Showing Up

It’s another great big beautiful day, with perfect temps in the 70’s and no rain in the forecast. Finally, after a prolonged, wet and bone-chilling spring, it’s finally beginning to feel like summer here in the armpit of the Midwest. A good day to get things done at home, take care of business, and enjoy feeling like I’ve accomplished something. This is not easy for me to do. I’m my own worst critic and tend to harsh on myself for even the smallest things. Truth is I’ve come a long way in the past nine years, since first entering DBT.

One of the key skills I’ve learned to use is Opposite to Emotion action. In the simplest terms, this means “showing up” for things and being willing to do what it takes. For someone with crippling social anxiety, this takes a great deal of practice. At the root of my fear lies the thought that I am not good enough and that others will see this and judge me. I remember bowing out of countless things and feeling overwhelmed by even the most fundamental social interactions, such as meeting a repair person at the house to fix a broken washing machine. Going for coffee at an unfamiliar cafe could send me into a tailspin. Drinks with one or two colleagues after work would shut me down, and I’d make an excuse to get out of it. Any situation in which I would might be exposed, have to make conversation, eye contact, or talk about myself was utterly mortifying. To add injury, I’d be forced to explain my behavior to others, bringing even more attention to this great big Brontosaurus that was my anxiety.

I’ve learned that success in DBT is based on taking calculated risks. This means going to group every week and participating. Keeping my therapy appointments. Calling my therapist when I’m feeling like the bottom may drop out. Accepting social invitations as often as I can, and actually showing up—despite the thoughts and fears bouncing around inside my head. I’ve found it helpful to honor the fears, to gently acknowledge and recognize them with “I hear you, fear”, but not cave into their demands. I often imagine putting my fear in a box “for now” and placing it on a high shelf out of reach. I’ve got things to do and experiences to live, so the fears can live in that box (punch a few holes in the top so they can breathe) until I’m done doing what I want. The tricky part of all this goes back to core mindfulness skills of being present.

If I allow my fears to take over my brain, I lose the ability to remain present. Losing the present moment means that I lose my ability to act on my own behalf. I can only advocate for myself if I’m here right now. A therapist once described this to me as “allowing one’s emotions to drive the bus”, and that’s about as good a description as I can think of. If we allow the noise of our fears to overwhelm us and our anxious thoughts to grab the wheel, we’re not in control of our own lives.

What this means is that even when we’re scared, we can choose to move forward. For example, today I can decide to meet a friend for coffee and not worry that I might have to sit there alone for a few minutes. I can recognize the fear in me, put on a half-smile and take a deep breath knowing that it’s my choice. I can remain present, be gentle with myself, knowing that despite any anxiety, I’m in charge. The fear and anxiety recede when we don’t give them all of our present energy. And we can go back to living life as it is meant to be lived—in the now. We can enjoy whatever it is we’re doing with peace of mind and our full attention.

My theory is that often if I bring the body, the mind will follow. So I simply drag my carcass to the show, and let things unfold as they will. What I’ve found is that my fear and anxiety has been significantly reduced, and my joy in ordinary daily life has increased ten-fold.

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My Bodyguard

I’m feeling positive this morning, despite a restless night’s sleep. The two Ativan I took at bedtime usually leave me with a hung over feeling, but not today. Could be the sunshine and the yard full of noisy birds that’s got me uncharacteristically smiley and bright. Like I’m actually looking forward to something.
It’s going to be several days of projects around the house, as I try to wrap it up before returning to full-time work next week. My procrastination with all things household is remarkable—I’m amazed by the way we can live in chaos and dirt and barely notice it when we’re busy working. Saturday morning coffee brings the rude awakening that yes, we are total slobs. C is a tough old bird that works a career day job and a part-time gig for extra household money. When circumstances in my life are challenging, she’s always managed to be my shining star, my cherry lifesaver, my knight in Old Navy.

She’s not a young woman any longer, but is determined that no matter what, we’re going to keep our house and cars and maybe have enough left over at the end of the month to order a pizza. Her attitude is that she does it because she’s the only one who can at this point. While I’ve always worked in some capacity, the past few years have been rough. In addition to my lifelong mental health issues, I was diagnosed with autoimmune arthritis about five years ago. This has reduced me to doing pretty much the bare physical minimum for most of that time. My joints swell and ache to the point where I can do nothing more than ice them and try to sleep through the worst of the pain, or alternate with short bursts of activity and rest. This has been an adventure to say the least. It has shown me just exactly the kind of person I chose to partner with though, and I am grateful for her drive and commitment to our shared cause.

