Fixing Points in the Darkness

I often wish that life had some kind of external meaning. I wish there were fixed points in existence that we could derive our purpose from, things we knew to be incontrovertibly true about why we are alive. Things we knew we would find as points with which to plot the course of our lives. A soul mate. A purpose. A reason. Things that, added up, told us the potential value of our lives.

It would make my life easier if I had those things. I wouldn’t spend so much time wondering, so much time groping about in the dark, if I knew where I was or what I was reaching for. I’d never worry that I was wasting my time on my current path because I’d know I was at least headed in the right direction. I’d know why I’m here.

But fixed points don’t exist. We have many points to pick from and we’re never sure where they are or if they’ll stay. The concept of “soul mate” might exist, but I doubt it exists in the form of a single person. Perhaps an incredibly strong rapport with one person in particular, but there are too many humans for it to be statistically likely for anyone to find their one particular soul mate during their short span alive. Plus, if souls truly are immortal, then you’re opening it up to all humans who ever existed and will ever exist. The likelihood of finding your one soul mate is so low as to be laughable. Yet that’s still a comment idea because people claim to have found theirs all the time. If it truly exists as it is often expressed, I think a soul mate is someone you build a relationship with and connect with, not some pre-determined person. Sure, you found someone and immediately felt a profound connection, but we only apply the term “soul mate” when the connection stays and the relationship works out. If you didn’t work at keeping the relationship strong, they wouldn’t be your soul mate.

That means it isn’t a fixed point. If you could form that strong of a bond with anyone (or almost anyone, since there are prerequisites to even trying to form that bond), then it isn’t so much as finding a fixed point in existence as it is fixing a point in existence. The same is true of “meaning” and “purpose.” You may feel particularly called to doing something and your life might have a very strong pattern or theme to it, but you always have to work at maintaining it. Saying you’ve found your meaning and then pointing to your life from then on as evidence of it being your meaning is a self-fulfilling prophesy. You found something that you decided was meaningful and then dedicated your life to it. Just because your life was full of it doesn’t change the fact that you picked it.

I struggle with this sometimes. Because of my affinity for writing, the joy I get from writing, and the dedication I feel to writing, it is very tempting to say that I was given meaning and purpose. The same is true of storytelling. I want to say something outside myself determined that I was to be a storyteller and finding ways to be a storyteller is just me trying to live the life that was set out for me. It is very easy to forget that I haven’t always felt this way. Before high school, I didn’t write much at all. I read a lot and enjoyed stories, but I didn’t write them. Writing began as a coping mechanism and giving myself meaning because of my writing was a part of that.

One of the “Obsessive” bits of my OCD is a preoccupation with self-destructive ideas. I’ve never acted on them, thankfully, but my OCD makes sure they’re pretty much always there. Back when I first started confronting the reality that these thoughts were here to stay, I decided that giving myself reasons to want to wake up tomorrow was going to make it easier to push past those thoughts if they ever went from what was, at that point, just a burble in the back of my mind. I picked a meaning and a purpose for myself and believed in it so firmly that now, over a decade later, I almost forget that I didn’t always believe my purpose was to write and tell stories. I almost forget that this was something I chose.

Fixing your points in existence is important. Not because they’re going to lead you somewhere, but because they can give you a sense of direction. You know where something is and you can always find your way back so long as you never let them go. Without them, you’re just drifting. Some people like to drift and that’s fine, but that becomes a fixed point of sorts as well. Your purpose is to drift and to exist.

Ultimately, I can’t really fault anyone for what they choose. Even the people who want to believe that something else gave them fixed points and a direction. I believe they’re fixing the points themselves and even adding a couple more as a result of their beliefs. Religion, philosophy, ethics… They can all become fixed points if you want. I think some of those things are best left at least moderately adjustable.

This metaphor is getting away from me a bit and is probably a step or two further into the “mumbo-jumbo” department than I like to go, but I really think it is important to find our own meaning, our own purpose, and whatever else we want to fix in our lives. More fixed points isn’t necessarily better, but more points definitely helps you feel like you’ve got a direction to head in. Right now, all I’ve really got is my writing. The use of words and the goal for which I use them. These are my fixed points in existence and every decision on what to do and where to go is based around them in some way or another.

I’d like some more, but that’s not something I’m willing to just do haphazardly. It takes time and a lot of work to fix a point. It takes a lot less to lose one. Trusting my instincts and understanding myself used to be my two strongest fixed points, but I’ve lost track of them. I think I’m working on getting them back, but its hard to tell sometimes. At least I know I’m making progress, even if it does feel incredibly slow.

Patience and Perspective: Anxiety Feels Like a Nightmare

I’m really good at waiting. I can sit and pass time easily since I usually have a book or something on me at all times. I can even do it, though less easily, when I don’t have anything to do. I’ve got plenty to think about, can doze easily, and have no problem letting time traipse past when I need to. I never fret about being early because I don’t mind waiting and I feel more comfortable having to wait than having to rush.

The one catch is that I’m only good at waiting for things with set times. If I know how long I have to wait, I don’t mind waiting. If I don’t know and it is something important to me, then I will be a giant ball of anxiety counting seconds until whatever it is I’m waiting for comes to pass. A lot of the time, it comes up with stuff like waiting for important results or waiting to hear back from people. Job applications, medical procedures, the arrival of important packages, a return message from someone, a phone call that will make or break my plans. All of them will get me anxious, some more than others. I can distract myself, but not always and generally not for very long.

When it happens, I feel like I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. I can feel the tension in the air around me and it drives me crazy. I feel like something horrible is about to happen or I expect the worst and the seconds drag by because I can’t let my mind focus on anything else. I can feel the weight of it on the horizon and I can’t look away for fear of missing the chance to be ready for it.

