You Can’t Always See Anxiety

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I want to give you all a glimpse behind the curtain of anxiety for a brief minute. Maybe this is stupid and you all already know it, but I feel as if the outside face that I present to people makes me look way more together than I am.
 
So you all know that I’m getting married, and you all know that I’m a pretty hyper organized person. Basically everyone I have spoken to about my wedding has been nothing but compliments on how far ahead I am in terms of planning and organization. People have told me over and over that they are impressed with the way I’m working ahead and doing so much DIY far in advance, how good I’m being at keeping everyone up to date and making lovely spreadsheets and lists and staying right on schedule in terms of what needs to get done.
 
And I smile and say thank you and “Oh I really hope so”. Because what I can’t say in the moment is “this is all just a coping mechanism.” Underneath the very competent exterior, I am regularly feeling so anxious and overwhelmed that I’m giving myself headaches and nausea. I am having trouble being social because I’m so nervous that I’m behind. I regularly will just start crying at Jacob that everything is wrong and I don’t know how to fix it because there’s no way I’m going to finish everything on time and the wedding will be a disaster.
 
If you knew me in college you knew I was typically a week ahead on any work. Everyone always acted as if this must mean I didn’t feel any stress over deadlines. This could not be further from the truth. I was SO terrified of deadlines that i had to work that far in advance. I felt all the stress of pulling all nighters and working straight up to the deadline, but weeks in advance, because if I wasn’t ahead I was behind. That is how I feel about my wedding. Every day I wake up and feel short of breath and tight in my chest, and I look over my to do lists again and again and see that I’m doing perfectly fine and wonder what am I missing? What haven’t I done? What is slipping through the cracks? And then I find something that needs to get done and I panic and wonder how it’s ever going to get finished on time and do it all right this instant, but the feeling of “this is too much I will never finish it” lingers and lingers, and every time I find another to do it builds on every other lingering certainty that I will never finish in time.
 
No amount of rationality dispels the continued anxiety from every project that has to be done and even the ones that are already finished (am I sure they’re complete? Are they ALL THE WAY complete or do they still have things to be done? What if they need to be changed?). In my mind I am carrying every single task that it takes to put on a wedding ALL THE TIME.
 
THAT is why I’m so far ahead on everything. If I let a single ball drop, the panic comes crashing in. Maybe, just maybe, if I’m weeks ahead on my to do list, I can put it all down for a minute and relax. I can accept that it will all get done on time. Maybe if I finish it all a week or two weeks before the actual wedding I’ll have time to calm the fuck down and actually enjoy my time.
 
But when you look at me and think that I’m really competent and have everything under control, what you miss is that the reason I hold so tightly to everything is because it feels like a mass of chaos that I’m barely grasping at all. THAT is what anxiety is.
Note: this was cross posted from my Facebook because it seemed like it needed to be a blog post.

Real Tips for Really Decreasing Your Anxiety

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Anxiety sucks. Clinical grade anxiety is basically sweaty monkey balls.

Over the course of my time in therapy and various kinds of treatment, one of the things that I have wanted more than anything is to not feel anxious all the time. Unfortunately it isn’t as easy as walking in to therapy and having a therapist tell you what will make your anxiety easier. Typically you have to do some work on the roots issues before you can even get to the real, concrete strategies that you can use to make anxiety less intense or less disruptive.

I want to share some of the strategies that I have learned with you. If you’ve been diagnosed with anxiety, you may already know some of them, but there’s also a possibility that depending on the type of therapist you have, or whether or not you’re seeing a therapist, you may not have heard them before. Some of them might work for you, some might not. That’s ok.

It’s also important to remember that all of these strategies are for dealing with anxiety as it’s happening and for trying to decrease the immediate intensity of the anxiety. If you’re finding that you have intrusive anxiety on a regular basis, you may need to talk to someone or get on medication or do something else to help stabilize your basic emotional state so that these strategies are more effective and so that you don’t need them as often, but these strategies can help as part of a larger treatment plan aimed at decreasing instances of anxiety.

This one will be a little long, but hopefully that’s because there’s a lot of good information in it.

