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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?

Anxious Dogs

7 min read

Coco the dog

She arrived at the Canadian rescue in November of 2017. The only history available for “Petunia” is the official documentation that got her across the US/CAN border. She was spayed, received a rabies shot and a microchip in the states prior to crossing the border. Petunia was also given meds to treat a cough and prevent heartworm.

The rescue organization saves dogs from shelters that euthanize, breeders, or simple surrenders from owners. Small dogs may be at a particular risk in the last 10 years or so because people like Paris Hilton who use the animals as accessories. Harsh judgements like that aside, every pet deserves a loving life even if it means uprooting them from thousands of miles away. The philosophy of the rescue that saved “Petunia” is that they can help more dogs find a “furever home” (this pun is used by all rescues, I swear) by using a kennel facility. Instead of finding foster homes until such time the dogs can be adopted, this rescue takes care of the animals at their location as best they can, while a call is put out for a new family.

“Petunia” has now traveled many miles, being abandoned at a kill shelter, to being poked, medicated and brought somewhere entirely new. When I meet her in February, she’s shaken and wary. “Petunia” seems to have bonded with one of her caregivers in 3 months and now she’s about to be removed from that relationship as well. She’s full of anxiety, afraid to be touched and her tail is so firmly tucked behind, and under, that you could mistake her for a boy dog. Things don’t get better at our new “furever home,” located downtown instead of the country like the rescue where she could run about if she chose. This tiny ball of anxiety has been abandoned and confused for so long that it is her natural state.

What If?

That’s the question anxiety is constantly trying to prepare us for. I am perpetually worried about everything. How poorly will you judge me for ending the sentence before with a preposition? Will people think I’m weak for sharing this? Does anyone really care, or are they showing me pity? Did I look like an idiot at the grocery store today? Does my sister hate me for not calling her recently? Maybe she'd rather I didn't call?  My old friends must think I’m a loser for breaking down, right?

The first week with “Petunia,” who we renamed Coco, was very challenging. My fears of not being accepted and Coco’s fear of abandonment clashed. It felt like she didn’t want to connect for fear of losing us. Meanwhile, my mind was wanting that unconditional love from a pet. My insecurity barked at me as Coco started to bond with my spouse in the second week. Rationally, I was telling myself that having her as a somewhat distant roommate for the next few years was better than her being euthanized. Emotionally, I was crushed. All my “what ifs” that played out were validated. My negative self image isn't my illness, it is the truth.

At the same time, I was fascinated how similar I was to Coco. The psychiatrist has asked me if I think I have abandonment issues because of my need to be validated by others. The desire to get my self-worth from those around me is driven by fear. Coco was afraid to be left alone in that first week, but also afraid to get close to us. For me new people, new friends, are more humans I will fail. This is where Coco and I differ. She’s all, “I’m not getting close to you because you’ll probably leave me.” In contrast, I believe that I will fail you and lose you, so why try?

Old Dogs

Talking to people about our rescue, Coco, I got lots of advice. “Give her some time, she’ll come around.” One person with a dog of a similar breed commented that her dog was now 9 years old and still timid. She continued to mention that her dog prefers women to men. It’s not just me. However, that doesn’t fit the negative narrative that depression wants to keep replaying, “there is something wrong with me.”

As Coco does start to warm to me by the end of a month, my story has to change. How can I keep depression’s motto alive in my head, “there’s something wrong with me?” Well, one month and Coco has come around and is no longer afraid of me. It’s almost been an entire year of groups, therapy, and classes to work on my mental health. Something must be wrong with me if Coco can beat much of her anxiety in only a month.

Why can’t I learn this new trick? Am I too old? Coco is still suspicious of strangers, but one could argue that’s a healthy fear. It can protect her in a cagey situation. What is my fear trying to protect me from? The obvious answer is pain and hurt. Coco was afraid of the same thing in the first week. Yet, she didn’t turn it on herself, as I did. My concern about failing others is a way to prevent myself from getting close in the first place. It is self sabotage.

Training

On good days, I can see how far Coco has come in a month and be inspired. Potty trained outside, being brave in a big city on walks, letting me pick her up, learning her name, and getting used to our schedule are just a few of the things she has accomplished in such little time. Anxiety comes to her face a lot, but she’s persevering. Every change she’s accepted has been due to practice. That’s what training is, essentially.

