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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.

The Dangers of Self Sabotage

8 min read

oil pastel sketch of me crying in gray with red eyes and blue tears

The expected results are always easier to deal with than the unexpected. Consciously or not, I have had a tendency to throw myself under the bus. I know how to deal with failure and defeat. Success, in my mind, is just postponing the next failure. I am even more anxious after a success because I am waiting for the next shoe to drop. In fact, give me a hot minute and I'll convince myself I was not successful at all.

The first delivery person in history carried a package from one person to another. Eventually, they started doing more deliveries and got a cart. Soon they upgraded to a horse-drawn wagon, a flatbed truck and finally a semi-trailer truck. Now imagine the packages are personal traumas. Often we carry these around with us. I've got a fleet of semis following me. Rather than letting go of the traumas, working through the issues, and forgive myself, I add more trucks to the fleet. When I make a mistake, which is a great opportunity to learn, I look back at the thousands of trucks. Those semis contain evidence of past mistakes and failures. My mind believes a clear pattern and a self-fulfilling prophecy is at work.

If I have my arms out, carrying all these packages for decades, I would have no idea what to do without them. What do I do with my arms if I don't have all these gift-wrapped traumas? So, I ensure my arms still have work by creating my own problems. I know I shouldn't have too much sugar because of my diabetes, so I'll just eat all the ice cream. I get the satisfaction of delicious sugar and then the amazing shame in knowing I should not have done that. Procrastination serves up some daily pain. I make a to-do list that is so long that five people couldn't finish it and then I get overwhelmed and do none of it. The next day, I add more to that same list and my week becomes full of fail. I keep myself in this abysmal state because I am familiar with it.

Depression, Anxiety, and Addiction

It's well known that depression and anxiety are like conjoined twins. They feed off each other in many of us. Occasionally, they are joined by their sibling, addiction. The cycle often goes trauma, depression and/or anxiety, and then addiction to dull the pain. The word addiction typically makes us think of substance abuse, from psychedelics to alcohol and caffeine. There are also behavioral addictions like gambling, video games, porn, and social networks like Instagram.

Dulling the pain with addiction is also feeding it. *Add a new truck to the fleet because I know I shouldn't be doing this. Anxiety flairs to hide the shame of it all. Depression builds until you can take no more and need to get another hit. The dopamine kicks in and you feel alright. Lather, rinse, repeat.

More than once I have heard people propose the question of being addicted to the depression or anxiety. These are behaviors of sorts, right? Could it be possible? If porn lights up the same parts of a brain in a scan as heroin, could the feeling of anxiety? One of Norman Doidge's books talks about people's brains that have been rewired to feel pleasure from pain. He specifically referred to a study of people who enjoy BDSM. The pain center of the brain has been linked to the pleasure center in many of these individuals. Could my brain be wired in a similar way? I want to be in pain?

Sabotage

Is my pain all I know and I wouldn't function without it? Maybe the familiarity and predictability simply a comfortable place for me? Is my brain specifically wired to give me shame and worthlessness? Regardless of the reason, self-sabotage isn't always so easy to notice.

New things are scary because of my fear of failure. So is it sabotage if I say, "no" to an opportunity because I will miss out? Or is it sabotage if I say, "yes" to the project since, deep down, I feel that I will completely screw up? On one hand, I feed depression by denying the opportunity. I can look back at the past and wonder what would have happened. If I accept the opportunity, I get a dose of anxiety about my possible failure.

"Get busy living, or get busy dying." This quote from The Shawshank Redemption is some toxic, tough love I give myself. I know being stagnant, frozen in overwhelm is not helping me. It's a long game sabotage. I can look back on my life yearsfrom now and think, "If only I realized my worth sooner. How much more could I have done?" Telling myself to get busy pushes me further into depression.

In Ian McEwan's latest fiction Machines Like Me new, artificially intelligent androids die by suicide. While half of them choose this option, there is one who seems to have deleted most of his software, essentially giving himself a lobotomy. The theory in the book is that this android attempted suicide and couldn't go through with it, leaving him in this state of minimal functions. I started to wonder when reading this is suicide the ultimate self-sabotage?

In my own struggles with thoughts of suicide, I have found myself thinking of lesser punishments or personal sabotage. Frequently, I've thought that I am such a burden to my loved ones that I should run away and be homeless. This fantasy is about removing myself from life as I know it. When I have those days or weeks when I don't want to get out of bed, it's in this same vein. Paralyzed in bed is hiding from my pain, fear, and shame. Or, I imagine being locked away in a psych ward where I cannot harm myself or others. These are all examples of me giving up. The twisted dreams of a sabotage one step away from ending it all.

The real danger of self-sabotage is when I cannot carry any more packages. When I look back and I can no longer see the horizon because of all the semi-trailer trucks full of the things I refuse to let go of. The fact that I can sit here and talk about self-sabotage is a testament to my resolve (at this moment). If I can notice it, I can do something about it.

Introspection

Philip K. Dick said, "The problem with introspection is that it has no end." Somewhere in this blog I have spoke about being present. Surely, I warned myself, and others, about getting caught up in the sadness of the past and the anxiety of the future. I think I have said that now is the only time that I really need to focus on. I recall offering the advice that each new moment, every 7-10 seconds, is a chance to change. The idea being many of our emotional states last this long. The catch is that we can use that time to trigger an additional 7-10 seconds of the same feeling. This is where I am lost. I am dwelling in the sadness and shame of my perceived worthlessness. Each time I start a sentence in this blog with "I," there is a desire to type "hate myself."

