sikkdays

The Season Between

There is a void between Winter and Spring. The trees remain lifeless and decaying leaves are pasted to the anemic grass like papier-mâché. The dust, dirt, and refuse collected by the snow throughout winter is molded into the landscape. The muted tones of the environment make it impossible to distinguish a blade of grass from a flower stem. This purgatory is depression.

The unnamed void between the seasons in an anxious time. A glimmer of sunshine can quickly morph into a snow storm. Thus, I have taught myself to distrust the sun. I will not believe its lies of a better tomorrow. The snowfall and the expectation of it numbs me. I know what hides beneath the fluffy blanket of snow, my colorless purgatory.

There is a temptation to hope for a rain to wash away the decay and have a fresh start. Unfortunately, the rain transforms the landscape into an inescapable pit. The soft ground swallows me whole. If I should break free, the mud and decay clings to me as a constant reminder that this is where I belong. The lifeless browns and grays are now part of me and fog my vision.

Eventually, Spring will come. Trees and plants will bloom and the grass will glow green. Through my brown and gray lenses the change in the environment only signals that this metamorphosis will not last. Winter is around the corner. A frozen retreat to hide from the pain, anxiety, and depression.

I will welcome the blinding white of snow that burns the brown and gray fog of my vision. I will be free of the unnamed season and numb. I cannot predict the weather or when the seasons will change. Therefore, the only emotion I will engage with is fear. I am afraid the depression will come back. Let me be frozen. I want to stay numb. I am so afraid of the unnamed season between. Eventually, the fear melts the snow and I return to the purgatory I was trying to avoid.

The Unsustainable Upward Trend

Sustainability often comes up in economics, but rarely comes up as a topic in general discussions of mental health. Some think talking about relapse will do harm. It is also triggering to caretakers, friends, and family to see someone in pain, so we avoid anything that is not progress. However, the goal for those of us who are neural diverse is finding balance not a cure.

When we talk about normalizing mental wellness these days people often compare things like anxiety and depression to broken limbs— you would take some time off work and seek medical attention if you broke your leg, you should be able to do the same for mental health. Unfortunately, some injuries can be more serious than others. The leg may not return to its previous usability. This is always the case for mental wellness. Trauma alters our brains. While someone with an injured leg may have to rely on a cane after physical trauma, we may require continued therapy, medication, meditation, or other supports.

Pain is debilitating. A friend with a back pain has good days and bad days. On those bad days they have difficulty focusing and feel like they are better off resting than making things worse. Psychological pain is no different from this physical pain. There are good days and bad days. One difference between physical pain and psychological pain is that we can often notice when others are in physical pain. Those of us dealing with mental health issues have pain that is not visible to the naked eye.

It is common for people that are neural diverse to isolate when they are in pain. My depression relentlessly attacks me with thoughts and feelings that I am a burden to others. Therefore, I can hide my pain from you because I do not want to burden you. Or, I believe if I am so distraught that you can see my psychological pain it is likely to have an adverse affect on you. We don't want to see our loved ones in pain. The raw emotion is uncomfortable. We want to avoid pain. This is a natural, human reaction. Though, my depression sees your frustration as proof that I am a burden, you are not the cause of my pain. Likewise, I am not the cause of your discomfort. Yet, an uncomfortable past experience may convince you to avoid discussing my pain in the fear that you'll trigger me more.

When we avoid the reality of psychological pain it can reinforce stigmas around mental wellness, confirm my distorted view that I am a burden, and disrupt the process of finding equilibrium. Our mental wellness will not be graphed with a green line shooting upward like some sort of dream stock price. There are hills and valleys and recovery is a lifelong process. My hope is to find neutrality. I want to find something sustainable. I have no interest in trying to make each day better than the one before because that's unrealistic. Even for people who may not have depression, anxiety, or another neural diversity, mental wellness does not trend upward every moment of their lives.

