Not Good for the Heart (?)

I’m not a huge fan of confrontation. Or stress. That’s probably not surprising for anyone who knows me. If you don’t, you may wonder why I wandered into the depths of politics and religion with the last two articles I wrote. I’m a glutton for punishment, I guess. Nothin’ like “a waste of time” to get the blood pumping. I always find a way to stretch the barriers surrounding my own emotional containment. I’ve been told this is a good thing, but I’m not too sure about that. I feel like I’ve learned a few things this week, though, and I thought I’d share (if only to help me process my own feelings).

Hemingway once said: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” If that’s the case, then writing is a biopsy, and the reader is a doctor. Deep inside, you hope the reader is trained to process the results. You hope the reader has a decent bedside manner. You hope what you have isn’t terminal.

Oop, it’s terminal.

It’s the big word in the middle, it’s wonderful; I’ve never had someone critique my work with something so specific before. Kind of exciting, actually. I was looking for “preachy”, but “tendentious” is fantastic. At first I thought he misspelled “tangentious”, like, going off on endless amounts of tangents. And boy, do I ever (I love parentheses). But no, that’s not what the word means.

Tendentious: “expressing or intending to promote a particular cause or point of view, especially a controversial one.”

Thank the Lord, someone actually recognized what I was doing! It sounds like I’m being facetious when I say this, but I’m not: I’ve been waiting years for someone to give me feedback that’s so specific. I’ve spent the last ten years of my life working for marketing agencies where the only feedback I receive is if the details of the content I write need clarification or correcting. And if they do need correcting, I don’t often get specifics about adding things so much as deleting. Having worked for the last two-and-a-half years as a remote freelancer, I don’t get to discuss content writing much with people who do the same work, since, well… I don’t have co-workers.

I’m pretty used to being wrong, though. And I’m very used to being boring.

But “tendentious”… I never get to be tendentious, much less get recognized for it.

Hypocrite? Well, yeah, I mean, I mentioned that I was in the article. I usually assume everyone is, but it’s good to play it safe. I mentioned the possibility of being wrong many times, too, so I’m happy to get confirmation. The review even made it to the last line in the article, too, which makes this even more exciting; I only mentioned invoked Reagan’s name once, and despite agreeing with the sentiment that he was an evil hypocrite (just as every mortal who ever lived in this world is), I still believe the quote is useful, if not an actual truth.

You know how many times I’ve told myself that I’ve been wasting my time, though? That’s old news, my man; you and my brain both. And not just here, on this blog. I’ve mentioned in the past how I’ve felt about my own work, how none of the hundreds and thousands of pages of content I’ve written over the course of my life will ever be seen by human eyes. Even now, the words I’m writing amount to a fart in the wind. Nothing besides a bit of traffic from URL bot trawlers on search engines and blog scammers.

To be honest, though… I’ve never really had anything I’ve wanted to say before. Not really. I’m strange that way. I’ve been writing since I was a little kid, writing silly stories for myself and never for anyone else. Only in the last few years have I reached out to my own family members to see if I had anything worth saying. Not until early 2021 did I realize how hard it was to love writing while being too scared to show people the metaphorical blood on the typewriter.

When I chose “atheism” and “religion” as two of the keywords that would be attached to the last blog post, I knew what I was doing. I knew the kind of people I was inviting to the party. And I want to thank him. Honestly. Your feedback, while not the first deconstructive criticism I’ve ever received, told me more than I ever hoped for about an article that I knew was a throwaway from the start. You recognized I gave it effort, you recognized its purpose, and you read it to the end. Not a lot of readers have given my work that much attention, much less that much recognition.

Okay, it was… mostly a throwaway. I don’t enjoy writing things that aren’t meaningful to me, in some way (it’s why I didn’t get my bachelor’s, after all). Like I’ve said, thinking gets me into trouble. No matter how heartfelt I start things, the more I bleed across the metaphorical page, the more I realize that I’m just making a mess, and not a pretty one.

But, as a writer, I am duty-bound to bleed. And the more time and effort I waste in this profession, the stronger I become as a writer and as a person. Now that I’m no longer shackled to my medications and caffeine, I am able to accept unwarranted (and delightfully-specific) heat when it comes my way. And that is a wonderful sign of progress.

This all being said, however… I’ll take my refiner’s fire by degrees, thank you. I’m still a wuss. A wuss in remission, but still certainly one.

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The Price of (My) Education

Sorry if politics isn’t your thing. But this really gets my goat. My gander. My dander? I can’t remember the phrase, but this grinds my gears.

This opinion article by Deseret News recently appeared in my Facebook timeline. It’s titled: “President Biden forgave my student loans — I wish he hadn’t“. It really hits on how I feel about the U.S. government’s attempts to provide “charity” to its poorest citizens (or so our political leaders loudly insist).

I’ll be the first to admit it: I am on government welfare. I am on Medicaid, as I have a mental illness that has severely affected my ability to live, much less hold a job and pay my bills. I am not on food stamps, and never have been, despite my attempts to ask for it. I am not a wise person when it comes to money; I have filed for bankruptcy in the past, and I get the feeling that even if I was rolling in funds, I would be spending more than I would be making. If I were to win the lottery, I would be one of those fools that would manage to blow 500 million dollars right out the window (and having researched examples of lottery winners who lost it all, I don’t hesistate in saying that my 20-year old self would have done the same).

Yes, I am a fool. Yes, I am a hypocrite.

But, for all my faults, my country’s current leaders are making me look good.

One commentor on Facebook mentioned: “Well, what have the republicans done to improve the price of education? Haven’t they made the problem worse?”

Uh-huh. They did. It’s why the Republican party is no better than the Democratic party when it comes to forcefully funding “help for the poor” initiatives. They do it just to look good. There are no frugally-fiscal Republicans (none who would who use such a title), and very few fiscal conservatives. Look at me, becoming a fan of Ron Paul. Who knew?

Either way, I fell for the scam and made poor decisions, taking out loans for a degree I couldn’t finish due to poor health. And even if my health would allow it, to be honest, I refuse to finish it because my liberal arts English degree is taught only by communist quacks (yes, even at UVU/BYU/BYU-I, in the heart of supposedly-conservative Utah and Idaho). I didn’t want to learn about postmodernism, race theory, gender theory, or the dozens of other -isms and theories that liberal arts proports to make the college seem more scientific when it is ANYTHING but. I just wanted to learn how to write. And nobody suggested I learn how any other way (praise God I’ve been able to start my career without it).

Do I value my post-high-school education? Sure. Was it time well spent? Not really. Did it teach me to think critically? You could say that, yes, mostly about how crappy my overall experience was. Mostly about how I should have gone to a trade school and become an electrician. I love electrons more than I love Foucault, Derrida, and Marx, that’s for sure. By far, the most important lesson I learned in college was that some teachers just don’t give a damn, no matter how much you want to learn from them. No, I’m not going to name the teachers. I doubt they even know who they are, and that’s fine. Let’s just say, if you’re not the favorite, your will doesn’t really matter, no matter how expensive the tuition. The student is the servant, the peasant; feudalism hasn’t gone away, it’s moved to academia. You’re just another face in a wide sea of faces. And woe to you if your face becomes recognizable. Hell hath no fury like a professor scorned.

I’ll give a more concrete example.

One of the things about college education that really gets me these days are attendance rules. The worst class I ever attempted (yes, worse than postmodernism) was an HTML class that said, in no uncertain terms, that if you miss three days of class, even nonconsecutively, you fail, no questions asked. Well, I couldn’t find the damn class the first day, so there’s one. And then my illness hits me, as it tended to do, and there went two more. The class was held Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, held throughout the semester, so it wasn’t one of those fast-track courses that had only seven classes total or something. I might have agreed that missing MOST of a class would outright fail you, since you can’t learn anything in that case.

