Talking Over

talking over

Yesterday I posted about a personal experience that I had. I identified certain things about my identity and mental health, and mentioned some things that were helpful for me in terms of both of those things. The majority of the post was about things that pertained to me and me alone, with the suggestion that perhaps others could try as well because I had found it helpful, so maybe it would be helpful for others as well.

Now overwhelmingly, the response has been positive, but I did get one comment that summed up for me all that is wrong about talking over another person and their experiences.

Well first off she should stop telling people she is asexual. As she isn’t. She made several references to sexual or romantic relationships she has had in the past. And never once did she say oh I hated the sex part….

Second she right love is awful painful for a borderline and most do get clingy. But this whole if I don’t have sex with you I can love you so hard thing is kinda of not really true. She just removed added simulation to her emotions. Yea borderline emotions are intense and painful.they lead to thinking crazy. But the key part she left out is.you don’t have to act on those feelings. Or thoughts. That once you start learning how to wait them out you learn how to think through them and separate the borderline b.s from what’s actually happening…

All she did was remove an emotional trigger.. and her fb experiment will bite her in the butt when all those friends don’t start giving that love back when she crashes again. But that’s just what I think.”

Normally I don’t take the time to respond to comments like this because they’re awful and just deeply unhelpful, but the problems with this comment are problems that I see over and over and so I wanted to take the time to break down why this isn’t actually constructively engaging with the ideas that I presented. This is a classic example of talking over someone.

So first and foremost, when someone identifies themselves (whether as asexual or bisexual or pansexual or whatever) you don’t get to tell them they don’t identify that way. Identity is complex and personal, and no human being is the Grand High Judge of Sexual Identity. This is one of the most common ways that sexual minorities get fucked with: by others defining what they are and why. It hurts absolutely no one for an individual to identify in the way that they find most compatible with their life experiences, but having your identity undermined or denied is quite painful (and especially for asexual individuals leads to things like corrective rape). As a corollary to this, if you are going to play Sexual Identity Police, at least understand the definitions of the identities you’re policing. Asserting that someone can’t be asexual if they don’t explicitly state they hated all the sex they’ve ever had fundamentally misses what asexuality is, and worse it demands that anyone who is asexual give personal information about their sex lives in order to legitimize their identity to randos on the internet.

Basically, the next time someone tells you how they identify and you feel the need to challenge it, remember that what you’re essentially doing is ignoring someone whose identity puts them in a vulnerable position because you Know More and don’t care about whatever thought they have put into identifying that way.

Now the rest of the comment seems like it’s less harmful because the commenter specifies that it’s just her opinion. The problem comes when she imperiously declares what will happen in my future and what I’m doing with my emotions. This is a nice bit of mind-reading and psychic abilities. I’m impressed.

When someone with a mental illness brings up something that they tried that seemed to help them out, telling them that they’re wrong and that they’ve actually just hurt themselves is incredibly invalidating. While you may have had a different experience from theirs, that doesn’t mean that you get to ignore the words that they have actually said or the experiences that they’ve actually had. If your depression didn’t get better through exercise but someone else says “I tried exercise and I’m really happy with how well it’s working. If you’re interested you could try it too”, the appropriate response is not “You don’t actually feel better! It’s all a lie! Exercise doesn’t work!”

The secret (not so secret) about experiences is that they’re personal. Different things work differently for different people. It’s easy within the mental illness community to get defensive or catty when someone else copes differently from the way you do. It sucks to see someone else doing well if you yourself can’t find good coping mechanisms. But despite how easy it is, it’s a horrible plan. If someone isn’t asking for advice, don’t give advice. If someone did something differently than you would have, you can just move the fuck along. The more we perpetuate the idea that there’s a “right” way to recover, the worse off everyone will be. It’s simply not true that her way of dealing with BPD is the same as my way of dealing with BPD, but that doesn’t have to come with a judgment.

I don’t really care if this person fundamentally misunderstands why I did what I did or how my asexuality is interacting with my BPD or doesn’t get that the point of my experiment wasn’t to just take sex out of love but rather to see what it was like to be open with love and love more people more fully. What I do care about is the implications of her comment that I’m doing something Wrong because I didn’t do what she’d do. I care about the implication that she gets to decide what identities and treatments are better for random people she’s never met. I care that this is considered appropriate dialogue on the internet.

