny succulent on my windowsill, which I have named Junior after the asparagus from VeggieTales.

I was proud of this attempt at gardening.  I was adding life to my home (and the plants seem like they’ll probably survive!).  That burst of productivity even extended to vacuuming, cleaning the kitchen, and balancing my budget.  It was a good afternoon.

Then the next day I came home from work and didn’t move from my couch for the entire afternoon.  Dinner was forgotten.  The dishwasher did not get unloaded.  Nothing happened except that I sat on the couch, coloring, until Netflix asked, “Are you still watching?” (a message I can’t help but read with a judgey inflection, even if Netflix is truly just concerned for my wellbeing).  Even my mindfulness coloring book didn’t seem to help my mood.

And all I could think about was, “I never do anything anymore.  I am so unproductive.  I’m going to completely fail this year” – and there I went, slipping and sliding down a Stress Spiral.  Basically, when I get into this self-overwhelming mindset, I use my current mood/emotion/situation to build illogically dramatic visions of the future.  In this case, it went something like:

I’m not feeling productive today ⇒ I’m falling behind on all the things I wanted to do today. ⇒ I’m going to fall behind on all the things I wanted to accomplish this year. ⇒ I won’t get any writing done. ⇒ I will be a failure at achieving my dream of being an author.

Looking at this through a logical lens, of course, the extrapolation falls apart.  For one thing, this year is not the only year I have in which to become an author.  I have my whole life to do that; this is just some time I happen to have set aside to work toward that specifically.  Scaling it back down, the dishwasher could conceivably be unloaded the next day.  And a bout of unproductive-ness one day does not mean I’m that way all the time – just the day before, I’d potted plants!  I’d budgeted!  I’d been an adult!  But the funny thing is that on those Good Adulting Days, I never think to myself, “I am always like this.”  Those thoughts only come on days when I am not being who I want to be.

IMG_20160714_121549My favorite counselor once told me, “Emotional states are not personality traits.”  It’s a helpful thing to repeat to myself when I’m scrabbling for a toehold in a Stress Spiral (and not just because it rhymes).  At some point I developed the habit of mistaking my darker moods for reflections of my Core Self, and as painful and overwhelming as that is, it’s a difficult habit to break.  So I journal, because sometimes just identifying the twists and turns of the Spiral helps me unravel it.  I talk to the Engineer, whose belief in my abilities is dazzling and unwavering.  I text my friends, who tell me I’m putting too much pressure on myself.  And I stand at my window and see that Junior seems to be doing just fine.  So odds are I’ll be fine too.

Review: Daring Greatly

The Southern Belle introduced me to Brene Brown’s work our sophomore year.  She showed me Brown’s TED Talk on the power of vulnerability after a long talk about how we both deal with our emotions (spoiler alert: on my end, usually not well).  Ever since then, I’ve been on the lookout for more of Brown’s work.  When the Commodore and I finally made it to a local bookstore she’d been telling me about for ages (where I promptly set up a frequent buyer account and spent far too much money), I scooped up my own copy of Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.

Like Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (a book that changed my life), Daring Greatly brings devalued parts of our thinking to light.  Brown takes readers through the various strategies we use to avoid vulnerability, many of which were familiar to me (especially numbing).  And then she explains how dodging vulnerable moments adversely affects us.  It turns out, frustratingly, that while we avoid vulnerability out of fear of disconnection, vulnerability is necessary to truly connect with those around us.  We’re stuck, then, between the exposure of being vulnerable and the isolation of the very disconnection we were trying to escape.

Even as Brown outlines this uncomfortable truth, she admits that she’s frustrated with it too.  Which is comforting.

The title comes from a Theodore Roosevelt quote about being all in, about the arena of life and who really wins and why, about the people who “strive valiantly.”  Roosevelt says that “there is no effort without error and shortcoming,” which is something we don’t like to think about.  We’re supposed to make everything look effortless – our makeup, our fitness level, our accomplishments at work, our homes.  But when we’re vulnerable, we can admit that we’re actually “daring greatly” and that life is scary, but it’s worth it.

Brown describes years of conducting research and interviewing people who live “Wholeheartedly,” as she puts it, identifying trends in their behavior and attitudes that allow them to recognize the importance of being vulnerable.  She even gives examples from her own life, times when she shied away from vulnerability and times when she embraced the discomfort in order to live more Wholeheartedly.

