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Birthday Bereavement

5 min read

an art kit from my aunt with watercolor, acrylic, oil, pastels and more. thanks to my aunts for this art kit which will allow me to try some new things like acrylics, oils, and pastels

Celebrating another lap around the sun is not my depression's style. Instead, we mourn the loss of another year in the march toward dying as an unsuccessful, unworthy human. Birthday gifts, cards, wishes activate so much fear and disgust. I'm afraid I'll appear ungrateful for the effort if I don't immediately respond to friends and family. I'm terrified I will say "the wrong thing," or offend my benefactors. I am disgusted with myself and assume others must be as well. Therefore, the gifts or birthday wishes must not be sincere. Better send a card because he sent me one. I should message Chris on his birthday, it has to be hard getting another year older without changing his loser status.

The disgust all seems so unreal when spelled out, but there's not really a decent way to translate emotions and feelings to words. In my mind, I am not worthy of love. It's like when you believe there is an additional step when walking up or down stairs and there isn't one. Your mind sort of stops as the muscles of your leg and foot send feedback to the brain saying, "Um, we missed the step? What do we do now?" Your eyes relay information back to the mind that there are no additional steps and you're in the clear, but the brain still needs a moment to digest it all. When I receive a message saying, "Happy birthday," I can immediately respond as we are taught. "Thank you." I can also switch quickly into a toxic avoidance, "one more foot in the grave," or some other socially accepted joke to ignore my feelings. Meanwhile, I'm in that mind freeze of the phantom step. I am human garbage. This person likes me enough to wish me happy birthday. That does not compute. I have forty years of human garbage self-talk and just over two years of trying to think differently. You do the math and you can see how it usually shakes out in my mind.

Sharing these emotions and thoughts like this is another layer of the onion. When I look at my partner and share what I'm going through, I believe I see fear in her. Is she not supposed to give me a gift? Would my life be better if everyone ignored me? Of course my depression wants it that way. Isolation and freedom from what appears to be expectations people have for me means not having to deal with emotions. In openly sharing my thoughts on birthday wishes and gifts I fear I am pushing her and others away. Damn it. I should just be quiet. See, that's a win-win for depression and anxiety. If I say something, I may push people away. If I choose not to share, it becomes fuel for shame, How could I think these things about my friends and family? I'm the worst. No matter how you slice it, the onion brings tears.

Of course, one strategy is to reality check things. I can ask my partner how she feels about me sharing. I can ask you, "Did you just click Happy Birthday because the app told you to?" My psychiatrist weighed in on the idea of people feeling obligated to wish me well, "Everyone who did it chose to do so." They're all presumably very busy, and yet they did it. To this, I say what I told her-- I can see it rationally. I can see that people care about me. Perhaps, even emotionally I can feel it. Give me 5 seconds and I can no longer see and feel that way. Mood is a perception changer. Your baby toddler throwing their toys around can be cute, or if you're trying to get work done, had a bad day, or stressed in some other way, your response could be one of anger. I can get through the entire birthday in good spirits and crash the next day. Three days later, maybe I see things positively again. Life is ups and downs.

A gift of messages printed on the backs of photos from friends and family
A gift of messages printed on the backs of photos from friends and family

Thanks to everyone who wished me happy birthday and participated in the nice box of messages my spouse put together. There were unexpected cards in the mail and I even received another gift today. I wish I put in half the effort into loving myself that my friends and family have shown. Another layer to the onion that is me, is the fact that working on my mental health activates shame as well-- it's selfish to help myself. That's why my writings, like this one, are dual purpose. First, I'm sharing in hopes that it helps others know they are not alone. Perhaps, like much of the self-help books I've read, something in here clicks for someone. Secondly, I'm trying to infuse some of the things I've learned internally. Again, forty years of a different narrative makes it difficult to retain information counter to the installed belief system.

Birthdays can often bring up mortality issues for people. I think I spent a few birthdays chewing on the scary prospect of being mortal. I'm sure much of it was shame-powered, wishing to be around longer to accomplish every thing I'm supposed to do. Now, I'm working on celebrating myself, just as I am. My jaw is clenched as I type. It's no easy ask. Regardless, I'm going to try and finish my day being a bit more kinder to myself. I hope that you do the same for yourself.

Daniel J. Hogan's original web series in graphic novel form

Daniel J. Hogan's original web series in graphic novel form, signed by the artist and friend

 

Apologizing to You, Me, Everyone

5 min read

Is “I’m sorry” an effective phrase? I could spend my time, my energy, my money to give you everything you deserve. I will work to give you, everything that you need and want. I know the things you desire. I often see baubles that make me think of you. How easy it would be to spend the money, whether I have it or not. I could fill your home with everything you love. Sadly, that will not measure up. Unfortunately, gifts will not be enough, not for what I did.

