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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?

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.

Safe Spaces, Suffering & Humanity

4 min read

An image of clouds over a school field with the sun rays shining through

 

One of the side effects of going to mental health groups for me is seeing humanity in pain.

Each of us is afraid of hurt. Two angry people shout at each other before throwing punches because deep down they do not want pain. In groups we are given a list of rules which basically boil down to treating each person as a human. It’s a vulnerable setting for everyone there. In a way, the rules aren’t needed after a while because we’ve all shared our inner fears and have bonded. We didn’t come together because we’re amazing athletes or because of our successful business stories. Our relationships in the room are not dependant on our productivity, but built from our common hurt. Athletic careers can change overnight, just as business success. However, there’s always going to be pain in our human lives.

Stepping outside of the safe space of our group meeting room, I see so much suffering in the world around me. Of course, I see it through my own lens, this journey that has brought me here to vulnerability. People around me seem to be so busy avoiding emotions. Work harder, achieve more, ignore pain. Though, I don’t see those people in their own safe spaces. Perhaps they share emotions with a partner, a friend, or a family member. Safe spaces are incredibly important.

Conflict on the Internet

Recently, actor Wil Wheaton was banned from the Mastodon server he joined after leaving Twitter. It was dramatic, brutal, and brought all sorts of emotions up for me. I’m not here to argue for either side of this story. Basically, the thing about posting thoughts online is that they have potential to live forever. People felt uncomfortable with Wil Wheaton’s past. I don’t know what he feels or believes because I am not him. I cannot speak for the LBGT folks who fought to have him removed. All I am left with is sadness.

People are entitled to their emotions. There is no right or wrong, only suffering. The way I see working through pain is not with fighting, but by accepting and listening. Wars are not won on a battlefield. They are resolved by a few people in a room talking and listening. As someone who has fallen in love with the community I’ve made on Mastodon it was hard to see the division taking place. It was inevitable, as the Fediverse continues to grow, but it hurt me nonetheless.

Seeing the article linked above from The Verge on this Mastodon drama made me realize just how important safe spaces are. So many people complained about Wheaton that the administrator of the server he was on was getting 60 complaints an hour. Yet, if you look at the comments on The Verge article, there’s an absent of LBGT voices. It’s obvious to me that they don’t feel safe speaking there. Though, I’m not surprised. I recently watched this video from HBO and Vice News about the history of discrimination when it comes to blacks accessing swimming pools. I was shocked to see footage recorded on mobile phones in this day and age of people attacking blacks at public pools! It’s truly sad that we seek to divide ourselves instead of seeing our common humanity.

The need for safe spaces is important. While public spaces may not be ideal, I cannot imagine living in fear of sharing my beliefs or who I am with people I love and trust. It’s one thing to decide not to engage, and listen, and another to hide from others for fear of abuse. Even if we magically dropped our avoidance of emotions and pain, we would still need places where we can share. A nudist, and a Muslim who believes in a certain standard of modesty may not make the best support buddies. However, they may be able to bond over the persecution they’ve received. I’d like to repeat what I said before, we’re all suffering.

Listen and love, my friends. Each of us has our own suffering. I’ll leave you with an awful joke that I made up.

A priest, a rabbi, an iman, a non-binary person, a furry, a nun, a minister, a lesbian, a gay man, an atheist, a lama, an astrologist, and a white guy walk into a bar to have a drink. Isn’t that beautiful? All these different individuals coming together to share a beverage, no matter what they choose? I wish it wasn’t a joke.

Much<3

A Journey Inside My Depression

9 min read

Last week I spent 2 days trying to productivity my way out of feeling. This is old hat for me. Where does that phrase come from? Yuck, that’s my mind’s way of finding more avoidance, I start searching for that answer instead of sitting here and dealing with my emotions. I’ve been suppressing tears. Why? I wish I knew.

It goes like this, I woke up one morning to a note from my spouse. Regardless of the content, I felt shame and guilt. Even before reading it. I assumed it was bad news. I assumed I’d done something wrong. I stayed up late the night before, trying to keep the tears away. I promised not to stay up too long and I did. I was guilty. I didn’t share my battle against the tears. I was ashamed. Sharing my vulnerability would have made it real. Guilt and shame fit. What did the note say? Doesn’t matter. In the past I’ve stayed up late avoiding my issues with unhealthy distractions and destructive consequences. Another reason to guilt myself. It didn’t matter that the late evening was spent problem solving website issues. I was judging myself on the past. I was not at all focused on the now, on the content of the note.

I believe depression is an awakening of sorts. Those of us who reach this stage realize something isn’t right in our lives. It is acknowledging that the problem isn’t with the outside world, but within us. Nobody in the history of the world has said, “This was the best day of my life! It will never get better than this. Well, I guess I’ll jump off a bridge. I might as well leave a success.” People who have suicidal thoughts have lost self-worth. That loss is very difficult to live with. How do you correct this problem in your own mind? If it was something on the outside of the body, a cut, a rash, or a bad haircut we know what to do.