Sometimes, when I am getting sick or have something preventing me from sleeping soundly, I have strange dreams. They’re almost always the same or incredibly similar dreams as well. My perspective is distorted, no matter what I do, like when you stare at a computer monitor for so long that it starts to take up your whole field of vision and the text or image you’re staring at seems like it is drifting further and further away as your brain attempts to reconcile the fact that what you’re looking at is actually very small with the fact that it uses a few tricks of the light to appear larger. In these dreams with the weird, elongated perspective, I have to roll up some tiny black and white grains into a ball. It requires “swooping” down to the floor for them because I can’t see them any other way thanks to the distorted perspective.

They make my brain hurt. If I have that dream, which sometimes includes a blanket made of the same black and white grains that keeps trying to cover me in what is supposed to be a comforting manner, it is a sure sign that I’m getting sick. There’s a similar one, with the same perspective and grains, but this time they’re arranged in straws or strings that are tangled in a knotty ball that I have to smooth out in order to continue traveling towards my destination. This one hurts my brain even more because the ball is decided non-euclidean and the normal ways I have of interacting with it and defining it as “smooth” don’t apply on account of its strange, irrational shapes.

A lot of the time, that is what waiting for a long but definitely unknown amount of time feels like. A brain twist that knots up my guts and leaves me feeling sick or nauseous. Distractions are like waking up. Sooner or later I’m going to go back to sleep and then I’ll be right back in the middle of it. There’s no escaping it until the night is over.

I’ll admit the comparison is a bit over the top, but waiting three hours past when I was supposed to get a phone call is just as exhausting and mind-bending as non-euclidean dreams fulled by anxiety and some inner part of myself that freaks out when I get sick. It fuels my anxiety like an energy drink fuels a small child. I try to set my expectations so that I am not left waiting for a long period of time. If I don’t expect to be called at a certain time, I cannot be disappointed when I do not get the call. If I don’t set an exact time, it can be easier to wait. Not always, but sometimes.

A lot of managing my anxieties is about setting expectations correctly. Managing my outlook so that I’m never in a position where I’m expecting something that is unlikely to happen or filling my head with all the horrible reasons that could explain why I’m still waiting on something. This is probably the easiest way to address my anxieties and something that every single therapist I’ve ever seen has recommended. Unfortunately, I’m not very good at it.

I’ve been trying to practice it as a part of my meditation and reflection, but that makes it feel like it is making things more difficult rather than easier. I remember being able to handle all of my mental health issues easily as a result of meditation and reflection back when I was in college and so getting back into the habit now is unfortunately giving me unreasonable expectation of just being able to fix whatever is on my mind with a single evening’s work. As I’ve said previously, that’s not how progress works. That’s not how I’m going to grow and continue to make healthy improvements. Things take time and setting that expectation is the most important thing I do every day.

Still, there are times I find myself settling in to meditate and wishing that I could quickly fix my own problems and figure out what to do with whatever it is I’m feeling. Now, it takes time and I grow impatient. Worse yet, it takes an unknown amount of time and it is difficult to prevent those anxieties from building. My mind creates a silent mantra of “why haven’t I fixed this by now?” that is hard to ignore.

I’m really glad I’ve been writing things down. It makes it a lot easier to remind myself to go easy on myself when I can read my own personalized reminders. I feel like a jumbled mess, still, but I also feel more stable. A lot of my mental structures may be shakey and built on fault likes, but they’re more reinforced than they’ve ever been. I just need to keep working and wait for the progress to become more noticeable.

Anxieties Can Grow into Fears and Trusting Again is Like Going for a Swim in a Lake

One of the worst parts of my anxiety is how it can make something entirely reasonable feel like something I don’t dare ask for. A five-minute midday phone call to help settle all the nagging thoughts that are threatening to take up my entire day? Definitely not something I can request without at least an hour of writing the message and then half an hour of psyching myself up to hit send. Sure it SEEMS reasonable, but what if it isn’t? What if they’re busy? What if they’re actually pissed at me because of what we talked about yesterday and I couldn’t tell then because I’m horrible at reading people over the phone, meaning sending them a message now is only going to make them angrier at me.

It sucks. It was a reasonable request because we needed to talk about what happened and verbally recognize that we needed to continue the conversation. I felt much better and I can only hope they feel better as well, now that they know I want to continue working this out. It should have been easy. A two-sentence message and then a wait until the appropriate time for a five-minute phone call. I spent more time worrying about what might have happened, trying to figure out how to properly say what I wanted to say, and whether or not it was appropriate to say anything at all than I spent on the conversation that spawn all the anxiety this morning.

My anxiety can run away with me, more than my depression or my OCD can. If either of those ever feels like it is running away with me, it is usually because it is fueled by my anxiety. The thought spirals that consume me are driven by anxieties I can’t squelch. The internal storms that threaten to sink me are whipped up by anxieties that I can’t deny. A lack of information is the greatest challenge to controlling my anxiety and a strong enough anxiety can make it a monumental effort to ask for any information, let alone figure out what to do with it.

As I reflected on this, my worst anxiety attack in a while, I realized that I’m not really prepared to deal with something like this. Almost all of my coping mechanisms involve heading things off or reasoning them away. That can work with my depression because a lot of that is based on not dwelling on any one thing in particular, waiting it out, and reminding myself that it will end eventually. It works alright with my OCD because most of my OCD is based around obsessions and I can usually reason with them so long as they don’t have an anxiety behind them. It even works with most of my anxiety since I usually know I’m worked up over nothing or have evidence to directly contradict my anxiety.

The fears though, the big anxieties that don’t have answers and prey on uncertainties, don’t have evidence I can trot out and are usually about things that I should be able to assume but really can’t. They’re what feeds into things like my resistance toward being emotionally open and vulnerable with people or the nagging fear that everything and everyone I love is going to disappear without warning. I know most people aren’t going to try to manipulate me using my emotions or use any time I’m open about my feelings as a way to hurt me. I know that it takes time for people to leave and there are almost always warning signs.

The problem with knowing those things is all the evidence to the contrary. I’ve got a lot of experience with people using my feelings and what I’ve shared with them to hurt me in new and horrible ways. I’ve seen how people can suddenly vanish, either because they decided you weren’t worth their time, because it was easier than working things out, or because something horrible happened to them. A lot of these were fairly isolated events, but there were still a lot of them.

