One of the interesting (ahahahahahahahaha.. haha… ha…) parts of recovering from trauma is the way you can quickly slip between old modes of thought and new ones. It happened to me just the other day (the day before this went up) in the middle of a conversation with a friend who was checking up on me. I was increasingly dour as she tried to be supportive, sinking down ever faster as she tried to drag me back to the neutral mind frame I’ve been trying to cultivate lately.
In the past year, amongst all the other hard truths and difficult steps of my growth, I came face-to-face with the fact that I never learned how to recover since I spent almost my entire life coping. Specifically, due to the situation I grew up in and the life I was choosing for myself in my college years, I never learned to recover from things because I never had the time or opportunity to do more than cope.
I’m quite good at coping. Throw me into any difficult situation, any amount of stress, any environment, and I’ll make it work. I’ll get things done, achieve my goals, and manage to keep my sanity. Like a lot of people who grew up with stress and trauma as an everyday part of my life, I got so used to it that I feel uncomfortable without a constant high-level of stress so I tend to thrive when things get difficult. In the years since I graduated college, leaving behind the orderly environments and clear, outlined goals, I’ve discovered that there is an upper limit to how much I can handle. I don’t thrive under highly stressful situations so much as I never learned how to live comfortably in any other kind of situation.
What made it click this past year was talking with my roommate about how to organize his studying and classwork time. He’s a student now and he regularly struggles with staying focus on his work because he’s an extrovert and can be easily distracted by anyone even walking into the room he’s working in. He remarked that he gets frustrated because he wants to go do stuff with me and our other roommate, and I agreed that it is harder for him as a late-20s adult going to college when most of his friends have already graduated. He can’t connect and enjoy studying with his classmates because some of them are a decade younger than him, and he doesn’t have a group of friends to study with since we’re all playing video games or going out (I’ve offered to sit and write with him if he wants company while he works, but he has yet to take me up on it).
While we were talking about strategies to help him focus, I told him some anecdotes from my years in college and the lessons I learned. During my junior and senior years, when I figured out what I wanted to do and buckled down to work, I did homework or worked six nights of the week. Between classes, studying, and working full time, I got one night off a week, so I took Thursday nights off to play video games with my friends. Other than that, I ignored everyone or told them they could join me as I studied in the library or in the English Department lounge. I picked studying and work over everything else and counted on my friends to understand. Some of them did, some of them didn’t, but what mattered most to me was making the right choice for myself.
All that stuff tumbled around my head for a while before it finally connected with the final piece to the puzzle. One of the most important things I ever learned from a professor in college was a saying he liked (and still likes) to repeat to all of his classes. “I know some of you will say that you write your best papers at the last minute, as the deadline approaches. That isn’t true. What is true is that you only write your papers at the last minute.” It was a lesson I took to heart then and something that connected what I learned by choosing myself in college with what I’ve been learning from the books I’m reading about trauma (they’ll show up in a review sometime).
All of this made it clear that nothing had changed from college. I hadn’t become deficient in someway. I hadn’t lost anything. I just got worn out because I assumed that I thrived when under a great deal of stress instead of questioning if I had ever tried to live without that much stress. I’d gradually worn myself down because I could just keep coping until I was physically incapable of continuing. Even after I knew I wasn’t really fine, when I’d seen the cracks in the world I was building for myself and did my best to patch them, I still thought I could keep doing what I was doing and the changes I’d made to my world would eventually fix things. Turns out what I needed to change was me.
I still think I made the right choice back then to change jobs. I think that, overall, my world is much better than it was three years ago even as I’m currently breaking it all apart and building most of it back up again. I also think that what I really needed was to learn how to rest. How to recover. They sound so easy, right? The idea of resting is super easy until you try to explain it to someone, isn’t it? You grab for metaphor and simile, confident that the person you’re talking to understands it and you just have to find the right bridge to connect your understand and theirs. I didn’t really understand it. I thought I did. If you’d asked me even three months ago, I’d have explained that resting is like gasping for air after a sprint, taking the minute you have to get as much air into your lungs before you’re up and sprinting again. Recovery is the break you take during a marathon to stretch a cramped muscle, drink a sports drink/energy slurry, and use the bathroom before you carry on running.
