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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.

Heroes Are the People Taking Meds

5 min read

a pill bottle open and spilling

Are you taking an antidepressant? Something for anxiety, ADHD, or another medication for a neurological condition? You have my respect and I want you to know that you're an amazing hero.

Imagine being give the choice to lose an arm or a leg. The first impulse is "how about neither!" This is similar to the choice presented by medication. The side effects of most medication put us in a no-win situation. "Side effects include" an endless list of terrible is a commonly used joke on sketch comedy shows. When it comes to antidepressants, many of the side effects harass the mind and brain. When I was on Effexor there were people warning me about brain zaps. In my case, I experienced no such thing until I started tapering off the drug. It was excruciating.

In one of the interviews for my upcoming podcast, my guest told me she was on something like her sixth medication! Various reasons led to being on so many drugs over the years. Either insurance stops covering a certain drug, the company stops making it, or the med was a bad fit. As I briefly mentioned above, many of these mind altering drugs require you to taper off of them by taking a lower dosage for a month, and then an even lower one, etc. So here you have this thing that may not be working for you, but if you quit it outright, you'll be feeling worse. Your friends and family on antidepressants are incredible to endure that.

Buzzing, dizziness, nausea, pain, headaches, and migraines are just the stuff that I can explain. The brain zaps were terrifying. At times my head has felt like it was in the jaws of a steam shovel or a very tight hat. Sometimes, it is too much work to focus my eyes. Weird sensations behind my ears, eyes, or the back of my head are off-putting and distracting. "I'd love to listen your story, but I think part of my head may be an open wound."

Avoid Calories By Eating Calories?

The combination of side effects can be debilitating for someone who was already having trouble. When I'm feeling like there's little to live for, getting out of bed and showering seems moot. Sure, let's add a medication that makes me nauseous and gives me a headache. I'm certain to leave the bed. All better. It makes no sense!

The experts tell us these things take time. So far, I've been told it will take at least a month for the medication to get into my system and start working. So you're depressed, not leaving the house and you're given a medication that will initially enforce this routine. In addition, you've reached out for help and been prescribed this drug as a solution. When you cannot get out of bed it can feel like the medication doesn't work for you. This is how broken I am. Nothing will help.

I've been going through this daily for a month. Is this worth it? Maybe I am just not treatable. However, asking for a new medication was a necessity. I was flirting with self harm, having thoughts that were disturbing. I felt proud that I had reached out. I took the new pills with water and hope. Then, things got worse. It's hard to help yourself when you cannot think straight. Getting to a therapy appointment is difficult when you cannot leave your bed.

This is why I think people taking SSRIs and SNRIs are pretty damn amazing. When I sit down in any mental health group, I am always in awe by the brave people being so vulnerable. I often think, "these are the people who should be in charge, the politicians and leaders of our world." That's what Brené Brown is usually spouting, "you cannot have bravery without vulnerability." It just blows my mind that someone with any mental disability would ask for medication that is going to challenge them even further. Seriously, if you're not on meds but you know someone that is, tell them how incredible they are. It's like seeing a tsunami headed for you and grabbing a brick to hold you down instead of a life jacket. These individuals are super human. They deserve your respect and love. They have mine. Now, I have to go lie down or cry, or both.

Wait. I feel like I need to embrace some positivity. Can side effects like dizziness and nausea be useful? I suppose it's like pinching yourself to know you're alive. The meds do keep me from feeling like doing self-harm, and those sensations are a reminder that I'm living. I suppose every time I feel as if I need to close my eyes and lie down before I vomit, it is a reminder that I am still here. I am still trying.

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

 

Breakfast Seppuku

6 min read

Manipulated McDonalds M into an S for shame

 

"The best part about waking up is..." being alive. It's not Folgers in my cup or any other 'breakfast is good for you' marketing myth. Yet, it is the most difficult part of my day. The reality of the life I have lived and the insurmountable future ahead come crashing into me as I become conscious. I don't know what to have for breakfast or care, because of all the past/future on my mind. Life is complex and scary. For me, it becomes problematic and I start to wonder if it is worth it.