Words like, “I’m sorry,” can sometimes feel hollow. The phrase is used so often, in all facets of our lives. How does one make those words count? What form of apology could possibly work for what I’ve done? Of course, I can’t know that answer. It lies within you somewhere. You may not even realize it.

Personally, the simplest, easiest answer is denial. Treating the event like it never occurred is the first thing that comes to mind. Traveling back in time to remedy the issue before it happens seems like a more feasible solution than living with the pain. Why did this happen? I use every atom of my body to wish that it didn’t.

I dream of the wishes coming true. I fantasize about time travel. I imagine these scenarios to stay away from reality. I escape from the hurt and pain in these illusions. Except, that’s where I need to be. Experiencing the pain is how to move forward. Exploring the hurt is how we learn.

For me, I still have to learn to forgive myself. I would love your forgiveness, and at one time, I thought it would help. In truth, that would simply let me off the hook. That is, the true power of forgiveness and acceptance resides within me. If I don’t deal with my own issues, I will not grow.

What Have I Done?

I cannot reconcile the abuse and distress I have caused. I cannot absolve myself from bringing you pain. Throughout my life, I have not always been a good person. I’ve said things out of anger, performed inexcusable actions and recently threatened to hurt myself. No matter how many times I try to do nice things for you. No matter how many times I cancel my plans and bend over backwards for you, my own wound will not heal. I cannot forgive myself. I am unsure how to do that. This is a deeper issue for me. I have all those years of guilt, years of judging myself against my own twisted code of behavior. These rules that protected the fearful child within me, and kept me from emotions.

The words, “I’m sorry” pale in comparison to my hurtful deeds. Yet, each time I utter that phrase to myself, I feel better inside. At least it feels good momentarily. Accepting my truth, accepting I hurt you doesn’t mean I have to like it. Acceptance is not condonation. I must accept the past to get on with the future. Again, forgiving myself is going to be a difficult challenge. See, I do owe you an apology because I was not myself when I offended you. In order to genuinely atone for what I’ve done to you, I have to accept what I’ve been doing to myself for years.

Compassion

Regardless, accepting the past to live in the present and build a future is a lesson each of us can benefit from. We all process this lesson in our own time. I’m still not there yet. I’m still entrenched in sorrow. I hope for the sake of your happiness and joy that you can forgive me. Moreover, I beg you to accept and forgive yourself for your past. Learn from your pain. Understand that you got to this stage in your life by, in part, making some hurtful mistakes. Accepting that truth will make your life much brighter.

Often the person who needs to hear the words, “I’m sorry” from you is, well, you. Give yourself some compassion. Remember, compassion is love. In my opinion, you can’t really show compassion to anyone, including yourself, if there is hate within you. In these turbulent times filled with hate speech you may be tempted in to a combative reaction, but conflict is never the answer. If you really want to stand against the divisive groups getting media attention, show compassion to those around you. Love, real love, brings together far more people than anger could ever hope to mobilize. The same goes for that which is inside each of us. Anger, guilt and shame are like an infection, easy to get if you don’t take care of yourself. Love and compassion may be more elusive, but the reward is far greater.

Accept what is in the past. Forgive and love yourself, friends. Share your compassion openly. Those of us hurting want to learn from your example. I want to learn from you, please. I’m weary from the regret. I have treated you, each and everyone of you poorly. Also, I’m extremely sorry for the way I’ve treated myself. Like each of you, I need compassion and forgiveness.

Fractured Part 2: Sparky, My Inner Project Manager

5 min read

Previously, I introduced readers to Chet, my personal internet bully. Today, I’d like to share another voice-- my anxiety, the frantic and frazzled Sparky.

Our human minds cannot be still by design. Curiosity about the world around us keeps us safe. Even interior inquires that alert us to aches, pains and the like encourage us to go to the doctor. However, in those situations where we are comfortable, in our everyday routines, our minds wander. Try to clear your mind and concentrate on the sensations of your fingers and palms the next time you wash your hands. It’s nearly impossible. My mind jumps from feeling the temperature of the water to what I have to do next in the day. Sparky has business for me. If I bring my mind back and truly feel the soap, feel one hand lathering the other, my brain wanders to the fact that I am practicing this because I am broken. Thanks Chet.

Being in the moment is difficult.

If it’s not Chet beating me up, it is Sparky telling me what I should be doing. “We’ll show Chet, today,” exclaims Sparky, “Get up early, exercise, clean each room in the house, apply for 4 jobs, submit 2 articles to our editor, get to inbox zero, buy all the Christmas gifts early, call your mom, go grocery shopping, pay the bills, fix the sink, paint the living room, and make dinner!” A sizeable list for a healthy person, but perhaps not impossible? Regardless, the point is that my personal project manager, Sparky, never lets up. There’s always something that should be done. Those things above that are not accomplished today, will move to tomorrow’s hit list. Sparky’s unending to-do list keeps pushing down on me like the world on Atlas’ shoulders.