What makes depression worse is that we are creatures of habit. The truth is that we want the pain of depression. The predictability is a comfort. Depression becomes standard operating procedures. We can’t make sense of success. We write it off as luck because personal success would challenge our assumption that we have no worth. We take our meds, see therapists, and tell people we want to be free of the dark corners of our minds. Yet, if I wake up tomorrow free of depression, what will happen? Predictability will be gone! Without a logical pattern to understand how will I know what to say and do? In this state of mind, in the depression, my low self-esteem won’t let me see that I can function in a world without comfortable predictability.

Damned If You Do

There it is. Please help me, but I don’t want help. I project this can’t win attitude on others when they try to listen and help. My morning letter from my spouse was a positive one, but I assumed it was bad.

I cannot imagine living with me. Of course I can’t because I have lost self-worth and contemplated suicide. Before sitting down to write this I was outside and chose to cross the road at an intersection without a stop sign or a traffic light. “Maybe I’ll get hit by a bus,” I thought. As I walked on, an older woman limping down the sidewalk passed and I wished I could donate my somewhat healthier legs to her. Let’s give her a better life with this donation and also end my pain. How do my loved ones deal with that? It seems hopeless.

I couldn’t live with someone’s depression myself. In the past, my ex-wife was depressed and I ran. I asked my father how he stayed with my mother as she suffered through depression. Conveniently, I don’t remember if he had an answer. I only remember my mother telling me that he was hurt by the question. I wish my father was here to help my spouse. Of course, that wish is me avoiding responsibility. If I just got better, my spouse wouldn’t suffer. Even worrying about my partner is avoiding my own issue of depression.

Nonetheless, it cannot be easy to live with me. As I explained, sometimes I don’t want to help myself. I have tools from therapies, group sessions, and classes. I didn’t use those resources last week. Instead, depression and the stereotype of the suffering artist had me writing this. Even admitting that fuelled my depression. “Idiot, why aren’t you using your tools? Come on, Chris!”

Stigmale

The other option was to let the tears come. A difficult task for a male in our toxic Western society. We often talk about the social influence has on the development of girls to women, but rarely talk about “boys being boys.” We’re told to “man up,” instead of emote. Crying is a weakness. I knew for days that what I needed was a cry, and yet, I couldn’t do it until the pain became unbearable. Should I listen to a sad song or watch an emotional movie to bring the tears? No. I just needed to let them come.

I needed to feel safe to allow them to happen. Though, repressing them for so long had my eyes watering in a public cafe as I reflected on my week. What are you feeling as you read that last sentence? Are you feeling empathy for me because you can relate to sadness or because you’re embarrassed for me having this emotion in a public space? You could argue there isn’t much of a difference, but it may illustrate how much we’ve tried to distance ourselves from emotions in society. The fact that we feel shame or awkward having emotions in a public space is troubling, in my opinion.

Coming Out The Other Side

At the end of the day, I reached for my mental health tools. It’s very tough because even these helpful tools can affect me negatively. Chet(me) was quick to make me feel bad for waiting days to get the tools out. That’s the loop, the depression feeding itself, once again.

I confessed to my partner how I perceived her morning letter. Once again, revisiting the idea that I project the “can’t win” attitude on her. She held me and I cried. The release wasn’t as cathartic as I had hoped it would be. Perhaps, this is because of that male stigma that I am fighting against. There’s a part of me that believes crying serves no purpose. It doesn’t solve the issue. I feel the same way about anger. Getting angry never seems to fix anything, so why bother crying or getting angry?

These emotions are natural that is, we all feel them as humans. Repressing the tears for days resulted in a number of issues for me that I could have avoided if I simply let them happen when I first felt the need for tears. Supposedly, the trick is to feel our emotions, without getting caught up in the story. In other words, figuring out what is behind the emotions instead of getting carried away with thoughts of fixing the future or past events that led to the feeling. Initially, I was feeling bad because it is the season. I haven’t worked regularly in a year and much of my identity is my work. What do I have to be proud of? That question is going the wrong direction, it is heading towards the story. Beneath my identity issue, under the idea of having no work is the common theme that I have no self-worth. It’s possible that this is what my tears are trying to tell me.

This is why depression is called a mental illness. The perception of reality is distorted with many of us. While many mental disorders may present themselves in behaviors, depression can sometimes remain within. This is why suicides of loved ones can affect us so deeply. Sometimes it is the only sign that there is a problem.

How To Get Help or Help Others

  • There’s this great Wikipedia page with a list of suicide crisis lines for a ton of different countries. Talk to someone it can help. Even if you haven’t attempted suicide, thinking it is a distant option is not healthy. It has been option D for for me since junior high. I recently learned that not everyone thinks this way. Reach out using one of those lines above or find someone you trust to share your emotional struggles.
  • Make It Ok has a number of resources to help you talk to friends with mental wellness issues. They want to abolish the stigmas around mental illness in society, so take a few minutes to check the site out.
  • Reach out to each other. Those of us dealing with mental illness will not come to you. My self-worth is nonexistent. I am not going to email, text, or call you after I write this. I don’t want to burden you. I don’t even want to be with me! There’s even an urge to apologize for recommending that you to reach out to me and others with mental illness. After all, “it takes two to tango.” Sometimes friendships feel unequal when you have to be the one always making contact. Well, my spouse had a sign in her grade school classroom that fits, “Fair isn’t everybody getting the same thing. Fair is everybody getting what they need in order to be successful.” Help your friends be successful, reach out and engage each other.