Anxiety/Depression

Rising Above the Fog

This morning I read a post from a woman whose blog I follow. In that post she expressed how chaotic and overwhelming her life felt. She has some special needs kids, and recent political turmoil has really hit home for her. Because of all of this, and some depression she’s battling, she feels like she is flailing around in the dark. She’s written posts like this one before and probably will again as she tries to find a new balance. What struck me this time has far more to do with me than with her, because this time I did not have an instant resonance with her emotional state. I spent a long time feeling as she does: lost, overwhelmed, continuing to move forward with determination instead of real hope. Today I could see all those things in her, but I could also see how much of her state is colored by the depression and anxiety that dwells in her head. She has honest cause for grief and an emotional reset, but grief, depression, and anxiety are darkening every day in ways that make her whole life difficult. This was true with me as well, but today’s reading also showed me that I’d emerged from it, at least a little.

When I was a child, my family would drive along I-70 into the Sierra Nevada mountains. It was a winding road with sharp drop offs down steep canyons. It is a stunning (if nerve wracking) drive full of amazing vistas. One trip was beset with fog. We drove slowly and carefully because we could only see a few feet in front of our vehicle. But then from one moment to the next, the fog was gone. We had climbed up above it, and we could see sunshine and a landscape of clouds, bordered on either side by tree covered mountain peaks. It was beautiful and mysterious. Such a surprise to be able to see so far when only moments before we’d only been able to see right in front of us.

I’m reluctant to draw any grand plans or conclusions from the fact that I’ve emerged above the fog this week. Part of me would like to state that my intention to live in less fear is working, the changes I’m making in confronting anxiety are working. However, there are so many other factors at play here. My kids who have all been struggling in pairs, trios, or quartets for the past five years, are suddenly not struggling in the ways they were before. Tipping over into the next year released some funds which make me less stressed about finances this month than I was last month. All of these things combine together and the fog vanishes. Also, it isn’t completely gone. I have to remember that just yesterday morning a small event had me curled up in bed with a fort of pillows so that I could cry in safety. For an hour. That sort of thing doesn’t really fit into the “I’m all better now” theme song. I’m not “all better” but I did get up, see the anxiety attack for what it was, and then move on with my day while doing my best to not berate myself for letting anxiety win.

On that foggy drive, we dipped back into the fog multiple times as the road curved up and down the mountainside. I’d expect the same from any emotional healing process. I’m still going to get ambushed by grief or anxiety. However I’m still determined to build an existence where anxiety and depression are no longer the soundtrack of my life.

Confronting Anxiety

I am learning how to be less afraid. This is not an easy task since anxiety is so omnipresent in my life that I often don’t recognize I’m responding to it. This year I’m trying to take daily small steps to confront the anxiety and see it for what it is. To help with that effort, I’ve got a page in my journal where I write down small things I do to confront my anxiety. Here are some examples from the last three days:

1/2/18: I did not go back to speak with my son’s service coordinator after my son left. It would only have served to vent my fears, not provide the coordinator with additional useful info. The coordinator and my son will build their own relationship. I need to stay out as much as possible. If the coordinator has questions, he’ll ask me. But I really wanted to go back.

1/3/18: I donated a hardwood dresser even though the likely replacement will be IKEA pressboard. I don’t need to be the keeper of historical dressers. Particularly not partially broken ones from 1980 that I picked up at a garage sale. It took an hour to convince my brain I had not made a terrible and life altering mistake.

1/4/18: I sat with the anxiety of not knowing how my son is doing at his school. And I didn’t contact him or his service provider to resolve it.

1/5/18: I could hear Howard and my daughter’s voices upstairs, but not the words. Tones told me that Howard was in lecture mode. I did not go and check to make sure that Howard wasn’t making daughter upset. She’s an adult. They have a great relationship. If he was annoying her, that’s between them. No point in me showing up to referee. It is not my job to make sure all conflicts are prevented or resolved, nor my job to ensure that my loved ones always have good relationships.

1/5/18: I started the day with a vague feeling that I wanted to cry or curl in a ball. There is no reason for it. My son is not doing fine at his new school. He called and told me all the ways he is struggling, but he is struggling in exactly the ways he needs to struggle in order to grow. If I try to step in to make him feel better, I will only prevent that growth. Instead, I took hold of my own brain and focused on something that distracted me from want-to-cry, until after the feeling faded.

These are only a few examples. Many more things made me slightly or significantly anxious during each day. Keeping the list is helping me notice how pervasive anxiety is in my life. Noticing the anxiety and naming it is a step toward not letting it win.

