Passing for Normal

I felt normal today because I got to drink coffee from my favorite place, something I haven’t done since February. There were tables very far apart, so I sat drinking and feeling a breeze on the lower part of my face. Such a normal thing that I’ve missed a lot. It made me think of other times I’ve felt normal, or—more likely—just felt as if I looked normal.

I remember passing for thin. Around 2013, I was at the tail end of a very low-calorie diet that took my weight down close to “ideal.” I took a ballroom dance class but never lost the feeling of being an imposter. The body I had, even as it moved while held in someone’s arms, felt like an illusion tricking them.

I remember passing for normal as a mom, mostly when my daughter was little and I’d sit in the park exchanging innocuous facts with other mothers while laughing at toddler antics. Although I was far, far from okay on the inside, the outside looked wholesome.

I remember passing for a normal person at a ball game. The SF Giants were in the playoffs and I was in the stands with my spouse and daughter. I wore an old orange Giants T-shirt of his. I was in orange, just like everyone else. I felt happy to be part of the crowd.

And oh, God, I remember passing for normal at jobs, back when I could. Wearing an ID badge, nodding at meetings, writing up notes. Helping others. Looking competent and adult between my secret anxiety-attack bathroom breaks.

Yes, I Play Animal Crossing

I admit it—my daughter and I both find comfort in video games right now. I know a great many people, especially creative ones, who look down on those who play. I know there are valid issues surrounding the effect of both games and other media on the human brain.

That being said, I find video games good for anxiety management. There are times I can’t focus on writing, or wholesome leisure activities like reading poetry. When friends say they’re playing too much during the quarantine, I understand how they feel, but I don’t beat myself up about how long I play.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons came out on the Nintendo Switch console just as the shelter in place was beginning. Because of this, it’s even more popular than it was expected to be. When I can’t sleep, or desperately need something to do with my hands, I’m on my virtual island.

I see it as harm reduction. Sure, gathering pretend resources and building things that aren’t real are not the best thing to do with the times I’m not able to work, but I could be doing worse. I could be relapsing on drugs. I could be overeating and making myself sick. I could be dwelling obsessively on the world’s situation to the point of convincing myself there’s no point in staying clean.

If the worst thing I’m doing is catching fish to sell to a capitalist raccoon, I’ll take it.

Safe

“Safe space” is a concept these days, and I’m for it. But is there really such a thing as a safe space for me?

I’ve been struggling lately with the fact (as I’ve mentioned) that I no longer feel safe talking about any kind of physical or mental health issue with some people. From now on, when certain people greet me and ask how I’m doing, I am in perfect health and having a good day. Like a gazelle in a herd, I must not show weakness or injury lest I be targeted by wolves.

“But wait,” I interrupt myself, “isn’t it important to be authentic about your issues? Might you be missing an opportunity to be helpful to someone?” Well, I don’t put up shields lightly. This is a case where I’ve shared my truth several times and had it discounted.

So that’s become a space that is safe for me to talk about writing, but not other things. There are spaces where I can talk about addiction, but too much talk of psych treatment might get me rejected. There are therapy spaces where I can talk about mental health, but have to hold back on talking about my writing lest I be accused of intellectualizing.

Sometimes being unsafe is the right thing to do, of course. Sharing honestly in a recovery meeting may help someone feel less alone, so it can be worth consequences to me. I have to weigh the risks and benefits and make a choice about how transparent to be.

The book in progress, of course, represents a choice to be extremely transparent. It’s possible to do because I can tell myself that no matter how many “unsafe” places it ends up, it has a good chance of also reaching places where it could help someone else feel a little safer. A little more seen.

When Truth Doesn’t Matter

“Wait a minute,” I can hear readers thinking. “This author’s all about self-disclosure and authenticity and all that jazz. Truth has to be important to them.”

You’re right. Truth, in general, is of paramount importance. But I’ve recently been given food for thought about one particular circumstance in which truth may be a bit irrelevant.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy has been very popular for a while, and is helpful for many people. A central principle of CBT is to question your negative thoughts and assumptions, learn to recognize illogical thinking, and use various techniques to decrease the number and severity of negative thoughts you have.

In other words: get into the habit of believing, and trying to prove, that your negative thoughts about yourself or your life are not true (or at least vastly exaggerated.)

