Down in the Hole

Almost three years ago I started to realize that I wasn’t okay.  Stephan was the first to notice it and suggest that I needed help.  That kicked off a period of introspection on my part where I started to recognize what I was going through and drawing parallels to a period in my life, almost twenty years earlier, where I had dealt with the same issues.  At that time I ended up trying to kill myself, dropped out of college and moved 2,000 miles from my home state of Wyoming to start over in Chicago.

Even though I recognized the signs and had a supportive husband, I still could have ended up in a very bad place.  We didn’t have health insurance at that point so I couldn’t get professional help.  In fact it would take about eight months after deciding I needed help before I could see someone.  And when everyday you alternate between feeling like you are being buried alive or that your head is going to explode from all the anxiety, it’s hard to function, let alone jump through all the hoops of finding the help you need.

Much like with my move to Chicago in 1996, I started cataloging my struggles with depression and anxiety out of desperation.  I made posts to my Facebook page about what I was dealing with, what it felt like, what I was going through to find help.  I needed to express what was going on in a place that was safe for me.  And even though I have a tightly locked down Facebook page, with a highly curated friends’ list, I still spent a lot of time agonizing over whether or not to post.

What helped was another friend posting first about going to therapy and then later about taking medication.  It was just two little posts, snuggled in between stuff about politics and books and life.  But it made a huge difference.  Here was someone I looked up to, someone who, to my eyes, had their shit together.  And they were seeing a therapist for anxiety.  They were taking medication for their mental health.  Holy shit!  Maybe I wasn’t the only one!

I come from Wyoming, a state that has a high suicide rate for its population size, and where the most distinct cause of death in the state is the flu.  It is a place where you suck it up and work through the pain, no matter what.  It’s no wonder that we don’t talk about things as uncomfortable as mental health.  My own mother, when I had brought up depression and therapy in the past, cautioned that I had to be careful because therapists would “just want to blame all your problems on your parents.”  The concern with image trumps any pain or suffering you are feeling.  Add to that the belief that mental illness is more about personal failings and irresponsibility than an actual medical condition and you can see why it’s hard to talk openly about depression and anxiety, let alone other mental health issues.

Posting, first only about the arduous process of finding doctors that took my health insurance, but later on my medications and my reactions, had an effect that I had expected.  I started getting private messages from people who I had always seen as, again, having their shit together: people who were working, paying their bills, engaging in life.  These people told me about the medications they were on.  They told me what worked or didn’t work for them.  They wrote to me with support and encouragement.  It was so damned important for me, because I got to see that it wasn’t abnormal to take medication, that there was still life beyond depression.

As I kept writing, people started commenting openly.  Again, all these friends who I thought of as awesome, put together adults, were sharing their own struggles and stories.

And something else happened.  Friends started telling me about how my posts helped them with their own mental health issues.  They recognized their symptoms in my writings.  They went and sought help because they read about me taking medication.  They were feeling better, more hopeful about their own lives because they saw someone else going through the same things.

That realization suddenly made it so much easier to write the posts about what I was feeling.  To mention when I felt I was backsliding, or my worries that my medication isn’t helping.  I was doing the same thing I have been doing when I post about whether or not I am making money in this whole living a creative life endeavor: I am standing in the dark, holding up a light for those who might be otherwise lost.  And that’s a kind of healing as well.

 

 

Random Acts of Craftiness

Spiral Goddess ScarfIt started with a scarf. I had a dozen or so fleece scarves sitting in a plastic bin, remnants from when I had an embroidery machine.  Some I tore apart and turned into rugs.  I didn’t have it in my to destroy the others, though.  One in particular, soft green sporting an embroidered spiral goddess, deserved to be worn rather than trampled on.  On a whim, I mailed the scarf to a friend, a pagan who hated the winter cold as much as I do.  I didn’t tell her it was coming.  I didn’t even know if she had received it until she posted a picture to Facebook.  The sight of her smiling face struck a chord deep down inside of me.  This was right.