On the Stairs

It was six pm and I was standing on the stairs watching my daughter on the floor of the landing while she had a panic attack. Life was too much. She could never do it all. She was failing at everything.

Every time I’m faced with one of these meltdowns, whether it be a panic attack, depressive episode, or OCD freak out, I have to choose. Do I use this moment as a learning opportunity, carefully nudging the person in front of me toward realizations? Most of the time I can so clearly see the choices they made that directly contributed to the meltdown. However, mentioning those choices often leads to lecture mode and the person shutting me out. Do I recognize the actual suffering in front of me and sit down with them in sympathy? This is more comfortable to me than confrontation, and thus I risk setting a pattern of meltdown and rescue. Except we all need rescue sometimes. Do I ignore both the sympathy and education paths to focus on management skills where they learn to set emotion aside and get stuff done anyway? Sometimes a little coaxing gets them moving, and motion makes things better. Other times, my push makes the meltdown worse, harder to pull out of. No choice is obviously right or wrong. The road is never clear.

Mostly as I stood there, leaning on the wall, I thought about how tired I was. How I’d spent several hours of afternoon helping another kid with his home school, and forcing us both to confront the fact that he is, once again, failing some of his in-school classes. That made me tired, discouraged. Because I’d thought things were going well. I’d thought he was stepping up and handling things. But he wasn’t. And we had to negotiate a carrot-and-stick agreement which hopefully will provide him with the necessary motivation to actually do the work and turn it in. I have an ongoing part in the motivational plan, a reoccurring task set, and I have to be willing to actually apply the agreed upon consequences. Even if the result is an unpleasant experience for everyone.

I also thought about how the other son has been in the depths of depression for days, completely unwilling to talk to me about it. He doesn’t want my answers. He rejects my experiences of depression and the tool set that I offer for dealing with it. He is absolutely sure that my answers won’t work for him. It is the same impasse we’ve had to varying degrees for several years now. A change is coming with the new year. It’ll be a big shift. It might finally offer him a way forward. It might be his path to a brighter and happier life. Or it might make everything much harder and darker. We have a long stretch of weeks before I can find out how the change goes. And that makes me tired too. Waiting is exhausting. Particularly when I have to watch him being miserable while I wait.

This all presses on me as I look at my daughter on the floor. The largest thought in my brain is that I really don’t want to help manage yet another emotional tangle. I was weary. In that moment, and many moments like it, I was irritated to have to deal with the excess of emotion. It was late in the day, I wanted to be unwinding and relaxing, not trading work effort for parenting effort. And I felt bad for these selfish thoughts and emotions. Maybe the right answer would have been for me to walk away. To let her figure it out for herself. I considered doing it, but I have to be completely convinced that leaving the person alone is the right course, and even then I’ll spend the time in a state of anxiety, actively preventing myself from going to them and trying to make it better. Walking away is as exhausting as staying.

So I stayed near and made exploratory statements down each possible path to see which one got a positive response. The solution turned out to be a blend: covering her with a weighted blanket and leaving her alone while I sorted a few jumbles of things in her room. Then she centered herself enough to request a reprieve from some home school assignments, which I granted. We made a plan for her to get math help the next day, and she pulled out her psychology homework. She ended up showering and heading to bed rather than completing the work, but she’ll likely be able to do it tomorrow without difficulty. We hope.

After all is sorted and calmed, I sit by myself with my computer. This wasn’t actually all that difficult a day. Not compared to days from the last several years. The ongoing struggles are real, but all of the kids are far better able to articulate what is going on inside their heads. They’re able to discuss problems and solutions with me in ways that they could not before. They’re able to listen when I explain why a situation is frustrating to me, instead of the faintest hint of my frustration turning them into curled up balls of stress panic. I can clearly see how much better off we all are than we were.
I’ll take that.
Tomorrow.
When I’ve had some time to rest.

Teens, Screens, and Mental Health

I’ve seen this article being linked from social media: Have Smart Phones Destroyed a Generation? I have an immediate negative reaction to the title, because I think it is a harsh judgement to call an entire generation “destroyed” when the oldest of them is a mere 22 years old. We should probably allow them to exit adolescence and become in charge of their lives before we can make sweeping judgements.