It’s not dialogue. It’s talking over.

 

Safe Spaces: CONvergence

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I am back from CONvergence and ready to post about all the fantastical things that happened there. Not really, I’d much rather just still be there, but as I don’t have that option I will console myself by reliving the weekend with a billion posts about the topics that caught my interest while I was there.

The first thing that I noticed while I was at Con, something that made me both very happy and very sad, was the high number of people I noticed who had self harm scars. Not only did they have self harm scars, but they were wearing clothing that openly showed their scars, and they seemed utterly unbothered by the fact that others could see. Perhaps even better was the fact that I never once saw or heard someone comment on scars or react negatively in any way.

To most, this might seem unimportant. Con is a place where everyone is utterly and completely themselves. I saw someone dressed as a cat walking on all fours and reacting to a “master’s” commands. I saw people in costumes, people with colorful hair of every known variety, people covered in tattoos, people who were on the extreme ends of fat and skinny, people with almost no clothes on, people walking on stilts…one of the most beautiful things about going to Con is that everyone there is presenting exactly as they want to be perceived.

And yet when I was preparing for the weekend, choosing my cosplays, getting dressed each morning, I was fully aware of the fact that I didn’t think it was totally ok to expose some of my scars. As an example, for the last two years I’ve had cosplays with short shorts (Femme!Hammer and Amy Pond):

8439_10151481244972601_938655005_n amy

In contrast, this year both of my costumes had full length pants involved (Coraline and Orange is the New Black Nicky). I made this choice purposefully because of new scars on my legs. In my mind, despite how safe Con is, nowhere was safe enough for self harm scars. I remembered vividly hearing one of my friends mention at a past Con being triggered by the sight of self harm scars on someone’s arm. I deeply did not want to be that trigger for someone else.

And I was certain that if I did show scars, there would be a comment or a look. The special ones. The ones that say “I have no idea how to react to this, I’m so uncomfortable” or “gross, that’s so fucked up”. What I forgot was that the community of people who actively seek out geeky nerdy activities has a huge percentage of people who have had major struggles in their lives. It draws in people who have been bullied or ostracized, people whose day to day lives hurt too much to stay there in their fun time, people who need an escape and unmitigated acceptance. If there was any place that I would find a group of people with similar experiences, people who have needed to use negative coping mechanisms, it would be here.

And so while these scars can be triggering, and there were a few iffy moments this weekend, I really appreciate how open people were with their bodies. There is such vulnerability in having your worst moments visible on your skin. It’s so easy to choose not to let others see them, even when it means you are less comfortable. But it is not only brave for yourself to show them, but also brave in that it normalizes the fact that many people have these struggles and continue their lives and survive and are amazing. It is a wonderful stigma reducer and community builder to have these small (or large) signs that show to others “I have hurt myself and I’m still here. You don’t have to be afraid of me, and you don’t have to be afraid of yourself”.

And it also creates an undercurrent of self acceptance. Not everyone has to feel comfortable showing all of their body, but when people appear to be wearing what they feel like wearing without worrying about judgment, it shows a lack of self judgment. It takes a great deal of self acceptance to openly wear scars, whether they are from self harm or not. People are hardly encouraged to expose their scars, and while we can never know someone’s exact motivation for being willing to show their scars, we can assume that they’ve managed to slough off some of the societal expectations that were harming them.

Being able to see that around you is wonderfully comforting. It tells you that you can do the same, that you’ll be welcomed, that there are others who have been there and understand even if you’re not quite there yet. It says to me that I’m in a space people are building to be safe for themselves, not in a space that is built in the image of patriarchy or racism or heteronormativity or beauty culture.

And so while Con does a million things to make their convention safe (and I absolutely love them for it), the thing that makes me feel safest at Con is the other people who are brave enough to feel safe.

Featured photo is this year’s cosplay.

 

Staying Functional

sad

It’s been a rough week. Many of my friends, fellow bloggers, and role models are starting to show a bit of wear and tear. The whole internet has been buzzing with news about the shooting, with debates, with misogyny, with threats, with victim blaming. I’m tired. My patience is worn out. I’m getting triggered left and right by the smallest, stupidest things, and my coping skills are slowly running out.