I have been here before. How did I get out? I don't remember, but maybe the important thing is that I did get out. In fact, my urge is to run away. All those lesser suicide options above are clues. I have been trying so very damn hard to be productive and pour myself into tasks. Another sign that I am avoiding the pain in hopes it will pass in the next moment. Self care of meditation, mindfulness, and art are no longer practiced. My mind thinks that those strategies obviously didn't work. So, why bother?

After sitting down to write this, I think my mind is somewhat right about those self-care strategies. While perfectly useful, at this point they are less effective. As I said, those fantasies of running away are the clue. It is time to stop running and do the opposite. What if I step into the pain and suffering? Allowing myself to feel those emotions and go deeper into Chris and find the version of me that wrote about being present. He's here, but he's buried under the fear, shame, embarrassment, insecurity, and guilt. I need to forgive myself for all the self-sabotage. I need to thank my inner critic for carrying all those packages of trauma. Even though my critic has mentally beaten me severely, he did it to protect me. Misplaced anxiety and fear sabotaged me in hopes to keep me from collecting more trauma. I have to learn to trust myself and that mistakes are how I learn to be better. Now, in this moment, I'm going to have a good cry.

Be kind to yourselves. Much <3 to you all.

Punish Thyself

5 min read

A watercolor painting of a belt hanging on a pillar in a dark basement

"You know better." This is a phrase used by parents and teachers that describes the challenges of adulthood. We perceive societal norms and often judge ourselves to those rules instead of our own moral compass. For me, it's more than just ethical behavior and the word of law. I am also looking at the society around me and judging my every decision. "Would someone else post this very blog? Probably not, it looks weak. They wouldn't want to appear broken." Every time this inner critic engages me, right or wrong, I feel that I deserve to be punished.

There is no better person to punish me, than myself. Denial of the things I need and want is very easy because shame tells me I don't deserve happiness. This has had a profound affect on my therapy because if I find something that helps me, like writing, I take it away from myself. Unworthy and shameful are consistent emotional states that I am 'comfortable' feeling. They are familiar. Success and happiness are fleeting and will leave, so why bother experiencing them in the first place?

Yesterday, I learned that I also engage in physical punishment. When I was a boy, I was spanked. Now, I bite my nails. I eat junk food. Both of these feed the shame. They may seem like minor offenses, but the destructive nature of these acts encourage the continued shame cycle. After feeling shame for so long, it doesn't seem foreign to my mind to think about suicide. It's merely a continuation of punishment. The act of suicide, and thinking of it, is another thing to feel shameful for because some people think it is weak and "giving up."

Patterns of Discipline

The overwhelming internal theme for me is that I am not enough. So, the simplest of errors, like sleeping in, can result in me punishing myself by removing something that I have recently learned is beneficial.

Meditation has given me a lot of introspection and helped me. "What a waste of time. You should be working like everyone else, you loser."

Journaling and writing has been a way to explore my emotions and get things out of my head. "Yet, you still make the same mistakes that you've observed in your writing. Maybe your time would be better spent not whining."

Art is actually rewarding. Painting and creating is something I have found that I enjoy for myself, not for any outside validation from others. "Kid stuff. It's play. Of course you like it. Again, get a job."

I haven't read much on "love languages," but I would wager my father's was providing a roof over our heads. Perhaps my shame around never having a good enough job or career stems from growing up in my father's shadow. Of course, that's my perception of my father. I also see both of my grandfathers in that same light. My mother too, is in this category. I wonder if I am stuck trying to live a life following this example I have set for myself? In actuality, my "love language" might not be acts of service at all.

Regardless of my "love language," I certainly know how to inflict punishment on myself. It is something that I now see laced through my recovery. It's not that I don't apply myself after learning CBT or reading a self-help book. I take the gifts I received from those things and deny myself access to them. I don't deserve to be better. I don't deserve the help of my psychiatrist and friends. This is a familiar feeling that I have been managing for years.

Success and Failure

My doctor asked me if I fear failure or success more. To me, success is luck or chance. It doesn't seem sustainable. I don't fear it. I am afraid that it will set an expectation of success and that I will fail again. Logically, I understand that failure is how we learn, but emotionally I am living a very old pattern. If I don't try, I don't fail or succeed. Instead, I sit in the familiar comfort of shame. I even feel mortified in this realization. The loop continues. "You write all this and you still won't do anything different."

Change is as hard as we make it. I suppose the upside is that getting over this tremendous mountain will be that much more rewarding. I feel as if I need to remind myself that recovery isn't a binary of success or failure, but simply moving ahead. Celebrating the victories, the times when I am able to get past the criticism and punishment, is still very foreign to me. Being in my practiced loop of shame, it is easy to write off things as luck, or focus on the all the times I was unable to succeed. I hope you can take a look at your own behavior and question the motivation behind it. For me, finding the space between observing and critiquing myself is very difficult. I know you can do it, I just need to believe that about myself.

