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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.

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.

Emotions and the Inner Child Meditation

macro image of a dandelion

 

I've only found a few meditations on healing the inner child on Insight Timer. None of them really got me where I needed to be, so I made my own.

Ever have a dream or nightmare that was so real that you woke up feeling like the events actually transpired? Emotions are very powerful and completely disconnected from that part of our mind that keeps time. So, I wake up angry from a dream argument. I am afraid of the nightmare and cannot return to sleep. I am on edge, stressed about money because I dreamed that I made a bad investment. In our day-to-day lives we can tap into emotions from the past and not even know it. Every time you meet someone with cancer you may start to replay the emotions from the loss of a loved one with cancer.

Imagine one side of your brain handles logic and rational thought-- math and time. The other side is the emotions. What you feel is happening right now, not in the past. A memory from the past may have triggered the emotions, but they are happening in that moment of meeting another person with cancer. I believe this is an important distinction because we spend so much time avoiding emotions. It's easy to think, "I shouldn't be so upset right now, my father passed away years ago." A thought like that is bottling the emotions up. It is telling myself, "I should not feel this way. It is wrong." However, we cannot bottle emotions away. Eventually they return. Instead, we need to sit with them. We need to feel them. Processing emotions is nothing more than being with them. They are a part of being human.

Our rules for living in this world are developed as a child. You touch a hot stove at age three, you know to never ever do that again. If your mother sent your brothers outside to play while you did housework and helped her with meals so you could learn to be a good housewife, how does that affect you as a child? Perhaps, you think it is bullshit today, but still feel guilt or shame at the thought of asking for help with the housework? Maybe helping your mom was a pleasure. Maybe it didn't affect you adversely. We're all individuals.

While that time of child development is important, we can also experience things as an adult that leave a lasting affect. The example of loss I used above is one such event that can produce lasting emotions that we relive subconsciously. Despite the title, my hope is that the following meditation allows myself and you to explore whatever comes up, whether it is from childhood or adulthood. Do the best that you can. This is difficult work. Be kind to yourself.

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Download here-- Sitting with the Emotions of the Inner Child

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Much <3

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.

Afraid of What We Find

4 min read

A jittery letter H

 

Hustle.

Whether you're a freelancer, a company person, or a homemaker, you're encouraged to do more. The cult of busy is not an exclusive club, but we treat it that way. "I work 60 hours a week in addition to my side business." Oooh! Impressive.

Heap more onto the to-do list! Even if it's not work-related, we demand more of ourselves. There's a new Netflix show to binge watch on top of your other shows, go go! The kids jump from choir practice, to football practice, to dance, and much more. We start them out young. This is how we were taught.

Hurry from one event to the next. Investigate your phone for games, social networks, and more entertainment in the scant seconds between event hopping. Low battery, no battery? Think: what's on deck for tonight, replay the conversation from earlier, worry about tomorrow, next week, the coming year.

Hold off any introspection. Avoid being with yourself. Escape who you are and hustle.

What are we afraid of?

takes a deep breath

What am I afraid of?

Well, shit. When I'm alone with my feelings it's all fear, shame and guilt. Deeper, I fear no one likes me. I am afraid I am unlovable. Of course, I'd rather work 60 hours, get drunk, or binge watch entire seasons of shows. If the only other option is spending time feeling those emotions, I choose distraction. Even when we're avoiding our own emotions, we react to strong emotions of others. "Don't cry! It's okay!" When we witness some sort of domestic dispute between people in public we may look away. It's uncomfortable to be around people emoting. Even if someone is extremely happy, we tease them. "Sure, it's great you won the million dollar prize, but what's that going to do to your taxes this year?"

In therapy, I'm told emotions are not positive or negative. I'm sure I've written about that before. It makes sense that we may even shy away from strong feelings of joy or love. The emotions are all connected. There's not a separate tap for each one. Letting some happiness in means sadness is a coin flip away. So, we run.

Hide.

A Breakdown

Heal. I've been trying to pick up the pieces from my break. When you glue something together, it's never as strong as it once was. I keep trying to hustle my way back to normalcy. The dam keeps breaking, though. I am afraid.

I journal here in hopes to help others, as much as to remind myself of the path forward. I'm still afraid. I'm ashamed of my break. I'm ashamed I'm not back in the hustle. I'm ashamed that I don't love myself.

That's the honesty. This is my truth. This is why I hustle.

