Saturday, July 14, 2018

Anxiety Isn't The Boss

Fear doesn't mean you have to stay still.
Sometimes, I'm sitting around watching television, hanging with family, doing chores, whatever, and I have something like a profound thought about my OCD and anxiety. Fine, it may not be profound, but it feels important to me. I had one such thought just now after using the bathroom, because I'm glamorous like that. The thought was this: My anxiety behaves so much better when I'm the boss. It's like a lap dog. If I don't give it proper discipline, it decides it makes the rules. When I don't let anxiety make decisions for me, it lessens naturally. Doing whatever the hell I want in spite of the horrible physical symptoms and emotions that crop up makes panic so much less intense.

(Disclaimer: I know I've said the same thing in different ways many times, but if you have OCD, you know sometimes you have to find new ways to think of the same ideas.)

What do I mean by doing whatever the hell I want in spite of my anxiety? I mean a few things. Firstly, if I'm working and I panic, I try hard not to stop to try to soothe myself. Soothing myself tells my brain something is actually wrong. Instead, I just keep working (sometimes). Another example is perhaps me excitedly planning to go to some event and then later dreading it because of anxiety. I know I actually want to go, so I do my best to do it anyway. I don't want to prove my anxiety right on any account. It rarely ever is, and it is never right about the severity of a damn thing. She's a drama queen, for real.

I know that self care is a much-touted aspect of mental health, but that doesn't mean self-care has to be a week off of work to collect yourself, thought it can mean that. For some people, like myself, stopping to savor the panic only makes it worse. If I "just keep swimming," as a wise fish once said, I tend to make out better. That's not to say I don't sometimes spend the day trying to distract myself from anxiety, but rather to say that the answer may lie in taking note of what you really want out of life when you're feeling well, so you can do it anyway when you're not.

Listen, if there's one thing, no matter how small, that you really want to do, but your anxiety is telling you is impossible–ignore your anxiety. Even if it makes you feel like you could shake out of your shoes and the world is falling in around you. Just do me a favor and achieve one thing that matters to you. Feel free to tell me how much of an ass I am in the comments if it doesn't go according to plan, but don't you dare forget to tell yourself that you're a badass for trying.

Be well, readers.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

When It Feels Weird to Manage Your Life Well

When I'm going through periods of high anxiety in my life, the all-or-nothing, black-and-white thinking kicks in hard. If I can't cook dinner tonight, it means I'll never cook dinner again. If I'm not in the mood to write, I'll never write again. If my husband is disappointed we couldn't do something, he's disappointed in me and doesn't love me anymore. The list of ludicrousness goes on and on. I'm particularly adept at telling myself I can't have a normal life because I can't cope with it. Therefore, when I do cope with it, as I am now, it feels really weird.

I've been pretty certain that I'd be doomed this year. I was the host for Thanksgiving; my husband's family is visiting for Christmas; I've had lots of dental appointments for readjustments; my sister moved almost all the way across the country, and I've thrown a lot of social events for no other reason than to torment myself. Any one of these things can be torture when I'm very anxious, so I get a little anxious each time something pops up that this will be the one that sets me overboard again. Then, it doesn't happen. What am I supposed to do with that? It's like everything I think I know is wrong!

Well, that's anxiety. Everything you think you know that comes from a place of anxiety is either wrong or really over-exaggerated. That's like the definition. It's disarming because I can get used to not having anxiety attacks that are extra bad. Then, when they happen again, I'm all "I wasn't ready for this! Better be more vigilant (read: more anxious) in the future!" I've come to see this for the parody that it is. The self-fulfilling prophecy of stupidity. I hope my self-awareness can have some affect on my anxiety in the future, but I'm not holding out. Usually, my self-awareness is limited to the negative tendencies I have. That's probably not very helpful.

Luckily, I've learned to adapt. Instead of avoiding things just in case I get anxious, I've loaded up my agenda. I'm going to do all the things until such a time as I do get too anxious to do them again and have to start from the beginning. I get a lot more done that way, and you can too with my tried and true method of actually having a life! (Read that last bit in an enthusiastic Home Shopping Network voice). Anyway, here's to time well spent! I hope you're out there spending yours wisely, no matter what your brain tells you.

Hope you are all well or at least well enough.

Monday, July 31, 2017

5 Historic Figures Who Prove You Can Be Anxious and Still Do Important Things

Today, we're going to try to make ourselves feel better by learning about some of the illustrious people in history who've had anxiety disorders. Do you ever feel like you're unimportant? They probably did too and look at them now. They're starring in their very own obscure blog post. This could be you in 50 years, so chin up! If my satire isn't obvious enough, here's a sentence constructed solely to ensure you that I'm not minimizing your suffering. I'm just really bad at being funny. Okay? Let's go.