Friendship, Isolation, Boundaries, and Authenticity

9 min read

me behind a brickwall in a watercolor painting

 

While sitting and listening in my recent group therapy I heard a lot of talk about the masks we wear. Like me, many of the people in the group are getting to know themselves. They expressed the desire to be around others who are authentic and genuine. This was a familiar feeling for me. I have struggled to make sense of this as well. Relationships flourish when we are vulnerable, but we can also have boundaries. How do we find balance between the two?

This Is Me

There's a danger in identifying with that which makes us neurally different than others. I have certainly fallen deeper into depression by declaring to the world that depression is all I am. We are not our injuries, disabilities, jobs, or parent's children. Each one of us is an individual. I simply wanted to state this upfront because it is important. If we are to be truly genuine, we are all the worries, feelings, thoughts, victories and failures together. We are not just one part of the whole. I recently heard poet, John O'Donohue, say this in an interview, "Identity is not biography."

Part of learning who I am means letting go, in a way. To really let emotions free is a scary process. I have always held them at bay and tried to control them. For example, I cannot cry in a job interview if a question evokes those emotions. It isn't socially acceptable to express our emotions freely. We must be humble in our success and persevere through pain. This societal messaging can seem like a systematic oppression when you're vulnerably exploring yourself. Once you open the valve, it is much harder to close. Thus, my mind can start to do some unhealthy comparison. I'm open and honest and the world is not. I must be the broken one. Personally, I find blame is often a sign that I'm not being honest with myself. Looking for faults in the world rather than acknowledging that I am hurt is a distraction. I am sad that others are still wearing masks and scared that maybe they are not. Maybe they do want to hurt me? All of these thoughts and emotions are within me, regardless if they are true or not, and it is my responsibility to welcome and respect them.

When I let myself be vulnerable, when I am authentically me, it is an alienating experience. One must be courageous to stay in that space out in a world that is black and white. In the larger society around us, we are right or wrong. There are very few places where emotions are freely accepted. Furthermore, I struggle to stay vulnerable because it is new to me. Going out into the public is like being covered in second degree burns in a sand storm.

"Why can't everyone be vulnerable and honest?" This question, a thought, comes in to bring me out of that emotional space. It builds and the frustration becomes resentment. Was I better off before, when I squashed the emotions? Maybe I am better off being alone because it hurts to get close to people?

Isolation and Solitude

There's a distinction between making space to process emotions and isolating. One I do consciously and the other is subconscious. One is work and the other is not. When I begin to question the world around me, I am once again, avoiding my feelings. I may think that I need some downtime and believe that I am doing some self-care by avoiding social situations. The question I have to ask myself is "what is the emotion behind the decision to stay home?" Is it fear of fitting in? Is it shame?

There's nothing wrong with solitude. At this point for me, it needs to be intentional. I am not protecting myself, but exploring without distraction. Can self-care be a cup of tea, a good book, or a movie? Maybe? For me, those often seem more like distractions from some emotion or situation I am avoiding. When given the opportunity to be social or stay home, 85% of the time the social situation is going to recharge my batteries more than staying home. Humans are social creatures. Anxiety, depression and other neural divergent conditions often encourage us to hide.

Friendship and Boundaries

What about our peeps? Can they be as genuine with us as we are with them? Again, 'maybe' is the answer. If it isn't us, we all have that "Debbie Downer" friend. We have the popular one, the chatty one, the artistic, new age one, etc. Our friends play different roles in our lives, just as we do in theirs. It can feel like rejection when you open up to someone and they do not reciprocate. People have individual tastes, though. My partner would not be open to your numerous stories of gruesome surgical blunders, but I would listen. Boundaries are healthy. If someone is truly your friend, you can explore boundaries with them shame-free. Through, open communication they can say, "I'd rather not discuss that." Likewise, you can say, "That makes me uncomfortable."

It can be very difficult to try to find boundaries in today's world. There's a culture of "Gotcha," a desire to call people out. As friends, I would hope we can respect each other's opinion. That's not always the case in the real world, of course. When we expose our emotions, things get uncomfortable. Maybe that's because we don't often speak with our hearts? If can tell a friend in passionate anger my opinion, can I not apologize with just as much sincere love?

Turning It On and Off

Is the switch to turn off my emotions behind my ear? My interior world before my breakdown was a place of paranoia, anxiety, and self loathing. A comment like, "Nice blog, Chris," would invoke questions of sarcasm. If not sarcastic, is the person feeling pity for me? Are they saying that because they think I want to hear it? In my mind, I could continue deeper and wonder what my late father or my deceased grandmother would think. Am I a disappointment? This is all to say that my interior world is a vast echo chamber. All of that and more can happen in the time it takes me to say thank you to the initial comment. Therefore, I don't have to turn my emotions off with a switch. I have plenty of space to process it.

As I said above, I feel very raw and exposed when I am vulnerable, but the best person to comfort me is always here. It's me. All those questions I asked after the comment are motivated by fear. It's a fear that I do not belong. Rather than express the fear with further questions to echo the fear, I can try to use the space to feel it. Welcoming the pain doesn't mean I have to tell the commenter. Perhaps those deeper issues of my father's opinion and feelings of failure may be better explored in solitude, but I can use my inner space to hold and welcome the emotion rather than more questions. Writing this here seems like one of those "in a perfect world" situations. Truthfully, I am not always capable of sitting with emotions.

