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?

“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.

Save

Save

Save

Frozen

The day after I published my last blog post, I stumbled across this article about a recent study on the brains of people with clinical depression. It’s not very long, if you want to read it. Briefly, researchers in China and the UK discovered that the reward centers in the brains of depressed people don’t work the same way as they do in people who aren’t depressed. When a depressed person does an activity that’s supposed to be rewarding, they don’t feel any gratification; in fact, they feel almost the opposite. In addition, negative experience hangs around longer in the brain and is harder to dismiss.

In light of my speaking of these very issues in my last post, I found this quite interesting, if not reassuring. Yes, it’s true: I don’t get any gratification from positive experiences. My brain is wired not to.

Well, that’s just great. How do you work with something like that? How do you move forward?

The question of how to move forward has been on my mind a lot, anyway. The other night, my husband and I watched the season premiere of Supergirl–we’re big fans of the current lineup of DC superhero shows on the CW network. At one point, Cat Grant, the CEO of CatCo, where Supergirl works in her alter ego as Kara Danvers, sits Kara down for a lecture. To paraphrase, she says, “Right now you have all kinds of options and you’re not taking the plunge because you’re afraid to leave your comfort zone and face change.” The speech hit me in a sore spot. I wondered if it applied to me.

The truth is, I’m afraid a lot of the time. I get up in the morning, drink my coffee, scan the headlines and check the notifications that have come in overnight. And then I’m paralyzed. What do I do next? Having an appointment or a plan for the day can get me a long way, at least for a while. Too much structure, too many days in a row–or even in a week–when I have to keep a schedule drive me around the twist. I start thinking things like, “Okay, you just have to get through [X] more [days, hours, etc] and then you don’t have to do this anymore.” This inevitably leads me to question why, if I have to coach myself through every activity, if I find it so abhorrent that I long NOT to be doing it, I engaged in it in the first place. Which is why I stopped going to the gym after a few weeks. I didn’t hate it, but I reached the point of coaching myself, of telling myself afterward, “There, you don’t have to go for another two days, it’s okay.” I don’t like engaging in activities that end with my crying inside.

I can do necessary things most of the time. Things like laundry and washing dishes. Things that don’t take a whole lot of connection or effort. I don’t expect anything from them, and they don’t actively hurt. Other things, though…I remember it wasn’t that long ago that I was making jelly and feeling fairly good about it, but it seems like something that happened to a different person in a story I was told. And I don’t know if that person was “normal,” or took control of me due to medication-induced hypomania, or what. I once said on Twitter that when I’m hypomanic, I imagine that’s what normal people feel like all the time. I got a lot of pushback–“Mania isn’t normal!”–so I don’t know. About the same time my meds got lowered, I caught a cold or something; anyway, the sinus trouble flared up, and it’s caused some fairly bad asthma. I just don’t feel GOOD. I have no energy and no motivation and I’m tired all the damn time.

Anyway. I end up frittering a lot of time away. I play casual games and surf the Internet, and before I know it, it’s three or four in the afternoon and I’m still not dressed. And on the one hand, I feel intensely guilty about this. But on the other, I don’t care all that much. If there were anything I wanted to do, I’m pretty sure I could do it. I just don’t want to do anything. Unlike Kara Danvers, I don’t have a bunch of exciting options to pursue. I don’t believe anything is going to make a positive difference in my life.

That’s what terrifies me, I think. Very little is pleasurable in and of itself, and none of it leads anywhere. Every impulse toward motion is followed by the inevitable “And then what? What difference will it make? What meaning does it have?” Nothing, and nothing, and nothing. Through my life, my motivation has come from two things: Self hate, and hope for the future. I don’t hate myself anymore, or I don’t most of the time and when it flares up I can let it go, or at least not indulge in it. I don’t have any hope for the future. Things I’ve wanted, either I’ve achieved them and they’ve meant nothing, or I’ve made it partway before hitting an insurmountable obstacle, or they’re impossible. I know we’re “supposed to” live more in the present, but my present sucks. When the meds are working, it isn’t as bad. Sometimes I do enjoy things. I can’t feel that now, but I remember having felt it. That’s the purpose of antidepressants: to relieve the overwhelming misery of the present so you can work on deeper issues. I have the misfortune of having reduced my meds by mistake (essentially) at the same time as I hit the worst of the pain at my core. It’s left me stuck, frozen. Unable to see past the unbearable now.

