Skip to main content

Christopher Sikkenga

Fractured Part 2: Sparky, My Inner Project Manager

5 min read

Previously, I introduced readers to Chet, my personal internet bully. Today, I’d like to share another voice-- my anxiety, the frantic and frazzled Sparky.

Our human minds cannot be still by design. Curiosity about the world around us keeps us safe. Even interior inquires that alert us to aches, pains and the like encourage us to go to the doctor. However, in those situations where we are comfortable, in our everyday routines, our minds wander. Try to clear your mind and concentrate on the sensations of your fingers and palms the next time you wash your hands. It’s nearly impossible. My mind jumps from feeling the temperature of the water to what I have to do next in the day. Sparky has business for me. If I bring my mind back and truly feel the soap, feel one hand lathering the other, my brain wanders to the fact that I am practicing this because I am broken. Thanks Chet.

Being in the moment is difficult.

If it’s not Chet beating me up, it is Sparky telling me what I should be doing. “We’ll show Chet, today,” exclaims Sparky, “Get up early, exercise, clean each room in the house, apply for 4 jobs, submit 2 articles to our editor, get to inbox zero, buy all the Christmas gifts early, call your mom, go grocery shopping, pay the bills, fix the sink, paint the living room, and make dinner!” A sizeable list for a healthy person, but perhaps not impossible? Regardless, the point is that my personal project manager, Sparky, never lets up. There’s always something that should be done. Those things above that are not accomplished today, will move to tomorrow’s hit list. Sparky’s unending to-do list keeps pushing down on me like the world on Atlas’ shoulders.

Sparky continues to micromanage my days by chiming in at the most absurd moments. While I’m trying to work, he wonders if I am going fast enough. Sparky wants to know what’s for dinner. He’s curious about how busy the airport will be next month when I intend to travel home. How will I get to my psychiatrist visit next week? Where will I park? Do I need groceries for dinner tonight? Does that person over there want my table by the power outlet? Have I been in the café too long? Should I leave? When did I last get the oil changed in the car? Is there food on my face? This work is taking too long, isn’t it? My boss likes me, right? Am I too slow? Do you think my spouse thinks I’m too slow? Maybe she even wonders if I’m lazy? Her parents? And then Chet joins the conversation. All of this takes mere seconds.

“Nothing is worth doing unless it is perfect.” This is Sparky’s answer to combating the insecurity of Chet. Thus, when I get on the Sparky train, things don’t happen spontaneously. To appease Sparky and Chet, I try to plan my way to silence my mind. Doctor appointment tomorrow? Alright, I’ll wake up, shower, brush my teeth, put on deodorant, get dressed, do my hair, eat breakfast, double check Google Maps for the time it takes to get to the doctor, leave early to find parking, and bring a book to read while I wait. What have I forgotten?

“Do I have a backup plan for parking? What if there is construction on the way?”

“Oh, hi Sparky,” I cringe.

“If your appointment isn’t until 10am, what can we get done in the morning. And after!”

“It’s going to be okay, don’t worry.”

“You don’t really think that.” Chet’s criticism interjects. “You’ll mess this up somehow.”

This is the formula that quite possibly gave me my trademark white hair so early. I live in fear. The anxiety has, at times, spilled into paranoia. Without self-esteem, anxiety fills in for confidence. Instead of thinking “I can do this,” I torment myself with all the things that can go wrong. Even with the simplest of tasks, I move from one crisis to the next in my head.

Focusing on a task, is very difficult. These two voices in my head work together and yet against each other. My inner critic inspires the anxiety. Sparky’s desire to beat Chet with perfection only give the insecurity an opening. The constant reminder from the inner critic that I’ll never be enough quiets the anxiety. "Why try if I am going to fail?" My anxiety-focused project manager also encourages me to take on less challenges to preempt the self-hate and critique. "I can't do this."

I started writing about Sparky a month ago, shortly after revealing Chet. I had difficulty finishing the story because I wanted it to be perfect. I made excuses to to do “more important” tasks instead. I was afraid. Moreover, I work hard daily to not get caught up in the spin. As I struggled to complete this confession, I bounced from believing I have made progress to wondering if I was in denial. Am I shutting down in response to Chet & Sparky? I know that ignoring their voices is not the answer. I have to learn to accept them for what they are. Like friends with differing opinions, I should seek to find compromise, not avoid them. Chet inspires me to be a better person. Sparky will keep me out of dangerous situations. More on that in the final part of Fractured. Wait, did I just use the “should” word? Damn, this is a confusing journey.