I’m sure you can see the flaw in my understanding. Those are breaks. Reprieves. Moments of peace in a storm. Real rest and recovery are something else entirely. To be entirely fair to myself, it’s difficult to understand that you misunderstood something most people can’t explain and that most people take for granted. For instance, did you know that most old memories are typically viewed in third person, almost like a story you’ve told yourself (or that someone else has told you)? You don’t really see most old memories through your own eyes, you see yourself participating in them.
Until very recently, I thought that it was normal for all memories to be first person. Memories weren’t stories so much as resubmerging myself in a moment long past. In most people, the only first-person memories are the recent ones and the traumatic ones. For me, my trauma changed the way my brain stored information so thoroughly only a handful, if that, of my memories were in third-person. I don’t think those count as real memories though since I know the photographs of those moments and I’m pretty sure I just built a story around those moments that I’ve labeled a memory. They’re all from before I was 2 and I don’t think my memory is that good.
You can see how I might have a bit of a warped understanding of some things, yeah? It’s hard to really grasp how different my understanding of the world is from yours when all we can do is use metaphors to approximate our own experiences and ideas in the hopes of evoking someone else’s.
After a month and a half of rest, three weeks of which got eaten up as coping time since I talked to my parents one week before I had two solid weeks of all-day meetings, I think I’ve kind of gotten it figured out. Enough so, anyway, that I can do it every day. I’ve literally got it built into my daily schedule every day but Monday (I kinda go all day Monday, without stop, from 6am until 10pm). While that might seem a bit absurd, to schedule rest and recovery, it’s kind of who I am? I like order and having a time marked out and a box to check for every day makes it a bit easier to take the time to actually rest and recover.
I’m still pretty burnt out. Nothing is going to fix that in any short amount of time, but the rest I’ve taken has provided me with enough energy and strength to go back to writing every day, to working on my projects, and to figure out how to choose me right now. I’ve never been good at advocating for myself, but nobody else expects as much from me as I do. Any and all of my D&D players are happy to play D&D modules instead of custom campaigns. My friends understand if I don’t go for a hike with them because I need to do laundry and make D&D battle maps for the one remaining custom campaign I’m running. And if they don’t… Well, their loss.
I’m choosing myself again and I’m comfortable with the knowledge that this won’t be easy. I may stop talking to some people I’m close to if they won’t respect my needs and boundaries. I may need to get a new job if nothing changes and the same problems repeat without end. I may have to cut back on all of the D&D I’m doing so I have energy for other projects and the players who lose out might not like it. I may have to skip everything I’d planned for an evening because I really need to rest more and I’ll have to learn how to be more adaptable. There are no hard-and-fast rules here, other than I need to be aware of how I’m doing at any given moment so I can make the calls I need.
This may not seem difficult, but I almost chickened out of telling my at-work D&D group that I needed us to switch to running modules because creating the entire campaign might take the same number of hours as preparing a module, but running a module takes a lot less energy. And that’s the easiest of all the things I might need to do. They only get harder from here.
Wish me luck.
Feeling like you’ve scraped the bottom of the energy barrel to the point where the barrel no longer has a bottom? So tired you just kinda want to cry and find somewhere dark to curl up in the fetal position so you can finally let your exhaustion overwhelm you? Feeling like you’re stretched beyond the point of recovery and to the point where all of the stress has invaded your dreams so now you have to deal with it while your awake and asleep? While none of these things is a good position to be in, we often find ourselves in them when the shit hits the fan and we focus ourselves on simply doing everything one step at a time until we’re finished. Or until we collapse from exhaustion. I’ve done both, and neither one works out well in the end because we’re ultimately taxing our mind and body to the point of damage.
There are ways to help prevent some of the damage, or to mitigate the negative aspects of trying to buckle down and work through long days, busy weekends, or months of ceaseless stress. None of them are guaranteed to work and they’ll all need to be tweaked to fit your specific needs, but the core concepts should definitely work for you. I’ve had a lot of experience dealing with various forms of exhaustion thanks to insomnia in high school, business and insomnia in college, and stress and business after college, so I feel like I’m pretty qualified when it comes to figuring out how to cope with mild to extreme exhaustion until you’re capable of resting.
