26 November 2017

The Stigma of Messiness or Yes I Do Have Anxiety Flashcards

I have never been under any illusions of being a "laid back" kind of gal. I admit that, at the best of times, the term "high strung" can accurately be applied to me. I like things done a certain way, at a certain time. This accounts for my neat-freak habits, my road rage, and my inarticulate rampages in crowds. But these have always been manageable. I get butterflies before my team competes at Sections, I can't sleep the night before we leave for a big vacation, and I recheck my alarm every night at least three to four times (let me tell you, I slept through it once and woke up 32 minutes before I was supposed to be teaching in my first hour an hour away--never again).

But six months or so ago, this transformed into something completely foreign to me: real, honest to goodness anxiety. I don't mean the anxiety you feel before starting a new job, moving, or even the first day of school. I mean the kind where my mind doesn't feel like my own anymore. Where my heart starts pounding, my stomach knots itself, and a weight settles on my chest, making it hard to breathe deeply--all in the middle of a Saturday afternoon for no real reason. Anxiety that made me lose 19 pounds because I couldn't eat over the summer. Anxiety that meant I could only sleep for a maximum of 2-3 hours at a time because my brain just couldn't shut itself off. Anxiety that made me certain--100% certain--that everyone I cared about was sick of me, hated me, and was planning to ghost on me.

That kind of anxiety.

And let me tell you, it's been a treat.

Here's something anxiety taught me--there's a lot of talk in our society about how to deal with mental illness. A lot of people give lip service to the necessity of breaking down barriers and ending the stigma around messiness. I hear it all the time. My experience, however, has been different. I've discovered our society that says we have to "be okay with not being okay" is absolutely, unequivocally not okay with people who are not okay. It's easy to talk about accepting that sometimes we have our messy moments, but it seems some people are less able to deal with someone actually having a moment.

I do not, like most people I know, withdraw or need to be alone when I'm anxious. In fact, weirdly for me, my anxiety tends to push me to the opposite. As someone who likes to read and be alone, I find anxiety particularly upsetting because I can't do those things. My brain starts cycling and I can't read or watch TV--I can't concentrate to follow a story line--and the quiet only allows the anxious thoughts to echo louder. I do better when I can talk to people--not about my anxiety but about anything; distraction helps. Tell me gossip. Talk about what you're reading. Send me a dumb tweet to make me laugh. Usually within a few minutes (seriously... this whole process can take two minutes), the anxiety passes and I'm just fine. But that's the catch. So far, I need someone else.

There are precious few people (Six--there are six. I've counted) I can handle when my anxiety peaks. Let's just say, not all people can handle me. That's why these six are precious. Some people, knowing or sensing I am anxious, retreat, either because they are under the impression I am looking to them to "fix" me or because they simply don't care enough about me--I can't bring myself to ask because the possible answers make me anxious. When my anxiety was at its worst, I was told I was messy and dramatic. I was told I was a burden. Annoying. Clingy. Not worth it.

My anxiety loved this--YES! (says my anthropomorphized anxiety) say all the things we secretly feared! Now, when I want to torment her, I don't have to invent anything! I can use real life words and rattle those around endlessly to remind her that everyone thinks it, even if only a few people had the guts to say it!

I try not to think about.

I think about it.

A lot.

It comes down to two basic issues: when people are struggling, they don't want to deal with someone else's struggles ("I have to take care of myself first"). And if people aren't struggling, they don't want to deal with anything that might drag them down ("I'm in a really good place right now"). But it all boils down to the same thing, doesn't it--no one wants to deal with it. Because messiness is stigmatized. We expect everyone to be okay. And if you aren't okay, for the love of god at least pretend. If you have anxiety, then okay--you can say that. But Jesus, don't let anyone see it. Act like you're fine. Keep it together. Keep it to yourself.

Our society is okay ending the stigma around "messiness" as long as we keep the mess hidden. It's fine if people know it's there, but no one wants to see it. A few weeks ago, my counselor suggested one way of dealing with negative thoughts was to write them all out on cards and then write "challenging" thoughts on the other side. I showed them (via Snap Chat) to a few people. They were shocked at the sheer number of cards I made. At what was on the cards. To see someone's anxiety written out can be a strange experience. And it was odd for me to lay all the thoughts bare for others. I showed them only to select people--a few I know struggle with their own negative thoughts, or who I knew would be supportive--but showing the deepest fears that trundle around my brain on bad days to anyone was terrifying.