Finding balance between the ups and downs of mental wellness sounds like a very difficult task. As such, standing by and supporting someone through it is equally complicated. You cannot expect us to keep 'getting better' in an upward trend, but you want to help us avoid the pain. Avoidance is a strategy that eventually implodes in my experience. I would classify avoidance as damaging and distraction as a better alternative. Personally, I struggle with that classification. Shame tells me that my distraction is an avoidance tactic. However focusing on grief, loss, anxiety, or whatever the psychological pain is for 24/7 is draining. Therefore, a book, a movie, a coloring book, cooking, or whatever you find some satisfaction in can be a healthy distraction despite what the shame says.

Speaking of draining, you can encounter fatigue trying to support someone dealing with mental wellness issues. That desire to stop our pain fuels the need to see a steady improvement like a stock. Not meeting that goal can be frustrating and draining as a support. Perhaps redefining what 'getting better' means is a strategy to help those of us that are neural diverse and those of you trying to support us. The definition will likely be different for everyone. In general, getting better may mean accepting where I am at and setting a goal of preventing myself from hitting rock bottom again. Maybe, understanding that good days and bad days are a reality, but being able to recognize when the bad days are trending in order to ask for more support? I certainly don't feel that I have communicated what 'getting better' means to me very well in this paragraph. That is likely a sign that I do need to sit down and better define it so that I am not trying to reach unrealistic goals subconsciously. sigh

Using those unrefined parameters, how will I know 'bad days' are trending? This is the benefit of the hills and valleys of mental health. We learn in those valleys. Failure and mistakes are how we learn. The way to find balance or neutrality is to experience the highs and lows. In economics, companies that constantly try to make 20% profit from the year before often make cuts to achieve those numbers. They fail to innovate and learn. It's a strategy that works well if you're hoping to get large numbers to increase your selling price and move on. However, it is not a sustainable strategy. And, I am unable to sell my collection of traumatized neurons. So living with them is a better idea than shooting for an unrealistic upward trend in mental wellness.

If I do not try, I cannot fail. Somewhere along the line, perhaps early in my childhood, I adapted this philosophy in a low. Shame or embarrassment may have triggered the thought and it became law. Much of my anxiety comes from the expectations I put on myself. I build them up into an impassable mountain until I have convinced myself not to try. As such, I see expectations from others and want to run the other direction. In the same way as a caretaker, friend, or partner of someone like me, you may have experienced a severe low in your neurally diverse friend. In that moment you constructed a law that you do not want to see that again. You want to protect your friend, just as my anxiety is trying to protect me.

Sometimes, I need someone to just listen. Sometimes, I need a gentle reminder. Many times, I am unable to communicate what I need. As a support, you cannot be expected to know what it is I need. Remember that connection is always needed. Validating and accepting where we are in the highs and lows goes a long way to help. Empowering people with neural diversity to make their own choices is part of that validation. Directly set boundaries for your own mental wellness and we will respect that. Communicating your concerns helps us reality check what anxiety or depression is telling us. Maybe you don't find me a burden and want to hear what I have to say, but today is not a good day. Perhaps, there's a family member in your past who had similar issues and I am triggering you. It is okay to be direct and set that boundary. “This triggers something from my own past that I would rather not revisit. However, ruminating on this stuff all the time is really draining. So if you want a distraction, please reach out. I can totally help in that way.”

We are social creatures and isolation is part of many mental health concerns. I cannot say every exposure to others will be beneficial, though it can often help to be surrounded by strangers at a park or a mall. Connection, even those as thin as being surrounded by other humans that are strangers can be helpful. Please do not let anything I have written prevent you from connecting with myself and others who are living with neural diversity. Just try not to be like the helpless neurons( image on my original blog )

The Equation of Mental Health and Sleep

“There's not enough time in the day.” Whether you live paycheck-to-paycheck or comfortably,the demand for your time is ceaseless. Certainly the phrase, “I'll sleep when I'm dead.” must be famous last words. Sleep is important and deeply impacted by our mental wellness.