Mindfulness Techniques

The first series of techniques I’m going to talk about all circulate around mindfulness. Don’t get scared off by the name: it’s not spiritual or woo woo, it’s not doing nothing, but it is also not easy. Mindfulness is essentially paying close attention to what is actually happening in this moment. It will take time and practice to get good at, and I strongly recommend practicing it when you’re not anxious so that when you are anxious you can do it without getting frustrated or feeling like it’s pointless.

There are essentially two ways you can do this: you can pay attention to something internal or you can pay attention to something external.

Internal techniques:

  1. Breathing

This is a nice one because you can do it anywhere. You always have your breath, and you can always take a minute to stop and pay attention to it. There are a few different things you can do to help yourself focus. One of the easiest is counting. Some people suggest breathing in to a count of four, then out to a count of four. DBT recommends counting your breath, and always breathing out one count longer than you breathe in. You can choose the number that feels good to you. Whatever you choose, pay close attention to the numbers and what it feels like to breathe. If you notice other thoughts, that’s fine. Just let them happen and then refocus on your breath.

Another way to use your breath is to pay very close attention to the actual physical sensations of breathing. What does the air feel like coming in through your nostrils? What part of your body expands as you breath in? Especially focus on trying to breathe from your diaphragm. You should notice your stomach moving rather than your shoulders or chest.

  1. Visualization or other sensory imaginings

You can tailor this one to your own preferences: if you’re a visual person, then use imagery. If you rely more strongly on a different sense, you might imagine a song or smell. But the idea is to think of a place or sensation that is very calming to you, and to imagine it as vividly as possible. Put yourself in a place or setting that feels safe. Describe it in great detail in your mind. For me, I imagine a huge library. It smells like old books, and has thick, imposing marble architecture with nooks and crannies everywhere. There’s a huge, overstuffed armchair that looks out a large window onto an empty field. I can read whatever I like for as long as I like, with no impositions or tasks to do. It’s quiet, the special quiet that comes from marble soaking up sound, with the occasional tip tap of a librarian’s shoes across the floor. Take yourself to your safe place, wherever it is and stay there until your body has relaxed.

3. Body scan

I like to use this one at bedtime. It’s fairly simple, but takes some time and patience. Start at the top of your head and spend time focusing on each part of your body in turn. Notice what your scalp feels like, if there’s anything touching it, if it itches, if you’re tense there. Again, your mind might wander, and that’s ok, but simply notice then refocus on what you’re doing. Move down your body and do this with every body part. You can go as small or as big as you want, but the smaller you go the more likely you are to notice where you’re tense and find ways to relax.

4. Progressive relaxation

This is something like a variation on the body scan, with a little more umph to help you relax your muscles and body. This time, as you move down your body, at each muscle you reach, tense as hard as possible for a count of three, then release. That’s it! This is a slightly easier one to start with since it gives you something to do instead of just something to pay attention to.

External techniques

  1. Descriptions

I find this one works very well if someone else is with me and they are trying to help. Anxiety is anticipation of a fearful event or situation, so one of the ways to combat it is to remind yourself that you’re safe. This technique works by asking you to describe in as great of detail as possible, the room or space around you. I like it because if another person is with you, they can prompt, or you can talk to them and it doesn’t feel as weird. It doesn’t seem as if it would do much, but if you pay close attention to what you’re describing, it can take your focus off whatever is making you anxious.

2. I Spy

This is a variation on the description game that gets your brain a little more involved so that it’s harder for the mind to drift. Pick a color and find every instance of it you can. If you’re in a small room, find somewhere with more things in it and take a few minutes to play. I was surprised at how into it I got and how quickly the anxiety receded because I wanted to get every green thing.

 

Physical Techniques

Many times when you feel anxious it seems as if it’s your brain that’s making it happen. Your thoughts are spinning or you’re saying nasty things to yourself. In reality, anxiety is an incredibly physical experience, and even if your thoughts are what’s causing the anxiety, your body will react. Helpfully, this means that altering your body can also alter the anxiety in your mind. Here are a few ways to bypass the mental and go straight to calming down your body.

  1. Deep pressure

Deep pressure is something that tends to work for people on the autism spectrum, but if you find it comforting, then GO for it. Deep pressure is basically what it sounds like: providing a lot of pressure on your body to help it calm down. This could be a weighted blanket, a strong hug, a weighted vest, or even just burritoing up in your blankets nice and tight and snuggly. Try experimenting and see what works for you!