Christopher Sikkenga

Recognizing We Change As the Seasons Change

2 min read

The transition of the seasons is similar to changing one’s mind. We are stubborn creatures, built on our experiences as individuals. Perhaps you enjoy the fluffy, snowy winterland, but despise Fall. Maybe a tragic event or an unforgettable memory is associated with the Fall. The process of changing your mind about that season will not happen in a simple conversation. A walk with a loved one in the forest as it is changing from green to light yellow and deep reds may weaken your resolve. The smell of pumpkin pie or the joy of handing out candy to eager children at Halloween could soften your opinion of the Fall further. Gradually, like the seasons themselves, change can occur.

When I look around today, I wonder when did Fall start? How did I miss it? Was I fortified, under a blanket in my depression, hidden from the world outside? Did stress and anxiety keep me from savoring the delights of Fall? All those things I have to do, the things I want to do, and the grey noise provided by my fear of failure kept me from hearing the birds announce the coming of Fall. That must be the explanation.

in fact, that reasoning is most likely wrong. Like changing our minds, the transition of the seasons takes time. You will see the colors of the leaves when Mother Nature is ready. Each year we are fascinated when it happens because it is a mystery. Our individual brains are mysterious as well. Instead of questioning myself, instead of giving in to the the stress and busy-body culture, let’s take time to enjoy the mystery. Rather than question my existence, perhaps I should just enjoy it. Whenever Fall’s vibrant brush painted my neighborhood, it’s here now. Time to go enjoy some color.

Christopher Sikkenga

Fractured Part 1: Avoiding Chet, My Inner Critic

10 min read

glitching me

My hate for myself is incredibly persistent.

Why?

Simple. This is all I have ever know.

Many of us have difficulty sleeping in a new place, or bed when we’re traveling. Thinking positively about who I am is no different. My natural state is one of inner criticism and self loathing. A compliment from a friend or a stranger is a dumb luck, no big deal, or dismissed in some other way. Challenging that natural state further activates the inner critic. I’ll call the critic, Chet.

“Stop thinking for other people. If she thinks I did good work, accept it.”

Chet replies, “You can’t accept the compliment because you don’t deserve it. You’re not worthy.”

“I did my best.”

“That’s your best? She doesn’t like it. She’s being kind.”

“I wish I had more time, it would have been better.”

“So it wasn’t your best,” remarks Chet.

“Well, I…”

Do you think other people have to tell themselves to accept a compliment?” asks Chet. “It’s probably just you.”

“I’m working on accepting myself.”

“This is why people never like you. You’re broken Chris. So you need to learn how to fix yourself? Right?”

“It’s not a bad thing.”

“Keep telling yourself that. You’re not special. Everyone has problems. And they don’t have the time or patience for yours. Stop wasting everyone else’s time. You’ll always be this way.”

That’s Chet. Well, that’s me. That is how I treat myself.

Escape

The best way to get out of my head and avoid Chet is distraction. Doing something productive is tied to my identity, so it is typically not helpful. In those situations, self-doubt comes at me hard. What’s left is Netflix, Twitter, Facebook, video games, reading, and other vices. (Interesting to note how much of my attention on that list is owned by companies. Almost like it is their goal.)

Watching Youtube, blowing through a season of a TV show on Netflix and dulling my thoughts is the new “can’t get out of bed.” I shouldn’t say that, each of us have our own challenges. There have been days when I didn’t even want to leave the bed. Watching the plot of a video, or show unfold is obviously better than getting lost in my thoughts of inadequacy. When the day ends and I realize that I’ve done nothing productive, it’s simply another chance for Chet to make me feel low.

Endless scrolling on social networks is an excellent way to silence Chet. Getting lost in the success, or perhaps drama, of others is readily available on Twitter & Facebook. Those companies are competing for the amount of time they can hold my eyeballs captive and they were doing a fabulous job. Even the garbage posts from people with different political views than me are captivating. While I might stop myself from getting sucked into the flaming comments, I will spend my time trying to find at least 3 sources that either prove or disprove the claims. The next thing I know, I’ve lost hours.

On top of being distracting, the positive posts from friends and family on social media further assist Chet. Positive news of exciting trips, new jobs and happy dispositions increase my self-loathing. Comparing myself to others keeps me in that familiar state of sadness and depression. Logically, I know people are only sharing what they choose. Nobody is perfect. Everyone has difficult challenges and it’s quite possible people have filtered those negative events from their social feeds. However, depression is far removed from logic. Emotionally, seeing those cheery posts and humble brags feeds Chet.

