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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.

Punish Thyself

5 min read

A watercolor painting of a belt hanging on a pillar in a dark basement

"You know better." This is a phrase used by parents and teachers that describes the challenges of adulthood. We perceive societal norms and often judge ourselves to those rules instead of our own moral compass. For me, it's more than just ethical behavior and the word of law. I am also looking at the society around me and judging my every decision. "Would someone else post this very blog? Probably not, it looks weak. They wouldn't want to appear broken." Every time this inner critic engages me, right or wrong, I feel that I deserve to be punished.

There is no better person to punish me, than myself. Denial of the things I need and want is very easy because shame tells me I don't deserve happiness. This has had a profound affect on my therapy because if I find something that helps me, like writing, I take it away from myself. Unworthy and shameful are consistent emotional states that I am 'comfortable' feeling. They are familiar. Success and happiness are fleeting and will leave, so why bother experiencing them in the first place?

Yesterday, I learned that I also engage in physical punishment. When I was a boy, I was spanked. Now, I bite my nails. I eat junk food. Both of these feed the shame. They may seem like minor offenses, but the destructive nature of these acts encourage the continued shame cycle. After feeling shame for so long, it doesn't seem foreign to my mind to think about suicide. It's merely a continuation of punishment. The act of suicide, and thinking of it, is another thing to feel shameful for because some people think it is weak and "giving up."

Patterns of Discipline

The overwhelming internal theme for me is that I am not enough. So, the simplest of errors, like sleeping in, can result in me punishing myself by removing something that I have recently learned is beneficial.

Meditation has given me a lot of introspection and helped me. "What a waste of time. You should be working like everyone else, you loser."

Journaling and writing has been a way to explore my emotions and get things out of my head. "Yet, you still make the same mistakes that you've observed in your writing. Maybe your time would be better spent not whining."

Art is actually rewarding. Painting and creating is something I have found that I enjoy for myself, not for any outside validation from others. "Kid stuff. It's play. Of course you like it. Again, get a job."

I haven't read much on "love languages," but I would wager my father's was providing a roof over our heads. Perhaps my shame around never having a good enough job or career stems from growing up in my father's shadow. Of course, that's my perception of my father. I also see both of my grandfathers in that same light. My mother too, is in this category. I wonder if I am stuck trying to live a life following this example I have set for myself? In actuality, my "love language" might not be acts of service at all.

Regardless of my "love language," I certainly know how to inflict punishment on myself. It is something that I now see laced through my recovery. It's not that I don't apply myself after learning CBT or reading a self-help book. I take the gifts I received from those things and deny myself access to them. I don't deserve to be better. I don't deserve the help of my psychiatrist and friends. This is a familiar feeling that I have been managing for years.

Success and Failure

My doctor asked me if I fear failure or success more. To me, success is luck or chance. It doesn't seem sustainable. I don't fear it. I am afraid that it will set an expectation of success and that I will fail again. Logically, I understand that failure is how we learn, but emotionally I am living a very old pattern. If I don't try, I don't fail or succeed. Instead, I sit in the familiar comfort of shame. I even feel mortified in this realization. The loop continues. "You write all this and you still won't do anything different."

Change is as hard as we make it. I suppose the upside is that getting over this tremendous mountain will be that much more rewarding. I feel as if I need to remind myself that recovery isn't a binary of success or failure, but simply moving ahead. Celebrating the victories, the times when I am able to get past the criticism and punishment, is still very foreign to me. Being in my practiced loop of shame, it is easy to write off things as luck, or focus on the all the times I was unable to succeed. I hope you can take a look at your own behavior and question the motivation behind it. For me, finding the space between observing and critiquing myself is very difficult. I know you can do it, I just need to believe that about myself.

Friendship, Isolation, Boundaries, and Authenticity

9 min read

me behind a brickwall in a watercolor painting

 

While sitting and listening in my recent group therapy I heard a lot of talk about the masks we wear. Like me, many of the people in the group are getting to know themselves. They expressed the desire to be around others who are authentic and genuine. This was a familiar feeling for me. I have struggled to make sense of this as well. Relationships flourish when we are vulnerable, but we can also have boundaries. How do we find balance between the two?