Processing emotions is taxing. It can be exhausting. This is why people in my therapy group, and myself, struggle in a world that wears masks. We don't have the energy to put a mask back on. When we do, we feel inauthentic and that hurts. I thought I was finally getting to the core of my issues, but now I have to pretend that I am okay for the benefit of the world around me? It feels like a step backwards. I think my strategy is to be genuine with myself. I'll do my best not to wear a mask, but I will try to have boundaries. We are supposed to choose our battles, right?

Confidant

So, how do we find that close friend who we can be vulnerable with? Maybe we don't. Perhaps I can share my insecurities about my art with other artists, but my fear of being a terrible husband are behind a boundary in that case. Instead, I may address that directly with my partner, or a close friend who is also in a committed relationship. Yet, I cannot talk to my partner or friend about my artwork because I fear they won't understand. Does that make sense?

It can feel like change is impossible, but I like to remind myself that I am not the same person I was twenty minutes ago. Those things we experience can change and influence us. If people change, so do our relationships. Our confidant today, may only be an acquaintance next week. It sounds extreme, I know. Fiction in books and movies like to tell us that emotional bonds are forever, but we don't need to grieve every loss. My best friend lives miles away in another city with his family. If we talk once every three months, that's okay. Before, we may have been much closer, but we both have families now. I can embrace that with joy and some sadness. I can make a new friend and confidant. And, that person could move away, or explore a passion that similarly removes them from my life. I think the key is to value the present moment with those around you.

How do you find friends? There's lots of things written on the internet on this topic. I think the first step is to not isolate so much and be social. This is where I am at. This is the thing I can do at this moment. Before I go, thank you for reading this. I appreciate your encouragement and comments. Maybe we're friends?

The Narrative of a Mind

5 min read

A thorny branch

"This is not an off leash trail! That's why we jog here!"

It was those two simple sentences that spun my mindful walk into a hellish nightmare. I was walking the dog at an off leash park and took a trail that I seldom take because I eventually have to turn around as it dead ends into steps to a neighborhood. However, I was hoping to find some good twisted branches or roots for an art piece. Our rescue dog has been diagnosed with fear aggression. As such, she's more afraid of everyone else than they should be of her. On occasion she will growl or bark behind a dog's back, as to say, "And stay away!" It's a toxic behavior that we are working on and one she displayed on the trail. The jogger had his dog leashed and my dog barked and lunged in their direction after they passed. This resulted in the jogger's dog running in front of him and almost tripping the jogger. I apologized and this is when he stated the quote above and ran away.

Observations

The jogger was angry. The younger man was almost tripped and his morning workout was interrupted. On my way back through the trail, I saw no signs stating I was leaving the off leash park. Although, the boundaries of a park are not typically marked on trails. I ran into 7 other dogs on the trail. The jogger and 1 other person had the dogs on leashes. Both of us had tame, but unpredictable, animals. That is dogs are like people, we don't always get along with everyone else. My dog is my responsibility and the instigator in this situation. I apologized and leashed her, though he didn't see that. The jogger is entitled to his emotional response as am I.

Storytelling

First I fell into shock, but more on that in a bit. My mind went to work instantly desiring to counter his anger with more anger. Fight or flight popped in, adrenaline showed up, and I was ready to use my found branches as blunt instruments instead of art materials. As he ran away the events played back in my head and I saw his rage at me. Wait. He was angry, but not fake TV wrestler steaming. No, he was disgusted with me. Disappointed. I failed him. Wait. He has no investment in me. I failed myself. I should have known it wasn't off leash. I am the worst. What if he jogs back this way? I'd love to get the leash around his neck and see how he likes that. Wait. I will tell the next person I see on the trail about the angry jogger. I'll warn them about him. Wait. Let it go. He was angry and I'm just reacting. Yeah, I need to have some compassion. Why didn't that asshole show me compassion? Wait. I just want to go home.

Respond Not React

In the first two paragraphs above I had a hard time not embellishing what actually occurred. Like the jogger's anger from almost tripping, my emotions are still in the driver's seat as I try to share what happened. Immediately on the trail, I said I was in shock. I was actually caught in a loop, a cycle of shame. After apologizing, I realized the event was triggering the shame inside of me. The terrible husband, loathsome employee, pathetic student, bad brother, and useless son within me awoke. Jogger man becomes another person in my life that wishes I was dead. Of course, that's all in my head. And, this all occurred before he reacted with his angry words. This moment of shock was winning. I knew myself well enough to understand that the events were activating some past emotions.

Then the jogger said, "This is not an off leash trail! That's why we jog here!" I slipped out of the self-aware into despair. It was if he said, "No, really I want you dead. You're a pathetic person who doesn't deserve love." The familiar narrative took over and I thought all those thoughts in the storytelling section above. My desire to tell others on the trail about the jogger was also motivated by my self-loathing. I wanted to be consoled. I wanted someone to tell me that I wasn't to blame. I wanted to continue running from myself and my emotions.

