From Self-Loathing to Self-Worth

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I should be working on a final term paper for my marketing class, but I feel like procrastinating.  As I was “taking a little look at the internet”  I got sucked into this weekend’s edition of The New York Times Magazine and read this amazing article called The Problem With How We Treat Bipolar Disorder. Linda Logan, wrote in a literary style that I wish was more prevalent on blogs and articles and she elevated the conversation with her very painful and courageous story. The notion that we treat mental illnesses as a list of symptoms only to be controlled through medication and therapy, without any connection to a person’s psyche can cause a lot of confusion and may even stunt recovery.

Based on my own experience, psychiatrists and sometimes even therapists are only trying to get at the root cause of the illness, asking about symptoms and only working to alleviate these issues–which is just not the whole picture. Its true, as the article pointed out that little to no conversation is centered on the erosion of the patient’s self. There is usually no work done to identify the changes to a patient’s personality, or talk about important aspects of a patient’s self, or how to cope with the harsh reality that their self identity may be changed forever. There is a very apparent connection between mental illness and the loss of self and anyone that is suffering can attest to this idea. I have struggled with losing touch with my inner self, as I wrote in a previous post, I felt like an out of focus lens. This is a frightening place, the wavering vision of your own reflection only fuels more anxiety and isolation.

Raising a child reminds me of how the self is formed and how strongly we identify with our self from almost the start of our lives. This is the reason kids can seem selfish and self-centered. The age we call “terrible twos” is really the first outcropping of our self identity. I always thought that it must be overwhelming for our young minds to realize for the first time there is a “me” and that the world is not  just outward stimuli. Between the frustrated moments of tantrums, I remember feeling empathetic toward my daughter watching her struggle with a the idea that she has a name, that there is a “me” and that this growing idea of self wants and needs attention and of course her own way. In fact, my favorite aspect of raising a little human is watching a personality form into a unique combination that is all her own.

I realized as I was reading Logan’s article that being lost in the fog of anxiety and depression is an attack on our own identity. We self-loathe, berate, beat down and hate our own “self”. That little self, the very one we protected as children on the playground, that talked back to our parents and threw fits over bedtimes rules–somehow becomes our sworn enemy. How did we let this happen? And as we realize what has been lost in the battle, we begin to grieve, mope around, lay prostrate and lose interest in the world. Reading Logan’s article, brought on the same questions she was pondering, why not focus on getting to understand our new self? She is so right on when she states;

For many people with mental disorders, the transformation of the self is one of the most disturbing things about being ill. And their despair is heightened when doctors don’t engage with the issue, don’t ask about what parts of the self have vanished and don’t help figure out strategies to deal with that loss.

In a way, this journey that I am venturing through in this current phase of my life is simply my way of getting back to my self, or more accurately embracing the hodge-podge of my new self. I guess I must have figured out that I did need to understand the transformation of my self. It makes sense that a person struggling with any kind of mental illness would feel disconnected from themselves. The past can feel like an out-of-body experience, except its someone else’s life played by an actor that happens to look exactly like yourself. I often think back and feel uncomfortable pangs of regret, but at the same time don’t truly identify with that person. Logan explains that, “the sick self has no accountability; the improved self has a lot of explaining, and often apologizing, to do.” I have done my fair share of apologizing and have tried to explain my condition many times–sometimes people get it other times I am met with blank stares or courteous nods. 

For now, I am focused on changing patterns, doing things in a new way and molding together a better image of my newly crafted self–with parts of the old and new. I could probably do with a bit of healthy grieving for the bits of my self that have been lost. I can think of a vibrant 17 year old, a kind of naive and overly exuberant young girl, a part of my self that has been chipped away. She may not be the same, but what is left standing is a stronger and wiser self, with moments of that same youthful energy. This is why I found Logan’s article so important, because she is still searching for new ways to reach out and understand how to make the process less painful, perhaps even more rewarding. As she began to share her story she learned that “the more often I spoke, the less traumatic my experience seemed, the less sad, the less painful and, somehow, the less personal”. This is key, if we all could open up and relinquish the hold that this very common illness has on ourselves, friends and family, perhaps we can reduce some pain. There is no need to go on suffering alone. I have talked about the process of writing releasing me from so much pain, giving me new levels self-worth. My other intention is to pass along some inspiration to just talk more openly and plainly about any type of mental illness, without stigma and shame, so that more selves can be set free. There is no point to life if we just keep things inside and pretend things are okay. I have been trained to always tell people that I am “fine”. Its no wonder that when I talk more openly about my suffering that I am met with surprise from some (my close confidants know my story all to well).

