Still Alive, Just FYI

Sorry about the radio silence lately, but my undergraduate thesis is due tomorrow so I’ve spent the past few weeks alternately crying, tearing my hair out, complaining a lot  to the Engineer (he is a saint and a far better human being than I deserve in my stress spirals), and occasionally hitting a great writing streak and slamming out a dozen pages at once.  At the moment, I’m trying to write my precis (basically an abstract, but I can’t use any “jargon,” which I didn’t realize was a thing that happened when you’re just talking about storytelling, but apparently it is) and then format my final draft.

And then I turn it in.

Eek.

So anyway, once that’s turned in and I give my presentation in 2 weeks, I’ll have more brain space to write blog posts, so there will be a regular(ish) schedule again after that.

Pinky swear.

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Coffee should be black as hell, strong as death, and sweet as love

~Turkish proverb

At Starbucks, it’s a skinny vanilla latte (unless it’s fall, in which case it’s a chestnut praline latte, or a skinny peppermint mocha at Christmastime).

At Zoe’s, our local coffeehouse where I spent so much time that occasionally I got free coffee, it’s a dirty chai latte (two shots of espresso if I’m having a rough day).

At the coffee cart in the Hospitality Business Management building, it’s a hazelnut lavender latte (trust me, it’s divine).

At the shop downstairs in the student union, it’s a Thin Mint Mocha (or a London Fog if I’ve been stressing out and my stomach is in knots).

And at home, it’s my just-right combination of Italian Sweet Creme and Gevalia dark roast in one of my mugs from England or New Orleans or Chicago or wherever.

I love my coffee.  I’m definitely addicted – I get withdrawal headaches, not to mention extremely irritable and rather fatigued, whenever I accidentally decrease my intake.  And I know I probably spend too much on it – I attained Gold Status in my Starbucks membership without even trying.  The Engineer doesn’t even drink coffee, nor does he know most of my drink orders at any of the above places (which isn’t his fault, since if I’m in the mood where I need coffee now I’m probably being rather antisocial).

But I figure there are worse things I could be addicted to.  And besides the energy boost, it’s kind of a security blanket.  When everything in my day is going wrong, or I need the mental fortitude to face a scary Monday, one sip of coffee comforts everything.  As I told my counselor a few semesters ago, no matter what else happens, nothing can ruin coffee.  It’s happiness in a mug.

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.

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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

Emotionally Manipulated Pet Progression

We were only supposed to get some fish.

We were replacing the victims of our murderous goldfish, Dotty.  The other fish just kept…vanishing.  The little frog got caught in the filter – shoved in, we were certain, by our resident cannibal.  When Dotty finally died, only one little fishy was left, the one I’d dubbed Shadow for his ability to lurk behind the plastic plants and avoid his friends’ fate.  I thought he’d like having the tank to himself, having been traumatized by Dotty, but Dad said we should get him some more friends.  So off we went to the pet store.

And there were kittens.

Two of them, one gray tabby and his dark, smoky gray brother, mewling from behind the glass.  (I seem to remember a story about the litter being found on the side of the road in a cardboard box, but that could just be me combining Homeward Bound 2 with my own memories.  I was mostly focused on the adorable bundle of wriggly fuzziness.)  Dad said we could hold them, a fatal mistake, because Bird and I had already telepathically agreed that we were taking these kittens home.  The only problem was how to convince our father that we needed both of them.

“Here, Daddy,” I said, handing him the gray one that resembled a little bear.  “He likes you.”

“Here, Daddy,” Bird said, handing him the stripey one.  “This one’s so soft!”

Dad could tell we weren’t leaving without a feline, so he sighed and asked which one we wanted.

“Oh, you pick, Daddy!” we chorused.

He looked at us.  He looked at the kittens.  “Well,” he said resignedly, “it’d be a shame to split up brothers.”

So now we have Sitka (the striped one) and Kodiak (the little gray bear, Kodi for short) because Dad’s one condition was that he get to name them.

20130204_151020.jpgThis set a precedent for Bird to get a dog two years ago.  After visiting the Humane Society, she set her sights on a Husky mix.  So she sent Dad pictures of the dog with the caption “Dickens says good morning…from his cold, lonely cell…If only someone would take him home…”

The next time I came home from school, we had a dog.

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Now we just need to work on getting that pony…

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

Winter Break

Well, I survived my penultimate undergraduate finals week.  And now I sit in our living room across from the Christmas tree, surrounded by festive Yuletide decorations and books (seriously – we have four bursting plastic totes of Christmas books alone) and it still doesn’t feel like The Most Wonderful Time of The Year.

