Mental Illness and Relativity

As I mentioned a few posts ago, at the beginning of December I started a new medication, and it worked. It worked better than I dreamed it would, and it’s continued to work. I still have bad days, usually when the weather is icky. I’m not sure science will ever unlock the mystery of the relationship between weather and health; I’m not sure scientists give it as much credit as it deserves. However, my good days increasingly outnumber the bad ones.

This is new and strange. Perhaps the strangest thing is how much time I suddenly seem to have.

Mental illness is a time sink. I could fall into social media or casual games for hours and hours on end, and then when I lifted my head to see the sun setting wonder what happened to the day. I’d remember when I was younger, even as recently as ten years ago, accomplishing so much in a day. Getting up and not taking hours to move beyond drinking coffee and checking my notifications. Putting on clothes and going downtown, going for a walk, working in the garden, doing the daily maintenance on my home, cooking elaborate meals. Depression and anxiety, the two main manifestations of my mental illness, have limited me by limiting my time. Dragging myself out of the Internet and putting down my phone has often seemed a Sisyphean task, the effort only gaining me minutes of clear space before those twin rocks forced me back on line.

I have had a love/hate relationship with those rocks. They are smooth, presenting no challenges other than their existence. They have kept me safe from interacting with things I’m not ready to face. I think many mental illnesses still exist, evolutionarily speaking, because they DO keep people safe and keep the broken parts from grinding together; it’s just when they take over and become chronic illnesses rather than temporary traits that they become more problematic. On the other hand, I sometimes (frequently) have remembered times of being more functional and wondered, “Is this it? Is this as good as it gets? Is this my life now?” Living with an uncontrolled mental illness is brutal and unforgiving; there’s always a reason why it’s your own fault. There are always other people, more functional and successful people, with whom to compare yourself, so the things lacking in your life stand out in sharp contrast. It’s easy to forget that every day you survive is a victory.

With my mental illnesses in relative check, I have so much more time. The time starts right away, first thing in the morning. I sleep better. I don’t have to take a sedative every night just to find my way to dreams. I go to bed and get up at times more “normal” for me. I need less sleep, too–still a solid eight hours, but not nine or ten or more. I can even function for a day on six or so, as I did last week when I had jury duty, which is another task that would have been impossible for me even to face before. It doesn’t take me two hours to get up off the couch and wash my face. Where I used to see the sun set and wonder what had happened to the day, now I’m functioning before noon most days. It still instills me with a sense of wonder, but now I’m wondering what to do with all this time, rather than wondering where it all went. In the past little while, I’ve crocheted a hat for a friend, started work on a sweater for the same friend’s tortoise (so they can match), cooked more, cleaned more, picked up yoga again (until I injured my ankle, at least), even gotten a start on a couple writing projects. The last two have remained difficult, as are any dedicated creative endeavors; contacting my heart causes me pain that brings everything to a screeching halt. Last night I even went with my husband to an open mic he wanted to play at. I looked forward to it all day. I put on makeup! And I had a reasonable time, experiencing some feelings of annoyance and alienation, but not nearly the feelings I would have just a short time ago, when I’d have been ready to leave an event five minutes after walking in the door–if I went in the first place.

All these things may seem small to a person who hasn’t struggled as I’ve struggled the past 10+ years, but to me they’re huge. And people (my therapist, my med manager) have told me in the past that losing time was an aspect of my illness, but I really didn’t get it until now, when that time is spread gloriously before me. Depression sapped my will and my motivation to do anything at all. I couldn’t even see how dirty my house got until six months had passed since the last time I’d mopped the floor and I made myself do it because I simply couldn’t stand it anymore. Everything became a matter of “which is worse: doing or not doing? How much can I stand?” Anxiety crippled me with a sense of dread at the prospect of engaging with life on any level at all. Much better to fend it off with games, with chit-chat, with Netflix, with anything I could use to numb the fear.

I don’t fool myself that all this is gone now. As I said, I still have bad days, and those days are BAD. Perhaps the worst thing about them is slipping back into self blame and recrimination, all the unproductive ways of thinking that, though I’ve worked forty years to loosen their grip, still take hold of me at those times. That I’m irredeemably bad and awful, that I have no value, that I’m weak and lazy and all the rest. That life is grey and dreary and will continue to be so until the day I mercifully die. Those days, I simply have to grit my teeth and bear it, try not to listen to the messages, and do what I need to do to get through. I have no illusions that I could survive in a capitalist institution like a “normal” job, or that routine “work” wouldn’t send me back into the spiral of suicidal ideation. A warning sign is that even saying those things sounds to me like making excuses for laziness, and right now my brain is berating me for wanting “special treatment” and “wanting to be taken care of instead of carrying my own weight.” Those are the signs of my sickness, and I think I may never be altogether free of them.

But right now, there is time. In the words of T. S. Eliot, “Time for you and time for me; time yet for a hundred indecisions, and for a hundred visions and revisions before the taking of toast and tea.”* And those indecisions, visions, and revisions, don’t scare me to death. And that’s good.

