Anxiety/Depression

Analyzing Two Weeks of Depression

On Sunday the depression I’ve been under for the past two weeks lifted. Some of that was seeing the results of the Covid tests (negative) but the sense of lightness was more pervasive than that. I’m able to feel that life is good and I no longer feel like the slightest thing will puncture the barrier between me and an ocean of crying. I’m grateful to have depression back off, but I’m also doing some analysis to figure out why it hit me the way that it did and why it lingered for two weeks instead of resolving within a day or two per my usual pattern. Yes I know that I am very fortunate that my usual pattern has short stints with depression instead of dealing with it for months or years at a time. I worked my way out of that place and analyzing the pattern change is part of how I stay out. Also I have the emotional resources to do this analysis now and put preventative measures in place.

Contributing factors and possible countermeasures:

Weather: The days are shorter, the nights are longer, outside is cold, and all of the green has vanished from the outdoors. This happens every year, however I’d been using the green space behind my house as part of my pandemic coping strategy. It simply doesn’t have the same effect with the green gone. Countermeasures: I’ve planted my little hydroponic garden with flower seeds. They should be flourishing and blooming by the end of December. Hopefully that will help. Also I need to get outside and walk despite the lack of green.

Somatic crash post election: Once I realized that I would not have to deal with another four years of the same man being in office, there was a level of tension and emergency response in my body that was finally able to let go. Sometimes tension relief manifests as depression because there is finally time to process. Countermeasures: None needed. This won’t be repeated.

Covid fears: Watching the rising case rates and knowing that Thanksgiving was coming, created a sort of helpless panic. I could only make my own choices, not control anyone elses, but I felt compelled to try to push information out to encourage others to make good choices. Now the holiday is done, the fallout is yet to come, but the choices were made. Waiting is a different kind of stress, but somehow less anxiety inducing for me personally. Anticipating a crisis and contingency planning for all possible outcomes is always worse for me than crisis management. I can deal with what is in front of me, planning for what might one day be in front of me is how I drive myself crazy. Countermeasures: Sing Que Sera Sera a lot. Recognize I can only control my own choices. Practice dealing with what is in front of me and try not to contingency plan so much.

New holiday norms: When my daughter was away at college, part of how I supported her was to reach out and make sure she felt included in holiday preparations and celebrations. I found ways to extend my traditions and patterns to bring her in. This year she is married and has her own household of two. Unconsciously I was trying to do the same holiday-expansion to include both her and my son-in-law into our holiday. However I kept slamming into (necessary) pandemic restrictions that prevented inviting them inside my bubble. I was hugely grieved by my inability to include. Disappointing people is a huge anxiety trigger for me, and I often fail to recognize in the moment that the disappointment I’ve imagined that they are feeling exists only in my imagination. It ties into the extensive contingency planning that is one of my instinctive anxiety responses. Imagine possible disappointment –> make branching contingency plans to avoid that disappointment –> planning reveals additional ways for disappointment to happen –> repeat until I’m curled into a non-functional ball.

Once the holiday was over and the disappointments were aimed at covid restrictions rather than my failures, that alleviated some of the stress. However I could also feel the looming Christmas holiday and felt the beginning of the same contingency/disappointment loop for that holiday as well. But I had a conversation with my daughter talking about some of it. In the wake of that conversation I had an insight: the current situation is fundamentally different from when she was in college. I said it right up there at the beginning of the prior paragraph. She has formed a new household. I can’t, and shouldn’t, be trying to stretch my household traditions to cover hers as well. They need to be deciding who they are and how they want their own traditions to go, where they want to include us and where they want to be on their own. Some of our preferred methods of connecting will be harder to accomplish this year because of Pandemic, but we’ll figure it out. So in this I am strangely grateful to Pandemic. If it hadn’t enforced boundaries around my attempts to include, it would probably have taken me several more years of anxiety (or a confrontation with my married kids) for me to recognize how and why I needed to back off from assigning the task of “Multi-Household Holiday Coordinator” to myself. Countermeasures: Writing this post to solidify my realizations

Brain chemicals: I’m 47. Over the past several years I’ve noticed wider emotional fluctuations that hit me every month or three. I’ve also had more trouble with migraines and vivid dreaming. Since these were all things that plagued me during puberty, it makes sense to me that they would also be part of peri-menopause. Howard is helping me keep an eye on it and I have a doctor I can discuss things with. Honestly that was one of my concerns when the depression did not abate after the usual day or two, that I’d hit some chemical switch that would require medical intervention. However, as listed above, there were quite a few contributing factors of which brain chemicals were only a part. Countermeasures: Good diet, exercise, and sleep habits. Consult with doctor as needed.

