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A Break in a Pattern is Not Always a Break in Habit

5 min read

hand drawn pattern in ink

Habit is comfort. It is predictable and saves us from unfamilair emotions. These patterns can be complex and often work at a subconscious level. A break in the pattern doesn't always guarantee freedom from the habit. It is not a failure, this is an opportunity to be kind and compassionate to ourselves.

I've started knitting as a mindfulness practice and similar to painting, it is nice to work with my hands. When I drop a stitch and don't notice, it creates a hole in the work. Yet, the work goes on. When you catch your finished sweater or blanket on something sharp there is a danger of unraveling. The pattern breaks down because the yarn has been cut. In the case of a missed stitch the yarn continues along the pattern, but is unbroken. This is often the case when we're trying to change personal behaviors.

If I cannot sleep at night, exhaustion finally takes me in the early hours of the morning and I may not get up until after noon. Half the day is gone, which frustrates me and I begin to feel like a failure before I've started. I have less energy and I'm groggy. I reach for junk food for a quick pick me up, but it just makes me feel worse. By the end of the day, I have the urge to stay up late and get something accomplished because I've spent the day unproductively. If I get a good night's sleep, I break the pattern, right? Not necessarily. The yarn can continue to tighten around me even if I sleep well. It's called habit for a reason. I only have to jump into the pattern anywere. A good night's sleep and a productive morning would be great. Yet, I can get in my head and think it is not enough. Now, I lose energy, reach for junk food, and I'm back into the self-loathing loop.

Self help books and programs like C.B.T. don't really talk about this enough, in my opinion. These resources are focused on encouragement, but the reality is that change takes time. The advice offered is still useful, but I have found that I am quick to dismiss those things that "don't work as advertised." These programs and books are often presented in "how to" steps and when step one is making a goal to break your current pattern, I am done before I begin because the pattern remains. This is evidence to my critical mind that the program doesn't work.

The motivation to change, the personal will that sought out the the book or resource is not always enough. Sometimes I wonder if authors of self-help books believe it is. The irony that I'm using the phrase "not enough" has not been lost on me. I am not seeking to blame the authors and creators of the resources I've found. Instead, I want to caution those of you reading my blog. Change is possible, but instant and perfect change is not.

To me, it feels like I've written over and over about getting caught up in a self-critical loop. I am not enough. I don't make enough money. I don't work hard enough. I'm not a good enough son, sibling, friend, or husband. So, I read a book and enter some programs to get better. Things improve and then I relapse. The program and book are probably great, but I am not enough. The pattern of self-doubt is difficult to unravel. 

Furthermore, this default method of thinking doesn't allow me to see when things improved. Biologically, we remember the "bad" things to protect ourselves. This scar is a reminder not to get near that predator animal. However, I did write "things improve" above. I cannot take that back. I mean I could go up there and erase it, but the point is that there is some sign that I am able to do this. A key to breaking from the habit, or pattern, is likely self-compassion.

When I look back, I think one of my most successful streaks was one where I was working toward compassion. I was listening to mindful driving guided recordings that encouraged me to let other cars into the traffic and remember that there are people like me in those vehicles. Maybe that person is having a family emergency and that's why they are driving aggressive. Did they lose their job? Are they distracted on their phone, or with the radio because they're trying to avoid pain, like me? These things that can usually make me feel uncomfortable or angry are actually opportunities for gratitude. The homeless man on the street who is aggressively asking for money and scaring people is suffering. If I am not ready to see that and help, I can be grateful that I have a home.

Trying to be compassionate to others, complete strangers, was my way of finding some compassion for myself. I am also a human who is suffering. I'm not sure when I stopped working on this goal. I suppose that's in the past now. Today, I can try to move forward compassionately. I may not free myself from the pattern today, but what I need when I realize I am still in the loop is love. Something I have been keeping inside me this past week is a phrase I heard. It's not elequent, but every act is an act of love, or a cry for love. If I feel like a failure today, I'm looking for love. If I cannot get that from myself, I can always ask those around me. Hold onto your supports and hold yourselves.

Breakfast Seppuku

6 min read

Manipulated McDonalds M into an S for shame

 

"The best part about waking up is..." being alive. It's not Folgers in my cup or any other 'breakfast is good for you' marketing myth. Yet, it is the most difficult part of my day. The reality of the life I have lived and the insurmountable future ahead come crashing into me as I become conscious. I don't know what to have for breakfast or care, because of all the past/future on my mind. Life is complex and scary. For me, it becomes problematic and I start to wonder if it is worth it.