I try to recognize that there’s also a ton of evidence supporting the idea that people aren’t out to get me or that what I love won’t suddenly vanish, but it’s hard to remember it all the time. Also, it is hard to say being emotional vulnerable with people won’t be used against me when I don’t really do it anymore. I also can’t use evidence to prove people won’t just vanish because it is almost always sudden and almost always happens in ways you wouldn’t expect. How can you disprove something you don’t expect? Someone randomly getting run over by a bus or going to a movie theater or club that gets shot up isn’t exactly something you can work to prevent or say won’t happen to someone around you. It isn’t likely, sure, but it happens to people and every person is a part of that group.

The worst ones, the ones that can bring in my depression and OCD, creating the hurricanes I mentioned in my other post, are the ones aren’t wrong. If I get going on something like “my anxieties make me annoyed and frustrated and I’m more willing to put up with myself than anyone else is, so how much everyone around me feel when I’m acting particularly anxious/depressed/obsessed/neurotic/what-have-you?” then I run the risk of heading straight toward meltdown city.

That isn’t a fun place to go. I definitely do NOT recommend the vacation package, the over-night bargain, or even passing through it. Once you’re there, it is incredibly hard to leave and a pass-through always turns into a full-stop. You don’t just visit. You take up semi-permanent residence and usually need outside help leaving since the stationmaster is hard to find and the population generally isn’t interested in actually trying to help you leave.

When it comes to fears or anxieties I can’t deny and the ones I have no evidence to disprove, all I can do is trust. Trust that I won’t be abused if I’m emotionally vulnerable with someone. Trust that people and things in my life won’t just disappear if they have a choice in the matter. Trust that people aren’t just putting up with me. Trust is hard. Trust is easily broken and hard to replace. I’ve got a lot of pretty convincing reasons not to trust, but trust is an essential part of being a human and living in a community. You trust that someone isn’t going to break down your door and take all your stuff. You trust that someone isn’t going to hurt your loved ones or, at the very least, that there are people whose job it is to protect them. You trust that people aren’t going to use you to their advantage whenever they can. Without that trust, you become isolated and have trouble connecting with people.

That’s where I’m struggling. I don’t trust much. Hell, I don’t even really trust myself. Misplaced trust has hurt me more than anything else in life and I’m not eager to get hurt again. I used to be able to dive back in by affirming that it is better to love and lose, to take a chance and fail, than to risk never again feeling the warm glow of trust rewarded with trust and love. Then I spent most of my time in Madison, nearly four years, getting every hand extended in trust smacked away, being around people who made it clear they only barely tolerated me, and getting my feet yanked out from underneath me at work constantly. There were people who made me feel bad about some of the most basic parts of myself.

Thankfully, I’m away from those influences now. I’ve got a girlfriend who wants to hear about all the things I love as much as I’m willing to talk about them. I’ve got supportive, helpful roommates who I really appreciate. I’ve got a work environment that is positive and appreciates me. I’ve even had one of the first and biggest metaphorical hand-slaps contact me and apologize for how they acted. I really want to dive back in again, but my fear and anxieties keep me back.

Like going for a swim in a lake, it is almost always better to just dive right in. The rush of water will feel cold at first, but you’ll stop noticing it quickly afterward. Then you’re free to swim to your heart’s content. Sometimes, though, you need to check for rocks first and take your time getting wet. Eventually, I’ll be ready to take the plunge, but for now maybe I’ll just start with my feet.

It was a Beautiful Day

Today was wonderful. A hike with good friends, followed by a cookout and then swimming in the lake with the same friends. It felt amazing to finally be out and about, doing things I love with people I love. I wish I had more to write, something I’d been thinking about to share, but today was all taken up by loved ones and thoughts of loved ones.

Instead, have a poem. It isn’t particularly cheerful or anything, but I was talking about my OCD with two of my friends, so this poem has been on my mind for a few hours.


 

My mind is a battlefield:
a land ravaged by war
where the once green fields
and luscious forests
are now gone,
replaced by blasted earth
and barren, burnt wastelands
full of sad, lost refugees
who shy from everyone they meet.

My mind is a world at war:
full of brutal savagery
and the most wondrous beauty
locked in some twisted dance
that never ends
while someone wanders
searching through the misery
to find the scrap of truth that makes
the travesty worth it.

Maybe you can understand why
I do not like to dwell on things,
why I often seem vacant
and perhaps unmindful of
the people and things around me
or why I might not be listening
when you’re talking to me.
There’s a war going on
and I don’t have much energy
to spare because I’m the general
of both armies.

While you’re talking to me,
I’m trying to navigate through my mind
while watching out for landmine memories
and avoiding guerilla anxieties,
not to mention all the other soldiers
I have sent to sabotage me.
I usually never make it out.
I know all my own tricks
and there are too many landmines
to avoid them all, especially when
the guerrillas are chasing you.

Yet I go in, the external me
who watches this all unfolding within,
and hope to find the sepia
photograph or inspiring tale
of truth that makes enduring
this constant, ceaseless war of existence
a viable option.
The armies leave me be
but the guerrillas will not stop
planting landmines and chasing me
towards them, despite the call of peace
and my humanitarian efforts
to stave off the nuclear winter
the generals consider simply for the sake
of concluding.

 

I Think I’m Going to Step Out for a Bit

I’ve spent a lot of my weekend relaxing. As it is a three-day weekend in the US, I’ve been a lot less active that I might otherwise have been and much less directed. I spent Saturday with my girlfriend and her friend until I finally stopped putting off my evening plans, Magic the Gathering with my Saturday D&D group, and then got home in time to basically crash from all of the sun and fun. Mini-golf under the midday sun, three-ish miles of walking in the heat, and then a quick trip to the store so I could get a swimsuit. I didn’t want to miss out on the chance to jump in the pool after spending the previous four hours sweating in the heat. I got a bit of sun-burn despite putting some sunscreen on my face, so that was rather annoying, but doesn’t seem to be too bad.