I’m still in that dazed letdown phase that follows a period of intense stress.  Relieved as I may be to have finished up my classes, going-going-going for two and a half weeks straight leaves me a little bewildered when I get home and there’s not as much to do.  I sit here casting around for the assignment or project I’m certain I forgot about, too used to having Something To Do hanging over my head.  The Engineer once “assigned” me coloring pages to do over the summer so I wouldn’t stress out about not having anything to stress out about.

This year, of course, I do have something to do – my thesis project.  Which is due at the end of February.  Which I’m trying not to freak out about just yet.  After all, the vacation is young.  And I do love my topic (the Arabian Nights), so the reading will probably go faster than I think it will.

But stress is not exactly conducive to the magic of Christmas.

So I suppose it couldn’t hurt to give myself a few days to breathe – and watch my favorite Christmas movies from childhood.

Decision

the act of or need for making up one’s mind
something that is decided; resolution
the quality of being decided; firmness
I make lists.  I run a pencil down the edge of a ruler and divide my cardstock into two columns, one Pro, one Con.  I begin jotting, neatly at first, then scribbling as it becomes a stream of consciousness, leaping from one side to the other like a Highland sword dance.
I ask advice.  I gather opinions like berries, examining each one for ripeness, letting them dye my fingers and adding my stained fingerprints to the already constructed lists.
I consider myself, my own head and heart.  I still have trouble with this one – for a long time, emotions had very little to do with my major choices, unless it was to tip a balanced scale at the last minute.  Choosing a high school came down to academic reputation.  Picking my college came down to finances.  Making a decision based on feelings didn’t seem “smart,” and I was all about making the “smart” choice.
Which is probably why I was so stuck.  Why I couldn’t articulate to my friends, my family, even to myself what I wanted.  Why my heart still beats a little faster when I say it out loud, much less type it out.
I’ve decided to stay in my college town for the next year after graduation.  I can keep my apartment and my job, both of which I love.  I can be near the Engineer while he finishes up his last year of undergrad (switching majors sophomore year throws things a little out of whack).  And I can work on my own writing so the next time I pitch a manuscript to someone and they want to read it, I’ll actually have something to send them.
And I’m pretty excited about all that.

Sexism and Smoothies

“Do I want a smoothie?” I mused aloud.  One of my coworkers looked up from the couches in our hangout area.

“Is that even a question?  Smoothies are always a good idea,” he said.

I laughed.  “You’re right.  I do want a smoothie.  The real question,” I said, waving my wallet at him, “is whether I want to spend the money.  Because that would make my wallet very sad.”

He shrugged.  “Why would you pay for the smoothie?”

For a moment I thought he was suggesting I somehow blend and steal my own fruit drink, but after a moment he added, “Just ask people for the money.”

I raised an eyebrow.

“No, seriously,” he said, leaning forward, “just tell people you forgot your wallet or you don’t have any money and you’re thirsty and can they spare you any change for a drink.  Now, if I tried to do that it would take me all day.  But you – you could probably find someone offering to buy you a coffee within – ” he thought for a moment ” – fifteen minutes.  Tops.”

Incredulous, I just stared at him.

“Oh yes,” he said, seeing my expression, “sexism is alive and well, and you can exploit it!”

I laughed.  We didn’t know each other well yet, this coworker and I, but I knew enough to realize that he was merely commenting on the sorry state of our collegiate society, not being sexist himself.

As I walked to the student union, I half-wanted to try out the experiment, just to see what would happen.  My coworker, however joking his tone, had a point.  I’ve joked with the Engineer before about using such tactics; whenever he worries that I won’t know how to put chains on my tires going over the pass for winter break, I just bat my eyes and say sweetly, “I’m cute and helpless.  Someone will stop.”  In reality, of course, the thought of playing Damsel in Distress makes my eyes want to roll out of my head.

But here, on the same campus where I’ve had male classmates say they don’t hold the door open for girls anymore because “they might get mad,” I could probably have flirted my way to a smoothie.

We females are still thought of as Damsels, just with varying degrees of receptiveness to Manly Heroics swooping in to save the day.  Many boys don’t let girls do things for themselves because they see us as equals, but because they’re afraid of us snapping at them.

Can’t we all just hold doors and lend money for smoothies regardless of gender, because we’re all humans trying to navigate the madness that is college life?

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