For me, practice and routine are difficult. The negative voice interrupts me, “The dog got better in a month, what’s your problem?” I fall into that loop of self-loathing. Change takes time and practice, but perhaps I keep trying new things instead of sticking to one? That was me being hard on myself again. I have stuck with some strategies that work, but impatience can easily tempt me back toward the negative self-talk. It’s another fear. I’m scared that no matter what I do, I’ll never be able to love myself. I think I’m supposed to sit and stay with that emotion, but it will take some training.

Meanwhile, Coco has decided the entire sectional couch is hers. She loves walks, belly rubs, and Piña Coladas. Just kidding, no alcohol for the pooch. Coco’s tail is rarely hidden from view these days, unless it disappears in a wagging blur when my spouse comes home. Her ears seem to be always alert, even when she looks like she’s napping. That anxiety of me possibly abandoning her to go to a psychiatrist appointment, or my partner leaving for work, keeps her attentive. Though, overall she’s made some impressive leaps in behavior. With Coco’s influence and example, I hope that I too can overcome my fears.

Smile: Fake It Until You Make It

5 min read

I’ve received this ol’ chestnut of advice from many people, complete strangers to therapists. Personally, I’ve found it not all that useful, but we really need to break the popular phrase down to understand if it can work for us.

Making It

So let’s look at the end goal first. What does “make it” mean to us? This will be different for everyone, but we rarely take the time to examine our feelings. When a therapist used the phrase she was specifically talking about my mental state. When depression and anxiety are running the Chris Show, my goal is to take over as director. My personal goal is to be “normal.” What is “normal?” This is not a specific goal. Well, after a number of groups, psychiatry appointments, and self-help books I understand that I am normal. Humans are imperfect.

Okay, what if my goal is to not be carried away by depression and anxiety?Again, this isn’t really specific. Perhaps “make it” is finding balance? Do you see my issue here? “Fake it until you make it” didn’t work for me because I have too many unanswered questions. I cannot clearly define what making it would be when it comes to my mental health.

Faking It With A Smile

The first part of the phrase, “fake it,” was useless as well. I knew I was a sham. The language is poorly chosen in my case, my negative core beliefs attach to it which makes the exercise have the opposite effect. There’s a number of studies that have scientifically proven that a smile can alter our brain chemistry and moods. I also find smiles from other people can be contagious as well. Yet, I wasn’t receiving these benefits because I wasn’t smiling.

I spent a day smiling every time I felt insecure, I felt anxiety, or had negative thoughts. By the end of the day, I was in physical pain. I had a headache too. After trying this out in the morning, I think my forgiving, positive smile turned into a grimace. The smile wasn’t genuine and I paid for that.

Smiles do work when you mean them. If not, well you look scarier than a purple blob trying to sell your kids burgers.

Amok

Why do folks run amok with this gem of a phrase if it doesn’t work? It seems like bad advice from my personal perspective, at least when it comes to mental health. Can you fake a new job until you figure it out? Perhaps, yes. (Of course, as someone with anxiety, I feel certain that faking it would backfire on me.) Certainly, there must be some traction for this phrase to have made it this far into our language.

William James was a Victorian philosopher and American psychologist who believed that actions guide our emotions, not the other way around. In other words, if you want to be happy, laugh. This “act as if” principle, as it is sometimes called, has been popular for many years. Psychologists and motivational speakers are all about this idea. However, as I shared my personal experiment above, we must clearly define what it is that we are trying to achieve. I’d argue that if you can figure out your specific goal, you won’t be faking it at all. For example, the theory of acting as if says if an introvert wants to be more social they should imagine the behavior of a friend who is extroverted and mimic them. If the introvert does this a few times successfully, they’re no longer faking it. Fear prevents us from trying things we are uncomfortable with, but when we succeed the fear quickly loses power over us.

The challenge isn’t in faking it, or making it. Sitting down to examine yourself, to feel and sit with those thoughts and emotions about what you believe you are lacking is the hard part. To observe those difficult emotions as they run amok in my body without getting caught up in the story of why I feel insecure or the narrative of what “could” happen seems to be a better skill than faking it.

By the way, the word amok, or amuck, was used in the days of opium dens. It comes from the the Malay word “amoq,” meaning “a state of murderous frenzy.” Europeans who got high on opium and ran into the street killing people with a squiggly looking dagger were said to have run amok. That dagger is called a kris. There you go, I’ve killed my dreams, and yours, of “faking it until you make it.” What a coincidence, my name is Chris. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some soul searching to do.

 

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, de