Show Your Work

Many people lucky enough to be working during the pandemic are working from home. While there are some “productivity gurus” who believe the gig economy is a step toward a future where people work when they want to, the reality seems to be that we are working all the time. My old mantra, “you're not enough,” has driven me to burnout on many occasions. This “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” shame that has been passed down through generations eradicates sleep. My bed is in the same space as work. So, what's another 10 minutes, an hour or 3 hours of work? In addition to the self-shaming that many of us inflict, we now live in a world where corporate masters are monitoring our work from home with invasive technology. My anxiety loves this idea enough to disrupt my focus, day and night.

Story Problems

Personally, I have had as much work as I have had sleep, which is not a lot. That anxiety I spoke of fires up before I have even applied for work or pitched a story. It is so demoralizing that when I do successfully complete an application or a pitch I feel like Atlas and think Sisyphus is an amateur with his boulder. Mostly, I spend my evenings in bed looking back at the “time I have wasted” being a jobless loser and what a burden I am to myself and those around me. Self comparison pops in to tell me what my successful friends are doing and sadness follows behind to shove me deeper into the abyss. The next morning, devoid of sleep, I lack any self-confidence to find work. If I “pull myself up by my bootstraps,” I have difficulty focusing and planning because of the lack of rest.

If I set aside the all or nothing thinking and admit that situation cannot happen every day, there is still a challenge with sleep. When I am working so very hard to prove myself to others and burning out, I experience Bedtime Procrastination. Am I too wound up to sleep or do I feel that I am owed more time in the day because I worked so hard? When that study about Bedtime Procrastination hit Chinese social networks, the word “revenge” was added to the beginning of the phrase. Revenge Bedtime Procrastination is staying up past your intended bedtime for some self-care. Me time is important, but so is sleep.

Negative Integers

Depression and anxiety are bedfellows. This is a chicken and egg situation as well— being anxious could lead me to a depressive state or I could feel anxious about rebooting after a period of depression. One of the stigmas about depression is around sleeping all the time. Sometimes a lack of productivity is seen as a lack of motivation. And even if one isn't sleeping all day, stagnation is discredited by those who do not understand. We are not unmotivated, those of us in depression are frequently stuck. We are frozen from anxiety. The realization of our condition is essential to recovery, but also a hindrance. The weight of the time we lost during our crash is overwhelming. It feeds the depression. It keeps us up at night.

In the same way that the loss of someone close to us can be exhausting, ruminating on your mental health and comparing yourself to others is debilitating. Whether it disrupts sleep with obsessive thoughts, a need to make up for lost time, or revenge bedtime procrastination we despair. Without sleep, we lose even more of the resilience that aids us to live with depression and anxiety. I haven't even touched on medications, many of which affect sleep. You cannot seem to get enough sleep or no sleep at all with many of the SSRI and SNRI meds.

Solve for Why

Some neurologists theorize that our strange dreams are the brain's way of processing the memories of the day. It is possible that we may be moving short-term memories into long-term storage. Without sleep and the dreams do memories get stuck in the short-term space, a place where we are always thinking of them? Trauma has been shown to inhibit the hippocampus from converting memories. This is why flashbacks occur in many people with PTSD, the memory is still as fresh as the day it happened.

Imagine my frustration from lack of sleep being used to shame myself to going to bed early. You are a loser and everyone knows it. Why can't you sleep? What else are you going to do? You are a talentless burden to your family and friends. You should have found a job today. You should have cleaned the house. You should have got your Masters. You should have invested money. You should have died, not your father. You should... It is hard to sleep when a critic with a megaphone can take any of your thoughts and twist them into pain.

There are many ways to improve sleep. Changes in diet, medication, and activities can help. All of those are easier said than done. Meditation has worked in the past. Talk therapy is useful and EMDR therapy can aid in moving those memories to long-term storage. However, I am beginning to think acceptance is also needed. This is a moment of difficulty. Difficulty is part of every human life. May I be kind to myself in this moment and give myself the compassion I need.

Chaotic Mindfulness

How can mindfulness meditation practice help us with mental wellness? To answer the question we can look at how our minds function without it.

I recently listened to an interview with Dan Harris and he said something that kicked me in the ass. I had stumbled onto Harris when I started learning about healing my mental health. The news anchor found meditation at a time when he was dealing with PTSD and cocaine addiction. He made a Youtube video on the benefits of mindfulness that a few of my courses and doctors recommended. After seeing that video, I sort of forgot about him until this recent interview.