Unfortunately, the rest of the world doesn’t stop when my spoons run out. I still have to work. My dad’s birthday will still happen this weekend and I’ll have to be social and entertain. I still have to write. I still have to clean my kitchen and cook (somehow) and deal with the sudden heat and plan for my move to Ireland next year. I just have to do it all while also feeling like I’m about to snap or break down and start bawling or just run out, stop moving, fall over and not get up.

I’m sure this is the same quandary that all those with mental illness, or those who engage with difficult topics, or those with chronic illness face: how do I remain functional and keep anything from getting worse when my reserves are almost out? I drag myself into the office, but how do I accomplish anything when my brain power is spent just trying to refocus my mind on something other than sexism and shootings and self hatred?

I’ve been trying to use a few tactics, but I would certainly appreciate any suggestions that you all have. Mostly, I’ve been trying to reorganize my priorities so that I can accomplish some things with minimal brain power. This means that my to do list has shifted away from more writing and into some easier tasks at work (as well as I can). At home, instead of trying to tackle some of the bigger project I’ve limited myself to basic, mindless things that will help me feel accomplished: putting away my clean laundry right away, making a big pot of rice and beans so I don’t have to cook for the rest of the week, paying close attention to my schedule so that I don’t miss anything. It’s hard sometimes to feel like I can do these things, but if I get one or two done each day I can head off a lot of the feelings of uselessness and keep myself from hitting a bigger breakdown later.

This also means that at work I am shying away from things that I might really screw up if I’m not all the way present. I’m doing behind the scenes work and trying to save my energy for the times I’m in meetings or have to be front facing for the company. This is the biggest challenge. Part of me is trying to accept that there are certain tasks I simply can’t do right now, but that isn’t something I like to accept and of course it makes me feel like I cannot do my job. In reality, what it means is that right now I need to focus on something slightly different, make my job something a bit different.

And when I don’t have anything that needs to get done, that means complete and utter self indulgence. It means I get to go home and take a nap, or buy myself ice cream every day if I feel like it, or go running twice, or avoid everyone if I want to, or whatever the hell at that moment sounds like it might break through the hazy fear that’s hampering me right now. I hate feeling that desperate. I hate grabbing on to any impulse that seems like it could be remotely positive, but I know that if I simply won’t get through. I hate listening to my needs. I am demanding it of myself though.

Perhaps the hardest part is being responsible for myself and my emotions. I want to fall apart over everyone, bitch people out, yell and scream and swear and cry. I want to tell everyone to piss the fuck off. I want the people who are nonchalantly commenting on blog posts about misogyny to hurt as badly as I do when I see people talk about how mental illness makes you violent. I want to puke.

But it is no one else’s fault that I feel this way. Even the people who are pushing my buttons in all the wrong ways. I still need to be responsible, and when I do lose it, I have to know to apologize and take responsibility for the ways that I can’t cope. I need to be able to set healthy boundaries: I can’t just avoid people, but I need to actively tell them I need space. It is so hard to find the emotional resources to recognize when you’re being out of line when everything feels raw. But as someone who wants to be a positive ambassador for mental illness, I need to be able to function appropriately in my relationships and with my acquaintances even when my mind is not acting appropriately.

And just for fun, I’ve been trying to take mini breaks at work during which I look at goofy GIFs on Tumblr or watch lindy hop on youtube. Little things are all that get me through. Little things are what distract me and keep my mind from spiraling. Little things are what drag me away from that nasty comment.

I will remain functional.

Dieting: A Gateway Drug to Eating Disorders

Diet

I probably read too much about eating disorders. Whenever an article related to them pops across my Facebook feed or shows up on Twitter, I click. And there’s a frustrating element of these articles that has begun to grate on me more and more. Every single time someone writes about eating disorders, they have to bring up those “terrifying statistics” about dieting and body dissatisfaction in girls and women. In one article I read last night, the author even went so far as to suggest that “dieting is a gateway drug to eating disorders”.

Now these are of course important concerns. Dieting isn’t a particularly healthy practice most of the time. Women thinking that they should or must be thin is not exactly an ideal state. But where I run into problems is this: a diet is not an eating disorder. Dieting does not lead to developing an eating disorder because an eating disorder is not just an extreme version of a diet or a choice or a lifestyle change. It is a disease. You can’t catch the eating disorders from a diet.

