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Finding Myself in the Maze of Mental Illness

6 min read

Some collage work on a picture of myself

 

Getting to know myself is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

Along with all the distractions provided by society and culture, the truth is that I don’t want to know who I am. Many of us binge Netflix, work 80+ hours a week, and volunteer to help others in order to escape from being alone with our minds. People shove addiction, religion, self-help books, life coaches, relationships, and the trend of the month into that feeling that something is missing. It’s true that we can find solace in some of those things, but until you know what’s really wrong and who you are none of it will work.

I’ve come to believe one of the roots of my depression and anxiety is the absence of self-worth. This is the hole I’ve been trying to fill. The feeling of “I am not enough” is common for those people with mental illness. Yet, the path to healing is as different and individual as the labels on the heavily scented products at Bath and Body Works (seriously, there’s no design constant happening in that store).

Both the anxiety and the depression are roadblocks to healing. Nothing I do is good enough. I don’t put in as much effort as I should. I can’t create anything as well as others. I never live up to anyone’s expectations, most of all my own. Chet believes I am a failure, and because he’s my inner critic, I think it’s mostly true. I don’t completely feel that way thanks to the anxiety I carry with me which makes me question all my thoughts. The challenge comes in the loop that traps me. It’s like Bill Murray being trapped to repeat Groundhog’s Day over and over.

Me: I think this therapy/self-help book/training/support group/etc. is helping!

Anxiety: It is. Just keep doing it exactly the same way. Wait, am I doing this right? I don’t know. What if I’m doing it wrong?

Depression: When have I ever done anything right? No, I’m failing. This doesn’t work. I’m broken.

I tried to manage my anxiety and depression through Morning Pages and that lasted a few months. It didn’t cure me and I stopped. The same goes for meditation, Cognitive Behavior Therapy, sentence stems on self-esteem, and a few self-help books. In every case the depression and anxiety got the best of me. In fact, I could argue that these parts of me crave trying the new things so I can get that sweet, sweet, shame and feeling of failure. These patterns of self-destruction are biological according to Dr. Kristen Neff in her book Self- Compassion.

We want to be safe. Our development, both as a species and as individuals, is predicated on basic survival instincts. Because human beings tend to live in hierarchical social groups, those who are dominant within their groups are less likely to be rejected and have more access to valued resources. In the same way, those who accept their subordinate status also have a secure place in the social order. We can’t take the risk of being outcast by the people who keep us out of harm’s way. Not if we want to stay alive.

I am constantly critical of myself because of my need to fit into society and my social groups. This is where I step away from my needs and desires again. Instead, I use social comparison. “I should be smart like that woman. I wish I was successful like her. I will never be as talented as him.” I’ve been ignoring myself for so long, I have no idea where to start. Each time I sit down to find out what it is that I need, I get lost in the same pattern of shame and anger. Why am I not as amazing as you?

Healing seems to be somewhere between realizing that we’re all suffering and accepting myself for who I am. Nobody wants pain. This is why we run from it. This is why myself and so many others run from our emotions. That person saying hateful things on Facebook is just as afraid of hurt as we are. Pain is as natural as love. It's trying to tell me something so I can grow. In Radical Acceptance Tara Brach says, “The moment we believe something is wrong, our world shrinks and we lose ourselves in the effort to combat the pain.” I isolate myself. I don’t return messages, don't call friends, and don't seek social situations. I want to think I am alone in pain, my world shrinks. My language becomes finite. In many cases above I use words like nothing, anything, and never. I also start the process of shame with other words like should and wish.

At this moment, the path to healing seems to be observing this use of language and those biological patterns I follow. Forgiving myself and accepting my emotions as they are is incredibly challenging. Especially in the stressful day-to-day activities where my patterns have always dominated. Additionally, the depression and anxiety make the ability to see progress difficult. And so, I keep working on me. I keep attempting to document my process to help myself and get some realizations past the loop of shame, sadness and anger.

Next up in the game plan to find my self-worth is joining a men’s group to discuss my problems with humans instead of a computer screen. While I am currently in a mental health support group, the men's group has a specific focus that I need. I also have a project I am just about to launch to help myself daily. I say launch because I’m going to share it publicly. I hope others find it useful, but as I said before healing is individual. We can do this. Let’s just give ourselves time. It won’t happen over night. Much <3

Fractured Part 3: Just Me

6 min read

Image of me ghosting

I’ve sat down on four separate occasions to conclude the exploration of my self and wrote four different things. Before, I shared how I am bullied by Chet and thrown into a frenzy by Sparky’s anxiety. I thought the purpose of writing another part would be to explain who I think I am, or maybe who I want to be. However, it turns out that I’ve already covered that.

Who I want to be is perfect. The gravity of anxiety from Sparky is a constant reminder of how I wish I was someone else. The gut punching criticism of Chet may have started out as a way to motivate myself to be this perfect someone. Perhaps the real fracture isn’t between the quibbling voices in my head, but between who I am and who I want to be. Where did this idea of perfection come from? Is it a result of the low self-worth, or the cause of it?