Then I’ve spent most of my day today puttering about until I remembered I hadn’t updated my blog yet, for today. Played some old favorite games, some REALLY old favorites, and even a few games my friends recommended. Read a bunch, dozed about, and generally just avoided direct sunlight. It has been nice to relax and just lazily drift through the day. I can’t remember the last time I spent a day just doing whatever without getting “bored” and endlessly cycling between things after a couple minutes of considering them because I feel like I’m wasting my time.

While I was laying in bed, waiting to see if I could fall back asleep again and shifting to move my sun-burned bits away from contact with anything but the air, I tried to meditate, but my mind just kept running around in circles. I’ve tried twice more today, but I haven’t been able to get my mind to wind down enough to empty it out. There’s a lot going on in my life and it’s difficult to put all of that aside for even an hour or two. My girlfriend is house shopping; I’m entering my busy month and will be not getting much quiet time, let alone quiet time with my girlfriend; so many different things to reflect on; preparations for my hiking trip and grill-out tomorrow; and my general anxieties that I’m trying to avoid focusing on.

Mostly, I would love a quiet weekend with my girlfriend, hanging out without any particular plans, working on our individual creative projects, watching cartoons or movies, and playing video games. That sort of stuff is like plugging my soul into a recharging station. I’ve got other ways of doing it and recharging myself, but I would really enjoy that one right now. Between the sunburn, smashing one of my toes at the grocery store, and this annoying feeling of exhaustion that keeps pulling at me, I could really go for a quiet day and some peaceful companionship. I’ll probably be fine tomorrow, once I’ve got another good night’s sleep, but today I think I’m going to stop reflecting and just go back to playing games. I’d like to be outside my head for a bit since trying to work inside it has only worsened my mood.

This Book is Stuck in my Head!

If you’ve already read John Scalzi’s Science Fiction novel, Lock In, or its sequel that just came out, Head On, you know the title is a tasteless joke and I’d like to apologize right now for being unable to resist it. If you haven’t already read either of the aforementioned Scalzi books, then I will apologize after I’ve explained why the joke is tasteless. In the mean time, the most important thing for you to know is that my favorite Science Fiction author has started a new series and the series is excellent.

Lock In and Head On follow FBI agent Chris (No, I don’t just like this series because the protagonist shares my first name. It certainly doesn’t hurt it, though) Shane who isn’t what you or I might call an ordinary person. Agent Shane is what is called a “Haden” in his world. A Haden is someone who contracted a flu-like virus, survived all three stages of the disease (Stage 1 is flu-like, Stage 2 is meningitis-like, and Stage 3 is a coma), but never woke up from their coma. They’re still mentally all-there and capable of sensory input, they just can’t make move and their brains have been altered by the disease (which is why the title is in bad taste). Some of those who wake up from the coma also have their brains altered, but we’ll get into that in a bit.

Agent Shane, like a lot of Hadens, gets around the meat world by using what everyone calls a “Threep,” a nickname based on C-3PO from Star Wars for what is legally called a “Personal Transport Vehicle.” It is basically a high-tech robot body that communicates with the device implanted in his brain so he can experience the world with a minimal amount of lag and all the perks of being able to record everything, access the internet with a thought, and bail out of your body if it gets trashed (as happens more than once). There are certain limitations, of course, such as the inability to eat things and the rather pervasive (if relatively minor) prejudice humanity if famous for, but it allows Agent Shame and many of his fellow Hadens the ability to live a relatively normal life.

To further help the Hadens live a normal life, there are these people called “integrators.” Integrators are the people who progressed all the way through the disease but did not either fall into the coma or did not stay in it. Because of the way the disease altered their brain, they were also able to be fitted with a brain implant device that lets a Haden basically take a certain degree of control over their body. The control is limited, as the integrator remains conscious and aware the entire time, able to reassert control over their should the Haden attempt to do something illegal or harmful to the integrator.

There’s a whole culture that grew up during the decades are the disease first appeared, and they place a central roll in both of Scalzi’s books since the protagonist is a Haden who works for the FBI and his partner is an ex-integrator. The two work out of the Washington D.C. office of the FBI and investigate Haden-related crimes that fall into federal jurisdiction. In the first book, Lock In, the story kicks off with an integrator who is found next to a dead body in a hotel room after a sofa is thrown out of a window. The investigation serves as an excellent showcase of Haden culture and some of the finest subtle world-building I’ve ever read. It introduces readers to many aspects of Haden culture as the two FBI agents try to unravel the true tale of what happened in that hotel room and has a lot of nods to the way the modern, primary world works. I’ll admit I might like it a bit more than I otherwise might because it changes our world’s history a bit to fit better in the future Scalzi created along with showcasing the kind of positive development you’d like to see happen in our species, but it feels like it really could just be a couple of decades down the line from our current time.

The characters are all wonderful, each of them a complex person with layers. There are no caricatures in Scalzi’s novel and that’s worth mentioning because the circumstances of the story make it incredibly easy to justify using them. The books are better for having a full cast of complex, multi-faceted characters, and while there a lot of the same characters across the two books, different ones are highlighted in each book. You can tell Scalzi is building a series out of these books without even taking into account the novella explaining Haden’s Syndrome and its history in greater detail than either of the novels does.

Head On focuses around a sport developed as a result of the ability to destroy a Threep without killer the person inside it, as one of the players in a huge game dies during the match after behaving strangely. A lot comes up during the investigation, including a few nods to current events, but ultimately the story winds up feeling pretty similar to Lock In. Which isn’t a bad thing. Head On doesn’t feel like Lock In repackaged in a new book, but it has a lot of the same qualities and features the same character work and subtle story-building. The investigation is different and you can see some growth in the characters, but it ultimately was made to serve as a stand-alone book featuring the same characters rather than a sequel building off the last book in any significant way.

If you’re looking for some new, fun science fiction to read and like these sort of “cop” books as well, I highly recommend checking out John Scalzi’s new book, Head On and the first book in the series, Lock In. You don’t need to read them in order, but it does help if you do.