Abraham Lincoln

Abe Lincoln was a tremendous president and a nervous guy. He had a lot on his plate, like keeping an entire country together, and that would stress anybody out. However, his well-documented sadness and worry was more than just the stress of the job. He was more than likely clinically depressed and had an anxiety disorder. Even with these difficulties, he accomplished things that changed the course of American history.

President Lincoln's depression is much better documented than any anxiety he may have had. He was known to have "melancholy," and friends feared he would commit suicide on multiple occasions. He may have even anonymously published a poem about suicide called "The Suicide's Soliloquy." It's an extraordinarily morbid poem. It's also very beautifully written.

John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck is one of the greatest American authors in history. He penned novels set during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl that forced landowning farmers to become impoverished migrant workers. His characters were simple, his settings rural and his stories unforgettable. The author of "The Grapes of Wrath" and "Of Mice and Men" wasn't a very happy man, in spite of his undeniable talent. He suffered from anxiety and depression.

According to the "Critical Companion to John Steinbeck," Steinbeck consulted a psychologist named Gertrudis Brenner for treatment of his depression. He survived his mental maladies and later died of heart disease, likely linked to a lifetime of smoking.

Charles Schulz

Do you know Charlie Brown and Snoopy? Then you've seen the cartoon work of Charles Schulz. This guy was the darling of comic strips for decades. To this day, we love his characters and the funny situations he put them in. From down-in-the-dumps Charlie to the bossy bully Lucy, he captured the good, the bad and the ugly sides of human nature through the lens of children.

Charles Schulz suffered from anxiety, as documented in several interviews during his lifetime. HIs wife once said that he dealt with his anxiety through acceptance. He tried to embrace his anxiety without bitterness, and this helped him cope with the tremendous stress of this illness. Radical acceptance is a tool even professionals use to help those with anxiety, so this guy was on the right track.

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson, posthumous published poet and prolific pen pal, this 19th century figure hardly had access to a mental health clinic. However, her behavior during her life paints a clear picture of what she suffered mentally. She had a string of severe chest colds and later a bout of inflammation in her eye that kept her somewhat sickly for a time. Whether this contributed to her slow retreat from society is unknown, but we do know that she eventually confined herself to her house.

Dickinson would sometimes rush off when the doorbell rang. She spoke to visitors from behind doors at times. Her doctor, who would visit the home, even complained he couldn't examine her because she would stand outside the room. She kept up a healthy correspondence with her friends, but did not see them socially. It's easy to see that she was agoraphobic. Yes, her reclusiveness increased her artistic output (she wrote more than 1,000 poems). That doesn't mean that was her purpose in staying housebound.

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin was the man who put the idea of natural selection on the map. Anyone with even a passing interest in biology or the theory of evolution knows who he is. Some of you may even know of his adventures aboard the H.M.S Beagle traveling the seas and documenting wildlife in places as far-flung as the Galapagos Islands. This voyage of five years, begun when he was in his early twenties, was to be his life's only grand adventure. He later become sickly, agitated and conflicted.

The cause of Charles Darwin's illness is a matter of debate. No one is really sure why this brilliant scientist got sick with problems like vomiting, heart palpitations and trembling, but we do know it was exacerbated when he took on too much work, which he did often. Leading theories include anxiety. He certainly worried obsessively about things like work and family. He frequently wrote about being nervous when he wasn't with his wife, which can easily be attributed to anxiety.

I'm going to stop here for two reasons. One, I don't want to bore you with a too-long list. Two, this list is seriously lacking diversity. I can't find any references of individuals of color or LGBT individuals (though Dickinson may have been gay) in history who had anxiety disorders. If you know of any, please comment below. 

Monday, June 26, 2017

You're Coping Well . . . Now What?

I think playing on swings is the way to be.
Mental illness, whatever your diagnosis may be, comes with its ups and downs. No one is at their lowest all the time. No one is coping well all the time, though some of us excel at coping most of the time. The yo-yo of symptom severity can make it tough to enjoy the down time when it comes. When you are coping well, and life isn't controlled by symptoms, you can sometimes forget what to do with yourself. You may also feel like the shadow of your illness is waiting to jump out at you any time. Therapists give us all these tools for dealing with being sick, but what do we do when we're not feeling sick?

It is important to be somewhat diligent about how you treat yourself mentally and physically no matter where you're at with your symptoms. Feeling great? You can either hasten a decline in your mental health or you can bolster your well-being. At the risk of sounding like your mother or your doctor, here are a few things you shouldn't do: Drink alcohol to any sort of access, do drugs, engage in self-destructive behavior, etc. Here are a few shoulds to balance it out: Eat relatively well (I say relatively because you have to splurge); exercise as much as you can, practice your coping mechanisms, etc.