The first thing I’m going to say, despite it making me feel like a total hypocrite, is that these sorts of situations are best avoided. Even short periods of exhaustion or sleep deprivation can interfere with your short-term memory, inhibit the formation of long-term memory, wreak havoc on your immune system and muscles, and will for-sure exacerbate any health issues you have, be they physical or mental. It is good to know your limits and to be able to push past them when you need to, but there’s a pretty big difference between “I need to just push through this” and “I think pushing through this is going to yield the best results I’m going to ignore options that would leave me feeling more rested.” I guarantee that you will always have better results if you can rest first. You can’t always rest, but you should when you can. If you rest up or take good care of yourself, you will see your best results in the long-run.
If resting up isn’t an option, you should really figure out which type of energy you’re going to be running short on. If you’re physically active during this period of low sleep or high stress, you will be short on physical energy. If you’re stretching your skills and abilities in new ways or being forced into new situations without much time to prepare, you’ll run out of mental energy. If you have to take care of people or deal with people who don’t want to be dealt with, you’ll rapidly run out of emotional energy. If you’re doing something that involves all three, then I feel so sorry for you and I wish you the best because most of my strategies for coping with a low energy of one or two types requires relying on the other(s) to help carry the weight or be turned into the type that’s running out.
If you need more mental or emotional energy, some quiet meditation or music is usually very helpful. Something that will help you feel a certain way or that will help you process the feeling you’re dealing with at that moment. Maybe you need something to make you feel powerful or something to help slow you down to alleviate some of the mental strain you’re experiencing. If it’s physical energy, I suggest taking it easy by sleeping, playing games with friends, or watching something while you let your body rest. Even a couple hours of any of these activities, while you continue to work on other things, can help get you back to a point where you can make it through the day. I’d recommend against anything that might be destructive, like excessive eating, alcohol, or drugs. I haven’t got much experience with the later, but I’ve seen enough people make that mistake to have learned the lesson.
Additionally, a change in your diet can help keep you going. Avoid too much sugar since that is going to just set you up for a terrible crash later, unless you’re eating natural sugars from stuff like fruit or vegetables. I recommend eating plenty of both to keep you going since it helps to have something to do with your mouth while you’re trying to focus. At the same time, having an idea of what kinds of foods provide the most energy for you will help a lot. I know my body processes protein very efficiently, so I can delay encroaching exhaustion by eating a lean, protein-rich diet with plenty of vegetables and fruit. It’s not really going to make you feel energized, but it’ll keep you fueled and prevent your body from taking too much energy away for digestion. Throughout it all, avoid sugary sources of caffeine. Stick to things like coffee or tea and don’t add too much sugar to them or else you will get an immediate boost followed by a crash when the caffeine kicks in so you’ll feel exhausted and be unable to rest it off. Also, drink more water than usual. A good goal for water consumption is to drink half your weight in ounces of water. If you want something a little easier, I suggest going for at least three quarts or liters. It’ll help keep your mind clear and hydration is key at all times.
The last thing, and the most effective, is getting organized and writing things down somewhere. The exact methods for doing so depend a lot more on how you think and how you tend to organize information, but it’ll help if you do it, regardless of how you do it. For instance, the only reason I’m still sane and productive these days is because I’ve taken to writing to-do lists and journaling things as the day goes on. Not only is it helping my emotional energy, but it’s take a constant source of mental energy drain (trying to remember everything) and offloading the work onto a notebook. I can write down not just how I’m feeling, but also what my thoughts were on whatever meeting I just had, save ideas for later, and get a little mental clarity when I set everything else aside for five minutes so I can write things out. For people who don’t have issues with remembering things that only exist electronically, there are a ton of applications and programs out there, most of which you can get on your phone. Heck, even Google Now does a lot of that stuff.
Like I said earlier, it is best to avoid pushing yourself to the point of exhaustion, but hopefully these tips will make it easier to cope when you don’t really have any other choice. Good luck!
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.