I believe this is how Einstein explained relativity: “A minute looking at a pretty girl goes my in the blink of an eye, but a minute sitting on a hot stove lasts a lifetime.” For me, a day consumed by anxiety and depression passes in an instant, and a day without their weight expands with infinite possibility.

I much prefer the latter.

*From “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” 1917

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.

What If?

A week ago, I had my first physical therapy appointment. I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned it before, but for the last few years I’ve experienced a grinding pain in my right ankle joint when I walk more than a few blocks, as well as moderate to severe back pain when I’m on my feet for any length of time. Once again, because of my background in dance, I know what causes these things. Some of my family, myself included, have a congenital misalignment of the hip joint that causes all kinds of messed up things–knees that turn in and rotated calf muscles and the like. You can see it in pictures going back for years; my dad had it. It causes a person’s feet to pronate (flatten), which, in turn, makes the outer ankle joint grind. The back pain is because I’ve been sedentary so long my abdominal and core muscles have atrophied, so I hyper extend my pelvis. Simple.

Anyway, I asked my doctor for a physical therapy referral, which she was happy to provide. Even when I know what’s going on and what to do about it, I have some idea that those things will be easier if someone else tells me to do them. And it’s often true. When I was more bought in to societal messages about weight and health and all that, it was easier for me to pursue a “healthier” lifestyle. Now I’ve shed a lot of those beliefs, most of the time I simply don’t care whether I’m healthy or not.

The appointment went about as I expected. I didn’t get a lot of new information. My feet are strong enough, but my joints and tendons are looser than “normal,” so, when I gained a lot of weight and lost muscle, they gave way. The PT recommended orthotics, prescribed some mild exercises, and told me to come back in ten days.

While he was writing up my plan (such as it was), I had a thought: “What if taking care of my health is my job right now?” What if it’s what I need to do for myself, whether or not I care or feel interested and motivated? Just because taking care of one’s health to the best of one’s ability is a sensible and objectively good thing to do? Leaving aside complications of the way the Western medical industry is constructed and its tendency to cling to a priori assumptions about what constitutes health, as well as the myth that you can judge someone’s health by looking at them, isn’t that a uniquely human thing to do?

The question upset and terrified me. Trying to explain to my husband reduced me to incoherent tears. In the first place, something about ongoing and seemingly never-ending processes instills me with existential and primal horror. I have no idea why this is. A common selling point of a lot of fad diets and weight loss systems is the phrase, “Not a diet, but a lifestyle change!” Maybe there’s a connection there; I hate that rhetoric because I question the value of the lifestyle it promotes, or I view a “lifestyle change” as… I honestly do not know. When I think about it, I think of the final challenge in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where Indy comes to the precipitous edge of what looks like an abyss between himself and his goal. Remembering the clue about faith, he steps into what seems like thin air; the camera angle shifts to reveal a narrow stone bridge across the gap, its stones so close in color and shape to those of the abyss walls as to provide perfect camouflage. Indy, of course, scatters dust before him to make his path clear, and reaches the Grail. For me, that invisible bridge never ends and no Grail exists. I walk on air forever and ever, only faith keeping me aloft.

Or maybe I’m more like a cartoon character, who can walk off the edge of the cliff, unencumbered by the laws of gravity until they look down.

Whatever the source, as I said, the idea of going on forever and never reaching a destination is intensely awful to me, so awful I had to walk away from this post for an entire day after writing the previous paragraph. No rest, no home, no ability to stop or sit down. Isn’t that the theme of some enduring folktales, like the Wandering Dutchman? Don’t some believe the traveling people were cursed?

Another reason the idea of “working on my health” upsets me is it brings up the eternal question, “What then?” What if I do become healthier? What if I regain the stamina I’ve lost, build muscle, stop having back pain, find a way to regulate my weird hunger issues and all that? Do I even care about that? No one has any obligation to “be healthy” on anyone’s terms, especially not anyone else’s. Do I really think it will improve my life to go through all this? And then to have to keep repeating the same patterns over and over until I die (because you can’t just do any of this stuff once and be done; I learned that in the six years I sat on my ass)? The honest answer is I don’t. I think having a few minimal comforts in my life and not being surrounded by overtly abusive people is as good as it gets.

That kind of leads to the third reason this “what if?” question upsets me: It hurts. It leads into thoughts I don’t want to explore and emotions I don’t want to feel. You wouldn’t think 20 reps of a simple exercise on each leg and 2 minutes of another for each foot twice a day would be so difficult, but it’s emotionally excruciating for me to keep them up. I forget. I procrastinate. I make excuses. ANYTHING to avoid doing them.

I think of myself as an open book, but the truth is, I’ve spent the last 15+ years in stasis, like a person in a Science Fiction novel with an incurable disease, who gets frozen until technology catches up. The stasis wasn’t perfect. I lost weight and gained it. I aged. I didn’t look my age, and maybe I still don’t, but lately I’ve noticed wrinkles beneath my eyes in the mornings, creases above my upper lip. It kept me from dying, though. So far. Now I’m out of stasis, gods know why, because there doesn’t seem to be any cure yet. And things that happened (or didn’t) while I was in stasis still affected me. I’m angry, but I don’t know how to be angry, so I’m just in pain. I want to go back into my box. I want it to stop.