C has told me that she struggles with wanting a housewife (me) and understanding that I need to have someplace to put my passion and energy outside of the house, engaged in meaningful work. We’re almost there. Prior to getting sick with arthritis, I was actively employed in the landscaping industry, in a highly physical job that kept me running like mad ten months out of the year. I loved coming home filthy, stinky, and sunburned at the end of each day, dog tired down to my bones. But things change, and I had to let go of that career when my body gave out on me. Enter social work. I’m now attempting to get myself established in community mental health, working with those who’ve been newly diagnosed or struggling to live independently. It’s satisfying work, difficult and rewarding. C has been understanding about everything that’s changed—my new physical limitations, the cut in salary I’ve taken, the fight to find a job with health care. She’s stood by me this entire time and allowed me to figure it out. Even through my recent firing, she said “good—FUCK THEM. I’m sick of seeing you cry over that damn job anyhow”, and she took me out for a hot meatloaf sandwich. Now that’s the kind of partner you want to keep for life, one that understands the siren song of the brown gravy.

I like the idea of being in love forever. Seems like statistically, the odds are not in our favor, but next year will mark our 25th together, which has to count for something. This year’s trip to Club Psych was not my first, and my disorders have not been easy to live with, that’s for certain. Still, C has managed to forge ahead as the responsible adult in this relationship. She’s made some of the major decisions for us not to control, but to gently steer this great ship along its course. I’m actually quite grateful for this because I feel that there were too many times when those big decisions eluded me, I couldn’t tolerate the pressure of making them for myself, and I needed her to pull the trigger. She always offers me choices and involves me in the process, and just as often I find myself saying “I trust you. Let’s do what you think is best”. I’ve never once regretted this.

When considered alongside the fact that she is the only person on the planet who knows how to cook my eggs, allows me to drive her truck, and always remembers to line dry my bras, I’m convinced she’s the One.

St. Philip’s Day

I’ve been trying to write a minimum of 500 words a day. Can’t complain that it’s been difficult, but I will admit that when sitting down to write, I haven’t really known where I’ll end up. I suppose this is okay, that I shouldn’t judge myself for wandering without a map or directions. Allowing things to become organically is a positive thing. It means I’m not trying to control the flow of words and images, that they are arising naturally from my subconscious.I tend to think that this will take me to places that I’d otherwise not venture on my own.
I’m going to simply begin where I am. It’s overcast and humid today, the kind of afternoon where you have to have lights on in the house in order to read. Most of the morning, I’ve been listening to music and remembering other times. I’ve also been worrying a bit about starting this new job next week. I wonder who I will meet in this new position, I wonder what kind of experiences I’m about to have, what challenges will present themselves to me. I’m curious and a little anxious, fearful of whether or not I will be able to rise to the occasion and do what needs to be done. When you struggle to understand what your strengths are and what you might be capable of accomplishing, you’re naturally a little nervous. I wish I had some kind of certification—some documents that told me what I have achieved and what I am able to do going forward. Like a tattoo inside my wrist that I could look at to know what I can count on. Like checking your wallet to see you have two fives, two tens, and a twenty, and knowing that despite the cover charge, you’ll still have money left for beer. There aren’t such guarantees in life. You go in hoping you have enough and if not, you’ll be able to find an ATM to withdraw more.
Thinking about this stuff doesn’t help me much to remain present and live in the moment. This means I look up at the clock, shocked that it’s already past noon and my bathroom still isn’t clean, the trash hasn’t taken itself out, and my hair still needs to be washed. There’s a post office run and prescriptions to be picked up. Cigarettes to be smoked, coffee to be sipped and some semblance of a life to be lived. There’s positive thoughts to be affirmed, negative to be discarded, the constant reshuffling and redealing of my brain’s hand. Passing ache of loss and the sigh of being alive, as I tell myself that it’s worth it, keep going, all will be well, despite flashbacks and weird head trips and bad dreams. I’ve got to find reasons every day to keep going, nothing is assumed and at this stage, nothing is taken for granted.
So close. Keep going. Don’t stop. It’s worth it. Even if you don’t know what’s coming or when it will come, it’s thrilling to have another chance. I’m relieved I survived another dark winter without going David Foster Wallace. We’re all living the tedious ordinary moments of our lives to get to the passing, transitory victories.