2. Exercise

No, exercise will not cure your anxiety. Don’t worry, I will not tell you that. What exercise CAN do is a. work as a a helpful preventative measure, and b. help you to regulate yourself when you are feeling anxious. If it’s safe and healthy for you to do so, one method is to exercise as vigorously as possible for 5-10 minutes (full on sprint, or something equivalent), and then calm down to a walk or cooldown. Normal exercise can also help let out some anxiety, but at least according to my therapist, the intense exercise followed by a more relaxed pace does some tricky shit to your body that gets it to calm down quickly (I do not understand this science, nor am I a scientist, so take this with a grain of salt and see what works for you). Sometimes all it takes is a walk to shake up the anxiety.

3. Ice water

Be careful with this one if you have any heart conditions or similar issues. However if you don’t, and you have some time and space, this is one that can REALLY affect you and have immediate results. Fill a bowl with ice water. Now stick your face in it. Yup, that’s the whole thing. The important part is to get the ice water on the place just below your eyes. Again, some physiological magic happens that helps your body calm down. If that’s too involved you can hold ice against your face, or an ice pack, but focus on that area where you get bags under your eyes. I’ve never personally been a fan of this one, but it might work for you!

4. Intense sensations

One good way to distract from anxiety is to do something that you HAVE to pay attention to. Physical sensations are a great example. Hold ice cubes, punch a pillow, take a hot shower or bath, or listen to music that really speaks to you. Pay close attention to what you’re doing instead of on the anxiety.

5. Notice your body

Anxiety often comes with physical manifestations: tensed muscles, an uneasy stomach, or a clenched jaw. Take stock of what your body is doing, and if possible, adjust it. You can unclench any muscles or body parts that are tense. You might use breathing to calm your stomach. You might stretch if some of your body parts are feeling tight.

 

6. Notice your physical needs.

It’s really really easy to forget about your basic needs if you’re very anxious, but sometimes the most basic levels of self care are the most effective. Take stock of your physical needs. Are you hungry? Thirsty? Do you have a headache or other pain? Do you need sleep? Have you moved your body at all today? If any of these needs are not fulfilled, or if you’re dealing with pain, try to manage that first. You’ll often find that your anxiety decreases once you take care of your body.

CBT Techniques

These techniques are more about challenging the thoughts that are leading to anxiety. I don’t tend to find them as useful, but for some people they are the most helpful of all, as they head on address the anxiety. Test them out and see what works for you.

1.Check the facts

Of all the exercises for thinking your way out of jerkbrain territory, check the facts is my favorite. Essentially you sit down and see if your emotions are based in facts or not. Sometimes you might want to check in with other people to see if you’re perceiving a situation correctly. So for example if you feel incredibly anxious about a test, you might ask whether you’re prepared for the test, whether you have a history of doing poorly on tests, or whether the test is likely to have a huge impact on your future. If you have clinical grade anxiety, in many cases your anxiety will not be commensurate with the things that are actually happening.

2. Gratefulness

I personally despise these types of exercises because the good things in my life don’t seem relevant to whatever is making me upset, but for some people they work really well. Essentially you want to make a list of the things you’re grateful for in your life, as a way to combat anxiety about the bad things that are happening. If you’re feeling particularly down on yourself, you might also make a list of qualities about yourself that you like.

3. Work!

As mentioned before, distraction is often a good way to decrease anxiety in the moment. If you know of something that requires your full attention, that can be a great distraction. Maybe it’s working, reading a book, doing a tricky puzzle, or some other form of work that is high concentration. Some people find that the anxiety distracts them too much, but if you can get focused, it’s a great way to distance yourself from the anxiety until you feel more calm.

4. Challenge your thoughts

It’s easy to think that anxiety comes directly from a situation. In reality, anxiety typically comes from thoughts about a situation. For example you might think that you are anxious because you are supposed to go to a party. But in all likelihood you’re having thoughts about the party, for example “I will be awkward,” “No one will like me,” “I won’t know how to behave.” Those thoughts are what leads to the anxiety. If you can identify which thoughts and beliefs are leading to the anxiety, you can ask yourself whether those thoughts are realistic or true. This can be another place to ask for help from someone who might have a less biased opinion about whether no one will like you. If you can start to believe thoughts like “I can find one or two people to talk to at this party” instead, your anxiety will decrease.