On the flip side, there are those on social networks sharing pain and difficulties. Obviously, those are delicious and savoury to Chet as well. Other people hurting is confirmation the world is as dark as I believe it is. That validates Chet’s philosophy– I should stay in the grief and the misery. I’ll never be surprised or out of control that way.

As I write this with my rational mind, I seem to be far removed from it all. However, that’s what I subconsciously desire, that sadness and self-loathing. It is a familiar state that I know how to manage. Feelings of success, and joy may be fleeting and unexpected. “When will those happen again? It’s unpredictable. Better to stay in this familiar sadness,” says Chet.

Escape also comes in the form of assisting others. I’m eager to help a friend or family member for extended periods of time as long as I don’t have to improve myself or think about depression. The unfortunate pitfall is resentment. After a while, I begin to feel good about myself for helping others. Then, Chet will swoop in and tell me that I’m not appreciated by those that I help. Perhaps desperate to cling to that good feeling, I project Chet’s voice onto my friends and family members. It’s an efficient way to self sabotage. Loss of friends and family furthers my journey to darkness. Perhaps this is a behavior I perfected once I started in the working world? So many of us feel under appreciated at work.

Outside Approval

Since I cannot find acceptance within, I attempt to find it outside. I crave approval from people. I must be liked. This task is made all the more difficult by the fact that I project my beliefs onto others. I think for other people. The doctors label this cognitive disorder “mind reading.” You there, reading this text, you think I’m a pathetic white male with a First World problem. “Oh no Chris, your life is so hard, surfing the internet and watching Netflix. Give me a break.” Of course, that’s not your voice. That’s Chet. That’s me believing that I know exactly what you are thinking. It feeds the need to bash myself.

It’s difficult to project like that onto strangers and acquaintances. I can dismiss their compliments because “they don’t know me,” but I do more easily accept the good from people I barely know. Unfortunately, Chet and I think those close to us are trying to protect me. My loved ones are being kind or polite when they give compliments. Once again, I’m mind reading. Though, I feel that our society does have some issues when it comes to honest critiques. You can’t tell your 2 year old niece that her drawing is garbage. We want to encourage her and help her build confidence.

I think we often twist encouragement into compliments, when it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. Language is a powerful thing. Above, as Chet (my negative self) belittles me, I use words like “never” and “always.” These are finite words directed to keep me down. Saying, “Good job,” to your niece is a bland compliment, not inspiring. Why is it good? Perhaps something like “The face, the legs and arms look great, but look at me. Are my legs and arms connected to my face? Let’s try to draw a belly!”

Encouragement is always done with affection. And, love is built on trust. We cannot have trust without honesty. I would like to believe that critique of my work is far more valuable than compliments. First, learning to tolerate and love myself is a priority. Approval from strangers is also not sustainable. Once I have it, I would crave more and then that stranger becomes a friend. Thus, I fall into the trap where Chet believes friends say what I want to hear, as mentioned above.

The Science Fiction of Being Self-aware

In iRobot, the Terminator films, and many other Scifi movies artificial intelligence has it out for mankind. Discovering its superiority, the A.I. determines that humans are expendable in these stories. Now, that I’m aware of Chet, aware of this part of me that is at home in fear, anxiety, anguish and self-hate, can I rid myself of it? Should I even contemplate the idea of removing a piece of who I am? I believe that’s the easy way out. In fact, this could even be Chet’s idea. How do you remove a part of yourself? Once I fail to accomplish this, Chet swoops back in to tell me what a let down I am.

The difficult and longer path is more likely to be successful. Learning to live with myself will be complicated. Right now, I’m working in groups, and with doctors to achieve this goal. I am seeking to validate, or acknowledge Chet and interject with evidence to counter his thoughts.

Chet loudly proclaims, “Nobody will ever read this post, Chris.”

“How do you know that?”

“It’s obvious. Nobody reads what you write.”

“Show me proof. Look at the numbers, Chet.”

“Ha,” exclaims Chet, “blog visits, Facebook likes, and comments, they’re all fake typically. People just click the buttons, they don’t read the whole thing.”

“Chet, that’s still not evidence. Those are your opinions. Furthermore, I didn’t write this for likes. This post about mental health could help someone else, but right now it is helping me. I’m learning more about myself and you. I’m learning how to explain my troubles to the doctors and how to ask people close to me for help.”

“You certainly need help!”

“Thanks for your input, Chet. Certainly, your attitude has helped me in the past. Perhaps, I was in a dangerous situation or your fear and anxiety saved me from some heartache in one of my past relationships. Yet, I think I’ll stick to believing that this post will be helpful in some way.”