Obviously, I still enjoy a bit of self-loathing, procrastination probably falls in this realm and I still feel the monolith of work towering over me. I could use a good night’s rest without twisting around in worry over a paper I should have started last week. So I better get off the soap box for today, it did feel better to get this off my chest.

What do you all think we could better to help with any kind of mental illness? Not just dragged to the hospital and put on lithium type of illness, but also for those of us who are functioning as the walking wounded. 

About an extrovert going introvert-ish.

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In the past few months, I’ve been rekindling a friendship with an old companion I had previously ignored for some time. Sitting in front of a blank page is my refuge, I cannot wait to return. My solitary friendship–writing prose, preferably alone, sometimes in silence other times with carefully curated playlists, allows me to feel safe. I feel like a lone caterpillar. In this bubble I create my own stories, words and characters. Nobody bothers me, makes me feel nervous, or paranoid. I don’t have to “figure anyone out.” I can make things up, or not. I can quote what I like, say what I need. I get some feedback from others, that is necessary, I know. I can chop away dead wood. There is no pressure to perform. This friend is what I make of it and we can be happy, angry, laugh or cry together. I kind of want nothing else right now. A solitary cabin in the woods for a month is seriously calling me, even to be away from loved ones would be bearable for a short time. (Yes, I am bookmarking every writer’s retreat known, I just need more time to build some chops).

Enjoying this type of solitude is very new to me, in the past I have always thought I enjoyed  having tons of people around. I was a typical extrovert, dying for validation. I was told (but partly believed) I had good “people skills”. I could strike up a conversation with anyone, I knew how to “work the room” with ease. Friends, people, co-workers were abound, almost everywhere I turned it seemed. But I don’t enjoy this “skill” as much, figuring out interactions with humans beings is exhausting work and my amazing talent may have been overblown. Lately, I have failed miserably in the human interaction game. I admit, right now I am raw. I feel a bit ravaged by monitoring, creating, assessing, understanding, analyzing, caring, loving and fostering relationships with people. I also want to protect my energy. I can easily get lost, pouring myself into friendships, adjusting to co-workers, figuring out how to deal with family. I want this energy to myself, right now I need it to fuel my writing. Its not to give away to others.

hermit_crab_dardanus_in_trochus_shell_IMG_2414So I sound like a grumpy ole hermit, this is true and I am cool with it. But the people that have stayed in my life don’t cause me this angst. We can always pick up from where we left off, I can ask for help, laugh and enjoy the world in their company. I have been mourning the loss of a few key people, some family that was close, but for now I see no path to reconciliation. Making space for my writing keeps my mind from wandering into the trap of conversation with the difficult people in my life. Then there are all the interactions that trouble me the greatest, artificial group dynamics at work, school and society. Here is where I really get into trouble and usually falter. My daughter’s school has been in full swing, almost nearing the end and its taken me this long to barely start connecting with other parents. Part of it had been my busy schedule, but the other part has been my own nervousness and lack of skill dealing with what I call the “adult world.”  I am still treading lightly, hooking onto families whose children play closely with my daughter, luckily they have all been easy and outgoing. I see the close bonds other parents have made with each other, asking about family members and jobs and I am nowhere near this level of commitment. But I can’t strive to fit in right now. I know it will grow, she is on to kindergarten with many of the same kids, so friendships will come together naturally. But the intense pressure this world puts on community, friends, being outgoing, being involved is so distracting to me these days.

mushy brainAgain, its about energy consumption, I am not willing to let go of my valuable time right now. I have learned this lesson from the past, my large network of acquaintances simply  provided a very fun distraction. Obviously I was not willing to focus on writing anyhow. When I did try, I felt so antsy, fidgeting my way through a paragraph or a half a sheet of journal paper, finally relenting and running out to play. Living in a city, where adult playgrounds are concentrated in rows of bars, clubs and restaurants made it tremendously easy to lose track of time and place. In fact, it didn’t even matter if I went into a bar alone, I would always find a “friend” in a moment’s notice, talking about almost anything, thinking to myself “ah this would make a great story” but never actually writing anything down. (Thank goodness so much of this time is still rattling around in my somewhat mushy brain).

I still enjoy going out, down to about once a month from 6-7 days a week. I try to avoid new conversation with strangers, I get my quarterly run down of my friend’s lives, we complain and reminisce. I don’t need much more than this. A date night with my husband is a time we don’t want to spend with others. Just the two of us, it happens so rarely, its an unstated rule that we don’t want to share.