Additional proactive steps: Find small personal projects to do which bring me joy and which I can share on social media to fuel a sense of connection with others while we all have to be isolated. Continue throwing the breadcrumbs forward through the dark winter, even when I don’t need them desperately. That way if a depressive moment hits, I’ll have a good breadcrumb habit to keep me moving. Make time for career-related projects that will move me closer to my goals. Continue to make efforts to connect and build community.

In hindsight the depressive period makes sense, and I think I have a good shot at not having it hit me again in December. At least not in the same way. That is good. For today, I need to wait on grocery delivery so I can do weekly resource management. Onward I go.

Gratitude and Grieving

Tis the season for gratitude, or so I am informed by over forty years of personal tradition, a bazillion internet memes, and the leaders of my church. In many ways, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because it sidesteps so much commercialism and focuses our attention on being thankful for what we have and on connecting with those we love. And food, lots of delicious food. Yes, sometimes the food part gets complicated and can feel like a burden. Traditions do that because they are constructs. Someone has to put in the work to make the holiday happen. In a good year that person is working from a place of abundance, glad to share it. Other years, not so much. This year…. This year is weird. It has been weird since March. Pandemic required a seismic shift in the way my life is lived. Like an earthquake it changed everything and nothing at all. My house, people, and things are all here, but now I know that the ground under my feet, which always felt completely solid, can move and knock me down. If the ground can move, what else that feels certain isn’t as certain as I thought? So here I am in November after months of shifted life patterns, after canceled events, after unexpected gifts, after things I gave up and things I gained. I’m in the middle of the season for gratitude and I don’t know how to feel about Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is supposed to be joy and gathering, instead it may cause sorrow and permanent parting because people gathered when they shouldn’t have.  I both desperately want it and wish it would go away.

Not knowing how to feel about a thing is a familiar state for me. Though it is less about not knowing my feelings and more about having so many tangled up and contradictory feelings that I can’t see all of them at once or even tell what they all are. I have untangled one. It is the memory of me huddled in a church bathroom sobbing because they were handing out graduation certificates to teenagers and my teenager’s mental health issues had prevented them from getting one. Crying for my own pain, hiding because I did not want my pain to subtract from someone else’s moment of celebration. I see people posting about gratitude on social media and I am so happy for my friends and the thing they are grateful for, but sometimes the thing they are grateful for is something I will never get to have. That is hard. On a year when I’m operating from abundance, being happy for others is easy. This year I have both abundance and depletion depending on which angle I’m sitting.

Gratitude is not a single action, it is a practice. All those parental admonitions to “say Thank You” weren’t just about teaching social politeness. They were intended to teach us a way of being, to recognize and acknowledge the good in our lives out loud. It is the simplest beginner-level of leading a grateful life. Naming the things we are grateful for is a valuable and important personal practice. We can note it for ourselves in short-hand because we know when we say “I’m grateful for sunshine” we are encompassing the feeling of radiant warmth of a patch of sunlight through a window despite the winter cold outside, or the way that the sunlight catches a loved one’s hair making them seem to glow. The poetry and emotional depth of the feeling is often missing in simply phrased gratitude posts because the post is a reminder, not the gratitude itself.

I think about this when I see posts that on their surface seem like humble-brags. There is depth beneath that surface which I’m not always privy to. Which is why I am glad when a post gives me a story. With a story I get a glimpse into the inner world of my friend. I get to learn about a piece of their life and how the thing they are grateful for shaped that life. The posts I treasure are the ones which show me how grief can be transformed into gratitude. The story shows the darkness and how they found their way out. That is the road map we all need. We all need to see how a pain, like the ones we carry, can be a force for good in our lives and how we can become glad to have experienced the pain. Pain and grief redeemed. I have so many odd-angled sadnesses sticking out of me this month, I’m collecting posts that help me see how to craft those sadnesses into something beautiful. Upcycling grief via online DIY instructions.