Worse, the class was not difficult. At all. It was a 200-level HTML class for liberal arts majors, and I had already done HTML and CSS the year previous, as I had changed my major from digital media to English. Just my luck that the credits didn’t transfer. I had even done the assignment that was due the day after my absences. But despite even attempting to communicate with the teacher why I missed those three days, the teacher wouldn’t accept my reasons, my completed assignment, or my attendance in his class. He wouldn’t even discuss the possibility of me staying, and he wouldn’t sign any papers that would let me drop the class to save money (I ‘failed’ the class well before midterms, but after the date that would allow classes to be dropped). He said: “it wouldn’t be fair to everyone else in the class.”

Oh. I’m sorry, I wasn’t aware that my education was anyone else’s buisness. I wasn’t yet aware that college was a communistic affair. Now I know better.

I get that an employer would have fired me for three “no-show” days. But I submit that a good employer wouldn’t have cared had the work been done on time and correctly. Besides that, I feel like some teachers and professors create unbreakable, unbendable rules that sound good on paper but leave no room for the possibility that someone who might break them is still capable of learning.

…did I mention this was an HTML class? It wasn’t Hemmingway or Shakespeare, missing three out of the thirty-some-odd classes wouldn’t have set me back. I was taking the class in person like a lemon because they didn’t offer the liberal arts version online… because of course they didn’t. Not in that major. Not before the pandemic, though I’ve heard that covid-19 has made university attendance policies somehow less amenable, not more.

By the end of my college experience, I became too scared to attend class. Part of that was the illness, but part of it was the realization that no one cared that I was there, especially not the professors. Sad that these sentiments are the great-big asterisk hovering above my college days.

One of my favorite lines from a Medium article by Elliot Swane, speaking of Foucauldianism (yup, that is an ugly-ass noun): “…because affirming pointlessness, and then just doodling words around on the page and drawing faint connections and dropping them, is pointless, and pointless shit is pointless, ad infinitum.” That’s how it felt to take my postmodernism class. And I took it twice, from two different teachers, because I just couldn’t handle the bullshit. And each time, someone in class would ask: “Why are we learning it if everything is meaningless?” And each time, I would fully agree, and walk away.

Don’t even get me started on Derrida. That guy couldn’t philosophise his way out of a wet paper bag.

I couldn’t afford school at 18, I can’t afford it at 34, and now that the government has assumed complete monetary control over education, even if I wanted to, I don’t think I can justify taking out another set of loans to try again. Morally, I can’t do it. Otherwise, I’m going to end up forcing my friends, my family, my acquaintances, my enemies, and all the other American taxpayers I don’t know to pay for something I don’t really even want.

Maybe I’ll be one of those centenarians who goes back to get their degree. With how the future is looking, though, I doubt it. I wish I could refuse this “help”. I really do, even in my financial state. Great Lakes (the originator of my loan) does not give me the option to refuse, because they’ve already taken the money. But, then again, maybe Biden was aiming at me when he decided to spend your billions of dollars.

In that case, I guess I’m flattered. But I’m still not voting for him in 2024. Sorry, not sorry.

Examining the Wounds Without the Bandages, Part One

I don’t talk about my mission much. When I do, I usually only talk about it long enough to mention where I went, when I served, and how much it affected the person I have become. If you’re familiar with that person, then it’s probably safe to assume that you think I absolutely hated my mission and wish I’d never gone. I’ll admit, I have said those exact words before. Many times, actually. But I don’t think that simple statement helps illustrate how I really felt about my mission service. After all this time, after dealing with depression and bipolar disorder in all the wrong ways, I feel like I should revisit some of my memories, especially now that I’m slowly removing all of the “band-aids” that I shoved over the wounds attempting to ignore them instead of treat them properly.

I served as a full-time missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in the Los Angeles Mission from 2007-2008, my time cut short due to a major bout of kidney stones that required surgery to remove (twice, actually, separated by a few years). To say that those 14 short months were “formative” to my present life would be like describing the excavation of a craver via a nuclear explosion as “repositioning some dirt”. I’ll explain why, and why I believe, ultimately, that it was a good thing I chose to serve.

On Top of the World One Minute…

I graduated from Timpanogos High School in Orem, Utah in 2006. Right from senior year, I had a full-ride scholarship to Brigham Young University, Idaho, and I was super excited to dive into life and learn as much as I could about everything. I did not yet show any symptoms of bipolar disorder, and only minor signs of depression stemming from the typical teen angst. During junior high and high school, I was the goody-good Mormon boy (at least I felt that way). I never had any really good friends in my family ward, but I had a group of close friends from school that expanded as time went on. I ended up pretty confident and optimistic, all things considered, especially going into the transition to college.

I was able to live with my grandparents while I attended BYU-I at the end of 2006 and the beginning of 2007, which became a wonderful learning experience; my grandpa, Richard Bird, was previously a watercolor/oil painting teacher at the old Spori building on campus, and I was able to take advantage of learning from him when I took a few art classes.

It was during this time that two major health issues revealed themselves.

I intensely remember sitting down in the living room of my grandparents’ house one morning, turning on a marathon of The Lord of the Rings trilogy that was showing on TBS, and being unable to rise off of the couch for the entire marathon. And it wasn’t because I felt any strong desire to watch them, either. For those of you who know me, sitting down, willingly, to watch a fifteen-hour marathon of anything on a channel that made a nine-hour, non-extended-edition experience that much longer because of commercials… I wouldn’t do that, especially not the week of midterms, not when there were things that needed to get done.

It was my first brush with what I called “depression” at the time, but now realize was my first manic/depressive downswing.

I also began feeling the first twinges of pain from my left kidney. There’s a story there, beyond the kidney stones. I was born two weeks early, which doesn’t seem like it should have been much of a problem. But, hey, I’m a problem child, and I came pre-packaged as one. Not only could I not breathe on my own right out of the gate, my left ureter (the tube that connects my kidney to my bladder) was formed incorrectly. Surgery was performed to fix the blockage when I was a few months old, and I’ve got the scar to prove that the doctor tried their best. Unfortunately, while my ureter is large enough to process water, the scar tissue on that dang little tube doesn’t allow kidney stones to pass on their own.

Why is the ureter so dang thin and long? Asking for a friend.

I did not realize this before my mission. Nor did the doctor who performed my physical and approved my physical ability to serve. This will become important later.

…Crashing the Next

It’s not too hard for me to point to why I feel like my mission was the worst thing evar. The difficulty arises in admitting that I don’t actually feel that way. So, if you’ll allow me, I’ll lay it all out in the most awful way possible and then attempt to build up from the lowest point.

Growing up in Utah, it’s not difficult to see how I was able to feel confident enough to serve a mission. I was surrounded by friends, family, co-workers (for the most part), ward members, and even complete strangers that believed in exactly the same things that I believed in. When I made the decision to serve a mission, this was celebrated, and expected. So expected, that I was not aware I had a decision to the contrary. I had family that decided not to serve, certainly, and I didn’t hold that against them; I still don’t. I felt I had no reason not to serve. After all, in the LDS church, it is expected that every able-bodied and worthy young man should serve a mission. For all I knew, I was able-bodied. And I felt worthy.

So I did.