Harris tells Terry Gross that distracting thoughts during meditation are not a bad thing. “What do I have to do next?” “Am I doing this right?” “I'm frustrated,” are a key part of the meditation process. He believes that by gently refocusing our attention on our breathing, or whatever you choose during meditation, we are training the brain to interrupt invasive thoughts outside of meditation as well. The hope is that later in the day, when you have a thought like, “I'm not good enough,” you will be able to catch it and refocus rather than ruminate further on worthlessness.

My inner critic bristles at this idea. During meditation, I am focused on this task of, well focusing. In the middle of a busy workday or having an accomplishment being evaluated by someone close to me, I am too frantic to refocus. Fear and loathing dominate my thinking and mindfulness is some distant concept. Of course, as I pondered Harris' words further I wondered if my critical thoughts have proved his theory.

Here's a real world example. I am scared that you, the reader, think I am a moron. In fact, I know I am a moron because yesterday I measured wrong and cut a board for a flower box I was building incorrectly. Some time in the week, I was filling the humidifier and spilled water everywhere on the counter and the floor. In university, I did worked on a team project where I did most of the work and I think it was because my teammate hated my moronic idea for the video. In grade 10...I remember as a child my parents were frustrated...and so on, and so on.

My mind has trained for many years to find evidence of my worthlessness. When I feel shame, embarrassment or criticized, I focus on proving that to be true. I was worried you would think I was a moron and proceeded to dive into memories of shameful experiences from years ago. Could this be the same process of training Harris describes? If so, then it should be possible to change my thinking.

The Gotcha

I meditated daily between 2017-2018. Today, it rarely happens. It didn't work. I'm still broken. I still do not like who I am. This appears to be my inner critic at work again. In reality, I've had 40 years to train myself to loath who I am. A year of meditation is barely a dent into that pattern. Somewhere along the line, I let that old pattern back in and decided mindfulness meditation was a failure, like me. Instead of gently refocusing, I chose to continue beating myself up.

Personally, I wonder if there's some all or nothing thinking preventing me from moving forward. Perhaps, deep down I want to believe in a cure. I'm not completely rid of my depression and anxiety, therefore the meditation, the CBT, DBT, and psychiatrist sessions do not work. I've written before about the idea of accepting depression will always be a part of my life. Yet, there are those times, especially when I am wading through it, that I don't want to accept it. I want to be free of these intrusive thoughts, forever.

Even now, as I type this, I struggle. I want to end on a positive note and inspire myself and others. Yet I think, How many times have you said you would try harder and failed? Nobody is going to be inspired by what you say because you fail to follow through. It is exhausting to try and build new patterns. Am I a broken record, constantly saying the same thing over and over, but not following through? That's one way to look at it. However, it may show that I am working and trying to heal. If I have said I need to break this pattern of self-loathing before, than maybe I am training myself each time I repeat it. I suppose. Failure is how we learn. Is each time I sit here and feel bad for not following through with CBT or things I told my psychiatrist or partner a failure, or a lesson in improvement?

I am sad to say it doesn't feel like improvement. My mind is a forest fire of disbelief scorching any hope that was in the last paragraph. The only tree left unharmed is the one labeled, “maybe these thoughts will help someone else.” I think this is a good time to stop writing and try a meditation to put out the flames. Be kind to yourselves. Much love.

Computer Printers: 50 Shades of No Way

Like most things, computer printers have built in obsolescence. Except the manufacturers are more transparent about it.

In the last 15 years I have done my best to have a paperless work flow. It was easy for a video professional. Those times I did need something printed, I would send my files to a local copy shop. Without a home printer, I wasn't buying ink cartridges, fixing paper jams, or wondering why my computer couldn't see the printer. Recently, my partner has been working on her Masters and many of the courses provide articles as the teaching materials, rather than textbooks. Screens are not great for reading. We spend so much time in front of screens, I can understand why my spouse prefers paper. I love my e-ink reader, a very old Kindle, but it is a special kind of hell trying to read a PDF on one of those. So, we decided to get a printer. Now, I feel absolutely filthy.