Wish me luck friends. Doing that conversation in my head is much more difficult that typing it. Especially in the moment, when I’m in the middle of a conversation with a real person. A chat with those of you that I ultimately respect is so challenging because I don’t feel worthy. I’m sorry that I never shared this before. I was ashamed, and telling myself I deserved to feel that way. Please seek me out and don’t let me isolate myself. I can only get better at bargaining with Chet if I’m in those situations. I’m grateful you took the time to read this. I’m not alone in having mental health issues. The next time you get cut off on the road or experience bad customer service, try compassion. Perhaps that person has lost a loved one or is dealing with anxiety. It’s better to err on the side of compassion. I’m not there with myself yet, but I’m learning.

Christopher Sikkenga

This Old Dog Is Trying to Learn New Tricks

3 min read

The mind is a pretty amazing thing, the way it can flutter from reading this sentence to wondering how many people suffer from depression in the world and trying to figure out why your smart phone battery dies so quickly. All those thoughts occur in a blur of a few seconds. Meanwhile, your brain is also regulating your breath, controlling your eyes as they dance across these words and translating the meaning. Breathing, moving muscles and many other functions feel automatic, we don't have to "think" about them. Analyzing these words or worrying about work tomorrow are learned behaviors, despite feeling automatic as well. Changing these automatic thoughts is difficult and takes time.

This is the crossroads I am at now. Throughout my life I've learned that I'm unreliable, untalented, unintelligent and unloveable. These are automatic thoughts, no matter what opinions you may have about me. Why do I have them? At some point I thought they were helpful to me. Perhaps junior high me convinced himself that unreliable & untalented kept me on the bench in sports, so I wouldn't let anyone down? Reprogramming who I am will take some time. That low self-esteem is the core of my being. My default setting is to put myself down. I recognize that these negative thoughts are unhealthy. It's a good day when I can identify those thoughts. However, rebuilding my core beliefs to something more positive is a step that I have not reached.

This process is more frustrating because the cycle feeds itself. My default is believing I am a failure, so being unable to correct this default is confirmation that it is true. Like a politician, I'm only grabbing the statistics that prove my case and ignoring evidence to the contrary. The amount of time I spend trying to recognize my negative thoughts can be exhausting. The low self-esteem is automatic and to confront it, I must always be present. Right now, it feels like Newton's 3rd Law is in play, "For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction." There was bad crime in Gotham before Batman showed up. In order to compete with a furry pretending to be a crimefighter, crooks became super villains. The negative self image is fighting back and I am struggling. I'm a castaway who has escaped the island on a makeshift raft, but the ocean current keeps driving me back to shore.

The next phase is obvious, I need to construct a positive paddle to propel myself forward. Although, my head is swimming with the skills I've learned thus far thanks to the public health system here. Like most of us in our modern world, I lack patience. I want the change to happen now. Really, the next step is putting my new skills into practice. It's not enough to recognize my low self-esteem, but to correct it slowly. I enjoy the group therapies, but there's work that has to be done outside the safety of my peers. I have to help myself. At the moment, all I can do is identify what needs to happen.

I really wish I could post something more hopeful, more useful to those that read this. One of the great things about group therapy is learning that you're not alone. Perhaps, sharing my thoughts and feelings is enough? Though, it's probably a good time to remind myself and you that action is the first step, not motivation.

 

Christopher Sikkenga

Positively Pessimistic

5 min read

 

A telemarketing company calls you for the 3rd time this week and you think to yourself, “They’re annoyingly persistent.” That evening you’re staying up past your bed time to finish the laundry. There’s nothing in there that you need tomorrow for work. No, you want to finish the laundry because you set a goal to have it done today and “I’m being stubborn!”

It’s curious, right? Telemarketers are slime and yet we had the courtesy to call them “persistent.” For ourselves, we use a word with a negative undertone, “stubborn.” Why is it so difficult to be kind to one’s self?

Thanks to the province and city I live in, I am able to get help to find some answers. Specifically, I’m learning why it is so hard to be positive. It turns out that I don’t particularly care for me. As such, if you were to call me persistent for seeking help instead of ending my life, I wouldn’t accept the compliment. “It’s nothing. Anyone can do it. It was easy.” On top of not taking credit for persistence, I would further strengthen my self-hate by thinking the fact that I need help is proof that I’m a failure. Every mental illness, every treatment, therapy and medication has a stigma. Why would I see “getting help” as a positive thing?