I can’t even begin to describe what it feels like to go from a pure and understanding environment where you have been taught to value a single ideology with your whole being, to enter a place where no single person believes anything remotely similar to you. To go from a place where you are one of a comfortable majority to one in an intensely singular minority. But not just any minority. A minority that belongs to one of singular scorn and contempt. To most people on the street, you become something less than human. Less than a telemarketer calling during Thanksgiving dinner. Less than a teenager going door-to-door selling pest control, because at least they can easily explain the purpose for why they knocked on your door. Less than a Jehovah’s Witness, because at least they know what they believe. What was I? A scrawny white kid from a creepy cult who couldn’t speak much Spanish… and frankly, not much English either, at least not with any great charisma.

When I put on the badge, that black missionary tag with the name of the church and “Elder Bird” engraved on it, I became a target, for better or for worse. Combined with the white shirt and tie, a very visible target, one that made an excellent backboard for 64-ounce Big Gulp soda cups and drunk people who wanted to let off some steam. People go out of their way to cross the street to avoid talking to you. Those that do want to talk to you usually begin the interaction as a confrontation instead of a conversation. Sure, you get doors slammed in your face. But I began to prefer that. It hurt much less than talking to a very tired elderly mother with four mentally-handicapped adult children (all of whom she still cared for) that demanded to know what a nineteen-year old boy could possibly explain to her about the unfair god that “blessed” her in such a way. How could I explain to a woman who, in an effort to show pity on a deluded and brainwashed young man and tried to convince that I had fallen for a “delusion”, that I had chosen to believe of my own free will and choice, and that it was my choice to teach the gospel I had grown up learning, knowing, and, yes, loving with all my heart? How could I even hope to convince a veteran that had fought in the killing fields of Vietnam, whose lungs had inhaled enough Agent Orange to cause serious and life-threatening damage on its own, that I knew something that could put his heart at ease, in any way?

When Christ healed the man with palsy, he asked a very pointed question to the scribes: “For whether is easier, to say, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and walk?” Growing up, I used to equate the two in “difficulty”. I don’t equate them anymore. Palsy, leoprosy, blindness, deafness, even the condition of death itself. The human heart is infinitely more difficult to heal.

It’s one thing to give blessings. It’s one thing to baptize. It’s one thing to administer the sacrament.

It is an entirely different thing to look someone in the eyes and tell them that they will never hear something that will matter more to their eternal happiness or misery than what they will hear from me. To do so with a straight face. To do so with as much sincerity, clarity, and quality as such a discussion demands. And to do so for fourteen hours a day for two years.

And Then It Ended

And then I came home early from kidney stone issues. Remember the ureter problem? I had two dime-sized kidney stones that made any movement painful and missionary work impossible. And for the next fifteen years, the bipolar got worse, I never found a medicine that could make the mood swings tolerable, and I lost my grandparents before I ever found the courage to really look at the choices I’d made.

Logically, as a missionary, I knew two things. That the Savior was asking me to help Him carry His cross, and that He promised that His burden was light. But I was not wise enough to realize that the “burden” he was asking me to carry was not merely the one I carried as a missionary. It was the whole of my life. True, He was asking me to carry what I could, enough that I could “walk and not faint“, that I ought not “run faster or labor more than [I] have strength“. I’ll be the first to admit it, I always bite off more than I can chew. I always pick up heavier rocks than I know I can lift. I’m not a wise individual. And I’m a show-off by nature. I added an unnecessary amount of pain to my healing process.

But I did it because I thought I was supposed to. Returned missionaries are always stronger when they come home. Or so I thought. Returned missionaries always return victorious, triumphant, with a greater conviction. Or so I insisted was the case for me. When I came home, no one really asked why I was ten months early. I assume those who cared already knew why. I didn’t really talk about my mission because no one really asked me about it. And when I did, only these negative emotions rose to the surface. Only the bad times came to mind.

I was in a lot of pain. Physically, because of kidney stones. Emotionally, because I had been a psychological and sometimes physical target of ridicule and abuse for fourteen months. And spiritually, because I thought I had utterly failed as a missionary. I had baptized one person personally. A mom who wanted what was best for her and her child. A mom that I had felt guilty teaching (whether or not that guilt was warranted, I don’t honestly know; in my view, the circumstances of it were strange and kind of hard to explain).

I didn’t stay in contact with anyone I met on the mission, besides old companions. I feel bad about that. It was easier to hope that everyone I knew had forgotten about me. Better that they stayed in contact with missionaries that were stronger than me, better examples. Better with the language. More confident in sharing the message. Less ashamed of the good fight. Even now, I’m scared to reach out, even just to say hello. Even now, it hurts to even contemplate improving my Spanish, so ashamed I was (and still am) at my feeble attempts to speak it in the mission field. I did my best in that regard, so I know the shame is unnecessary. But when has necessity ever dictated what I felt?

Was It Worth It Or Not?

The Lord and the prophets have called the trials and tribulations we live through a “refiner’s fire”. The process of ore purification requires a ton of heat to separate the pure metal from the impurities and dross that make the material otherwise unusable.

I like the analogy. The mission is certainly a refiner’s fire, a never-ceasing application of intense heat and pressure. But I feel like we then equate all of life to the same process. But it isn’t. On the whole, life can be spicy, and the conflicts of day-to-day living can get pretty hot. But it’s much more situational. There are episodes of extreme conflict followed by long stretches of relative calm. Life is much more the potter’s game, a longer period of sculpting and formation, with much more emphasis on patience and practice. The mission belongs to the blacksmith, endless hours of heat, hammering at an object that does not like to budge. An intense period of time where chunks of yourself are sheered away in explosions of sparks and flame, and you’re never quite sure if the metal will bend or shatter.

Me? I was pulled out of the forge early. I wasn’t given time to anneal. I hadn’t adjusted to the pressures and the pain that the hammering was inflicting before it all just… vanished.

But just like there are many forms of refining, there are also many different versions of annealing, hardening, or “finishing” metal. The Lord knows my specific alloy. Maybe instead of annealing, I needed another form of finishing to “harden” the faith I had formed.

Maybe my finishing required a process such as this:

Believe me, the narrator in the video stating that the usefulness of the age hardening process depending on the alloy is not lost on me. My kidney stones were a time bomb that went off precisely when it was meant to (whether you, the reader, believe that or not is irrelevant, by the way). For me, the refining process was specific and intense. What it meant is left for me to interpret, the purpose of the final form known fully only to the Master.

Well. That’s only partially true.

Elder James E. Faust shared President David O. McKay’s words of what happened to the survivors of the Martin Handcart Company during a conference talk in April 1979. He stated:

Some years ago president David O. McKay told from this pulpit of the experience of some of those in the Martin handcart company. Many of these early converts had emigrated from Europe and were too poor to buy oxen or horses and a wagon. They were forced by their poverty to pull handcarts containing all of their belongings across the plains by their own brute strength. President McKay relates an occurrence which took place some years after the heroic exodus: “A teacher, conducting a class, said it was unwise ever to attempt, even to permit them [the Martin handcart company] to come across the plains under such conditions.

“[According to a class member,] some sharp criticism of the Church and its leaders was being indulged in for permitting any company of converts to venture across the plains with no more supplies or protection than a handcart caravan afforded.

“An old man in the corner … sat silent and listened as long as he could stand it, then he arose and said things that no person who heard him will ever forget. His face was white with emotion, yet he spoke calmly, deliberately, but with great earnestness and sincerity.