So what is the relationship between diets and eating disorders? Why do people keep throwing into the same sentences as if everyone knows the clear link between them? I can’t help but come from my own perspective and my first thought is that diets and eating disorders belong nowhere near each other. I have never in my life been on a diet. Up until my eating disorder came bearing down full force I had never even imagined restricting my food intake. And when my eating disorder happened, it was never anything like a diet. There may have been a couple of weeks during which I wasn’t aware that I was making destructive choices, but it became quite clear quite quickly.

I get the feeling that I’m not the typical case and that many people experiment with dieting before they fall into a full blown eating disorder. But it is the case that there are many, many people who diet and never develop and eating disorder, and I am evidence that the opposite can be true as well. The deep link that most people seem to assume between the two can be questioned.

And then there’s the evidence. Do we have any evidence that dieting leads to eating disorders, or even that dieting can predict eating disorders? There is evidence that those who diet are about six times more likely to develop eating disorders. We don’t however know whether those who are already predisposed to having an eating disorder are more likely to diet, or whether diets lead to eating disorders. The vast majority of dieters never develop an eating disorder, so there is no certain way to determine whether an increase in dieting will lead to an increase in eating disorders.

“Recent research indicates that 50-80% of the risk of developing AN is genetic (Kaye, 2007).  Patients with AN typically demonstrate high levels of anxiety, harm avoidance, and behavioral inhibition (Shaw et al. 1997) – all traits which are heavily influenced by genetics (Cloninger, 1986, 1987, 1988).  Perfectionism, obsessionality, and cognitive rigidity, which are also highly heritable, have been identified as risk factors for AN (Kaye et al., 2009).  Most patients with AN have exhibited one or more of these traits since early childhood, long before the development of an eating disorder.  These traits tend to be exacerbated during bouts of malnutrition and persist long after recovery, albeit to a lesser degree (Kaye, 2007).” Source

There are chemical changes in the brain when we deprive ourselves of food and for those who have the predisposition for an eating disorder, a diet can be the moment that flips the switch as it were. So while there is a relationship between diets and eating disorders, an increase in dieting does not necessarily imply that there will be an increase in eating disorders (unless there were a whole lot of predisposed people running around who never hit any level of nutrition deprivation or stressful circumstances that would have precipitated the illness). It is possible that an increase in dieting would trigger an illness in those with a smaller predisposition, but that’s all speculation.

So we have evidence that dieting does correlate with eating disorders. We have no evidence that it causes eating disorders. There are however many problems with talking about dieting as if it caused eating disorders (beyond the fact that it’s probably not accurate). Especially when the connection is drawn in a sloppy fashion, it implies that eating disorders are on a spectrum with diets and that one can slip from one into the other with ease. The further implication is that eating disorders are a choice, obscuring the reality of the genetic components of eating disorders, as well as the psychosocial aspects (which tend to be less about diet culture and more about individual stresses in someone’s life).

But perhaps worse is that it gives the picture that everyone who has an eating disorder is a chronic dieter, the kind of person who is always belittling themselves, or obsessed with their looks. This leads to the distinct possibility that people won’t get proper diagnosis, treatment, or support. It continues the love/hate relationship with eating disorders that our culture has in which the anorexic does what everyone else does but just does it better, so if you aren’t a model/fashionista/weight obsessed salad eater, you don’t have an eating disorder. And that’s a problem.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t recognize that diets can predict eating disorders, but it’s not as if that’s not already in common parlance. Let’s spend some time focusing on the things no one thinks of, like a rape, or a bad breakup, or a bad family situation, or any other form of trauma that can easily precipitate a mental illness. Let’s get over the idea that an eating disorder is a part of diet culture, because it’s something else altogether and we know that.

deal with it animated GIF

 

Happiness Pills: Yay or Nay?

sadface

Over the weekend I was hanging out listening to one of my old professors play music (because that’s how I roll). He introduced one of his songs with the question “if I could get happiness with a pill, would I do it?” Instantly my “grrrr, mental illness stigma” detectors went off, but I have great respect for this particular individual and challenged myself to think a bit further about it. I realized that in general, the question “if I could be happy with a pill” is a. unclear and b. misleading, as well as c. totally unrelated to the antidepressants that actually exist today.