Hate. Spending time with myself, I see just how little I like me. This is thought again. Distraction and hustle. It's much easier to say, "I hate myself," than it is to feel the pain of not knowing. The pain of sitting with the shame, anger, and fear that makes me tremendously sad.

Maybe that sadness comes from a place of compassion? I don't know. Or, I'm afraid to say. I'm scared to truly look for fear of the emotional pain.

Hazy. The journey or process of healing is nebulous and uncertain. I suppose that's life too. The years of self-loathing have allowed me to control my life and narrative. The certainty of knowing I am a failure and unlovable was somehow comforting. That's no longer true.

Hugs. This is my prescription. This is what will be helpful as I work on my mental health.

 

See what I wrote about the other letters and my artistic take of them on my PixelFed page.

Improving Mental Health Triggering Your Inner Critic

3 min read

Mirror image of a male face that's been digital manipulated. The face has been split in red and blue colors

 

"When change comes from a place of non-acceptance, and when there's an absence of compassion, the inner critic is then often driving the bus." ~Dr. Candice Creasman

It's easy to look at the quote above and agree quickly without introspection. That's fear, keeping us away from the pain and emotion we carry within. Change is something we crave. We find ourselves always reaching for more. The loose, societal definition of success is "more." If you can get an A in school, why can't you get an A+? One promotion at work is great, but what's next? You've lost weight, but can you now tone your muscles?

Goals are not necessarily evil, but they need to be clearly defined. Often, like for me, there isn't a specific goal. Instead, I dwell on the fact that I'm not enough, no matter the accomplishment. This is me not accepting myself. That's my inner critic demanding change.

I can also use peer groups or society in general to beat myself up. This social comparison is another way to motivate change. Obviously, it is still coming "from a place of non-acceptance." Moreover, it can find its way into recovery. Just like the desire to lose weight might seem like a decent goal, improving mental wellness is a great idea. Except, when it is the inner critic "driving the bus."

I've made progress, but it's a slow process. Truthfully, this will always be part of my life. The hope that tomorrow I will wake up confident, successful, and no longer bothered by my inner critic or depression is a myth. Regardless, it's a myth that can be very compelling. Thus, my inner critic uses it as motivation for change. I see you, the reader, as a "normal" person. Why can't I be successful like you? Suddenly, my desire to get well has been twisted back into my pattern of old. I'm not enough. My efforts, my progress so far, are not enough. I am a joke.

Can It Be Both?

Of course, it's the lens that I'm looking through. Using social comparison and non-acceptance, I see a failure. With the compassion spectacles on, I see progress and I can taste a faint dusting of gratitude. For me, I think there's still much work in forgiveness to be done. I'm still punishing myself for the past. "So much of my life was wasted in depression. There's so little time ahead," I think. So for me, acceptance may come in the form of forgiveness. Here and now, there's nothing I can do about my past. Probable futures where I beat depression 20 years ago, or where I'm "successful" are a distraction. Here is where I need to be, in acceptance.

There are days, where I wake up and leave the compassion spectacles on the dresser. I have to accept this as well. Yes, I have screwed up. Yes, I am sad. I am tired. So be it. Living in denial, or non-acceptance, is not healthy. Yet, that very thought can engage the inner critic and send me into the past or the future. It's a loop. Accepting that today, or better yet, that this moment is a difficult one, is a far better strategy.

 

I go forward attempting to ask myself who is driving the bus. What is my motivation for change, today?

Wish me luck.

Much <3

the image above is part of a series or study of my emotions that I was working through on my Pixelfed account. It will be on my art blog soon.



Relationships and Mental Wellness

7 min read

Two oval shapes mirroring each other in a gritty environment

"You're not responsible for the emotions of others."

This is something I've heard often in therapy, groups, and through other resources. Logically, it makes sense. If you could make someone feel love for you, there would be no need for dating. No, people are in charge of their own emotions. It may not always feel that way to us. Sometimes it seems like the emotions are in control, not the other way around. Dealing with emotions is a whole topic of its own. What I sat down to write about was healing yourself while being in relationships.

Much of my depression appears to stem from my worth as a person in this world. For years I have lived off the validation from others. I was desperate to impress everyone, parents, grandparents, teachers, friends, and strangers. Their praise was all I had because I did not love myself. I was ashamed of who I was. I used to joke that if I became President that one of my grandmothers would have said, "I think you can do better. That job doesn't pay that much does it, Christopher." That was my joke, these are not direct quotes from grandma. This is how I saw myself-- never good enough.

