Constancy and Mental Illness

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Human beings are creatures of habit. Obvious statement is obvious. But habit is important not just because it makes us feel safe and comfortable but because it means we don’t have to spend as much brain power on determining what we are going to do and how we are going to do it. Routine is like having a formula for integration instead of having to do it all by hand each time. You know what happens next.

I started a new job a couple months ago, and in that time I’ve started to build routines. I freelance at home a few days a week, and for the past two months I have been able to get about the same amount done each of those days. I haven’t had to struggle or fight myself for the motivation. This is normal for me. It’s routine.

Until last week at least. Last week I started to hit a little bump of depression. Suddenly every bit of work was like pulling teeth. I couldn’t wake up at my normal hour, could barely drag myself into the office on my days in, and fell asleep again a few hours after being awake. My habits were suddenly unsustainable. Things that were average to me became impossible.

Welcome to mental illness.

The inability to rely on certain things as normal, average, or constant is one of the more draining elements of mental illness, and it makes everyday functioning incredibly difficult. Not only is trying to maintain any sort of normal life while struggling with serious highs and lows really hard, but it also comes with the extra emotional tax of assessing where you are on each given day and then trying to understand how much you reasonably can get done as well as trying to psychically tell how you’ll feel tomorrow or the rest of the week.

It also adds an intense amount of guilt onto any day that already feels bad. When you have a down day in which you can’t force your brain to focus, you have no energy, your emotions are all over the place, or your anxiety is spiking, it doesn’t help that you’re also acutely aware of the fact that you’re not keeping up on all your obligations, or that you can barely make it through the bare minimum of tasks to get through the day.

As I’m trying to move further towards something like recovery and healthiness, this is one of the biggest struggles for me. When every day was awful, it was easy to rely on the knowledge that I would have to drag myself through the day. The days in which everything is a struggle are the ones in which it’s hardest to be gentle with myself, to remember that I won’t be stuck feeling like this forever, to know that not all of this needs to get done right now.

I forget sometimes that it’s normal to take a day off. I forget that it’s normal to have unproductive days, or days when you just want to put your feet up. I forget that I’ll be better off tomorrow if I listen when my body says it can’t keep up today. I suppose this is a good time to remind myself that self care is an accomplishment, something I work on and work on hard. It is not a cop out or a reason to be lazy. It is part of recognizing that having depression and anxiety mean there is no consistent baseline to my emotions and abilities, that some days I just can’t and some days I’m super kickass. Acceptance is an ok response.

Featured pic is my self care.

 

Whiplash, Monuments Men, Great Art, and Happiness

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A few nights ago I saw the movie Whiplash. As many people have said, the acting was superb and overall it was a quality made movie. But what pulled me in was not the plotline, but rather the assumptions of the characters and the varied interpretations of the people with whom I saw the movie regarding what makes a life worth living.

Andrew, the main character of Whiplash, wants to be the best. In one conversation with his family, when they ask him why he doesn’t have any friends, he says that they would just get in the way. He wants to be remembered, like Charlie Parker was remembered. He wants to be great. His dad looks at him and says that Charlie Parker died at 35, that’s not success.

But Andrew is unswayed, and continues to engage with his abusive band teacher in order to force himself to be better, to win, to prove that he is the great person he could be. He refuses to be broken by the abuse that the teacher doles out, even if that means trying to play while his hand is broken and he’s bleeding.

The end of the movie is ambiguous. Andrew plays an amazing solo. He plays to his own tempo instead of listening to the conductor. But he does it all because he was abused. He becomes great through the horrific methods that left another student dead from suicide.

Underneath the success, the amazing performance, the smile that Andrew finally gets from Mr. Fletcher, there’s the dark knowledge that if he keeps doing what he’s doing, he as well will probably end up dead. If nothing else, he will be alone, anxious, depressed, and constantly feeling that he isn’t living up to his own potential. He requires greatness of himself, because he sees how much the greatness of one person can affect others.

As Mr. Fletcher says, it’s unacceptable to deprive the world of the next Charlie Parker.