The biggest problem I have with the question is what we mean by “happy”. Is it the actual presence of a positive emotion? Or is it simply a lack of negative emotion? Does it mean you can’t feel negative emotions, even when they’re appropriate? I suspect that when this question is posed most people mean feeling on the positive side of the emotion spectrum constantly. While this might sound appealing to lots of people, I think there are actually some serious problems with this concept, and that even the idea of a pill that can do this is self-contradictory.

Emotions have appropriate times and places. They come as reactions when they’re functioning healthily. They fit situations or they don’t. If you aren’t happy and you take a pill to be happy, your emotions probably don’t make any sense for the situation that’s happening around you. It seems a bit like taking away physical pain: you no longer have a barometer for when something is wrong or hurting you. You no longer have the emotions that tell you something has violated your boundaries or treated you inappropriately. Just as with a lack of physical pain, this will probably result in doing things that are actually hurting you without realizing it.

Negative emotions give us information. They make us more aware of what’s happening around us because they clearly communicate to us “something bad is happening”. Fear tells us to escape, anger tells us that a boundary has been violated, sadness and grief tell us that we’ve lost something we care about. This makes them appropriate.

We all understood why Ten was crying, and it would have been creepy if he wasn’t.

Oftentimes this awareness does more than simply tell an individual about situations that are harmful to them. We have empathy, so our negative emotions often inform us about things that are morally inappropriate and then give us an impetus to act. If I didn’t have anger or sadness, I think I would be hard pressed to care about something like anti-gay hate crimes, or oppression of women. I could come to an intellectual conclusion about why those things were wrong, but without any feelings of sadness it doesn’t have the same impact. Without our emotions we are less aware of the world around us, particularly the things that need to be improved.

I’m less worried about the concept of an identity or an essential self that many people find themselves wondering about when they think of pharmaceuticals. Every time we make choices we affect our brains and through our brains our emotions, thoughts, and selves. When we try to change a habit, when we go somewhere new for the first time, when we learn a new fact or skill, we are training our brains to operate differently. Therapy is all about changing the patterns that your brain uses and finding more effective ones. Perhaps there is some core that holds steady through all of that, but every human being in the world encounters so much change and adjustment to their personality, from within and without, that it seems a bit silly to be worried about losing yourself, especially if what you’re changing will improve things.

But that’s the question here: will being constantly happy improve your life and the world?

Will this make me a better, healthier, more functional person who is more capable of improving the world around me and contributing something? I don’t think depression or sadness are necessary to be productive or creative or any of those other silly myths that depression tells, but I do think having the full spectrum of human emotion is deeply important for having empathy, for understanding why certain things are morally inappropriate and others are morally praiseworthy, and for gaining motivations to make changes.

There are some ways in which always being positive will improve the world around you (for example you’ll probably be a much nicer person to be around), but as I mentioned above, it also makes you less aware of what’s wrong with the world, and in the end I think the balance would point towards no, it would not improve the world unless everyone in the world were fed happy pills at the same time so that we didn’t need to empathize with people who were in pain. As long as there are injustices and other unhappy people in the world, it’s important for our understanding of those people to be able to empathize and feel anger or sadness on their behalf. But what about improving your life?

I have a hard time imagining how a pill that consistently makes you happy would actually do anything to improve your life, because as I mentioned before, negative emotions tell us when a situation is bad for us. If we don’t have that information, we’re likely to stay in situations that will hurt us. Additionally, we’re less likely to develop healthy coping strategies. Pain gives us a reason to find a better way of doing things. This is why antidepressants are almost always accompanied by talk therapy so that the patient can find effective ways of managing their lives and emotions.

As an example, let’s say you were in a relationship where your significant other was emotionally abusive. They berated you constantly, expected you to do all the work, and never did anything for you. But despite all that you were constantly feeling just fine. It seems unlikely to me that you would be willing to work towards better relationship strategies, leave the relationship, or confront your partner about their inappropriate behavior if it never made you feel sad or unhappy. You would never learn that the things they said were inappropriate because they didn’t hurt you. You would never spend time trying to understand why they did what they did because it never had any impact on you.

What about appropriate emotions? How would we feel grief for things ending if we took a pill that made us always happy? Doesn’t it seem deeply wrong to not grieve things, unhealthy even? I suspect that not grieving (which leads to not processing and not effectively storing those memories and relationship in a way that you can cope with them and they’re not consistently popping into your mind) would make it harder and harder to be happy and we’d have to increase our happy pill dose again and again and again.