Sparky continues to micromanage my days by chiming in at the most absurd moments. While I’m trying to work, he wonders if I am going fast enough. Sparky wants to know what’s for dinner. He’s curious about how busy the airport will be next month when I intend to travel home. How will I get to my psychiatrist visit next week? Where will I park? Do I need groceries for dinner tonight? Does that person over there want my table by the power outlet? Have I been in the café too long? Should I leave? When did I last get the oil changed in the car? Is there food on my face? This work is taking too long, isn’t it? My boss likes me, right? Am I too slow? Do you think my spouse thinks I’m too slow? Maybe she even wonders if I’m lazy? Her parents? And then Chet joins the conversation. All of this takes mere seconds.

“Nothing is worth doing unless it is perfect.” This is Sparky’s answer to combating the insecurity of Chet. Thus, when I get on the Sparky train, things don’t happen spontaneously. To appease Sparky and Chet, I try to plan my way to silence my mind. Doctor appointment tomorrow? Alright, I’ll wake up, shower, brush my teeth, put on deodorant, get dressed, do my hair, eat breakfast, double check Google Maps for the time it takes to get to the doctor, leave early to find parking, and bring a book to read while I wait. What have I forgotten?

“Do I have a backup plan for parking? What if there is construction on the way?”

“Oh, hi Sparky,” I cringe.

“If your appointment isn’t until 10am, what can we get done in the morning. And after!”

“It’s going to be okay, don’t worry.”

“You don’t really think that.” Chet’s criticism interjects. “You’ll mess this up somehow.”

This is the formula that quite possibly gave me my trademark white hair so early. I live in fear. The anxiety has, at times, spilled into paranoia. Without self-esteem, anxiety fills in for confidence. Instead of thinking “I can do this,” I torment myself with all the things that can go wrong. Even with the simplest of tasks, I move from one crisis to the next in my head.

Focusing on a task, is very difficult. These two voices in my head work together and yet against each other. My inner critic inspires the anxiety. Sparky’s desire to beat Chet with perfection only give the insecurity an opening. The constant reminder from the inner critic that I’ll never be enough quiets the anxiety. "Why try if I am going to fail?" My anxiety-focused project manager also encourages me to take on less challenges to preempt the self-hate and critique. "I can't do this."

I started writing about Sparky a month ago, shortly after revealing Chet. I had difficulty finishing the story because I wanted it to be perfect. I made excuses to to do “more important” tasks instead. I was afraid. Moreover, I work hard daily to not get caught up in the spin. As I struggled to complete this confession, I bounced from believing I have made progress to wondering if I was in denial. Am I shutting down in response to Chet & Sparky? I know that ignoring their voices is not the answer. I have to learn to accept them for what they are. Like friends with differing opinions, I should seek to find compromise, not avoid them. Chet inspires me to be a better person. Sparky will keep me out of dangerous situations. More on that in the final part of Fractured. Wait, did I just use the “should” word? Damn, this is a confusing journey.

What Is Your Super Power?

3 min read

“If you could have one super power, what would you choose?”

Telekinesis, invisibility, flight and super strength have been shown in fiction as valuable powers that could save the world. Those gifts are used to fight evil, but what if you didn’t have to fight at all? The Greeks call him Eros and his Roman name is Cupid. Love is the power I would choose. Instead of hurling cement mixers at villains, I’d shoot arrows like Katniss & Cupid. Forget using my mind powers to crush baddies, I would give them the gift of love.

Sure Cupid is often seen as mischievous, but every superhero with powers has to learn responsibility. An invisible boy in a girl’s locker room is a boring trope, at this point. Speaking of well known imagery, Tennyson wrote, “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Those of us who have felt the power of love know this is true. Love encompasses a number of emotions and feelings which can be difficult. Yet, in romance or friendship we have compassion and respect for those that we love. We make an effort to understand our loved ones and if we cannot, we choose to forgive.

Cupid’s power wouldn’t result in the big budget, CG destruction of New York like in The Avengers film. Love would bring opposing sides together to talk, not fight. Of course, we don’t live in the movies or comics. The hypothetical question of what super power to choose is a bullshit conversation starter. However, love is a super power. It’s inside each of us. Just as Superman has to choose if he’s going to walk, ride or use his power of flight, you can decide if you’re going to love someone. Will you respect your boss and be compassionate to her when she dumps a big assignment on you? Ultimately, what she does is out of your control. Your power is in how you react to her, and those around you. For example, you might be having a bad day and you think everything I just wrote is a pile of horse shit. I could defend my thoughts or have the compassion to listen to your criticism openly. That’s the power of Cupid that I want, the ability to get people to embrace their differences.

In the following Huey Lewis & The News song it is said we can “Change a hawk to a little white dove.” The super power I choose is “Tougher than diamonds and stronger than steel, You won’t feel nothin’ till you feel, You feel the power, just feel the power of love.”