The way I self-medicated in the past was junk food breakfast. Donuts, Pop Tarts, and all kinds of sweets. Start the day immediately in avoidance. Give me something to make me forget about my existence. Diabetes forced me to change that habit. I worked hard to get a healthy breakfast routine. Though I like variety, I probably ate the same thing for breakfast for a year straight after learning to control my blood sugars. The sucrose morning treats were postponing my existential crisis with a sugar rush and then I would have to refill throughout the day, lest I wanted bear the weight of living.

I broke my healthy breakfast streak and let go of the diabetes worries as I started working on my mental health in groups and seeing a psychiatrist. It was a reward system. I spent the day working on stuff that is really uncomfortable. I am eating this entire large bag of M&Ms. I deserve it. Breakfasts have fallen into the old pattern again. Sweets for breakfast lead to shame for lunch and dinner.

The shame is all about my unworthiness. The impregnable feeling that I am undeserving and unlovable goes hand-in-hand with option D on every one of my decisions, suicide. Living with shame available in every single thought is torture. I can't speak for others, but I wonder if those who have taken their own lives came to a point where they decided they can never outrun the shame. Imagine, years of telling yourself "I must do more, be better." Regardless of your successes, that voice is ever present. When you finally acknowledge you've reached success, when you can actually see it, that voice is still there. Did Robin Williams realize that he had made it through drug abuse, beat the odds of being successful in comedy and Hollywood, creating a family, and in that clarity heard the shame and decided to quiet it once and for all?

Food For Thought

Is my breakfast choice really a life or death question? I think in some ways it is. I do believe suicide has been in my mind more lately. It's interesting that one of the things keeping me from ending my life is shame. That's right, the same force that rubs my every thought, desire, and relationship against a cheese grater of unworthiness is also keeping me alive. Suicide is for the weak. What a let down I will be. People will blame themselves. Others will be relieved and say good riddance. And, of course, my mind worries at all the critiques of my method of execution. "That was an idiotic way to commit suicide. Who knew he was such a moron?" It's weird. Chris is completely shame-powered. So, I eat my feelings. The loop is shame-sugar-shame.

Nobody wants to talk about suicide. It's uncomfortable and scary. Maybe that's why everyone was so struck by the loss of Robin Williams. He had no one to talk to about this subject. If the subject you want to talk about is taboo, it is a good chance that thoughts about it feel taboo and become shameful. When society does talk about suicide it is usually an investigation into a mystery, "How could this have occurred? We had no idea!" We never speak of it as a choice. Society argues about when a group of cells becomes a fetus and its right to life, but Dr. Kevorkian is evil for letting people decide their own fate. Society has chosen to think that suicide is a result of mental illness. One cannot be in their "right" mind to want to end their own life. Biologically, it is an interesting argument. Much of our mental health issues related to stress and anxiety can be traced back to the our fight or flight response, the one that kept our ancestors alive in a very different world. So yes, like animals there's something inside us that wants to live. Unlike other animals, we have this ability to think.

Chicken Egg Situation

Is it the shame that triggers option D, or suicide that trigger the shame? I don't have answers, only thoughts. Many are joyous, many are not. Before, I was "too busy" to consider these deeper questions. They hung in the background while I tried to be productive, earn, and move up in the world. My avoidance strategy was a combination of sugar, entertainment, and work. I replaced that with new things that I learned, the coping I described in a previous entry. I let go of what was working because it wasn't working fast enough. I was not cured. I went back to what I had done in the past, but I've burned out a lot quicker. Hopefully, this is all part of learning, creating new neural pathways, and trimming the old ones down. Whatever it is, I'm exhausted. My tanks are empty and I'm vulnerable. Something crawls at the edge of my perception, telling me to sit down and paint, to create. Unfortunately, the shame of doing something for my undeserving is so much louder at the moment. I should be working. I should be making money. I should be like everyone else.