Although I find many of the techniques useful, I have encountered two issues with this. First, since the goal is to change my thinking, I feel like I’ve failed when negative thoughts are still such a big part of my consciousness. Second, the content of some of my negative thoughts is true and trying to argue with it doesn’t help at all.

My planet really is in trouble. I really do regret not writing for decades. Relatives really are going to get harder to deal with as they age. I really did irreversibly fuck up my body in some ways. The odds of my book getting published really are low.

Anyway, I just finished a book called “The Happiness Trap” that was recommended to me. I tend to avoid self-help books, as a rule, but I decided to give it a try. It advocates that we don’t try to argue with our negative thoughts, or control how often we have them, but rather work on coexisting with them and using mindfulness techniques to be less affected by them.

It suggests that when I’m aware of a negative thought I’m having or story I’m telling myself, I don’t ask myself whether it’s true or not–only whether, at this moment, it is helpful.

Sick Squared

Being sick is depressing, sure. For me, though, being sick is clinically depressing.

Maybe those of us with mental health issues are more sensitive than usual to the tiniest changes in our brain chemistry. If we’re on meds, maybe illness changes the way our bodies metabolize them. Whatever the reason may be, even a minor illness seems to guarantee a sharp depressive dip for me.

It was just a bad cold, for heaven’s sake. Severe congestion, touch of fever, no huge deal, only lasted three days…but I’m clawing my way out of leftover mental fog, compulsively pessimistic thinking, and hair-trigger anxiety.

Yesterday was the first day I actually thought about my writing projects again, and it wasn’t pretty. Every gloomy, nihilistic, they’re-no-good-and-even-if-they-were-it-wouldn’t-matter thought I’ve had about them came cascading down at once.

I know what to do; what I’ve had to do thousands of times. Baby steps. Little things like this. Do not try to tackle everything that has piled up, or I’ll end up crawling back under the covers.

I want my brain back to its best functioning now–but what I’ve got is a blog post and a sink full of clean dishes. And that’s probably it for today.

In Case of Emergency, Become Sane

My brain is weird.

This isn’t news, of course. But one particular weirdness is obvious this week: the way horrible, debilitating anxiety can click over into calm action during an emergency.

I can have gasping, chest-hurting anxiety over a phone call or a doorbell ringing. But a few days ago when our house was two blocks from the edge of a fire evacuation zone, I sat calmly writing a list of what to grab.

When my daughter had unexplained stomach pain the next day, I worried and obsessed constantly about what it was. But when it became clear we needed to go to the ER, I became completely focused. Driving with someone vomiting and moaning in pain in the passenger seat isn’t easy, but I did fine.

Turned out to be a kidney stone. A night later, she had to go back because she couldn’t keep down her meds. The night after that, she had a sudden, new symptom. Things had been calming down, and when this happened it hit me like a blow from a club. I lost my breath, my chest hurt…what is this? Will it go away? Should I call someone? Should I take her to the ER again? But after it was clear we needed to go, the magic switch flipped.

My husband asked if I was OK to drive. I told him yes. He knew it was true. He could see it clearly–the wife who had been pacing and gasping only a minute ago now met his eyes with solid certainty. And even when the scary symptoms got worse on the way to the hospital, I kept my eyes on the road and got us there. (She’s going to be fine, thank goodness; it was an uncommon meds side effect and they were able to treat it.)

So what’s the story? I know I’m not the only one; I’ve heard others talk about it too. Some highly anxious people actually thrive in crisis-oriented jobs like ER work. I think it has something to do with defined tasks that leave no space for indecision. Whatever choices have to be made must happen fast and be followed by action. The urgency blots out the endless future tripping and second guessing.

Someone I know thinks it’s a type of dissociation, and those of us with certain kinds of brains or trauma are just better at it. That makes sense to me.

Whatever causes it, I’m grateful I can be less of a liability in an immediate crisis. But how I wish I could flip that mysterious switch on command!

My Mind’s Pants Are On Fire

Once again my mind is lying to me. It often does. Logical arguments don’t help much, because these kinds of lies are built around a core of reality.

Here’s how it goes: My brain becomes especially anxious. Physically, biochemically, something is going on. No idea why. But my psyche won’t tolerate free-form anxiety. It insists on finding a focus for it.