My social media feeds are filled with gratitude posts because my entire church community has been challenged to speak their gratitude via social media for the week leading to Thanksgiving. Hundreds of posts, and I have to approach them with caution. Because some will be a delightful window into the life & heart of a person I know, but others will remind me of a personal pain. Some will help me think of the joyous things I have in my life. Others will remind me of the ongoing slow-motion train wreck that is the increasing case rate and death toll of the pandemic. I’m raw and sensitive in ways that ambush me. A funny video of cosplayers in Halo costumes doing a dance at a convention leaves me sobbing because I don’t know when that form of spontaneous joy will get to exist again. This year gratitude and grief are inextricably entwined. I’m grateful for the things that have caused me grief and I’m grieving things for which I am grateful.

I am engaging in my own deliberate gratitude practice this year. I’m staying tightly focused on what is possible withing the confines of pandemic restrictions, finding joy where I am at, with what I can have right now. I’m focusing intently on small joyful actions and service. I am sieving gently through the social media posts to find those which add to my joy without disturbing my griefs. I am constantly aware that I’m like a scooter bug on water that has dark depths. I skate over the surface, held up by surface tension, creating resting places for myself as I go. This is not the year for me to search my soul. Instead I will try to breathe and live gratitude. I will make ridiculously decorative food for the Thanksgiving dinner I’m not sure how to feel about. I will put stickers on my journal entries where I write the shorthand notes about what I’m grateful for. I will keep myself moving forward on creative projects. I hope that will be enough to get me through the dark cold months. Somewhere beyond the cold and dark, things will come alive again. Perhaps then I’ll be able to figure out all the things I am feeling during this holiday season.

Tossing Breadcrumbs Forward Through the Woods

I’ve been feeling gray lately. Most years I don’t start feeling winter blah until after the holidays, but it came early this year. A friend says we’re all like squirrels starting the winter with empty trees, winter reserves already depleted. That feels true of me this year. This same friend has been combating the mood by undertaking a completely non-productive project which spends resources but makes her happy. I was glad to see it working for her, but no project I contemplated sparked any sort of joy in me. Holidays seemed a set of looming obligations instead of something to look forward to. On top of the gray mood, I seem to have hit a migraine cycle.

This morning I started the day with caffeine to stave off the impending migraine. The caffeine unlocked that portion of my brain which allows me to be happy about projects. I’ll pay for it with insomnia tonight, but this morning I purchased elaborate shaped silicone molds for making ridiculous desserts for Thanksgiving. (Molded jello, truffles, shaped butter, etc.) I have a plan which involves delivering food to my married daughter we’ll have to wave to from afar this year. I’m going to have my two in-house assistants help me create the ridiculous food. I also have fragmentary ideas for a blog post on how holidays are always a construct that we create for each other, and the shake ups of this year are an opportunity to create anew.

I hope I get to keep some of my creative anticipation once the caffeine wears off. My molds are arriving on Monday, so now I have a small thing to look forward to. After that I can look forward to making the foods. After that, delivering the foods. By the time I get there, I will hopefully have found some other small thing I can look forward to just a couple of days out. I think that is how I’ll make it through this winter. Not with anticipating large things that are weeks or months away, but by tossing small markers only a couple of days into the future, and making sure I toss the next one just before I reach the current one. It’s like a reverse Hansel and Gretel breadcrumb trail to lead me out the other side instead of back where I started.

Depression, Breathing, and the Path Ahead

When something as significant as depression hits, it ought to be obvious, but frequently it isn’t. Instead I manage to deduce it from outside evidence days or weeks after the mire begins. The trickiest part of mental health is that a flare up actively interferes with my ability to identify and manage the flare up. So it is this morning when I realize it has been four days since I blogged when I blogged almost every day for the month prior. I suppose some of that pause could be the Pandemic settling in and therefore requiring less processing. Yet there are other signs, the day I spent mostly in bed for instance. I am tired. I feel silly for being tired and depressed when my current existence is so close to normal. I have my house. I eat food that is pretty close to what I ate before. I still mail packages when orders come in. The things I can’t do are things which I didn’t do often anyway. Yet the not doing of them seems to accumulate.