I have a complicated relationship withe Pokemon Go. If you look back in the recesses of my original posts (I’ll link it here so you don’t have to), you can find me writing about how cool the game was and how excited I was to play it. Since then, my excitement has cooled. Initially it was because it was nearly impossible to find Pokemon in the wild (which was the reason most of my friends stopped playing), but there was no way to directly interact with your friends until they added raid battles. Gyms were a nightmare because connectivity problems kept coming up and it was a pain in the ass to train up a gym so it would be strong enough to survive everyone trying to take it down. Even the eventual fix to gyms, which makes turning them around and maintaining them a lot easier, was less than ideal because it puts a big limit on the number of in-game currency you can get without buying it.
My current apartment not having close proximity to anything (there’s one stop within half a mile’s walking and everything else requires crossing the highway) and I don’t earn much money with the gym access I’ve got, so I’m constantly running out of items. I don’t really have the space in my weekly schedule to spend three hours to drive somewhere with a bunch of stops, walk around for an hour, drive home, and then have to charge my phone. There are so many things I’d rather be doing with that time than spending it trying to maintain the high level of participation the game requires when you don’t have easy access to the in-game resources.
Playing it now doesn’t take much time. I hit the local pokestop on my way to work or I hit the one at work while I’m getting lunch. I can sometimes get a gym each day (for my fifty coin daily maximum) if I spend fifteen minutes after work stopping at one of the ones near my workplace. I open the app a couple of times a day and whenever I take walks, spending the mental energy on Pokemon Go when I would otherwise be letting my mind idly wander. It doesn’t cost me any time aside from gyms, but it does cost me energy. There’s a certain amount of mental effort that goes into remember to do my daily tasks, remember which Pokemon I don’t need for evolving something (to avoid wasting my precious Pokeballs), and planning out the extra commute time I’d need to stop for a gym or pokestop.
For almost two years, I’ve unfailingly spent that energy every day. Even during the last few months when I’ve exhausted myself to the point of pretty much crashing as soon as I’m done with my responsibilities each day, I still spend energy on Pokemon Go. Now, as I’m taking a look at my life and trying to decide what is really worth energy as I try to find a healthier balance, I’m really questioning if it is worth it. And Pokemon Go isn’t the only thing on the chopping block. One of my favorite no-energy time-wasters is Imgur and that generally doesn’t do anything for me but help time pass quickly. There are games I play online with my friends that I don’t really enjoy but I play anyway because I’ve got people to play alongside. My life is full of things like this, things I once enjoyed but only continue to do because of habits and because they help me pass through the hours of my worst days.
The thing is, I have a lot of other stuff to help me do that. Ever since I ran out of that stuff in college and had to deal with a horrible night where I had nothing to do but think and stare out the window, I’ve made sure that I’ve got at least forty hours of mindless entertainment. I’ve got whole TV shows I bought on DVD that I’ve only watched long enough to know I’d enjoy. I’ve got a pile of emergency books and every Pokemon game ever created (I enjoy the “standard” version Pokemon games way more than the mobile game). Yet I still play Pokemon Go every day. I still have half a dozen boring games installed on my computer. I still have all the social media and time-wasting apps on my phone so I can disappear from the world for hours at a time.
As I spring-clean my life, I think it’s time I got rid of that stuff. I took this week off of work, and even off of blog writing (this was written ahead of time), so I could rest and try to see my life through clear eyes. Part of that is going to be ridding myself of all the things I’ve collected to insulate myself from having to pay attention to my life when my life wasn’t something I wanted to pay attention to. Things are better now, even if I still struggle, and I don’t want to feel like I’m wasting my time anymore. I don’t know if I’ll uninstall Pokemon Go because my girlfriend still plays it frequently and it is good to have things you can do together, but I think I’m going to take it off my home screen.
Inertia rules my existence.
It wears the crown and bears the scepter,
Commanding me to march and obey.
I’m no conscientious objector.
I would gladly march like a toy soldier
To keep away depression’s specter.
So long as I am moving forward
I can pretend everything is fine.
If I take a break or push too hard
I will fall into a self-made mine
Where crystallized despair waits for me
Like an old god sitting in its shrine.
