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A Planet in Pain and You

5 min read

a pensive person sitting on the darkside of a small dried out planet in watercolor

Tears cloud my vision as I type. The realization that my anguish is self-inflicted is difficult to accept. The external world has brought me to this place, but it is up to me to find solace. So, here I am writing to myself and those of you that may find yourself here.

The COVID-19 pandemic brings bad news and self-isolation every day. There are those of us out there who are Highly Sensitive People, now called Sensory processing sensitivity, that have a heightened emotional response to what is happening in the world. Seeing the death tolls rise and the matter of fact attitude of reporters and politicians can be extremely difficult. Personally, I see the people losing work and feel ashamed that I wasn't working enough before the pandemic. Fellow humans living paycheck to paycheck that are panicked about rent and mortgage payments also fuel that shame. My privilege of having a partner who has taken care of me as I try to deal with my mental wellness is a tremendous source of shame. I feel like a burden. Once again, I am using the external world as an excuse to abuse myself mentally.

If I wasn't around during this crisis, my spouse could support someone worth it. Things are not entirely secure for us. I should have had a regular salary well before the pandemic. What if I get my spouse sick when I leave to get the groceries? I will be a source of more pain, if that's even possible. I deserve to get the virus more than those hardworking people that have been deemed essential workers.

Shame is a powerful depressant. It is ultimately demotivating. Shame is also familiar to me. I know how to lay down in shame. To hide and make myself invisible and avoid fears and expectations. Facing the shame, anger, sadness, and fear is mostly foreign to me. It will be uncomfortable and hurt me in ways that I am unfamiliar with. It is bubbling up as I write this. I shudder with a desire to push it back down. I am not strong enough to handle this. Again, I engage shame, but this time about not being able to handle the shame? Things begin to stack up here. I pile on more reasons to be sad and upset.

I am not working much, so I should be super fit, right? No. I am a fat ass who has woken up everyday for the last 2 months saying 'I am going to workout.' My spouse said I should contact my psychiatrist, but I didn't yet. So she must be disappointed in me. Look at myself right now, in this state, pathetic. My sister asked me to call today and I haven't. I am a terrible brother. Who is going to read this? They will likely wonder what a loser I am. Why do I make a mess of everything?

I have heard various theories on the time we spend with emotions. Some addictions experts think cravings last about 7-10 seconds. Recently, I read that an emotion like sadness or happiness passes through the body in a minute and a half. Either way, we bring ourselves back after the time has passed with thoughts like those above. I specifically found other reasons to remain in pain. At this point, I can use this information to continue to feed my shame, why do I keep hurting myself? Or, I can attempt to break the loop.

Finding ways to stop this pattern is very difficult. I have a perceived notion that I have bottled emotions up in the past. Reading on mental wellness and therapy has illustrated to me that acceptance is a better strategy. So, if I break the loop am I bottling it up or accepting where I am and moving forward? The only person who has that answer is me. That can feel like a lot of pressure to someone who would rather be invisible and run from expectations. Right now, there is a desire to explain that I was better at accepting my emotions a few months ago, but I have failed. I think that could be my shame at work again, demotivating me and bringing me to familiar territory.

Examining my past with the help of psychiatry has allowed me to see some of the origins of my shame. I then perceived another idea that if I just worked through some of this ancient pain in meditation, writing, and therapy I would be better. Suddenly, writing was a daunting task. Meditation became a punishment. I deserved to relive these things because I am an awful person. In therapy, I started to avoid the past. That brings me to today. When the news of the pandemic breaks the dam that I have been holding back.

I needed this outlet. It was, and is, necessary for me to feel heard. I hope nothing I said triggered you. Of course, I'm deflecting outward again. I am worried about you legitimately, but it also serves me because I am avoiding myself. The only way we can make real change is by first observing what is happening. We learn by making mistakes. The pandemic has taught many of us what is necessary versus what we may want. One of the things that I still have trouble remembering is that I am not alone. That is one way to see our world crisis. Each of us is suffering despite our nationality, race, or gender. We are all humans. Each of us wants to be heard and loved. We cannot avoid the way the COVID-19 is harming our lives. Just as we cannot avoid our individual pain and emotions.

Stay safe. Wash your hands. Call a friend.

Much love.

A Break in a Pattern is Not Always a Break in Habit

5 min read

hand drawn pattern in ink

Habit is comfort. It is predictable and saves us from unfamilair emotions. These patterns can be complex and often work at a subconscious level. A break in the pattern doesn't always guarantee freedom from the habit. It is not a failure, this is an opportunity to be kind and compassionate to ourselves.

I've started knitting as a mindfulness practice and similar to painting, it is nice to work with my hands. When I drop a stitch and don't notice, it creates a hole in the work. Yet, the work goes on. When you catch your finished sweater or blanket on something sharp there is a danger of unraveling. The pattern breaks down because the yarn has been cut. In the case of a missed stitch the yarn continues along the pattern, but is unbroken. This is often the case when we're trying to change personal behaviors.