Howard’s breathing was bad yesterday. Since his illness in January he’s been on daily asthma medication and taking hits on his inhaler multiple times per day. Some days this regimen puts him in a place where he can do light exercise. Yesterday he got out of breath standing and doing a puzzle. Then sitting and doing a puzzle. We were scheduled for a pulmonary function test in mid March. It got rescheduled for last week. Last week it got rescheduled for June. I know the decision is smart, that we must act as if Howard has not had Covid 19. Because if we stack Covid-19 on top of whatever is going on with his lungs, it would kill him. So taking him to a hospital (which probably has Covid-19 patients in it) for a test is ill-advised. But it means we don’t know what is going on. We have no way to know if it is getting worse or better. We can’t be certain if our treatments are optimal. We can’t even consult with a pulmonologist until May 19. That was the earliest appointment they would give me when I called in early March. I’ve ordered a pulse oxymeter so we can see what his blood oxygen levels are, but that won’t arrive until April 17-29 because Amazon has slowed down deliveries of “non-essentials.” (Or possibly because demand for oxymeters has gone up.) So I stand next to Howard, working on a puzzle together, and I listen when he suddenly takes several extra deep breaths in a row because his body has suddenly realized it needs more air. I wait when he has to pause mid-sentence to breathe and try to remember what he meant to say.

I ran cross country in high school. I was never particularly good at it, but I learned a lot about perseverance from doing it. I learned how to keep going even when I wanted to stop. At the beginning of a race there was something of a rush as people tested their speed and tried to get at the front of the pack. (Or in my case drop to the back.) That first pace was always too fast to maintain over the long run. After the first burst of energy, all the runners would settle in to a slower pace, one that they could keep up for two or three miles. That’s where we are with the pandemic. We’ve had our first month’s sprint where everything is jostling around and shifting. We had to adapt and adapt again to changing circumstances around us. Now events have spread out and it is time to settle into a pace we can maintain over the long haul ahead. The finish line is not even in sight, all we can see is the path ahead. All we can do is take one step after another. I remember settling in at the front end of a long run, feeling my body already start to be tired, yet knowing how much longer I needed to move. It frequently discouraged me to the point where I stopped running and started walking instead. The thing which cross country taught me was how to run when I felt like walking, and how not to defeat myself by letting discouragement win. Time for me to dredge up those lessons again. The path is long and I need to keep moving.

Edited to add: Howard has good breathing days and bad ones. The problem comes and goes. There are still more good days than difficult ones, but we’re tracking it.

Grief as a Creative Process

We are all grieving these days. Not just a singled loss, but a multitude of losses both big and small. We grieve for the fast food we can’t eat right now and the hair cut we wish we could get. We grieve for the graduations canceled and the weddings made small, for trips that are no longer possible. We grieve for the separation from loved ones and separation from the lives we used to have. We grieve the future which has diverted so far from what we expected and is shrouded in a fog of uncertainty.

All of these griefs, and more, overlap and collide in my head to the point where I wish my thoughts would hold still just for a moment. Somehow it feels that if they would hold still, I could see all the griefs and work through them efficiently. That isn’t possible of course. Grief by its very nature is slippery and sloppy. It spills out of containment and colors things it wasn’t connected to before the spill.

In my presentation Structuring Life to Support Creativity I have a section where I talk about creative processes. Any creative process you have will impact any other creative process. Raising children is hugely creative work, which is why it can wreak havoc on other creative pursuits A day job which requires creative effort will make maintaining a creative avocation more difficult. Grief is a creative process. It is the means by which we adapt and change ourselves and our lives. It deconstructs what we used to have and gives us pieces to create ourselves anew. The larger the grief, the more transformed we must become in order to pass through it. I can’t curl myself tight and move through quickly or efficiently. Instead I have to be open to the feeling of it. I have to cry and rage and despair. I have to let it permeate who I am and slop over into places I’m not sure it belongs. In this process the grief becomes part of the fabric of who I am and I carry it with me as I move forward.

At the beginning of this year, I found an image to carry with me (or perhaps to carry me.) It was a cloak of peace and joy. Now I think that grief also needs to be woven into this cloak. Thus the cloak becomes a way for me to carry that grief and acknowlege it while still leaving my hands free to do important work. By carrying my grief with intertwined with peace and joy, everything works together to shield me against anxiety and fear while I transform. Over time painful grief becomes wistfulness and remembrance of what might have been. Also I remind myself how all of the hardest parts of last year were directly causative to the brightest joys of the year. This grief-causing difficulty is source for future joy I can’t see yet.