When I was young, my one goal was survival. Sometimes I lost track of that, notably when I was anorexic. Not coincidentally, I think, this was when I lost the ability to care much about anything, but when I “recovered” enough not to need hospitalization, my goal was the same: survive until I could get out of an intolerable situation and be my true self. The older I get, the less sure I am of what my true self is, or if it even exists. I have a consistent feeling the life I have is not the one I was supposed to have, though I’m unable to articulate what “the one I was supposed to have” looks like. I’ve never been career-minded. I’ve never had much ambition. Maybe this is because I lack the capacity to believe that anything I do matters in a real sense. It’s all filling time. People tell me having written seven novels is an achievement; I think I only did it because otherwise I’d have sat on the couch and stared at the walls. It was possible, and preferable to facing the emptiness at my core.

A few days ago, I remarked to my husband that we’ve lived in our house twenty-one years. That wasn’t supposed to happen. I never imagined we’d be here so long. I thought we’d have a couple kids, find a bigger place, do the things the rest of our nominal peer group in town did. I wanted those things, more than I realized at the time. They’re out of the question now, and nothing replaces them. I blame myself; how did I let that happen? It’s impossible to pursue dreams, or even have them, when your very existence depends on forbearance.

This blog post has no tidy ending. It’s all questions, and taking one step after another. Going on and never arriving. Some people do it by choice. For me it’s an unceasing nightmare.

How Did I Come to This?

theoden-1

“Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
Where is the hand on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?
Where is the spring and the harvest and the tall corn growing?
They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.
Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning,
Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?”

J.R.R. Tolkien, “Lament for the Rohirrim,” The Two Towers, Book I

The Two Towers was always my favorite book of Tolkien’s epic trilogy, and to me, the most powerful part of Peter Jackson’s film adaptation was Theoden’s (Bernard Hill) recital of the above lines as his steward arms him before the Battle of the Hornburg. (In the embedded video clip, the speech starts about a minute in.)

I’ve felt a good deal in common with Theoden of late. Trying to put myself back together after leading a largely ineffective life for so many years, I often echo his question: “How did it come to this?” Yesterday, I had some vague idea of engaging with my physical world. In the deepest parts of a depressive episode, I lose the ability to act on my environment in a meaningful way. I can see the cat hair piling up in corners and the grime in the bathroom sink, and I have some idea these are unwelcome. But the effort of doing something to change them, to clean the sink or sweep the floor, requires some investment I don’t have. I know my environment is filthy, possibly disgusting, and I know I wouldn’t want anyone to see how I live, but I don’t care. No one besides my husband is going to see it, and even if I tidied up, things would get dirty again anyway, sooner or later. Why bother to begin?

Whether this latest dip is starting to let up or whether I simply let things go too long, the mess has been getting to me more and more over the last few days. So I did tidy up a bit yesterday. I didn’t tackle the bathroom, as I meant to, but I swept and dusted the living room. It took me an hour, and by the end of it, I was exhausted and in pain. Once again, I asked myself, “How did I come to this?” I was a dance major in college. A walk of three or five miles was nothing to me. How did I allow myself to get in such terrible shape that an hour of light cleaning had me in tears?

Still shot from "The Two Towers"
Still shot from “The Two Towers”

Tolkien adamantly denied that his works were allegories for anything, but readers always find meaning that authors never intended. Part of the poignancy of that arming speech, for me, is that Theoden knows the answer to his own question. He listened to the voice of depression, in the guise of his adviser Grima Wormtongue, and it turned him old. He left the work of ruling to others. When Rohan was meant to be the Western shield against enemies bent on invading Gondor, he refused those who would keep the old treaties any aid, although it cost him his only son. He drew into a small world where his depression ruled and hope was futile. And it resulted in the last stand at the Hornburg, and arming children for war. How did you come to it, Theoden? You did it. You did it to yourself.

And so did I.

I’m not implying that I could in any way have fought off my mental illness by force of will. I spent many years saying “This too shall pass” on bad days and getting through as well as possible. When “getting through” became impossible, I got help–or as much as I could. I do have a tendency to consider low level depression normal, so it takes my being in a bad state, indeed, for me to look outside for answers. And a lot of the help I got was barely better than the alternative. I don’t hate or blame myself for my depression, most of the time.

I think I could have responded to my circumstances better, maybe. Some of what I did, I did for good reasons. I gave up “dieting” because I truly believe it’s more hurtful than helpful. I renounced excessive exercise in the name of weight loss for much the same reason. The trouble is, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I stopped moving at all. Like Theoden, I drew inward. My world contracted to the size of my house. It was comforting, and besides, why challenge myself to walk downtown to the post office if my husband is willing to pick up the mail, or to join him on weekly shopping trips if he’s willing to do them alone? Many “self improvement” systems, good and bad, make much of getting out of one’s comfort zone. This is hard for me, I admit. I’ve had little comfort in my life; choosing to do uncomfortable things is not high on my list of priorities.