Now that we've got the "nurture yourself to stay better longer" part out of the way, I want to get to the short and simple answer to our question. What should you do when you're coping well, even if you're afraid of your symptoms coming back at any moment? LIVE. Check off some shit on the bucket list. Build strong and healthy relationships by bonding with loved ones. Go to a movie theater. Visit friends. Travel. Hey, coping well might mean you still have limitations. For instance, I still have anxiety all the time, so I still don't travel far when I'm coping "well," but let's push the boundaries while we're up for it. Let's dare to have fun. Give yourself memories to help you get through the hard times. Love every second of it.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Distraction is a Good Thing

Here I am distracting myself with water
Whether you have OCD or not, you've probably heard that distractions are a bad thing. They take your eye off the prize! They keep you from fulfilling your potential! They do all manner of unspecific things to your life, leading you on a spiral of chaos that will only lead to you never facing a challenge head on! Okay, you've heard all that. If you have OCD, you've also heard distraction isn't good for your recovery. I want you to consider that perhaps distraction isn't a bad thing at all.

As a crappy student, I was always distracted. When I was younger, bullies and my efforts to keep my head down, metaphorically, distracted me. When I got older, I was distracted by boys, drugs (very mild, folks; calm down), rock 'n roll and all other manner of mild mayhem. Sure, if I had focused, I would have done better in school. Maybe I would have been happier or more successful now that I'm in my 30s. Nobody knows, so let's not speculate. I do know this, I was going to be distracted to some degree no matter what. Telling people distraction is bad is the same as telling them farting is disgusting. You've just made them feel bad about something they're going to do naturally.

Now for the other side of my distraction story, which is actually distracting me from work. When I fully realized I had OCD, professionals told me that ERP (exposure and response prevention) is the way to go. Most proponents of this method would tell you distraction is bad. Distraction helps you avoid the problems you are having, reinforces the "badness" of your OCD fears, etc. In some ways, they are right. In order to do an exposure, you have to be present, but what about when you are not doing an exposure or your anxiety is more generalized?

Here we get to the part where I tell you it's okay to use things like music, television, video games, family time and exercise to distract yourself from your mental illness. Firstly, your entire life is not an exposure. Sometimes, you need to reset your brain before you can get better. You need to break the loop of worry and reaction by just doing something else. This applies whether you have a mental illness or not. Do you have a cold and feel like shit? You're not going to dwell on it and tell yourself it's okay all day. You're just going to watch a movie and be miserable. The movie helps you forget that you're miserable for a moment. Sick people deserve that break.

I haven't fleshed out this idea as much as I would like to, but some thoughts don't need more than a few paragraphs. You get my meaning. Don't feel bad that you had to play a video game to keep your panic at a manageable level. Don't beat yourself up about needing some down time after a tough exposure. You don't need to live in your illness all the time. By all means, show up for your exposures. Be present. Challenge yourself to face your fears. Just don't forget to unplug when you're done. Really. You're not going to get in trouble or hurt your recovery. I promise.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Getting Through It or "Is that a Chucky Doll in my aunt's coffin?"

December was a great and terrible month. I allowed myself to thoroughly enjoy the holidays, which gave me quite the happy hormone rush to get me through the end of the year. However, it was also a time of stress and sorrow for my family. My great aunt on my father's side was on her way out and not for coffee. My mother's sister was determined to be resurrected repeatedly through a series of pneumonia and cardiac hospitalizations. I'm not sure how many times she died in December, but I'm pretty sure she's a cat. She's recovering now, but my great aunt is not a cat. She only got one life and she lost it a few weeks ago.

People who aren't all that well upstairs (read: a little crazy) handle grief in many ways. We may have breakdowns. We might retreat into depression. Some of us are even pretty stalwart in the face of death. I mean, we see this kind of shit in our heads every day. Myself, I laugh at funerals and check to make sure I'm displaying the right emotions. It's not that I don't care. It's just that I have an extraordinarily emotive mother and a stereo-typically emotionally tough dad. I'm never sure whether I'm supposed to shrug and say "She was old." or exclaim in a grave whisper "She cried out for me in the end!" Whether she did or not is irrelevant.

I was doing pretty well anxiety-wise when my great aunt passed away. I was able to say goodbye to her in her home. I cried a little, but mostly felt awkward about how I was supposed to behave. The only time I felt comfortable was when my mother left the room and I was alone with her. I was able to just say what I wanted to say to her without looking at the pained face of my great uncle or hearing odd reassurances from my mother that she would "take care" of everybody. I'm not sure what she meant or if I was supposed to also lie about taking care of everybody. (Love you, Mom. Don't worry. I'll take care of you.)