But I was sick of hiding. And today, I'm sick of hiding again. Because today was a really bad day. The kind of bad day I haven't had for months. And my go-to people weren't around. It got ugly. I messed up. I alienated someone and potentially ruined a really important friendship. My dog got anxious for me and wouldn't eat. Finally I called my husband and tears, asking him to come home and take me somewhere--anywhere--to get me out of the house and out of my head.

It was ugly. And embarrassing. I'm ashamed. And lonely. And a little scared that I can't fix some of it. I know it'll pass, but right now... it's not great.

Here's what my anxiety looks like. The picture here? Those are my cards. Those are my darkest thoughts, everyone. It's terrifying, but it's also freeing. Because those thoughts have too much power when they're locked in my brain. When I expose them to the air, they seem silly and trivial. Let me tell you, they don't feel that way.

I carry the cards with me in case I have an attack, but I still try to hide the mess. I don't use them if other people are around. Even at home, I flip through them in the basement or an empty bedroom. I've hidden with them in a bathroom. Over Thanksgiving, I got anxious (and stupidly left the cards at home). Let's just say, my dog and I had to spend a lot of time in the guest bedroom Thursday, taking deep breaths and trying to keep mascara (mine mostly) from running too much. But I dread the day the anxiety hits when privacy isn't possible. I don't want to whip out my mess in the middle of an Applebee's.

I'm done pretending I'm always okay. The truth is, I'm okay most days. About once a week, depending on what's happening, I have a really bad day. This week some work stuff means I've had several bad days, which hasn't happened in a long time. Most of the time my bad day isn't noticeable to people. Even  my husband has a hard time telling unless I tell him (or unless it gets bad enough I cry... then the mascara is a dead giveaway). I'm working on it. I'm getting better (most of the time) at handling it. I've found people who I can talk to and who help (shout out to Emmy, Rachel, Timothy, and my big sister). I've found people who don't want to help. But I've decided they can either learn to deal or get out of my life. It's not my responsibility to make other people comfortable. To be clear, I don't expect anyone to "fix" me--I don't even usually want people to talk to me about my anxiety--it's my mess and it isn't fair to expect anyone else to clean it up. But I expect friends to support me, and I feel no need to protect people from the fact that some days are rough. If people find that inconvenient or annoying, well, guess what? Me too, bitch. We can start a club.

I'm done with lip service. Messiness happens. For me, it's general anxiety. For other people, it's depression. Panic attacks. Compulsions, fears, mood swings. Whatever it is, we're all doing our best. We're all quietly muddling through. If we want to end the stigma, we need to be okay not just acknowledging that these things exist. We need to be okay confronting what it looks like in person. We need to love the people who struggle, even when they're at their worst. We need to love ourselves, even at the times when we hate our brains as they spiral out of our control. We need to see that mental illness isn't the whole of a person. But it's also inseparable from who we are. I can't just leave it at home or put it back on the shelf when other people don't want to deal. We need to understand the mess happens, and while it isn't fun for anyone, it's okay. Life happens and we don't always have time to clean. Sometimes our shit is everywhere.

At some point, I'm going to have to take those cards out in the middle of an Applebee's.

And y'all are just going to have to deal with it.

13 November 2017

Fifth Grade Trust Issues

When I was in elementary school, there was a girl in my class everyone adored--let's call her Cassie. In retrospect, I'm not really sure why we coveted her friendship so much; to be completely honest, she was boring. But we all wanted to be her best friend, and it caused enough bitterness in the class that in fifth grade, all the girls were forced to stay inside at recess to "talk it out."  (Side note to all elementary school teachers: this does not work. It was just 35 minutes of brilliant passive aggressive mind-fuckery). But, by some stroke of luck, Cassie was my best friend. For whatever reason, she chose me.

And then one day I found out--Cassie was a bitch.

I was walking into the hall when I heard a bunch of girls in my class whispering outside the door. Apparently Cassie had told them I "made her" be my friend. She didn't actually like me, but I forced her to be friends. It was never clear to me how I was supposed to have done this--I assume through some ten-year-old girl version of Chinese water torture and blackmail--but I was shocked. And hurt. And indignant. I had never forced someone to be my friend. That didn't even sound possible. After that, Cassie and I didn't speak anymore and I was relieved to leave my private elementary school for a public school in seventh grade to get away from all of it. I couldn't fathom that a friend could be so duplicitous.