It's difficult when you recognize a pattern and it continues repeats itself. Not so long ago I was reeling because someone said I spoil my dog and another person gave me a broken laptop and felt bad that it caused me turmoil. I'm still here in this pattern, really? I suppose that moment of shock is a progress. Writing this out is therapeutic, even if I cannot retain it. I have also been working to manufacture my own loop or cycle. It goes like this: The jogger triggered all sorts of emotions in me. Perhaps my face, my dog, my reaction, or jogging triggered something emotional in his past? When I am hurting and I want to point a finger and blame someone, I start to wonder what their story is. I like to think this is the beginning of compassion. We all suffer, every single one of us.

We're all individuals and like the dogs in today's adventure we respond differently to each other. It's not what people say, or even how they say it. No, it is how it makes you feel. What you do with those feelings is up to you. If I can have compassion for a stranger who yelled at me, maybe one day I can have compassion for myself.

Victim

5 min read

self portrait of my head trying to escape my head.

I've lost confidence in my ability to recognize my harmful patterns of behaviour because my psychiatrist proposed that I may be taking on a victim role. This new label is uncomfortable and I want to crawl back into bed.

victim [vik-tim]: 1. a person who suffers from a destructive or injurious action or agency. 2. a person who is deceived or cheated, as by his or her own emotions or ignorance, by the dishonesty of others, or by some impersonal agency.

Ouch. Trying the definition on for size, does fit. There's a strong sense that by writing this right now, I'm engaging in the practice of victimizing myself. This is why I want to go back to bed. This is why I am frozen, frustrated, and floundering.

I was struggling with my familiar pattern of shame, and the anger I direct at myself. To my psychiatrist, I described a situation where I made a decision, and in that moment it felt good. It was free of strife. As the hours wore on, I started to get angry. "Hadn't I felt pressured into that decision by my spouse?"I thought. Through therapy, I've learned that anger is not a "negative" emotion. It's perfectly okay to be angry at someone. It's simply about responding, not reacting. "Perhaps my anger shouldn't be towards myself? I can be legitimately angry with my spouse."

I brought those thoughts up to the psychiatrist. I felt in control, calmly made a decision, and confidently moved forward. Hours later, my self-critic came in to challenge my resolve. Breaking this pattern is so hard. This is when the psychiatrist proposed that the anger was a result of me making myself the victim. I had taken the situation and made my spouse out to be my oppressor. I was projecting my frustration with myself onto her. Now, I was using the "it's okay to be angry" that I've learned, in this warped way. I was ignoring my responsibility and laying blame elsewhere.

My Own Parent

I've written before about my stoic father. He was genuine and a good person, but I don't ever remember hearing him say, "I love you." Beyond that, he was good cop 85% of the time. As bad cop, mom spent her time telling me how she "should" punish me. I should be grounded, this is the guilt I carried a lot. Thus, this may be part of how I learned to punish myself.

The guilt and shame goes back to the way my mother was raised. Like every parent, mom wanted to give me the childhood she didn't have. Her parents, my grandparents, were very judgemental and negative. After growing up in that, it makes sense that mom would want me to not experience such criticism. Therefore, I was left to punish myself for mistakes, and things I perceived as mistakes.

Now, my grandparents were not negative 100% of the time. Neither was my mother. To be fair, I am also not punishing myself all the time as well. I'm simply sharing my perspective into my patterns. I suppose I'm clarifying because I'm so turned around at the moment. "Is this description of my past, me playing the victim again?"

Regardless of the past, I am my own parent in this moment. Seeing myself as a child is probably not helpful. Yuck. I'm really in a dark space. I'm not trusting myself, right now. I'm afraid the progress I've made with my emotions is now my same old pattern masquerading as development. Again, "is this me playing the victim to my depression and shame?"

Agency Now

Both definitions for victim above deal with agency. I'm feeling a distinct lack of agency since hearing the psychiatrist's theory. Hi, I'm playing a victim to the theory! I was given this grenade to hold onto 3 days ago. I've been ruminating on it ever since. In other words, have I been present?

Right now, I'm writing this in order to find clues and sort through the thoughts that are making me feel like garbage. I'm not simply observing and analyzing the thoughts, though. I'm reliving events. I'm in the psychiatrist's office. I'm back at the discussion with my spouse. I'm worried about my mom and spouse reading this. I'm not here. I'm not present.

I have no agency in the past because it is done. I have no influence on the perceived futures where I've offended my spouse and mother. Agency is control. This is the value that I find in negativity. Assuming the worst, being judgemental is exerting control. If you always believe the worst, you won't be surprised. This is perhaps the power my grandparents used to make themselves feel good about the world around them. The criticism I remembered seeing in them, and the way they behaved around my mother, as she was growing up, was their way of controlling the environment. Here I am, following in their footsteps. Judging the past and the future is not being here, in the now.

Once again, I feel like I need more concentration on being in the now. It seems like an oversimplified solution to my issues. There's another problem, looking for solutions, rather than accepting where I am. Being present is a powerful tool, not a solution. I have agency at this very moment. I can break down and cry, getting lost in the sadness that I feel. I can also hit the publish button to send this out and stop beating myself up. It's just a bit tricky in this state of mind. My resolve and confidence are weakened. If I stop beating myself up right now, am I ignoring the issue? Am I bottling it up and not learning anything? I suppose those questions are dragging me into a future I have no control over. I can only make the decision with the information I have in this moment. Anything else could be flirting with victimization.

Afraid of What We Find

4 min read

A jittery letter H

 

Hustle.