Stigma of Mental Illness

In the group sessions I attend there are a wide range of mental health issues. Each of them have their own stigmas and they vary by gender. I was discussing the power of The Mask You Live In, a documentary on how men are brought up, with someone at the centre recently. My new friend pointed out that Hollywood has a big influence. For example we may have compassion for women with schizophrenia, but all the men are depicted as violent killers. Pregnant women with addiction issues are blamed or judged in our culture. Since the perceived role of women in society involves bearing & raising children, we charge them with maintaining the moral values of our communities as well. Meanwhile, my depression is viewed as nothing more than a stumbling block. The idea that this is a temporary setback for me is related to the stigma of mental illness.

A 2015 study in Canada reported that 40% of people said they “experienced feelings of anxiety or depression but never sought medical help for it.” Plus, 39% of workers surveyed shared that they would not inform their bosses if they had a mental health issue. Seven years before that study, a whopping “46% of Canadians thought people use the term mental illness as an excuse for bad behaviour.” Remaining positive as I try to heal is very difficult when the world sees me this way. Remember, how supportive you are to friends that break limbs. We’re even compassionate to people who lose limbs. Yes, their lives will change, but at least they’re still living, right? Many of us have mental health problems, but we’re still here. Support us, don’t shun us.

Sikk Is Sick

In order to help with my depression & anxiety I take medication and I work hard each day to quiet my pessimistic inner self. These are facts. Next year, I won’t be off the meds or working less hard. This is reality. It’s the goal going forward. The idea that I can drop the meds or the hard work is not the aim. People have come forward to my partner sharing stories of friends & family who have gone through similar episodes. Sometimes, they share their own stories of mental health. I appreciate those willing to openly communicate about mental wellness. The support is always helpful, but each case is individual. Be careful not to stigmatize those of us with mental health problems while trying to show support. It’s perfectly fine to be on medication, to go to group sessions and see a therapist.

The groups & therapist have challenged me to journal about my happiness. What are my talents or skills? What positive characteristics do I have? Well, I’m great at beating myself up. Does that count? Sorry, my negative self core is persistent when it comes to his job. Hey, look at that! I wrote “persistent” instead of stubborn. That’s positive right?

Yeah, so I have some work to do. I wanted to sit down and write about how difficult it can be to come up with positives at the moment. Yet, I typed a lecture about the mental health stigma in our society. Perhaps, composing a note on the perplex idea of being kind to myself would have challenged my negative outlook. In the process, I could have stumbled onto something positive. Today's blog seems to be some avoidance.

Alright, here’s something positive. I am not my mental illness. You are not your sexual preference. Your boss is not her political opinions. Your neighbor is not his race. That girl on the bus with the speaker blaring is not her choice in music. Your uncle is not his religion. We are humans. Let’s treat each other with respect and love with that in mind. Go hug someone. If you know my partner, start with her. She’s received lots of well-wishing for me, but she can use support and love as well. I have not always been an attentive spouse and my mental health is not an excuse. She can always use a coffee, a hug or safe space away from my recovery.

Thanks for reading. Much love to you.

Christopher Sikkenga

A Direct Result of Our Sexist Societial Norms- The Born Sexy Yesterday Trope

2 min read

The following video from Pop Culture Detective Agency looks at a cliché in films that I never took notice of before. I'm ashamed that I didn't see it. Furthermore, there's some movies that I thoroughly enjoy in the examples. Sure these are fiction stories that typically play up the comedy, but the underlying trope is troubling when we think of how women struggle in our world.  For example, salaries between male and females have a considerable gap. Big Brother, Google, is refusing to collect wage data and turn it over to the department of Labor in the U.S. How attrocious is that? They know how many hours & dollars it would cost to get the information, but they don't know the salary of their 21,000 employees? Hmm. Before I go off on that tangent, I also wanted to mention that this trope discussed in the video is concerning when it comes to male masculinity. The idea that men have to be smarter or more capable than their partners is slowly changing, but not fast enough. Once again, I just want to drop those sex organs as a classification all together. We're humans. Let's just stick with that.

Yes, it's a long video. It's well done though. Search it on your Youtube app on your smart TV or something. Please, give it a go.

 

Christopher Sikkenga

Replied to a post on jeena.net :

Google's quest for data is very scary, IMO. https://www.wired.com/2017/04/wholl-really-benefit-verilys-exhaustive-health-study/

It's interesting to know so many developers who are concerned with this type of data collection, yet work for companies building similar systems. A job is a job, though.

