Thursday, November 24, 2016

No thanks, I don't want to be weird.

As much as I hate to admit it because I feel like such a Scrooge saying so, I hate Thanksgiving on some level. I like the parts where it's just me and my sister, who is basically my best friend. Every year we participate in a two-mile fun run on Thanksgiving morning. Lately we've been working on a screenplay together so we spent most of the time coming up with plot points and dialogue as well as rolling our eyes at the snobby parents and bratty kids jogging by.

I hate the other parts though. I hate the stress that permeates the household as the deadline of 5 o'clock dinner looms closer and closer. I hate the panic my mother sets into which then sets my sister off. I hate the way my dad shuts himself away into his study until guests arrive, just like he does every day, isolated from us as if to insulate himself from whatever it is that makes us not good enough for him. I hate realizing as the afternoon wears on just how bad at entertaining and socializing we are and how weird that makes us. But most of all I hate how much I dread having my extended family come over.

I mean, people are supposed to love their family. I see all the pictures on Facebook of people posing with their cousins. I guess I never got that experiences because mine are significantly younger and I feel really awkward around children, especially when their parents are around. And I hate that I feel awkward around children because that's so stupid. People are supposed to love children and feel free to be goofy and stupid with kids. I avoid talking to them, making eye contact with them, and even being near them because I feel so uncomfortable. I feel this obligation to be a good cousin, a cool cousin and play with them, but I feel so overwhelmed by my inadequacy that I can't bring myself to do anything. This is the first thing that makes me feel like a failure.

I also hate how I feel generally terrified by the adults of my extended family, even my own grandfather. I'm afraid to look at them, be near them, talk to them. I try to find tasks in the kitchen to keep busy or I just sit in a corner as far as possible from the apex of conversation. Most years I hide out in my room until I'm forced out by the announcement of dinner time's arrival. And while I didn't start in my room today, once dinner finished, I immediately slipped away to retreat to my quiet haven. I spent most of the remaining night there, guilty but alleviated from the overwhelming discomfort or being in a room full of strangers and potential awkward encounters and uncomfortable small talk.

I hate that I'm that shy, anti-social girl who will only talk to people she knows, leaves other people out, and is afraid to look you in the eye. I don't want to be a rude person or someone who doesn't seem to care because I don't like people like that. But I'm not sure how to conquer this deep-seated inexplicable discomfort with strange people that takes hold of every fiber of my being when I'm in situations with strangers.

Lately I've been wishing I could make friends and be normal. Go out and do stuff. Get a boyfriend. I think about what a freak I am for being my age and not having dated anyone. I berate myself for not having the courage to talk to this really funny guy who I sit next to in not one but two classes. But he's always so absorbed in talking to other people and I hate breaking into conversations. But I hate not even getting the chance to get to know what a guy's like.

I guess though, on this day of thanks, I should take time to realize that I've come a long way. It's small steps that take you places. We can't put too much pressure on ourselves in recovery. And even if I don't have a boyfriend or a lot of other friends, I have my sister who I have so much fun with, my mom who is always there to listen to my stupid ramblings, and a couple other people who I sometimes adventure with. Sometimes that's all you need. Maybe a boyfriend would just end up being disappointing. After all, what guy would want to listen to my emotional rants, rambles on historical theory, petty daily grievances, in-depth evaluations of Dancing With the Stars, or gossip about friends and celebrities?

I think we spend a lot of time making up stories about what we should have, what we should be like, what our lives and families should look like, but we're just making up stories. We're just jumping to conclusions about other people's lives. I'm sure most people's families are embarrassing, awkward, and/or dysfunctional too. I'm sure a lot of people feel awkward at holiday gatherings. I bet a lot of people feel like the don't have enough friends, or if they do they feel like they don't have many friends who really care. Maybe it's time to stop focusing on what I "should" be and accept myself for what I am while striving to achieve realistic goals for what I can be.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Happy Anniversary

This is a bit of an odd post, but I just remembered today that I started this blog back in November of 2015, so I went into the archives to see exactly what day I first posted on to see when the anniversary of this little thing was so I could celebrate it.