But is it really? Is great art more important than actual human lives? Or even one single human life that gets extinguished after short years that are filled with unhappiness?

Let’s talk about another movie for a moment. Monuments Men is for the most part a rompy kind of action movie, but somewhere in it is a question. The Monuments Men take resources that the army could have been using to save human lives and direct those resources towards saving art instead. Great, amazing art, but art nonetheless. Is it ethical for the army to do that?

I tend to think no. Art is beautiful and enriching, but there is always new art being made. People continue to create meaning, beauty, connection, and discussion through art in almost every circumstance they are placed in. Art is not a finite resource that we will run out of. There is no perfect painting or drum solo or play that is out there waiting to be created. We create what we need, what is meaningful to us, and we get the meaning that we need out of the art available to us.

I’m not one to value an empty or unhappy life simply for the sake of life, but I’m also not one to value art without any end. Art is valuable insofar as it enriches human lives, and when it takes away from the human ability to be fulfilled and content, or when it takes away resources from keeping people alive, art starts to lose value. I think that’s true of any human endeavor. No goal is more important than its consequences.

So back to Andrew and Charlie Parker. Why does Andrew think that being great is a better goal than any immediate happiness? Clearly he wants to be remembered, but he also seems to think that he’s doing something good and enriching for the world (just as Mr. Fletcher does) by creating something great.

I am so afraid of that rhetoric.

While talking with friends after the movie, I found that I was the only one who really resonated with that intense drive and need to always be better, the all-consuming, obsessive perfectionism. I can vouch that in my life it has been an extremely damaging influence. But those around me didn’t feel like the movie was in danger of portraying that obsession in a positive light because they had never felt it, never been in a place where they thought that it was the best way to be.

Of course in the movie, Andrew is supposed to be sort of screwed up but only develop clear mental illness symptoms after Mr. Fletcher starts pushing him. But I don’t think that obsession of this level is something that one can just learn. It’s something that you have to spend your whole life fighting if it’s in you to begin with. And while the movie clearly criticizes Fletcher’s methods, it does not clearly criticize the art that comes out of it. It does seem to imply that the art that comes from the abusive, obsessive methods is better than what would have come about if Andrew had a sane teacher, made some friends, stayed with his girlfriend, and tried to temper his obsession with drums by being a healthy person mentally.

So the movie seems to imply that there is some sort of trade off here, that we could get some amazing art, something important or meaningful out of this kind of drive, and that while it’s unhealthy, it is amazing.

And sure there are real life examples of these types. Sylvia Plath or Kurt Cobain, people who used their mental illness to fuel their art and whose dark art touched and was important to thousands upon thousands of people.

And there is never any guarantee that the depression makes your art better. More often than not it makes it worse because you can’t think clearly, your mind is trailing in circles, you have no energy. More often than not you create work that is indulgent rather than transcendent. Of course some people who recover choose never to truly engage with the dark emotions again, and that hardly creates good art, but it is possible to continue to think deeply while in a healthy place. Some of the best art is art that comes from a place of self-respect rather than depression, fear, and uncertainty.

And there’s more than one life that gets hurt when someone wallows in their mental illness. Everyone they interact with gets hurt. Despite the fact that they aren’t trying, most people who are incredibly depressed, anxious, obsessive, and perfectionistic, are not very nice and are certainly not able to have healthy relationships because they themselves aren’t healthy.

But of course the people that I was watching Whiplash with didn’t see it as glorifying this kind of obsession. I’m not sure what it is that made me think it was condoning at least part of the obsession, but perhaps it’s that I expect discussions of (what clearly seems to me to be) mental illness to not simply portray the behaviors because just showing the behaviors can feel like condoning when you’re in a bad place. If I had watched this movie 5 years ago I would have seen it as validation of my choices. I would have watched it and seen a young person overcome everything to pursue perfection and then achieve perfection. I would have seen that it was possible.

And so I wouldn’t have stopped.