Christopher Sikkenga

Depressed Me Coping With The Black & White World of Social Networks

6 min read

 

The last couple of months I’ve exiled myself from Twitter and Facebook. I do miss many individuals, but overall I don’t think those sites have been good for me. I felt like shouting my troubles into the void would be wasting time that I could be using to do something about them.

The thing that has turned so many off from social networks is the current state of the world, the bad news. For me, it was the good news that made coping difficult. Two possibilities occur when I read a positive post- I compare myself to those people sharing the good vibes and get depressed. Or, I believe those people are simply selling a vision to their friends & followers that depicts them in a good light. Now, I realize that both of these interpretations are negative. Yet, I can’t help shaking the feeling that social networks have become less helpful.

In the beginning Twitter was full of early adopters, people trying new things and sharing ideas. Someone would post a status looking for a good resource for teaching pattern recognition to a 6 year old and people on Twitter would pass it along until a teacher from miles away would answer. I don’t doubt these interactions still happen thanks to social media. However, the systems of Twitter and Facebook don’t reward helpfulness. These companies are after profit. Your request for math patterns may get 8–10 retweets or likes before you get the answer you need, but what if a celebrity posts a picture of themselves in a costume for an upcoming superhero film? That’s going to get millions of likes and views. That celebrity is featured in the “people you should follow or friend” lists and becomes an influencer on the network itself. Which of the status posts below do you enjoy?

or

There’s a culture of comedy on social media, everyone trying to one-up each other with jokes because they’re entertaining. Furthermore, a status post containing controversy is going to get a lot more traction than me describing my continental breakfast. Eventually, we can find ourselves in a race for likes, instead of sharing openly about ourselves. While I don't use Reddit that much, it is interesting that it is organized in categories, or communities. Thus, groups of people with similar ideas can share together without the cloud of other topics and internet memes. The decentralized Mastodon, is also fascinating because people are forming their own communities. Is there hope for the future?

So far, I've shared a very black and white view of social networks. Obviously, there are those people who are genuinely engaging friends within the service. Though, it is hard not to get caught up in the popularity contest because Google, Facebook and Twitter promote and reward that type of content. It was the same back in the early blog days. People shared a part of themselves online and found it freeing. Then, everybody used this bit of code to put a counter on the blog. "Look at all the visitors!" As the hits increased when something funny was shared, bloggers began to gravitate to those kinds of posts. The blogosphere was full of these who-can-post-that-funny-video-first web sites. The original content began to fade away as people wanted more hits.

Content on social networks is increasingly filled with retweets or shared posts from another source. While there’s nothing wrong with sharing, we seem to be burying ourselves behind these black and white issues, causes and internet memes. “I agree, Trump is bad. I will post this funny joke about him.” The thing that gets me, we live in a grey world, not a black and white one. You may despise the funding of Planned Parenthood, but be against the Keystone XL pipeline. Thanks to Trump, states no longer have to fund Planned Parenthood, but he did pass the pipeline. Do you post the meme supporting him or do you post the one against him? Perhaps, you could simply share your own thoughts?

I once saw a speaker who was discussing Hallmark cards. The company has a card for each and every event. It’s downright magic! Except, those cards aren’t for each and every occasion. The speaker said that they have a rule in their family, no store bought cards. The point is to tell someone how you feel using your own words. He and his family make their own cards for birthdays, anniversaries and all the other holidays.

I guess my point is that I can’t live up to a standard that isn’t real. I can’t choose to be black or white. (Look at my hair, it’s grey.) I wasn’t honest with myself and others and it sent me down a dark path. Now, I’m an open book and I need that from the world around me. I don’t expect Twitter or Facebook to change, but I may have to start anew or cull my followers & friends. Honestly, I’m not sure what to do. All I know is that I have been feeling less anxiety and much more healthy since I took my break from social networks. As I work on my mental health, perhaps I will be able to be happy for those sharing positive posts in the future. Maybe I’ll even share some of my own? Until then, my social networks will remain mostly quiet. Since everything is now based on those “popularity” algorithms, you may actually have to visit my social network pages to see if I’ve been around. If you really need me, I’m sure you can find me. In fact, I’d very much like that. Depression is lonely.

Christopher Sikkenga

A Breakdown, An Emergency Room, Two Clinics, A Therapist & The Struggle of Finding Mental Health Help

10 min read

glitch_sky

It happened last month. I broke.

See, I used to be tortured by thoughts of my mortality. My impending death would keep me up with insomnia for weeks at a time. Occasionally, the topic would get me so worked up that I would physically tremor. Therefore, I did everything I could to ignore the topic. That is, until last month.