All I am noticing, is that I like to be alone. Really figuring out people takes too much energy for me to enjoy any longer. An obvious exception to this is anyone in my inner circle, particularly my husband and daughter and very close friends. I expect harmony from friendships and family, not constant struggle. I abhor drama. Conflict tears me apart and my idealistic and overly optimistic viewpoint (yes I am an eager optimist despite my hermity ways) always lead to intense heartache. Then I lose time feeling sad. The other day, I laughed to myself thinking that I simply had a people problem, nothing more.

I enjoy letting my imagination roam. In my little apartment alone, I find warmth and camaraderie that I can trust. Even when my inner critic tries to rage inside, screaming about the lunacy of writing, I know how to shut her up. I just start typing. I re-read a draft, write down ideas, sift through pictures, take more pictures, walk to a coffee shop and write in my journal.

pencils 2Where I find little trust is with others. I know it may serve me well to gather like minded souls, luckily I already have a few in my life, but perhaps a conclave of writers could be a useful source of energy. I am working to build this group, slowly, with a discerning eye. Negative people, distractions, enabling buddies are not needed at this time. And here is the thing, I don’t need much right now, except to focus on writing stories. Learning the tricks of writing is filled with enough challenge and reward to keep  me going for a long time, I am sure. Writing is a solitary world that is unconfined to time and space. I have only recently stumbled upon this energy. It can thrust you into a world without your control. In this world, I can be dark and moody. I can go where I need, explore a topic, choose my art as I see fit. This is not filtering content or writing just to fill a word count, I do this for almost no particular reason except to fulfill my need to write.

The only pang of regret I carry in this moment is not starting this journey sooner. I mean really writing in earnest, not prancing around the edges. The get your hands dirty–in gerunds and adverbs, imagery, adjectives, poetry and words, narrative and tone and mood and space–type of writing. The fun stuff. All alone in my expansive imagination.

Oakland has it!

My favorite thing about Oakland its a place that is always misunderstood. A bit iconoclastic, a bit rebellious, of course sadly violent and always filled with diversity.

Stakes in The Ground.

I’ve finally cleared a few things up with myself. Once and for all. Here, they are:

1. I am a mother. Nurturing, caring, strong.

2. I am an artist. Creative, intuitive, risk-taking.

Simple, to the point, seemingly obvious. Yet I have struggled to carry the weight of both roles. Allow me the entitled pleasure to take you back into my life just 8 months prior.

My life was a mess. If you asked me then, I would probably not have been this direct in my assessment of my regular ole normal life. Job, married, car, kid, city apartment, health and family. I am not trying to diminish anything I had in my life by saying that I felt very unhappy. If you want to relegate this to “first-world whining”, a bourgeois breakdown or bratty adult tantrum, please read no further.

Anyhow, I ended up back on “the couch” because I had the wherewithal to recognize that my weekly crying fits were a huge sign that something was off kilter. In the midst of panic inducing anxiety and depression its very hard comprehend the cause of the suffering. I only knew that it was painful. Several endless loops of self-examination helped me realize I may be in big trouble. I asked myself, “Is this getting out of control? Is my roller coaster of emotions affecting my loved ones? Can I function at work? Is hiding under the covers for 2 whole days healthy?” I was frightened by the answers.

I asked for help, medical help. Now here is the thing, I was walking around with everyone else. Attending weddings, school functions, happy hours with friends and co-workers, family trips, playing with my daughter and functioning on almost a daily basis. The good times were just book-ended with days cocooned in my cozy little room. But the middle days were getting to closer to the hidden days. The cycles were shortening.

OutofFocusSo there I sat, on a chair, looking at a Grad student, ramping up her clinical hours with my mess. And this is what I remember most clearly. I said I felt like an out of focus picture of myself. Like looking through a lens that created multiple layers of gradation, some days would come into focus, and other days my face would blur at the edges, pulling from the center figure and unfolding into an endless repetition of a scattered soul. I was losing myself. I had no idea who I was anymore. Panic inducing is an understatement. I wanted it to end–if ending meant something other than leaving behind a shattered family. I wished for some magical erasure that just deleted me from the picture, where no one would be the wiser.

But I, nor anyone else in this world, has such power. There is no delete button. I was still here, not erased. At first I relented to this obvious realization. Since I can’t go anywhere, I might as well try a different approach. I took some immediate steps to remedy physical symptoms, such as taking medication. But, I didn’t really believe in myself, yet. I sheepishly poked around for names of therapists. I kept the holidays very very simple (something I will continue going forward). I planned a short getaway with my dearest friend. I booked my first appointment with a new psychologist on my way to the airport. I came back from my trip, and within a few hours I was fired. My appointment had ironically been set for my first day of unemployed life.