I’d like to make a visible and positive impact on something, somewhere. I suppose that’s why I changed my mind from not wanting children when I was young to wanting them so much. I think I would have been a good parent despite my mental health issues, and I would have raised forward-thinking and compassionate kids. But even more than I want to make an impact, I want something to impact me for more than a moment. I crave a real connection. Instead, I’m an alien in human skin. If anyone sees beneath the surface, they don’t let on. Maybe it’s my own fault; maybe I learned camouflage too well. Or maybe I just can’t tell. Maybe in learning to live with negative things, I’ve closed myself to the positive. I don’t think that’s the case, but it’s possible. I’ve had too much experience of joy turned unexpectedly into grief. Sorrow is constant; joy is ephemeral.

When my husband is overwhelmed, I advise him to pick a direction, any direction, and move forward. Complete one task, then move to another. I’d follow my own advice, but I’m not overwhelmed. I’m underwhelmed, and fear prevents me from connecting to anything that might be engaging on a deep level. What if I muster the faith for another go, what if I summon the will to move toward something anything, even if right now it doesn’t excite me, and nothing changes again? What if I challenge my fear and my life is no different? What if no one notices or cares? You can only do so much personal work before you need outside validation, reassurance that it’s worth something. Long ago, speaking about writing, a therapist (not a very good one) told me I shouldn’t write for validation; I should write because I love it. I told her plants don’t live to get watered, but if someone doesn’t water them, they die all the same.

Lately, my horoscope has been full of messages about “standing on the edge of a precipice about to take the plunge into a new life.” It may be right. I fear I’m going to remain frozen unless and until I have some guarantee there’s someone at the bottom to catch me.

Passion

At my annual physical the other day I spoke with my new doctor about wanting (always understanding that for me, “wanting” anything is a theoretical construct) to be less sedentary. “I used to be really active, but I got depressed,” I told her, keeping a long, complicated story as short as I could.

“Well,” she asked, “when you were active, what did you like to do?”

“Nothing.” I said. “That’s the problem.”

How can you want something if you don’t like anything? Without wanting, how can you accomplish anything? Some philosophies promote focus on the Journey rather than the Goal, but the Journey doesn’t bring me any joy, and it never has. Well, perhaps on occasion, and mostly long ago. To be honest, the Goal has rarely brought me joy, either. Sometimes it’s garnered fleeting praise, but all too often the work of achieving it has outweighed the momentary high before the inevitable let down.

Writing the above paragraphs, it occurred to me I don’t know how to have fun. This isn’t a new thought. I didn’t have much fun as a child, and I never learned later. Most of my play was solitary. The few other kids on my block trickled away as their families moved. I lived too far from my school friends to spend any non-structured leisure time with them. When my siblings were home, they had little to no interest in playing with someone so much younger. At school, at the camp my mom sent me to for a few awful summers to get me out of her hair, the activities I enjoyed were the ones other kids mocked, not the “cool” ones. My parents interacted with me as little as possible, and didn’t encourage my interests, especially the ones that came at a financial cost. Their grudging support required I prove beforehand it would be worth their investment, and if I didn’t live up to their expectations their support vanished. Want to try gymnastics? Only if your PE teacher says you have talent (I didn’t). Music lessons? Can’t justify that if you won’t practice. It didn’t occur to me until much later that most children of six aren’t developmentally equipped to spend an hour a day at an instrument without adult support and encouragement.

In a few weeks I will turn 54 and I am still impossibly bitter about all this.

wp-1476563396539.jpg

A friend shared the above meme on Facebook today, with the comment that they often forget the truth of it. I replied I don’t forget; I just don’t know how. I was in my late twenties before someone told me it was okay to make mistakes, that I didn’t have to be good at stuff. It was a revelation, and I thought I had it. But early experiences sink deep, especially when events later in life affirm them again and again.

I can’t honestly say I’ve never had fun. Those times are hard to remember, though. My teenage friends were a serious bunch. Fun was an overrated and limited commodity, it seems to me now. My adult life has been full of struggle. Plans to do fun things fall by the wayside, done in by lack of resource, lack of energy. The things other people find fun drain me more than not, or else I find them inaccessible. When I was much younger, sometimes I’d dress up and go to a club. It did nothing for me; after a solitary drink, I’d go home wondering why I’d bothered and why everyone else there seemed to be enjoying themselves. Festivals and dance gatherings strike me the same way, as do parties. I used to enjoy camping and hiking, I think. Now they seem more trouble than they’re worth. Whatever I try to engage in, I feel like I’m in a separate world from everyone else, and if I’m going to be in a separate world anyway, I’d rather do it at home.