“In substance [he] said, ‘I ask you to stop this criticism. You are discussing a matter you know nothing about. Cold historic facts mean nothing here, for they give no proper interpretation of the questions involved. Mistake to send the Handcart Company out so late in the season? Yes. But I was in that company and my wife was in it and Sister Nellie Unthank whom you have cited was there, too. We suffered beyond anything you can imagine and many died of exposure and starvation, but did you ever hear a survivor of that company utter a word of criticism? Not one of that company ever apostatized or left the Church, because everyone of us came through with the absolute knowledge that God lives for we became acquainted with him in our extremities.

“‘I have pulled my handcart when I was so weak and weary from illness and lack of food that I could hardly put one foot ahead of the other. I have looked ahead and seen a patch of sand or a hill slope and I have said, I can go only that far and there I must give up, for I cannot pull the load through it.’” He continues: “‘I have gone on to that sand and when I reached it, the cart began pushing me. I have looked back many times to see who was pushing my cart, but my eyes saw no one. I knew then that the angels of God were there.

“‘Was I sorry that I chose to come by handcart? No. Neither then nor any minute of my life since. The price we paid to become acquainted with God was a privilege to pay, and I am thankful that I was privileged to come in the Martin Handcart Company.’”

I wish I could say that I had never complained. I wish I could say that I never asked the Lord to tell me why I was feeling so devastated and hopeless, when I did what I knew was right. I wish I could say I always had the right mindset, or had the right perspective. I even wish I could say with certainty that angels had guided my steps in that City of Angels.

But I can say, with absolute certainty, that I have become acquainted with God in the time since. I know that Jesus Christ is my savior, that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is His ministry, and that there is more to life than the fire.

In that way, I can say with equal surety, that I am glad I served a mission. And I wouldn’t trade that for anything. That, or the wonderful memories that I’ll share in my next blog.

Playing With the Percentages

A lot of famous (and infamous) men have had things to say about percentages and statistics through the years.

“There are three types of lies — lies, damn lies, and statistics.”

Benjamin Disraeli, former prime minister of Great Britain

“I couldn’t claim that I was smarter than sixty-five other guys–but the average of sixty-five other guys, certainly!”

Richard Feynman, theoretical physicist

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns- the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

Donald Rumsfeld, secretary of defense under President George W. Bush

I’ve actually got my eye on writing a whole other article about that particular quote (a serious one, too; as nonsensical as Rumsfeld’s words may first appear, there’s actually a solid chunk of truth there). But my personal favorite, and the idea around which I want to form my current hypothesis, is this:

“Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable.”

Mark Twain

My hypothesis is this: there are things about myself that I cannot change, and that will never go away. But I can increase or decrease the likelihood of negative circumstances occuring through small actions I can take right now.

I call it the XCOM Strategy to Mental Fortitude.

Why In the World Is It Called That?

If you’ve ever played the pc game XCOM: Enemy Unknown, XCOM 2, or any one of the myriad titles in the series, then you know that the game is all about calculating percentages. When one of your soldiers aims at an alien on the battlefield, the game calculates many different variables and provides a percentage chance that your soldier will hit the enemy with whatever weapon they’re using.

It looks something like this:

I apologize for the size of the image; the important details are in the bottom left.

In XCOM 2, the system gives you the details of what will increase or decrease the chances of your soldier hitting the enemy. If your solider has good aim, the chances go up. If your soldier’s gun has a scope, or they have a height advantage over their target, the chances go up further. If the enemy is behind half-cover or out of range of your soldier’s weapon, the chances go down. If the enemy is enshrouded in smoke, or has specific resistances, chances go down further. If they’re behind full cover or invisible, you may not have any chance to hit at all.

There is, however, one option that (almost) always works: go AOE and make it explode.

Of course, going explosive is dangerous. The grenade could damage any allies in the area, or bring down local infrastructure (I’ve lost quite a few fights to poor explosion calculations). It also has the nasty habit of destroying your enemy’s weapons if they die, leaving you nothing to salvage after the battle is over.

So, in XCOM, you’ve got some facts. The enemy aliens want to turn you into goo, and there are more of them then there are of you. Your opponents know how to use the terrain, and they have technology on their side. Unless your soldiers are well-trained veterans, their aim is going to be poor and you’ll want to give them every technological and psychological advantage you can scrape together to make them more effective combatants.

In a similar way, although I have been at this mental health business for well over a decade, I am a novice. My ability to stand up to this disease is lackluster. Medicine, the one “advantage” I thought I had, instead smokescreened me to the reality of my situation, and I used it as a crutch that hindered my own desire to make any real changes. So, instead, I’m currently doing (or planning on doing) a number of things to increase the possibility that I will have fewer depressive episodes, and when I inevitably do, increase the likelihood that I can rise out of them faster.

Why is it called the XCOM Strategy, then, instead of just the Statistical Strategy? Mostly because of this:

And this (keep an eye on those percentages):

And this:

As in life, even if the statistics say you have a 99% chance of making something happen, life has a funny way of making the improbable occur instead (if in doubt, consult Murphy and his related laws). Nothing I do will give me a 100% chance of allaying a depressive episode. But that doesn’t make playing with the statistics a poor decision. Life is life, for both pessimists and optimists. No matter what happens, the more I improve my social, emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being, the better the depressive episodes will be when they happen.

What I’m Doing Now

  • At the worst of things (March 2021), I weighed 265 pounds. I am now 222 (as of August 2022), aided by the fact that I no longer need to eat all the damn time because of my medicine.
  • I am walking regularly, at least three miles a week. Also aided by the fact that I can now exercise without being blinded by a waterfall of sweat that only seemed to fall from my forehead and absolutely nowhere else. It’s very hard to walk while blind. While this may sound silly, it really was an issue, and the main reason I never wanted to exercise. While taking my medicine, my body just “ran hot”, and I’d have hot flashes more often than I care to admit.
  • I’m writing more. Here, specifically. Fiction and non-fiction.
  • Increasing my workload with my freelance. I get to write two articles about muay thai kickboxing this week. Rock on.
  • I’m submitting applications for full-time employment. While starting a new job runs a bit contrary to my present efforts of resisting depression, the social and monetary benefits outweigh the downsides.

What I Want to Do, Immediately

  • Start studying scriptures again. One conference talk (I’m LDS) and the week’s sunday school lesson’s worth of scriptures a week. I’m still not strong or brave enough to go back to church, so I need to restart somehow.
  • Eat a protein-heavy and fat-heavy breakfast every morning. A lack of energy is currently my mood’s number one enemy.
  • Sleep better, and more regularly. Mentally, I know I function better at night. I’ll have to make adjustments when I do find a job, but this is an important one.
  • Make someone I know happy, every day. I try too hard to make strangers happy, all the while ignoring the people that I love. Strange, isn’t it, how the more depressed you feel the stronger the desire to reach outwards? And when I mean “outwards”, I mean in the wrong direction, towards the internet and total strangers who have less of an incentive to truly care. I was on Twitter a lot before March 2021. Let me tell you where that led me:
No hyperbole here, either.

What I Want to Do, Eventually

  • Make a stranger happy, every day. By this, I mean “try” to, make the world a better place one person at a time. In-person is preferred, but online too. Compliment someone for an idea, thank someone for saying something. There’s far too much tearing down online and not enough building up. I’ve sort of started doing this, but I know I’m not strong enough to endure if I do it wrong. The trigger is still very much alive there. I consider this one my AOE strats: if it works, it really works. If it doesn’t, it REALLY doesn’t.
  • Return to church. And by extension, return to the temple. I need all the assistance I can get, and if I can improve my social health and the lives of others along the way, all the better.
  • Get my weight below 180 lbs. My current goal is to get to 200 by December 31st, 2022. For a five foot, eleven inch tall man, the optimal weight is 155 – 189 lbs. I just want to have a pointy chin again. Not a round one, and certainly not more than one. With less weight, I’ll also have more energy, which will hopefully mean fewer depressive episodes related to not being able to do the things I love.