At least that is the story I tell myself this morning as I try to let go of the way life used to be and accept the realities of living in a pandemic. Perhaps tomorrow I’ll need a different image and a different story. That’s okay too.

Befriending Slowness

Of late my days feel long and spacious, almost empty. I sat with that empty feeling yesterday, trying to figure out where it came from, because when I compare today’s To Do list with one from a month or two ago, I have just as many tasks to do, if not more. Yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing, something that used to fill up the spaces around the tasks and make the days run faster. The missing thing is dozens of small urgent deadlines stacked on top of each other. Particularly order-dependent deadlines: must do item A today because I have to start item B tomorrow and both must be complete before C happens next week. I’ve had urgent deadlines filling my brain since last June. I was running fast, working hard, getting things done. The urgency kept me stewing in adrenaline so I could move despite fatigue.

Then mid January, I ran out of small order-dependent tasks. The big event was complete, leaving only large, long-term goals and small daily chores. I spent nearly a week with my executive function almost completely shut down. I couldn’t hold on to thoughts or plan anything. Slowly that came back online, but I’m still not back up to speed. And I shouldn’t be. The pace I was maintaining was a killing pace. It was draining emotional and physiological resources, as evidenced by the week-long collapse. The part of my brain complaining about how everything now feels slow and unexciting needs to learn how to be comfortable with slowness.

One of the big life shifts in the past year was Howard switching medications for his mental health issues. The one he was on shortened his sleep (which he liked) but also drove up his blood pressure (which was scary.) He too is having to come to terms with the fact that he has to slow down. The breakneck pace he maintained for years keeping up with both the daily comic and side projects as well was exhilarating even while being exhausting. There is a high associated with pushing your mind and body to their limits, there is also a cost. And that cost often arrives in a sudden and overwhelming collapse. I could see him pushing himself toward collapse, so we changed the medicines, which forced a (very frustrating) slow down. We believe that, over time, the slow down will result in better health. Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.

This week I am focusing on the slowness. I am learning to befriend both slowness and a feeling of spaciousness. It is a strange sensation to not have my head filled with anxious planning and deadline tracking. I miss it. I feel alive and capable when adrenaline surges and I can crisis manage lots of organizational details. Just because I miss something, doesn’t mean I should put it back into my life. I’m certain that in the future I will have more moments of adrenaline-driven competence. I will be better at them if I embrace the current period of peace. I’m learning to quiet my anxious thoughts. I’m learning to sit and let my mind wander without media distractions. I’m doing more reading of books rather than websites. I’m recognizing the ways that internet sites and politics thrive on creating urgency and anxiety in people. I’m noticing that despite my days feeling slower and emptier, my house is more in order. I’m finally doing all the non-urgent tasks which were pushed aside and which contribute to happiness and well being. I’m pondering how I can reject imposed urgency when it isn’t necessary. I’m recognizing that frantic urgency didn’t do as much to make my life and home better as this slower care-taking. I’m pondering how these realizations might apply to my citizenship in the larger world and what actions I should be taking to make that world better.

There are a lot of thoughts to sort through, and I intend to take the time to do that sorting carefully and thoughtfully. Because when life inevitably begins throwing urgent deadlines at me again, I want to be prepared to respond to them in a calmer and less anxious way.

Changing the Words

“I need to point out a language change I’d like you to make.” he said.
I was sitting across from my son’s new therapist. I’d spent the past forty minutes describing my son’s challenges and our current status.
“When you talk about your son’s schooling, you keep saying ‘we’ and ‘our,’ I want you to use ‘you’ and ‘your’ instead. Put the responsibility for his schooling onto him instead of both of you.”

The moment the therapist said it, I could see how such a small-seeming language shift could matter. Every time I said “we need to get that essay done.” I was shouldering part of the burden of the essay, and it is really easy for kids to just let mom carry things for them. They’ve been doing it since they were small for everything from coats, to toys, to expenses.