Whether you're a freelancer, a company person, or a homemaker, you're encouraged to do more. The cult of busy is not an exclusive club, but we treat it that way. "I work 60 hours a week in addition to my side business." Oooh! Impressive.

Heap more onto the to-do list! Even if it's not work-related, we demand more of ourselves. There's a new Netflix show to binge watch on top of your other shows, go go! The kids jump from choir practice, to football practice, to dance, and much more. We start them out young. This is how we were taught.

Hurry from one event to the next. Investigate your phone for games, social networks, and more entertainment in the scant seconds between event hopping. Low battery, no battery? Think: what's on deck for tonight, replay the conversation from earlier, worry about tomorrow, next week, the coming year.

Hold off any introspection. Avoid being with yourself. Escape who you are and hustle.

What are we afraid of?

takes a deep breath

What am I afraid of?

Well, shit. When I'm alone with my feelings it's all fear, shame and guilt. Deeper, I fear no one likes me. I am afraid I am unlovable. Of course, I'd rather work 60 hours, get drunk, or binge watch entire seasons of shows. If the only other option is spending time feeling those emotions, I choose distraction. Even when we're avoiding our own emotions, we react to strong emotions of others. "Don't cry! It's okay!" When we witness some sort of domestic dispute between people in public we may look away. It's uncomfortable to be around people emoting. Even if someone is extremely happy, we tease them. "Sure, it's great you won the million dollar prize, but what's that going to do to your taxes this year?"

In therapy, I'm told emotions are not positive or negative. I'm sure I've written about that before. It makes sense that we may even shy away from strong feelings of joy or love. The emotions are all connected. There's not a separate tap for each one. Letting some happiness in means sadness is a coin flip away. So, we run.

Hide.

A Breakdown

Heal. I've been trying to pick up the pieces from my break. When you glue something together, it's never as strong as it once was. I keep trying to hustle my way back to normalcy. The dam keeps breaking, though. I am afraid.

I journal here in hopes to help others, as much as to remind myself of the path forward. I'm still afraid. I'm ashamed of my break. I'm ashamed I'm not back in the hustle. I'm ashamed that I don't love myself.

That's the honesty. This is my truth. This is why I hustle.

Hate. Spending time with myself, I see just how little I like me. This is thought again. Distraction and hustle. It's much easier to say, "I hate myself," than it is to feel the pain of not knowing. The pain of sitting with the shame, anger, and fear that makes me tremendously sad.

Maybe that sadness comes from a place of compassion? I don't know. Or, I'm afraid to say. I'm scared to truly look for fear of the emotional pain.

Hazy. The journey or process of healing is nebulous and uncertain. I suppose that's life too. The years of self-loathing have allowed me to control my life and narrative. The certainty of knowing I am a failure and unlovable was somehow comforting. That's no longer true.

Hugs. This is my prescription. This is what will be helpful as I work on my mental health.

 

See what I wrote about the other letters and my artistic take of them on my PixelFed page.

Improving Mental Health Triggering Your Inner Critic

4 min read

Mirror image of a male face that's been digital manipulated. The face has been split in red and blue colors

 

"When change comes from a place of non-acceptance, and when there's an absence of compassion, the inner critic is then often driving the bus." ~Dr. Candice Creasman

It's easy to look at the quote above and agree quickly without introspection. That's fear, keeping us away from the pain and emotion we carry within. Change is something we crave. We find ourselves always reaching for more. The loose, societal definition of success is "more." If you can get an A in school, why can't you get an A+? One promotion at work is great, but what's next? You've lost weight, but can you now tone your muscles?

Goals are not necessarily evil, but they need to be clearly defined. Often, like for me, there isn't a specific goal. Instead, I dwell on the fact that I'm not enough, no matter the accomplishment. This is me not accepting myself. That's my inner critic demanding change.

I can also use peer groups or society in general to beat myself up. This social comparison is another way to motivate change. Obviously, it is still coming "from a place of non-acceptance." Moreover, it can find its way into recovery. Just like the desire to lose weight might seem like a decent goal, improving mental wellness is a great idea. Except, when it is the inner critic "driving the bus."

I've made progress, but it's a slow process. Truthfully, this will always be part of my life. The hope that tomorrow I will wake up confident, successful, and no longer bothered by my inner critic or depression is a myth. Regardless, it's a myth that can be very compelling. Thus, my inner critic uses it as motivation for change. I see you, the reader, as a "normal" person. Why can't I be successful like you? Suddenly, my desire to get well has been twisted back into my pattern of old. I'm not enough. My efforts, my progress so far, are not enough. I am a joke.

Can It Be Both?

Of course, it's the lens that I'm looking through. Using social comparison and non-acceptance, I see a failure. With the compassion spectacles on, I see progress and I can taste a faint dusting of gratitude. For me, I think there's still much work in forgiveness to be done. I'm still punishing myself for the past. "So much of my life was wasted in depression. There's so little time ahead," I think. So for me, acceptance may come in the form of forgiveness. Here and now, there's nothing I can do about my past. Probable futures where I beat depression 20 years ago, or where I'm "successful" are a distraction. Here is where I need to be, in acceptance.