Fortunately the content of the article is far more in depth and less inclined to make sweeping judgements. It has data as well as anecdotes and is cautious about drawing conclusions based on that data. However one point it does make very clear: teens who are on their screens more are less happy and teens who are on their screens less are happier. This fact automatically puts me on the defensive because my kids are on their screens a lot and the implication is that if I would just limit their screen time we would have less trouble with mental health issues. (My brain therefore comes to the “obvious” conclusion that it is All My Fault because I was not a good enough parent.)

However, one thing that the article fails to acknowledge is that correlation is not causation. Are the teens less happy because they’re on their screens more or are they on their screens more because they were already less happy and screens are a safe retreat? I don’t think there is a clear causation either way because it depends on the teen and it depends on the day. I know that when my teens emerge from depression they automatically reduce their screen time without any intervention from me. So I’ve come to rely on screen time as an indicator. It is a piece of the puzzle as we’re trying to help everyone find a balanced life that is basically happy.

I talk to my teens about all of this as we’re discussing how to improve their lives. We also discuss Point of Diminishing Returns. Because I believe that short exposures to social media add to my life and make it happier, however prolonged exposure ends with me having wasted time and probably lowered my mood. The goal of these discussions is to teach them how to self regulate. I’ve never found much success with imposing limits on screen time. I fail at it because I can’t stay consistent. I’ve done much better when I focus my energy on luring them out into non-screen activities, reminding them of the things they enjoy doing when screens are not available.

Ultimately the generation defined in the article is going to find its own way forward. They will be different from their Gen X parents, just as the Gen X generation was different from their Boomer parents. Right now they struggle less with addictions and teen pregnancy, but more from mental health issues. All life choices are trade offs and it is up to individuals to find their own balance in life.

Seeing Growth

It is Sunday morning and my house is quiet. This is because when I went to bed last night, at midnight, all four of my children were sitting together in front of the TV, talking and laughing uproarously. They were watching a replay of sorts that is built into the new Zelda game (Breath of the Wild), however the game wasn’t the point. They were happy to be together, to make each other laugh, and to have a shared experience. They were so happy that I kind of wanted to stay and just listen, but it was a sibling thing and mom being in the room changed the shape of it. So I listened from upstairs where I couldn’t hear the specific words, just the bursts of laughing.

I have to pause and acknowledge this moment. We have reached a space where I can leave my children to take care of themselves and their siblings without worrying someone will have a massive meltdown. I don’t fear that the issues of one will ignite the issues of another into a big emotional fight. They are all relaxed and happy after this summer where school backed off and they all spent time working together. Then they spent time with just siblings in the house, learning how to take responsibility for themselves and the house. At this moment there are no open wounds either emotionally or physically. Nothing hurts, not even the scars.

In two weeks time school will begin and bring with it a flood of responsibilities and stresses. That flood may knock us off balance, some of my kids may go back to fighting to keep their heads above water, but I don’t think they’ll struggle as much as they did last year and the year before (and the year before that, and the year before that. It’s been four years now with them all struggling.) We are all measurably better than we were last year. We’re stronger, we have more tools to build rafts so we don’t have to swim all the time. For the first time in years I look forward to the beginning of school with interest instead of fear. Because, for the first time in a long time, I believe that they have strength in themselves to handle whatever comes without breaking.

This is a better place. I need to pause and note it before things get hard again.

Creating an Errata Document

A Roleplaying Game is an extremely complex thing to make. It is guaranteed that your finished product will have mistakes. Thus comes the necessity of creating of an errata document, which is a piece of paper that ships with the product and issues corrections for the mistakes that you’ve found. (Also guaranteed: you’ll find more after you’ve issued the errata document.) The process of creating this document means combing through questions and concerns that are submitted by customers who have read the book. It means I have to look closely at why my text confused them or feels broken to them. And, according to my anxiety, it shows all the ways I have completely and utterly failed as an RPG creator. (In my head, the failure is always mine despite the fact that Planet Mercenary is a hugely collaborative project.) Which, for a few people, the game may have. No single game is going to work for every person. But the balance of evidence is that the majority of our Kickstarter backers are pleased with what we’re delivering.

Hopefully once I’ve gotten the document complete, I’ll be able to step away from the errors and re-capture a feeling of accomplishment. I would really like to sit with a feeling of triumph and accomplishment for a while, instead of letting those emotions vanish into errata anxiety and shipping stress.