The way I self-medicated in the past was junk food breakfast. Donuts, Pop Tarts, and all kinds of sweets. Start the day immediately in avoidance. Give me something to make me forget about my existence. Diabetes forced me to change that habit. I worked hard to get a healthy breakfast routine. Though I like variety, I probably ate the same thing for breakfast for a year straight after learning to control my blood sugars. The sucrose morning treats were postponing my existential crisis with a sugar rush and then I would have to refill throughout the day, lest I wanted bear the weight of living.

I broke my healthy breakfast streak and let go of the diabetes worries as I started working on my mental health in groups and seeing a psychiatrist. It was a reward system. I spent the day working on stuff that is really uncomfortable. I am eating this entire large bag of M&Ms. I deserve it. Breakfasts have fallen into the old pattern again. Sweets for breakfast lead to shame for lunch and dinner.

The shame is all about my unworthiness. The impregnable feeling that I am undeserving and unlovable goes hand-in-hand with option D on every one of my decisions, suicide. Living with shame available in every single thought is torture. I can't speak for others, but I wonder if those who have taken their own lives came to a point where they decided they can never outrun the shame. Imagine, years of telling yourself "I must do more, be better." Regardless of your successes, that voice is ever present. When you finally acknowledge you've reached success, when you can actually see it, that voice is still there. Did Robin Williams realize that he had made it through drug abuse, beat the odds of being successful in comedy and Hollywood, creating a family, and in that clarity heard the shame and decided to quiet it once and for all?

Food For Thought

Is my breakfast choice really a life or death question? I think in some ways it is. I do believe suicide has been in my mind more lately. It's interesting that one of the things keeping me from ending my life is shame. That's right, the same force that rubs my every thought, desire, and relationship against a cheese grater of unworthiness is also keeping me alive. Suicide is for the weak. What a let down I will be. People will blame themselves. Others will be relieved and say good riddance. And, of course, my mind worries at all the critiques of my method of execution. "That was an idiotic way to commit suicide. Who knew he was such a moron?" It's weird. Chris is completely shame-powered. So, I eat my feelings. The loop is shame-sugar-shame.

Nobody wants to talk about suicide. It's uncomfortable and scary. Maybe that's why everyone was so struck by the loss of Robin Williams. He had no one to talk to about this subject. If the subject you want to talk about is taboo, it is a good chance that thoughts about it feel taboo and become shameful. When society does talk about suicide it is usually an investigation into a mystery, "How could this have occurred? We had no idea!" We never speak of it as a choice. Society argues about when a group of cells becomes a fetus and its right to life, but Dr. Kevorkian is evil for letting people decide their own fate. Society has chosen to think that suicide is a result of mental illness. One cannot be in their "right" mind to want to end their own life. Biologically, it is an interesting argument. Much of our mental health issues related to stress and anxiety can be traced back to the our fight or flight response, the one that kept our ancestors alive in a very different world. So yes, like animals there's something inside us that wants to live. Unlike other animals, we have this ability to think.

Chicken Egg Situation

Is it the shame that triggers option D, or suicide that trigger the shame? I don't have answers, only thoughts. Many are joyous, many are not. Before, I was "too busy" to consider these deeper questions. They hung in the background while I tried to be productive, earn, and move up in the world. My avoidance strategy was a combination of sugar, entertainment, and work. I replaced that with new things that I learned, the coping I described in a previous entry. I let go of what was working because it wasn't working fast enough. I was not cured. I went back to what I had done in the past, but I've burned out a lot quicker. Hopefully, this is all part of learning, creating new neural pathways, and trimming the old ones down. Whatever it is, I'm exhausted. My tanks are empty and I'm vulnerable. Something crawls at the edge of my perception, telling me to sit down and paint, to create. Unfortunately, the shame of doing something for my undeserving is so much louder at the moment. I should be working. I should be making money. I should be like everyone else.

Compromise, I'm writing. Pain is personal. Those closest to me always want to know how they can help. You aren't responsible for what myself or anyone else is going through. Our minds create our own realities. You can help by validating those of us with pain. Yours isn't a position of fixer, but one of listener. You can bring me joy by reaching out. My mind will create the narrative that you're doing it out of guilt because you read this, but if you keep reaching out it will challenge this belief. Being heard is so important, but sometimes we don't want to talk. You can still be there. It can be draining for me to manage all the anxiety when being around people. And so, I isolate. One on one, with friends I trust are still stressful with my thoughts of unworthiness and fear of saying or doing the "wrong" thing, but the volume is less intense. I forget this and don't reach out. It seems unfair to put some onus on others, but hey, you asked how to help. Maybe you should bring me breakfast?

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.