So now my legs and back hurt if I’m on my feet for any length of time, I have asthma and no stamina, and there is no Gandalf coming to fight my demons for me and restore me to health. Medication and therapy will only do so much to banish my personal Wormtongue. The rest is on me.

Because of my background in dance, I know what to do. My back hurts because my abdominal and core muscles have atrophied for lack of use. My legs hurt for much the same reason. I’ve lost most of my flexibility, which I once prized. A combination of yoga and Pilates would go a long way to remedying these things, as would getting out of the house and simply walking around the block a few times a week. I know doing these things would help, not only with the pain and the muscle atrophy, but with my constant hunger. The problem is doing them. I’ve always found my motivation in self-hate and bullying myself into doing what I didn’t want to. These even made up a great deal of my life as a dancer: “Look how fat you are even moving as much as you do! You can’t ever stop or you’ll be disgusting! No wonder your boyfriend wants to hook up with other women!” I’ve managed to avoid going back to that mindset so far, but I’m terrified it’ll return the moment I start moving. Moving, you see, wakes up the damaged child inside me (and, by the way, I feel extremely silly using those terms), and starts it crying. All it wants is to be left alone and let to sleep and feel no pain. I’m not sure it can feel anything but pain, and that terrifies me. I don’t want to re-experience that every day of my life; it’s horrible. How does one integrate something like that? Of course, beating myself up, telling that damaged child to suck it up and stop whining because that’s getting us nowhere, doesn’t help, either.

How do I deal with this? What do I do? My former therapist used to tell me, “Baby steps,” but baby steps are abhorrent to me. I’m made of all or nothing, highs and lows. Why bother taking a step so small you can’t see you’ve gone anywhere? Why bother with a small step if even that causes inner weeping? If I sit on the couch on my ass, my back doesn’t hurt either. My current bad health distresses me, but in a distant way. On another level, it doesn’t matter to me at all. It’s as if, perhaps, the shrieks of that damaged child are so loud and demanding I have no attention for anything else. I suppose parents feel something similar when a colicky infant won’t stop screaming for days on end and all they want is for it to SHUT THE FUCK UP! I don’t know any way to silence my internal screaming other than to remain still and small. The damaged child inside me controls my whole life.

When last I saw my doctor, I got a referral to physical therapy. My first appointment is tomorrow. I’m toying with the idea of doing Pilates again. Both these things terrify me. If I can’t find some internal meaning and positive motivation, they’ll go the same way as everything in my life: I’ll do them for a while, maybe even a long while, and then give up.

How did I come to this? The real question is “How do I get out and never come back?” I haven’t got a clue.

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Before You Bemoan Trigger Warnings and Coddled Youth…

Today, I got triggered because my jeans were too tight.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” you may be thinking. “That’s ridiculous. Aren’t you taking this whole concept a bit too far?”

Well, yes and no. Yes, it’s ridiculous. Even I think it’s ridiculous. And no, I’m not taking it too far.

See, I have profound issues with my body (if you’ve read any of my blog posts, you already know this, or at least suspect it). When I was 17, I almost died of anorexia nervosa. I struggled with a severe eating disorder for years after, and have never felt entirely comfortable in my body. I’ve put on a large amount of weight in the past five years or so, and everything that makes me notice it brings all those issues to the surface. Clothes that no longer fit right. The sense of being compressed into too small a space, a space I once inhabited with (relative) ease.

This is what it feels like: I can’t breathe, and I don’t know whether it’s from the tightness of my clothes or something in my head, a stress response. My heart races. My body starts to shake. All the horrible things I’ve ever thought about my body, all the horrible things anyone has ever said about my body, fill my mind, pushing out everything else. I’m terrified to move. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that something is happening over which I have no control. The idea of control in itself is vague and illusory. I feel helpless. I want to run and hide, or fight, but I’m incapable of neither. There’s no safety wherever I turn.

All from squeezing myself into a pair of too-small jeans.

Breathe.

I have a lot of triggers like that: triggers other people might consider “stupid” or trivial. I haven’t actually been through a lot of things that were life-threatening in the moment, and the ones I have experienced pale beside earlier sustained trauma. Yes, it was terrifying in the moment being raped. But in all honestly, it didn’t mark me the way it marks other people. I got over it fairly quickly. I can read graphic descriptions of rape and other physical violence. I can even see them on TV or in movies, though I don’t like them. It’s the little stuff that gets to me, because my trauma was day-to-day over a long period of time. Everyday things other people don’t notice are loaded in ways that are hard to explain. Tight clothes. The idea of exercise. I have a hard time with the mere word, “exercise.” Playing music. Trying to make conversation. Leaving my house, which is mostly safe. People not being honest about what they’re feeling–I guess that may be more common than I suppose. Hunger, which I experience several times a day. Imagine having a fight or flight response every time you get hungry. 

My point is, no one can know what’s going to trigger another person. You can’t say, “Oh, that. I don’t have any trouble with that, so you shouldn’t either.” You can’t say, “Your desire to be safe and informed in this area is a symptom you need to pull up your panties and grow up. The world has bad stuff in it; get over it.” Triggers don’t work that way. Instead of judging by your own experience, maybe try showing some compassion and trying to understand.

