Reality Quicksand

A little while before Yule, my mental health medication provider suggested I try a new (new to me, that is; it’s actually quite old) medication for my anxiety.

Pause. I probably need to explain that my anxiety isn’t “normal.” It’s rare I experience invasive thoughts; though they can be a factor, they’re more likely to figure in my depressive episodes. Instead of that, or obsessing over perceived mistakes and subtext, I tend more toward a somatic experience of utter terror with no apparent connection to anything happening around me. My heart races, I feel sick at my stomach, I clench my jaw and fists, I feel driven to hide and make myself small, all without having any idea why and without anything having happened to trigger such a response. (This led my previous psychiatrist to scoff and tell me “You can’t be anxious without being anxious about something!”) The overall tension prevents me from sleeping; until recently I had to take a high dose of Temazepam every night to be able to sleep at all.

My med manager thought that this phenomenon was more a manifestation of my bipolar disorder taking the form of a mixed state where the manic side of things manifested as irritability and anxiety than of anxiety per se, and that it accentuated the symptoms of my CPTSD. The medication she suggested is indicated for controlling bipolar mania. Being rather at the end of my rope, and being all too aware that taking sleeping pills every night is not a good practice, I said, “What the hell; let’s give it a shot.” Since I’m notoriously resistant to drug treatment, neither of us expected much from the small dose she started me on.

However, the new med worked better than I had imagined. Within a couple doses, I had given up the sleeping pill except on especially stressful days, and by the time a couple of weeks passed, I felt more “myself” than I had in years. I started a new writing project. I committed to doing my physical therapy, even adding some extra yoga and Pilates to my morning routine. I pulled out my guitar and figured out the chord progression to a song I wanted to learn. None of it occasioned the overwhelming feelings of personal peril I’d come to expect.

Then I got sick, and I was seriously ill for almost three weeks. Still, when I started to recover, I went back to the activities I’d remembered I enjoyed. For a while. After a few days, the anxiety returned to torment me. But this time, I wasn’t sure if I’d become tolerant of the new medication, or if it was something else.

Today I’m fairly sure it’s something else. I’m equally sure that something else won’t respond to medication.

Yesterday, for the first time since starting the new med, I woke up and did not want to get out of bed. Everything seemed too hard. My life seemed overwhelming and bleak. All day I was barely functional, and today isn’t much better.

This may seem like a tangent, but it’s not: I follow a certain astrologer on social media, one who specializes in reading the planets and stars as they relate to my sign, Scorpio. This young woman is exceptionally gifted. I can honestly say I haven’t ever run across a better. (If you’re interested in this kind of thing, check out @ScorpioMystique on Twitter and Instagram. I think she has another account where she reads for other signs, but I can’t bring the handle to mind right now.) Yesterday, her horoscope mentioned the Full Moon energy and all its benefits, but added, “If you woke up feeling exhausted and emotionally drained…” and went on to mention several reasons this might be, notably having an unbalanced relationship between your professional life and your home life. I commented that I did, in fact, wake up emotionally drained and exhausted, but the balance question didn’t resonate. She answered, “What about your relationship with yourself? Maybe you need to focus more on self care.”

Ouch. That hit home. Self care is a difficult area for me. I never know what it is.

Today’s horoscope advises to “write down a list of your most pressing dreams and goals…what feels right for you.”

Great. I’m not so good at that, either.

After I started recovering from the Great Plague of 2016-17, when I brought my mind back around to what I wanted for myself and how to achieve it, well. That’s when the increased anxiety hit. And I know why. It’s because for nearly twenty years, I was programmed to believe my goals and what I wanted for my life were selfish and wrong. A lot of people in my circle will understand this. It seems to be part of The American Way. So practicing self-care, even when I know in my head it’s good and the right thing to do, is a horrible struggle against voices telling me I am bad and wrong. On top of that, because I’m fat and because I have a history of eating disorders (or maybe it’s brain chemistry in part, IDK), I have a tendency to A) never believe anything I do in terms of my physical being is enough and B) go overboard until I damage myself or burn out. And all of it spirals around and around in my brain until it literally incapacitates me and I have to curl up in a ball on the couch and cry.

Twenty-plus years of near constant gaslighting has turned my reality to quicksand: dangerous to navigate and prone to sucking me under to drown. And though my Buddhist college promoted being “grounded in quicksand” as a positive development, I can’t think they had any experience with the actuality, because it sucks. (I’m sure they meant it as a metaphor for non-attachment, but be real.)