Moderation Itself Can be a Kind of Extreme

If you’ve been following my reflections, you’ve probably noticed a lot of common themes. Stuff like “advocate for myself” and “communicate openly” are repeatedly featured, though they’re often worded differently or an implicit part of one of my other themes or self-directives. I’ve been trying to put them into practice and, between last night’s meditation (that quickly turned into sleep since I made the mistake of sitting in bed to do it) and this morning’s reflection, I’ve noticed a lot of interesting results.

Thanks to the way I’ve focused on the direction of my thoughts, the meanings and sources behind my various anxieties and moods, and the reminders I’ve written to myself, I think my overall mood is more positive. Maybe not in a major way, but I’d say the change is statistically significant. I don’t feel much better from moment to moment, but I have noticed I’m less likely to get caught up in my once-frequent small thought spirals or anxiety dust devils. Unfortunately, not a whole lot has helped my depression other than the exploration of my metaphor for talking about my mental illnesses and that only really helped me be more precise in seeing how my mood changes happen.

It’s too soon to see a lot of results, since I’m still trying to open up to people and advocate for what I want more often instead of trying to be constantly accommodating, but it feels nice to be making progress again. In today’s therapy session, I was able to tell my psychologist about all of the progress I’ve been making, thanks to the meditation and tracking everything in this little notebook I’ve got. Having her affirm my progress and talking about the things we can do to help me continue to make progress felt wonderful.

When I was seeing a psychologist in college, back when I was at the peak of my reflection and self-management game, most of my sessions would be me trying to convince myself that what I knew was the right solution was the wrong solution and my psychologist patiently backing up the part of me that knew what the right thing was. Once he pointed out what I was doing, we wound up meeting less frequently since I was good at figuring my own shit out. I still occasionally needed official confirmation or a bit of help when I couldn’t figure out what was really wrong or what to do about what was going on in my head. If I’d continued to see a psychologist after moving to Madison, I’m fairly certain I’d have maintained that skill and maybe have avoided some of the problems I ran into. By the time I started seeing a psychologist again, I was so caught up in how awful I felt and how my life felt like it was being taken over by my OCD, anxiety, and depression that I didn’t realize I was no longer certain of what was going on in my head on even the best of days.

Now, I feel like I’m getting back there. I feel like I’m starting to get a grasp on what is going on behind the veil of my thoughts and can start making progress at working on fixing what I want to fix. There’s a lot these days, but I feel confident I can keep making progress and that I’ll get there eventually. Since I’m making progress on my own and more effectively managing my moods as a result of being even more conscious of my thought processes and how to constructively combat the thoughts that come from my mental health issues, it lets my therapist and I work on some other stuff during our sessions. While I’m a bit concerned about keeping everything straight in my head and how much reading I’m going to wind up doing before meditating two weeks from now (I’ve already got almost two dozen pages of notes and reflection questions to review).

Progress is good, but I’m also worried about getting so wrapped up in trying to make progress and keep track of everything that I lose sight of what I’m trying to do. I want to be better, yes, but I don’t want to sacrifice everything else going on in my life. I want to write more, I want to get out more, I was to improve my mental health, I want to improve my ability to manage myself, I want to get back to working out regularly, I want to enjoy my summer by going camping or taking trips to the beach, and I want to keep paying down my debts.

As soon as I start lumping everything into one phrase like “making progress,” I run the risk of losing sight of the trees because of the forest. Sure, it’s mostly semantics when you really think about it, but semantics and framing are really important to how I handle things. “Progress” requires measurable change every day, but I can’t go camping and write more. I can’t pay down my debts by taking a day off to go to the beach. I can’t work out if I’m spending hours meditating and reflecting. Daily progress isn’t possible when it comes to collectively addressing my goals for this summer, so I need to focus on them individually and incremental progress. I can easily plan a trip after spending time reflecting, or figure out how to make a camping trip cost-effective so it doesn’t break my budget. If I work toward at least one goal a day and make sure to track everything with a checklist, then I can avoid feeling like I’m floundering or panicking because I’m trying to do too much.

As I’ve repeated many times in different words, I have a tendency to let obsession replace discipline. I need to proceed thoroughly and carefully. I need to exercise restrain and caution so I do not get over-invested in a particular way of doing things or in how I expect things to work out so I can avoid the crash that accompanies flawed expectations. That was the result of today’s reflection and something I am repeatedly emphasizing to myself. After all, what is the point of trying to improve myself and work on my goals if I just transfer my unhealthy habits from where they are currently to the idea of getting rid of unhealthy habits? It may seem like an impossible oxymoron, but I’ve already done it before and that level of recursion creates mental hurricanes when it gets disrupted by sensibility reasserting itself.

It can be an incredibly frustrating balancing act and just trying to sort it out in a way I feel explains it well is giving me a headache. I know what I’m trying to do and, even if I can’t properly explain it here, I know how to do it. That’ll have to be enough for now. Maybe I’ll figure out the perfect explanation at some point. Maybe I should meditate on that tonight, since I feel asleep while trying to think about it last night. We’ll see. I’ve got a long weekend to work on it.

This whole thing is kind of funny. It reminds me of the lyrics to one of my favorite Andrew Bird songs, “Lull.”

“I’m all for moderation but sometimes it seems
Moderation itself can be a kind of extreme”

I can take anything to an extreme. Moderation is key and moderating myself requires I do it moderately. Talk about meta.

Reigniting My Own Passion Is Quite a Striking Problem

One of the most common things you hear from people dispensing relationship or life advice is to appreciate every day and never take life (or your partner) for granted. This is good advice because people tend to get used to the way their life is and either lose appreciation for what they have or they start to believe their life will always be the same. If you fail to appreciate a romantic partner, it should not be surprising if they leave. If you do not appreciate the good things in your life, you can lose sight of them or stop doing the work necessary to maintain them. While this is great advice and something I try to keep in mind at all times, I also keep it in mind at ALL times.

You know what happens when you take this sort of thing to an extreme (well, what happens when I take it an extreme, since I can only speak for myself here)? You spend your life living in fear of losing whatever it is you’re appreciating.