Compromise, I'm writing. Pain is personal. Those closest to me always want to know how they can help. You aren't responsible for what myself or anyone else is going through. Our minds create our own realities. You can help by validating those of us with pain. Yours isn't a position of fixer, but one of listener. You can bring me joy by reaching out. My mind will create the narrative that you're doing it out of guilt because you read this, but if you keep reaching out it will challenge this belief. Being heard is so important, but sometimes we don't want to talk. You can still be there. It can be draining for me to manage all the anxiety when being around people. And so, I isolate. One on one, with friends I trust are still stressful with my thoughts of unworthiness and fear of saying or doing the "wrong" thing, but the volume is less intense. I forget this and don't reach out. It seems unfair to put some onus on others, but hey, you asked how to help. Maybe you should bring me breakfast?

Don't Try, Don't Fail: The Constant Flow of Negativity

8 min read

Street Art of a skull with a heart and a mind inside it

In the world that is my mind and body, depression is a utility. Pipes and wires travel throughout my system ensuring basic darkness permeates the emotional ghettos and physical suburbs of Chris.

Those of us that are privileged to have water and electricity in our homes sometimes forget how the process works. Water is constantly being pushed through the pipes of the house, only stopping at faucet handle. One turn and it is instantly let free. The same goes for the electricity behind the light switch, if you touch the wires behind the switch they are live with power. If you must affect repairs to your plumbing, you shut the water off at the street or disable the pump that brings it up from a well. Yet, all the pipes in the home still have water in them and you'll be forced to drain them before making repairs. This is probably the best way I can describe my dealings with depression. It's always on and if I want to make changes, I still have to deal with what's in the pipes.

I've written about the challenges with my inner critic and my patterns of negative thought. I scrolled through my blog to grab an example or two, but I realized most of the posts in the last two years cover this subject. I'm always writing about it because it is always present. There are no simple decisions for me. The negativity is primed like water in pipe. An urge to use the restroom can start at a fear that the toilet won't work and end with me homeless, or dead. The toilet doesn't work, I'm responsible for breaking it, my partner decides this is the last straw in living with me, the jobless loser and his mental illness, and I'm out on the street. Maybe I starve to death later. Honestly, that's an abbreviated version. See, even now I am stopping myself from sharing the entire, drawn out story that my brain has created for fear of boring you. As I type this, my brain is concurrently working out all the reasons why sharing my issue will be bad. Friends and family reading this will blame themselves or distance themselves from me, surely.

My first therapist challenged me to keep going down the ladder of these thoughts. In the example above, the act of going to the restroom resulting in death is tremendously far fetched. This was her point, by following the story to an improbable end I would see these thoughts in my head are not helpful or worthwhile. Nonetheless, they are here. Constantly. It has gotten worse over the years. Well worn paths, neural pathways that I've rewarded time, and time again.

I've also learned this is part of my biology. Early humans developed this negative bias to protect themselves from danger. I try to remind myself of this fact. Though, it can be overwhelming when I never have a break. The anxiety is HVAC system that never shuts off. It's always in the background of everything I try to do. A static muddying every conversation and interaction.

Having depression, negativity and self judgment, as a utility readily available with every thought is exhausting. Right now, my jaw is clenched. I don't want to continue to share my thoughts on this subject for fear of being judged. Yet, I wonder if this is why so many find suicide an option. My pain is not a disease to fight, but my own mind. My pain is self-inflicted. Yet, to me it feels automated, just as moving my fingers on this keyboard.

Failure And Isolation

It's no surprise that my coping mechanisms are a result of all the freely available criticism and negativity.If I assume I am a failure and paint myself this way for others, I will not disappoint. In fact, I prove that I am a failure. At the same time, I tell myself that this is pathetic. I am still disappointing people because I've given up. It's not living. It is hiding. Is that toxic thinking? Is this the man up bullshit I have inherited from society? Every time I find a job that I'm qualified for, I find hundreds of thousands of reasons I would screw it up. Writing a cover letter drains me. If I make it to an interview, I am already burned out. I've had the job for weeks in my head, prior to the interview. I've gone over millions of ways that I would fail. This process is similar for meeting new people. The weight of this negativity that saturates my molecules as I am in these situations is exhausting. Solitude and isolation both reaffirms that I am a failure and keep me from trying anything new.