I have always liked giving gifts.  As an introvert dealing with anxiety issues, it’s a way of expressing love that is safe.  I especially enjoy making gifts: something beautiful, something soft, something that will last and raise a smile every time it is used.  Giving a handmade gift is giving a piece of myself to someone, a permanent way to say “I love you.”*

But when you are trying to make a living through your handiwork it can be hard to divorce your creative efforts from the dollar sign.  Every hour you aren’t making inventory, you aren’t making money.  Every day you aren’t working on a commission you are failing by capitalistic standards.  I love you’s don’t put food on the table, after all.

The push back, however, is that we aren’t just meat-robots.  Humans need to feed more than our bodies.  Especially those who deal wit depression and self-loathing.  Creating for the sake of it, gifting to others, is more than a rebellion against art as a commodity, it is an act of self-preservation.  It is a way to balance the current, often crushing expectation for every aspect of our lives to have a monetary value with the absolutely essential need to establish that people are priceless.  Human creativity doesn’t come with a price tag.

It was a couple of months after I mailed off the scarf that the idea of Random Acts of Craftiness gelled.  I posted a picture of the Eighteen Panel Skirt on Facebook and a couple of friends brought up the idea of a trade.  Their crafted goods for my own.  Then later, I posted the Majestic Fucking Unicorn cross stitch pattern and two more friends requested completed works.  I said yes in both cases.  Yes to engaging in a craft exchange.  Yes to sewing a message of support and love for people I care about with no expectation of anything in return.

Crocheted Turtle of LoveGranted, saying yes was easier than the follow-through, at least at first.  The balancing act between money and love has tipped more often than not in the favor of money.  I’ve had to steal time from myself to finish projects.  But with each one completed, I have felt how right it is to do so.  There are kinks in the system, of course.  Finishing works and getting them out the door has proven a stumbling blocks as well.  Getting out of the house to the post office can be extremely difficult.  Slowly, though, love is leaving this house in parcels.

And in return, love is coming into this house.  A crocheted turtle sits in my workshop now.  Every time I see it I smile, think of my friend, and feel that I am loved.   I will fill this house with books and family and reminders that there are those out there who believe their time is worth more than money, their creativity has no price tag.

 


*I am not the only one in my family who does this.  My sister sends semi-regular packages to me filled with cookies and other goodies she has baked.

Putting a Face to the Jerk Brain

As long as I can remember, Jerk Brain has been with me.  My earliest memory of it was in kindergarten where it pointed out how my coloring wasn’t as good as the other kids around me.  This voice, coming as it did from inside at all hours of the day and night, I just took as being part of me.  If I ever thought about it, I figured it was my very own demon Jiminy Cricket.  A critical voice telling me like it is; keeping me honest and on task by reminding e that I had to always be on guard against my natural inclination to be lazy and a waste.

It hasn’t been until the last year or so that I have become able to treat the Jerk Brain as an entity separate from my person.  Therapy helped with that when one therapist asked me to give it a name.  My first instinct was go with “Adversary” or “Nemesis”.  But I rejected those ideas as granting that critical, inner voice too much stature.  I settled on Jerk Brain as the most honest label.

Giving it a name helped, but only so much.  The voice is still there, quick to criticize and blame.  I’ve come across other suggestions on how to diminish or weaken Jerk Brain’s prominence in my thought processes.  There are techniques of changing the tone of Jerk Brain’s voice, making it sound like Mickey Mouse, or turning down the volume like on a stereo.  Another suggestion was to minimize it like an annoying pop-up window.

None of those solutions worked for me.  Having lived all those years with it, I have a hard time dismissing it.  When I have tried, it fights back, accusing me of ignoring it not because it doesn’t have my best interests at heart, but because I just don’t like what I am hearing.   I engage with that line of thought, get dragged into a debate on why I should be able to ignore Jerk Brain.  It is exhausting to find my mind a hostile place where i have to constantly justify my existence.