Since that appointment, I’ve been working to make the shift, and the effort has shown me how often I included myself into my kids’ struggles instead of letting my them own those struggles. I think I began it because I didn’t want them to feel alone against hard things. I also wanted to frame the struggle as “us against the mental health issues” instead of mom vs kid. It is also probable that I was including myself in an un-self-aware attempt to have more control over the situation. I feel pretty sheepish about that last bit, because I’ve been saying for years that I needed my kids to have some life-solutions that didn’t involve me, while I was simultaneously auto-including myself into their every struggle.

I’m only a few weeks into making this language shift and it is still hard because habit is strong. Yet I’m already feeling the differences in how I think about my kids and their challenges. I’m realizing that every time I help my fledgling adults, what I’m actually doing is slowing down their learning process by absorbing some of the blow of natural consequences. Usually I’m helping to appease my own anxiety, so that the terrible stories of possible outcomes don’t come to pass, or so that I don’t have to watch them struggle. It is hard to be able to help and to let someone else struggle anyway. Yet that is exactly what my kids need me to do for their long term good. Helping makes today better, but it prevents the development of resilience that will let them survive their futures.

There is a part of my mind that wants to dwell on the What Ifs around this language shift. What if I’d learned this five years ago? Was I wrong to do so much helping when they were struggling so hard? Can I do it now only because we’re far enough removed from suicide risk? Did my use of inclusive language in their early teens literally save their lives, or is it the reason we’re here with adults who can’t fly on their own yet? I can’t answer any of those questions and dwelling on them doesn’t really help anyone. We are where we are, and the best way forward is to accept where we are and focus on moving forward from here.

And for right now, moving forward requires me to learn how to change the words I use on a daily basis.

A Day of Many Things

I have notes for a blog post on parenting depression with a focus on teenage and newly adult depressed people. Meant to write it up today, instead my dishwasher flooded through the floor into the basement. This required every towel in the house and six buckets to contain the water. Now I have dehumidifiers and fans running in two rooms. Again.

On the up side, we had four functioning adults in the house to rapid manage the flood. Even though my daughter’s fiance was actually supposed to be convalescing on the couch with a head cold. We made him lay back down as soon as the crisis was over.

Also my parents were in town for a visit and we ended up having lunch in my house (instead of meeting at a restaurant) while I talked with the plumber whose error caused the flood (and who will pay for the damage to be repaired) and also the disaster recovery company guy who brought me the fans and will do the repairs. Visiting was squeezed in around signing of contracts and contingency planning. Fortunately my parents already planned to stay at a different house because not only do I not have guest space, I have one of my kids who will have to sleep on the couch for the next five days.

Also I fielded phone calls from my kid who is considering moving back home and shifting his trajectory for the next six months. He needed help possibly applying for a new job and considering his options. My plan had been to invite him to stay home over the weekend and do a test run of living at home, only now his bed has buckets on it catching dripping water. So if he wants to come home, he’ll join his brother in sleeping on a couch.

Also I took my one of my college freshman to find out how to do a medical withdrawal from courses because they haven’t been able to make themselves go to class for about three weeks now. Depression, anxiety, and OCD can be serious hurdles for getting to class. Grades are no longer salvageable and it is time for us to regroup and figure out what comes next. (The answer is likely: take a gap year while they get a handle on self care and basic adulting.)

Tomorrow I have to get up, put on professional clothes and spend the day at a conference giving a presentation. Fortunately it is a presentation I’ve given many times before, so I can use my existing notes.

So that is how I spent my Mental Health Awareness day.

Anxiety Before Traveling

This time next week I’ll be in Houston for the Writing Excuses Workshop and Retreat. We’ll have a few days on land and then we’ll be on a cruise ship for the remainder of the event. I’ve gone on these trips annually for the past four years, and I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity. They aren’t trips we ever would have been able to afford on our own, so we work hard as staff to make the event amazing and thus pay for our tickets with our efforts.

It does mean that I end up spending the week of the trip in something of a liminal space. I’m staff and therefore not able to blend in with the attendees. However I’m not one of the Writing Excuses podcast hosts or an invited guest instructor. I assist with the family programming for non-writers, helping them connect with each other and learn things about supporting their writers. I fit in that role since I am the life partner and enabler of a person with a creative career. However I’m also a writer myself, so I bounce into those spaces as well. Being not exactly one thing or another provides fertile ground for anxieties to grow. So this week I’m spending significant amounts of mental energy weeding anxieties out as soon as they pop up. The minute I realize I’m worried that I’ve disappointed attendees I remind myself that it isn’t possible for people to be disappointed by me when they barely know I exist or haven’t met me yet. When I have thoughts about how I probably shouldn’t speak up in conversations about writing, I remind myself that I have as much right to speak about my writing struggles as anyone else. Anxiety sprouts, I pull it out like a weed. Repeat.