If I cannot sleep at night, exhaustion finally takes me in the early hours of the morning and I may not get up until after noon. Half the day is gone, which frustrates me and I begin to feel like a failure before I've started. I have less energy and I'm groggy. I reach for junk food for a quick pick me up, but it just makes me feel worse. By the end of the day, I have the urge to stay up late and get something accomplished because I've spent the day unproductively. If I get a good night's sleep, I break the pattern, right? Not necessarily. The yarn can continue to tighten around me even if I sleep well. It's called habit for a reason. I only have to jump into the pattern anywere. A good night's sleep and a productive morning would be great. Yet, I can get in my head and think it is not enough. Now, I lose energy, reach for junk food, and I'm back into the self-loathing loop.

Self help books and programs like C.B.T. don't really talk about this enough, in my opinion. These resources are focused on encouragement, but the reality is that change takes time. The advice offered is still useful, but I have found that I am quick to dismiss those things that "don't work as advertised." These programs and books are often presented in "how to" steps and when step one is making a goal to break your current pattern, I am done before I begin because the pattern remains. This is evidence to my critical mind that the program doesn't work.

The motivation to change, the personal will that sought out the the book or resource is not always enough. Sometimes I wonder if authors of self-help books believe it is. The irony that I'm using the phrase "not enough" has not been lost on me. I am not seeking to blame the authors and creators of the resources I've found. Instead, I want to caution those of you reading my blog. Change is possible, but instant and perfect change is not.

To me, it feels like I've written over and over about getting caught up in a self-critical loop. I am not enough. I don't make enough money. I don't work hard enough. I'm not a good enough son, sibling, friend, or husband. So, I read a book and enter some programs to get better. Things improve and then I relapse. The program and book are probably great, but I am not enough. The pattern of self-doubt is difficult to unravel. 

Furthermore, this default method of thinking doesn't allow me to see when things improved. Biologically, we remember the "bad" things to protect ourselves. This scar is a reminder not to get near that predator animal. However, I did write "things improve" above. I cannot take that back. I mean I could go up there and erase it, but the point is that there is some sign that I am able to do this. A key to breaking from the habit, or pattern, is likely self-compassion.

When I look back, I think one of my most successful streaks was one where I was working toward compassion. I was listening to mindful driving guided recordings that encouraged me to let other cars into the traffic and remember that there are people like me in those vehicles. Maybe that person is having a family emergency and that's why they are driving aggressive. Did they lose their job? Are they distracted on their phone, or with the radio because they're trying to avoid pain, like me? These things that can usually make me feel uncomfortable or angry are actually opportunities for gratitude. The homeless man on the street who is aggressively asking for money and scaring people is suffering. If I am not ready to see that and help, I can be grateful that I have a home.

Trying to be compassionate to others, complete strangers, was my way of finding some compassion for myself. I am also a human who is suffering. I'm not sure when I stopped working on this goal. I suppose that's in the past now. Today, I can try to move forward compassionately. I may not free myself from the pattern today, but what I need when I realize I am still in the loop is love. Something I have been keeping inside me this past week is a phrase I heard. It's not elequent, but every act is an act of love, or a cry for love. If I feel like a failure today, I'm looking for love. If I cannot get that from myself, I can always ask those around me. Hold onto your supports and hold yourselves.

The Dangers of Self Sabotage

8 min read

oil pastel sketch of me crying in gray with red eyes and blue tears

The expected results are always easier to deal with than the unexpected. Consciously or not, I have had a tendency to throw myself under the bus. I know how to deal with failure and defeat. Success, in my mind, is just postponing the next failure. I am even more anxious after a success because I am waiting for the next shoe to drop. In fact, give me a hot minute and I'll convince myself I was not successful at all.

The first delivery person in history carried a package from one person to another. Eventually, they started doing more deliveries and got a cart. Soon they upgraded to a horse-drawn wagon, a flatbed truck and finally a semi-trailer truck. Now imagine the packages are personal traumas. Often we carry these around with us. I've got a fleet of semis following me. Rather than letting go of the traumas, working through the issues, and forgive myself, I add more trucks to the fleet. When I make a mistake, which is a great opportunity to learn, I look back at the thousands of trucks. Those semis contain evidence of past mistakes and failures. My mind believes a clear pattern and a self-fulfilling prophecy is at work.