This Is Me

There's a danger in identifying with that which makes us neurally different than others. I have certainly fallen deeper into depression by declaring to the world that depression is all I am. We are not our injuries, disabilities, jobs, or parent's children. Each one of us is an individual. I simply wanted to state this upfront because it is important. If we are to be truly genuine, we are all the worries, feelings, thoughts, victories and failures together. We are not just one part of the whole. I recently heard poet, John O'Donohue, say this in an interview, "Identity is not biography."

Part of learning who I am means letting go, in a way. To really let emotions free is a scary process. I have always held them at bay and tried to control them. For example, I cannot cry in a job interview if a question evokes those emotions. It isn't socially acceptable to express our emotions freely. We must be humble in our success and persevere through pain. This societal messaging can seem like a systematic oppression when you're vulnerably exploring yourself. Once you open the valve, it is much harder to close. Thus, my mind can start to do some unhealthy comparison. I'm open and honest and the world is not. I must be the broken one. Personally, I find blame is often a sign that I'm not being honest with myself. Looking for faults in the world rather than acknowledging that I am hurt is a distraction. I am sad that others are still wearing masks and scared that maybe they are not. Maybe they do want to hurt me? All of these thoughts and emotions are within me, regardless if they are true or not, and it is my responsibility to welcome and respect them.

When I let myself be vulnerable, when I am authentically me, it is an alienating experience. One must be courageous to stay in that space out in a world that is black and white. In the larger society around us, we are right or wrong. There are very few places where emotions are freely accepted. Furthermore, I struggle to stay vulnerable because it is new to me. Going out into the public is like being covered in second degree burns in a sand storm.

"Why can't everyone be vulnerable and honest?" This question, a thought, comes in to bring me out of that emotional space. It builds and the frustration becomes resentment. Was I better off before, when I squashed the emotions? Maybe I am better off being alone because it hurts to get close to people?

Isolation and Solitude

There's a distinction between making space to process emotions and isolating. One I do consciously and the other is subconscious. One is work and the other is not. When I begin to question the world around me, I am once again, avoiding my feelings. I may think that I need some downtime and believe that I am doing some self-care by avoiding social situations. The question I have to ask myself is "what is the emotion behind the decision to stay home?" Is it fear of fitting in? Is it shame?

There's nothing wrong with solitude. At this point for me, it needs to be intentional. I am not protecting myself, but exploring without distraction. Can self-care be a cup of tea, a good book, or a movie? Maybe? For me, those often seem more like distractions from some emotion or situation I am avoiding. When given the opportunity to be social or stay home, 85% of the time the social situation is going to recharge my batteries more than staying home. Humans are social creatures. Anxiety, depression and other neural divergent conditions often encourage us to hide.

Friendship and Boundaries

What about our peeps? Can they be as genuine with us as we are with them? Again, 'maybe' is the answer. If it isn't us, we all have that "Debbie Downer" friend. We have the popular one, the chatty one, the artistic, new age one, etc. Our friends play different roles in our lives, just as we do in theirs. It can feel like rejection when you open up to someone and they do not reciprocate. People have individual tastes, though. My partner would not be open to your numerous stories of gruesome surgical blunders, but I would listen. Boundaries are healthy. If someone is truly your friend, you can explore boundaries with them shame-free. Through, open communication they can say, "I'd rather not discuss that." Likewise, you can say, "That makes me uncomfortable."

It can be very difficult to try to find boundaries in today's world. There's a culture of "Gotcha," a desire to call people out. As friends, I would hope we can respect each other's opinion. That's not always the case in the real world, of course. When we expose our emotions, things get uncomfortable. Maybe that's because we don't often speak with our hearts? If can tell a friend in passionate anger my opinion, can I not apologize with just as much sincere love?