Cassie wasn't the last person who pretended to be my friend and turned out to be anything but--sophomore year in high school was particularly rage-inducing thanks to a group of girls. But for some reason, Cassie was the worst. I was five when Cassie and I became friends; I trusted her with the blind innocence of a child who is completely confident she is interesting and worthy. We were friends for five years before I found out what she really thought--or at least what she said. It was a betrayal that ten-year-old me had hardly been able imagine until it happened.

She's the reason I have trust issues.

To this day, I am guarded when it comes to people. I operate on the assumption that most people aren't going to be my friends and so I should keep them at a distance. I freely admit I am not an easy person to like--I am reserved but opinionated, quiet at first, but sarcastic and blunt. I cannot let something go--seriously, it's physically impossible--and while I can disappear for long periods of time, when I decide I want attention, I want it immediately. And while these are traits I tried to suppress in high school so people would like me, they're things I've accepted now and embrace. I don't care that I say what I think, or that I force people to deal with issues rather than ignore them. I'm 33--I'm too old to worry about making other people comfortable.

But I also realize that, apparently, the hurts of our childhood often follow us in ways that are unexpected as we get older. Lately, I've recognized my lessons in early friendships taught me to believe that your friends are never really your friends. Your friends can turn on you at any minute. Your friends might just be tolerating you--or pretending to--because they need something, or want something, or are just waiting for something better to come along. I realized that, really, I'm just standing in the hall, waiting to hear what everyone really thinks. There's a voice I whispering in my subconscious: they don't really like you, you know. And while I freely acknowledge this inner voice is an asshole, it's a persistent asshole.

It sounds a whole hell of a lot like Cassie.

I should clarify that I am not, despite what some have said recently, an insecure walking emotional disaster. Once I get to know someone--once we've been friends for a while--this all fades a bit. But there are some people who communicate or relate to people in ways that trigger all the doubts. For the past six or seven months I've been struggling.

While most people have been understanding, I've had people I trust and care about tell me I do, in fact, annoy them. I'm too much, too messy, trying too hard. And instead of being able to isolate those comments to the people who said them, I've applied them to almost everyone in my life. Because honestly, it is an annoying personality trait. Lately I find myself more than ever pulling away from people I care about, certain I'm annoying them. I find myself reaching out, but cursing myself because I'm sure there's no way people want to hear from me.I apologize if I feel like I've talked to someone too much, asked too many questions, talked too long. And I apologize incessantly (which, by the way, I've also been told is annoying). My experiences with a few people have started to define my relationships with almost everyone.

Because sure, they're my friends. But that doesn't mean they really like me, right?

So today I made a resolution to let go of the people who make me question myself. To let go of people who make me feel annoying, or like I'm too much to handle. To let go of anyone who thinks I'ma burden. Because here's the thing--I'm a goddamn treat, if I do say so myself. I find my sarcasm and mockery delightful. I give good advice and I'd do pretty much anything for someone I care about. If the fact I might send a text at an inconvenient time (or... you know... four of them) cancels all that out? Well, it's their loss, not mine. I'm walking away from the people who make me question myself, my friendships, everything I do. This is a hard decision for me, but it was a hard weekend and I woke up today knowing that I just can't do another one. I've made this resolution before and failed to walk away; it turns out I'm spectacularly bad at ghosting on people, no matter how poorly they treat me. But this time I know it has to be real. I've felt myself slipping into old patterns I thought I'd broken. And I just don't have the time for it. So here goes nothing.

Because Cassie wasn't worth it. And neither are they.

06 November 2017

More 90s Anthems, or Staying Power

Anyone who knows me knows I love Nelly's song "Air Force Ones." Once, when drunk, I completed a rhetorical analysis of the structure to prove its brilliance. I maintain that lyrics like, "I get to stomping in my Air Force Ones" and "If the shoe is on the shelf then you got one, man" are pure genius.

This is the hill I'm dying on, y'all.

I recently rediscovered my love of this classic late-90s ballad when I started listening to Nelly Radio on Pandora (okay... I'm so old, yes I still use Pandora). And as lyrical masterminds like Ludacris, Nelly, Chingy, Eminem and Chamillionaire started blaring out of my car stereo at 6am on the way to work, I discovered something disturbing: I know an alarming amount of offensive rap lyrics from the late 90s and early 2000s. I no longer remember most basic math, anything from a single science class I've ever taken, or even my sophomore English teacher's name, but the lyrics to D12's "Purple Pills?" Got 'em.