I can’t hold anything back anymore. For so many years, I created a narrative that was not my own, but one that was easily validated and acceptable. I was a one-stop-shop of marketing wizardry, a working mom, successful career-woman, striving to climb the ladder part way to middle management, a hard nosed disciplinarian keeping out of my daughter’s way and a competent juggler of complicated schedules who didn’t need help from anyone. I take business classes, I talk in acronyms and douchebag business-speak pushing the envelope, thinking out of the box and at the end of the day….I felt empty and alone. I trusted nobody, work “friends” confused me, I just wanted to hide away. I can remember coming home, filled with numbness, reaching for a bottle of wine, sending my husband for carryout, barely able to read a bedtime story to my daughter.

But, somewhere, buried deep beneath the mess I had created on my very own, were some nuggets of truth, safely stowed away. There is way more to me than the artificial identity I had thought I wanted for myself.

I remember being filled with love, dancing to 80’s music with a tall Icelander on the top floor of The Hilton Hotel. I was less full of myself, less concerned with what I ought to be doing, a little out there, a little unmoored. I played in a silly punk band, surrounded by friends and a scene that continued to invite us back for more fun and snack cakes. The best part was that we had the freedom to make what we wanted. I had something more than work, career and cared little for other people’s opinions. I admit, I did feel self-conscious of this attitude, I always felt like an immature child around the other adults at work. I felt I should be doing more, I felt that this could not last. I let myself fall in love with a man who liked me this way. He had fun with me too. I remember his beautiful smile. softfocus1

At some point, I stopped having fun. Even with my tall Icelandic free-floating husband. Sometimes I would rally for the sake of my child, but I pretty much convinced myself that the fun times were gone. I had to work, I needed a 401K and benefits, needed tons and tons of benefits and retirement accounts, raises, bonuses, promotions, new jobs, better clothing, nicer shoes. Life is serious, this is important times, better buck up, better grow up. You fucked around for too long.

And this landed me on the couch, vibrating with stress, in pools of tears, dripping with sorrow. I saw my saddened husband who could only offer me his hand. I cried with each consoling hug from my 4 year old daughter. This is not what I envisioned. At all.

So, I am starting to make my way back. I have a vision. And I have planted two very solid stakes in the ground. Motherhood is power. Artistry is freedom. When I die knowing that I nurtured, protected and cared for these gifts in my life, it will be a happy day. The role of mother and artist is right in my focal point and I can see it with crystal clear sharpness. The image I see is smiling, relaxed, resolute, forgiving and is me, its my face, my body and my bits of soul. I don’t to have to strain to figure it out, its always been inside.

Focusing on motherhood means honoring birth and rebirth–its love, sometimes mundane, filled with minute details, but all the thought and energy I have to provide is what feels so right to offer to my family. Now I see motherhood is about nurturing the nature of self, fostering a home filled with love, health and happiness. I have the power to create a small bit of space filled harmony, safety and fun for myself, my husband and daughter. I am the mother of this house. The well-being of this home is centered through me, its a reflection of my generosity and love. This is empowering and has been an immense revelation to me, as I have tried to run away from this vantage point of motherhood. I never believed I was worthy or good enough to have earth momma power. But I get now.

Being an artist is a role I have never really owned, but it has been at the center of my discontent. Up until this point, I have incorrectly characterized an artist as a flaky, poor, unsuccessful dreamer. Yet, I have always viewed the world through a lens of an artist. The very traits that have gotten me in trouble in the office are exactly what will help me stick to my artistry. Overthrowing the tyranny of status quo won’t make me nervous, rather gives me a freedom to express myself. For example, I really have no concern what is said on this blog, something I would have been so worried about in the past. What if someone read this blog and I never find a job again? What if my boss thinks I am a delusional neurotic rebel who hates management? I can only write this blog as an artist. If this makes little sense to you, I also have no concern trying to explain this. If this sound like crazy talk because you think that being an artist means I will never make a dollar in this world, than I will simply ask you to reconsider this stereotype. I am committed to my role as an artist, and this identity will be with me wherever I land.

stained glassMy next steps will be to create tangible goals that fall within the role of mother and artist, artist and mother. I have the rest of my life to fill these buckets with accomplishments. Even if I do feel a little fear, trepidation, slight unease with the nebulous pathways I am paving, I also know I have hit the nail on the head this time around. Artist. Mother. I can’t wait to see what will happen.