Turning It On and Off

Is the switch to turn off my emotions behind my ear? My interior world before my breakdown was a place of paranoia, anxiety, and self loathing. A comment like, "Nice blog, Chris," would invoke questions of sarcasm. If not sarcastic, is the person feeling pity for me? Are they saying that because they think I want to hear it? In my mind, I could continue deeper and wonder what my late father or my deceased grandmother would think. Am I a disappointment? This is all to say that my interior world is a vast echo chamber. All of that and more can happen in the time it takes me to say thank you to the initial comment. Therefore, I don't have to turn my emotions off with a switch. I have plenty of space to process it.

As I said above, I feel very raw and exposed when I am vulnerable, but the best person to comfort me is always here. It's me. All those questions I asked after the comment are motivated by fear. It's a fear that I do not belong. Rather than express the fear with further questions to echo the fear, I can try to use the space to feel it. Welcoming the pain doesn't mean I have to tell the commenter. Perhaps those deeper issues of my father's opinion and feelings of failure may be better explored in solitude, but I can use my inner space to hold and welcome the emotion rather than more questions. Writing this here seems like one of those "in a perfect world" situations. Truthfully, I am not always capable of sitting with emotions.

Processing emotions is taxing. It can be exhausting. This is why people in my therapy group, and myself, struggle in a world that wears masks. We don't have the energy to put a mask back on. When we do, we feel inauthentic and that hurts. I thought I was finally getting to the core of my issues, but now I have to pretend that I am okay for the benefit of the world around me? It feels like a step backwards. I think my strategy is to be genuine with myself. I'll do my best not to wear a mask, but I will try to have boundaries. We are supposed to choose our battles, right?

Confidant

So, how do we find that close friend who we can be vulnerable with? Maybe we don't. Perhaps I can share my insecurities about my art with other artists, but my fear of being a terrible husband are behind a boundary in that case. Instead, I may address that directly with my partner, or a close friend who is also in a committed relationship. Yet, I cannot talk to my partner or friend about my artwork because I fear they won't understand. Does that make sense?

It can feel like change is impossible, but I like to remind myself that I am not the same person I was twenty minutes ago. Those things we experience can change and influence us. If people change, so do our relationships. Our confidant today, may only be an acquaintance next week. It sounds extreme, I know. Fiction in books and movies like to tell us that emotional bonds are forever, but we don't need to grieve every loss. My best friend lives miles away in another city with his family. If we talk once every three months, that's okay. Before, we may have been much closer, but we both have families now. I can embrace that with joy and some sadness. I can make a new friend and confidant. And, that person could move away, or explore a passion that similarly removes them from my life. I think the key is to value the present moment with those around you.

How do you find friends? There's lots of things written on the internet on this topic. I think the first step is to not isolate so much and be social. This is where I am at. This is the thing I can do at this moment. Before I go, thank you for reading this. I appreciate your encouragement and comments. Maybe we're friends?

Forgetting: Aging or Rewiring?

5 min read

Watercolor elephant scratching his head with trunk

 

Inevitably, our elder friends and family joke about how forgetful they have become as they get older. Whether it's a power of suggestion or not, I find myself blaming age for lost thoughts. Yet the more I work on my mental health, I wonder if thoughts are all that helpful.

Certainly, the context of a thought matters. Not remembering to take one's medication is not great. However, not thinking of the 6,974 things that could go wrong if you miss your meds wouldn't be a bad thing. Thoughts can be a source of trouble because we sometimes feel they are facts. For example, I imagine you have stopped reading this already. I believe it. It's a fact, just as plainly as the fact that I am unlovable and a burden. Of course, these are not facts. Logically, I know this. Though, there's still a deep sense, a feeling, that those things are true facts.

Strive for Excellence

When we forget things it feels like a betrayal. Before we were able to do so much. Provide. Succeed. Retire. That cultural message is about getting an education, finding work, creating a family, and retiring after all your hard work. Be productive now and relax later. The cult of busy is something to take pride in and when you take it away in retirement, many people struggle. While I'm not retired, I spend a lot of time shaming myself for forgetfulness. Why would I forget something? What am I doing that is so demanding that would stress me so much to forget? Nothing. I am a loser. While extreme, it's similar to a retired person thinking, "I shouldn't be so forgetful, I don't have as much on my plate as when I was working."