I think most people want things to be easy and to fall into neat categories: THIS is something that could be triggering and THIS isn’t. THIS is normal human experience; THIS is beyond the pale. But mental health issues don’t work that way at all. Definitions change all the time as understanding changes. In my lifetime alone, homosexuality was removed from the DSM; I was hospitalized with men whose only “illness” was “being gay,” and mental health professionals didn’t begin to address the results of the ways they were treated because of it. In my lifetime, Manic Depressive Psychosis has become Bipolar Disorder, has become Bipolar Spectrum Disorder. Most people still view PTSD through a single lens. The idea of CPTSD is catching on, but it’s still not an “official” diagnosis.

So, you know, shut up about other people’s triggers. I know it’s difficult to build a standard policy on shifting sand, but that’s not our problem.

That’s all.

Emotional Labor and Mental Illness

I think it was about a year ago when I first ran across the term “Emotional Labor.” I’m not alone; although the concept has been a staple of sociology for thirty years, it’s only recently I’ve seen it discussed on a wider scale. If you want to read more about it, this is a pretty good article, but in brief, emotional labor is the effort we take to regulate emotions and the expression thereof. It extends to modifying environments to make them more welcoming and comfortable, keeping track of details, and various types of nurturing. In other words, what used to be termed “Women’s Work.” Sociologists often make a distinction between “emotional labor” and “emotional work,” where the former takes place in a job setting while the latter is geared toward home and relationships. I personally find this distinction unnecessary and even a little offensive, so for the purposes of this post I’m using the terms interchangeably.

When I first saw the term (I think it was here), it was like a lightbulb flashed in my brain. “Oh!” I thought. “This is the piece I’m missing!” Here’s some context: I’m married, and have been for twenty years, to a wonderful, feminist man I love dearly, who is my best friend. If any of those pieces had been missing, I wouldn’t have married him. And for the most part, we have a great marriage. However, like any couple, we have our disagreements and rough spots. There’ve been numerous times in our relationship I’ve tried to communicate things to him and felt like I just wasn’t getting through on some level. The idea of emotional labor, the fact that my work to keep our household running smoothly is often taken for granted and sometimes plain invisible, gave me a way to explain in words he understood better.

I don’t know how much the division of labor in our household is due to the way gender socialization works, and how much is our particular characters and aptitudes. While I like to think of myself as a dreamer, the fact is I’m quite a practical person, with an organized mind and an ability to keep track of what goes where and when which thing needs to happen. My husband is the dreamer, and his great memory for detail sometimes leads him to get bogged down in minutiae, while his perfectionism causes him to develop intricate processes to accomplish relatively simple tasks. He’s capable of huge compassion for others, but not so much for himself, a tendency he attributes to the religion he was raised in. I’m very open and outspoken about my emotions and my process; him, not so much. While you could find reasons for all this in the different ways men and women are taught to behave, you might, if you knew us well, see these qualities as part of our individual identities.

But there’s one place where my husband and I definitely differ: I have a mental illness, and have spent more than half my life learning how to manage it. While he experiences intermittent episodes of depression, they’re not the life-threatening kind that leads one to intensive treatment. Consequently, he hasn’t had to do the emotional work I have, and gets along all right without it. He’s a great conversationalist, facilitator, and mediator. People feel safe with him. But he doesn’t have the skill I have at delving into deep matters or my comfort level with addressing extremely uncomfortable personal topics. When your emotions can kill you, when you’ve been held on a locked hallway until you learn (or make a viable pretense of having learned) to deal with them, you become adept at self questioning and self regulation.

Of course, not everyone does. Some people with mental illnesses are ultra resistant, some don’t have the insight and aptitude, some fall back into old patterns when they get into triggering situations, and some are simply too ill. I’m talking about those of us considered “high functioning” in one area or another: by reason of intellect, or ability to appear “normal,” or ability to hold a job. The people you wouldn’t immediately peg as having mental health issues. And some high functioning people don’t learn either, because they can manipulate or coerce others into doing their emotional labor for them. Some use their illness as an excuse not to do their own emotional labor. Our former housemate was one of these. From the outside, she was interesting, intelligent, and capable, a fun person to be around. It was only once you got close that the demands started, and these could take the form of anything from long conversations over coffee trying to “process” some real or imagined slight to waking people up in tears at three in the morning to spend three hours talking her through an event from days earlier. Any attempt to make her do her own work was framed as retraumatizing. Because, face it, emotional labor isn’t usually fun. It’s hard, and it’s often painful, and it feels much better to have someone else do it for you. It feels like being taken care of, and it is. She refused outright to go to therapy because therapists “wouldn’t understand” her, and this necessitated interventions a couple times a week to keep her from blowing like a steamkettle. Living with her was draining and frustrating on a level I’d never experienced before, and haven’t since, although one instance came close.

The psycho ex-housemate stuff will become relevant later, trust me.