Unless happy pills came with effective coping techniques, appropriately living on conjunction with your values, healthy relationships, and other positive ways of living, they would stop working. And if everything feels ok all the time, why would you have any motivation to do all these other things? Most often the ways we understand what our values are is by feeling guilt or shame when we violate them. If you don’t have these emotions, it would be nearly impossible to live in tune with your values. People who don’t have these emotions get labeled sociopaths and psychopaths. We understand there’s something wrong with that.

The problem is that if you were made this way by a pill, you wouldn’t set up your life in such a way to create happiness, which means that you would keep yourself in bad situations, living antithetically to your values, in shitty relationships. And so the happy pills would have to do more and more work. And then you’d have to up the dosage, and you’d make your life even worse. And then the pills would have to do more so you’d have to up the dose…

We actually already do have these hypothetical happy pills that cut us off from appropriate emotions and make us feel good. They’re called drugs and most people agree that they’re a bad way of dealing with your emotions. They don’t provide a stable foundation for happiness and good living, because they mean if you stop taking them your happiness can flit away. They mean that you lose the fear of being homeless or starving because you’re stuck in the happy of this exact moment. They are deeply unhelpful.

The other thing I’d worry about is whether this stunted way of feeling would leave me with less happiness overall. Would you still get those melancholy/bittersweet moments that are so flipping good because of the fact that they hurt? Would I still get to watch Romeo and Juliet and love it? Would I still understand culture and relationships and other people? Would I turn into an annoying asshole because I never have to work on myself? What about the high of coming up from a bad day? The adrenaline of fear and anxiety heightens everything…what do we do without that?

If I could find a pill that made me content (which is what an antidepressant is supposed to help with: give you the emotional space to be able to tolerate things and find some contentment), that I would take. I would take the possibility of reacting accurately and effectively to the stimuli that surround me, of being able to reach my goals without my emotions getting in my way. What I wouldn’t take is a pill that disturbs the relationship between stimulus and appropriate response. Many people get these two things mixed up, and so when this question comes up in the context of antidepressants, I think it’s important that we remember to distinguish.

Sure it might be nice to feel good no matter what you’re doing, but what’s the point? It’s easy to be oblivious. It’s hard to be aware and truly work on yourself and your world.

 

Revitalization: Shifting Perspectives in Dance

daaancing

It has been a fabulous weekend. I don’t often say that, but I really do feel as if this is how life should be. It was Midwest Lindyfest, a weekend of dancing. I’ve had bad experiences with too much dancing and lessons and stress and emotions in the past, so this year I chose not to buy a full pass and just went to a couple of the evening dances.

Having the pressure off utterly revitalized my dancing, and I feel like I’ve been completely reminded why I dance at all, and in particular I can see why I want to put more energy, time, and dedication into dancing in the future. This switch in perspective has been a long time coming: I’ve struggled with feeling good about dancing and with incorporating it into my life in the past. But as I’ve gotten further in my treatment for depression and my eating disorder, I’ve started to feel things change. There are some essentials about the way that I approach dancing that have shifted.

Part of this is obvious and easy: I have more energy, I have more coordination, I have more focus, I have more confidence. All of these things will make dancing easier and different. Just like any major change in diet and mood, getting treatment for my mental health and making adjustments in my life has impact most areas of my life. But some of the dances that I had this weekend really helped me finalize a different kind of shift, one that gets more to the core of how I approach dancing rather than simply my abilities.

For quite some time, dancing was an escape for me. Following was a very easy way for me to let someone else take control of my body, to not truly inhabit it, to let that space between self and physicality grow. I suspect that there are many people out there (particularly women) who look for ways to distance themselves from their bodies. One of the major things that has shifted in my self perception has been my ability and desire to be present in my own body. The impact on my dancing is amazing.

I feel like a person again instead of a body that’s being manipulated from afar. Now that my mind and body have connected again, my dancing is utterly different. I believe it’s better, because I think that the best thing about dancing is being really present with another person and with yourself. This ability to be present and mindful has helped me in ways I didn’t even think it would, one of which is to seriously improve my basics.