Here I Am Now

Perhaps forgetting is a sign of being in the moment. So often my thoughts are about what's next or past gaffs. "What was I going to do after I got home from our lunch together?" Is that as important as spending time with you? (Okay, sure. Forgetting that I need to take my meds when I get home.) I am suggesting that maybe forgetfulness comes when we can truly relax. Maybe this is why age seems to come with this stigma? Retired folks with less on their plate have less worries plaguing their anxiety? Mortality becomes more real and is a far bigger fear than changing the furnace filter I would think. And thus, many seniors try to share the idea of making our time here on Earth count.

Inner Critic

We are fearless in our youth. We don't spend time thinking we could get hit by a bus or fall down an elevator shaft. As we age and slow down, we look back with nostalgia and gratitude. I think I also look back with regret. The regret of things I think I did wrong and my wasted youth. "If only I would have used my time more wisely." Thus, forgetting things now taps into this inner criticism of myself. I can blame the lost thoughts on age, but hidden behind that is a feeling that I didn't do enough when my mind was "sound." Forgetfulness becomes a tool to shame myself for growing old. Guess what? We all age. So get over yourself, Chris.

Am I romanticizing the idea of forgetfulness by thinking it could be a good sign of change? Perhaps. Though, being in the moment seems really important. Trying to remember my grocery list as I sit at a funeral may be escaping the situation. It's a distraction from the emotions brought by grief. Maybe focusing on how forgetful we are as we age is a distraction from the emotions brought up by the realization of our mortality. Better to try and fix the problem of forgetfulness than dwell on the fears of death. Again, when I write "death" I jump to thinking what that would be like for me, rather than feeling the sadness and fear of not existing. How scary that I wouldn't be able to write you anymore, feel my partner's touch, cuddle my dog, eat chocolate, or feel the sun on my skin? It's really scary. It is a pit in the stomach, tension in the jaw, and shallow breath frightening. Rather than letting my eyes well up from sadness, I again focus on the things I haven't done yet. I'm not making enough money. I'm a bad brother, son, husband, and I need to fix that. All these thoughts come at me as a subconscious strategy to avoid those feelings about my coming death.

The next time you forget something, maybe that's alright. It felt important before, but right now it isn't. Accepting that may be part of remembering. Understanding that the thought wasn't a fact and is an opinion is also helpful. "Don't forget to take your meds," is an opinion. Forgetting to take insulin and then having symptoms is a fact. One that will likely remind you to take the meds.

You know what? Forget this entire blog. Age or mental wellness aside, forgetting is not an issue at all. It is the dwelling on the forgetfulness that is a problem. These thoughts that I should remember, or criticisms that being old or forgetful is bad are not helping us remember! They only serve to shame us. Leave the past and the future behind. Feel into the now.

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.

It's All Too Much - The Grip of Anxiety

6 min read

U R Enough is the text cut out of to-do lists

 

What should you be doing right now, instead of reading this? If I were you, this is the question that would ruin the rest of my day, and likely the entire week.

In an interview, author Mark Mason was telling the story about how Everything Is F*cked A Book About Hope came to be. Manson was making money passively, as his previous book continued to sell. Currently, The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck has sold 6 million copies. Manson was sitting at home, not getting out of his pajamas and playing video games. In the interview, he said he feared he had peaked. Manson had made his mark with that book. There was no plan or goal beyond having a successful book. The latest book is how he got through that funk. As a listener, I couldn't fathom thinking I would ever hit my peak.

In my reality, I am never satisfied with my progress. Anxiety's leash is constantly tugging me through the neighborhood of dissatisfaction. If the house is clean, I should probably go through the closets, scrub the grout of the tile, or fix the screens. Another common tactic is to change the perspective. Sure, the house is clean, but I'm behind on my podcast scheduling and editing. I'm not working out. Perhaps Manson's fear of peaking was in a similar vein, "what's next?" Regardless, I would love to feel as if I accomplished something for more than a fleeting moment.

Where to Begin?