Ch-ch-changes

This is our last day of a long weekend together. The partner and I have had a good time, relaxed with family, enjoyed great food, worked in the yard and took long naps during the intermittent rain showers. I have no legitimate complaints other than the fact that this is the last week I’ll have unstructured time. Work begins at 8am on the 1st of June, and it’s back to the grind of 9-5 for me again. I should be grateful; having been unceremoniously fired from my job the first week of May, I’ve had a generous month of relaxation and reflection. I’ve been somewhat sloppy with how I’ve used that time, which didn’t seem precious until now. There’s never enough, and I’m not sure why that is when I honestly waste so much on things that probably don’t count in the big scheme of things.
If there is one thing I’d like to change about my life it would be that I’d like to find some sense of urgency—something to drive me along the road a bit further than I choose to wander on my own. In many ways, I tend to do the bare minimum of what is expected at home. I frequently opt for shortcuts in my life, settle for less than my best, opt out of things rather than push for more. I judge myself as lazy, but I wonder if it isn’t truly exhausting to have to constantly monitor and adjust myself to my environment to make room for my emotional responses. I am constantly on watch for signs of returning illness, discombobulated thinking, hair trigger feelings that can set off a firestorm of words and ineffective actions. I don’t want to be that person anymore, the one who walks off a job, ends a relationship or says something she cannot undo. I don’t want to be the nutjob at the center of a scene. I work hard to stay on top of things as they arise and talk them through with trusted partner, friend, or therapist. Sure, I have the chemical assistance of two or three different medications. They help to dull the razor’s edge of my words and behaviors, and allow me to sleep most of the way through the night. Ultimately though, it’s up to me to intercede on my own behalf when things begin to unravel emotionally. That’s something that requires a great deal of thought and energy on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis.
I’ve heard it said that one’s house is a reflection of one’s interior landscape, the contents of one’s head. If that’s the case, I’m in deep trouble. My laundry is a constant, losing battle, and my bathroom is lousy with stray hairs and soap scum. My thoughts range from hopeful and generous to paranoid and self-indulgent. My brain has a ring around it, if you will. I worry about the future and grieve my losses, but try not to get stuck in one thought for too long—an express ticket to crazytown for me. Too much rumination leads to fear and sadness, and inevitably inertia creeps moving up slowly. So it’s all about finding a balance between being here in the present, which is not always flowers and cupcakes, and allowing for past and future thoughts to move through like clouds overhead. This is “non-attachment”. This is full and radical acceptance of myself and my life, with all of its fragrant buds and imperfections and garbage. It’s all part of some greater whole that I seek to understand and embrace.

Loving the Enemy

It’s officially the first weekend of summer, according to our Midwestern cultural tradition. Sure it’s not actually summer yet, but Memorial Day marks the time when we in the upper middle of the country shed our winter coats and crawl out of our holes into the light. It’s raining and 54F. I’m pleased to report that despite this, for the first time in seven months, I’m not depressed.
And that’s remarkable considering the facts. I’ve gone through three rounds of bronchitis, two sinus infections, a hospitalization, six weeks of intensive outpatient programming, and been fired from my job since last Fall. The firing was my most recent adventure in insanity, less than a month ago. Reality was that I needed to be canned, otherwise I may not have left that place. Although I strongly disagree with how it was done, I’m grateful that I’m out of there. I was approved for unemployment, food assistance, and just this week I was offered another full time job with benefits. All in all, things are looking up for me, I must say. I’m impressed with my ability to perform under extreme pressure and deadlines—basically one that said “you’re completely broke, so get a job NOW”. Every week I managed to drag myself to my therapist’s office for my appointments, took my prescribed head meds, and did my homework diligently as a nerdy schoolgirl. I was a good kid, and it appears to have paid off.
I’m going to be returning to work full time for the first time in several years. I guess I’m a little nervous about that theoretically—I hope I can keep up with the “normal” schedule, meet my benchmarks, and get everything done as I’m supposed to do. It’s odd not to have any sense of my strengths or skills, to have to blindly aim and shoot for the clay pigeon with no idea which way is up or down.know-your-enemy3.157153555_std

I think that’s part of my illness, the inability to see myself for anything more than a defective or judge my performance objectively. This comes from years of programming from non-supportive sources, and blanket statements about my identity. “You’ll never be liked by anyone”, my father told me. “You can’t get along with people and you’re impossible to like”. Or “you failed to meet our standards, even though you say you tried your best, you still failed” said a former supervisor. “I don’t know what’s wrong with you”. Always the feeling that despite all the coaching to “be myself”, there were certain things so inherently wrong with me, so irreparable, that I would never be able to pass for normal or fit in. After hearing such things over and over, one begins to feel, and live, as an outsider.
Oddball, weird girl, scary chick, creep, freak. My response was to withdraw into the library and spend hours alone reading Nabokov and Poe among the musty stacks. Or hide in the basement rec room with headphones on listening to Kate Bush and Bauhaus lp’s, writing poetry and cutting the hair off my Barbie dolls. I walked through life feeling like I had a neon sign on me that read OUTSIDER, that everyone could see as a warning to steer clear. You’d think I was meant to be an artist, right? I never was great at painting or drawing. That was my sister’s territory, she’d been labeled “the creative one”. Sorry, kid that job has been taken. I had to be creepy. I had to be the one in all black at the Thanksgiving table. I had to be the bad one who liked girls instead of boys, to like multiple girls even, and pursue a career doing nothing much of anything for most of my adult life.
Now that I’ve reached the middle, nearing fifty, I’ve simply stopped caring. It’s easier somehow to not feel bothered if others don’t understand or like me. It’s easier to stop worrying and love the bomb that I am. My therapist has an extraordinary amount of like for me, and faith in my abilities to be a worthwhile human. “You’re amazing”, she says. “Never have I met anyone with a vocabulary quite like yours. It’s fascinating and a lot of fun”, she told me last week. And the woman who offered me the new job told me that I was “a joy” to talk with. So I think perhaps, if it’s possible, lots of people in my past have been mistaken about me. Perhaps I am creepy, but with the charm of Edward Gorey. Maybe I am an outsider, but with the appeal of Dennis Hopper in “Easy Rider”. Perhaps I am a little defective, but that makes me all the more interesting. And maybe I’m not the enemy I thought I was.