I came apart in a grotesque way. I did my best to push everyone away because I wanted to leave this world. When that seemingly dramatic thought entered into my goals and I started looking for ways to make my exit, I knew something was wrong. That unnerving fear of death was completely gone. It was a strange sort of peace. For once, I was living without that anxiety. The downside was that I spent 2 days fixated on ways that I could end my existence. Somewhere buried beneath all my self-hate was that passing thought, something was wrong. “Do I want to die? Yes. That’s not the problem. It’s weird though, a few days ago I wouldn’t think about this at all.” This was my “alarm.” What I’m trying to say is that I went to the emergency room not because I was afraid of harming myself, but because I wasn’t.

In the U.S. May is Mental Health Month, and here in Canada Mental Health Week is the first week of May. I don’t know if I’m really ready to share my story, but I feel compelled to do it now because it is May. Help is out there for those that need it. The first thing we can all do is take the issues of mental health seriously. There’s a stigma around mental health, it’s the second sentence of this post. The idea that I’m “broke,” wrong, damaged, odd, abnormal or disabled by my condition is what we need to correct. Statistics on suicides are frightening. According to the 2 year old documentary The Mask You Live In, from ages 20–24, men are 7 times more likely to commit suicide than women. The numbers appear to rise as we get older. As men, society tells us to “toughen up and be a man.” So the last thing we want to do is admit we’re abnormal or, science forbid, weak.

My Saturday trip to the emergency room was eye opening. Once my number came up, I was taken to a special section of ER for mental health cases. Looking back, that’s sort of shocking isn’t it? So many people are coming in that there’s a different section and I’m not just a curtain away from a guy with a broken nose or something? I was in the ER for a couple hours and discharged. The doctors told me that I didn’t need to be in a psychiatric ward. I felt like I failed again. “I didn’t communicate my feelings well or something? Do they think I’m a faker? A joke?” I was given a suicide hotline number if I needed to talk to someone, and the name of a clinic at the hospital that could help me on a weekday.

It’s tough to describe where I was at after that. Simultaneously, I wanted to be alone, buried in a pit where no one could find me and also I was frightened to be by myself, with my thoughts. When the weekday finally arrived and I made my way to the clinic, I spent 15 minutes filling out a questionnaire about my mental health. Writing it down put me in tears again. It was real. The doctor at the clinic looked over my paperwork and saw that I had seen a therapist before. “Go talk to your therapist. Have a nice day.” Okay, it wasn’t that bad. That’s how it felt, though. I had seen a therapist once every 2 months to talk about anxiety. Sometimes I could visit monthly, if it was possible. The clinic was supposed to be a daily program for 14 weeks. That really sounded like what I needed. Of course, the doctor was basically doing triage. There were other potential patients who were a higher priority than me. So, there I was, outside the clinic in absolute shock. There’s no help for me.

I sat there for nearly 2 hours, lost.

“Should I have told the admitting doctor that my therapist was not someone I was seeing through insurance coverage or paying out of pocket for? My therapist is part of my doctor’s network. I can’t see her as much as I like!”

“Do I really have to attempt suicide to get help?”

As the shock wore off, I realized that the clinic had presented me with more options. I could get my doctor to refer me to their program at the clinic or attend a night program that is open to all. I left a message with my doctor who called me within minutes. She put me on the cancellation list for the therapist and encouraged me to talk to the therapist before joining a program. In the meantime, I was given another suicide hotline number (or probably the same one). Is that the way to get help? While that is not the route I went, the answer is yes. Any suicide hotline has people who will listen to you, if that’s all you need. Plus, they have information to get you to the nearest location where you can find help. Don’t discount them as I did, if you or someone you know needs help, call.

Mental health is a growing concern in today’s world. The calculator made memorizing tables and formulas obsolete. People only have to learn the how and why of math now. The internet connected smart phone in our pockets also makes memorization of facts and knowledge less important as well. Therefore, we have all this space free in our brains to fill with anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and other issues. Perhaps this is why the mental health field continues to grow. Sometimes, it just seems that it isn’t growing fast enough to meet the need. However, there is help out there. If not in your town, you’ll find it in the next city over, I swear. Search for “walk-in counselling” near you. Even living in Canada, there are people who think that there’s no help because they don’t have insurance. There may be groups started by concerned individuals or professionals. Reach out to a medical clinic for advice on where to go. If you have access to the internet, you can visit this great site from Australia, the Centre for Clinical Intervention which has workbooks that could help you as you navigate the support systems in your area. As I found out, getting help will take some work by you, or those supporting you, but help is out there.