If I have my arms out, carrying all these packages for decades, I would have no idea what to do without them. What do I do with my arms if I don't have all these gift-wrapped traumas? So, I ensure my arms still have work by creating my own problems. I know I shouldn't have too much sugar because of my diabetes, so I'll just eat all the ice cream. I get the satisfaction of delicious sugar and then the amazing shame in knowing I should not have done that. Procrastination serves up some daily pain. I make a to-do list that is so long that five people couldn't finish it and then I get overwhelmed and do none of it. The next day, I add more to that same list and my week becomes full of fail. I keep myself in this abysmal state because I am familiar with it.

Depression, Anxiety, and Addiction

It's well known that depression and anxiety are like conjoined twins. They feed off each other in many of us. Occasionally, they are joined by their sibling, addiction. The cycle often goes trauma, depression and/or anxiety, and then addiction to dull the pain. The word addiction typically makes us think of substance abuse, from psychedelics to alcohol and caffeine. There are also behavioral addictions like gambling, video games, porn, and social networks like Instagram.

Dulling the pain with addiction is also feeding it. *Add a new truck to the fleet because I know I shouldn't be doing this. Anxiety flairs to hide the shame of it all. Depression builds until you can take no more and need to get another hit. The dopamine kicks in and you feel alright. Lather, rinse, repeat.

More than once I have heard people propose the question of being addicted to the depression or anxiety. These are behaviors of sorts, right? Could it be possible? If porn lights up the same parts of a brain in a scan as heroin, could the feeling of anxiety? One of Norman Doidge's books talks about people's brains that have been rewired to feel pleasure from pain. He specifically referred to a study of people who enjoy BDSM. The pain center of the brain has been linked to the pleasure center in many of these individuals. Could my brain be wired in a similar way? I want to be in pain?

Sabotage

Is my pain all I know and I wouldn't function without it? Maybe the familiarity and predictability simply a comfortable place for me? Is my brain specifically wired to give me shame and worthlessness? Regardless of the reason, self-sabotage isn't always so easy to notice.

New things are scary because of my fear of failure. So is it sabotage if I say, "no" to an opportunity because I will miss out? Or is it sabotage if I say, "yes" to the project since, deep down, I feel that I will completely screw up? On one hand, I feed depression by denying the opportunity. I can look back at the past and wonder what would have happened. If I accept the opportunity, I get a dose of anxiety about my possible failure.

"Get busy living, or get busy dying." This quote from The Shawshank Redemption is some toxic, tough love I give myself. I know being stagnant, frozen in overwhelm is not helping me. It's a long game sabotage. I can look back on my life yearsfrom now and think, "If only I realized my worth sooner. How much more could I have done?" Telling myself to get busy pushes me further into depression.

In Ian McEwan's latest fiction Machines Like Me new, artificially intelligent androids die by suicide. While half of them choose this option, there is one who seems to have deleted most of his software, essentially giving himself a lobotomy. The theory in the book is that this android attempted suicide and couldn't go through with it, leaving him in this state of minimal functions. I started to wonder when reading this is suicide the ultimate self-sabotage?

In my own struggles with thoughts of suicide, I have found myself thinking of lesser punishments or personal sabotage. Frequently, I've thought that I am such a burden to my loved ones that I should run away and be homeless. This fantasy is about removing myself from life as I know it. When I have those days or weeks when I don't want to get out of bed, it's in this same vein. Paralyzed in bed is hiding from my pain, fear, and shame. Or, I imagine being locked away in a psych ward where I cannot harm myself or others. These are all examples of me giving up. The twisted dreams of a sabotage one step away from ending it all.

The real danger of self-sabotage is when I cannot carry any more packages. When I look back and I can no longer see the horizon because of all the semi-trailer trucks full of the things I refuse to let go of. The fact that I can sit here and talk about self-sabotage is a testament to my resolve (at this moment). If I can notice it, I can do something about it.

Introspection

Philip K. Dick said, "The problem with introspection is that it has no end." Somewhere in this blog I have spoke about being present. Surely, I warned myself, and others, about getting caught up in the sadness of the past and the anxiety of the future. I think I have said that now is the only time that I really need to focus on. I recall offering the advice that each new moment, every 7-10 seconds, is a chance to change. The idea being many of our emotional states last this long. The catch is that we can use that time to trigger an additional 7-10 seconds of the same feeling. This is where I am lost. I am dwelling in the sadness and shame of my perceived worthlessness. Each time I start a sentence in this blog with "I," there is a desire to type "hate myself."

I have been here before. How did I get out? I don't remember, but maybe the important thing is that I did get out. In fact, my urge is to run away. All those lesser suicide options above are clues. I have been trying so very damn hard to be productive and pour myself into tasks. Another sign that I am avoiding the pain in hopes it will pass in the next moment. Self care of meditation, mindfulness, and art are no longer practiced. My mind thinks that those strategies obviously didn't work. So, why bother?