Do enough to be making progress
But not so much I will fall apart.
With fiery determination
And bone-deep weariness in my heart
I know I’ll someday find my balance
Even if I don’t know where to start.
I’ve always enjoyed spending my weekend mornings by myself. I have a very busy life, by choice, constantly filling my time with projects and activities. In more recent years, this has made it more difficult to spend time reflecting every day. There have been times in the past year where being busy has been a specific choice to avoid too much reflection. Spending too much time in my head can be a bad thing, just as not spending enough time can be a bad thing. It’s a fine balance to strike.
However, when there’s nothing going on and I’ve got no obligations I need to see to, I like to take my mornings on Saturday or Sunday to just stay in bed, revel in the comfort of my dark room, and reflect. I’m usually awake enough to not fall asleep while meditating and, since I’m in my bed on a free morning, it isn’t a big deal if I do. I like to pick over what has happened during the week and what might happen over the next week. This is my time to plan events, figure out if I should be calling on friends, and to decide how I’m feeling on anything I was too busy or emotionally distraught to handle as it happened.
This last thing, unpacking the boxes I’ve filled and tucked away for later, is my main occupation during these morning reflections. If I was stressed and upset by something a friend said the other day, I’ll unpack it and review it. Did they intend to upset me? Was I upset about something else and it colored my reaction to their comment? Should I say something to them or let it go? Heck, with how stressful the world is these days for anyone not supporting the current US Republican congress, maybe I’ve packed away something that happened because there’s so much going on that I can’t process it all at once. Maybe I’ve packed away the latest horrible thing that’s happened in the world. Maybe I’ve packed away a bunch of insecurities and invasive thoughts stemming from my OCD taking advantage of the normal stresses of a relatively new relationship.
Packing things away is my main coping mechanism and I need to take time to unpack them every so often or else they build up to the point where the shelf collapses and all the boxes unpack themselves, all at once. Panic attacks and mental breakdowns aren’t super fun, FYI.
If unpacking is about 50% of the time I spend reflecting, then planning is 10%, reviewing my week is 10%, and reviewing my social needs and activities is 10%, the last 20% goes toward simple mental wandering. If the brain is like a muscle and Sudoku or reading are mental workouts, then a good mental wander is like going hiking. Sure, you get some exercise, but the main reason is to go see something or explore. I like to take interesting ideas and explore them. This can be reflections on aspects of ethics or morals, it can be a philosophical concept, or it can be a story idea. I’ve mentioned that writing can be a lot like climbing a mountain (check the Helpful Tips section of this blog post), so this sort of mental wandering is a lot like looking for the right kind of mountains. There’s a lot of metaphor to unpack here, but I think I’ll save that for another post since I could easily write a whole post or two on my creative process.
Most of the time, all of this takes place over the course of a couple of hours. Sometimes, I wake up around 9 or 10 and then finally drag myself out of bed around 11 or 12. Most days, like today, I get up at 7:30 and lie in bed until 11. I’m no longer very good at sleeping in since I’ve officially been getting up at 6 more often than not for 13 years, but that’s alright. I like my quiet mornings and the chance to get a lot of thinking done. Today, I actually planned my blog update schedule, all while snuggled cozily under my blankets in a dimly lit room full of the quiet sounds of a peaceful neighborhood. It doesn’t get much better than that.
I managed to write my desired 7,000 words yesterday. It took until 2am, but I did it. I really hope I get more done this afternoon instead of needing to be up super late to finish. I’ve got work tomorrow morning and I’d like to get at least 6 hours of sleep before that. Even though I got 7 hours of sleep after finishing, I’m still super exhausted and worn out. This goes beyond my poor, murdered sleep schedule. I’ve hit a point where I’m putting out more creative energy and material than I’m taking in, thanks to the combination of my writing marathons and my illness, so I can feel myself being drained. I’m hoping that, after one more day of pushing, I’ll be able to settle back down for a quite 1,666 words a day for the last four days of the month and actually start reading and playing games I love again. The tank is nearly empty and I need to fill it back up again.