It’s easy to interpret “being present” as something abstract and spiritual and utterly unhelpful. But there is a hugely physical component to it: feeling where your weight is, holding yourself steady and balanced, being settled in your body without unnecessary tension, understanding how you fit into space. These things are the building blocks of dancing. If you don’t take the time to know your own body, how on earth can you move it effectively? Another part of this is the ability to trust my body. I have had a…stormy relationship with my body for quite some time. There were a few dances this weekend that were so fun that I just let myself go a bit and stopped trying to control everything. I found that most of the time my feet ended up under me and sometimes my “I almost fell down” turned into “wow that actually looked and felt cool”. It’s an amazing realization that my body may actually know what it’s doing.

There is something of a contradiction in this realization though, because in large part it has involved paying less attention to my body. For much of my dance career I spent a lot of time wondering and worrying about how I looked and what my body was doing and whether it felt right for the other person. This was unhelpful. I second guessed everything, I was self-conscious, I was always trying to catch glimpses of myself in the mirror to ensure that I didn’t like stupid (and usually felt that I did anyway). Those dances recently that have helped me to stop paying attention to how I look and start paying attention to what I feel have left me thoroughly convinced that thinking about my body too much is a sure way to guarantee that I will look worse and not connect as well to my body (and if I can’t connect with my own body how on earth am I supposed to connect with someone else?).

Another piece of this realization were the moments that leads really gave me space to express myself. Now normally this freaks me out and I freeze up. I compare myself to how others insert themselves into the dance, I compare myself to the abilities of others. I do this all the time really. When I’m not dancing, I’m watching others and finding myself wanting. But during a few of these moments of time for myself in dance, I found that thinking not about comparison or myself means that I get to think about my way of doing things. It probably doesn’t look quite like anyone else’s, it might even look weird. But if I explore all the ways that my body moves, I will find a whole variety of fun things I can do in my dancing.

I still have a lot of jealousy. That probably won’t ever go away. I still feel sad that I will never reach the level of many of my friends and fellow dancers. But it isn’t consuming anymore because I have had those few dances where I brought something to the table and so I know that by being myself I can contribute something unlike anyone else. This is true for everyone who dances: none of us dances the same, none of us moves the same, each of us will bring something to the dance floor. The recognition that I am utterly unique in my dancing is quite a good reminder that I don’t need to live up to other people, just myself.

Another kind of amazing thing that I did this weekend was remember names. Usually I’m shit at names. There’s at least one person that I’ve danced with for at least a year whose name I only now can remember (I swear I tried). But this is indicative of a bigger shift: a shift from self focus to other focus. Depression is self-centered, just like unhappiness and eating disorders and negativity. It’s easy for people to slip into thinking about themselves and their own needs and feelings. But I was legitimately interested in other people this week. So I remembered them. I talked more. I smiled more. I laughed more. This often leads to more goofy/fun moves because it means you can amplify what your lead is doing in fun ways. It is a complete change in perspective that utterly revitalizes my dancing. It makes me excited to ask someone to dance rather than nervous and uncertain. It’s like every person out there is an entire world unto themselves and when I dance with them I get to experience a little piece of it. Yum.

Dancing feels good again. I can feel confident. I can feel like it doesn’t matter who I walk up to and dance, I’m in control of whether I have an enjoyable dance or not (with the exception of leads who yank and hurt and creep). It isn’t exactly about choosing your attitude, but it’s about choosing your actions and choosing your reactions to things. It’s the ability to see other people again, which is joyful, especially in the context of dance.

And the best thing about this is that it’s partially the result of some really damned hard work on my part, but partially simply a result of dancing with people who are giving. It’s the moments where something goes wrong and one person goes with it and it turns into the best moment of the dance. It’s the sproingy feeling at the end of a swingout. It’s a really juicy hip swivel. It’s finding yourself at the end of a swingout hitting a pose right with your partner (not quite knowing how you got there but knowing it’s right). I may be an introvert, but these moments of communication and togetherness and energy and joy are what I want in my socializing. They’re what I want in my life.

It feels really good to be reminded why you love something, and to figure out that it will just keep getting better.