A big part of this is concern for safety. Having fun can be dangerous. For a woman, it’s even more so. Doing things invites mockery, disappointment. [The popular idea that happiness lies in letting go of expectation is bullshit. Even if it were possible–which it isn’t; the whole premise stands upon the expectation of being happy–letting go of expectation generally results in getting taken advantage of and having to deal with other people’s shit.] A woman showing happiness or having fun is perceived to invite comment and attention whether she wants it or not. A happy fat woman is an insult to humanity, and there are plenty of people with no qualms about letting you know it.

But to return to my original point, it’s hard to do things you like if you don’t like anything. And it’s hard to like anything if you hurt deep in your soul and nothing soothes the pain, much less gives you joy.

I used to like things. I used to like playing dress up and let’s pretend. I used to like writing. I used to like singing and playing the guitar. I used to like doing art and craft projects. I used to like flirting, and grand romantic gestures. Somewhere along the way, I lost my love of those things, maybe when it became clear to me that they all (with the exception of singing and playing guitar, which I sometimes did around others) were activities performed in isolation. Or better so; one of my sisters teases me to this day about pretending to be a mountain lion when I was small, as if that’s the stupidest thing anyone ever has done, as if that’s all she remembers about me. Perhaps it is. As for flirting and romantic gestures, they’ve been ill received, unreciprocated, or plain ignored. I’ve been told time and time again that one should do things for their own sake, not for hope of gain (there’s the expectation thing again). Human beings are social animals, though–or are supposed to be; I’m not sure it applies to me. Putting oneself out over and over and never getting anything back is draining. You can only host so many dinner parties without being asked to one before you give it up as a bad job.

The last thing I remember doing solely because I wanted to was enrolling in dance classes when I lived in California 30 years ago. And though I chose it, my participation was not unequivocally positive. I was all too aware that I’m tall and large, not a “dancer” type. Being present in my body in an expressive way sometimes hurt on an emotional level. That led to my seeking a degree in Dance Therapy, but when I got turned down for grad school, something in me broke. Sometimes I think it broke permanently. I once told my husband he’s never known the real me, because the real me was passionate about a lot of things. I’m not passionate anymore. I’m just tired.

In many Western magical systems, Wands, both the tool and the Tarot suit, correspond to passion and the will. This used to bother me; the two don’t fit together in my head. As I thought about writing this post, I saw that passion and the will work in tandem. You might start something out of passion, but will keeps you on task when passion ebbs. In the same way, passion can prop up a flagging will. Without passion, I’ve run the last 25 years or more on will alone, and I haven’t got any more.

Walking down the street the other day, I felt the effort in my legs and back. My thighs are weak; climbing a single step is a challenge. I don’t like this state of affairs, but I lack both the will and the passionate desire to change it. When I walked three miles a day, every day, and did Pilates most days as well, I was passionate in my self hate, in despite for my body. I don’t want to go back to that place; hatred is a poor motivator. A lot of people engaged in body positivity talk about practicing “joyful movement,” but I don’t find joy in moving. That’s why I stopped. People talk about following your dreams, too. What dreams I once had died years ago. Nothing new has sprung up to take their place.

I’d like to feel passion for something again. I don’t know how to get it or where to find it. I especially don’t know how on my own. Conventional wisdom, especially in the USA, holds that you’re supposed to be able to do everything on your own, without help–that “no expectations” thing again, never mind that no one really achieves anything on their own, without the help or input of a single other person along the way. I don’t trust others, though. I’ve carried too much, too long. I’ve been patient with other people’s issues and cleaned up other people’s messes. I’ve made things nice for others and supported others in crisis without ever being asked. When do I get something back?

Maybe it’s the depression talking–the depression has been strong for the last few weeks–but I don’t experience any sense of fulfillment from doing things. It seems to me I used to, a long time ago, pre-anorexia. But just as losing more and more weight did nothing for me then, nothing does anything for me now. People say, “You’ve written seven books! That’s an accomplishment!” and I feel nothing. When I think about “becoming less sedentary,” I don’t expect it to do anything for me, either. Being sedentary isn’t too uncomfortable. It’s far less uncomfortable than the idea of forcing myself into activities I don’t enjoy that aren’t going to change my quality of life in any way I can foresee.

A week ago I saw my medication manager and had my antidepressant bumped back up; we’d lowered it because the higher dose, though it made me feel better, came with some irritability. It didn’t take me a week to notice and question that. Noticing I had fallen into a bad depression again took over a month, because depression is so normal for me. Anyway, today I woke up feeling a bit more positive. I still don’t know if my ability to feel passion will ever return. I hate the slowness of taking baby steps toward change, but I suppose for now, being able to get out of bed without asking why and being able to get dressed instead of wondering whether it matters will have to be enough.

 

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

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.