This sort of feeling has always been worrisome to me because I have a very similar one when I’m having a bad bout of depression. The only real difference is that this creative deflation feeling is centered in my chest and spine. It makes me feel like I’m propping up my head using sticks and strings tied to the ceiling. My depression feels a lot more like my entire self has been deflated and all I am is a rubbery suit of myself that can only flop around from one thing to the next. The reason it worries me so much, despite the clear distinction between the two feelings, is that my depressive episodes always start with a smaller deflation. The rubbery suit gets punctured somewhere and the air starts to leak out from there first, before all the old holes open up and I just quickly fall to the ground like an empty balloon.
The same is true of emotional exhaustion. That leaves me feeling empty and deflated in a different part of my chest and my head. The only kind that doesn’t is physical exhaustion because I’m usually too tired to feel anything at that point. If I do feel anything, it’s the burn of my muscles, an overwhelming desire to sleep, or the stretched and tight feeling of muscles that have been worked out regularly. That’s one of the reasons I have a tendency to stay up late or choose to not sleep as much when I’m feeling a depressive episode coming on. If I’m physically exhausted, I’ve got no room to feel deflated and I’ll just crash when I go to bed instead of staring at my ceiling with little to think about other than how deflated I’m feeling.
One of my friends advised me to take care of myself when I told her how much I’ve been writing and how much social energy I had to spend yesterday. I, of course, commented that I had too much writing to do and that I’d have time to rest next weekend, once NaNoWriMo was over. I went on to say that, if I spent enough time writing, eventually that would become a form of self-care itself. Of course, I then joked that it was a lot like Stockholm Syndrome, which was met with an appropriate amount of skepticism. The more I think about it, though, the more I wonder if I was really joking or just trying to find a way to embrace an exhausting activity that routinely leaves me feeling drained in a way I associate with one of the most negative aspects of my life. It certainly is appealing. If I could find a way to feel good about the creative drain feeling, maybe I could find a way to make myself hate my depression less.
I haven’t really decided, yet. I’m a little too busy to spend my time thinking about it right now, so I think its going to get stuck with the rest of my self-care in the “on or after Friday” bucket. Only 13,700 more words to go.
Selflessness can be very important in a protagonist. It can be something for them to learn, a value them exemplify, or perhaps a flaw that they need to dial-back a bit. The place it most commonly enters into our lives is when we are confronted with a situation in which we stand to lose much by taking any kind of action at all. Perhaps it is a no-win situation and the only way to minimize the loss is by turning away from it entirely. At the same time, a lot of these situations are also more complex than just the result to those directly involved. What does your action or inaction mean for other people down the line? By acting now, and accepting the losses involved, could you maybe cause some good further down the line? Write a scene for your character where they need to evaluate a situation beyond its immediate outcome in order to find the best solution, regardless of whether it is good or bad for them, and then their process of deciding what to do with that situation.
Today’s inspiration is not the media that inspired today’s writing prompt, despite the fact that I want to share it everywhere and with everyone. It is one of a series of backer comics from a Kickstarter campaign and, while the artist made the first comic publicly available recently, it took three or more years from its original share date for that to happen. This comic was only sent out this year, so it’ll be a while before he posts it online. Instead, read the Dresden Files. Harry Dresden may not be the knight in shining armor and bastion of selflessness that I wanted to share, but he’s constantly putting his life on the line to help protect people around him, even when it’s not his fault that the city he loves is in danger. He’s a good example of it means to act toward the greater good even when its going to cost you personally. Most of the time, anyway.
As much as I personally struggle with striking a balance, it is important to remember that you can’t create endlessly. Every so often, you need to stop. You need to rest. You need to recover. You can often push yourself far enough that you’ve left what you thought were your limitations far behind, but there’s always a price and you’d better be mindful of what it might be. Eventually, you will need to stop whether you want to or not. If you struggle with feeling in control, it is almost always better that you choose to stop than be forced to stop. Take the time to care for yourself, and not just in a bubble-baths, tasty food, and new books kind of way. Self-care is more complicated than that. Self-care is making the best decisions for yourself when looking at your life beyond today and tomorrow. Sometimes, self-care means pushing yourself to work out every day. Sometimes self-care means pushing yourself to write every day until it becomes a habit. You need to figure out what your self-care needs are, though. I can’t tell you what you need most. All I can do is let you know that there’s an important line to be drawn between writing every day (my self-care) and writing so much every day that I’m left feeling exhausted (causing me to need more self-care). Don’t think of it as a treat to make yourself feel better, think of it as a balance you must find in your life between all the things you know you need to do and all the things you want to do. As long as you don’t neglect an imbalance for too long, you’ll be fine.