My academic brain, trained as it is in editing and workshopping, wished for a bit more flow to the general style (the writing was sometimes choppy and the organization unclear), but other than that it was a thoroughly enjoyable read.  There were several parts that made me set the book down and stare at the wall as I absorbed the truth of what I had just read, parts that made me think, “me too.”  Teetering as I am on the edge of a new phase of life, I think this will be a book worth revisiting.

4/5 stars on Goodreads


Have you read Daring Greatly?  What did you think?  Do you think Brown’s work will change anything about the way you live your life or try to interact with others?  Share your thoughts below!

Shell Shock

When my professor called on me, I couldn’t contain an inarticulate growl before proceeding with my response to his question.

“Wow,” he said.  “The rage is strong with you today.”

It was indeed.  We were discussing the two doctors who “treat” Septimus Warren Smith in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and which of the two was worse/more destructive in his treatment of PTSD.  If you never read Mrs. Dalloway, Septimus is a character suffering from “shell shock” – hearing voices, seeing his dead friends, believing himself the recipient of a grand message from the universe, and feeling suicidal in the aftermath of serving in WWI.  The first doctor, Holmes, literally pushes Septimus’s wife, and therefore her worries for her husband, aside in order to lecture Septimus about how there is nothing at all the matter with him and how he should just get a hobby and go outside more.  The second, Sir William, agrees that Septimus is ill, but his focus is on normalization – that is, getting Septimus back to being a Contributing Member of Society, Back to Normal, and if he can’t do that, then letting him stay in an asylum rather than burden society any longer.

Grr.

These two delightful characters undoubtedly spring from Woolf’s own experiences with medical professionals while struggling with manic depression.  And even though Mrs. Dalloway was published in 1925, these doctors are still representative of social reactions to mental illness.

Setting my rage aside for moment (difficult as that is), I can understand the outside perspective.  It’s difficult to “believe in” an affliction we can’t see.  It’s not like a broken leg or a bleeding wound – there’s nothing visibly wrong, so a tiny doubt wriggles its way in.  He seemed fine two weeks agoIs she really that sick if she’s still getting all her work done?  He’s always been so reasonable – is he really thinking of suicide?  We base our assumptions on what we’ve seen and known of people up to this point, and sometimes it’s difficult to overcome that desire for them to “prove” that they’re “really sick.”  Similarly, I can see why, once we realize that something really is wrong, we want our friend/family member/classmate to Get Well Soon.  We want them Back to Normal, because isn’t that what they’re supposed to want too?  Our society often views healing as a process with an end point, a time in the future when the sick person will have Gotten Over It, whether It is a cold or the flu or the death of a loved one.  Of course, we are not completely callous.  We know that some things take longer to heal from than others.  But we’re still envisioning an end point rather than the possibility of “living with” the thing.  “Living with” seems to suggest an uneasy compromise, which we don’t like, because there’s the underlying possibility of another upset where the Bad Thing takes over, and of course we don’t want to see this person go through that again.

So I can understand these viewpoints.

But people who hold these views usually cannot understand me.

Both Holmes and Sir William fail to recognize and validate the reality of mental illness.  Yes, it’s difficult to “see” sometimes, but that doesn’t mean the person is making it up.  Visibility does not equal proof.  And, while there are sadly a few individuals who do make things up to get attention, why should that be our default assumption?

As for the push to Get Better Soon, while it usually comes from a place of genuine care and concern, it forces the sufferer to “take responsibility” for their illness – a problem that is actually beyond their control.  It may make the person feel as though the longer they take to get Back to Normal, the more irritated or fed up their support system will get.  Believing that the people around you think you should be over something makes you question yourself and begin devaluing the reality of your experience.  Also, prioritizing Back to Normal-ness denies a major fact of mental illness: it doesn’t always go away.  Balance can be achieved.  Strategies can be developed.  But when there is something chemically awry in a person’s brain, it can’t always magically be fixed.  So in that case, “living with” it instead of being crushed by it is actually a victory.

We have progressed significantly since the days of Septimus Warren Smith and his two horrible, horrible doctors.  But there is still room for improvement and understanding.