There are days, where I wake up and leave the compassion spectacles on the dresser. I have to accept this as well. Yes, I have screwed up. Yes, I am sad. I am tired. So be it. Living in denial, or non-acceptance, is not healthy. Yet, that very thought can engage the inner critic and send me into the past or the future. It's a loop. Accepting that today, or better yet, that this moment is a difficult one, is a far better strategy.

 

I go forward attempting to ask myself who is driving the bus. What is my motivation for change, today?

Wish me luck.

Much <3

the image above is part of a series or study of my emotions that I was working through on my Pixelfed account. It will be on my art blog soon.



Relationships and Mental Wellness

7 min read

Two oval shapes mirroring each other in a gritty environment

"You're not responsible for the emotions of others."

This is something I've heard often in therapy, groups, and through other resources. Logically, it makes sense. If you could make someone feel love for you, there would be no need for dating. No, people are in charge of their own emotions. It may not always feel that way to us. Sometimes it seems like the emotions are in control, not the other way around. Dealing with emotions is a whole topic of its own. What I sat down to write about was healing yourself while being in relationships.

Much of my depression appears to stem from my worth as a person in this world. For years I have lived off the validation from others. I was desperate to impress everyone, parents, grandparents, teachers, friends, and strangers. Their praise was all I had because I did not love myself. I was ashamed of who I was. I used to joke that if I became President that one of my grandmothers would have said, "I think you can do better. That job doesn't pay that much does it, Christopher." That was my joke, these are not direct quotes from grandma. This is how I saw myself-- never good enough.

The path to healing is to find a way to love who I am, in this moment. I cannot change my past and fearing the future only leads to more trouble. However, I'm not alone in this journey. I have a partner and family. They say you don't choose your family. Would my partner have chosen to marry me if my depression was written into the contract? I was miserable when a former partner went through depression. In fact, I left. I grew up with my mother locked away in her room. When my father tried to talk me out of leaving my former partner, I told him that I didn't know how he could live like that. My mother told me that hurt him a lot, to hear me say that. Again, dwelling on the past or unseen futures is not typically helpful with depression. Though, here in the present, my mental illness is a factor in our relationship.

The shame of being unworthy is fueled by that past memory, but the difference here and now is communication. This is a key part of my healing and relationship. My personal message that "I can do better" is supposed to motivate me, but telling myself it over and over has convinced me that I'm not enough. It doesn't matter which relationship, mother, sister, spouse, I'm not enough. That desire for outside validation that I mentioned earlier morphed into a new shame delivery system.

"That person is just being polite. They know I'm not really talented, important, or helpful," I thought.

Therefore, communicating with my partner openly is far more helpful than listening to that punishing voice in my head. This is a double-edged sword, sharing my thoughts and emotions like this. Openly sharing has her trying to create a map of pitfalls to avoid. No one wants to see someone they love hurting. So, what are the situations we need to navigate around to avoid Chris feeling pain?

The map is a myth. Even now, as I write this, I'm hoping to stumble on my own map to help her navigate my depression. You're not responsible for the emotions of others. Our minds are unique to the moment we are in. Our brains have plasticity and are constantly changing. There is no ranking sadness, anger, happiness, fear, surprise, and disgust. Each has the ability to overcome the others. Something that would normally disgust you to eat, may not look bad if you haven't eaten in 10 days. Fear of death is a big scary thing to some of us, but sadness of depression can easily dull the fear. Happiness that your partner is alive after a crash can overpower the anger or sadness you feel at losing your father's classic car. The point is, we cannot predict what others will feel. We barely have control of our own emotions.

Where Are We Then?

I share, it concerns my partner, and we're both left uneasy. If it was just me alone, my depression wouldn't affect anyone, right? This is depression talking again. That desire to isolate and shield ourselves away from any feeling whatsoever.

Now what?

Maybe the clues are above. My partner is concerned, she is affected by what I am going through. Her desire to avoid pitfalls is far more important than anything else. That's love. In that moment, she's trying to help. The same goes for me as I write this. The worry that our mental health is a burden on those around us is based in a fear of future pain. I'm missing that key present moment, she's doing everything to help. Her fear that she's not saying the right things or could be doing things that are harmful comes from how I behaved in the past. Instead of worrying about what may happen, all of us would be better off to focus on what's in front of us. I'm here and sharing. Human connection is an amazing thing if you just take time to really be present.

I'm not being critical of my partner or myself. Though, that is my old pattern. I'm simply trying to remind myself and those of you reading that nothing matters more, than this moment. Regret is born from realizing that fact too late. The "should haves" begin to slap the shore of your beliefs and you find yourself awash in feelings that you didn't do enough. There's that word again, ""enough." Maybe I need to try to remove that from my vocabulary with a Morning Mantra. In fact, I think saying "too late" was a bad idea as well. Truthfully, it is never "too late" when you're in the present.

Then & Now

I didn't leave my former partner because of her depression. I left to avoid mine. The shame that I was unable to pay the bills and returning to school because I couldn't hack university before was the motivation. I had failed my parents, my marriage, and everyone. I wasn't who I thought they wanted me to be. I suppose that was the question I was really asking my father at the time, "If you love my mother, will you love me if I can't be who you want me to be?" Of course, he didn't want my mother to be in pain. However, it wasn't up to him. All he could do was be present and communicate. Healing takes time, moment to moment.