Book Review of Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood

I read a lot of articles online, but when I read an excerpt from Lisa Damour’s Untangled, I knew I wanted to read the rest of the book. I approached it cautiously. I’ve picked up so many parenting / therapy / self-help books and been disappointed in them. Sometimes these books irritate me by assuming things about me or my child that do not apply. Other times they accurately describe my problem, but then try to prescribe fixes for me that simply would not work in my house. Most often they simply have little new information to offer. I end up skimming through pages and pages to find a single idea that I can apply in my life. So I checked Damour’s book out of the library expecting to skim and glean some useful information. By the end of chapter two, I’d ordered a copy for myself because I want to be able to re-read it and write notes in the margins.

Right in the introduction Damour stated that she did not seek to be prescriptive, she just wanted to describe the natural emotional / intellectual development of teenage girls and let readers come to their own conclusions or solutions. (The same development happens in boys, but it manifests a bit differently and Damour chose to focus on teen girls.) She does offer suggestions here and there, but they’re almost always a list of “some have found this works” or “you might want to try this.” I can tell you the exact paragraph where I fell in love with Damour as a writer / psychologist / mother. She was describing a study that has been done about the correlation between teens doing well socially and academically and them eating dinner with their parents more than three times per week. I already knew about that study. I’ve read it. I’ve felt guilty about it and resolved to do better at making family dinner happen. Then I’ve watched the efforts fade away so I felt guilty again. After describing the study, Damour says this in a parenthetical:

Here are some questions I’m hoping further research will address. Must the meal be hot? Must it last more than ten minutes to achieve its magical benefits? And how often can I freak out about table manners and still have a positive influence on my daughters? Obviously, important work waits to be done.

At that moment I knew that Damour gets it. She understands that every thing we do for our kids, for our work, for or ourselves comes at the expense of some other good thing we could be doing. Time, energy, and willpower are limited resources and we all have to make choices about how to spend them. After that parenthetical I was very willing to read more of what she had to say. She didn’t disappoint.

The other reason I was afraid to read the book was because of where I was emotionally. I was in the middle of a grief I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to get rid of. I was actively grieving the normal teenagerhoods that it seemed my kids would never be able to have because of their combinations of mental health and developmental issues. I was very afraid that this book would just make me cry because it would describe a teenage experience that was out of reach for my family. It did the opposite. This book shifted the way I think about my teens (the boys as well as the girl) and healed much of the grief I had been feeling.

Damour’s book describes specific developmental drives that happen in teenage brains. She talks about how those drives can manifest differently in different teens and different parent child relationships. Then at the end of each chapter she outlines some things to watch for which might indicate that your child has a problem which isn’t covered by “normal teenage development.” Reading Damour’s descriptions, I was finally able to see how much of my teen’s behaviors are actually normal rather than driven by their issues. It can be really hard to tell with teens because normal teenage behavior would be disordered behavior if done by an adult. Damour’s descriptions have finally provided me with the tool to sift through the things my teens do and say. Knowing which behaviors are normal means I am better able to sit back and let them learn through struggling instead of jumping to their rescue. I’m also able to look at which developmental drives are being interrupted or hampered by the mental health issues. I can see ways to help that I hadn’t seen before. All of this is subtle, but very significant.

I think Damour’s Untangled is going to be like Gift of Fear by Gavin DeBecker, a book that I recommend over and over again to people who are struggling. It certainly feels like a personal paradigm shift, like when I first read the article about The Power and Peril of Praising Your Kids. That article changed how I parented forever. I’m still absorbing information from Damour’s book and letting it settle into my brain. Yet, I’ve already been less stressed and anxious. I’ve changed small decisions every single day based on what I’ve learned. Instead of jumping in with concern (thus communicating that the experience is not normal and is an emergency) I’ve been able to stay back and express confidence that my kid can handle it. And they have. And everyone was happier and more confident for it.

So if you have a teenager, are going to have a teenager, or know teenagers you want to understand better, I recommend Lisa Damour’s Untangled.

Brilliance, Darkness, and Quotes from Van Gogh

I went searching for a quote from Van Gogh that someone quoted to me recently. This one:

If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.
Vincent Van Gogh

It has a lovely thought about the importance of creating even in the midst of self doubt. In searching for that quote, I found an entire wikiquote devoted to Van Gogh. I began to read Vincent’s letters to Theo, and discovered they were full of the amazing thoughts of a brilliant mind who battled depression and other mental health issues without recourse to modern pharmaceuticals.