1980s Hacker Mom

The dream of the future was alive in my youth thanks to my Commodore 64 computer. Buying joysticks, a tape drive, a floppy drive, and a printer for the home was the start of something exciting. We got an Okidata Okimate color printer that was surprisingly inexpensive! That is, compared to the typical black & white printers at the time, which were more focused on small businesses, not hobbyists. Like the printers of today, the Okimate had cyan, magenta, and yellow to print in color. However, all three colors were stitched together on one ribbon in a single cartridge. Perhaps 5 inches of cyan, followed by 5 of magenta, 5 of yellow and repeat. If the Okimate was sitting on magenta, but needed to make green, it would fast forward to yellow and then print cyan over that. Need more green? Skip magenta again. It was wasteful, there's whole parts of the ribbon that had never been used. Get to the end of the cartridge? Sorry, buy a new one.

Not so fast! As you can imagine printing took a long time back then, so what else are you going to do, but watch? Mom noticed the color skipping behavior of the printer. When a cartridge reached its end, my mother grabbed a number two pencil and rewound the ribbon, much like us old people had to do if a cassette tape malfunctioned. She placed it back in the printer and we tried to print something new. It worked! Occasionally, the printer would attempt to use a color that was previously used the first time around and that would make some colorful glitches.(Maybe this is my first introduction to something I now enjoy, glitch art) Yet, this hack was worth it to a teenager who's most important prints were silly posters for the student council election. This is before the days of spell-check. I remember that poster on which I misspelled intelligent. Ugh.

Offset and Get the Fix

That brief trip down memory lane illustrates how printer manufacturers make money. In the early 2000s printers were dirt cheap. Buy an HP printer for $50! Better yet, buy an Apple computer and we'll throw in a printer for free. The companies do not make money on the hardware. They make money by selling you their proprietary ink cartridges. I remember those $50 printers having replacement ink starting at $30 apiece. Buy 12 of those in a year and you've just purchased 7 printers. Have a color printer? Now you're buying 4 different ink refills.

As consumers took notice of this pusher/drug user model, we started to fight back. Making a mess with syringes people began filling the previously used cartridge with ink. Whole businesses sprung from this and created a 3rd party market. We could get aftermarket ink on the cheap! As technology progressed those disruptive companies manufactured cartridges that looked exactly like the original equipment.

Of course, tech progressed at the printer manufacturers as well. Inexpensive chips could be added to print cartridges in much the same way car keys were chipped. Not an OEM cartridge? Sorry, you cannot print today. To further increase profit printers came with more bells and whistles. All-in-one printer scanners and 'wireless' printers were made to justify a higher price upfront. Ever have success with a wireless printer? Finding them on your network is harder than finding a giant squid in the ocean. No problem touch screens to the rescue. Easily configure your printer on the network, for an added cost of a touch screen.

Tanks for Nothing

In recent years, a few companies like Epson and Canon have taken a note from consumers and created eco or mega tank printers. They do not take cartridges, but have reservoirs for the ink. I was impressed by this innovation because I want to be less wasteful. This looked pretty interesting and excited me. However, I am very cynical. What's the catch? Well, the main benefit for the companies is getting your money upfront. Rather than giving you the typical smaller than normal ink cartridge in the box when you buy the printer, they give the tank printers a 2 year supply. Instead of paying $120 for that all-in-one printer, you pay $400 because you're getting 2 years of ink.