Well, to my surprise, the first post was actually on November 4, 2015, so I missed the official anniversary by quite a few days, but I thought it was worth celebrating anyways because I really am so proud of this little blog, even if it isn't a viral sensation or anything. I'm proud of it because it's been an honest representation of my thoughts and a genuine attempt to try to help other people going through what can be a very isolating experience. I've published 91 posts on here, six pieces on The Mighty, and one article on the blog of To Write Love on Her Arms (all accidentally under slightly different names, haha).

I tend to get discouraged about my writing from time to time, seeing other people get thousands of likes on their pieces or hearing that their writing was picked up by a big-name website or finding out that they've written a hundred articles. But, hey, for someone who started posting her unedited, stream-of-consciousness thoughts because she had nothing else to do but sleep at the time, I think I've done pretty well for myself.

And regardless of whether my work is or isn't popular, I'm really, really proud that I produced something out of what was so awful and difficult. I'm glad I decided to be open with people about what happened and turn something terrible into something that might be able to help others. Most of all, I'm glad I have a record of my life during this pivotal time of growth and transition in my life that could have easily gone unrecorded because of how exhausted I was feeling at the time.

I started this blog when I was feeling absolutely gutted. At the end of myself. Useless. Worthless. Directionless. I didn't know what life held next for me. I had left my college home of three years because of the severity of my depression. I had tried to go to community college but had dropped out after a month - a previously unthinkable action for me - because of crippling social anxiety and panic disorder symptoms. I didn't know if I would be able to finish my degree while my friends were heading their way to caps and gowns that coming May.

I was at odds with God even though faith had been my bedrock and identity for a decade. I felt abandoned and disappointed; how could I trust someone who had let my life go to complete ruins. I felt embarrassed that I wasn't in school or working, but I also could barely get out of bed. I was tired of trying to figure out polite ways to explain what had happened to me, reassuring answers to the polite "How are you doing?"s that inevitably faced me. I dreaded going to the dentist or meeting my parents' friends out of fear that they would ask why I wasn't at college any more.

I felt purposeless, always having been a creative person who wanted some task or another to keep my hands and mind  busy. I guess that impulse was what this blog was born out of. And it really has been my baby. I hope it will continue to grow and evolve. Mostly, I hope it will help people know that no matter how dark or strange or lonely their life is, they aren't alone. Countless other souls feel just as lost, confused, broken, directionless, hopeless, guilty, angry, frustrated, afraid, etc. as you, and I'm just one of them.

And I hope you'll consider writing your own journey, whether in a journal or on a phone or on a site like The Mighty (which welcomes contributors with no publishing experience) or on your own blog. Write it for yourself, to honor your story and to remind you how far you have come. And to remind you what you've endured and survived. You are all so strong and I salute you.

I guess I should also add that there's hope. Today I am working my butt off again at college, set to graduate in May - a year late, but I have learned so much in this past year that I wouldn't trade it for any university president's handshake. I am learning and growing so much each week, not just academically but emotionally. I am gaining perspective on my life and self. I have had the opportunity to work with two wonderful counselors in the past year and even though there have been bumps in the road and stretches that seemed unproductive, that work really has transformed me.

Overall, the most exciting thing is that I have hope and ability restored to my life. I have hopes and dreams for the future and I have the energy to pursue my interests and hobbies and academic plans. The world is wide open. Usually I feel overwhelmed by that, but today is a reminder to embrace it. I've been so caught up in how stressful school is lately that I've forgotten to be thankful that I can physically, emotionally, and mentally handle doing work again.

And as much as I hate to admit it, in a lot of ways, the awful period of my life actually worked for many good changes in my life. I was prompted to get treatment for my anxiety and depression, which has made me much healthier and happier than ever before. I was motivated to finally leave the toxic environment of my previous school and transfer to my new institution, where I can live with my supportive family instead of judgmental roommates and I have had the opportunity to pursue academic fields I'm very interested in, to form relationships with professors, and to be involved in campus activities, unlike at school #1. And I'm being set up to have much brighter career opportunities with the connections I've formed and training I've received. I'm very thankful for all of that.

And I'm thankful for being made aware of the silent struggle of so many around the world. I'm thankful for being pushed to be part of the warriors who will speak up for these people who deserve a voice, who deserve to know they aren't alone. I'm thankful for being pushed to find my own voice and start to speak up for myself and others.

(Wow that was a lot longer than I had planned. Classic Dark Cafe Days post, I guess...)