 

Rejecting a Resume Builder

I might have done something dumb.  Or I might be getting the hang of self care.  The line between the two, at least for me, is occasionally hazy.

The email came from out of the blue, with Congratulations! in the subject line next to the name of the University Lit Journal.  I’ve been published in this journal before (2 stories in one issue, actually), and submitted to it multiple times…but not this past semester.  I hadn’t had time to work on anything I felt confident submitting.

Confused, I clicked.

They had accepted my piece for publication, pending revisions, and needed a bio and headshot of me by Friday.  I didn’t recognize the title of the piece they mentioned, but the girl who had emailed me knew me from previous classes and one of my other friends was the managing editor, so it probably wasn’t a case of mistaken identity.  I texted Editor Friend.

“Um, it’s the piece you wrote for Professor C’s class,” he said.  “Last spring?  Here, I’ll email it to you.”

Vague memory dawned.  It was a creative nonfiction piece about my time abroad the summer before, but I was thoroughly “meh” about how it turned out.  Professor C, though, loved it.  He had encouraged me to submit it to University Lit Journal and, when I wasn’t sure, asked if he could at least use it as an example for his creative nonfiction editors.  I said that was fine, and maybe I would revise and submit it for publication eventually.  I never got around to it – had forgotten all about it, actually.

And now University Lit Journal was offering to publish it.

I remember how it felt getting the email saying that not one but both of my previous (fiction) pieces had been accepted.  I was exhilarated.  Over the moon.  Skipping down the sidewalk (well, I do that anyway because I’m basically a 5-year-old pretending to be a college student, but you get the picture).  The meeting with the editors to go over revisions was one of the best workshopping experiences I have ever had, and I was truly proud of the product when it came out in print.

This time around, all I felt was panic.

I did not have time budgeted for this.  I did not have a spare hour to meet with the editors again, much less several afternoons to devote to revising the piece to a point where I would be happy to see it in print (again, this was not my favorite thing I’ve ever written, and though when I reread it I could see some potential, it would take a while).  And I had no desire to carve out that time.  I didn’t want to rush to a meeting where my own writing would make me feel harried and inconvenienced.  I didn’t want to spend energy that I needed for class, work, thesis, feeding myself.  I didn’t want to pick up a project that someone else had started on my behalf.

“How much would you hate me if I said no?” I texted Editor Friend.

Some people might think I’m crazy for retracting my piece.  “How much time could it really have taken?” they might cry.  “You should have jumped at the chance to get published again!  I’m sure if they wanted to print the story it would have been fine no matter how you felt about it.” And maybe, being a young almost-graduate who’s hoping to get an entire book published eventually, I should have been grateful for the chance to have another printed piece on my resume.

But I just wasn’t.  And I have enough of a sense of ownership of my writing that I wanted to be excited if I was going to have something printed.  I didn’t want it to feel – well, like this.

So I retracted my “submission” and immediately breathed a sigh of relief.  Now I could focus on the stuff I want to write – like my thesis, my manuscript, and this blog.  Maybe it wasn’t the best choice for my resume, but it was what I needed to do for myself right now.  And I’m okay with that.

The Blessings Jar

I can’t work in clutter.  My room, in the upheaval and un-routine-ness that accompanies a new semester, had been in an Uneasy State of Chaos for a while, and I was sick of it.  So, working counterclockwise around my room from the door, I Cleaned – and yes, the capital is warranted, because it was no mere 10-second tidying up.  I dusted and organized and rearranged and adjusted until everything fit Just So.

I was on a roll until I got to my nightstand.  One of the Random Things that had come to rest in obscurity right next to my bed was a pickle jar with the label peeled off and many slips of multicolored paper inside.

2016-01-19 19.37.17

My Blessings Jar.

I’d forgotten about it, failed to keep up the habit, since last year when Bird gave me the idea (which I think she got from Pinterest).  As I swiped the dust rag over it, I thought now might be a good time to empty it, start fresh, swear to myself that I would chronicle at least One Good Thing each night from now on.  Settling criss-cross-applesauce on the floor, I poured out the tiny scraps and began to read.  Some made me chuckle, like liquid dishwasher soap from when the Commodore and I finally ran out of that awful powdered stuff and bought a gallon of the liquid we preferred.

Some, like Bird’s smile when she saw me in the chapel after her retreat, made me cry.