Depression and Dance

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For quite some time I’ve noticed that my mental health and my ability to enjoy dancing interact in bizarre and often unpredictable ways. Movement is often quite good for depression and anxiety, particularly movement that requires just enough though to get you out of your head. Dance in particular has a way of turning into a kind of exhilarating protest against depression, and during some of my very worst times it has been the only way that I can find enjoyment in my life.

But oftentimes depression itself can keep you from finding any enjoyment in the activity because you’re second guessing yourself, you’re comparing yourself to others, and for me, I was even looking at how skinny other women looked in their nice dresses or cute shorts rather than paying any attention to my dancing at all.

I’ve often been left in a space where I contemplate going out to dance utterly uncertain whether it will save me from a bad day or leave me spiraling downwards even further. So why is it that sometimes dance is a lifesaver and sometimes it’s destruction? Perhaps even further complicating the matter is that I’ve noticed recently when I go out to dance and I’m in a decent mood, I am a much better dancer. I have better dances and because of increased confidence and the ability to play around with my partners, I simply have more fun. It’s left me questioning whether I was even capable of improving beyond a certain point when I was in the midst of depression.

As one of my coping mechanisms, dancing has been incredibly helpful. But how on earth do I figure out when it’s a good idea to hit the dance floor and when I should try to avoid it? How do I feel good about dancing when I’m down if I know that I’m not going to be my best dancer self? What is the point of dancing if there’s all this ridiculous complicated bullcrap going through my mind in a kind of calculus of “will I be ok” every time I go out?

These questions hit on one of the most difficult elements of depression across the board: it can be deeply unpredictable, and coping mechanisms are often unreliable. I keep dancing because oftentimes it’s the best I’ve got. Sometimes, the high from a good night of dance can keep me going for a week, looking forward to the next time I’ll get it. Considering the fact that when I’m in a bad place nearly anything can send me into a shame spiral, it’s certainly worth the risk if there’s even a chance that I might get the positive benefits.

The longer I’m depressed, the easier it becomes to match coping mechanism to mood, and paying attention to what sets off certain bad spirals can do a lot to make things like dance a more positive thing overall. I’ve started to get the feel for whether I have the energy to become fiercely pissed off at my depression and drop everything to dance, or whether I am trapped in my head and exhausted. For me, going out alone is the best idea when I’m in a bad place because it means I never have to try to converse, I just have to dance. This is part of using coping methods effectively: figuring out when and how to use them.

Part of learning coping skills is also learning when to abort the mission. This is one of the difficulties of using something that you love as a way to improve your mood. You don’t want to abort the mission. You want to find the good dance, the happy moment, the high. That isn’t always possible, and accepting that is hugely helpful to cutting off bad spirals. Sometimes you will go out and it won’t feel good and you’ll just have to leave.

But what about the interaction of my ability to dance and my depression? Well of course i’m better when I’m not body checking every few seconds. The dance that I do is about fun, so of course I can embody the feeling of swing music significantly better when i’m not in a mood directly antithetical to it. But that doesn’t mean that I’m a bad dancer or that I’m not learning anything when I dance in the midst of depression. It means that I’m learning how to navigate my body, learning steps, learning how to follow better, even if I can’t get into the musicality in the same way. I can focus on a different set of skills here. And in many ways that is fun. It’s a practice of getting out of my head and working on discrete skills rather than trying to work on the more artistic aspects of dance.

It is a fallacy of depression that one should only do things if one will be good or perfect at them, or that one must always be their very very best (or keep trying to be better always). Sometimes it’s ok to simply do something for fun with no eye to improvement (gasp). Sometimes it’s ok to just be where you are today rather than trying to be better or the best version of you. Improvement is a great goal, but it doesn’t need to always be the goal. In this case, I probably am improving something when I dance while depressed: my coping skills and my ability to manage my emotions. Points for me!

Swing dancing is really an expression of energy, body, and connection. These things are all incredibly hard when you’re depressed but when you can capture them they can go huge lengths to making things better. That’s why it’s just easier to dance when you’re in a better place, but why it’s so important to keep trying when things are bad. That’s also why it’s so complicated: all of these elements are deeply out of whack in the midst of depression and can change at any time. But this might also be a case where overthinking isn’t helpful: checking in with my emotions before I head out for the night, learning to accept where I am and  leaving early if I need to may be all the more tools I need in this toolkit.

Because seriously: I love dancing. I’m not giving it up to my mental illness anymore.