Without further ado, here is my first post from November 4, 2015:

"Just a Phase
All good dreamers pass this way some day
Hidin' behind bottles in dark cafes, dark cafes
Only a dark cocoon before I get my gorgeous wings and fly away
Only a phase, these dark cafe days.
                           - Joni Mitchell 'Last Time I Saw Richard'

 "I've known for most of my life that I am not quite right upstairs. I first started being consumed with anxiety in first grade. The tyranny of my Type A teacher triggered the anxious tendencies I had inherited from my mom and I turned into a nervous wreck who would cry all the way to school and beg to stay home. The anxiety would manifest itself again throughout my school life. In fourth and fifth grade I became obsessed with the fear of getting detention, which was regularly threatened to us to "prepare us for middle school". When I was doled out this prison sentence in fourth grade after forgetting to do my math homework, I must have had to choke back tears, feeling thoroughly chastised. In fifth grade, my mom eventually told my teacher about my terror because I remember her pulling me aside one day and explaining I had nothing to worry about...I was a model student and she would never give me detention.
"I remember crying while packing my bag for the first day of school every summer for the next several years of secondary school. I wept every night the first week of my junior year of high school because of the complete overwhelm I felt at the thought of taking three Advanced Placement classes (but it is an official decree of suburban high schools that if you don't take as many AP's as humanly possible, you won't get into college and so will work at McD's and die a premature death.) You can imagine the terror that was the first weeks of college and, well, the whole of college, for me. Five minutes after saying good-bye to my family, I called my mom and begged her to come back an take me home.
"Here I am now after a year and a half of official treatment...concoctions of pills, heart-bearing sessions with stony-faced psychiatrists and counselors (conversations that cost a small fortune, may I add) unemployed, virtually housebound college drop-out who can't get a job or fit into any of her favorite clothes and is sometimes gripped with inexplicable terror of leaving the house.
"Who sits dreading tomorrow because I have to 1) possibly interact with the maids coming in to clean the house, and 2) go to an appointment with my counselor. And dreads the day after because I'm supposed to 1) sit around the house anticipating going to the doctor; 2) go to the doctor with heart beating and stomach twisting; 3) talk to the scary receptionists who hate life and even more, hate YOU; 4) sit in a large napkin and talk to a stranger about all my shortcomings as a human being and than be mercilessly tickled and prodded and made to feel as uncomfortable AS POSSIBLE.
"To make things brief: anxiety is crippling. It sucks the life out of you. And it takes you unawares. A month ago I was driving myself to community college four days a week and ordering bagels from Panera like nobody's business. I was still a hot mess, but I was semi-functional. Then something snapped inside of me and I found myself lying on my bed in the fetal position, whimpering like a little rescue puppy that I just couldn't go to class. I couldn't. I could barely get out of bed.
"I know a lot of people won't get it. I sound pitiful and lazy and cowardly, no doubt, to many. I look that way to myself a lot, too. I have spent over a decade pushing myself to overcome this monster of fear inside of me, bullying myself for backing out when things got too overwhelming. This year, I finally just fell to pieces. And I seem to be stuck that way. My efforts to pull myself into some kind of passable working human being seem to just lead me to explode again. It's embarrassing. It's frustrating. It's a process of constantly going back to Square One...or Square Negative One.
"I thought healing would be a lot easier than this. I thought this failure to meet basic human standards for living would just be a phase. I thought I'd have an epiphany or a turning point or a saving grace...It seems to happen to other people that I read about. When I went on medication a year ago, I never guessed I'd be one of those pitiful people you read about who has tried umpteen meds and is still a sad 45 year-old overweight TV addict on Unemployment. But I can't keep track of the opportunities that have fell through and the medications that haven't worked. And, damn it...I'm still waiting on a breakthrough.
"This is my journey. It isn't too nitty gritty and dark, thankfully, but it isn't the blue skies I like to portray it to be. I want to honestly share my struggles in life because it has meant so much to me to hear other people do so and because I want people going through similar things to know they're not alone. I guess this may be hard to read because it's not exactly uplifting or optimistic, but if you will bear with me, I hope this can give you some insight into what life is like for those who struggle with mental illness.
"The song I quoted at the beginning resonates with me a lot because it has this dark, desperate undertone of trying to convince oneself that you're on the mend and better times are just around the bend. I feel stuck hiding behind bottles in a dark cafe, dreaming up schemes to break free of the dark cocoon suffocating me -- a cocoon I was supposed to shed as my fellow pupae have done. But maybe healing, like so many things in life, is a long-term process full of setbacks and pitfalls and shortcomings.
"For some people, mental illness is not just a phase, but a lifelong battle."