It amazes me, sometimes, the magnitude of things that can be tethered in tiny characters inked on paper.  The moments I had found worth recording were instances of love, support, and shared strength from my parents, my sister, the Commodore, the Southern Belle, the Engineer and his family, my friends from church, and my coworkers.  All the people in my life had contributed to these scribbly bits of paper showing me how many families I have looking out for me.

So often it’s easier to remember the one bad thing that happened at the end of an evening, or late in the afternoon, and let it erase all the silliness and contentment of the morning and lunchtime.  A whole day can be colored by just one negative thing.  But when I force myself to think of just One Good Thing, it’s funny how more Good Things start to come out of the shadows, shyly raising a hand to say, “Remember me?  You didn’t have such a bad day after all.”

I tucked the old blessings away in a box and set the empty, hopeful jar on my freshly dusted nightstand.

I think this is a habit worth attempting again.2016-01-19 19.38.25

Confessing to Depression

I was vaguely aware that there was probably something wrong.  My friend and I had sat on one of the lower bunks in our somewhat crowded retreat cabin for almost half an hour, talking. She kept asking me questions – how was I eating, sleeping, focusing in class, feeling about spending time with the Engineer?

“Just one more thing,” she said. “Are you reading?”

I shook my head.

“That,” she said, looking me in the eye, “does not sound like you.”

I hadn’t felt like “me” for weeks, but I was slogging through, wasn’t I?  I was still helping lead this retreat.  I was still maintaining my grades.  I was still fun to be around at our weekly church dinners, even if I did sometimes hang out quietly in a corner or slip out early.  But I was probably just tired.  Everyone gets tired.

These were the thought processes that kept me from telling anyone, from thinking about it too much, from pushing too hard against the curtain that had fallen between me and the rest of the world.  Because that’s what it felt like.  I was just numb, all the time.  Nothing really seemed worth the effort of pushing through that.

Besides, I was probably just tired, or maybe not getting enough vitamin C.  I didn’t want to make a mountain out of a molehill, even in my own head.  Why make a big deal about something I was “handling” just fine?

Somewhere, in my two decades on this planet, I had picked up social habits that informed the way I thought about my own mental health.  These habits led me to believe that as long as no one could tell anything was wrong, there wasn’t anything wrong.  Furthermore, these habits led me to fear others’ reactions when I admitted to this “fault” of mine, this depression.  Every time I told a friend or family member my shameful secret, I flinched at the words, preparing myself for the comments I’d already heard so much from myself.

“I’m sure it’s not that bad.  Just cheer up.”

“Focus on positive things.”

“You’re just having a bad week.  It’ll pass.”

“Wow, overdramatic much?”

I had only told my friend about my feelings on a whim – something she’d said about her own experiences in counseling had stuck with me despite the numbness, and I just wanted to see if there were any similarities between our cases.  Or rather, if I was being honest, I wanted to know that she saw those similarities too, that I wasn’t just making it up.

But even though she asked every day for the next week if I’d made an appointment with a counselor, even though the Southern Belle said I didn’t seem like myself lately and the Engineer expressed his worry for me, it took me another two weeks to actually go in.

And when I did?  “If I had the textbook open in front of me to Depression,” the counselor said, “it would say all the things you’re telling me.”

“But nothing’s happened,” I wanted to say.  “No one died.  I didn’t get fired.  There’s no trauma that should have caused this.”  Apparently, my brain didn’t care about my need to legitimize my depression to others.  This was just what was happening, regardless of events in my life.

Not one of my friends or family members said anything dismissive when I finally opened up to them.  They gave me nothing but love and support.

But I still dismissed my mental health.  I compared my own numbness to what I thought of as “real depression,” the struggles of people suffering from physical illness or devastating loss.  I felt like an impostor, and, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, I thought others would see me that way too.

I worried I was talking about it too much – that the Engineer or Bird or any of my friends might secretly be rolling their eyes and thinking, “This again?  Isn’t she over it by now?”

Our society does not do well with mental health.  For one thing, it’s invisible – I can’t count the number of times someone has said (in the nicest possible way) that I “always seemed so happy.”  And the stigmas surrounding mental health issues encourage us to keep it invisible.  As John Green said in a recent video (which I highly recommend you go watch – the relevant part starts at about 1:00), “The central way we imagine sickness, as a thing that we must conquer and then put behind us, doesn’t really apply to chronic illness.”  I don’t blame anyone for wanting to assume I’m “better,” but every time I have to re-admit to having depression, it opens me up to that fear of disappointing them, as though I’ve failed to attain something, even though that something is actually out of my control.