5. Probability estimates

If you like facts, this is a great technique for you. Many times we feel anxious about things that are not very likely to actually happen. It can be good to spend some time estimating how likely it is that the event will actually happen. If you’re very anxious about getting on a plane, you might read up on the statistics of how often crashes actually happen (it’s really, really rare). Focusing on those statistics can help remind you that you are most likely going to be completely ok.

Now that this post is over 2000 words long, I think it’s probably time to stop. If you have more ideas or suggestions, feel free to add in the comments. Remember that none of these ideas are a treatment plan that will help you address clinical and chronic anxiety. They’re just things that can help. Good luck!

 

Asking for Accommodations Doesn’t Mean I’m Delicate

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There’s this thing that I’ve noticed from people who are generally very nice and reasonable people when I tell them about the ways that my neurodivergent brain affects my life. I might say something simple like “I really can’t handle socializing for extended periods of time,” and ask for an accommodation.

Then comes the special tone of voice, one of mixed surprise and condescension. Especially when my accommodations are for something that seems small to me, like asking that people text instead of call, or when I say that I prefer to be in a small group to a large group, I often get the sense that people are astounded that I’m so broken.

Some people have even gone so far as to say things like “Well YOUR life sounds so much more stressful than mine. I can call people on the phone just fine.” There’s an assumption that because my brain prevents me from doing certain things, I live in some kind of hellscape or that I’m severely limited in what I’m capable of doing, sitting alone in my house wishing I could pick up the phone or go out and party.

It’s weird, because when I say things like “I have lots of anxiety about talking on the phone. I really hate it and would prefer not to do it,” I am not looking for sympathy, nor am I trying to tell people that I’m unhappy with my life. I’m not trying to make myself out to be fragile or delicate or in need of protection. I am asking for accommodations. I’m letting people know that I’d like to do things slightly differently from other people. Often I’ll include the full extent of why I’m asking for the accommodation because otherwise people think I’m being a diva or won’t respect my request.

There’s a really challenging kind of circle that you get stuck in when you’re disabled or mentally ill or asking for accommodations: explaining to people how hard things are means they start to discount your competence, but not explaining means that they will assume you don’t need the accommodations.

More often than not I’m likely to let people in on just how hard things can be because we need more honesty in that discussion, and because often people don’t really get what it means to be chronically mentally ill. But I’m getting incredibly sick of people thinking that this means I’m fragile, or acting as if they’re better than I am in some way because they can do “basic” tasks. Bully for you. Sometimes I can’t eat food without breaking down. But you know what I can do? I can write a mean blog post, take over a social media page without blinking, and alphabetize the shit out of anything. I can see patterns in things, I can make connections between things, and I can hold down some awesome conversations about everything from living forever to the intricacies of disability activism.

But you know what? Even if I COULDN’T do all those things, I still wouldn’t deserve your pity or your condescension. Because there’s nothing about talking on the phone or hanging out in crowded places that makes me less or more human. I am not a worse person because I am uncomfortable with times when I can’t quite catch the social cues for when to start and end sentences. My life isn’t WORSE because I can’t do or feel uncomfortable doing certain things. It is made worse by people who won’t accommodate my need to not do those things and by people who accommodate with a side helping of judgment, but there’s nothing about talking on the phone that would leave me fulfilled in a way that I’m not right now (in fact I maintain that my life is way better now than it was when I was trying to do a lot of things that set off my anxiety).

Asking for help doesn’t make me weak. It is not an invitation to comment on the value or fulfillment of my life. It isn’t something that puts you above me. In fact it’s probably a lot harder than most things most people do. It is self advocacy. But more than that, it isn’t an admission of limitations. When I say that I have trouble with something I’m not saying that I’m giving up on my life or giving up on interacting with people. I’m asking for help to find another way. It’s just like someone who can’t reach a shelf asking for a stool: it’s not a judgment about their abilities. It’s a recognition that they need to do it differently than someone taller.