Childhood Is A Blueprint, But the Child’s Mind Is the Designer Not the Parents

While we might all be a similar shape, there is no mold, no factory creating similar humans. We develop through our individual experiences. Our animal brains learn by recognizing and creating meaningful patterns. No matter how many times you tell your toddler daughter not to touch the stove, she still reaches for it until she gets burned. After that, she knows to be careful around those things that look like stoves. Of course, this is at the simplest level. Will she associate the aroma of the hot cocoa on the stove with the pain? Do her siblings care for her or tease her? What color was she wearing? All of these things could affect the pattern formed in the child’s developing mind.

Exploring my childhood through psychiatric therapy has been tough. I think we often tend to draw a line between abuse and mental illness. Thus, I spent time struggling against these conversations around childhood because of my loyalty to my parents. I was not physically abused by them, so why are we talking about this?  Once I realized we were talking about my story and the way I interpreted events, my fears subsided.

The School of Life has several videos on the subject of childhood and the following is the most recent.

I thought the psychiatrist and I were Sherlock and Watson. We were going to find the one event in my childhood that would unlock my self-worth and fix me. Too much fiction in the form of books and TV may have created this fantasy about therapy. The reality is that recalling painful memories of my childhood help me get to those emotions I’ve been stocking away like nuclear waste. No matter where you put nuclear waste or emotions, they don't go away, ever. Talking about my feelings out loud allows me to see how they influenced my decisions. Therapy isn’t about reliving childhood, it is about trying not to repeat it in the now.

Who I Want to Be

At the moment, I want to be loved by others above all else. This is an attempt to fill the hole that is my own self-worth. Maybe this is a side effect of having a biological father who never attempted to contact me. Perhaps it is the result of loving and respecting a father who I don’t remember ever hugging or hearing him say, “I love you.” Toxic masculinity and childhood trauma aside, the changes that have to happen now must come from within me. I need to be a human who loves himself as much as he loves others. It’s like I need a seed to grow a happy new plant, but the only way to get the seed is to grow the happy new plant. Nature is complicated.

I believe a big part of being the human I want to be is to stop denying the one I am now. The demand for perfection is a result of being unhappy with who I think I am. I believe I am a burden. I am cluttering your social feed, mind, and eyes with serious talk instead of cat memes. Motivation in my world is done through guilt, not pride. Even writing part 3 of this story has nothing to do with journaling, growth, or pride. I feel like I have to do a third part. Why? The logic doesn’t hold up when I try to put it to words. My classic guilt has bloomed into a mega crop of shame filling my mind like an endless briar patch.

Original Sin

The premise that began this 3-part series was flawed to begin with. What if I wasn’t born into this life fractured, but perfect? I am the perfect human. We drop the phrase “only human” whenever we make mistakes. So, it turns out I don’t need to walk around believing I’m imperfect because the truth is quite the opposite.

I don’t need to be perfect and I am not fractured. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men do not have to find a magical glue to stick me back together again, as I once thought. I should not ignore my emotions and do the Humpty Dance when I feel bad. I simply need to be and accept the me I am in this moment (and the emotions). The self I’ve been discussing in this series is built from the past successes/errors and future worries. I can learn from my past, but I don’t have to identify with it. At least, this is how I currently believe I should proceed. Like the rest of you, I’m just making it up as I go.

Hi.

I’m Chris.

I’m not Chet or Sparky.

I’m not fractured.

I’m a human who wants to learn to love himself.

Wow. This is difficult.

Why Is Change So Difficult?

4 min read

A Betamax player image glitched

To consider the question, put yourself in the following scenario:

You’re going to spend a month in Mexico. Thus, you decide to take a class in Spanish to make your time there easier, and learn a new language. At the end of the first class the teacher gives you homework.

How do you feel about homework? Did your mind internally groan. Perhaps, old ghosts from your past rose from the dark recesses of your memory to haunt you each day before the next class. Finally an hour before class, you sat down to do the homework. Or, you wrote the homework assignment off in frustration or shame.

Homework is a dirty word to many of us. It’s more than anxiety, it is a cultural perception carried over from grade school. Kids don’t want homework. Even some teachers don’t want to assign homework because that means “homework” for them in the form of grading.

This stigma has resulted in patterns of behavior like the one described above. In the hypothetical situation you decided to take Spanish for your personal benefit. This was not forced on you. Thus, homework is only going to improve your experience. Yet, this old phantom of the dread associated with homework clouds your mind from the truth. In this case, homework is good and our minds refuse to believe it because of years of learned behavior.

Knowing Is Less Than Half The Battle

Thankfully, I haven’t gotten a lot of people telling me to “just be happy.” There’s definitely still a stigma around depression and mental illness, but these things are becoming more prominent. Unfortunately, I am often the person telling myself to “just be happy.” I know many of my patterns of behavior. Sadly, I’ve spent years building them just as society has about homework. Therefore, changing them is not so easy.