After considerable stress about what you're supposed to wear to a funeral now that you're a grown-up, I managed to make it. I parked my car, walked to the funeral home and spotted my mother, whose first act was to stage-whisper "I just wanted to give you a head's up. It's an open casket!" Great. Now everyone around me thinks that I have some fear of dead people that my mommy is protecting me from. I still have no idea why she announced it to me upon arrival. I hope she was trying to be helpful, even if it was unnecessary, and wasn't just bizarrely thrilled about the dead body.

The fact that I had been to this particular funeral home before was both sad and comforting. As an anxious person, it helped that I knew my way around. As a family member, I was sad to see the same faces grieving the loss of yet another important woman in their lives. Still, I was strangely completely unanxious. I was fine, apart from being bombarded with thoughts like, "Thanksgiving is going to be so weird without her." evening though she'd only celebrated a handful with us.

When I entered the room,  I saw the open casket my mother referred to. It was beautiful. All white and ready to be my great aunt's time capsule. I didn't approach because that's not how I roll. It's not that I'm disturbed by the dead. It's that I'd already said goodbye, and I'm pretty sure she had long since left the building. However, after I had said my hellos to my loved ones and sat behind my father, I looked up at the body lying at the front of the room. That's when I noticed it. There was a Chucky Doll in my great aunt's coffin standing over her!

Now I know you're thinking we all should have fled, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't the Chucky Doll that was possessed by the evil spirit of a serial killer. It was just one of those Good Guy dolls, complete with overalls, freckles and playful cap. Okay, it probably wasn't a Good Guy doll from the Chucky films, but it sure looked like it. I wasn't the only one who thought so. Every person I asked agreed after looking at me like I was weirder than a Chucky doll in a casket.

Listen, I know everyone deals with things differently. My aunt dealt with things by collecting dolls, one of which kept her company at her funeral. My mother deals with things by speaking in solemn tones. My husband deals with things by keeping a straight face while his wife kicks the back of his mother-in-law's chair during a funeral. My sister deals with things by reconnecting with everyone down to our third cousin's proctologist. (Maybe an exaggeration. I'm not sure any of our third cousins have proctologists.) My point is, everyone has their thing. Mine is to laugh, even if someone else thinks it's disrespectful. My great aunt would have laughed with me if she had been there. I hope people laugh at my funeral. I hope they laugh a lot and at my expense. It would be beautiful.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Holidays and Hospitals

Trapped in the death grip
of a mall Santa
Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years . . . some mentally ill folks would rather skip these orgies of food, festivities and family. They're a sensory overload combined with forced family fun that can end in frantic family fighting. Panic attacks, depression, reminders of lost of loved ones and financial stress are just a few of the things that can make us want to run for the hills. Me? I love the holidays and try not to let the triggers catch up to me. I fail sometimes, but this year, in spite of the universe's efforts to the contrary, I had a fucking fabulous Christmas, though sprinkled with some serious family health scares.

A few weeks ago, one of my favorite ladies, a beloved aunt, became very ill with pneumonia. She wound up in the hospital in critical care for weeks. I hate the hospital. It reminds me of shitty days. Still, it was HER! I had to go, and did several times without freaking out. (Bravo, me) She got better with every visit and I loved getting to watch it happen. Christmas came to life around us and things were looking great. Come Christmas Day, I was ready. Everyone had a perfect present. I made amazing dip and cinnamon pastries. I received beautiful and thoughtful presents. Christmas was fanfuckingtastic.

A few days later, we heard that the same wonderful lady who was at home recovering was back in the hospital on the brink of death. She'd had what we thought was a heart attack, then another and another. It hit us all hard. I'm not going to reveal any identifying characteristics of this great lady because she's a private person, but let's just say she isn't old enough to go this way. It was finally time to freak out a little, have a cry and worry without distraction.

This right here is why a lot of people who are sensitive hate the holidays. It reminds them of moments like this. It reminds them of people they love who aren't there or of the shortcomings of those who are there. It might be because things are really starting to look up for My Brave Lady, but I refuse to hate the holidays still. She loves them. She enjoyed every second of them, in spite of her illnesses. I'm not sure how she feels about it now because she isn't awake yet, but I think she will continue to love Christmas. You have to take advantage of the dopamine rush of giving and receiving, the oxytocin boost that comes with hugs and the amazing smells. Hospitals can suck a fat one, but holidays are still my favorite.