Days when I’m on a more or less even keel, it isn’t so bad. The problem is, the more positive things I do for myself, the louder the negative voice get and the less steady I become. I go from getting up, having coffee and farting around on the Internet a bit, and doing my morning PT+ routine without much hassle to this:

Me: I’m not feeling so great today. Maybe self care looks like taking it easy.

Inner Voice: You can’t do that. If you skip PT ONE TIME, you’ll NEVER go back to it.

Me: Physical activity brings up a lot of shit for me and I don’t know if I can cope today.

Inner Voice: That’s because you’re a LAZY PIECE OF SHIT. You have to prove you’re NOT a LAZY PIECE OF SHIT by doing MORE PT!

Me: This conversation is really hurting me.

Inner Voice: You DESERVE to be hurt! You DESERVE to be punished! Excessive exercise is the only way of redeeming yourself!

Me: Don’t I deserve some comfort?

Inner Voice: Comfort is for LOSERS! How will you ever achieve anything if you concern yourself too much with being comfortable?

And on and on, until the warning that if I skip one day I’ll never accomplish anything again becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as I try to shut out that awful voice and protect myself. It’s a fight I can’t win. Being gentle with myself and taking things slow, at the pace I need to be able to continue, becomes a sign of what a terrible failure I am. Everything I like is dangerous and tainted, because I can’t do it just a little; I have to do it until I’m exhausted and in pain.

Sometimes it goes the other direction. I get a creative tickle and think, “Huh, maybe I’d like to pull out my flute or my guitar.” And the awful voice says, “Yeah, you better. You realize it’s been five years since you played any music? What the hell is wrong with you? Some musician you are. How dare you pretend you are one!!” Same with writing, or physical activity, or anything I want to engage in in a positive way. It all gets weaponized against me.

Trying to describe this process makes my brain feel like it’s about to implode, by the way. And I don’t know what to do about it. I have no control. If I “give in” to the awful voice, things I love (or even like, or vaguely want to do) become punishments, and doing them reinforces the idea that I need to be punished. If I resist, I feel worse and worse as the voice gets louder and louder, until it encompasses every single thing about my day. Hungry? If I eat, I’m an evil glutton. Tired? If I sleep, I’m a lazy shit. The most human activities are transformed into crimes against nature, proving I have no right to exist at all.

Up until now, the only way I’ve found to get out of the cycle is to back off everything until my mood changes on its own. One day, if I hold out long enough, I’ll hit an upswing. Then I can start all over again. But this means I can never actually achieve anything, because I’m always taking two steps back for every step forward.

There are things I want out of my life. There always have been. I want to write again. I want to be in better physical shape. I want to look different than I do. At the risk of sounding less body-positive than I believe I am, I do want to shed some weight–not because society tells me that’s the only way I’ll ever have value, but because I don’t like the way my body feels at this weight. I want to get back to playing music, singing, growing a garden. And all those things…it’s like the only way I can protect them is not to do them at all, because if I admit to wanting them the awful voice will find a way to turn them against me. Turn every pleasure into pain.

I have no sword to cut this Gordian knot. I already know “just pushing through” is futile. I’ve tried that strategy over and over for going on thirty years and it doesn’t work.

Reality sucks me down like quicksand, and I drown.

Fractured Mirror

My husband is the front man for a popular local Blues band. The other day as he was preparing for the latest gig, singing under his breath to make sure the songs on the set list lined up, I said, “I have this fantasy, one day I’ll come to one of your gigs all done up, in spiky high heels, a new hair-do and makeup, and a shiny dress, and strut.”

I don’t get to many of my husband’s gigs, you see.  The place his band plays most often is ninety miles away, and he has to be there for set up and sound check at four o’clock for an eight-thirty show. With the show going to eleven-thirty, tear down, and the drive coming and going, he’s gone nearly twelve hours for every three-hour gig. Since we only have one car, I couldn’t arrive later or leave earlier. Twelve hours is a bit much for me to be hanging around with no place to decompress.

He said, “I’d like to see you strut up to the stage, pull me down, and start dancing with me.”