I see too many people acting as if a statement like “I can’t talk on the phone without getting anxious” is the end of the conversation. It’s not. It’s the beginning. It’s the point at which you say “can I text you instead?” or I ask for another accommodation. It’s a statement of fact but not a recognition of failure. There are things in this world that I will never do. Run a marathon, quantum physics, and also feel comfortable in group settings. No one gets all uppity if I say I’m never going to understand the intricacies of the theory of relativity, so why do they make faces like they’re sucking lemons when I say I’m never going to feel comfortable in certain social situations? None of those things diminish my ability to live a good life that I enjoy and that contributes something to the world around me.

And I suppose that’s the point isn’t it? When I say there are certain things I can’t do, some people think that those things are a prerequisite for being a functional, happy human. They think that I’m diminishing myself by recognizing there are some things I can’t do. They seem to think that I’m fragile, or I need protection, or I can’t be independent because I can’t or won’t do certain tasks that they see as basic or necessary.

There are certain activities that enough people do that they have become synonymous with “human.” Of course these standards of “basic human tasks” have changed greatly over time and in different places, so no, there’s nothing inherently human about eating three meals a day, or being able to strike up a conversation at a coffee shop, or making small talk. When people hear that I can’t do some things they take for granted, they don’t understand that there’s nothing all that great about the things they take for granted.

The more I can question the idea that I need to do certain things in a certain way in order to be ok, the better I feel. I can’t do some things. So what I need from the people around me is just a little bit of adjustment. There are some things all of you can’t do that I can do. It doesn’t make you less than me. I make adjustments for people around me all the time without giving them any side eye. Can we make it mutual?

Curb Cut Effects and Mental Health

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This weekend I was at a work conference about autism for my new job (which is as a side note the best job ever), and I was once again struck by something that other people have noticed before: curb cut effect. The basic concept is that many things that disability advocates push for actually help more people than just those who are disabled. People in wheelchairs pushed for those areas on curbs that have a little ramp instead of the sharp curb so that they could make it from street to sidewalk easily. It ended up helping people from parents pushing strollers to the elderly, even though no one imagined that it would help anyone but people in wheelchairs.

I have an anxiety disorder, which is a big part of why I’m a fidgeter and a finger picker. When I don’t have something to fidget with I often end up ripping at the skin around my nails until I bleed, sometimes without realizing it. As part of the merchandise at the conference there were tons of little fidget toys, things like tangles, silly putty, and other small things you can play with to keep your hands busy. They’re incredibly popular and helpful for people with autism who need sensory input or have trouble focusing. And although I am nowhere near the autism spectrum (I’m more on the overly emotional end of things) I jumped at them and got a couple that didn’t leave my hands the whole weekend. They helped with my anxiety and left my fingers fully intact after a long weekend of difficult socializing.

Over the weekend I spent a lot of time around people who had learned to communicate in a very straightforward manner, and found that I could better understand social cues. There were also a lot of precautions to keep things relatively quiet and calm on the sensory spectrum so that those who were sensitive could stay around and be comfortable. And let me tell you it was absolutely fantastic.

The curb cut effect doesn’t just apply to physical disabilities. It applies to mental illness and mental disabilities as well. This is something that is widely ignored, but could be incredibly helpful for mental health advocates to keep in the forefront of their mind as a way of reducing stigma. One great example is therapy. Most people assume that making therapy widely available, covered by insurance, and easy to access is good for people with depression or mental illness. It turns out it’s probably actually great for just about everyone, since almost every human being needs some support for their mental health at some time in their life, and no person comes fully equipped with emotional skills. These are things we all need to learn, and therapy can help with that.

The more we keep in mind that therapy is something that helps everyone, but that some people might get more out of it than others, the more we can lessen stigma. It changes therapy from something exclusively for “crazy” people and into something that all healthy people do. (Disclaimer: not everyone has to go to therapy and therapy doesn’t work for everyone, but it can be helpful for people in all kinds of situations.)

Even things that seem far more specialized, like social skills training or fidgets or even just asking the people you’re with about their sensory preferences, can help tons of people who might have a little anxiety or body issues or social anxiety. But for some reason those things are only available if there’s a complete breakdown.