I do wonder about our portrayals of obsession and whether we treat those behaviors in a way that says “this is not healthy” or whether we do some glossing over of the truth. How did the film actually treat questions of obsession? Did it say that there were benefits? Of course no one would see it as condoning the behavior of Andrew, but it did seem to make him into a hero, or possibly an anti-hero, something even more attractive to many (especially young) people.

I can’t predict how other people might react to this film, and the people that I watched it with didn’t seem to see it as any kind of validation, but it did focus on a young person overcoming obstacles to reach his goal, even if there were huge sacrifices along the way. Many people would see that as a positive. Continuing the stereotype of disturbed genius isn’t really helpful to anyone, and while the movie criticized the choice to embrace that life, it didn’t do anything to dismantle the stereotype that exists in the first place, leading to many people seeing artistry and greatness as something that necessarily comes with insanity.

This might lead many people to frame questions of dedication to art as whether they want to be happy or whether they want to be great, when in fact they can be both.

So let’s hop back to Monuments Men. Is any piece of art worth ruining your life over? Probably not, especially when we can create art without the intense depression that the movie portrays. Of course every individual has the right to make the choice in their own life, but it’s important to create messages that say it doesn’t have to be that way. You can be amazing without being pushed in cruel and awful ways. Oftentimes greatness comes with support, love, and self-empathy. Especially in today’s world where the cruel actions of famous people get broadcast to the world immediately over the internet, people are becoming less and less tolerant of brilliant assholes, and instead expect their geniuses to give back in some way.

There are many other facets to the reactions to this movie. I see more women feeling driven to prove that they deserve to be on this earth by being great, leading me to worry about the effects of portrayals of greatness on young women. How do we portray negative things in a responsible fashion is a concern that has never been properly answered (no Plato, we don’t just not portray them). And how healthy can obsession ever be?

But I do think it’s important to pull apart the association between greatness and depression. It’s not necessary.

Truth, Truthiness, Community, Mental Illness

Sometimes I know that I am not seeing reality.

A few months ago I woke up in the morning and I had gained 30 pounds overnight when I looked in the mirror. I knew it wasn’t true. I knew that what I was seeing wasn’t there. I couldn’t stop seeing it.

Today, I spent hours thinking that I must be pregnant, despite the fact that I’m on one of the most effective birth control methods out there, and I’m hardly someone who takes risks with my sexuality. I knew it wasn’t true, that I was seeing something that wasn’t there, but still I spent hours reading up on the symptoms of a pregnancy, then an ectopic pregnancy, trying to understand what could be making my body cramp up so badly (fun fact: probably the IUD that’s keeping me not pregnant).

I will keep having moments like these, moments in which I know that I am (hallucinating? delusional? unstable?) not connected to reality in the way that other people are. I’m sure there are many moments when I have not seen the world accurately but I haven’t known that. But these were the times when I was fully aware of the fact that my senses were playing tricks on me. It was like seeing an optical illusion, but the only trick was that I have depression, anxiety, a broken brain.

It’s incredibly scary to realize that you can’t trust things that look so much like reality. Most of us don’t have to go through our days with reminders that eyes and ears and memory are utterly fallible. Not only is it scary, but it leaves me with a profound distrust of myself, something that can quickly lead to further depression and anxiety.

I don’t know what to do with this information. I don’t know how to bring myself back to a sense of reality, other than checking and checking and checking with other people to see where my perception radically differs from other people’s. Not only is that exhausting, it’s also not foolproof.

I suppose that’s the important realization though. Every person sees things in a distorted fashion at some point in their lives. All of our senses break down in some ways, or we interpret things oddly, or we simply require another perspective. Distortion is not unique to people with mental illness. Reliance on other people is something that we all need to do, and it’s the way that most of us come to our best approximation of truth: we use our own senses and logic, but pair it with information and corroboration from other people. Of course this takes effort, time, emotions. Being skeptical and as factual as possible are hard.

Some people feel like they don’t care enough.