What I Want All This to Lead To, In Orders of Magnitude

Maybe one day, I’ll be able to enjoy Dungeons and Dragons without anticipating a mental breakdown.

Maybe one day, I’ll be able to roll with the punches and take surprise events without increasing the likelihood of a mental breakdown.

Maybe one day, I’ll be able to contemplate dating again without having a mental breakdown.

Maybe one day, I’ll be strong enough to finish my stupid book.

Maybe one day, I’ll be able to go on an actual date.

Maybe one day, I’ll be able to get married, start a family, have children.

And maybe one day, I’ll be able to look back at my life and say, unequivocally, that I resisted the urge to end my own life, and make it one worth living.

There’s always an XCOM chance that it won’t work. But there’s also an XCOM chance that it might. Either way, a blaze of glory is better than a fizzle.

When You Love What You Hate

One of the hardest things about mental illness is feeling pain and anxiety while doing the things you love, to an unbearable degree. But you have to do the things you love. You have to. You have to serve those you love, because the alternative is to give up every good thing you have. So you do your favorite things, and you help your friends and family, and all while your mind is screaming at you to stop.

The Trigger

Disgustingly accurate meme about choosing depressing shit over the things you love.
It’s too real.

During depressive episodes, even as I’m going through life as usual, things affect me in ways they shouldn’t. Or, I should say, they affect me in ways they wouldn’t otherwise.

Yesterday was already off to a rough start. In fact, the whole week was, because a depressive episode had started brewing on Monday, skipping a day to begin properly beause who-the-hell-knows-why. I had just finished editing the first four chapters of my book, posting them here on my blog and inviting people to read them if they wanted to. I didn’t get a whole lot of feedback, as usual. I don’t know what kind of audience my book is really for, besides myself. And honestly, not many people have the time to read these days, and even less have a desire to read on a screen instead of on paper. That, I totally get; it’s why I use a text-to-speech program, I always miss punctuaction and spelling when writing online, and that’s when writing, never mind reading. (EDIT: I messed up the previous sentence while writing it, case in point.)

By the afternoon, my sister had stopped by the house to see my mom and dad, and I told her about my writing. I had told my mom about it the day before, and she had started reading it, noting that she hadn’t noticed too many differences in the first two chapters she read. Which was to be expected; chapters three and four were the chapters to receive the greatest amount of change in terms of plot and conversation.

After talking to them about it, I thought I would then message a few online friends about it, to see if they would want to read something I wrote.

And that was the moment it started. That was a trigger.

What the Trigger Triggered

Though my “career” as a writer (if you can call it that) has been rocky because of mental illness, I’ve come to a certain level of awareness about the type of content I produce. In online marketing and content writing, the true purpose of content isn’t necessarily about the meaning of the words you type on the page. SEO marketing (or search engine optimization) depends on the writer using the right keywords and keyphrases to attract people to read whatever is being presented. If I’m doing work for a puppy grooming salon, I write to the topic they want me to advertise, I write the words “puppy grooming” a certain percentage of times, and mention a location, usually the town or city of the business’s physical location (let’s say Burmingham, Alabama). So if people in Burmingham, Alabama look up “puppy grooming” in a Google search, the fact that I used those words tell the search engine to suggest they click on that page, as it may hold the information to the service they’re looking for.

In all likelihood, the person searching Google for “puppy grooming” is not going to read the 600 words I wrote for the page that appears. Unless it’s a blog (and a pretty good one at that), they’re likely going to skip ALL of the words on the webpage to find a phone number, an address, something specific, especially if it’s for a small business with a specific product or service. No one reads the marketing. And why would they? I don’t know anything specific about the businesses I write for, and it’s specifics people are always hunting for.

In other words, you might say that I have spent the majority of my adult life writing for search engines, not for an audience, and certainly not for myself. That’s not to say that I’m not grateful for the paychecks, and it certainly isn’t to say that I haven’t learned how to be a better writer by proxy.

But search engines don’t easily demonstrate appreciation. I can count on one hand the amount of times I’ve received any kind of feedback from my work, negative or positive. Of those, the majority were because I colossally messed something up. That’s not to say I’m a bad writer. Or, at least, I don’t think I am. It’s just the nature of the beast. Even though I always try to find the interesting details, try to throw in some humor with the professional copy, when it comes right down to it, I’m not being paid to be interesting or humourous. I’m being paid for a word count.

I’m a performer for machines.

So, when I finally have the chance to show off a story, a narration that I’ve had locked in my brain for more than a decade, and I’m nervous as hell to do so…

It hurts when I hear nothing back but the same echoing silence.

Cue the Pity Party, Right?

No. That’s the part that I hate the most, actually. I’ve never written anything besides the SEO stuff. I shouldn’t expect anyone else to care even a fraction of what I do for the story I’m trying to tell. Everyone I love, all of my friends, they have their own lives to live, and I should not expect anyone to drop everything they’re doing to read 80 pages of what is likely to be hot garbage. Besides, this is the hobby portion of the thing I love, there is no time limit on its creation or its editing, and I’ve said many times to those of my friends and family who have taken time out of their busy lives to read it that this is a personal project with a target audience of one.

Me. I’m writing this story for me.

But that’s the thing. The story is personal. There are many aspects of the main characters that are facets of myself, or the person I wish I could be. I’ve tried to design these characters to have needs and desires that make them unique. They tell stories to each other, and crack jokes that made me, as the writer, actually laugh out loud. I’ve spent a lot of time crying with these characters, even, and poured a lot of my self-doubt and hatred into a few of the scenes in the book. Perhaps more than I should have, seeing as how I wrote much of the book while dealing with the worse moments of my own life.

Writing is one of the few methods I have at my disposal where I can truly express how I feel. How I see the world. How the world affects me, and how my mind interrupts and distorts the proper flow of information, both in and out. For the majority of words I’ve ever organized into coherency, my writing has been written to be ignored. Sure, word count and percentages aren’t the only things that matter. But I can guarantee that I’ve posted incorrect information that got the job done anyway. And like an electrician, or a plumber, my goal is to make something that works. I only get feedback if I do a bad job wrenching the pipes together.

Just for once, I want to create something that makes people happy for having read it. I want to make someone want to know what happens next. Hell, I want someone to tell me, flat-out, that they read my story and thought it was one of the most boring things they’d ever come across. I would love someone to tell me that my work put them to sleep. That it wasn’t their thing, but they read it because they knew I wrote it.

I’ve performed for machines for so long… and I just want some feedback.

So What Did the Episode Look Like?

Pretty deep depression. The suicidal type, for about a day and a half. Me, wondering if it’s even worth my time to be here. Me, wondering if I’m worth anything more than my physical presence. Me, desperately wanting to talk to someone about it all, but knowing that I will make zero sense, especially if they assume I want “solutions”. Me, wanting a purpose in life but seeing none if I can’t rise above this. And, worst of all, me, wondering what the conversations would be like between my friends and family if I did actually end it (the fact that my diseased brain finds that shit in any way cathartic being the number one reason I should be seeking professional help, but being too scared about money and time to do so).

A lot of “me”. It always is.

At about 11 o’clock P.M., the episode finally lifted. I went downstairs and made some oatmeal butterscotch cookies. Then I jumped on here to write about it.

What I’m Learning

Being off of medication has flipped things one-hundred and eighty degrees, and not in the direction you might think. Not upside-down, but right side-up. I can more easily recognize that it isn’t ME that hates the things I love, that wants me to stop writing, that wants me to hurt. It’s the imbalance. And it has always been the imbalance.