Every time I meditate, I read through my little notebook of questions to ponder, things to keep in mind, and the central thoughts my meditation revolved around. Last night, when I was meditating after my review, I landed on a thought from a few days ago. I invest in people so heavily because I’m afraid of losing them. I try to appreciate every day I have with people and doing what I love because I know how quickly life can change. As I meditated, I realized I was filled with a sense of dread and quiet fear of something I couldn’t quite explain. Eventually, I linked it back to the idea that appreciating every moment carries with it the implication that you do so because you never know when it will end. If you do not moderate the thought carefully, you can wind up “appreciating” your life and your partner because you’re not sure how long you’ll have them to the point of constantly living in fear of losing them.

 

My OCD and anxiety routinely have a field day with the quiet implication that all the good parts of my life are only temporary. Constantly reminding myself to appreciate what I have while I have it means constantly reminding myself that it is very likely I will, eventually, no longer have it. This is a quiet thought spiral that will sit inside me and build until I’m panicking about something stupid like rescheduled plans or not having the time to work on something I wanted to do. At which point, there’s little I can do but ride out the storm and try to stay calm enough to refrain from doing anything idiotic. While I wouldn’t say that I constantly live in fear of losing what is important to me, I can say it is a stressfully frequent anxiety of mine.

The thing is, no one tells you that you should get used to having your partner or the positive things in your life around. If you continue to do the work required to maintain your relationships and the things you appreciate most in life, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be around for a while. People make commitments to each other because they want to stay as a part of the other person’s life. People don’t just go from wanting to be in your life to leaving it aside from freak accidents. There’s usually a pattern of behavior or a shift as the relationship changes before people separate. If you’re paying attention to the relationship, you can see it coming. The same is true of things that people appreciate, like jobs or hobbies. Aside from, once again, freak accidents, people don’t just lose jobs or lose access to hobbies. It takes time and plenty of warning signs.

I feel secure in my relationship. Maybe not to the point of having nothing that needs work or not worrying about whether or not I’m putting in the work I should be; the relationship is only seven months old so there’s still plenty of room for us to grow together and get to know each other better. I just don’t worry about anything legitimate. I worry about horrific things like car accidents, natural disasters, the eventual collapse of society due to socio-economic or political factors, and whether or not I’ll have had a chance to try to prevent the end of the relationship due to something extreme and unpredictable. Just like most of my anxieties and obsessions. There is no way to predict when society will collapse or if one of us is going to get struck by a car, so there’s nothing productive I can do to fend off the anxiety. All I can do is try to put it out of my mind and focus my energy elsewhere, which is a lot like trying to not think about pink and purple polka-dotted elephants. Doable, sure, but not without a lot of practice and no significant amount of mental effort that can be instantly betrayed by a single stray thought as to why I’m so forcefully blanking my mind.

Like I said in the post I linked above, I need to invest less emotional energy in the sort of panic-inducing line of thought revolving around whether or not something crazy is going to happen that will take away everything I love and enjoy. Chances are REALLY good my significant other will still be around tomorrow. And next week. If I just assume she’s going to be around forever, then I run into problems. Same is true of my writing. I will have opportunities to write tomorrow or next weekend, but I can’t just keep putting it off by thinking that I can always do it later. I need to find balance between my anxieties about losing everything and the trap of assuming there will always be more time. Being this high-strung all of the time is really time-and-energy-consuming.

One of the ways I’ve been considering pushing back against my inclination to over-invest and get caught up in disaster-focused thought spirals is to put more time and effort into choosing “me” over other people. Doing the lazy thing I want to do or advocating for the activity I’d like to do. Currently, I don’t do that very much. The past week and a half of writing reflective blog posts and not trying to write as soon as I get home from work has been pretty much the only time this year that I wasn’t caught up in trying to get something done. I’ve played more video games in the past week than in the month leading up to it. I haven’t read much more, but I’ve actually been buying books again, which is what leads to me reading books.

This is a common theme to a lot of my posts and the “what do I do about this?” part of each reflection. I need to spend more time and energy on myself. I need to value myself more and give myself the same benefit of the doubt I extend to everyone else. I need to work on living my best life and not sacrifice all of my todays on the altar of a potential, far-off tomorrow.

I wanted to make this year about writing. I wanted to write a blog post every day and work on some of my novel projects. But that’s just one thing. That’s just one part of myself and my interests that I’m address. I also want to hike more. I want to get back to reading at least a book a week. I want to continue strengthening and enjoying my relationship with my girlfriend. I want to do new things and stretch myself in ways I considered too scary or too difficult before. I want to be more than I am today. And yet all I’m doing is writing more. Yes, this is good. Yes, this is an amazing goal and getting nothing done but a year of daily blog posts would still be a huge accomplishment. None of that means anything if I’ve sacrificed every other part of myself to make it happen. I can do it for a month, to pump out a whole bunch of NaNoWriMo words, but I can’t, and shouldn’t, keep it up forever.

Every other year, after NaNoWriMo, I’ve always felt burned out and spent at least one month not writing anything. That obviously didn’t happen last year, and that was because I decided to stretch myself in a new way. Look how wonderfully that has turned out! I’ve made over two hundred consecutive daily blog posts! I never expected to make it this far without missing a day and all of this growth and new confidence is the result of a whim. A stray thought and just enough whimsy to decide to pursue it. I need to bring that dedication and discipline to the rest of my life. I need to do new things. I need to advocate for myself. I need to be open and honest with people, even if that’s scary. I need to figure out what I want out of this summer other than another ninety-two blog posts and then work on getting it.

I’m all fired up and ready to go, but I still have work to do. After work, I’ve got my weekly foam-fighting practice. Then bed and work tomorrow. I’ve already scheduled my next twenty-four hours and I can feel the thought of my ordered life draining some of the fire away from me. Pretty much every time I write one of these posts, the same thing happens. I lose the fire between finishing the post and leaving work. Then I go about my day’s activities, find a way to amuse myself for a bit, and then go to bed after meditating for a bit.