What being mentally ill throws into sharp relief is that some of us don’t have a choice about whether we need to do this hard work or not. The consequences of allowing some of our thoughts to get distorted is depression, anxiety, self harm, extreme caloric restriction. It is healthier to see things somewhat accurately, and so instead of relying on others because we want to put in the work of understanding the way things are, people with mental illnesses rely on others because the alternative is a brain that treats you like shit.

In some ways, I get hope from that. I get hope from the fact that the ways my brain fails also force me to work harder, to reach out to other people, to be more connected than I would be if I could skate by. In other ways, it’s awful to know that you don’t get a choice about relying on others.

It’s also nice to know that sometimes being mildly delusional doesn’t keep me from living my life, and more often than not really loving my life. Usually that’s a word that only gets used for people who can’t function, or to discount someone’s opinions and ideas, or their life experiences. But we all have small delusions. They don’t have to keep you from your life.

Between Stress and Boredom

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For most of my life I thought that there were two possibilities for how life could be. I thought it could be stressful or it could be boring.

During school or work or activities I was stress out. I had too much to do, I couldn’t do it well enough. There was never a nice mid level of stuff to do, it was always an excess, always tinged with anxiety of whether I was working hard enough or accomplishing well enough.

Sometimes I could turn my brain off. All the way off. I would zone out for hours or days at a time, reading or being with my friends, but more often than not becoming painfully, incessantly, anxiety-provokingly bored. It was so much worse than the stress because I couldn’t even reassure myself that I was working hard and getting things done, earning my keep. It was just me and my mind, never a good combination.

Imagine my surprise to look at my life today and realize that there is a third option. I can relax. I can play. I can balance.

Today, I woke up and wrote for a few hours. I read a book just for fun during lunch, finished some work, and went climbing. I cleaned my house, then visited my favorite coffee shop to read and finish building a Dungeons and Dragons character. Not once today have I been bored. I have plans to see people tonight, healthy social plans all week, and enough work to keep me happily occupied during the week. But not once today did I feel stressed out, behind, overwhelmed, or anxious.

There were some parts of the day in which I didn’t really do much of anything. I read a book, I played with my cat, I played a game. I never thought that it would require practice to play or relax, but over the last few years I have intentionally spent time alone, doing nothing of import, simply because I wanted to, or even just because my therapist told me to try it. I’ve spent time forcing myself not to get up and go get something done, forced myself to question the thoughts that say I’m bad if I don’t accomplish, forced myself to practice different breathing, light candles, rub my cat on my face, or do anything else it takes to soothe the anxious feelings that used to appear when I tried to enjoy myself.

And I practiced playing. I tried video games, I got a cat, I took up Dungeons and Dragons and played more board games, I started writing fiction again, I bought fidget toys, and I started to force myself to read more often (something I have always loved). Some things didn’t stick: I tried mosaicing and collaging and drawing, and each was mildly interesting for a bit, but didn’t hold my interest. I taught myself how to listen to podcasts, something I’d wanted to do for ages. I started listening to music again.

It took time. Sometimes these things were not enjoyable for me. This might sound ridiculous, as they’re all for fun things, but I would often have intrusive thoughts that told me I should be doing something important or useful rather than doing something for fun, and if the activity didn’t require full concentration then I would simply have recurrent, intrusive thoughts about how much I didn’t like myself. When I wasn’t working, there was space for my depression and anxiety to creep in at the edges.

So it took practice to simply do fun things over and over and over until they stopped feeling wrong, confusing, or anxiety provoking.

I learned how to play. I learned how to relax. These aren’t skills that everyone just picks up, and it does a disservice to everyone not to make those skills available to learn. It’s an amazing realization to figure out that those things are not only acceptable to do, but also important and healthy.

What that’s meant for me is that there is space between boredom and stress. I don’t have to be running all the time every day in order to keep my mind occupied. I don’t have to distrust my mind so much that I can’t just be alone with it. There is a way to do things that are engaging, fun, interesting, and challenging without introducing stress into the picture.