So, I’ve once more been struggling with my depression. Big surprise there. Kinda snuck up on the back of some of the stuff I was writing last week and just overwhelmed me when I wasn’t paying attention. Luckily, with my renewed focus on watching for it and the help of my friends, I was able to notice it quickly and come up with a few plans to circumvent it.
Historically, working out every day has been a good way to deal with my depression for a few reasons. There’s the health reasons, studies that suggest that regular exercise can have a significant positive impact on one’s mental well-being. There’s the easy reasons, that I’m generally too tired after a heavy workout (and those are the only kind I do) to be anything. Then there’s the mental reasons, that I’m finally making progress on one of my big goals by losing weight. All of that together leaves me at least neutral for as long as I can keep it up (usually 3-5 weeks) though I get almost nothing else done.
Another, more mentally productive, way to deal with my depression is by creating something. Writing is often a good way for me to take a step away from everything and let my mind work out my problems through my stories. When I was in college, working on building a set for a show or helping put together some internal improvement project for the theater was always very relaxing, letting my focus and keep busy while leaving my mind free enough to work through things in the background. Unfortunately, I’m not very good with music or visual arts, but I’m certain those would be just as helpful. Anything that gets me focused on and engaged in the act of creation always helps.
Sometimes, even working a lot (at my job) can help, if I’ve got the right kind of projects. Put in some overtime, rake in that delicious OT pay, and start making even more progress toward being debt free. A good amount of rewarding work (people recognize what I’m doing as being useful and I can contribute to the good of my team/company) is just the right kind of mentally exhausting. I get so wrapped up in what I’m doing to let my problems in and then I’m too tired to make myself fret about anything.
All three have worked individually in the past. Unfortunately, none of them would last for long. I wear myself out to the point of not being capable of working out again, or I get finish a project and can’t figure out the next steps, or I finish whatever work project had me so focused and I’m unable to find a new one to fill that hole. Eventually, they all come to an end.
Which is why, this time, I’m trying all three at once. Work 10 hours days and try to get super invested in an interesting work project. Workout immediately after work. Come home, eat something, have a cup of tea to help me stay awake, and then write/try-to-write until 11 or 12. The idea being that, when one of the three fails, I should still have the other two continuing on to prop me up until I manage to get the third one going again. So far, it’s working out pretty well.*
First, I pushed myself too-hard in my workouts initially and had to really dial it down, but that means I’ve just got a little more time and energy for writing. Then I picked my workouts back up again, full-force, and was too tired to write for a couple of nights, but since I workout after work I was able to continue investing in my latest work project.
Unfortunately, there are still some flaws. After an entire week of this, I hit Friday and couldn’t do anything after 1:30. I had to run a meeting about my project which taught me a lot and forced me to herd cats for an hour and a half. Senior Coworker Cats. Some of whom had been at the company longer than I’ve been alive. I went home pretty much immediately afterward and decided to take all the pictures off my phone as my day’s project. 800 pictures later, I played a few rounds of video games with friends and went to bed.
All-in-All, it seems to be working aside from a few quiet moments here or there were I just kinda feel sad, but those are growing shorter and less frequent after only a week. Maybe, if I can keep this up long enough, they’ll disappear entirely.
*Side-effects of the pursuit of three major goals may include drowsiness, irritability, a zombie-like demeanor, and a severe allergic reaction to social interaction. But hey! At least you’re not a depressed sack of sad!
I’ll admit that I was rather surprised by some of the responses I got to yesterday’s post. I got a couple of messages from friends who were concerned about me (thanks again for caring enough to talk, it really does mean a lot to me, whatever I might say in response) and then, because I didn’t think what I’d posted had been dark enough to warrant that level of concern, I asked my closest friend for her perspective.
