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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.

Old Dogs and Patterns of Behavior

5 min read

A sketch of my dog Coco

Those poop baggies are infuriating to open, that’s why I missed the car crash. Coco did her thing about 9–10 meters away from the corner where a small black sedan went head-on into a lamp post. That was a number of weeks ago and our rescue doggo is finally starting to enjoy walks again.

I was working hard to see Coco as my inspiration, if she can set aside her fear and anxiety so can I. After the witnessed accident, however, she reverted back into the darkness of fear. Coco ran with reckless abandonment seconds after the crash. I reeled her in and tried to pick her up to offer comfort, but she scratched and writhed to simply get away from the area. So, I ran with her for about 4 blocks. We ended up in a small park that offers some shelter from the city around it. Tail between her legs and jumping at every single noise, other dogs wouldn’t even excite her.

The next week was a real challenge. In fact, we drove Coco to an off leash park away from the city to get her some exercise because she wanted nothing to do with walks any more. Coco didn’t want to accept reality, like me. Once again, I found myself looking into a mirror. Coco had fallen into the old pattern of fear that kept her using pee pads on the balcony. She was not interested in adventuring outside and smelling all the amazing refuse people just leave on the sidewalk.

Fear of failure, fear of not being enough keeps me from being social, working, living life, and yes, peeing outdoors. This pattern of mine is one that has been imprinted on me for many, many years. Like Coco, it is easy to fall back into this destructive thought pattern. I can also bounce back like she can. I try to measure my mental health in moments. There are no good days or bad days, just moments. Right now, I’m here writing this and it feels like a hopeful and decent moment. I might stand up in twenty minutes and see the sink full of dirty dishes and fall into intense shame. Maybe thinking of my life in moments helps me cope a bit easier.

The reality that every moment wasn’t going to be “happy” for me had been easy to live in when I simply expected the worse. Accepting that I will find moments of happiness is very new to me. Of course reality is not fair. For example, I felt Coco needed to accept that we live in the city and accidents may happen. We had to get her back to walks around the city without fear. She’ll learn. She did it before. Can I do this for myself?

In week two after the trauma of witnessing the accident, Coco had her nose down on the sidewalk and her eyes on any car that was moving. The tail was not expressive, but not firmly tucked away either. Other dogs we ran into were a pleasant reprieve from the loud buses and the overcompensating noise from motorcycles. Once again, Coco was transforming. She was breaking her pattern of fear, slowly, at her pace.

In the third week, the tail waved like a stubborn flag in a tornado. Loud vehicles were scary, but there were interesting things to smell, and sidewalks we had not yet traveled. I remain envious of her growth. Sometimes I can see that I have made progress as well. Those are good moments. I have much work to do, as does Coco.

Our rescue doggo needs more leash training. Though, her obsessive little nose has taught me a lesson. “Stop and smell the roses,” they say. Coco is living in the now when her nose is to the ground. She’s not worried about being abandoned, car accidents, or what I want. This is a valuable lesson in mindfulness for me.

With my psychiatrist, we occasionally explore the past. How did I become full of anxiety and lose my sense of self worth? There’s a difference between exploring the past and living there. Often, when we examine our past we get caught up in it. The stories of our hurt, pain, failure, etc. feed themselves. We stop observing and leave the now.

The real issue with leaving the now is our desire for things to be different. Our minds spend a great deal of energy wishing things had not happened in the past. Or, we wish for an unrealistic future, “I wish tomorrow Coco would behave on the leash.” Both of these things are impossible to accomplish in this moment, right now. Accepting the past and the unpredictability of the future would appear to be key for me.

Unfortunately, finding acceptance is a process. For me, there’s a fine line between acceptance and ignorance. “Can’t change the past, so why worry about it?” Well, that sentence may be avoidance of those locked away emotions and not forgiveness and acceptance. Avoiding those feelings has a lot to do with how I got here.

So, my journey continues. I find it strange that I pick up organic dog poop in a plastic bag that will preserve it for a million years. Of course, I’ve been repressing emotions and ignoring the hurtful patterns of my past for my entire life. At some point we all have to deal with some shit.

I hope to see you in the now.

Much💜

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.

 

Is Compassion For Trump Possible?

6 min read

Sketches of sad Trump

As someone struggling with mental health issues I recognize parts of myself in Trump. I’m working hard to correct my behaviours, regulate my emotions instead of deny them, and find self-worth from within. All of these things start with having compassion for myself. Perhaps the best way to go about that is to have compassion for others.