Which brings me to the realization I had a few weeks ago.  I needed a way to undermine Jerk Brain, to cut it off at the knees before I got treated to yet another chorus of “You’re not really depressed, you’re just lazy and here’s the proof.”   And I thought to myself: if my Jerk Brain was a person I was actually living with, I would have moved out long ago.  On the heels of that thought came the image of someone in my life who has been thoroughly unpleasant to me the entire time I have known them. This is a person who has said truly hateful things to my face and when called out on their unkindness responded with “But it’s true!”

In other words, this person is the Jerk Brain personified.  More importantly, though, I know nothing they have said to me is true. I have no problem ignoring their words because I know they are calculated to hurt me.    It was that realization that has changed how I interact with Jerk Brain.

For the past couple of weeks I have been able to tell Jerk Brain, “I didn’t ask for your opinion.”  And because I can say it with confidence, it works.  Jerk Brain, in the guise of this person, shuts up.  It has been one of the most satisfactory feelings I have had in a good long while.  I can picture Jerk Brain’s sour, puckered mouth, the hunched shoulders and crossed arms, just as I would see in the real life person who has been so nasty to me.  I don’t even feel the twinge of guilt that would otherwise follow the satisfaction of telling someone off.

I don’t know if this is a permanent solution.  Jerk Brain is a tricky creature, capable of evolving it’s tactics in response to my defenses.  For now, I’ll take whatever respite I can get from my jerk of a brain.

Parenting with Anxiety

This morning I was reading Facebook on my phone when a plastic bowl sailed past me and smashed into the dining table.  “Ben!”  I shouted, more out of fear and startlement than anger.  As soon as the word was out of my mouth, I regretted it. Ben crumpled into a sorry, sobbing heap, frightened by my outburst.

The loud noise and movement had triggered my anxiety, setting off the fight or flight response in my body.  Even after Ben and I hugged it out and he was all smiles once again it took a while for my nerves to settle.

The whole incident lasted all of two minutes, but it happens often in our house.  Sometimes I can go a week without an outburst.  Sometimes when my anxiety is close to the surface, as it has been the past few days, they happen more frequently.  Ben is often the target of the startled yell.  He is an exuberant child, who moves constantly, even in his sleep.

He runs and jumps, bounces off of the furniture, walls, people.  At meal times he won’t sit at the table.  Instead he does headstands on the couch or planks with his hands on the table and his feet balanced on the back of his chair.  His father is pretty much a walking playground which he scales and jumps on without warning.

I love Ben’s energy.  I love the physicality of it and his fearlessness.  At the same time I can’t stand it.  Loud, sudden movements make me flinch and set me on edge.  Being jumped on makes me cringe.  I’m always on guard for a blow to the body.  Ben doesn’t mean to hurt me.  But he is energetic and clumsy at times.  No matter how many times we explain that he doesn’t roughhouse with me, he will forget in his excitement.

Rather than dampen that enthusiasm, or worse, punish him for how he interacts with the world, I take great care to manage my condition.  I am on medication to help with my depression that in turn lessens the intensity of my anxiety.  I am in therapy as well.  For the day-to-day, minute-to-minute stuff, though, I have struggled to find solutions.  I’ve had to learn how to walk away and be okay with that.  Telling Stephan that I have to step away has been the best coping mechanism I’ve learned.*

Finding  activities I can do with my son that doesn’t involve jumping around has helped.  We play with Legos, a lot.  We read books.  We cuddle.   We sit in the hall closet and play Minecraft on the tablet.  I try in as many ways as possible to let him know that I love him and he is not at fault for my current state of mind.  I try each day to focus on the good times, to be patient with myself and him, to know that I am working on getting better.

With all of that, however, I still struggle with the belief that I am a bad mother, that I am scarring my kids.  I am honest with them about what I am going through: that I am struggling with anxiety and depression.  They know I take medication to help, that I see a doctor.  They might not understand fully what it is that is going on, but they see I am doing what I can to get better.  I hope that helps to counter the times when my issues get the better of me.

Only time will tell.


*Though it took time and comes with its own guilty baggage.   It’s hard to admit that you need a break from your children, when they are just doing what comes naturally to them.