This is why I want to talk about my depression – because those stigmas and those fears stemming from them make me so angry.  The way our society deals with mental health is preventing people from admitting to themselves that something might be wrong.  It’s preventing the friends and family of people with mental health issues from finding the best ways to help.

And this fear of talking about it isn’t helping any of us.


Some food for thought:

“Explaining My Depression to My Mother” by Sabrina Benaim (an excellent poem about an experience I was blessed enough not to have)

HPWritesBlogs, especially her post “Depression is a Liar”

10 Depression Myths We Need to Stop Believing from Huffington Post

I am Unikitty

Princess Unikitty is the embodiment of positivity.  (If you don’t know who I’m talking about, drop everything and go watch/rewatch the brilliance that is The Lego Movie.  I’ll wait.)  In her beloved Cloud Cuckoo Land, Unikitty leads a life of carefree, rainbow-colored chaos, where anything goes – as long as there are no frowny faces.  Her commitment to thinking happy thoughts runs deep, even when the bad guys show up and Cloud Cuckoo Land turns less rainbow and more explosive.

bd74bcda5e98a5c9d683de753d200473Obviously, this is not the healthiest emotional habit, and it doesn’t sustain Unikitty for long.  Even as she explains the motto above, her face becomes red and angry.  Though she tries her best to suppress negativity, it’s still there, lurking just beneath the surface.  By the end of the movie, Unikitty’s anger at seeing her friends attacked overpowers her obsessively positive mindset, and she busts out some fantastic animated karate to take down her fair share of bad guys.  Plus it’s funny to watch someone go from determinedly cheerful to Hulk-smash furious in 5 seconds.

Isn’t it?

Though moviegoers recognize that Unikitty should not be dealing with her emotions this way, she still presents a fair picture of the emotional facade our society expects of us.  We place a great deal of emphasis on BE HAPPY! without sufficient focus on the methods we use to get there.  We encourage people to “let go” of negative emotions as quickly as possible, to “shake off” experiences and feelings we deem “toxic” due to their Not-Happy nature.  In effect, a lot of us really do push those thoughts “down deep inside where you’ll never, ever, ever, EVER find them.”

Unfortunately, this is not the same as feeling them.

I haven’t talked about this yet on this blog, but my own Unikitty-esque emotional habits led me into a serious struggle with depression about a year ago.  All of my emotions, Happy and Not-So-Happy, completely shut down.  I went numb.  And at first I couldn’t figure out why.  I thought depression and anxiety needed some kind of trigger, but I hadn’t had any traumatic event in my life.  Eventually, my counselor traced it back to the Really Big Conflict, as I’ve referred to it, from The Internship sophomore year.

I thought, like Elsa from Frozen, I had just let it go.

In reality, I was more like Unikitty, pretending Cloud Cuckoo Land wasn’t crashing down around my ears.  I shoved the anger, hurt, and confusion deeper and deeper down until finally the Happy Thoughts shut off too.

Something my counselor told me: You can’t feel things selectively.  You can’t just ignore negative emotions without eventually turning off the positive ones too.

As Unikitty shows us, if Not Happy Thoughts are simply shoved aside in favor of Happy Thoughts, there comes a breaking point.  Either you explode, like Unikitty, or you go numb, like I did.  Being happy All! The! Time! is all well and good if you’re just that kind of person, but I’m learning the importance of truly moving on – feeling the negative feelings and making space in your mind for them before taking that deep breath.

So maybe I won’t identify so strongly with Unikitty anymore.  But she’s a good reminder of my old habits – and why they won’t sustain me any more than they did her.


UPDATE: The original title of this post was “Unikitty is My Spirit Animal,” but having learned of that term’s importance to native peoples and cultures, I’ve decided not to use it here. I have edited the post accordingly. (2019)


Some articles about this:

Beyond Happiness: The Upside of Feeling Down from Psychology Today

Negative Emotions are Key to Well-Being from Scientific American

The Importance of Negative Emotions from Huffington Post