Okay, the working poor at Epson have to pay for their mandatory Disney+ subscription to forget about life. Plus, regular yacht maintenance is not cheap for the CEOs of the printer giants. Either pay for the ink with the purchase of the tank printer, or buy cartridges over the lifetime of another printer? The super tank printer seems slightly better for the environment, so how about I purchase...ERROR 5b00

The next best thing to selling you ink on a regular basis is planned obsolescence. While researching Epson EcoTank and Canon Megatank printers, I found lots of complaints about similar errors. Canons spit out the error above which means that the waste ink absorber pad is full. Inkjet printers can clog easily, so this pad is there to soak up things after a print or during a cleaning. So by maintaining the printer, you are killing it. You cannot replace the pad. You cannot print with the error. Epson has a similar design and gives you a less cryptic message, 'end of life.' Consumers who have called in for service have been told that the repair plus shipping is likely going to cost more than buying a new one. Epson's own site says the following. >Most consumers who are out of warranty elect to replace the printer because replacement of ink pads may not be a good investment for lower-cost printers. In most cases, when this message occurs, the printer's other components also may be near the end of usable life.”

What about just making a serviceable ink pad? Again Epson, “Implementing this type of a design would result in more expensive printers. Most users would not benefit from such higher costs because their printers will never reach the Parts End of Life message.

Paper Jam

Today, after researching what printer to purchase, I feel exploited and weary. Epson is completely correct in its assumption people will buy new printers if they receive the planned obsolescence error. Bringing this issue to our governments would likely result in zero interest from politicians. We, the people, do not have the time and energy to fight lobbyists and lawyers. A lawmaker is more likely to send you a new $120 printer, then take your concerns and investigate.

We live in a disposable society. There are no vacuum or television repair businesses. Washers, dryers, and even bicycles make their way to landfills because the cost of repair is far more than replacement. Warranties are lip service more than anything else. When you complete the phone maze to finally get a human, they explain to you that buried in the fine print is a clause that says, “Not today, Sunshine.” Instead of manufacturers backing a product with pride, retailers and other companies fill the warranty gap with “extended warranties.” Much like the manufacturers, they have their own fine print. Thus, we are left with making another purchase to avoid the headache. The path of least resistance always wins.

There Is No Margin

One last note to add to my research. If we go back to the beginning, printer manufactures create these devices to make a profit. One of the ways companies have found to sustain profits is through subscription. So, HP has created a program where the printer tells HP it is running low and they automatically send you new ink in the mail. They have several monthly payment plans and you can quit to let the useless device collect dust at any time. Sound familiar? This is how Xerox works. The price of their copy machines is beyond affordable for even large businesses. Instead, most lease the machines and pay for the toner and maintenance. As an aside, movie theaters are now stuck in this model thanks to the rise of digital projectors. We live in the age of Subscribe or Die, I guess.

So what could I buy to solve the issue of printing many documents at home in an economical and environmentally friendly way? As I said above, I was weary from the research. I gave up on finding something that would be a useful and worthwhile investment for our future endeavors. Instead, I opted for something that could handle infrequent printing. No clogs in a laser printer. I will bow to my new master, Brother, and be thankful every time I am able to easily find the required toner cartridge. Perhaps I should take bets on how many prints it will be able to make before it reaches the manufactured “end of life” count coded into the machine?

Help Me With My Bio

I've written silly bios in the past for my freelance work and way back for work in theater. I've never written an artist's bio because I have never tried to be an artist. I've decided to join an art show through a local art collective and I need to write a bio. I am so nervous and typically afraid to share things because of my core belief that “I'm not good enough.” So, I would just write this and hand it in without any feedback. However, logically I know collaboration can only make things better. So, please let me know what you think of the following. You can tell me at sikkdays. I'd appreciate any comments. Thanks.

As a video editor, Christopher composed national commercials and focused on motion graphics. As a digital artist he pursued perfection with the voodoo known as undo. Exploring the analog world of paints, wood, and paper, he has become fascinated with the magic of the process. Christopher is now conjuring freely and embracing the spontaneous results. Through his art Christopher is investigating his own mental health. Perfection is unattainable and the pursuit of it results in shame, fear, and anger. Christopher's work is also developing themes of recovery and wellness.

Punish Thyself

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

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

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

Patterns of Discipline

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

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

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

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

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

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

Success and Failure

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

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

Friendship, Isolation, Boundaries, and Authenticity

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

This Is Me

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

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

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

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

Isolation and Solitude

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

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

Friendship and Boundaries

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

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

Turning It On and Off

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

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

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

Confidant

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

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

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

Forgetting: A Positive of Aging

Inevitably, our elder friends and family joke about how forgetful they have become as they get older. Whether it's a power of suggestion or not, I find myself blaming age for lost thoughts. Yet the more I work on my mental health, I wonder if thoughts are all that helpful.