Border Patrol

Last night I went to the local Changeling LARP*.  It had been a high anxiety day, and I almost stayed home.  Even the first half hour I was there I contemplated bolting to the car.  But it was cold out there, and I had gone through the effort to put on a corset, and my hair was looking particularly cute.  By the end of the evening I was glad I had gone.  I had a good time.  I ate cupcakes and meatballs.  And I got lots of good role play in.  Being able to be someone other than myself for a few hours has always been helpful in ways that I can expound upon later. Today, though, I’m spending time reflecting on two incidents that happened at game that highlight one of the issues I’ve been dealing with lately.

My social anxiety fluctuates.  Sometimes it is high, and I have a hard time leaving the house, or even letting people I don’t know into it.  Sometimes it has eased up enough that I can run errands and attend events with little stress.  But there is another aspect to it that involves touching.  I am physically demonstrative in ways: I talk with my hands, I am affectionate with Stephan out in public, I love to cuddle with my kids.  But I find touch with anyone outside of a small circle of people to be uncomfortable.

This goes beyond sexually motivated touching.  The pat on the ass, or the shoulder massage that creepers use as an excuse to touch targets.  Those bad touches are universally uncomfortable for the recipient.  I mean the personal space invasions that are part of our culture, most specifically hugging.  With the group of gamers we played with last night this is a regular form of physical contact.  And none of the huggers first ask permission before they swoop in, arms wide, for some physically enhanced social contact.   And thanks to social conditioning, people go along with it because it would be rude to not.**

The first half an hour of game, I was approached for a hug from a regular.  Previously I have acquiesced to his embrace, but I couldn’t this time.  The game room was small and crowded and I knew I would have issues if I didn’t firmly establish my boundaries.  As he came at me, I spoke up.  “I’m not really a hugging person,” I told him.  He seemed to understand and offered a high-five instead, which I found reasonable.  Of course later my words came back to bite me in the rear.

Later, as I was leaving game, I gave my friend Chrissy a hug.  Reasonable Regular saw this and I found myself having to explain to him that there are exceptions to my no-hugging.  An awkward situation was made worse when he took it to the place of “Oh, I get it, you just don’t like me.”  Even though he was joking, I found it infuriating that 1) I felt I had to explain myself, and 2) he seemed unable to accept that there are distinctions and levels when it comes to social interactions.  If I say I’m not a hugging person surely that might not apply, say, to my husband or children.  So why is it unreasonable that I might have different levels of touch when it comes to others?

Later, I had to deal with another regular.  While sitting in a circle during mass combat, he tried to cut in front of me.  When informed that, actually, it was my turn, he patted me on the shoulder and said, “Okay, you can take your turn.”  Around the circle of gamers I heard snickers and laughter.  Oh how funny!  How cute!

The shoulder pat is the snot-nosed, sagging-diaper baby brother of the head pat.  Insecure men—and it is always men—use it to get their patronizing misogynism on but still maintain plausible deniability.  Having been on the receiving end of such I knew exactly what had just happened.  As did the regular.  As did all the others in the room.

My feet firmly planted on the ground of “You Fucking Did Not,” I looked down at my shoulder, swiveled my eyes to his face and stared at him for a long, uncomfortable second.  Then I turned my back to him and addressed the storyteller.   Suddenly it wasn’t cute anymore.  The circle of others acted like our personal live audience and provided a collective “Oooooohhhhh!”  Once I had finished my conversation with the storyteller I turned once again to my would be belittler.  “Okay, you can have your turn now.”  I patted his shoulder and turned away from him again.

Like my social anxiety, my ability to maintain my boundaries is ever changing.  Tomorrow I may find myself unable to speak up.  I might feel obligated to accept another hug.  I might find my borders crumbling again under enforced niceness.  However, there are at least two gamers who now know where they stand with me.


*LARP = Live Action Role Play. Where you dress up as your character, only to end the evening standing around in a crowd to resolve mass combat.

**Oddly enough, in game, if a character refuses to shake hands, no one bats an eye and accepts it, no questions asked.  Of course game has rules about touching.  Go figure.