I think the curb cut effect can teach us a lot about preventing problems, and if we apply it to mental health it might go a long way towards giving people the tools to take care of their own mental health before something snowballs into a bad place. Mental health tools should be available to everyone.

 

What Do I Mean When I Say Anxiety?

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Yesterday, I made a Facebook post that included the word anxiety. When I made it, I was dealing with a fairly strong anxiety attack, and I mentioned my frustration at coping skills that weren’t working. A few people commented and joked or just treated it like I was talking about having too much energy. It wasn’t a big deal, but it did rub me the wrong way as I was trying to be open about something that was a fairly crappy experience for me and a lot of people completely misunderstood what I was saying.

A lot of the time, people don’t understand why mental illness advocates suggest that they don’t use words like “OCD”, “anorexia” or “depression” to mean things other than the actual diagnosable illnesses. This seems to me to be a good example. We have lots of words for things that aren’t clinical level anxiety: worry, fear, nervousness, a sense of impending doom. But we don’t really have any other words for the feeling of anxiety that comes with an anxiety disorder. So when I try to express that feeling, I have no way to say it except with a word that will inevitably be misunderstood by at least some of the people I’m speaking to.

That’s actually incredibly frustrating and can feel quite invalidating. If you had a broken leg and tried to tell someone, and their response was more along the lines of what you’d say to a stubbed toe, you’d be a little miffed. That’s what it feels like to try to talk about mental illness and get advice that applies to neurotypical brains. There’s fairly good evidence that invalidation is really bad for a person’s mental health, as it makes it hard for them to trust their own emotions. So while no one was intending to fuck with me last night, it certainly felt as though I was trying to ask for help or comfort or recognition, and instead got people completely ignoring what I was saying.

These are the kinds of small experiences that add up. If you have a mental illness you get them all the time, which means that you have to spend extra time and energy deciding how you want to explain yourself and your feelings to other people. It also means always feeling as if you have to convince other people of the seriousness of a given emotion or problem. When I say anxiety, I don’t mean I’m worried about something. I mean that my whole body feels like it’s going to rip apart, that I have so much energy I can’t keep still, that I alternately cry and do pushups, that my brain will not and cannot turn off, that I am desperate to escape whatever situation is bothering me. These differences are important. We need a word to talk about the intense anxiety. It’s hard enough to talk about it without having the language itself obscure your meaning.

For those who don’t have to learn how to express their emotions in a language separate from the one everyone else does, it might seem like no big deal. But if you’re trying to be honest and open with others and not seem overly dramatic, it’s really important to be able to use the accurate terms without them being misunderstood.

You Can’t Turn Off An Eating Disordered Brain

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Massive trigger warning for eating disorders

For about the past nine months I’ve been feeling pretty good when it comes to my body and my food intake. I still have a few hangups, mostly surrounding times when I should eat, but overall I was getting a decent number of calories and feeling fairly energized. I had stopped thinking about what my body looked like every day, and I had even stopped adding up the totals of what I had eaten each day to try to decide if I was allowed another item (or if I needed to go work out).

It was a massive relief to not have those scripts playing in my head anymore. But recently, somewhat out of nowhere, they’ve started to play again.

I have a lot more tools available to me now. I have more friends to ask for help, a better idea of what I want out of my life and why an eating disorder isn’t compatible with that, a fuzzy kitten to distract me, and a variety of strategies about what makes me feel good in the moment, but none of these things have managed to turn off the voices or the accompanying anxiety. They are enormously helpful when I need to choose a better behavior than restriction, purging, or overexercise, but no matter how often I try to ignore the bad suggestions my brain keeps giving me, it comes back louder.

This is what a lot of people refer to when they say that you never really recover from an eating disorder. The disordered brain will linger on and on and on. And while outsiders might suggest distracting yourself or challenging the thoughts, what they don’t understand is how incessant it is. When you wake up in the morning you wonder about what you’ll eat that day and think about whether yesterday was a “good” day (ran a calorie deficit). You go to put on clothes and are left with the quandary of what fits and what doesn’t, what you can convince your brain is acceptable. You go outside and now it’s the comparison game, who’s smaller than you are, who will see you as acceptable, does everyone see how big you are or do they care?