After sitting down to write this, I think my mind is somewhat right about those self-care strategies. While perfectly useful, at this point they are less effective. As I said, those fantasies of running away are the clue. It is time to stop running and do the opposite. What if I step into the pain and suffering? Allowing myself to feel those emotions and go deeper into Chris and find the version of me that wrote about being present. He's here, but he's buried under the fear, shame, embarrassment, insecurity, and guilt. I need to forgive myself for all the self-sabotage. I need to thank my inner critic for carrying all those packages of trauma. Even though my critic has mentally beaten me severely, he did it to protect me. Misplaced anxiety and fear sabotaged me in hopes to keep me from collecting more trauma. I have to learn to trust myself and that mistakes are how I learn to be better. Now, in this moment, I'm going to have a good cry.

Be kind to yourselves. Much <3 to you all.

The Narrative of a Mind

5 min read

A thorny branch

"This is not an off leash trail! That's why we jog here!"

It was those two simple sentences that spun my mindful walk into a hellish nightmare. I was walking the dog at an off leash park and took a trail that I seldom take because I eventually have to turn around as it dead ends into steps to a neighborhood. However, I was hoping to find some good twisted branches or roots for an art piece. Our rescue dog has been diagnosed with fear aggression. As such, she's more afraid of everyone else than they should be of her. On occasion she will growl or bark behind a dog's back, as to say, "And stay away!" It's a toxic behavior that we are working on and one she displayed on the trail. The jogger had his dog leashed and my dog barked and lunged in their direction after they passed. This resulted in the jogger's dog running in front of him and almost tripping the jogger. I apologized and this is when he stated the quote above and ran away.

Observations

The jogger was angry. The younger man was almost tripped and his morning workout was interrupted. On my way back through the trail, I saw no signs stating I was leaving the off leash park. Although, the boundaries of a park are not typically marked on trails. I ran into 7 other dogs on the trail. The jogger and 1 other person had the dogs on leashes. Both of us had tame, but unpredictable, animals. That is dogs are like people, we don't always get along with everyone else. My dog is my responsibility and the instigator in this situation. I apologized and leashed her, though he didn't see that. The jogger is entitled to his emotional response as am I.

Storytelling

First I fell into shock, but more on that in a bit. My mind went to work instantly desiring to counter his anger with more anger. Fight or flight popped in, adrenaline showed up, and I was ready to use my found branches as blunt instruments instead of art materials. As he ran away the events played back in my head and I saw his rage at me. Wait. He was angry, but not fake TV wrestler steaming. No, he was disgusted with me. Disappointed. I failed him. Wait. He has no investment in me. I failed myself. I should have known it wasn't off leash. I am the worst. What if he jogs back this way? I'd love to get the leash around his neck and see how he likes that. Wait. I will tell the next person I see on the trail about the angry jogger. I'll warn them about him. Wait. Let it go. He was angry and I'm just reacting. Yeah, I need to have some compassion. Why didn't that asshole show me compassion? Wait. I just want to go home.

Respond Not React

In the first two paragraphs above I had a hard time not embellishing what actually occurred. Like the jogger's anger from almost tripping, my emotions are still in the driver's seat as I try to share what happened. Immediately on the trail, I said I was in shock. I was actually caught in a loop, a cycle of shame. After apologizing, I realized the event was triggering the shame inside of me. The terrible husband, loathsome employee, pathetic student, bad brother, and useless son within me awoke. Jogger man becomes another person in my life that wishes I was dead. Of course, that's all in my head. And, this all occurred before he reacted with his angry words. This moment of shock was winning. I knew myself well enough to understand that the events were activating some past emotions.

Then the jogger said, "This is not an off leash trail! That's why we jog here!" I slipped out of the self-aware into despair. It was if he said, "No, really I want you dead. You're a pathetic person who doesn't deserve love." The familiar narrative took over and I thought all those thoughts in the storytelling section above. My desire to tell others on the trail about the jogger was also motivated by my self-loathing. I wanted to be consoled. I wanted someone to tell me that I wasn't to blame. I wanted to continue running from myself and my emotions.

It's difficult when you recognize a pattern and it continues repeats itself. Not so long ago I was reeling because someone said I spoil my dog and another person gave me a broken laptop and felt bad that it caused me turmoil. I'm still here in this pattern, really? I suppose that moment of shock is a progress. Writing this out is therapeutic, even if I cannot retain it. I have also been working to manufacture my own loop or cycle. It goes like this: The jogger triggered all sorts of emotions in me. Perhaps my face, my dog, my reaction, or jogging triggered something emotional in his past? When I am hurting and I want to point a finger and blame someone, I start to wonder what their story is. I like to think this is the beginning of compassion. We all suffer, every single one of us.

We're all individuals and like the dogs in today's adventure we respond differently to each other. It's not what people say, or even how they say it. No, it is how it makes you feel. What you do with those feelings is up to you. If I can have compassion for a stranger who yelled at me, maybe one day I can have compassion for myself.