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Election fatigue, etc.

Obviously, it's been a whirlwind of a week for Americans. A week ago we split in two like the curtain in the Temple after Jesus' death. And everyone is making a really, really big deal about every.single.little.thing. People have turned into religious fanatics about their candidate of choice, decrying all those who would vote for someone else as unrighteous. As my tone might give away, I'm really sick of it.

I'm not downplaying the importance of dealing with all of the difficult issues this election has brought up, and I certainly don't want to minimize the hurt and fear that many people feel, but I feel like the politics is getting in the way of addressing those issues or healing those hurts. Maybe I'm biased because I hate politics and I think they're more divisive and tedious than helpful. Maybe I'm frustrated because of my tendency to want to defend the other side when I hear one side decry the other. I guess you could call that playing devil's advocate, but for me it comes from more of a place of empathy than wanting to mess with other people's heads.

Today, we spent almost an entire class period discussing the election. I got frustrated because it took me back to high school when I was a conservative Christian, very much in the minority, and people would, because we live in a solid blue state in a pretty secular area, assume that everyone was a liberal atheist. It was very uncomfortable, lonely, and marginalizing to feel like I was the only one who believed what I did. It was even worse when people made fun of the group I belonged to generally and sometimes made fun of me personally for belonging to that group. So even though I was of the majority opinion in my class discussion today, I couldn't stop thinking about how I felt in high school when the vocal people attacked the other side to such an extent that anyone on that other side would feel uncomfortable speaking up. That's how persecution starts.

I'm tired of people painting all Trump supporters in broad brush strokes, not listening to what they have to say. I know many people who voted for Trump, some of whom are even family, and I know their reasons for voting are multi-faceted and don't necessarily have to do with racism or xenophobia. Calling all Trump supporters racists is not fair and not going to help us understand what happened this election better. In fact, I think that's what gave Trump his power in the first place; a group of people felt marginalized and unheard. On a certain level, I can relate to that, having been part of a group (practicing Christians) constantly being mocked in the media and in school and the workplace.

What this election has driven home to me is that all people deserve to be judged and heard as individuals. We have a tendency to hear that a person is part of a religious group or a political camp or hear that they are mentally ill or disabled or LGBTQ or even that they're from a certain region of the country or have a certain hobby or drive a certain car and make a whole set of assumptions about them. Sometimes many of those stereotypes can be true, but sometimes they're not. And when we jump to those conclusions, we rob those people of their voice, personality, and experience and rob ourselves of the chance to hear that person's rich tapestry of a story.

To bring it to a personal level, I have gone through a lot of different emotions and thoughts regarding this election. After last Tuesday, I was initially shocked and horrified, much like my classmates. I was scared about what would happen in the future. I was frustrated when my sister tried to rationalize the election results and tell me it wasn't worth worrying about. I wore black to class and tied my scarf in a pussy bow, determined to look mournful all through the lecture. The only problem was, my professor, perhaps sensing the heaviness of spirits that day, was really, really funny that class. I left smiling and my soul was sunny again. I didn't want to ruin that. It's not often you get to feel that way.

But part of me felt guilty - I was supposed to be angry and disappointed, wasn't I? It wasn't right to move on. But then I realized that it wasn't bad to move on. If there's anything I've learned from struggling with anxiety, it's that you have to keep yourself from writing the history of the future. You can't assume the worst for tomorrow and let it ruin today. I've lived so much of my life doing that and it's time to stop, especially for something so unpredictable and out of my control. I can't control Donald Trump's actions, but I can control, to some extent, my thoughts and actions.

With that thought, I'm also reminded anew of the importance of showing love to others and continuing to do my own work to try to make the world better. I've felt guilty for hating politics and not wanting to debate the ins and outs of this election cycle, but that's because I think it's more worth our, or at least my, time to focus on the people and tasks right in front of me and the hurts and needs that go unmet regardless of who's up for reelection.