The Chris Show is brought to you, and me, by Depression Inc. Like with Facebook and Twitter, I signed up without reading the Terms of Service. I wake up with the knowledge that I am programmed to despise myself. During breakfast, the loathing begins.

I have strategies to help. I can fill my schedule with tasks, meditate, exercise, and eat healthy. Even if I achieve success with these tools my pattern emerges. Good job. Of course, the reason you did all this today is because you’re broken. Winnie-the-Pooh’s friend Eeyore wouldn’t hesitate to block depression from his social networks. Knowing of my mental distortions help, but that information is held within the very hard drive I’m trying to repair.

Are We Sure Time Heals All Wounds?

People can learn to live with mental illnesses. I have friends, who I hope to feature on an upcoming podcast idea, that are doing just that. I believe the path to a better life lies in creating new patterns. On my reading list is a book focusing on neuroplasticity. It is possible to change our brains, but it requires practice and time. The real tricky part? Time is a construct of the mind. Thus, depression distorts time and therefore my healing.

  • Tried doing things differently for a while and it didn’t work.
  • I don’t have time to fix myself. I should be working and enjoying life because I’m already in my 40s.
  • It’s too late for change. I’ve wasted my life.

This is why learning to live with my mental illness, making change is difficult. It’s homework that I don’t want to do because it means graduating into a world far bigger than my school. My mind, in this negative state, is predictable. Expecting sadness, fear, failure, disappointment, and shame is certain. Rolling the dice to possibly get joy, happiness, or success is unpredictable. I just can’t afford another failure, I have to be perfect. That’s the mental illness weighing in. Even the observational thought, “What do I have left to lose if I roll the dice?” has a negative connotation in my mind. It goes back to “The reason you have to try so hard is because you’re broken.

Changing the mind is like following the instructions to set up your first VCR in the 80s using the video tape instructions it came with. That means there’s hope for me. People figured out their VCRs sooner or later. Or, they asked for help from friends. I just have to hope that my mind isn’t Betamax and eventually I’ll get there.

Fear and Butterflies

4 min read

For most, suicide is not option D. This bit of wisdom was shared by Ana Marie Cox in an interview on mental health. A doctor gave her this insight after she was institutionalized after attempting suicide. I was as shocked to hear that first sentence, just as she stated she was in the interview. Really? Everybody doesn’t think about suicide?

In my teens, I thought about suicide in excess. If options A, B, or C did not work out I always had D. It wasn’t a ploy for attention on my part because I felt I was alone. That may not have been true, my family may have been there for me, but I felt alone. The loneliness a sign that my depression has been hanging around for much longer than I thought. I never made an attempt at suicide in my youth, but looking back I can see the inclination to do self-harm. There was an uneasy voice in my head when I was near danger, “what if I just leaned over this railing even more?”

Even with self-harm and suicide lurking in my younger years, I had a stupendous fear of death. Having never been convinced of any sort of afterlife, thoughts of my own demise were paralyzing, even into my forties. To me, death is not like falling asleep or a vision of walking toward the light. Death is like abruptly ending this observation midway through the third sentence above. The thought of my death would result in a panic attack, insomnia, and the occasional bad poetry.

Last year, I went to the hospital because that fear of death was gone. I had a break down. Guilt from my behavior, shame from addiction, and fear of showing my weakness to the world overwhelmed my native dread of death. I wanted to give up. I believe that fear is still missing. Though, I’ve started to wonder if it is the big bad behind my low self-worth.

There’s a colossal belief within me that a key to “getting better” is finding my own self-worth. As it is now, I live off of the acceptance and approval from others. I am desperate to be needed because I don’t believe I have a right to be in the same room with you. The emotion behind that is fear. It is a fear that I have no worth. Could it be that I’m afraid of dying without having proved my worth? Am I that cliché male of the species who distresses that he has nothing to leave behind when he is gone? That’s an ugly thought. It feels petty and pathetic to be worried about my legacy.

As I share my mental health story, occasionally I wonder if it is manipulative. Since I don’t feel as if I am accepted by others, perhaps I can get them to have simpathy for me. You can see how questioning my own motivations is driven by the fear that I am not behaving as I should be. I judge myself rather than accept who I am, grey hairs and all. I desire to be received by others because inside I don’t believe in me.

The urge for validation from the people around me ties nicely with the toxic idea of leaving a legacy. I am attempting to measure self-worth with money and things. Comparing myself to others only continues the depression and low self-worth. Even looking at what I’ve done in this world, my deeds are never enough.

That feeling may be a product of the competitive nature of our world. Even so, many of us look at our accomplishments in a very warped way. We want forward progress we can see. That’s not always the case though, is it? Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder gives us the idea that the simple act of stepping on a butterfly in the past can affect the future. Rather than fearing that my wages are a disgrace to my spouse and family, I might hope that the simple act of saying “thank you” to the bus driver yesterday helped her get through another tough day, week, or year of work.

I’m not sure if that’s blue-sky thinking or a valid concept. My depression and fear carry considerable weight in my thought process. Still, making generous assumptions about my simplest of acts could be something to work towards, a way to find some worth within. What are your thoughts?