Certainly, the context of a thought matters. Not remembering to take one's medication is not great. However, not thinking of the 6,974 things that could go wrong if you miss your meds wouldn't be a bad thing. Thoughts can be a source of trouble because we sometimes feel they are facts. For example, I imagine you have stopped reading this already. I believe it. It's a fact, just as plainly as the fact that I am unlovable and a burden. Of course, these are not facts. Logically, I know this. Though, there's still a deep sense, a feeling, that those things are true facts.

Strive for Excellence

When we forget things it feels like a betrayal. Before we were able to do so much. Provide. Succeed. Retire. That cultural message is about getting an education, finding work, creating a family, and retiring after all your hard work. Be productive now and relax later. The cult of busy is something to take pride in and when you take it away in retirement, many people struggle. While I'm not retired, I spend a lot of time shaming myself for forgetfulness. Why would I forget something? What am I doing that is so demanding that would stress me so much to forget? Nothing. I am a loser. While extreme, it's similar to a retired person thinking, “I shouldn't be so forgetful, I don't have as much on my plate as when I was working.”

Here I Am Now

Perhaps forgetting is a sign of being in the moment. So often my thoughts are about what's next or past gaffs. “What was I going to do after I got home from our lunch together?” Is that as important as spending time with you? (Okay, sure. Forgetting that I need to take my meds when I get home.) I am suggesting that maybe forgetfulness comes when we can truly relax. Maybe this is why age seems to come with this stigma? Retired folks with less on their plate have less worries plaguing their anxiety? Mortality becomes more real and is a far bigger fear than changing the furnace filter I would think. And thus, many seniors try to share the idea of making our time here on Earth count.

Inner Critic

We are fearless in our youth. We don't spend time thinking we could get hit by a bus or fall down an elevator shaft. As we age and slow down, we look back with nostalgia and gratitude. I think I also look back with regret. The regret of things I think I did wrong and my wasted youth. “If only I would have used my time more wisely.” Thus, forgetting things now taps into this inner criticism of myself. I can blame the lost thoughts on age, but hidden behind that is a feeling that I didn't do enough when my mind was “sound.” Forgetfulness becomes a tool to shame myself for growing old. Guess what? We all age. So get over yourself, Chris.

Am I romanticizing the idea of forgetfulness by thinking it could be a good sign of change? Perhaps. Though, being in the moment seems really important. Trying to remember my grocery list as I sit at a funeral may be escaping the situation. It's a distraction from the emotions brought by grief. Maybe focusing on how forgetful we are as we age is a distraction from the emotions brought up by the realization of our mortality. Better to try and fix the problem of forgetfulness than dwell on the fears of death. Again, when I write “death” I jump to thinking what that would be like for me, rather than feeling the sadness and fear of not existing. How scary that I wouldn't be able to write you anymore, feel my partner's touch, cuddle my dog, eat chocolate, or feel the sun on my skin? It's really scary. It is a pit in the stomach, tension in the jaw, and shallow breath frightening. Rather than letting my eyes well up from sadness, I again focus on the things I haven't done yet. I'm not making enough money. I'm a bad brother, son, husband, and I need to fix that. All these thoughts come at me as a subconscious strategy to avoid those feelings about my coming death.

The next time you forget something, maybe that's alright. It felt important before, but right now it isn't. Accepting that may be part of remembering. Understanding that the thought wasn't a fact and is an opinion is also helpful. “Don't forget to take your meds,” is an opinion. Forgetting to take insulin and then having symptoms is a fact. One that will likely remind you to take the meds.

You know what? Forget this entire blog. Age or mental wellness aside, forgetting is not an issue at all. It is the dwelling on the forgetfulness that is a problem. These thoughts that I should remember, or criticisms that being old or forgetful is bad are not helping us remember! They only serve to shame us. Leave the past and the future behind. Feel into the now.