What to choose? I have many sources of stress in my life. The anxiety zeroes in on one of them and hangs itself on it like a coat on a hook. I begin to worry obsessively about the thing.

Nothing has changed recently with the thing. There’s no new data. But suddenly I’m incredibly worried and can’t stop thinking about it. My mind is lying to me about how serious the thing is, because a day or two ago I was coping with that exact set of circumstances and was much less anxious.

It’s also lying because it’s not necessarily choosing the most urgent of my worries. It just reaches into the grab bag for one. It could have done the same amplification for any of the others.

Even though I know this, it’s hard to argue with it when the core worry is a real one. I can’t tell my brain there’s no reason to worry about it, because my brain will know I’m lying. All I can do is try to stay aware that I’m experiencing an exaggerated version of the truth.

The Devil’s Playground

There’s an old saying that “an idle mind is the Devil’s playground.” This can be especially true for addicts. Not only addicts, of course, but anyone to whom the inside of their skull is a potentially dangerous place.

Today I have the house to myself for eight hours. I’m not used to being alone here for more than a couple of hours at a time, because between my spouse and our 19-year-old there’s usually someone around. But my daughter just got a job (yay!) so she’s at work (weird!) and I’m here by myself until it’s time to go pick her up.

It’s not that I don’t have plenty of things to do. I could work on one of several writing projects I have going. I wouldn’t even have to write; I have storyboarding and planning I need to do. I could unpack more stuff. I could put away the laundry sitting in the dryer. I could take a walk, or do ten minutes of my neglected Tai Chi. I need to take a shower. If I feel the need to be completely unproductive, I could watch a show or read a book or play a video game.

Or, I could eat things that harm me. I could sit and stare at the wall, building darker and darker scenarios in my head, with no one here to ask me if I’m okay. I could call up someone toxic in my life and have a conversation I’ll regret. Anxiety has been especially troublesome for me lately, either paralyzing me or goading me into unwise action.

So for the moment, I decided to do this. And now that I’m done, I’ll have to decide what to do next.

You Don’t Say?

So, my psychiatrist thinks I am depressed.

More than usual, I mean; my general diagnosis includes a type of depression. But just because I told him about how often I’ve been thinking about death lately, and how much I’ve been struggling with food and other self-destructive behavior, and how much time I spend in circles that talk a great deal about the dark aspects of all our futures on this planet…he thinks I need more help with depression.

So out he comes with this particular health care organization’s chart of meds and starts suggesting things to add to my regimen.

Poor man. He means well. But either he hasn’t been taking notes at our previous sessions, or he hasn’t been looking at them.

The names of the meds are listed in little boxes by group, and as he proposes things I have to keep shooting him down.

No, we can’t add anything from this box. I’ve tried many of them, and they increase anxiety to a dangerous level. No, I don’t care if this one is new, I’ve seen the chemical formula. They moved a hydrogen atom so they could get a new patent, that’s all.

No, we can’t add anything from this box. They’re all addictive. I know my addiction history is in my chart. I made a point of putting it there.

Dear God, no, we can’t add anything from this box. Two of them almost killed me when I tried them; I’ve told you that before. You cannot give me any of these unless I’m an inpatient under close supervision so I don’t walk into traffic.

We could try a slight increase in this one med I’m already taking, or we could try one from this tiny box here…or maybe we could get me a therapist I could see more than once every six weeks.

Ha, ha, just kidding, I know that’s not going to happen.

Raw

Don’t you hate it when you bite your nails late at night until they bleed? And tear bits of skin off around the nail beds, exposing raw red flesh? And it hurts, but only for a little bit, and you finally go to sleep. Then you wake up in the morning feeling as if your fingertips have been dipped in acid.

Washing your hands is excruciating. The thought of doing the dishes makes you want to cry. But the dishes don’t care. They sit there waiting. And you don’t live alone, so you can’t just let them pile up. And you think about asking someone else to do them, but you tell yourself you don’t deserve that kind of consideration, because you did this to yourself.

Then you try to put bandaids on all ten fingers so you won’t keep bumping the skinned flesh into things. Then you realize you need to wash your hands.

Then you sit down to work on a poem and can’t stop looking at your stubby, raw, red fingertips moving over the keyboard.