“The problem is,” I said, “that whenever I try stuff like that it never works. It doesn’t feel the way I want it to feel. I don’t get the reaction I expect, or I get no reaction at all.” I paused. “Of course, people say you should do things for yourself and not in hopes of some reaction.”

I was thinking about this conversation this morning as I did my physical therapy. About how things never turn out quite the way I want or expect them to. And it occurred to me: other people’s reactions, or lack thereof, aren’t exactly what puts me off from dressing up and showing off. It’s the fact that those reactions don’t line up with what I feel inside. That is, I don’t get the confirmation I’d like of my interior reality. The times in the past when I have tried to strut my stuff, I generally feel pretty good about it. If I don’t feel beautiful, or hot, or confident, I can’t make the effort in the first place. But inevitably, because I’m fat (i.e., I don’t match socially accepted beauty standards), or I don’t have the “right” clothes, or some reason I don’t know, people with whom I come into contact don’t react the way they would to a beautiful, hot, confident person. At best, they don’t react as if anything is different or special about me at all. At worst, they treat me as an object of derision, “Look at that pitiful fat woman who thinks she’s all that!”

It’s like looking in a funhouse mirror that, instead of showing me the beautiful, powerful woman I feel myself to be–the one I know myself to be, when I’m thinking properly–shows me a monster, or a Cubist painting with fifteen eyes and ears where the mouth should be. Or nothing at all.

broken-mirror

I’ve also experienced the opposite kind of distortion: times when I’ve gone out dancing just for me, not meaning to impress anyone or leave a mark, are invariably the times when some random, skanky dude starts hitting on me. It’s always the skanky dudes, never the ones you might feel reciprocal interest in. Or maybe all guys are skanky when you’re just trying to have a good time for yourself.

Both circumstances make it extremely hard to trust my perception of reality, and both have led me to armor myself when appearing in public. Worse, they’ve led me to pull farther and farther inside my shell because I can’t anticipate with any confidence what’s going to happen when I step outside. Sometimes weeks pass without my leaving the house. When I do leave, I’m always on the alert, always evaluating: what’s happening here? Is this person going to make some comment I’ll have to respond to? If they do, will it be one I’m prepared for, or something out of the blue? Can I go about my business in peace? Or do I have to be ready for something weird that hasn’t entered into my plans?

Outside my home, I’m never entirely sure what’s real or what’s going on. And I’m sure at least a portion of this is due to my having CPTSD, which got exponentially worse after my three years trying to front a band where one of the members had untreated Narcissistic Personality Disorder (in my opinion, which I think is valid. I had a lot of experience with this person upon which to base my armchair diagnosis). Going farther back, my entire childhood was spent among people who never let me have a feeling or experience of my own, but twisted my every expression to be about themselves.

I don’t know what to do about this, or even if there is anything I can do. Pushing forward in spite of what others might think hasn’t worked. I’ve only succeeded in becoming more uncomfortable and insecure, and the effort is more trouble than it’s worth. When you can’t see your reflection properly, why look in a mirror at all? Letting go of expectation from others and only doing things for myself is…well, I never held much with that advice. Once, when I was struggling with writer’s block because I despaired of ever being published, a therapist told me, “Don’t write to be published! Just write for yourself!” I told her, “Plants don’t live to be watered, but if they aren’t watered, they die just the same.” I think the whole idea of doing things only for oneself can only be valid if you already have a secure starting point. It completely dismisses the fact that human beings are social animals what want and need input from others to thrive. And without expectation of some response, why bother doing anything at all? Some people might have an undamaged core propulsion system, but I don’t.

Basically, right now this fractured mirror epiphany is an idea I need to meditate on and talk to my therapist about. But I wanted to write a little about it, so I didn’t forget I had the epiphany in the first place.

Thoughts for a New Year

When I was a little girl, I watched Olga Korbut compete in gymnastics at the Munich Olympics on TV. She was skilled and strong and beautiful, and I wanted to be her. I told my parents I wanted to take gymnastics lessons. They said,

“If your gym teacher says you’re good at gymnastics maybe we’ll consider paying for lessons.”

My heart sank. I already knew it would never happen. Two years previously I’d changed schools, and along with the new environment, I’d gone from loving gym class to positively dreading it. I wasn’t part of the “in” clique. The other girls bullied me mercilessly. Especially in the locker room, where they stole my clothes and threw them into the showers, then laughed at my body when I went to retrieve them. The gym teacher, a grey-haired woman made of steel and leather, looked the other way because I wasn’t a promising student. On the hockey field I was slow, big, clumsy. When we did the gymnastics unit in late winter, the uneven bars terrified me and I excelled in “uncool” areas like balance beam. Since the coach spent all her time with the girls on the bars, she’d never see the one place I did well.