The path to healing is to find a way to love who I am, in this moment. I cannot change my past and fearing the future only leads to more trouble. However, I'm not alone in this journey. I have a partner and family. They say you don't choose your family. Would my partner have chosen to marry me if my depression was written into the contract? I was miserable when a former partner went through depression. In fact, I left. I grew up with my mother locked away in her room. When my father tried to talk me out of leaving my former partner, I told him that I didn't know how he could live like that. My mother told me that hurt him a lot, to hear me say that. Again, dwelling on the past or unseen futures is not typically helpful with depression. Though, here in the present, my mental illness is a factor in our relationship.

The shame of being unworthy is fueled by that past memory, but the difference here and now is communication. This is a key part of my healing and relationship. My personal message that "I can do better" is supposed to motivate me, but telling myself it over and over has convinced me that I'm not enough. It doesn't matter which relationship, mother, sister, spouse, I'm not enough. That desire for outside validation that I mentioned earlier morphed into a new shame delivery system.

"That person is just being polite. They know I'm not really talented, important, or helpful," I thought.

Therefore, communicating with my partner openly is far more helpful than listening to that punishing voice in my head. This is a double-edged sword, sharing my thoughts and emotions like this. Openly sharing has her trying to create a map of pitfalls to avoid. No one wants to see someone they love hurting. So, what are the situations we need to navigate around to avoid Chris feeling pain?

The map is a myth. Even now, as I write this, I'm hoping to stumble on my own map to help her navigate my depression. You're not responsible for the emotions of others. Our minds are unique to the moment we are in. Our brains have plasticity and are constantly changing. There is no ranking sadness, anger, happiness, fear, surprise, and disgust. Each has the ability to overcome the others. Something that would normally disgust you to eat, may not look bad if you haven't eaten in 10 days. Fear of death is a big scary thing to some of us, but sadness of depression can easily dull the fear. Happiness that your partner is alive after a crash can overpower the anger or sadness you feel at losing your father's classic car. The point is, we cannot predict what others will feel. We barely have control of our own emotions.

Where Are We Then?

I share, it concerns my partner, and we're both left uneasy. If it was just me alone, my depression wouldn't affect anyone, right? This is depression talking again. That desire to isolate and shield ourselves away from any feeling whatsoever.

Now what?

Maybe the clues are above. My partner is concerned, she is affected by what I am going through. Her desire to avoid pitfalls is far more important than anything else. That's love. In that moment, she's trying to help. The same goes for me as I write this. The worry that our mental health is a burden on those around us is based in a fear of future pain. I'm missing that key present moment, she's doing everything to help. Her fear that she's not saying the right things or could be doing things that are harmful comes from how I behaved in the past. Instead of worrying about what may happen, all of us would be better off to focus on what's in front of us. I'm here and sharing. Human connection is an amazing thing if you just take time to really be present.

I'm not being critical of my partner or myself. Though, that is my old pattern. I'm simply trying to remind myself and those of you reading that nothing matters more, than this moment. Regret is born from realizing that fact too late. The "should haves" begin to slap the shore of your beliefs and you find yourself awash in feelings that you didn't do enough. There's that word again, ""enough." Maybe I need to try to remove that from my vocabulary with a Morning Mantra. In fact, I think saying "too late" was a bad idea as well. Truthfully, it is never "too late" when you're in the present.

Then & Now

I didn't leave my former partner because of her depression. I left to avoid mine. The shame that I was unable to pay the bills and returning to school because I couldn't hack university before was the motivation. I had failed my parents, my marriage, and everyone. I wasn't who I thought they wanted me to be. I suppose that was the question I was really asking my father at the time, "If you love my mother, will you love me if I can't be who you want me to be?" Of course, he didn't want my mother to be in pain. However, it wasn't up to him. All he could do was be present and communicate. Healing takes time, moment to moment.

I was lost in a future I thought everyone wanted. I was trapped in a past where I believed I made the wrong decisions about my education, house purchase, and letting others depend on me. I was depressed. When I observer the past, and don't get swept away in it, I can see my depression goes back much further.

Once my psychiatrist told me that the emotional parts of our brain have no sense of time. An emotion triggered by a memory can be just as powerful as the day the event actually happened. When I think of my father and all his medical complications as I write this, I feel sad despite the fact that he passed away a while ago. Wherever he is now, no matter what my beliefs, he's not hurting now. Living with my mental illness has not been a picnic for my partner. Tomorrow, may very well be another troubling day. Right now, in this moment, we have each other and I'm going to hold onto that and enjoy it. And of course, I have to continue to work on my relationship with myself.

Much <3