Of course it’s harder to put that together in a job, and it takes a lot of time and work and luck to end up in a position where you feel like you’re having fun or working on something you like most of the time, but the fact that there are any times where I can do that is a source of so much hope for me. I hope it can be for other people too, that other people can recognize that there’s nothing wrong with them because they are stressed out or bored all the time. It takes practice. It is possible.

The Power of Connection in Mental Illness

Heart Connection (by Alisa Looney)

There is a lot of research out there that backs up the idea that the therapeutic alliance is the most important element in the treatment of a mental illness. A sense that the therapist is in your corner, cares about you, and is someone you can connect with and trust is incredibly important. For me, that boils down to the feeling that there is a real person who is actually listening to what I say, rather than seeing me as a puzzle or simply trying to find the right set of words to make things better. It’s a feeling that I crave in all my relationships: deep connection. I like to know what the other person honestly thinks and feel that they care when I want to talk about things that are important to me.

Earlier today I got a comment on one of my posts about mental illness that let me know that another person really resonated with what I had said and that they wanted to let me know where they were now. It was the kind of comment that made me feel like someone had truly listened to what I said and wanted to really communicate back to me. It felt like a peer alliance.

These were the types of feelings that I never had when I was in group treatment. I never resonated well with the other people that were in my groups (for a variety of reasons, but mostly because I wanted to talk about Serious Angst and Ennui and they wanted to talk about life), and I often felt that there was no one there who wanted to look out for me or just know me for me.

When I get those types of comments (which I do on a semi-regular basis), I tend to get a little choked up. I feel proud. I feel intensely determined to continue down a healthy road, to continue writing, to continue doing things that I care about and that impact other people.

Connection, not just when it comes to the therapist/patient relationship, is one of the most important ingredients in a healthy mental life. Of course we know that having a good social circle and healthy relationships is important, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking instead about the ability to connect on important and vulnerable topics related to your mental health. It’s not just about having people who love you and care about you in your everyday life, but having peers that can relate to you and share insights.

When someone else says that you have offered something to them that was useful and then they offer something in return, you get a bolt of confidence and vulnerability all in one. It may sound oxymoronic, but it’s also real and incredibly helpful for revitalizing a commitment to health. If my recovery inspires you and your recovery inspires me, we’re both in this for someone else. That connection is amazing.

It’s hard to explain what exactly it is about the moment of clicking with someone that makes you feel as if you should keep trying, as if you need and deserve to be in this world. But it is a powerful feeling, one that keeps us coming back to groups, to blogs, to message boards, and to any other place where we feel we might find it.

So thank you to everyone who has left a comment or written their own posts. Thank you to the friends that give me suggestions and let me know how their disorder and recovery worked. Thank you to the people who just show up and say “me too. That is exactly right.” You all are why I keep writing.

Self-Parenting in Adult Relationships

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Libby Anne is one of my favorite bloggers around, particularly when she writes about positive parenting. Although I never intend to be a parent myself, I find her insights refreshing, but also applicable to all kinds of relationships beyond the parent/child one.

In a recent post about positive parenting, she had one line in particular that stuck out to me: “I would call for a different response, one where past mistakes lead not to dwelling on guilt but rather to resolve to do better in the future, and where mistakes aren’t glibly justified as acceptable rather than merely understandable.”

In this case, she’s talking about parents losing their temper with their kids. But this statement can apply to any relationship, and is just as often a problem in other circumstances: romantic relationships, friendships, or even professional relationships. People are really bad at both forgiving themselves and still taking responsibility. These two things can look contradictory. It turns out they’re actually complementary in really helpful ways.

Oftentimes we view mistakes as something that needs to be dealt with on an individual level: how do you approach your own mistakes? There are a fair number of techniques for how to deal with guilt and taking responsibility geared towards individual people. And in relationships we get some advice about mistakes when it comes to communication style (e.g. don’t use someone else’s past mistakes against them), but rarely do we think about how to deal with mistakes as a partnership.