She told me that it was, in fact, darker than I’d thought and, furthermore, most of my interactions with her had become rather focused around my depression. She wasn’t complaining of course, mostly just reinforcing the realization I was coming to.
One of humanity’s trademark abilities is adaptability. Every sci-fi and fantasy depiction of humans–as compared to other races or beings–has made the point that humans can survive anywhere and get used to any circumstance. It’s pretty well exemplified in the real world as well. As soon as a city is destroyed by an earthquake, a flood, or a tornado, we immediately begin to rebuild right where we were. Maybe we upgrade some stuff to make us more likely to survive next time, but we just adapt to our environment rather than find someplace less hazardous.
I’ve been the same way my entire life. Every time something bad has happened, I’ve just figured out how to cope and then carried on. I adjusted. Sure, that meant sometimes shoving things so far out of my mind that it took 7 years of my life and 4 years of therapy to be able to feel something about it again, but I managed to survive the encounter and continue living my life. I adapted to my new life and even thrived.
So when it comes to talking about my depression and how bad things have gotten for me, I’m going off a baseline created from three years of being over worked, under appreciated, and held to impossible standards at a job I couldn’t afford to leave. All that on top of all the crazy, unfortunate stuff that happened to me in the 21 years before getting that job. I got used to being pretty much low-key depressed all the time. I stopped expecting to have any kind of happiness from day-to-day and settled my hopes on just not being miserable.
I adapted to my situation by removing expectations and hopes that would accentuate the bad situation I was. In doing so, I lost my frame of reference for what was acceptable and how bad some of my issues were. I also made a point to remind myself, when empathizing with other people, that everyone has their own scale for what they’re capable of dealing with and what they’d consider to be “the worst.” Throw both things together and I wound up not only with no frame of reference or ability to concretely measure my own suffering, but also with a poor ability to realize what my own suffering sounds like to other people.
So now I make blog posts like yesterday that make me sound really miserable because I honestly am and fail to really notice the true extent of what I’m saying because I’ve been more miserable in the past. It takes people reaching out to me to notice. Which means I’d ignore problems that are slowly becoming worse like the proverbial frog placed in a pot of water that is then set to a boil.
I think what I need to do to remedy this is not only be more mindful of where I am in my life and what’s going on with me, but I also need to broaden my blog topics a bit and focus a little more on constructive conversation around depression rather than just letting off steam. Maybe advocate to remove the stigma a little more emphatically than just leading by example. I mean, it’s always been my intention to do that to some degree or another and I’ve already figured out exactly what I’d do with my money if I became a super rich author (throw money at that problem as well as words), but I think I can do more, even now. There’s really no better time to start something than “now”.
I’m a tall, middle-class white dude with a degree in English Literature, which means I’m not super qualified to do much on most current topics other than support and align myself with the downtrodden and put-upon. The only exclusion is mental health. After my personal experiences and all my years of therapy, I think I’m pretty qualified to join the conversation, at the very least, even if I’m not an expert.
Hi, my name is Chris, I’m a dude with emotions that are hard for me to talk about because I’ve been taught that I’m not supposed to share them and I tend to lose sight of my ability to properly care for myself because I was taught that everyone else was more important than me (though I guess that dovetails into toxic masculinity pretty well). I want to help people be better than they are and I love to tell stories. I struggle with depression almost every day, along with a fairly constant battle with anxiety, OCD, and insomnia brought on by all my other issues. I have a hard time emotionally connecting with people because a lot of the people I’ve connected to have not only hurt me, but specifically used the vulnerability I’ve shown them to hurt me. I don’t deal well with conflict and I really hate talking on the phone. I have more issues that I’m not sharing because I’m not ready to face them in a public forum.
So now that all that’s on the table, all nice and explicitly, let’s start a conversation. I’m perfectly willing to just stand here and talk if you aren’t ready to start yet. I’ve certainly got enough issues to talk for months, if not years. I can provide resources and suggestions on self-care since I’m constantly working on that myself. I’ll help you figure out how to cope and you can help me keep my perspective in line with reality. It’ll be great.