At this moment, my inner critic is reminding me that there's nothing new here for readers of my blog. I've written all this before. The last couple months have been hard for me and I'm itching to find some empathy. I just feel so misunderstood. I've been applying for jobs, working on a few projects, and expect myself to do more. This is where the feelings of being misunderstood originate. From the outside, I assume my productivity looks like I am better and therefore people will expect more. In reality it is me expecting those things. Furthermore, each project and job application means turning the faucet on, pouring in the depression and darkness. Over the years, I'vve protected myself from these feelings by not trying.

The Strategies For Managing The Pain

The big picture of a lifeless Chris doing nothing to avoid pain is hard to think about, yet always in the background. It's pumped in through the pipes. The strategies I've found that are helpful are not cures. Again, something I have been trying to grasp in my blogs, there is no cure. Acceptance is the way to move forward, but it is easier said then done. Since my strategies are not complete fixes, I lose site of them pretty easily. Trying to start them up again triggers my shame. Why did I stop doing these things? I suck. They didn't cure me, so why try again? Sorry conspiracy theorists, but I would much rather have pure flouride pumped to the pipes of my world than all these dark thoughts.

What works for me when I remember is art, meditation, journaling, being active, and being around people. Creating art is a mindful process and the results are not as important as that process. I do it for me, not for likes, fame, or fortune. Meditation is similar because I'm creating that space in my mind to counter all the negative stuff that is automatic. Journaling helps me see what is happening. Sometimes it can trigger me to feel worse, but I can't always depend on a professional psychiatrist. I have to think these things through for myself. Being active is a way to jump start the body. My mind and body are connected. The deep dread makes me physically ache. It upsets my stomach and drains me of energy. Walking, riding my bike, and exercise can work in reverse. An energized body can influence the brain. Being around people is a tricky one. It will most likely trigger a number of insecurities, but positive interactions can really energize me. Every interaction cannot be positive. This is life. However, the only way to work on my negative bias is to continue having experiences.

Currently, I am having a hard time getting back into the swing of these strategies. Things are dark. I suppose this is another good time to remind myself that I'm entitled to have down days, weeks, and months. It's valid to feel this way. Believing I should be otherwise only triggers shame, not healing. Perhaps I get back into a better place by accepting this. The utility is always going to deliver self-criticism. It feels hopeless when I'm in this space.

There's a fine line between acceptance and ignoring the issues. I think the line for me is staying in the present. It's overwhelming to think about just how much time I've lost, how many things I've put off, and how I've screwed up the last couple months. The past cannot be changed. Worrying about all the things I need to do, the things I should have been doing is overwhelming as well. It's the future. Once again, I find myself in need of being in the moment. I need to take care of what I can do right at this moment. It's easier said than done. Especially when you've spent your whole life living in the past and future.

The Calendar, The Depression, And The Golem

6 min read

A self-portrait of myself reaching up from the water. I may be drowning.

Depression.

I penciled it in for the morning.

I would guess this happened because I was preparing for the psychiatry appointment I had scheduled in the middle of the day.

It was Monday. The world around me goes back to work to bring home the bacon, scramble for promotions, and attain status. I tried to make a go of it, dressing to take my partner to work and walk the dog. The winter bit at me while on the stroll. I had good company, though. The dog who was also unemployed. Once home, I tried to barricade myself from the depression with chocolate. Or, was that choice because of my mental health? It's never clear in the fog of self doubt.

Bojack Horseman was falling into a well worn pattern of denial on the television. His issue was apparent to me at the time, yet my own denial was miles away from my thoughts. The clock refused to slow and depression finally stepped aside.

I blocked time off in the afternoon for anxiety. I should leave soon, or I will miss my psychiatry appointment. I waited until the last possible moment to go out the door. Swimming in questions that the doctor may ask of me, I schedule some shame. Why can't I ask myself these questions? What is wrong with me? Now, I will be late.

The appointment is attended by someone else. He exists outside the fog. In the safe space of the doctor's office, he speaks of the challenges of living with me. I envy him. He tells the doctor that he thinks he might not be real. He fears his confidence and self-control is an illusion. As if I was smart enough to be a double agent and fool both him and the doctor. No, his abilities are real. Though, I fear he may just be a golem I constructed to protect me from further hurt.