This one in particular cried out to me:

Well, right now it seems that things are going very badly for me, have been doing so for some considerable time, and may continue to do so well into the future. But it is possible that everything will get better after it has all seemed to go wrong. I am not counting on it, it may never happen, but if there should be a change for the better I should regard that as a gain, I should rejoice, I should say, at last! So there was something after all!
Vincent Van Gogh

I’ve spent the past several years dwelling in a place like the one Van Gogh describes; keeping going, but not counting on things getting any better. Except lately it feels like the endless gray is beginning to clear. I’m beginning to look around and feel that there was something after all. Many of Van Gogh’s other thoughts speak to me as well.

I tell you, if one wants to be active, one must not be afraid of going wrong, one must not be afraid of making mistakes now and then. Many people think that they will become good just by doing no harm — but that’s a lie, and you yourself used to call it that. That way lies stagnation, mediocrity.
Vincent Van Gogh

I cannot help thinking that the best way of knowing God is to love many things. Love this friend, this person, this thing, whatever you like, and you will be on the right road to understanding Him better, that is what I keep telling myself.
Vincent Van Gogh

What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart.
Vincent Van Gogh

Seeing his words, seeing the darkness and light that he struggled with in his own mind brings a new dimension to the paintings. I have a new found respect for who Van Gogh was, and a new grief that he struggled for so long with no societal support and without the resources necessary to continue.

I know so many people who are like this: brilliant, shining, thoughtful, good, and swamped by darkness generated by their own minds. I wish it were not so. And even as my world begins to feel brighter, I am aware that storms will come and go in the years ahead. But I can’t let some imagined future storm stop me from enjoying the sunshine today.

Reversing Direction

Ten days ago we made a hard business decision. Then I put in the work to release the PDF versions. Then we got emails from people who were just as sad as I was that the defaced version would not see print. And with each email, even the kind ones, my anxiety grew. It kept me up. It ate at me. We’d promised to deliver a thing and were disappointing people with our choice. A Kickstarter is a trust and we were not living up to it. The sick feeling inside sent me into printers quotes and research mode until I was able to present a plan that might let us print both versions of the book and let backers choose which one they wanted. So that is the new plan. It is the right one. It is going to cost us more money and me a lot of time, but at the end of it I will be able to look at both copies of the book knowing I did everything instead of stopping short of everything.

Now if I can just get my anxiety to wind down, that would be nice. It is roaring at me, telling me that I have already failed, that I’m doomed to fail forever. It howls around me making me want to huddle up an hide until the noise goes away. Only the noise tells me all the terrible things that will happen if I hide. Tomorrow I would like to get up and get back to work. I get to make the book I’ve been working hard at. I get to make companion book for it that I didn’t even realize we needed until twelve days ago. I get to put together a presentation. I want to be able to just do that work in peace and happiness and let failure happen (or not happen) somewhere off in the future instead of becoming a self fulfilling prophecy because stupid anxiety won’t let me concentrate today.

Packing Along Ways to Cope

In the near future I am taking my family on a cruise. It is a big trip that I’ve spent quite a lot of time planning and saving for. It is the sort of trip where people are supposed to leave behind all the trappings of regular life and go have adventures. We’re not going to do that. Adventures, yes. Leave everything behind, no. There isn’t a member of my family who doesn’t have some sort of mental health issue. Some of the management techniques for these issues involved coping strategies and controlling our environments. If you remove us from our regular environments and coping mechanisms, we melt down in fairly spectacular fashion. Howard and I discovered this last year when we went on a cruise. It turns out that both he and I function much better as human beings when we have an internet connection. When we wander through our usual internet rounds, we show our brain that everything is okay, predictable, normal. If internet makes the cruise enjoyable, then buying the internet package seems like a no brainer.

For the past week I’ve been watching my kids and evaluating which coping things we need to bring with us. I’m bringing DVDs of familiar shows, because several of us use shows as a form of emotional regulation. We’ll be bringing hand held video games for the same reason. I’m contemplating packing along one of our weighted blankets despite what that will do to the weight of our luggage. We’ve got travel speakers so that people can have their night time music. All of us will bring phones with an international texting plan so that we can find each other in anxious moments. Even with all of that, I expect there to be moments where one or another of us gets melty and just wants to be back at home. It is possible that someone will flip out and I’ll have to spend a portion of my trip actively helping that person make it through. But I don’t think so. I think that of the big family trips we could take, this cruise is going to fit into a relatively comfortable place for most of us. The travel days with multiple plane flights will be the hardest part.

I sometimes wonder what it would be like to not have to do this level of planning for emotional management. I also wonder if we actually need this level of planning, or if it is all just a manifestation of my anxiety. Whatever it is, the planning is mostly done, which is good.