I need a way to keep that fire burning. I need to recapture the passion I once felt about everything I did. I want to be that person who used to be excited about everything and could get other people excited about stuff. Maybe trying new things and getting past the inertia from the past four years of doing less and closing myself off will help. It’ll be a real struggle, though, since I feel even more down and discouraged than I did before I got excited.

It won’t be easy, but I think it’ll be worth it.

Swimming in an Endless Sea

I like to describe my depression as an endless sea. I describe living with my depression as floating in said endless sea. I also describe my depression spikes–the times where it gets all-consuming and I have to put all of my effort into not letting it swamp me–as storms on that sea. I feel the metaphor works well because I do not feel like my depression is an emotion or something that comes and goes. It is always there. It changes the way I interact with the world and how I evaluate every decision I make. When it spikes, it turns a relatively simple and routine task into an all-out fight.

A lot of my metaphors for dealing with my depression center around this image. It comes out mostly in my poetry, but also in the way I talk about it to the people close to me. Just like describing my anxiety as wind (which can be anything from a gentle breeze or even still air to raging tornadoes and hurricanes) or my OCD as a spiral (thanks to the lovely imagery from John Green’s Turtles all the Way Down), I try to find a good image based on something that other people can relate to. It usually works really well because mental illness and our experience of it are subjective. There’s no way for someone else to describe someone else’s experiences with an illness that exists in the realm of their mind. There are biological descriptors and terms we can use that deal with diagnosing and treating the illness, but our experiences are our own. The same is true of physical illness. Sure, you can diagnose and treat a broken arm based on certain tangible facts and descriptors, but you can’t describe someone else’s experience of having a broken arm.

I’ve always liked my depression metaphor because it does a great job of conveying the weight of it. I am treading water in an endless sea because I can manage my symptoms, but I’ll likely never be entirely free of them. My depression colors every thought I have, it weighs in on every decision I make, it is as much a part of my life as being a guy is. It is a part of me. If you can imagine being stuck in an ocean without land or a boat in sight, you can imagine the sort of helplessness and hopelessness that can strike me when I’m struggling to manage my depression.

The endless sea metaphor also lends itself well to the ways I try to manage or interact with my depression. It can pull me down, which is a lot like going under the water. I can’t breathe, but I know that I can hold my breath for a while and swimming in the right direction will bring me back to the surface. When I’m on the surface, I can work on assembling rafts from what I find around me as I float.  It takes a lot of work to make one and they rarely survive a storm, but they let me take a break from needing to work at treading water constantly.

When my depression gets bad, because my anxieties start a storm or I get caught in a thought-whirlpool, it gets more difficult to tread water. Can you imagine how a raft might not survive a storm, dashed apart as the waves swell and crash? Or how it might get tossed aside after getting sucked down a watery vortex? Then I’m back to sinking or swimming under my own power. What if my anxieties and OCD start acting up at the same time? A raft would be useless in a hurricane. Which is why I prefer an anchor to a raft. It might not help me stay on the surface, but it keeps me from getting swept away in a storm or pulled into a whirlpool so long as the rope is strong enough. Even in a hurricane, the anchor will remain. I may not be able to breathe under the water, but I can hold my breath for a very long time at this point and the ocean is always calmer under the surface. Clinging to it often means going under a bit during a storm more frequently that I’m used to, but it also means I always know which way leads to the surface.

The metaphor isn’t perfect, as no metaphor is, but I’ve spent years and years thinking about this and it is so far the best one for me. If I ever come across a better one, I’ll immediately switch to that, like I did with my OCD and thought-spirals. I used to describe it like being unable to stop making a ticking noise with your tongue: it is annoying as shit to you and can get on the nerves of the people around you; it interferes with communication but can be worked around if you try hard enough and people are patient; it is something you know you should be able to avoid doing but can’t for reasons you’re unable to explain (which also frustrates you); and feels like an involuntary bodily reaction once you’re sort of accustomed to it. Spirals is so much simpler and so much more accurate because it gets at the core of what my OCD is and how it affects me rather than being focused on the symptoms.

For a long time, I was tempted to see the people around me as rafts. I could invest myself in their lives and problems, trying to help them and support them, so that I could use my effectiveness at helping them as a means of buoying myself. My past romantic relationships and closest friends were rafts because I could lean on them when I needed help. The problem with that is that I can’t rely on other people to get my through my depressions spikes. Not because other people won’t do it or that getting help from people is bad, but because I can’t expect them to fix me or be emotionally available all the time. They have their own problems to deal with. They can’t be there all the time and that’s fine. That’s a normal part of human relationships. We like to say that we’ll always be there for the people who mean a lot to us, but “always” is a tricky word. That’s a lot to expect from someone else, even if you’ve married them.

I don’t mind asking people for help and I do it when I need a little boost. If what I’m asking won’t cost them too much and will help me through the latest storm or whirlpool, then of course I’m going to ask for help. I just don’t expect it. I also need to be ready to handle all of them on my own because I’ve had times when no one was available to help me and they could have gone horrible wrong if I hadn’t been prepared for that.

There’s a fine line, there. I want to be willing to ask for and accept help from the people close to me, but never in a situation where I absolutely need it. There are resources for those moments, help lines and therapists, but those are people with training for those moments. Putting the need for that level of help on people close to me would be an incredible amount of pressure. I think they’d all be willing to do it if I said I needed it, but, having been in the situation of someone needing that from me, there is a cost that comes with it. I’m glad I have people who’d pay it, but I’d prefer they didn’t have to.

None of this, of course, is to say that I’m in a situation where I need anything. I had a depression spike yesterday that is carrying through today and was made worse by an unfortunate connection between some of my mental health issues and the movie I saw with my girlfriend, but I’m doing fine. I appreciated being able to ask for some comfort from my girlfriend while we watched Rise of the Guardians to clear the other movie from our minds, but it wasn’t something I expected to make me feel better. It helped in the moment and it gave me an hour’s reprieve from the storm I was fighting (we couldn’t find the movie anywhere but on 20th Century Fox’s website and they only let us watch an hour of it), but I eventually left and had to deal with it on my own again. If there was more she could have done to help, I’d have asked for it, but sometimes the only thing that helps me is time.