It goes on endlessly. You cannot turn it off (or at least no one has figured out the magic switch yet except constantly choosing a different behavior and working to focus on something else).

What no one tells you about jerkbrains, whether they’re eating disordered or OCD or depressed or anxious is that they will exhaust you. They don’t tell you that the worst part isn’t the full on meltdowns, but the normal days where you thought you were ok but instead have to spend half of your energy fighting with yourself.

It’s discouraging. While it is realistic to know that someone with a disorder that is highly linked to genetics will probably always have to be on the lookout against a recurrence of symptoms, it makes life feel like a neverending Sisyphean endeavor, even moreso than it might for someone who just has to get out of bed and drag themselves to the office each morning.

Even writing this feels like a repeat of things that I’ve said far too many times. It certainly puts more importance into the question of whether genetics are destiny. But pushing against all of the woe and angst and “determinism means it just doesn’t matter!” is the fact that I know I have changed. The eating disordered brain remains, but there is something in there or in me that can adjust. I make different choices, and the lows come further and further apart. I hate inspiration porn, especially when it comes to mental health, so I have to admit that I have no idea if there’s a relapse in my future or what it means for the quality of my life that self hatred is an essential ingredient of every day. But I am also done with wallowing in the unhappiness, so I also have to say that I have hope. There is the possibility of joy.

Bad Things Will Always Happen

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One of the things that many people who struggle with depression or mental illness find extremely difficult is understanding what it means when people say that life can be better. It’s very easy to look at the bad things that happen to basically everyone at some points in life and wonder how things will feel or be better. It’s especially difficult to imagine how other people can go through life without being overwhelmed or sad about the state of the world as a whole. When you’re a naturally fairly reactive person, it can seem as if the only way to not be hurting is if nothing goes wrong.

I have good news and bad news for people who are really struggling with the idea of imagining recovery.

The bad news is that bad things will always happen. Sure, getting some of your emotions under control and learning better ways to interact with people will probably improve your external circumstances to some extent. If you’re doing relatively well at your job and not getting into fights with your spouse, things will feel calmer overall. But there will always be random, nasty things that happen. In the last two weeks I’ve lost my key card for work (which was also holding my bus card and gym membership card), popped a tire on my car, had another tire on my car repeatedly go flat, and had an unexpected fee added to my rent bill.

All of these things are stressful. This kind of stuff isn’t ever going to stop happening. It’s the nature of life that unexpected things happen. Sometimes good things, sometimes bad things.

This is where the good news comes in: bad stuff doesn’t always feel that bad.

All of these things were things that I could deal with. None of them put me in a financial situation that was untenable, I’m fully capable of fixing all of them with a few phone calls or a trip to the lost and found of the bus service. Of course it’s a nuisance and things I have to add to figuring out in my day to day life, but none of them is the kind of irreversible issue that can’t be solved.

The total revelation for me came when I realized that I can both be upset and frustrated, and still be functional and capable at getting stuff done. Maybe I need to run off to the bathroom for 15 minutes and cry in frustration, but then I’ll pick myself up and fix the problem. This might not seem like a revelation for some people, but when a stressful event can trigger a complete meltdown, it’s amazing to realize that the stress and anxiety isn’t a bad thing and it doesn’t stop you from being competent.

There is often an assumption, especially in the more competitive and high test areas of society, that if you have an emotional reaction to something, then you aren’t handling it. That can snowball quite quickly, as feeling the emotion will trigger feelings of inadequacy or a sense that you’re out of control. The emphasis on logic over emotion tells us that if you’re feeling an emotion you’re not in a state to deal with problems. That’s straight out not true: one of the most important skills of being an adult is the ability to feel an emotion and act in a way that isn’t dictated by that emotion. In fact feeling stress, anxiety, unhappiness, or anger at situations like these is entirely healthy and can help you set up ways to keep them from happening again (in cases where you might be able to be more proactive).

So for those who feel mired, imagine this: something stupid and shitty happens. You get a parking ticket. You feel annoyed and frustrated, but you get in your car, you drive home, you pay the ticket, and you cut out something fun in the next week to make up the cost. And then it’s over. It can be that easy. That’s what recovery looks like.