You know what? That’s what you are, officially, with a capital “I”. You are the Imbalance. You are the stain in the mirror. The shadow on the wall. You are the reason I hate myself, and want my time on Earth to end. But you are not me. On medicine, that distinction was so blurred, I could not see where I ended and my shadow began. The window was so blurred, I couldn’t see that the reflection had fangs, and the face of a fallen angel.

You are not me. You are this.

I haven’t learned how to fight back yet, but just the fact that I can recognize the difference… maybe it’s a step forward.

What It Feels Like Now

(Apologies for talk of suicide.)

I stopped taking all of my bipolar medications in late February and early March. For a week or two, I spaced them out, intending on slowing each one down one by one. I got impatient and went faster than I should have. But let’s be honest: when you’re taking poison that you know is killing you, it’s only natural to want the poison gone as soon as possible.

And yes, my medicine was killing me. Not like a poison does, exactly. It was eating me alive in a different way. I was taking it like someone takes an antibiotic. My ever-changing moods and constant desire to kill myself was the bacterial infection, and the antipsychotics were the cure that would somehow make those intense feelings go away. That, of course, is not what antipsychotics do, and not how treating mental illness works. But I’m going to be honest again: if they weren’t doing that, then what the hell were they actually doing?

I’m not going to pretend like I was trying to ignore all of my doctors. For all I know, maybe the medications ended up messing with my memory. But here we go, honesty number three: I can’t tell you what my medicines were supposed to do. I don’t know what an antipsychotic does. I don’t know what Effexor does. Was it supposed to “take the edge off” of the most intense feelings of self-hatred? Make me feel more in control during times of incredible emotional turmoil?

Maybe it did, I don’t know. All I know is that medicine wasn’t the solution, and I didn’t have a backup plan.

I’ve been in Limbo for a long time. I’ve had a number of jobs, and I’ve had to throw all of them away because I couldn’t endure. One mistake in my medicine schedule, and any semblance of stability is thrown immediately out of the window. Wrong medicine? Well, here’s to two more months of waiting just to see if it “works”. Hint: they never did. Then try something new, and more waiting. Watch a movie with something particular twisted? Read a book with a particularly horrid detail? There goes the rest of the week. Watch someone on the news argue? Accidentally watch a hate-filled YouTube video or Tiktok? I have to wait at least two days for the sting of those emotions to become diluted and fade before I can focus on literally anything.

When I shoved a bottle full of pills into my mouth and swallowed, I noticed a couple of things. First, I had already made the decision way ahead of actually performing the action. I had made the decision without full knowing, so clearly that the suicide attempt was almost effortless. It was just a thing. A fully natural action. It was only about thirty seconds after I had swallowed the pills did I realize the full weight of what I had just done.

And that hit me hard. Hard enough that when I realized I couldn’t force myself to throw up (I was too afraid to physically do so), I called 911 for help.

Would the overdose have killed me if I didn’t? I don’t know. I don’t think that’s ever been the relevant question.

So, now that I am not taking any medications for my bipolar disorder, what does it feel like?

I still can’t watch movies or television. Body horror in particular is the worst; I’ll never scrub the idea of Unwinding out of my head (thanks Mr. Shusterman). I still can’t watch intense political debates. I still can’t approach Twitter. I still don’t trust myself with work; I have never been as dependable as I know I can be. I’ll still stumble into thought patterns that I consider “sticky”, that won’t resolve themselves without a lot of sleep and time.

There are moments of complete torture that feel like my nervous system is being overcharged, where I’m suddenly feeling way more than my power lines can handle, and it’s all I can do to pace around the room and occassionally hit my head like an old black-and-white television set that never gets clear reception. This happened most intensely about a month after I stopped all of my meds, and now it only happens when I’m stressed out. I actually find it slightly relieving to hit my forehead, my left upper arm, or my chest at times. I want to scream sometimes, but I don’t cry too much anymore, even though I intensely want to.

Did my medicine stop me from feeling? Or did they allow me to feel? Did it moderate or not? Why was that never consistent? And why do I not know, even all these years into this ordeal?

It took blowing up at my mom, then my sister, then my cousin to finally gather the courage to stop taking my medications altogether. And now that I have, I realize that medication never really was the answer. Or an answer. At all. I might have tried to explain how frustrating it feels to be back at square one, fifteen years after the fact. But I have to be honest one more time: there isn’t a square one to go back to. I left square one way behind me, before my mission, before I feared the world, and before these emotions began to overpower me.

The only difference between the medicated me and the non-medicated me is a complete lack of optimism. When I tried to commit suicide, I did so without a real understanding of what I had chosen to do. I hadn’t really given up. Even in that moment, I hadn’t really stopped trying. Not until now. I’ve never been so close to just… not wanting to try anymore. Maybe sometime soon I’ll finally admit that there really isn’t anything I can do to change the mess in my mind.

I walked willing into the presence of Death like a casual friend without looking at the chaos and darkness that encompassed Him. When I saw it, I became afraid and ran. And now I’ve come to a horrifying revelation: I’m still shrouded. The darkness I saw didn’t belong to Death at all. It belonged to me. I’m worried that I’ll choose that Angel’s embrace again over the brittle hope of a better life.

Always and forever, I feel like I’m one bad spark away from wanting to throw it all away. That’s no way to live.

Mental Chains – A Bit More on Shame

shame-927084_1920-1024x995

In response to my last blog, which was written mostly out of frustration at what I was feeling and what I was thinking, I wanted to clarify a bit more by what I mean by ‘shame’. When you hear the word ‘shame’, you often hear it in the context of someone pointing a finger at a politician and declaring “shame on you” after they’ve done something reprehensible. If caught red-handed, you’ll also hear that politician say, “I am ashamed of my actions” (whether they are or aren’t is entirely another issue, haha).

But that’s not really the kind of shame I’m describing. It goes farther than feeling ‘shame’ for what you’ve done, and goes into feeling shame for who you are. In fact, it feels like there should be an entirely separate word for this kind of fully internalized shame in the English language. But alas, English is again inefficient at describing something that’s such a big part of my life at the moment.

This article by Behavioral Health Evolution about shame-based thinking is exactly it: “The hallmark of shame is a constant awareness of our defects. Without realizing it, we become continual victims of shame-based thinking. Every day, we focus on our failures. Every day, we re-convince ourselves that we are defective. Our thoughts become riddled with judgment, regret, and images of impending failure. When we consciously articulate these shame-based thoughts, we might be shocked at their severity.”

(Speaking of continual victimhood, here’s my one potentially-political viewpoint for this blog, and I put it in parenthesis because it’s unrelated but relevant; I’m “covering my bases,” you could say, for the future. For those of you who stumble on this blog and think you spy yet another “precious snowflake Millennial” looking to play the depression victim card in order to gain some kind of advantage in life, that’s real cute. First of all, you read nerdy WordPress blogs to search out people to belittle? Second, “snowflake”, “Millennial”, and “victim card” are all modern buzzwords whose use identifies you more than they identify me. Third, am I not human? Are you not human too? Get over yourself and seek to connect with someone instead of putting them down. I promise to do the same for you. Fourth, I fully realize that I’ve chosen to be a victim many times in my life, and I have yet to find the ways it gains me any kind of leverage. In fact, the only advantage my depression gives me at all is an increased feeling of empathy for those that have depression. Everyone goes through some soul-searching every once in a while, and those that don’t are selling something.)