Before I went to bed, as I meditated on my depression and my girlfriend’s wonderful offer to help me if she could, I couldn’t help but think of the ways I’ve dealt with and talked about my depression over time. I went from dealing with it on my own in an unhealthy manner to relying on other people to dealing with it in a constructive and nominally healthy manner on my own. Even if the metaphor hasn’t changed and I sometimes need to remind myself that it is okay to ask for help as long as I’m not putting too much pressure on people, it is nice to see how much better I’ve gotten at handling it.

Doing New Things is Scary

I’m not very good at doing new things. By which I mean that I generally do not engage in activities or experiences that are new to me, not that I lack a certain basic competency when it comes to performing tasks or participating in experiences that I have never done before. I’m actually pretty good at picking things up and running with them. Quick learning is a skill I’ve spent my life developing and is part of why I like writing new and different things.

Despite being confident that I can muddle through any new experience, I tend to avoid them these days. I started this unfortunate habit because I was so incredibly busy with work, writing, trying to live a more healthy life, and focusing on growing the relationships I was establishing in what still felt like a new city. Nowadays, I still use that excuse but I mostly avoid them because of fear. Fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of losing something important to me that is never clearly defined and never makes sense if I actually dig into it. I don’t do open mic poetry nights because I’m afraid of sharing often very emotion poetry in a setting where I actually have to look at the people hearing my poem. I can post a poem online and use the internet as a barrier to keep me insulated from any reactions to it, but I can’t do that in a setting that sometimes even encourages people to interact after hearing a poem. I dislike crying in public. Not because I think crying is bad, but as an artifact of my issues showing emotion. I don’t even like being frustrated, sad, or angry in front of other people.

I actually quite enjoy a good cry. Pop in Les Mis or something on the warmer side and I’ll watch it just for the bit that makes me cry. Feels nice, you know? Refreshing. But generally not in public and as a result of a poem of my own that I just read to a bunch of mostly strangers. I just bared my soul and am now displaying how emotional that was for me. Even though I know they’d be a bunch of people I’d probably never seen again, even the thought of possibly doing this is making me feel uncomfortable and self-conscious. Sure, you could argue that being open and emotionally vulnerable with a group of people makes them no longer strangers. You could also argue that being secure in my own emotions and experiences means there’s nothing a bunch of strangers could do to harm me or manipulate me using the emotions I just shared. I’d probably agree with you on both counts. That doesn’t make it any easier to do. And that’s just the emotional outcomes of sharing my work. What if someone hates it and starts heckling me or gives really terrible “feedback” because all they want to do is feel superior to other people? I don’t know if any of my poetry is good and I’ve never really tried to build my confidence in it the way I’ve built my confidence in my prose writing, so sticking my neck out feels especially fraught.

I used open mic poetry reading as an example (mostly because the one friend who read yesterday’s post and messaged me to let me know that it was, in fact, the one post she’s read since I started doing reflection pieces is the one who was always encouraging me to go to an open mic night), but I feel like it does a good job of illustrating just how complicated I’ll make anything new in order to avoid it. Which isn’t to say I’m wrong or that anything I brought up about going to an open mic night isn’t a legitimate consideration. Everything I’ve written about why I am disinclined to reading my poetry in front of people is true and a part of any decision I make. The big difference is I’m willing to just push past all of that consideration for things I’m more familiar with.

A D&D or Pathfinder encounters night at the local game shop? Not comfortable role-playing in a group because gamer communities at local game shops can be super tightly-knit and not the most-welcoming to new people. A book club focused around science fiction and fantasy books for people in their 20s and 30s? I don’t want to get into arguments with people about book analysis or have to defend myself if I dislike a book that everyone else liked. A local writers group to support each other as we work on our NaNoWriMo pieces? I don’t want the pressure of having strangers read my prose as I’m still working out the details of the story, nor do I want to get stuck with a group that isn’t interested in improving so much as just patting each other on the back for being a writer.

I can do it for literally anything. I actually DO it for pretty much everything. I supply my own reasons not to go or tell myself that I need to psyche myself up before I commit to doing anything like that. Then I never psyche myself up, make sure to keep the conversations with whatever friend suggested it to topics further away from “what should I do with my free time,” and eventually forget about it. At least, that’s what I did for a couple years.

Now, I’m trying to be open to doing more things. Trying new stuff. My girlfriend likes to go out and do things, like go to parties or attend performances by local artists at breweries. So I put the excuses aside, focus on the simple acts of getting there and getting back, and wind up having a good time. So far, I’ve been to more parties and local events since I started seeing her than in the almost four years I lived around Madison, WI before I met her. I even joined a Monday night D&D group with only two people I sorta knew from the foam fighting thing I do on Thursdays. I went to a performance by a small local musician she knows because one of her other friends was reading poetry from a poetry dissertation and had such a wonderful time that I’m actually considering workshopping some poetry with my beta readers to get some pieces together for an open mic night.

After writing that last sentence, I had to go take a break from writing this post to breathe deeply and think about something else. I’m still coping with stress and anxiety by ignoring it and busying myself, but there are times when no amount of addressing the anxiety is going to help and all you can do is plunge ahead despite it. This is one of those times. I don’t know when I’ll do it because I’m still nervous to the point of almost puking at the thought of getting up in front of people to read some of the poems I’ve posted here, but I’m at least thinking about it. And distracting myself with thoughts of presentation and what kind of business cards I could make to refer people to this blog for more poetry and some fiction as well. I don’t do advertisements on my blog because this isn’t about making money, but it still feels really nice to get views.

The old cliche about bravery is that “being brave” means feeling scared but doing whatever it is anyway. I don’t know if I’d want to go so far as to claim I’m being brave, but I definitely don’t want to feel as stagnant as I did a year ago and I don’t want to let fear rule my life. Which means doing new things, growing as a person, and eventually getting up in front of an audience to say something I feel is important to me. That is, after all, the point of writing stuff on this blog.