Oh….what’s that you say?

Not everybody does this?

Shit.

Time To Pay the Piper

Well, it is starting. My “up phase” is transitioning to the not-so-fun part of the process. The energy that sparked through me, that last week required caution to manage, is now turning to anxiety. I can almost feel it–it’s like listening to an engine rev and then suddenly hearing a grinding, clanking sound. Energy is now stuck and fouled up in the gears of my brain instead of passing through. It’s overflowing into my body, making it hard to breathe deeply or sit still.

Bipolar II, like its more acute cousin Bipolar I, is classified as a mood disorder. However, sometimes it makes sense in my own experience to think of it more as an energy disorder. Some more philosophical types even compare it to kundalini energies and such–whatever it is, the brain is taking in and/or processing some type of energy a different way. Mood changes are either a result or a parallel process. Not that other issues don’t relate to energy as well–one reason those who deal with depression suffer so much frustration when given advice that is only mood-based. 

At any rate, I feel it and I know from experience what will come. “But wait,” I can hear the next self-appointed free-lance psychiatric counselor I meet say, “Aren’t you being negative expecting bad things like this? What about the power of positive thinking? You’re creating defeat for yourself.”

To which I reply, take your chemically balanced brain and go…well, to put it politely, just go away.

Understanding my patterns and making “weather predictions” based on past observations is NOT defeatism or negative thinking. It does not exclude the presence of grace, the opportunity to make progress in handling whatever happens, or the power of hope. It’s a tool like any other. It’s hiking through mountains and canyons with my eyes open instead of being blindfolded and experiencing terror with every drop.

The Conversation

I’ve been having the same conversation for a week.

The topic doesn’t matter. The other person involved doesn’t matter. None of it matters as I write this, because the distinguishing features of this kind of conversation have nothing to do with the actual words.

It’s the one you replay in your head, over and over again, long after the actual dialogue is over.

It’s the one whose sentences you rephrase, over and over again, trying to imagine what you could have said that might have let you be heard.

It’s the one you try to put out of your mind because thinking about it makes your stomach clench and your teeth grind and your chest hurt.

It’s the one that only seeps (mostly) out of your skin with time, fading into mist around you until the next time it coalesces and burns once again.

It’s the one that will never, never, never, never, never,

NEVER

be resolved by any effort you can make.

It’s the black hole. It’s the dry well. It’s absolute zero.

Intellectually, I know this. Even my training as a counselor can’t help me communicate over a large enough gulf between realities. My trouble is that when I get emotional, I forget the truth and get drawn in to the idea that it could be different.

I obsess. I rephrase. I fear. I fall into the psyche of that scared child who thinks it’s possible to change what’s going on around her if she is good enough. My reaction is fueled by my general bipolar symptoms, my usual level of insomnia gets augmented, and I exist in a state of limbic overdrive until I can survive long enough for time to settle things down.

Then, when I can, I do something like writing this. I remind myself that I am not alone. My reality is not dissolving; I still have my voice and my beliefs. The conversation will not claim my life today.

The Fiftieth Person

Once, while preparing to speak at a recovery event, I wrote something like, “Open my heart, and then open my mouth. Let me look like a fool to forty-nine people if it will help the fiftieth person.”

Do I have the courage to apply that idea to poetry as well?

In a couple of days I’m going to read a few pieces of poetry at a recovery event. The audience will be very different from the ones I have faced before–for the first time,  I’ll be reading poetry to an audience of people who may have come for other things and have no interest in the poetry part of the show.  I’m experiencing a much higher level of public speaking anxiety than what is normal for me. I’m trying to revamp some poems into a format that I think is “cooler” or more likely to go over well–and the revamping is at a complete stall.

Not too surprising, I suppose. While my self-care has had some improvements lately, I have been very blocked when it comes to writing. The reasons are both repetitive and unoriginal, but there it is.

At any rate, past experiences give me faith that when the time comes, I will step onto the stage and manage to read. Past experiences assure me that this will happen, and the world will not come to an end. I just have to show up.

Isolation

We use the word as a verb often these days. I’m isolating a lot. She started isolating. He tends to isolate when he gets depressed.