I was lost in a future I thought everyone wanted. I was trapped in a past where I believed I made the wrong decisions about my education, house purchase, and letting others depend on me. I was depressed. When I observer the past, and don't get swept away in it, I can see my depression goes back much further.

Once my psychiatrist told me that the emotional parts of our brain have no sense of time. An emotion triggered by a memory can be just as powerful as the day the event actually happened. When I think of my father and all his medical complications as I write this, I feel sad despite the fact that he passed away a while ago. Wherever he is now, no matter what my beliefs, he's not hurting now. Living with my mental illness has not been a picnic for my partner. Tomorrow, may very well be another troubling day. Right now, in this moment, we have each other and I'm going to hold onto that and enjoy it. And of course, I have to continue to work on my relationship with myself.

Much <3

The Calendar, The Depression, And The Golem

6 min read

A self-portrait of myself reaching up from the water. I may be drowning.

Depression.

I penciled it in for the morning.

I would guess this happened because I was preparing for the psychiatry appointment I had scheduled in the middle of the day.

It was Monday. The world around me goes back to work to bring home the bacon, scramble for promotions, and attain status. I tried to make a go of it, dressing to take my partner to work and walk the dog. The winter bit at me while on the stroll. I had good company, though. The dog who was also unemployed. Once home, I tried to barricade myself from the depression with chocolate. Or, was that choice because of my mental health? It's never clear in the fog of self doubt.

Bojack Horseman was falling into a well worn pattern of denial on the television. His issue was apparent to me at the time, yet my own denial was miles away from my thoughts. The clock refused to slow and depression finally stepped aside.

I blocked time off in the afternoon for anxiety. I should leave soon, or I will miss my psychiatry appointment. I waited until the last possible moment to go out the door. Swimming in questions that the doctor may ask of me, I schedule some shame. Why can't I ask myself these questions? What is wrong with me? Now, I will be late.

The appointment is attended by someone else. He exists outside the fog. In the safe space of the doctor's office, he speaks of the challenges of living with me. I envy him. He tells the doctor that he thinks he might not be real. He fears his confidence and self-control is an illusion. As if I was smart enough to be a double agent and fool both him and the doctor. No, his abilities are real. Though, I fear he may just be a golem I constructed to protect me from further hurt.

The appointment behind us, I make time for escapism. The positive words from the doctor and my other are too difficult to digest. I head for some retail therapy. I feel like I'm part of the real world now. Which of these things can bring me status? Of course, I'm shopping in a surplus store and the liquidation outlet next door. It's a punishment of sorts. I am not really part of the working world. I don't deserve nice things.

Exhaustion.

It's not on the calendar.

The exhaustion has no right to be there. I don't work like others. How could I be tired from talking about, and ignoring, my emotions? Yet, it comes down on me like the gravity of a star. Ignoring the pull, I work on laundry and setup the new television antenna I purchased earlier.

The scheduled day is over. Anxiety about tomorrow sits down to read me a bed time story, but I'm too tired. Instead, I read some fiction because reading is perceived as an intelligent past time. I like reading as well. Both reasons can be valid, but I want to focus on the first to get another hit of shame. After closing the book, I drift nowhere in particular. I can't tell if the fog is lifting or if I am sinking.

My partner stirs. The Sandman is held hostage by the stress of her Monday. My guilt and anxiety leap into action to soothe her. To be fair, they nudged me awake and I genuinely enjoyed trying to help her rest by telling her a story.

It's midnight. She is asleep and I am now alone with shame and depression. She works so hard and what do I do? I saw the psychiatrist today. It's been a year. I'm still here. I'm still failing. What happened to my exhaustion is unclear.

The Fellow At The Appointment

He's here in the dark, watching me write this. The blackness of the night swallows his words as if he is underwater. He seems to want to remind me something said at the appointment. Was it him or the doctor? What did they say? I'm sorry, I don't understand. I'm tired. He is not so easily deterred. He reminds me that earlier in the evening my partner said she appreciates everything I do for her. She told me that every time work gets stressful she sees me step up to take care of her.

The memory surfaces. It was him. At the appointment, he said something about taking control. "I don't have to be a passenger or a victim. I can take some responsibility here. I can make change." We talked about art with the doctor. The perfectionist that once shared head space with us is now incredibly quiet when we create art. In fact, I think my golem stepped aside as I explained to the doctor that I enjoy the process of painting and creating. The end product, well it's not a product. The finished work is always a delightful surprise now that perfection is no longer calling the shots. The doctor calls this progress. I realize that I haven't been writing or painting lately because I've been punishing myself instead of enjoying my own company.

Strange, I switched to saying "we" in the above paragraph. Indeed, I didn't need my golem to protect me during the Monday appointment. There's a sense I am unfamiliar with in my chest. I may be slightly proud that progress can be seen. I'm cautious because I am more comfortable in the known world of disappointment and depression. It's predictable here in negativity. He murmurs under the water, "art." Immediately, I understand. Perhaps it is good to be cautious about progress because like art, my life is not about a final product. It's the journey. It's the process where I can find balance and maybe some happiness.

Curious. I thought my golem was a double agent working for my depression. "I'm good," he tells those around me. "No need to worry or continue discussing my emotions." However at 12:44am, he seems to be genuinely helpful.

Technically, it's now Tuesday. I'm too tired to schedule any more introspection. I will try to sleep again. Good night.