Instead of writing this, there's a million tasks waiting for me. To list them all would take my lifetime. I've tried many time to organize my thoughts and prioritize them into a coherent plan. Sometimes this helps me manage the overwhelming feeling that runs me into depression. However, I mostly vacillate between overwhelmed and hopeless. The act of sitting down to prioritize things just becomes another thing on the list. My mental health, meditation, and self care all fall onto this distressing list of tasks that has me depressed.

As the cycle of depression continues to deepen, the source of these feelings become apparent. I am not enough. This core believe in my mind is driving the dissatisfaction in everything I do. *The house is clean, so what? I'm not enough. Unfortunately, knowing this is the reason of my pain hasn't offered much relief. When I'm in so deep that I've let go of the things that previously worked, like meditation and artwork, it is incredibly hard to start again.

I was merely keeping my head above water, but I was still lost at sea. I didn't meditate enough. The medication may work for others, but it's not enough for me. The narrative that I'm defective, undeserving, and not enough bleeds into everything. Exploring the origins of this belief is part of therapy. Working through those emotional memories in therapy may eventually bring some change. Sitting with, and tending to, the hurt child within me is supposed to help me manage better today. The idea being that an event, like a messy house, triggers that childhood emotional response of I'm not enough that I felt when I had a messy desk at school and got shamed for it in class. If I can work through that pain and hurt, it may be less likely to be triggered in the future.

Meanwhile I Am Still A Prisoner of Time

Engaging painful emotions is challenging for the most devout Buddhist monks, let alone an average person. All the while, the house does need to be cleaned. I do need to workout, pay bills, and walk the dog. The never-ending list only grows. It never contracts. Each new task is a new brick in my unbreakable backpack from the Not Enough™ store. I grow weary with it on my back and look over the edge of the mountain trail wondering what the drop would feel like. Avoiding the overwhelming list is not an option.

In the past, I've found journaling, or listing things far more helpful than thinking about them. Seeing the tasks, ideas, or fears in black and white can shed much more light on them. Sometimes this helps avoid the loops my anxiety and depression favor. A goal like "tomorrow I just want to be a success" is unrealistic and undefined and when I see it on the paper. In my mind it is a lighthouse looming over ever passing accomplishment.

In the past, I've also written about S.M.A.R.T. goals. I haven't used them in practice as much as I like, but that's likely because the strategy has fallen victim to my vicious loop of depression. I used the practice successfully for a few months to start working out and then I stopped. Thus, the practice must not work for me. Once again, the depression and its Not Enough put a stop to something that may have been helpful. Obviously, if there's one common thing that we humans stumble over again and again it is working out. I'm not alone. Even in writing this I had to admit I was successful when I made a SMART goal to workout. It lasted quite a long time, in fact.

Wash, Rinse, Repeat

Sometimes I feel like I've written all this before. Anyone who has read my blogs for the last two years must be bored and frustrated with me. "This guy still hasn't learned. He keeps saying the same thing over and over." Perhaps that is what recovery looks like. If continued use of alcohol can lead to addiction, then maybe working through the same thoughts will result in something sticking.

Re-framing the tasks that overwhelm me can help, but the real work is still in self-worth. That emotional pain that triggers tears even as I write this is a tremendous weight. My eyes water because I am ashamed that I'm not enough to figure this out. Like a race car, I go around and around, eventually ending up in the pits. Then, I have to lift myself up and get ready for the coming laps.

Birthday Bereavement

5 min read

an art kit from my aunt with watercolor, acrylic, oil, pastels and more. thanks to my aunts for this art kit which will allow me to try some new things like acrylics, oils, and pastels

Celebrating another lap around the sun is not my depression's style. Instead, we mourn the loss of another year in the march toward dying as an unsuccessful, unworthy human. Birthday gifts, cards, wishes activate so much fear and disgust. I'm afraid I'll appear ungrateful for the effort if I don't immediately respond to friends and family. I'm terrified I will say "the wrong thing," or offend my benefactors. I am disgusted with myself and assume others must be as well. Therefore, the gifts or birthday wishes must not be sincere. Better send a card because he sent me one. I should message Chris on his birthday, it has to be hard getting another year older without changing his loser status.