Birthday Bereavement

Celebrating another lap around the sun is not my depression's style. Instead, we mourn the loss of another year in the march toward dying as an unsuccessful, unworthy human. Birthday gifts, cards, wishes activate so much fear and disgust. I'm afraid I'll appear ungrateful for the effort if I don't immediately respond to my friends and family. I'm terrified I will say “the wrong thing,” or offend my benefactors. I am disgusted with myself and assume others must be as well. Therefore, the gifts or birthday wishes must not be sincere. Better send a card because he sent me one. I should message Chris on his birthday, it has to be hard getting another year older without changing his loser status.

The disgust all seems so unreal when spelled out, but there's not really a decent way to translate emotions and feelings to words. In my mind, I am not worthy of love. It's like when you believe there is an additional step when walking up or down stairs and there isn't one. Your mind sort of stops as the muscles of your leg and foot send feedback to the brain saying, “Um, we missed the step? What do we do now?” Your eyes relay information back to the mind that there are no additional steps and you're in the clear, but the brain still needs a moment to digest it all. When I receive a message saying, “Happy birthday,” I can immediately respond as we are taught. “Thank you.” I can also switch quickly into a toxic avoidance, “one more foot in the grave,” or some other socially accepted joke to ignore my feelings. Meanwhile, I'm in that mind freeze of the phantom step. I am human garbage. This person likes me enough to wish me happy birthday. That does not compute. I have forty years of human garbage self-talk and just over two years of trying to think differently. You do the math and you can see how it usually shakes out in my mind.

Sharing these emotions and thoughts like this is another layer of the onion. When I look at my partner and share what I'm going through, I believe I see fear in her. Is she not supposed to give me a gift? Would my life be better if everyone ignored me? Of course my depression wants it that way. Isolation and freedom from what appears to be expectations people have for me means not having to deal with emotions. In openly sharing my thoughts on birthday wishes and gifts I fear I am pushing her and others away. Damn it. I should just be quiet. See, that's a win-win for depression and anxiety. If I say something, I may push people away. If I choose not to share, it becomes fuel for shame, How could I think these things about my friends and family? I'm the worst. No matter how you slice it, the onion brings tears.

Of course, one strategy is to reality check things. I can ask my partner how she feels about me sharing. I can ask you, “Did you just click Happy Birthday because the app told you to?” My psychiatrist weighed in on the idea of people feeling obligated to wish me well, “Everyone who did it chose to do so.” They're all presumably very busy, and yet they did it. To this, I say what I told her— I can see it rationally. I can see that people care about me. Perhaps, even emotionally I can feel it. Give me 5 seconds and I can no longer see and feel that way. Mood is a perception changer. Your baby toddler throwing their toys around can be cute, or if you're trying to get work done, had a bad day, or stressed in some other way, your response could be one of anger. I can get through the entire birthday in good spirits and crash the next day. Three days later, maybe I see things positively again. Life is ups and downs.

Thanks to everyone who wished me happy birthday and participated in the nice box of messages my spouse put together. ( pictures on my blog ) There were unexpected cards in the mail and I even received another gift today. I wish I put in half the effort into loving myself that my friends and family have shown. Another layer to the onion that is me, is the fact that working on my mental health activates shame as well— it's selfish to help myself. That's why my writings, like this one, are dual purpose. First, I'm sharing in hopes that it helps others know they are not alone. Perhaps, like much of the self-help books I've read, something in here clicks for someone. Secondly, I'm trying to infuse some of the things I've learned internally. Again, forty years of a different narrative makes it difficult to retain information counter to the installed belief system.

Birthdays can often bring up mortality issues for people. I think I spent a few birthdays chewing on the scary prospect of being mortal. I'm sure much of it was shame-powered, wishing to be around longer to accomplish every thing I'm supposed to do. Now, I'm working on celebrating myself, just as I am. My jaw is clenched as I type. It's no easy ask. Regardless, I'm going to try and finish my day being a bit more kinder to myself. I hope that you do the same for yourself.