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Patterns, Paths, and Pain

6 min read

Two paths, a sunny one and a dark, small one. Watercolor painting

I wanted some help with a project and I called on my friend German from The Modern Manhood Podcast. It was really great to bounce ideas off of him and he helped me focus on what was important. We had an enjoyable conversation over drinks and dinner and parted ways. Then, I was alone with my thoughts. The joy of the evening faded away.

I am a burden. I am pathetic. I am stupid. Obviously, I wasted German's time. He must think I'm an idiot. I imagine he's going home to tell his partner what a loser I am.

Walking home from the pub, I couldn't shake those thoughts. Despite the fact that we openly talked insecurities and mental health, my inner critic was carrying me away with anger, pain, and sadness after I left. These feelings are not based in reality, there's no evidence that German thinks any of these things.Yet, this is my perception when I look back on the evening. I am not alone, of course. We all look back at events with a cloud of apprehension or nostalgia. Dwelling in either area can be dangerous when depression is in the equation.

 

Introspection and Chocolate

There can't be such a thing as too much chocolate, right? Some, especially those who aren't into chocolate, may believe there is a limit. I wonder the same about examining my own thoughts and feelings. Is there such a thing as too much introspection? As someone who takes forever to make a decision, I can see the argument against examining one's self "too much." No matter how much I think about me, I still have to make the doughnuts, I have to go about my day and take care of my responsibilities. Whether German likes me as a person or not, the laundry needs to get done, food needs to be put on the table, and chocolate needs to be eaten. I believe this is stoicism, but that book is still on my reading list. Regardless of what I think, there's work to be done, so why bother being introspective?

On the flip side, chocolate is damn delicious. Some people use pumpkin pie as an excuse to eat an entire tub of whip cream. If you leave me alone with a pan of chocolate brownies, I hope you don't want the pan back because I'm liable to eat it as well. Being introspective is learning who I am. There are layers when I think about thinking. It can seem unnecessary from the surface level. The thoughts above about being a pathetic loser, for example, bring pain to me. Best to leave that alone, right? That's not going to get the housework done. Anyway... Yet, the next layer below is asking the question not of German, but of me. Why do I think I'm a loser? In my warped mind, if I ask German, he will never admit he doesn't like me. He'll want to spare my feelings, people are rarely honest, and so on. In other words, I'm going to believe what I want to believe. Time to ask why.

Instead of avoiding the pain, I have to go into it. Why do I think I'm a loser? The immediate response is, "just stop thinking this." Do I need to rehash some ancient memory to move forward? I think understanding it can take the power away from my self-critic. No matter how much money a man has, you're not going to take investment advice from him if he says he bought Bitcoin because he only invests in things that start with the letter "b." What if a teacher told 7 year old me that I was the worst student she ever had in class on Tuesday, and in the following evening during parent-teacher conferences I heard her say I was one of her favorites? That may have created some trust issues. I can't very well base my worth on what a 7 year old with one bad experience thinks. So, understanding the past is a good thing.

 

The Mean Streets of the Brain

The 7 year old is not alone, unfortunately. Using his lens, I've grabbed other experiences through the years to reinforce this idea of mistrust. I must be terrible because +add negative events here. It's like letting the tobacco or sugar industry study the affects of their products. "The things we make are great! Keep buying! There's no problem here."

Things are literally reinforced in the brain. The favorite phrase that I've read over and over is "neurons that fire together, wire together." When two brain cells make a connection, or wire together, they fire information through the wire. If they do this over and over, you brain builds a highway here. "Ouch! I burned myself on the stove again." The brain cells need better communication between the idea of a stove and hot, let's remove the traffic lights and put in an 8 lane superhighway here.

Now, over the years I alone have perceived that I am not enough. I feel that I am a loser. Those two brain cells, the loser label and the Chris, are affixed together with the neural pathway equivalent of the Autobahn. Through my recent groups, therapy, friends, family, and introspection, I've been trying to connect Chris to the decent and lovable brain cells. At the moment it is only a rough two-track. Actually, it feels more like a Rock Crawling course.

So, it's no surprise that my older pattern of self-disgust kicked in after chatting with my friend German. It is frustrating that I am able to recognize the pattern, but still get dragged down by it. At least I'm noticing it, right? First step and all? At times I can see this, yes. However, seeing through the fog of depression can be difficult. The psychiatrist explained something to me once about emotional pain, it has no sense of time. The part of the brain that deals in emotions is not at all connected to the part that perceives time. When you think about the loss of a loved one, it affects you even if it happened years ago. Those feelings that I'm somehow less are painful, true or not. Time to dig into another layer perhaps. Meanwhile, construction continues on reinforcing the new neural pathway between Chris and compassion.

 

Finding Shame in the Simple Act of Fixing a Laptop

5 min read

An image of 2 identical Macbook laptops

I took this picture wondering how this even happened. How did I end up with identical 8 year old laptops? Like many things in my life recently, the answer is somewhat complex and related to mental health.

First, I offered to adopt the second laptop because it was not functioning. I wanted the challenge of seeing if I could breath life back into the device. When you work at a retail store, your first job is sales not repair. So, when the original owner was told "We cannot promise that a fresh install will work, but you'll lose everything,"  I was somewhat alarmed. These things are not cheap, Mr. Apple Store "genius." Why not try? I wasn't part of this original conversation, so I have no idea if the "genius" offered to backup the data before the fresh install (which is completely possible on Macs with their Target Disk Mode). Yet, this is a 7+ year old device. I've added a new battery, more memory, and a solid-state drive to my personal laptop that is 6+ months older, and I am frequently frustrated by its sluggishness. Thus, I can understand why one would choose to buy a new laptop instead of fixing this one. Of course, it's a matter of cost which brings me to the more complex answer to "how did I end up with a second 8 year old laptop?"