My memory is a blessing and a curse. I appreciate being able to rock out to "Big Poppa" with my commuting-buddy-slash-best-friend, but there are so many other things I wish I could remember. And most importantly, there are so many other things I wish I could forget. Our memories often seem designed to sabotage us, forgetting the things that could serve us well and holding on to useless--or even pain-inducing--information instead. Chuck Palahniuk wrote, "It is so hard to forget pain, but it's even harder to remember sweetness. We have no scar to show for happiness."

Goddamn, Chuck. Right through the heart.

And that's something I'm struggling with lately--remembering pain I'd rather let go. Because lately, up in my brain right next to musical masterpieces like "Ridin' Dirty" and "Lose Yourself" are  crashing, cruel words I can't shake. I've always considered myself a forgiving person--I wrote a blog post about it recently--but now I'm wondering what exactly that forgiveness means. Have you really forgiven someone when you take their words--all the things they said that wounded you--and bind  them inextricably into your relationship? Into yourself? Is it forgiveness if you know there will be no forgetting? And, if so, what do you do with forgiveness when the remembering crowds in and temporarily knocks you off your feet for a bit?

Words have always mattered more to me than anything else. It's easier for me to forgive a cruel act than it is to forgive a cruel word. I think most people would say the opposite. Perhaps that's why I became an English teacher--because I believe, as Margaret Atwood said, that "a word after a word after a word is power." And people's words have always had a unique sort of power for me. This means that a kind word can work wonders. And a cruel one? A cruel one has a staying power that rivals any lyric by Luda.

For the past few months, I've struggled with words I can't shake free from. Apologies have been made. Relationships repaired. I'm happy and at peace. But memories haven't been wiped. And every once in a while, in quiet moments, the words will suddenly whip-crack through my brain and I find myself temporarily devastated. I find myself stunned at the words rattling around my brain. I find myself a little breathless at the weaknesses someone saw in me. At the faults. At the anger and hatred that spurred those observations into words. And I am, for the briefest of moments, shattered all over again.

Part of my problem is I don't believe in the phrase "I didn't mean it." That phrase reeks of insincerity. You may not have meant to say it, but that doesn't mean you didn't believe--even for a moment--the content of the message. After all, the words came from somewhere. Perhaps they came from the darkest, meanest part of your mind, perhaps from thoughts you would not normally give voice to, but they came from you. And you believed them, at least enough to put them out into the world to wreak their havoc. We've all said things we regret. We've all, at some point, gone after someone's weakest point--their most sensitive point. And too often we excuse it with a quick "I didn't mean that." 

But of course we did. Of course. Otherwise we would not have been able to identify the weak points. We wouldn't have known exactly how to break someone. We wouldn't have thought it. And we surely wouldn't have said it.

So then what? What do we do with the words we've been given that we don't want but can't get rid of? How do we move on from pain--from our scars--when the doctors have done all they can? What do we do when we're left with words that have forever changed how we feel about ourselves? Because that's the rub, isn't it? Once a word is unleashed, we've lost it. It no longer belongs to us. We can apologize--we can even mean it with our whole heart--but the words aren't ours anymore. They belong to the people we flung them at; they belong now to someone else's concept of self. And when our words are cruel, we can't deny we've done damage and there's no real repair. And on the receiving end? Well, we take the words and gather them up and hope some day they'll stop whispering to us in our weak moments. So often it works.

So often it does not.

It's hard to explain to someone that you can genuinely be not mad anymore and still be a little broken by something they said. That you can forgive without forgetting. That you can be okay, but still forever changed. Words change the way we see our world and ourselves. It can be devastating when someone's words make our world darker. Especially because, so often, no matter how many good words that come later, the painful ones are somehow always stronger. Louder. More insistent.

Perhaps because, as Palahnuik said, sweetness leaves no scars. But pain?


The best we can hope for, maybe, is that new phrases will eventually crowd out everything else. Perhaps those painful words will continue to rattle around in my brain, but I can hope that, over time, they rattle more quietly. Perhaps they'll be like the lyrics to "Hot in Herre" by Nelly--vaguely familiar, words I knew long ago but which escape me most days. Words that faded when masterpieces like "Air Force Ones" took over. Maybe given enough time, they'll fade. I've forgiven. And now I'd really like to forget.

But "Air Force Ones?" "Purple Pills?" "Ridin' Dirty?"

I've just accepted those masterpieces are for life.