I guess what this morning's class discussion really underscored for me though is how isolated and alienated I feel in my current state in life. I don't feel like I fit in with the kids in my class who make fun of Jesus and talk about how much better America would be as a socialist nation and drop the f-bomb every other sentence. But I feel even more uncomfortable in the emptying pews of my family's church, listening to my pastor decry those who support gay marriage or who don't fight against abortion. The election did make me feel even more disillusioned with Evangelical Christian culture. I was disillusioned before, frustrated with the lack of love, compassion, and acceptance that I saw. Disgruntled with the political agenda that had become part of our theology. Upset with the injustice, hate, and ugliness perpetrated in Jesus' name that reflect the behavior of the Pharisees he decried much more than the Savior himself.

I heard a guy say after class that he didn't like anything Jesus said. My immediate response (in my head) was that he probably doesn't even know what Jesus said. He probably just knows what Christians say and how they have portrayed Jesus. The more I read about Jesus' words and actions, the more I realize how far his followers today fall from the ideals of love and selflessness and the example of reaching out to the misunderstood and marginalized that he displayed. But not many people are of that opinion, at least that I've come across. Most of the Christians I know are either clinging to Evangelicalism or leaving the faith entirely. How do you walk the line and temper the two extremes? How do you do the same for politics? How do you deal with always seeing the other side of things, making it difficult to feel at home in either camp? Why can't people be moderate about things...Why do we have to swing to extremes?

I feel like I don't fit in anywhere. I never have, but I had forgotten about it somewhat and now here it is, hanging right in front of my face again. Before I would say that I fit in with my family, but now that I'm no longer a conservative Evangelical, I don't. And it's uncomfortable, I can't deny, especially for someone who's never been rebellious and doesn't know how to be.

I could go on about the other life problems...the social anxiety, the anxiety-induced insomnia, the brokenness of the mental health care system, the despair of never finding a man who will accept and understand me and who isn't irrational, judgmental, over-idealistic, and immature and who I can feel comfortable with and actually be able to get to know. But I think I've gone on long enough.

I wish we could live in love instead of judgment. I'm sick of all the hate and judgment that we pass on each other, whether during election season or not, whether Republican or Democrat. I wish we could respect each other and listen and love and go beyond politics to stories. Stories of people's lives and loves and the lessons they've learned along the way. That's what I want to dedicate my life to: Telling stories and listening to hearts.

11/19/2016 Addendum: After receiving some feedback on this post, I just wanted to clarify that I didn't mean to invalidate any concerns people have concerning the president-elect and the future of our country. I know that for many people, there are some very real and valid fears, threats, and concerns surrounding this incoming presidency. I don't take that lightly and my heart goes out to anyone for whom that is true. 

However, I do want to remind people on both sides of the political spectrum that mocking, hating, and stereotyping all members of the opposite side is creating just as much of a problem as any particular issue you are concerned about. We change the world - for better or for worse - with our everyday words and actions and the way we treat other people. So I beg of you to be more considerate about the way you talk about, talk to, and portray the other side. Take time to listen to their argument, take time to understand their point of view. 

And if you are very worried about this election, consider talking to a counselor (if you aren't already.) And consider that we don't know what the future will bring, we can only take care of today. Putting the worries of things that might ever happen on ourselves today will only make life miserable. 

These were the two things I wanted to drive home through this post. I think the extreme polarity of this election should be a wake-up call to us as a nation to start listening more, understanding, seeing our similarities, trying to make sense of our differences, and gaining a broader perspective. A lot of people talk about tolerance, but sometimes that tolerance is only limited to a certain group of people. I know many will read these words and think they are pie-in-the-sky idealism, but how far has hate, division, and arguing really gotten us in life? How many minds have been changed with debates? How many have been changed with patient love? Personally, debates have driven me further away from agreeing with the point of my opponent while hearing a friend patiently explain their thoughts on a subject or seeing a family member quietly live a certain way have made me change my mind in profound ways. 

Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with this post or with the outcome of the election, I wish you peace and joy in the upcoming season and personal healing in any difficult situations you are or you have walked through.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

You win some, you lose some.

