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.
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.
10 min read
My hate for myself is incredibly persistent.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
Upcoming pod on mental health, "It's your health. We need to treat it as seriously as high blood pressure, as diabetes, as cancer." - Paul D
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.