“The job of the artist is to deepen the mystery”. –Francis Bacon

Damping the Echo.

Listening hard is a choice.  At first, we open ourselves to hear everything. To use “big ears” and soak in all the noise. The trick is in the tuning. Exposing the clarity of crystal notes that break through the interference. To feel the warm hum of low frequency embracing us with forgiveness. The quiet descent of a slow fade. Letting the walls of our heart absorb unwanted waves. We can use discord in our favor. The echo chamber is softened. This is an artful craft. To create an acoustical wall where sound is controlled. No reverberations, still and noiseless.

I don’t want to hear everything. Just what needs to be heard. Crank the volume–full blast. It leaves me floored. My face is contorted. I cover my ears to stop the ringing. The electric thumps of my heart joins the squeal. Sensory overload jams the circuits. It feels like all is lost. Good noise and bad. Will it ever go away?

Is it possible to have stillness without isolation? This is part of the practice. A chamber with no echo is maddening. Our souls need reverberation. We bounce off ideas. Children scream in tunnels, as we smile. This is the joy of sound. Carefully controlled chaos that brings us closer to hearing the truth.

Messages don’t always arrive in four part harmonies. Most are a grinding blast of negativity. My mind wanders into a dark place. The sounds are thin and reedy. I can change stages, find a new set. Good sound is always noticed and rarely applauded.

Yet, the universe is full of glorious sound. I am beginning to tune in.

Riding the Feedback Loop.

Last night I took a big step into the realm of listening hard.

I signed up for a writing workshop, something I have attempted in the past and have failed miserably. Failure meaning, getting upset, taking critique personally, crying, feeling unworthy, getting depressed and eventually giving up. But I always give it a go every few years.

Unlike other workshop formats, in The Writer’s Studio we are asked to write original work based on a weekly reading from a published author. This allows us to challenge ourselves and experiment with different tools. But the most interesting part of the class, for me at least, is that another student reads your piece aloud and then everyone critiques it based on how well the assignment was met. The author is not allowed to speak during this time. In other words I have to listen. Take it all in and listen, quietly. With my mouth shut.

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I was worried and a bit anxious before class started. But I was also excited to share my story. I wrote my piece as a male narrator, something I had never done before. I was having trouble getting out of my head as I wrote, so I had to trick myself a bit. It worked and for me the exercise of creating a character that was not myself felt like a huge accomplishment. Well, that and listening quietly.

Everyone was very gracious, at some points there was even some laughter, which was good because I was trying to make the piece a bit sarcastic. Some of the feedback helped me see that the character sounded way more angry than I had intended. All of the talk about my piece kept me thinking of ways I could improve it and as I was taking notes, new ideas were popping into my head.

And this is the point that I learned something new. Feedback is important, without it we cannot hone our craft. We will never grow as budding artists.

Of course, I have heard about the virtue of critique before, but I never truly understood its use until last night. I need an audience so my work can have a life. If what I intended did not come through than the story was not effective. It obviously needs some more work. And this is all part of the process. Nobody nails it right out of the gate. Even Mark Twain would read his work out-loud to his family, just to gauge their reactions. He was a populist and if his work did not resonate with regular people, he was not on track.

Last night I connected the idea that I had created fear of feedback just as another block to progress. I do have a lot of work ahead. Instead of feeling daunted, I am invigorated by the challenge. It brings out my healthy competitive spirit.

I did feel some intense insecurities last night. As other pieces were read aloud, I started to judge my own work as inferior. Truthfully, there was some amazing writing last night, mine was not at the top. I can see where I need to put more effort in building more imagery, mood, tone and poetry.

I was starting to listen to the “You’re not good enough voice,” when I caught myself. I remembered that I have read countless times that many authors never feel satisfied with their work and are always self-critical. I thought of one of Zadie Smith’s 10 Rules to Writing;

Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.

It may sound depressing, but its just a sadness. At least you are not blocking yourself from trying. I was simply feeling that my work could be improved. If I apply the same lesson I JUST learned from feedback of others, to self-criticism, I should merely take note and apply the appropriate edits. So, I may need to work on some skills. I just started revisiting my passion to write. And like so many artistic endeavors, it take practice and hard work. Art can be deceptively simple to see, read, hear, eat or touch.  That simplicity is always borne out of dedication and commitment.

I learned and felt a lot last night. I am going to remain proud that I showed up to class with a completed piece. I have 9 more weeks to go, to try on new techniques, push myself and most of all have fun. The group of authors in the room were warm and inviting. I really have nothing to fear. Success for me will be to stick with it and not be defeated by old habits.