I've gradually found myself finally adjusting to the grind of school again. Of course, now the semester is almost two-thirds over, but that's just a small detail, right? It's a little scary to think about how fast time passes...It makes my anxiety about death and time passing and losing people and not taking advantage of every moment all come rushing back to me.

Thankfully, I haven't experienced much depression in recent weeks; I've been stressed and not sleeping well but overall I've been feeling pretty well. Of course, that makes me wonder what the heck is wrong that things aren't terrible, and I've been racking my mind to figure out if there's been any changes in medication or lifestyle that I can attribute the good mood to so I can make sure to keep doing whatever it is that's helping. But there isn't an obvious thing. In fact, I'm surprised I'm not depressed because I'm having trouble sleeping most every night.

Whatever is going on, I'm thankful for the reprieve. But I have noticed a slight uptick in my social anxiety, which has been frustrating because I'm still pitifully desperate to make friends but increasingly terrified of making conversation. There were a couple of occasions where people in my class actually initiated conversation with me, but I was so surprised and flustered that I could only manage one-word responses. My mind went blank and any conversation-facilitating responses I thought of were immediately shot down by the anxious naysayer that has taken residence in my mind over the past decade and a half.

Examples: "No, don't say that...that's stupid", "No, nobody wants to hear about that", "No, that's not something people talk about", "No, that would be embarrassing"....

The problem is, then you don't say anything, which is almost more awkward than saying something "stupid". The other problem is that most of the things people say are stupid, so it's really not worth worrying about and better to just get the words out of your mouth. But I find that there's almost a block between my mind and my mouth in these unexpected social situations, like my mind goes on lockdown because a threat has been spotted and closes all access to the outside. The sad thing is I daydream about talking to people, having good conversations, making jokes, showing the sides of myself people don't get to see, and making friends, possibly even developing romances.

But when even a hint of a possibility of talking to a guy I'm interested in arises, like say we both drive into the parking garage and park at the same time I immediately go into panic mode and start looking for ways to avoid the situation, like sitting in my car for an extra five minutes. I usually have a moment of clarity where I realize, "Damn it, self. What are you doing? Isn't this what you want? To talk to people? To make friends?" But I hate those awkward, passing conversations, small talk and banter. I'd much rather sit and have a nice long one-on-one chat over coffee, but that's probably never going to happen unless you have a few awkward waiting-for-class-to-start sets of small talk.

Even more of a bummer is how much you beat yourself up after social interaction, whether it went relatively well or not so well, which makes you want to avoid it even more in the future because it just causes so much stress, anxiety, and self-loathing. I felt terrible to not responding better to the guys who started conversations with me. That thought process sounds something like this: "Now they'll never try and talk to me again. Now I'll look anti-social and ungrateful. Now I'll never make friends. I wish I had been able to communicate that I appreciated their talking to me. I probably made them feel bad and awkward. I'm such a jerk. And a loser."

Thankfully, I've slowly been getting a little better at giving myself grace for "mistakes" and credit for little wins. On the plus side of this whole thing, I have been experiencing less physical anxiety when anticipating social encounters. I used to feel horribly sick when I knew I was going to talk to a professor or go to an event. For one thing, I wouldn't be able to stop thinking about the meeting for hours, even days beforehand. Then, the closer the event got, the faster my pulse would race, my stomach would churn, my veins would pump with nervous adrenaline. It was miserable. The natural impulse in that kind of situation is to cancel the meeting and make all of the icky feelings go away. Sometimes I tried to push through, but there were times that I would cave into the anxiety and cancel. People judged me for doing this, but I don't think they understood how terribly I felt.

Anyways, those debilitating physical anxiety symptoms have faded recently (maybe because of the increased Klonopin dosage to help me sleep) which has allowed me to go to meetings and try new things with substantially less terrible feelings than before, something I'd venture to say is worthy of celebration! Isn't that what mental health treatment is all about, after all, allowing you to function more normally and feel less miserable?

All in all, I'm trying to learn to take the pressure off of myself. I don't have to say the right thing. I don't have to make friends right away. It will take time and maybe I just have to wait for situations that play to my strengths. And even if I don't make friends at school, it's okay. Beating myself up will only make things worse.

I hope you and I both, reader, can learn to give ourselves a break and celebrate the small victories. And I hope that you can see a glimmer of hope that your treatment is working.