As for me, I was referred to a program by my therapist. With so many people suffering, it took some time before a space opened for me. I only went through the intake program last week. Now, I have to find the courage to get out of bed, leave the home and face a group of people like me. It will be difficult. My self-sabotaging brain doesn’t like the idea that others suffer as I do. That might mean that I’m not abnormal. Being face to face with those struggling with similar issues and trained professionals also makes my problems real and not something I can hide from in isolation.

The mental wellness battle is trying because it really feels like a lose-lose situation. Working through the modules on the Centre for Clinical Intervention site by yourself can be arduous. I’m reading things about myself that are hard truths and that fuels my low self-esteem. Of course if I’m having a good day, I feel as if I don’t need to read it or work on myself. I think this is why it is so important to get help. Even with the assistance of a therapist, I agonized over the homework I was supposed to be doing alone. However, the ability to visit that person a week or two later for a progress update was incredibly beneficial.

Here in town, The walk-in counselling place is trying to fill the gap by offering free help for those that need it. In cases where you need more than a chat or two, they will work with your financial situation. Many municipal areas in the U.S. have organizations that provide similar resources and offer a sliding scale based on your income. Reach out and keep reaching until you find what you need. It was an uphill journey for me, one that sent me further into depression and even shock. Yet, depression, anxiety and many of the other mental issues are based in emotions. Our emotions and feelings change from moment to moment. Hold on in those low times, and take advantage of the moderate and better days to search for assistance. It’s out there.

I’m still very much finding my way through the fog that is my unhealthy self-image, but I believe my next step is setting a realistic recovery goal. When I was asked what I wanted from treatment, I came to a stark realization, there is no miracle cure. My inner voice that is filled with self-loathing will never stop. The doctors and medication will not silence it completely. Instead, it’s up to me in how I react. I will have to learn ways to quiet the voice, test its assumptions and prove it wrong to gain control. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel or magic beans to save me. Realistically, I will have to learn to live with this dark passenger, not ignore or eliminate it. That goal is achievable and practical.

Thanks for taking the time to read my musings on mental health. I’m not going to lie, in my fragile state, I am scared to face this challenge. I just have to take things one day at a time. So be kind to each other out there. Treat people with respect and care because you don’t know what they’re going through. Those of us struggling aren’t broke, sick or abnormal. We’re human. And, one more resource for those in crisis and having trouble finding local resources, try IMALIVE. It’s an online chat for immediate help. Much love to you.

Christopher Sikkenga

Everything's Fine

3 min read

KC Green This is Fine.

Quite possibly the worst thing to tell anyone is “Everything’s fine.” That phrase means absolutely nothing. People utter these words for a variety of reasons, but the definition of “fine” is so fluid that it can mean anything in the known universe.

At age 7 I was told “Everything’s fine” when I was out of my wits with fear of swimming lessons. What about that big presentation you have tomorrow? Your coworker’s advice is “It will be fine.” What did you tell your friend with the terminal cancer? “Everything’s going to be fine.”

How is that Google maps, an application, can direct us from our homes to the latest vape store accurately, but we can’t communicate with each other? Perhaps my mother should have said, “I know the swim instructor scares you, but I promise you that she will not let you drown.” Your coworker would have been better off saying, “If you’re that nervous, let’s see if a meeting room is empty and you can practice in front of me.” That terminal ill friend is far from “fine.” So what can you do in the meantime. Are you scared? Do you not know what to say to this person in crisis? You know what? You can say that. Your honesty is an incredible gift to anyone, at any time. Remember that.

In keeping with the ideas of communication and honesty, everything I just wrote above is my opinion. I am not a psychologist and I did not study sociology. It’s based on my observations and interactions in a world where men aren’t supposed to have emotions. The social world of North America that I live in seems so deeply ingrained with the idea of polite affectation that it feels like we, as humans, rarely communicate. Play your role, tell everyone you’re “fine.” Ask about their work, family and kids and get on to business. Don’t share your pain. Don’t share your struggles. Don’t. Do not share emotions.

What good would come of losing that polite affectation? How could sharing my burden with everyone serve to help us as a community? It comes back to the fact that none of us are “fine.” We are alone with our emotions. Except, each and everyone of us humans has those emotions. Sharing brings us together. Opening up to others means sharing the burden. Together we’re stronger. Even then, we will never meet the definition of fine which is “superior, best quality, excellent or admirable.” However, we can strive towards excellence as a bonded community of humans. Isn’t that the challenge of life? There’s no such thing as perfection, but together we can reach admirable.

 

The image above is a popular meme from the web, but it originated in K.C. Green's web comic Gunshow.