Anyway, I’ve spent a good portion of my life doing the emotional labor of others. Trying not to trigger my repressed parents. Talking friends through fights and breakups. Reassuring people of their worth and attempting to shine a different light on their problems. As I said, it’s something I’m skilled at, trained in, even, since my degree is in Dance Therapy. It’s not to the advantage of my personal boundaries that I’m highly empathetic, because when I feel something “off,” I’m not content to let it lie. Doing so makes me uncomfortable; I have to get it out in the open. Also, I find trivial conversation tiresome. I’m always looking for a deeper level of interaction.

The problem is, when I exert my energy on the emotional labor of other people, I often drain myself to the point of not being able to practice self care. Before I know it, I’m empty and spiraling down into a depressive cycle. This is why, when this meme popped up on Twitter the other day, it really resonated with me:14040135_10157345413950254_692207246828710712_n

Now, the above doesn’t exactly articulate my experience. It doesn’t take me a huge amount of energy to maintain my high functioning persona, mostly because I don’t bother with doing so; if I have it, I have it, and if I don’t, I don’t. I have an extreme distaste for masks and personas of any kind, and I never had much use for societal expectations (which is no doubt one reason I’ve always had a hard time working a “job” in the commonly understood sense). And when people rely on me for emotional labor, I generally come through. However, as I already said, I often do so at the price of my own mental health. And that’s bad.

Using my marriage as an example, and getting back to the psycho ex-housemate: I was involved with her for one year. My husband was for five, and during that time he did the bulk, if not all, of her emotional labor. He was the one she woke up in the middle of the night when she was upset and needed talking down. He was the one who never had time or space for his own activities, because he always had to be available to her. He was the one who faced The Wrath if he went down to the corner store for a beer to drink during their scheduled TV date and she flipped because she decided his absence meant he was going to blow her off. And, by the way, if you think this sounds abusive, IT ABSOLUTELY WAS. Bear it in mind: Refusing to do your own emotional work inevitably makes you toxic.

The year I spent in the same house with the pair of them, most of my energy was spent trying to get him out. When I succeeded and we moved far, far away, there was a consequence to both of us I hadn’t foreseen. He’d had to do so much emotional labor for psycho ex-housemate that he wanted no part in doing any more for anyone, himself included. I was so afraid of being like, or even appearing to be like, psycho ex-housemate, that I couldn’t bring myself to ask him to. I expected that once we got out of the toxic situation, things would naturally assume a more normal condition. We’d be able to devote more time to each other and our mutual needs, like looking after our home and sharing chores and responsibilities, without the looming threat of psycho ex-housemate coloring every interaction. I hadn’t counted on him being so damaged, and simply worn out, that what I considered “normal” was beyond his ability even to consider. And because I hadn’t yet run across the concept of emotional labor, I had no way of addressing the situation.

On top of that, we got involved with another set of people who didn’t do their own emotional work. Because of my nature, and because I tend to believe doing the emotional work of others is my only value and setting boundaries will cost me friends, I took the bulk of it on. My husband was perfectly willing to listen to me vent about it, and even join in, but didn’t, or wasn’t able to, support me the way I wanted in the moment. I developed some physical health problems, including suffering the two miscarriages I’ve mentioned in other posts. There, too, I didn’t get the support I needed. Neither did my husband. I honestly don’t think we’ve done the emotional work around those losses that we should as of this day. There are a lot of reasons for that, not least that miscarriage carries a certain stigma and isn’t talked about much, but also my deep feeling that children are something more worthy and desirable women get, and I was asking too much by wanting them. Anyway, in the end, I broke.

There’ve been times along the way when I’ve been more functional than not, but I’ve spent basically the last twelve to fourteen years broken from doing too much emotional labor for others and not getting the help I needed doing mine. That’s the better part of my marriage. I have regrets about it I can’t even articulate. I’ve blamed myself for not being strong enough and for not being more demanding, and for not standing up for myself. And I’ve blamed my husband for everything you can imagine and probably more you can’t. But in the end, blame doesn’t do either of us any good and doesn’t matter. It’s how to go on that matters.

If there’s a lesson here, it’s this: As much as possible, do your own emotional labor. Whatever it looks like: caring for your space, finding a place and support to talk through your feelings, taking a long bath, learning how to paint or dance. If there’s scary stuff you need to work through, find a therapist. If you have health issues, get them looked at. Don’t rely on others to do the work, or invite you to discuss things, or prod you into it. Especially don’t do this if you know they have a mental illness, even if they’re really good at it. Being really good at it means they probably have to do more emotional labor in a week than you face in a lifetime. Okay, that’s hyperbole. But seriously, do your own work. Otherwise you risk damaging the people least able to bear it. People you love.

And I guess that’s all I have to say.

 

 

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A Twisted Relationship Part III: Discipline

My dad was a big man who suffered from various kinds of chronic pain most of his life. When he was a teen, he was bedridden almost a year with some genetic disorder that appears from time to time in adolescent males. I don’t know how to spell it, so I haven’t been able to look it up. Otto Shleggerer’s Disease? Auto-Schlegerer Disease? That’s phonetic, but neither have turned up any Google results, so I remain in the dark. He had bad knees, and arthritis, and from what I know now I suspect he also had sciatica. At least, he had some kind of pinched nerve in his back that caused incredible pain. He complained a lot about his “damned left leg.” I may have inherited a little of this. I have a weird numb place in my left leg that seems attributable to a pinched nerve. So far, it hasn’t caused me pain, thank the gods.