One of my deepest wounds is about my worth. I place a tremendous amount of value on productivity, salary, and how others see me. It's impossible to love and approve of one's self when you are constantly comparing yourself to those around you. There's always someone smarter, braver, bigger, stronger, faster, etc. I can never measure up. I used to make this joke at the expense of my mother's parents, "If I was President, my grandparents would say, 'It's not a very well paying job. You can do better.'" When my mother was in a deep depression, she couldn't get out of bed. For me, it's always been unemployment. How can I ever live up to the expectations I've made for myself? Impossible.

Even now, as I write this, the self critic in me feels that I've been unemployed more in my life than employed. Thoughts that I'm a loser for typing this to the world are loud and frankly hurtful. The reality of those emotions flooding in had me step away from writing this post, briefly.

Being unemployed for long periods of time, and my childhood have created some unfortunate financial habits. As such, I jumped at the possibility of being gifted 7+ year old laptop. My mother helped me realize that we rarely invested money, or saved for vacations while I was growing up because of my dad's health. Dealing with all the complications of Myasthenia Gravis didn't leave us with a lot of money. Nor was there the security of believing that it was a possibility to take a trip to Hawaii in the following year. And so, we didn't look to the future. This infected me with the "I could walk out the door and get hit by a bus" virus. This bug makes me and others see money differently.

My self critic enjoys not being financially stable or employed because it gives him life and meaning. When I see a shiny new phone, laptop, or something else I cannot afford, it is fuel for shame. Therefore, in shame I jumped at the opportunity to get an identical laptop because I don't deserve a new one. I can't afford a new one, because I am not earning enough, because I'll never earn enough.

It's getting easier to see these damaging thought patterns in my life. However, it often happens after the fact, when I can take a step back and see what transpired. Then, my demon returns to tell me, "So much for getting better. You screwed up again." At this point, compassion is useful. A compassionate friend reading this may note that it's great that I can finally recognize the pattern. That's a first step. That same friend might also feel like giving me a hug. This is a role I can take, accepting myself as I am now and giving myself compassion. It's something I have been successful at, but it is not easy. I hope in time this will become a new pattern.

In the meantime, what am I doing with this second laptop, really? Do I donate it somewhere? Perhaps, I offer it back to its original owner, or sell it and give the money to her? There's silly projects I can do with another computer, but I'd rather have a little Raspberry Pi that consumes less energy. I realize this dilemma is one of privilege, but I'm grateful to have another chance at recognizing my self-worth issue.

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.

This Old Dog Is Trying to Learn New Tricks

3 min read

The mind is a pretty amazing thing, the way it can flutter from reading this sentence to wondering how many people suffer from depression in the world and trying to figure out why your smart phone battery dies so quickly. All those thoughts occur in a blur of a few seconds. Meanwhile, your brain is also regulating your breath, controlling your eyes as they dance across these words and translating the meaning. Breathing, moving muscles and many other functions feel automatic, we don't have to "think" about them. Analyzing these words or worrying about work tomorrow are learned behaviors, despite feeling automatic as well. Changing these automatic thoughts is difficult and takes time.

This is the crossroads I am at now. Throughout my life I've learned that I'm unreliable, untalented, unintelligent and unloveable. These are automatic thoughts, no matter what opinions you may have about me. Why do I have them? At some point I thought they were helpful to me. Perhaps junior high me convinced himself that unreliable & untalented kept me on the bench in sports, so I wouldn't let anyone down? Reprogramming who I am will take some time. That low self-esteem is the core of my being. My default setting is to put myself down. I recognize that these negative thoughts are unhealthy. It's a good day when I can identify those thoughts. However, rebuilding my core beliefs to something more positive is a step that I have not reached.

This process is more frustrating because the cycle feeds itself. My default is believing I am a failure, so being unable to correct this default is confirmation that it is true. Like a politician, I'm only grabbing the statistics that prove my case and ignoring evidence to the contrary. The amount of time I spend trying to recognize my negative thoughts can be exhausting. The low self-esteem is automatic and to confront it, I must always be present. Right now, it feels like Newton's 3rd Law is in play, "For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction." There was bad crime in Gotham before Batman showed up. In order to compete with a furry pretending to be a crimefighter, crooks became super villains. The negative self image is fighting back and I am struggling. I'm a castaway who has escaped the island on a makeshift raft, but the ocean current keeps driving me back to shore.

The next phase is obvious, I need to construct a positive paddle to propel myself forward. Although, my head is swimming with the skills I've learned thus far thanks to the public health system here. Like most of us in our modern world, I lack patience. I want the change to happen now. Really, the next step is putting my new skills into practice. It's not enough to recognize my low self-esteem, but to correct it slowly. I enjoy the group therapies, but there's work that has to be done outside the safety of my peers. I have to help myself. At the moment, all I can do is identify what needs to happen.

I really wish I could post something more hopeful, more useful to those that read this. One of the great things about group therapy is learning that you're not alone. Perhaps, sharing my thoughts and feelings is enough? Though, it's probably a good time to remind myself and you that action is the first step, not motivation.