President Trump is mentally ill. Note, that I am not a doctor or qualified to claim this as fact, but I do see the similarities that I am working through. This unmanageable need to be liked, to have recognition, and power can all be signs of insecurity. For me, some of this may stem from abandonment issues. Before you go searching Trumps childhood, know that there are a number of ways our minds can form these unhelpful neural pathways and patterns. I grew up with a mother and a father, so why do I fear abandonment? Yet, much of my therapy is starting to point to this issue. I want to control my environment, or at least believe that I do. While Trump makes outlandish claims of his success and adoration, I do the opposite putting myself down and believing I am incapable of being loved. This is how we both control our narrative. I refuse to believe that I have any worth to anyone and Trump believes he is a miraculous gift to anybody that interact with him. No matter what critics say of him, or what loved ones tell me, the two of us control the narrative in our minds.

Opposing Trump with anger, internet memes, and commenting on his social media posts have no affect. His delusion protects himself from harm and controls his inner narrative in order to not see anything that doesn’t feed his beliefs. Those people are jealous of him, weak, or terrorists. I imagine that would be how he twists the feedback. For myself and the self-hate, I see compliments as me getting lucky or being praised for something that anyone can do. Again, dismissing those things that do not jive with my belief that I have no worth.

When I say we should have compassion for Trump, I’m not excusing his behavior. I don’t want my friends and family to lose healthcare, jobs, or their lives because of something he does or says. All I am proposing is that we have to look at each other with compassion. Trump is an everyday reminder of why we need more compassion in the world.

How Can We Subvert Trump By Being Compassionate?

Nobody wins in war. Arguing is not any different. Fighting the powers that be means you’re a freedom fighter, right? Well, to the opposing side, you’re a terrorist. Our world is not one that can be simplified into good vs. evil. That is the fairytale that we keep feeding generations, but humans are far more complex than good or evil. Compassion is far superior, in my opinion, because it builds a bridge instead of blowing it up.

The next thing I hear when I speak of compassion is “But, they’re not going to show compassion! Trump won’t return our compassion with some of his own.” It’s not a fair exchange, that’s how you know you’re doing it right. We give of ourselves without expecting anything in return. Compassion starts small with friends, family, and coworkers. It does not start at the Trump level. Look at the example of our modern day tech bubble, everyone wants to be the next Uber, Twitter, or Facebook. Those successes didn’t start day one at the top of the world. Facebook started at one university. This small community eventually grew by adding more Boston area universities. Students who had friends at other universities outside Boston eventually told them about this new thing. Facebook added more and more schools. Eventually, Facebook included high school students, and finally allowed anyone to join. Curious parents who watched their kids interact with this website decided to join and check it out as well. Compassion starts the same way. We naturally pay it forward. If you smile at someone walking the opposite direction on the street, there’s a phenomenal chance that they will smile back.

If you’re protesting Trump, try to imagine that person on the other side shouting in support of the President. You’re angry because Trump sexually harassed a number of women. What if I were to tell you the person on the other side was related to Monica Lewinsky. As you’re rightfully steaming with anger, that person also has a similar feeling about Bill Clinton and has chose to ignore the allegations against Trump and support him. Both of you want women to be treated with respect, why are you shouting at each other? Perhaps the Trump supporter is excited about the huge tax cut, but you’re opposed. You don’t know why that supporter is there. Could it be that the democrats refused to cut taxes which forced his employer to move overseas for cheaper labor? Who is to blame? His employer who was only trying to make shareholders happy by showing a profit. Should we blame the democrats for not cutting taxes? Is the supporter at fault for not choosing a better job? The idea is having compassion for the person’s situation, not for what they’re doing at the moment.

Yes, those are hypothetical situations that I made up and controlled the narrative of, just like Trump and myself do with self-worth. Regardless, I have to believe that compassion is the best method to make the world better. That’s the goal of the anger focused at Trump, right? It’s not about labelling him or putting him in his place, correct? We just want a better world. Show compassion, respond not react to those you disagree with. As an incredible friend told me, “true subversion is not yelling as loud as you can, but actually doing the things that are better than the things we are doing now.”

I’m not alone in this idea of compassion instead of opposition. A number of groups reported record donations after Trump’s election. What would be more rewarding, an argument on Facebook with your conservative uncle, or volunteering for the local ACLU and telling a citizen they don’t have to worry about the travel ban and will get to see their family again?

Compassion and anger are both emotions, and they feed themselves. If you give compassion it will feel good and you’ll want more. If you continue to use anger, you’ll continue feeding it and become embittered with everything around you. Perhaps you’ll even start to hate yourself. Trust me, you don’t want that.