The disgust all seems so unreal when spelled out, but there's not really a decent way to translate emotions and feelings to words. In my mind, I am not worthy of love. It's like when you believe there is an additional step when walking up or down stairs and there isn't one. Your mind sort of stops as the muscles of your leg and foot send feedback to the brain saying, "Um, we missed the step? What do we do now?" Your eyes relay information back to the mind that there are no additional steps and you're in the clear, but the brain still needs a moment to digest it all. When I receive a message saying, "Happy birthday," I can immediately respond as we are taught. "Thank you." I can also switch quickly into a toxic avoidance, "one more foot in the grave," or some other socially accepted joke to ignore my feelings. Meanwhile, I'm in that mind freeze of the phantom step. I am human garbage. This person likes me enough to wish me happy birthday. That does not compute. I have forty years of human garbage self-talk and just over two years of trying to think differently. You do the math and you can see how it usually shakes out in my mind.

Sharing these emotions and thoughts like this is another layer of the onion. When I look at my partner and share what I'm going through, I believe I see fear in her. Is she not supposed to give me a gift? Would my life be better if everyone ignored me? Of course my depression wants it that way. Isolation and freedom from what appears to be expectations people have for me means not having to deal with emotions. In openly sharing my thoughts on birthday wishes and gifts I fear I am pushing her and others away. Damn it. I should just be quiet. See, that's a win-win for depression and anxiety. If I say something, I may push people away. If I choose not to share, it becomes fuel for shame, How could I think these things about my friends and family? I'm the worst. No matter how you slice it, the onion brings tears.

Of course, one strategy is to reality check things. I can ask my partner how she feels about me sharing. I can ask you, "Did you just click Happy Birthday because the app told you to?" My psychiatrist weighed in on the idea of people feeling obligated to wish me well, "Everyone who did it chose to do so." They're all presumably very busy, and yet they did it. To this, I say what I told her-- I can see it rationally. I can see that people care about me. Perhaps, even emotionally I can feel it. Give me 5 seconds and I can no longer see and feel that way. Mood is a perception changer. Your baby toddler throwing their toys around can be cute, or if you're trying to get work done, had a bad day, or stressed in some other way, your response could be one of anger. I can get through the entire birthday in good spirits and crash the next day. Three days later, maybe I see things positively again. Life is ups and downs.

A gift of messages printed on the backs of photos from friends and family
A gift of messages printed on the backs of photos from friends and family

Thanks to everyone who wished me happy birthday and participated in the nice box of messages my spouse put together. There were unexpected cards in the mail and I even received another gift today. I wish I put in half the effort into loving myself that my friends and family have shown. Another layer to the onion that is me, is the fact that working on my mental health activates shame as well-- it's selfish to help myself. That's why my writings, like this one, are dual purpose. First, I'm sharing in hopes that it helps others know they are not alone. Perhaps, like much of the self-help books I've read, something in here clicks for someone. Secondly, I'm trying to infuse some of the things I've learned internally. Again, forty years of a different narrative makes it difficult to retain information counter to the installed belief system.

Birthdays can often bring up mortality issues for people. I think I spent a few birthdays chewing on the scary prospect of being mortal. I'm sure much of it was shame-powered, wishing to be around longer to accomplish every thing I'm supposed to do. Now, I'm working on celebrating myself, just as I am. My jaw is clenched as I type. It's no easy ask. Regardless, I'm going to try and finish my day being a bit more kinder to myself. I hope that you do the same for yourself.

Daniel J. Hogan's original web series in graphic novel form

Daniel J. Hogan's original web series in graphic novel form, signed by the artist and friend

 

Victim

5 min read

self portrait of my head trying to escape my head.

I've lost confidence in my ability to recognize my harmful patterns of behaviour because my psychiatrist proposed that I may be taking on a victim role. This new label is uncomfortable and I want to crawl back into bed.

victim [vik-tim]: 1. a person who suffers from a destructive or injurious action or agency. 2. a person who is deceived or cheated, as by his or her own emotions or ignorance, by the dishonesty of others, or by some impersonal agency.