The appointment behind us, I make time for escapism. The positive words from the doctor and my other are too difficult to digest. I head for some retail therapy. I feel like I'm part of the real world now. Which of these things can bring me status? Of course, I'm shopping in a surplus store and the liquidation outlet next door. It's a punishment of sorts. I am not really part of the working world. I don't deserve nice things.

Exhaustion.

It's not on the calendar.

The exhaustion has no right to be there. I don't work like others. How could I be tired from talking about, and ignoring, my emotions? Yet, it comes down on me like the gravity of a star. Ignoring the pull, I work on laundry and setup the new television antenna I purchased earlier.

The scheduled day is over. Anxiety about tomorrow sits down to read me a bed time story, but I'm too tired. Instead, I read some fiction because reading is perceived as an intelligent past time. I like reading as well. Both reasons can be valid, but I want to focus on the first to get another hit of shame. After closing the book, I drift nowhere in particular. I can't tell if the fog is lifting or if I am sinking.

My partner stirs. The Sandman is held hostage by the stress of her Monday. My guilt and anxiety leap into action to soothe her. To be fair, they nudged me awake and I genuinely enjoyed trying to help her rest by telling her a story.

It's midnight. She is asleep and I am now alone with shame and depression. She works so hard and what do I do? I saw the psychiatrist today. It's been a year. I'm still here. I'm still failing. What happened to my exhaustion is unclear.

The Fellow At The Appointment

He's here in the dark, watching me write this. The blackness of the night swallows his words as if he is underwater. He seems to want to remind me something said at the appointment. Was it him or the doctor? What did they say? I'm sorry, I don't understand. I'm tired. He is not so easily deterred. He reminds me that earlier in the evening my partner said she appreciates everything I do for her. She told me that every time work gets stressful she sees me step up to take care of her.

The memory surfaces. It was him. At the appointment, he said something about taking control. "I don't have to be a passenger or a victim. I can take some responsibility here. I can make change." We talked about art with the doctor. The perfectionist that once shared head space with us is now incredibly quiet when we create art. In fact, I think my golem stepped aside as I explained to the doctor that I enjoy the process of painting and creating. The end product, well it's not a product. The finished work is always a delightful surprise now that perfection is no longer calling the shots. The doctor calls this progress. I realize that I haven't been writing or painting lately because I've been punishing myself instead of enjoying my own company.

Strange, I switched to saying "we" in the above paragraph. Indeed, I didn't need my golem to protect me during the Monday appointment. There's a sense I am unfamiliar with in my chest. I may be slightly proud that progress can be seen. I'm cautious because I am more comfortable in the known world of disappointment and depression. It's predictable here in negativity. He murmurs under the water, "art." Immediately, I understand. Perhaps it is good to be cautious about progress because like art, my life is not about a final product. It's the journey. It's the process where I can find balance and maybe some happiness.

Curious. I thought my golem was a double agent working for my depression. "I'm good," he tells those around me. "No need to worry or continue discussing my emotions." However at 12:44am, he seems to be genuinely helpful.

Technically, it's now Tuesday. I'm too tired to schedule any more introspection. I will try to sleep again. Good night.

Morning Mantra Dos Check-in

4 min read

A drawing of my small dog on a leash looking at my morning mantra meditating guru dog.

This is the second month in my experiment and I want to share what I've learned so far.

Morning Mantra Dos features 3 goals around Acceptance.

1) Accepting myself as I am. This doesn't just mean "warts and all." That's a dangerous thought from my negative self. I need to learn to accept that even attempting to do morning mantras is a great thing. I often focus on those things I failed to accomplish on my to-do list, but what did I finish? I usually look past those things rather than accept that I am getting things done. I am getting better.