In all relationships it’s important to recognize when you’ve hurt someone, lost your temper, behaved inappropriately, violated a boundary, or done something else that will damage the relationship. But those narratives make it easy to turn ourselves into awful monsters, or even to play a kind of a martyr card (“I’m the worst, most awful person ever” is really code for “reassure me that I’m good”). This can also lead into relationship tropes of who is the good one and who is the bad one. It’s easy to take on roles.

What isn’t as easy is admitting to a mistake and then working with the other person to constructively avoid the mistake in the future. What does that pragmatically mean? It means asking your partner (in whatever relationship) if they feel hurt or violated in some way and doing your best to rectify the current situation. Then it means taking the time to figure out why you did what you did. A lot of the time the ways we screw up with other people make sense. People get stressed out and tired, things push our buttons, other people are just plain hard sometimes. But even if something is understandable, that doesn’t make it justifiable.

So once you know the why you can look for ways to bypass that why. If you’re tired and cranky can you let your partner know in some way? Do you need to take space for yourself? Do you need to feed yourself or take a nap? It’s often easier to think about these things like you might think about parenting a child because the parts of us that lose our tempers are often rooted in childlike behaviors and patterns. What would you do for a little kid that was having a meltdown? Establish routine, make sure they’re fed and rested, and give them space to feel their feels.

And as adults we can go steps further to understand our own idiosyncrasies, heading them off at the pass. I get cranky when plans change at the last minute, so I try to make sure the people I care about know that and know to give me as much advance warning as they can when they want to do something. I also have worked to have backup plans or ideas in my mind. My boyfriend doesn’t like it when I’m on my phone or my computer when we’re doing something together, so he’s asked me to be clear about whether we’re just going to be engaged in parallel play style interactions or really be doing something together. In response, I have tried to be more engaged when we’re doing something together.

These things are work. They are the work of being responsible but also kind to yourself. Dwelling on guilt is harmful not only to yourself but also to your relationships. It’s easy to see relationship breakdowns as all one person’s fault or all the other person’s fault. If they didn’t do anything wrong, then I must be to blame. If I feel I did everything right, then it must be their fault for being hurt or upset.

Instead, imagine that each of us is trying to parent the kid version of ourselves. Sometimes we need some help with that parenting. And all of us make mistakes. It’s time to learn that what’s important is growing from it, not taking the blame.

Genders and Scripts

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Let’s imagine two video games.

In both of these games a youngish protagonist finds that the woman they love has been abducted or in some other way put in danger. In both games the protagonist’s goal is to find and save the person they love, defeating the bad guys and living happily ever after. In both of these games, the central point is that someone is motivated by love to keep someone they care about safe.

Now let’s say that in one the main character is a man and in the other the main character is a woman.

The reaction to these two games would probably be drastically different. Especially within the gaming community, one would be seen as a fairly normal game, and depending upon the gameplay, graphics, and overall storyline, it could be considered a great game.

Meanwhile, the game with a female protagonist rescuing her female lover would be considered “political” or “radical,” boycotted by some, and probably harassed by the GamerGate style gamers who would see it as unnecessarily drawing in personal opinions to the gaming world, as beating them down with a liberal or feminist agenda, as a bad game because it broke the scripts that they were used to.

Except that the script is exactly the same.

It’s hardly exciting or new to realize that in some circles and cultures a person’s genitalia is more important than their actions, emotions, or personality. But what astounds me about these types of script flipping is that the exact same actions can be seen as normal or even praiseworthy when done by a man but as political or pandering when done by a woman. It’s amazing to me that simply writing a woman (even in exactly the same way as you might a parallel man) is considered by some people to be bad or unbelievable. It’s as if some people, even today, can’t find any way to connect with a character if they have the little tag that says “woman.”

And on the flip side, I find it fascinating that as a feminist I can be more drawn to the same script simply by adding a woman into a role typically filled by a man. I’m not sure that this is a bad thing due to representation issues, but I do hope that some day we can reach a point where the internal experiences of a character are what make them engaging and important rather than their pronouns or genitalia.

It is amazing to me how different a script becomes in its political and social role simply by changing a character from male to female.