Ouch. Trying the definition on for size, does fit. There's a strong sense that by writing this right now, I'm engaging in the practice of victimizing myself. This is why I want to go back to bed. This is why I am frozen, frustrated, and floundering.

I was struggling with my familiar pattern of shame, and the anger I direct at myself. To my psychiatrist, I described a situation where I made a decision, and in that moment it felt good. It was free of strife. As the hours wore on, I started to get angry. "Hadn't I felt pressured into that decision by my spouse?"I thought. Through therapy, I've learned that anger is not a "negative" emotion. It's perfectly okay to be angry at someone. It's simply about responding, not reacting. "Perhaps my anger shouldn't be towards myself? I can be legitimately angry with my spouse."

I brought those thoughts up to the psychiatrist. I felt in control, calmly made a decision, and confidently moved forward. Hours later, my self-critic came in to challenge my resolve. Breaking this pattern is so hard. This is when the psychiatrist proposed that the anger was a result of me making myself the victim. I had taken the situation and made my spouse out to be my oppressor. I was projecting my frustration with myself onto her. Now, I was using the "it's okay to be angry" that I've learned, in this warped way. I was ignoring my responsibility and laying blame elsewhere.

My Own Parent

I've written before about my stoic father. He was genuine and a good person, but I don't ever remember hearing him say, "I love you." Beyond that, he was good cop 85% of the time. As bad cop, mom spent her time telling me how she "should" punish me. I should be grounded, this is the guilt I carried a lot. Thus, this may be part of how I learned to punish myself.

The guilt and shame goes back to the way my mother was raised. Like every parent, mom wanted to give me the childhood she didn't have. Her parents, my grandparents, were very judgemental and negative. After growing up in that, it makes sense that mom would want me to not experience such criticism. Therefore, I was left to punish myself for mistakes, and things I perceived as mistakes.

Now, my grandparents were not negative 100% of the time. Neither was my mother. To be fair, I am also not punishing myself all the time as well. I'm simply sharing my perspective into my patterns. I suppose I'm clarifying because I'm so turned around at the moment. "Is this description of my past, me playing the victim again?"

Regardless of the past, I am my own parent in this moment. Seeing myself as a child is probably not helpful. Yuck. I'm really in a dark space. I'm not trusting myself, right now. I'm afraid the progress I've made with my emotions is now my same old pattern masquerading as development. Again, "is this me playing the victim to my depression and shame?"

Agency Now

Both definitions for victim above deal with agency. I'm feeling a distinct lack of agency since hearing the psychiatrist's theory. Hi, I'm playing a victim to the theory! I was given this grenade to hold onto 3 days ago. I've been ruminating on it ever since. In other words, have I been present?

Right now, I'm writing this in order to find clues and sort through the thoughts that are making me feel like garbage. I'm not simply observing and analyzing the thoughts, though. I'm reliving events. I'm in the psychiatrist's office. I'm back at the discussion with my spouse. I'm worried about my mom and spouse reading this. I'm not here. I'm not present.

I have no agency in the past because it is done. I have no influence on the perceived futures where I've offended my spouse and mother. Agency is control. This is the value that I find in negativity. Assuming the worst, being judgemental is exerting control. If you always believe the worst, you won't be surprised. This is perhaps the power my grandparents used to make themselves feel good about the world around them. The criticism I remembered seeing in them, and the way they behaved around my mother, as she was growing up, was their way of controlling the environment. Here I am, following in their footsteps. Judging the past and the future is not being here, in the now.

Once again, I feel like I need more concentration on being in the now. It seems like an oversimplified solution to my issues. There's another problem, looking for solutions, rather than accepting where I am. Being present is a powerful tool, not a solution. I have agency at this very moment. I can break down and cry, getting lost in the sadness that I feel. I can also hit the publish button to send this out and stop beating myself up. It's just a bit tricky in this state of mind. My resolve and confidence are weakened. If I stop beating myself up right now, am I ignoring the issue? Am I bottling it up and not learning anything? I suppose those questions are dragging me into a future I have no control over. I can only make the decision with the information I have in this moment. Anything else could be flirting with victimization.