Anyway. Every time he consulted a doctor, the doctor told him to lose weight, because if he weren’t so big he wouldn’t be in pain. So my dad would go on one diet or another. Sometimes he lost a few pounds. Inevitably, he’d give up. I’d come upon him in the kitchen at odd hours, “evening off” the pan of brownies or picking at the leftover Thanksgiving turkey. And because I didn’t know what I know now, I despised him for what I saw as a lack of mental discipline. I thought, “Geez, dad, the doctor told you what to do if you don’t want to be in pain; why don’t you just buckle down and do it?” And I hated it all the more when he complained about his physical ailments, because I thought suffering them or not was under his control.

Now, as I struggle with my own metabolic problems, which sometimes cause me to feel like I’m starving to death an hour after eating a full meal, I wonder if he was just hungry.

I vowed not to be like my dad. When I wanted to lose weight, I’d do it, come hell or high water. Never mind physical discomfort, or lack of interest in exercise, or anything else standing in my way. I’d put my will to it, and I’d do it. I wouldn’t give anyone an excuse to despise my lack of discipline. I wouldn’t claim to want a thing and do the opposite of everything necessary to achieving it.

Unfortunately, this attitude, combined with certain other factors, led directly to my becoming anorexic. When losing weight didn’t lead to, for example, a reduction in the amount of bullying I suffered or being able to attract a boyfriend, I decided I wasn’t disciplined enough and hadn’t lost enough weight. So I restricted my food intake and increased my exercise level more and more. And before long, I reached a point where I literally wasn’t in control, though not in the way I feared. I knew my obsessions were killing me (probably long before anyone else did), and I could not stop. When I became bulimic, I couldn’t stop that, either. I kept telling myself, “Just put your mind to it!” But my mind had no influence. Eating disorders are funny like that; I expect all compulsions are. I experienced something similar when I engaged in self harm through cutting. There’s a period before an episode when you’re trying to resist. But the longer you resist, the more anxious you become and the stronger the compulsion gets. It builds to a point where you can’t think of anything else; you just want to get it over with so you can go back to some semblance of normality. So you give in, eat the bag of cookies or vomit or whatever, and then there’s this kind of relief, almost like you’ve had an orgasm. Until the compulsion hits again.

As I wrote that, it struck me how similar this sounds to the classic cycle of violence: A period of tension-building, followed by a violent episode, followed by relaxation of tension and remorse. I think they’re the same, only in relationship violence the compulsion is focused on the other partner and in eating disorders you’re driven to be violent toward yourself. I wonder if anyone else has thought of it this way, and if not looking at it this way is a reason perpetrators of domestic violence have such a high rate of recidivism.

Given my history, I have a complicated relationship with the concept of discipline, which often translates in my head to “forcing yourself to do something you really don’t want to do because ‘not wanting to’ isn’t a valid excuse.” Some of this my mother instilled in me. Inevitably when I expressed a lack of interest in doing one thing or another, she responded with, “Well, you could if you wanted to.” Which is problematic in and of itself; it dismisses lack of desire as a reason not to participate in an activity and at the same time implies that lacking interest is itself a flaw, while also promoting the completely irrational idea that the only obstacle to accomplishing anything at all is not wanting to badly enough. By that reasoning, people living in poverty have no excuse because surely if they really wanted to they could be rich, and making accommodations for the disabled is wrong-headed because if they really wanted to they’d succeed on the terms of the able-bodied.

A lot of cultures seem to place an inordinate value on the ideas of discipline and self-control. We admire asceticism. In a benign form, discipline counsels moderation; “Nothing in Excess” (Greek, μηδὲν ἄγαν) was inscribed over Apollo’s temple at Delphi, and the advice was repeated by philosophers like Socrates and Plato. Personally, I think a little excess at times is healthy, but for the most part (and leaving aside questions of “who gets to define excess?”) I don’t have a problem with the idea. However, taken to extremes, discipline can be harmful, as well as easily exploited. We’ve all heard stories of abused children whose parents claim they were “just trying to instill discipline.” Some religious sects encourage mortification of the flesh, even to self-flagellation (and in groups where this is the norm, the tool for administering blows is often known as “the discipline.”)

Speaking as a Pagan, I do see some of the reason behind these practices. On a purely practical level, if you mean to embark on a long period of meditation, a vision quest, or other observance, it’s good to be able to ignore hunger and other bodily discomforts. Another truth is, asceticism promotes an out of the ordinary state of consciousness, wherein one can better access wisdom and information not apparent from or on the physical plane. Self-inflicted (or other-inflicted) pain can act as a catalyst to a shamanic experience. Pagans often share food after a Circle not only to be social, but to aid in returning from magical consciousness. Eating and drinking is one of the best ways to ground and recenter.