No gymnastics lessons for me.

This kind of thing was par for the course in my family–at least, for me it was. Being so much younger than my siblings, especially my sisters, I never got a good picture of their early lives. If I wanted to do something, gaining the support of my parents, especially monetary support, meant providing proof I was already good at it, either in the form of a teacher’s recommendation, or in dedication unusual for a young child. And maybe this isn’t unusual. Just this morning, we ran into a friend at the doctor’s office who spoke of his daughter’s love of music. “If she keeps up, we’ll buy her a full-sized instrument in a couple of years,” he said. Knowing his family, however, I can’t help but think they supported their daughter in other ways before now. As a child, it seemed to me my parents were always throwing me into the deep end of the pool to see if I sank or swam (except when it came to actual swimming. There, my dad took care to see I knew how). If I swam, good; I’d earned the right to whatever I wanted to do. If not, too bad. I must not have wanted it very much in the first place.

Over forty years have passed since I watched Olga Korbut, and I still have trouble doing things simply because they bring me pleasure. I always seek the justification: Have I proven the right to engage in this activity by being incredibly skilled at it? By flying without a net far beyond the time any sane person would have sought one out or put one in place? Am I good? Really good; good enough to deserve to do what I love? A lot of the time I’m not even certain what it is that I DO love. It seems to me there are many activities I might enjoy, did I not have this need to be exceptional at them all the time. Hiking, camping, skiing, all kinds of physical things. In the realm of the physical, it isn’t just my early training holding me back; it’s the fact that, my body size being what it is, I feel I have to prove that all large people can succeed in being physical. That’s not to mention the whole other aspect of large people moving: that a large person moving must necessarily be trying to become less large. I know I would enjoy music more if I could sing for the sheer joy of it or pick up my flute without feeling I have to plunge straight into Bach’s Fourth Brandenburg Concerto or the Gravel Walk at top speed.

Because of all those things, I rarely engage in activities I suspect I might like, or have liked in the past. So I get more and more rusty at them until, far from being skilled, I’m quite terrible at them. And that’s more than reason not to do them some more. When I do engage, most often I feel none of the pleasure I hoped for, only grim effort. That’s almost worse. Doing anything at all becomes more trouble than it’s worth.

Worth. That concept again. The idea that what comes out of me doesn’t measure up to the investment.

In the coming year. I mean to focus on things I like more. I want to find the place where I can still like them, the place where I don’t have to prove anything to anyone. I want to have more fun. I want to remember that, in spite of struggle, not EVERYTHING is a struggle. Play is a good thing. Joy is a good thing. Not all activities have to “pan out” or “measure up” or “become” anything other than what they are in a single, brief moment. When I lose track of this fact, my life becomes one of unending struggle and brutality. Keeping track is hard. I’m often afraid if I don’t do the hard parts of life, no one will, and if I unclench my mind so that all the details I’ve arranged there have space to breathe and rattle around, then some will escape. Then, I think, no one will save me.

I don’t want to focus too much on the hard parts here. I know it’s a form of self-sabotage. There’s always an excuse not to do enjoyable or potentially enjoyable things. It would take too much effort I’d better spend elsewhere, I think, or How can I go swimming when I haven’t mopped the kitchen in a couple months, or But we have so many bills! As if sitting home and worrying about the bills will get them paid.

I want to nurture the enjoyment as I would a seedling, in hopes it will grow and flourish. I don’t know if it will work. But then, I’m trying to get away from the idea of only doing what I’m sure will work.

A final word: If you have kids, don’t make your support of their interests conditional. It’s crushing, and the damaging effects last a long, long time. Kids are smarter than people want to believe, and they know when your support is half-hearted or insincere. Put too many conditions on it, and they’re likely to conclude, as I did, that pursuing their interests is too much trouble and requires jumping through too many hoops. When I worked with autistic adults, one thing we tried to abide by as staff was never making primary reinforcement (Food, shelter, love) conditional on behavioral change. I think joy is just as much as primary reinforcer as any, and should be shared without strings attached.