Isolating is different from just being an introvert or enjoying solitude. Isolating is ducking phone calls, declining invitations when we do get them, shunning gatherings or meetings we used to attend.

We do it because of depression, or shame, or pain and fatigue. We do it because we are too tired to face the dreaded question “How are you?”

Then we keep doing it because we feel guilty about having done it for a while. Guilty about the phone calls we ducked and the meetings we skipped. Overwhelmed at the thought of trying to explain why we flaked out on interactions when we don’t really understand how it works ourselves–or, if we do understand it well, we may have also learned that understanding it doesn’t make it any easier to explain.

It’s dangerous for us. It can make depression worse. If we are in recovery from an addiction, it increases our chance of relapse. It’s bad for our physical health and narrows our world in a way that can let our negative thoughts and traits begin to dominate.

So how do we stop doing it? How do stop doing it?

One thing that’s really hard for me to accept, even after years of work, is that my mental health issues may always manifest in cycles of mood and ability to interact. For me, the struggle is about harm reduction and trying to reduce the shame and fear that extend a cycle of isolation past its natural life span.

And when I find a foolproof way of doing that, I’ll be sure to let you know.

Fear Not?

I chose today’s piece because fear has been clamping down on my creativity lately. Just like any other emotional state, fear comes in both useful and useless varieties when it comes to writing–with the useless kind, my brain freezes or flees into escapist behaviors. So…

(Originally posted on my old page Not This Song, 2015)

How much does fear rule your life?

Those who do some kind of deep self-examination are often surprised to see how deeply, widely, and diversely fear is imbedded in their psyche. I don’t think I was surprised to find its presence in some deep places, but it was enlightening to see how much of my daily behavior is fueled by it on some level.

It’s hard to admit how afraid I am. It’s easy to buy into the idea of courage and strength being incompatible with the presence of great fear. It’s easy to forget how different we are from one another sometimes; that something only mildly frightening to one person may be a source of utter terror to someone else.

There’s an old story about two soldiers in a trench during World War I, waiting through the tense hours before a charge. One sits calmly, while the other paces incessantly, chain-smoking and talking nonstop. The calm one makes a disparaging remark about his nervous comrade, and the other replies: “My friend, if you were as afraid as I am, you would have run away a long time ago.”

I am afraid the way that soldier is. Too afraid to pretend not to be, too afraid to carry things off with style. I need to comfort myself with stories like this, becasue when I scratch the surface of my skin hard enough to penetrate the thin layers of maturity and faith I find a sea of fear. I think I need a hundred words for the many different varieties of fear, with their subtle shadings of meaning and manifestation.

If you’ve ever been afraid the way I am, you know that it doesn’t respond to logic. Oh, some fears do, or they can be soothed with emotional support, or by questioning them with cognitive-behavioral techniques. But there are kinds of fear so primitive, so nonverbal, so far beyond any mental construct that our attempts to soothe them feel like trying to send a T-rex to therapy.

One kind is what psychologists call “annihilation anxiety.” It’s what it sounds like: fear of utter destruction, unmaking, nothingness. Its roots lie very early in life–in the stage of complete dependence of an adult figure and the terror that losing said figure’s love would mean destruction–and it’s nonverbal and primal enough that sometimes I don’t even realize it’s come up until I’ve been reacting to it for days.

Primal fear comes up in our old baggage and in new baggage that got influenced by the old. It’s what is operating when we do things in our relationships that just don’t make sense; when our therapist and friends and whoever have a clear, obvious idea what should be done, who should be confronted, who should be left, but the thought of actually doing it is–well–unthinkable.

What to do about it? Oh, you already know what I’m going to say. There is no swift and logical cure for this kind of fear. There’s no cure at all–only the chance to go into remission. To fight the fear to a standstill and wait for it to get tired and take a break. But how to fight something you can’t see, or speak to, or argue with? Can a sword cut darkness?

No, it can’t. Nor can clever words convince it to retreat. There are only two things I can do: first, stop acting out in a futile attempt to drown the fear under more familiar pain. Then huddle close to the fire. Feed the fire, watch the fire, and don’t let it go out, and try not to think too hard about what will happen if it does. Feed the fire of my Self; yes, and the Self, whatever mystic force that is. Everything I am that is not nothingness. Everything I am, and was, and will be, that is the opposite of nothingness.