(More than a few times on Twitter and Facebook, I’ve seen people arguing against someone with a mental illness, insisting that they’re using their “victim complex” as an excuse to slack off or think differently. I’ve even seen this beloved clip from The Princess Bride used as a weapon to attack people with mental illness. It makes me sick every time I see it. If these “victim complexes” exist among my age group as deeply as you think they do, your first course of action is to indulge them and actually make them victims of your “righteous” indignation? Or, if you believe that mental illness is more than just a petty excuse, you’re choosing to attack and devour the weakest among us anyway? Do you not know the power that anonymous words on the internet have over the introverted? Isn’t there enough shame in the world for those that deserve it that you feel the need to pass some more around just for good measure?)

(Anyway. I’m not arguing against the existence of a “victim complex”, because, to be honest, that’s what the shame cycle is: a self-inflicted victimhood. Nine times out of ten, you don’t have to point this out to anyone with a mental illness. No, I’m arguing against anyone shaming those that dare wear their hearts on their sleeves and share their personal experiences with mental illness. One in five of us suffers from some form of mental ailment. If you’ve never suffered an inexplicable panic attack in a public place, endured depression or PTSD huddled alone in a dark closet, or finance and relationship-ruining mania in your long and storied life, consider yourself blessed.)

(For everyone else, thank you for reading my rant, and I will continue.)

The article shares the following examples of shame-based thinking:

  • I am defective (damaged, broken, a mistake, flawed).
  • I am dirty (soiled, ugly, unclean, impure, filthy, disgusting).
  • I am incompetent (not good enough, inept, ineffectual, useless).
  • I am unwanted (unloved, unappreciated, uncherished).
  • I am weak (small, impotent, puny, feeble).
  • I am bad (awful, dreadful, evil, despicable).
  • I am pitiful (contemptible, miserable, insignificant).
  • I am nothing (worthless, invisible, unnoticed, empty).

270039-jiddu-krishnamurti-quote-we-all-place-ourselves-at-various-levels

“Why you desire to wipe out the past is of more significance than knowing how to wipe it out. The intention with which you approach the problem is more important than knowing what to do about it.”

“Shame develops as the slow, relentless accumulation of such thoughts,” the article continues, “one self-insult at a time, delivered to ourselves over weeks, months, and years. Notice that each of the previous statements starts with the words I am. This reinforces our definition of shame as a state of being that goes far beyond anything we do or fail to do.”

I didn’t reach the point I’m at now in a single day. This kind of self-punishing thinking is something I’ve developed for many years, possibly through my entire life. I remember my mom asking me once, “Where and when did you learn to think about yourself this way?” I didn’t have an answer for her, and I still don’t. It really did come gradually until one day I realized I hated myself and that my brain had tricked itself into believing a lie: that I had to be a perfect, mistake-free being in order to be whole.

And this shame cycle isn’t solely concentrated on the self alone: it colors how we view everyone around us as well. The article points to other authors and their views that shame spreads itself around; shame-based thinking can lead to:

  • Negative explanations of other people’s behavior
  • Dire predictions
  • Selective focus on negative aspects of events
  • Doubt in coping skills
  • Rigid rules about how people should behave

I may not be the brightest light in the sky, but I don’t believe I have these negative beliefs about the intentions of other people; in the very least I haven’t developed them in the last ten years since I’ve come to understand myself and my depression. In fact, I find the “rigid rules” part to be surprising, because if anything, my feelings about letting people live the life they want to live has actually loosened quite a bit since my mission – “live and let live,” I say. But maybe that’s not what it means, I’ll have to do more research. “Selective focus on negative aspects of events”, on the other hand, I do see quite a lot in myself. When something bad happens (or when an event has the potential for badness to occur), I don’t often think about what good could arise from it. I don’t see the silver lining in the clouds.

As for solving my shame-filled thoughts… maybe I’ll save that for another day. I’m already running late on this blog, and I won’t use the release of the one on Friday as an excuse to release this one tomorrow! I shan’t!

I apologize for my scatterbrain brain scatter (that word is legitimately a single word, according to Google, neat), and Thursday’s blog will be more joyous and game-filled!

Mental Chains – Guilt, But Mostly Shame

shame

Getting to the heart of depression and anxiety is always difficult.

Firstly, the mind is really good at tricking itself, hiding the real problem in plain sight and digging around it in search of a fast solution. Being honest with yourself can be very difficult since the reality of self is so easily obscured by depression. “I’m fat, I’m ugly, no one likes me,” I may say. Or, more deceptively, “I feel this way because of all the times I’ve screwed up.” Often, the number, severity, or amount of time since the perceived mistakes will be irrelevant. The mere memory of them will cause a downward spiral that can feel impossible to escape from. Without the ability to look on the bright side of just about anything, how could anyone be expected to rise above the strength of such thoughts?

Don’t get me wrong – my medications have been sent from heaven, and help me feel 1000% more in control of my mind than I would had my doctors and I never discovered the correct cocktail. But that doesn’t mean every day is filled with rainbows and unicorns. In fact, yesterday (Thursday), I could not pull myself out of a day-long pit caused by pain and discomfort, namely the inability to breathe and a bad headache right in between my eyes.

Anyone would get down from pain like that, I suppose. But my pain wasn’t the true source of my depression. It was the one-two punches of guilt and shame that came with my inability to function that knocked me out.

Simply put, guilt is the negative feeling associated with acting in a certain way contrary to your personal principles. On Thursday, I failed to make it to work. Accordingly, I felt guilt for not having been the faithful and dependable employee that my supervisor and co-workers (hopefully still) expect me to be. “Well,” you might say. “Why didn’t you just go to work? You would have avoided all that guilt if you’d just gone and done your work!”

True, sure. Guilt is a powerful motivator to do better, to improve, to actually act correctly. But you’re missing the second reason for my depression: shame.

Shame isn’t feeling sadness and fear due to your actions or choices. It’s feeling sadness and fear because of who you are, resultant of a poor evaluation of self. As this article by Jay Boll for Esperanza entitled “Shame: The Other Emotion in Depression and Anxiety
describes, “Shame is sometimes confused with guilt. But there’s an important difference.  Guilt arises from a negative evaluation of one’s behavior, while shame arises from a negative evaluation of one’s self. Guilt is the feeling of doing wrong, while shame is the feeling of being wrong.  As such, guilt can be a powerful motivator to change one’s behavior for the better. Shame can have the opposite effect, making a person feel that change is hopeless because the problem is one’s self.  This is what makes shame such a toxic emotion.”

Perhaps to my detriment, guilt is the lesser of the two evils, and the one feeling that gets ignored. I wouldn’t make the choices I do otherwise. I feel ashamed of the person I am, and so it is my innate reaction to any negative emotions to withdraw and become insular. From that shame comes the guilt of not having done what I promised to do, and it spirals in on itself until I’m pretty much not able to do anything at all.

“Victims of trauma and abuse are especially susceptible to toxic shame,” Boll continues. “But it does not take an abusive childhood or severe misfortune to experience dysfunctional levels of this emotion. More often, it results from shaming messages we receive from parents, teachers, other authorities, and peers that we internalize and tell ourselves over-and-over.”

Believe me, I have a lot of negative shaming messages in my brain that it just relishes to replay again and again, some from my mission, some from work, and some from school. I have many negative interactions with teachers, for example, that make me internally shy away from classroom settings, and make me hesitate to raise my hand or ask for assistance. It’s why I’ve done so poorly in classes and why the upcoming semester (that starts Monday) fills me with such dread, even though I’m only taking one class.