2) Accepting my life as it is in this moment. Right now, my mental health isn't great. That's okay. In this moment, I'm having some terrible side effects from the medication. I cannot make changes by complaining or denying these things are happening. The first step is acceptance. I'm overweight, my blood sugars are rising and that's the reality right now. The next day, moment, or week, things will be different. I will be different. Again, there are positive things that depression would have me ignore. Today, I was the best husband, son, friend, and dog daddy I could be. I have come a long way from a year ago. I have recognized many of the triggers for my suicidal ideation. It's not perfect, it just is. Things will continue to change, as will I.

3) May I be kind to myself, today. As I have emphasized above, I need to remind myself of the positive things that are happening. Furthermore, if I postpone my morning mantra to the evening, that's okay. It's a great opportunity to put myself down for "failing." However, I need to have some compassion for myself. Whether it's insomnia from the night before or a busy day, I need to respond to myself with kindness, not anger. It's okay to be upset too. Consoling myself rather than yelling at myself is a skill I am still learning.

Creating Space

One of the lessons that I will probably spin into the next Morning Mantra recording is that the preparations at the beginning are very important. I encourage myself and those of you participating to give yourself some space. We monitor our breath and begin the mantra as I would a meditation. Without this step, the mantra may become simply memorization.

I find myself doing the mantra as I walk my dog in the mornings. How cool, I've got it memorized! These words are now affixed to my brain, right? Well, no. I'm giving my dog commands. I'm watching the sidewalk for ice. I am wondering how much that 5th floor condo space over there costs. There's a lot going on when you're walking. It's really a good exercise to train yourself to be more mindful, but not great for my Morning Mantra practice.

By finding some uninterrupted space to do the Morning Mantra and focus on myself, I can let those 3 mantras listed above sink in. Just saying it to myself is not feeling it. Perhaps, we could even say that when I'm repeating the mantra during a dog walk, I'm not really accepting the words. Sorry, I couldn't help myself. Accept my cheesy joke! I have.

Duration and Fatigue

When choosing guided meditations, I always wanted variety. Yet, I also wanted to focus on certain topics, which is why I created the Morning Mantras. The problem with doing the same guided meditation on self-compassion over and over is that I start to distract myself. I know what's coming next, I know the script. So, I'm thinking of what's on my calendar for the day and the like instead of being in the meditation. I believe this is why I'm trying to walk the dog and do the Morning Mantra at the same time. It's part boredom because I know what's next and part anxiety.

I wanted to do each mantra for a month in hopes that would be a good number of times to absorb the changes I want to make. I wonder now if a month is too long because I'm not fully engaging, or maybe it's not enough? That is, do I do them 3 times a week for 2 months? Repetition and the duration of practice are surely important. I'm just not certain what the best practice is. I'd be glad to hear any of your thoughts. (Sorry I had to close comments because of spammers, but you can find me elsewhere.) I'd love to hear from you!

P.S.

If you add the following URL into your favorite podcast app, you should get the Morning Mantras directly to your device without the need to come here and download them.

https://savethis.space/content/audio/?_t=rss

Morning Mantra Uno

Quick doodle of the text

I’ve decided to start my mantra experiment with recognizing emotions. As a man in our Western world, society demands we be tough and without emotion. “Don’t cry, be a man!”

I imagine it is not just men who avoid emotions these days. Our culture of busy keeps us from spending time with ourselves. Whether it is carting kids to after school sports, going to the gym, continuing your education to stay competitive in your career, or simply the distraction of the smart phone and television, we avoid emotions. Who wants to feel pain, sadness, frustration, or anger?

Yet, I’ve learned the hard way that it is important to recognize and accept these feelings. Burying them and avoiding the pain has had a profound affect on my life. Anxiety, depression, and a lack of self-worth have laid waste to who I am.

Therefore, I want to get better at accepting these emotions. I’m only human. So, Morning Mantra Uno is about recognizing and accepting emotions. I think this is going to be key as I progress through more mantras, so I have made it number one.

Is a month of reciting this daily too long?

Maybe. We’ll see.

Is this guided meditation-like thing not working for you?

You can try writing out the mantra in a journal. Dr. Nathaniel Branden found that sentence completion exercises worked well at changing behavior for his patients.

If you'd like to download the Morning Mantra instead of coming to this page each morning, right click the following and save it to your device: Morning Mantra Uno.

 

Much💜