The problem lies not in the practice itself, but in the fact that discipline is seen as morally superior to the lack of it. I could write an entire different essay on why this came to be the case. It would include things like religions and philosophies of transcendence, which favor the upper classes, superseding religions of immanence, which tend to spread power more evenly, and the way religions of transcendence privilege things of the spirit over those of the flesh as a way to reinforce oppressive systems. But, as I said, that’s another post. *winks* The result is that the ability to endure unpleasantness has become a good in and of itself, rather than a temporary means to a particular end.

So what does this have to do with my eating disorder, my relationship to my body, and fat phobia in general? Short answer particular to me: It makes it really easy for me to beat myself up and get stuck in a loop of bad thoughts. Although I have, at various points in my life, been highly capable of doing things I find personally unpleasant to achieve an end, I still see myself as lacking in discipline, especially as regards my body. It goes back to the prevalent mythology that some body sizes are bad, even harmful, and altering the shape of one’s body into one better and less harmful is a matter of simple math, calories in vs. calories out. This is a view that people cling to despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Even medical professionals, who should know that multiple factors affect body size, promote it. When combined with the idea that self-control is morally superior to lack thereof, it perpetuates stigma. After all, people think, much as I thought of my father, if you know the equation, what stands in the way of working it? Nothing but your determination and will. And the idea that those of us who don’t fall into a narrow definition of physical acceptability–and worse, don’t or won’t work to get there–are in total control of factors like how our metabolisms process food and how much activity our bodies require to effect change excuses all kinds of stigma, from public fat shaming to financial penalty.

In our culture, fat symbolizes laziness and excess. Any student of history should know this was not always the case; fat once signified prosperity and the ability to withstand periods of famine. In a country where most people have enough to eat and a significant portion of wealth is inherited, prosperity is tied less to hard work and more to the concept of leisure (much in the same way middle class people like to have lawns surrounding their houses, because a large area of uncultivated ground shows you don’t have to grow your own food). For those to whom it doesn’t come naturally, maintaining a small body size implies you have both the time and resource to devote to it: Joining a gym, hiring a personal trainer, shopping for and preparing the appropriate food or having it delivered. Where celebrities, whose jobs may depend on their looks and who are actually paid to maintain an image, are the equivalent of royalty, it’s easy to dismiss the difficulties of the poor, the overworked, those living in food deserts, and those who simply aren’t interested in spending every moment of spare time in an effort to make their bodies comply with and idealized concept of health and normality. Far easier to condemn them for lack of discipline than challenge the prevailing wisdom.

I suffer a good deal of guilt over my lack of discipline. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I wish my body were different. I wish I didn’t get hungry as much as I do, or that someone could at least explain to me why this is the case. I wish it didn’t seem to take me three times the physical activity to achieve half the results others seem to. I wish my lower arms didn’t flap in the breeze and my belly weren’t so large and my back didn’t have obvious rolls. And, of course, I always have that little voice in the back of my head asking, “If you really care about those things, why don’t you get up off your fat ass and do something about it?” It’s a question I have a hard time answering, but I think a lot of it has to do with the role of discipline as a measure of worth.

When my friend offered me a free gym membership, I thought a long time before taking her up on it. I decided, from a completely rational place (or so I thought at the time), that I could try it without attaching some weird agenda to it. I thought, “Twice a week is okay. I can do that. It isn’t unreasonable.” I set goals unrelated to weight and body size; the first was, “I want to be able to walk to the gym, do a circuit, and walk home without wanting to die.” I kept the commitment for two or three weeks, and then I got sick, and I got triggered. I started telling myself, “There, that’s over, and you don’t have to do it again for three days.” Which begged the question, “If I have to console myself with the idea of not going to the gym, why am I going to the gym at all?” I didn’t have an answer. I slept badly one night before a scheduled gym session, and decided to postpone it, just one day. I castigated myself for weakness, and lack of dedication. I fell into a spiral of guilt and justification: “You know sometimes you have to do things you find unpleasant to achieve goals,” to “But I really don’t fell well! Besides, I don’t get any immediate reward for doing it, and I have no guarantee it’ll change anything.” to “Well, then, stop complaining about your body because you obviously aren’t willing to do the work.” Over and over. It’s a cycle I’m all too familiar with from my anorexic days, and I don’t want any part of it now.

On social media, a day doesn’t go by when I don’t see one friend or another engaged in this same kind of self torture. “OMG, look how gross my body has become, I can’t believe I’m in such bad shape, I need to stop being lazy and get back to…” The treadmill, the gym, the Zumba class. Whatever. And I have no problem with a true desire to get into better physical condition (although the definition of this eludes me; it seems ever-changing). I don’t have a problem with people who really like to exercise, who’ve been ill and unable, or gotten out of their routine for one reason or another. Some people find it uplifting. For some people, the daily walk is their favorite personal time. I am not one of those people; if I ever was, I can’t remember it. My relationship with exercise is too loaded, with gym class bullying, with the toxicity of my eating disorder, with the politics of the dance world. I don’t like that all forms of movement are overwhelmingly emotionally painful, but there it is.

I just wish people would stop with the self hate in the name of discipline. Shaming yourself into doing something never is good, no matter what the result. But as long as society promotes self-discipline as a moral imperative, I fear that wish will go ungranted.

Part One Here

Part Two Here