This year I’m going on the trip with a specific writing project and goal. I’m eschewing shore excursions so that I have longer stretches to sit and write. I’m trying to refocus myself as a writer and remember that projects only get complete if I actually put in the time. I’m anxious about all of this as well. Writing is surrounded by a whole garden of anxiety weeds which have barbs like thistles They are thoughts that sting and hurt whenever I bump into them.
What is the point, it’ll never be published anyway.
What do you have to say that hasn’t already been said.
You don’t have the skill to do this.
Who do you think you’re fooling, if you were a real writer you’d… [fill in the blank]

And dozens more related thoughts. I already know the words to counteract these thoughts. I speak them regularly to students and friends. I teach them in classes. I believe them when I say them to others, yet somehow it is harder to accept that they also apply to me. Anxiety is like that. It is a lying liar who lies.
I write the counter argument here to remind myself: creation is always worthwhile even if the only one who is changed by it is the person who creates. I’m very good at nurturing the personal growth of others, and I need to turn some of that effort inward.

Along with the writer anxieties, I’m also dealing with anxieties about the things and people I need to leave behind while I travel. Also dealing with the inherent anxieties around the ways that travel can go wrong. Thus far the all the anxieties (travel, writerly, etc), while abundant, have been low level. More like background noise than something obtrusive. But the volume will increase the closer I get to departure. Writing this post is one of my ways to stare anxiety down and say “I see you. You don’t win.” It may be silly, but it works.

This week I’m at my house looking at damaged flooring, clutter, and bathrooms that need to be cleaned. Next week I’ll have vistas of caribbean water and white sand beaches. Yet I’ll be the same me in both spaces. I’ll carry anxieties with me on the trip and then back again, unless I can figure out how to shed them before I go. And if I want to feel calm, serene, happy I need to not wait until I’m surrounded by loveliness to cultivate those emotions, otherwise when I leave the lovely location I’ll also leave the emotions behind. Travel definitely provides an impetus for me to examine my internal landscape, but it is at home that the real work gets done.

Hope and Being Better

About two years ago I stopped participating in mental health themed panels at conventions. The last one I was on, was focused on helping writers understand details of what it is like to live with depression, anxiety, bipolar, OCD, etc so that they could portray the conditions well in their writing. The audience was great, my co-panelists were great, I was just so raw and worn out from living with the difficulties that the conversation sent me sideways. I was sitting in front of a room of people, filled with anxiety. Every time I spoke up, I was flooded with doubt that my contribution was useful and a simultaneous fear that I’d said too much, that I’d exposed my life and my loved ones to scrutiny in ways I should not have. And then, from the shape of the conversations it was clear that some of the audience was also seeking affirmation, validation, or hope along with writerly education. That was what stabbed me to my core, because I wanted to say “yes this is hard, but it gets better.” Only I couldn’t. Me and my family were still in the middle of hard and better wasn’t even a glimpse on the horizon. It was too hard to sit there describing the hard without having hope. So I stopped volunteering for those panels.

Today I had a contrasting experience. A friend of a friend called me because they are seeking help for their son and they wondered about a program that my son has participated in. As I listened to her, I knew exactly the emotional path she is traveling. I was able to validate and sympathize. And as I spoke describing where my son is now in comparison to where he was, I saw so clearly that “better” is all around me.

I’m still not certain I’m ready to start volunteering to talk about mental health on panels again. In part that is because I’m going through a period of self doubt in relation to teaching at conventions and events. But it is also because I’m braced for “better” to vanish again. It was so hard for so long. And every advance seemed to be followed by a disastrous crash. So part of me expects everything to fall apart again, reverting to what the emotional / mental health chaos that was our normal for six years.

Except I don’t think things can revert. We’ve all changed shape so that we can’t fit back into the old patterns. Things could fall apart in new and exciting ways, but I don’t think we get to go back. For which I am exceedingly grateful. I’m also truly grateful that this time when I was giving someone useful information, I was also able to heap on a serving of hope to go along with it.