Know why I hate talking about politics so much? Shame. Know why I have such difficulties talking about religion with other people who aren’t my immediate family? Shame. Know why I’ve quit or lost work opportunities, preferring to be caught dead than be seen losing control of my emotions? Shame. Know why I haven’t been on a date in over ten years? Shame. Know why I continually fail to show up to church a decade after coming home early from serving my mission? It’s shame. Shame for failing to become the strong and independent individual I had half a mind to become after I graduated high school. I feel shame for not being stronger than my bipolar depression without chemical assistance, shame for not being more outgoing in my personal life, shame for liking video games and daring to believe myself a writer or game designer. I feel shame for being politically open-minded but innately conservative, I feel shame for being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ, and I feel shame for all these powerful emotions of sadness, anger, and fear that I’ve been told I’m not supposed to feel as a man. I even feel shame for suffering from things I have no control over, like sinus infections, colds, and possibly even sleep apnea (this is being investigated at the moment).

But you know something? While there are many different people I can blame for the many unpleasant memories that flood my mind every time depression returns, I know my enemy isn’t external. It’s internal. It’s the shame that I don’t know how to process. It’s the ideal, impossible, perfected “me” that I’ve envisioned that keeps the real me from finding happiness in the moment. It’s taken me fifteen or so years to understand where my anger and sadness comes from, and it’s nearly impossible for me to communicate this clearly enough to be understood. I can’t even describe these things to my parents without receiving looks of confusion and concern.

I wish shame were some small thing to step over. But it’s not.

The story in the article about Mr. Boll being called “Twinkle Toes Boll” by his teacher in sixth grade despite the fact that he had been born with a clubfoot is intensely fitting with my experience. But in the deepest recesses of my reluctant heart, I know that the people who have shouted me down might have reconsidered their critical tone had they known me and my experiences. But, of course, this is impossible. Miscommunication and misunderstanding are the name of the game in this wonderful world of ours, and unless you knew me, you wouldn’t know I have moderately functional bipolar depression. No, I imagine you’d just see an undermotivated, unimpressive, and overweight male Mormon college student with a patchy beard.

That’s all I imagine my teachers and “friends” saw, too.

Speaking of his realization that he had overcome both his physical weakness and the bullying he experienced, Boll continues, “Both discoveries are instances of cognitive restructuring. In the first, I reframed my experience of shame into pride by having the compassion for myself that the ‘shamer’ never showed me.  In the second, I devalued the shamer by seeing him through other people’s eyes as the bully he really was. The sad truth is that many bullies are also driven by toxic shame, which they disavow by projecting onto others.”

This is difficult for me, since I have neither avenue of reframing available to me. I have neither friends suffering with me to let me know I’m functioning any better than anyone else with Bipolar Type-2, and I don’t have the fortune of knowing that my bullying experiences were like anyone else’s. I’ve never had a therapist ask me, “How are you able to get to work at all with what you’re experiencing?” Just once I’d like someone to acknowledge how hard I try to manage everything going on in my life, but of course no one really knows but me, so what’s the point?

How do I reframe my experiences to help me feel better about my place in life? And do I truly have to reframe every single memory that arises in my head to finally find peace?

Honestly, that sounds impossible. I suppose I’m going to have to go back to a therapist to work through this, because it’s affecting my everyday life. And that means time and money, two things I have just NO shortage of (#sarcasm).

Sorry for a hopeless extra blog today. Just a lot of sadness and frustration in my life at the moment that I don’t know how to process. Writing it out helps. Sort of.

Mental Chains – Way Too Much At Once

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Take typical me; with the right medications under my belt, I can totally handle life.

Now give me a headache, a really dull sinus headache between the eyes; okay, not liking this.

Now make me wear a shirt that’s a bit too snug and itchy around the collar, and pants that constrict places that shouldn’t be constricted; I’m grumbling now.

Give me my stupid-looking beard and mustache that I don’t know how to trim that tickles in all the wrong ways; irritating.

Now raise the temperature to 92 F or above; nope, no way.

Add in a canker sore or some other form of recurring pain just for fun; now you’re destroying me.

Now put me in a crowded environment where the slightest noise will generate unwanted attention; absolutely not, get me out of here immediately.

Am I completely mental? Have I gone insane for wanting to get away from these circumstances as fast as humanly possible?

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I would rather combat one huge problem than a thousand small problems. But what happens when the thousand small problems become huge?

Let me put it this way: I do not take being uncomfortable very well. So much so that I doubt I could have lived in any other period in history and been a successful and productive member of society. I come from pioneer ancestors, many of whom spent months travelling on foot in burning hot and freezing cold temperatures across the plains to live in Utah and Idaho. Could I have endured through all of that like they did? I’m fairly certain the answer is plain as the plains they journeyed over.

If there was one thing that I wish I could change more than anything, it would be my tolerance for uncomfortability. I wish I could pick myself up by my bootstraps (which is physically impossible; does that make the phrase inherently sarcastic?) and do everything that needed to be done despite all of my internal and external disturbances.

Am I the only one who can’t manage life when so many things go wrong at once? Am I really the only person in existence who has had a panic attack at work or in a public place because there was simply too much emotional and physical stimuli occurring at once? Am I unique in running away from and avoiding these types of situations?

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It’s a bit like that on the inside, yeah.

More importantly, am I a wuss for being this way? I call myself a wuss and my family has called me a wuss for years. By the way I react when these situations occur, I feel like this borders upon obsession-compulsion. Or, perhaps the opposite of it. For example, I don’t like exercise because when I sweat, I sweat directly from my face and forehead, which creates waves of unwanted stimulation and interference having to repeatedly wipe it away. All ability to focus vanishes, and I quickly work myself into tears or rage. In fact, if you enjoy my company at all, there better be climate control somewhere nearby, or you may learn to resent me.

Oh my gosh, I just found this. Whether it’s clinically accurate or not, this is exactly the way I’m feeling almost every day. It’s 100% this. It’s complete over-stimulation. The first article goes on to say that hyper-sensitivity can lead to positive emotions, and I do agree that can happen (such as when I got this blog going again with help from my friend Effexor). But more often than not, it’s over-stimulation that’s getting in my damn way.

I’ve often wondered if I’m really male because real men don’t have these kinds of intense emotions about anything. Right? Isn’t that how it’s supposed to be? Is this that “toxic masculinity” business they’re always talking about? But then I know of so many women in my life that fight through much worse than I do. Despite petty (or not-so-petty) sicknesses and uncomfortable social situations, they thrive where I cannot.

It’s this, way more than my bipolar depression, that I feel shame for having. It’s this undiagnosable problem that I can’t overcome. It’s almost never anyone else’s fault that I fail something. I always choose not to show up. I’ve failed to show up to school because of the long, uncomfortable walk to the classroom, not to mention the crowds of unfamiliar faces and fear of raising my hand. I haven’t gone to church in a very long time for similar reasons. I don’t exercise because the constant pain and sweat drive me insane faster than Chinese water torture. And I miss work because sinus infections and driving in a car without AC do not make for a pleasant combination. All of these factors combined drive me up the wall. If you met me IRL and I’ve ever seemed awkward and uncomfortable, just know that there are probably a myriad of things going on that have overloaded my brain and short-circuited my social synapses.

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Every. Single. Day. Every. Little. Thing.

In the end, it’s just excuse after excuse from me. But I don’t mean to make excuses. I just don’t know how to handle what I’m experiencing, much less try to communicate what the problem is to someone else (I guess that’s what I’m trying to do with this blog). Could my medicine be making this worse? Possibly. Probably not, though, since this has been an issue for many years prior to me taking them.

*sigh*

I’m so tired. Tired of being like this. Call me a hypochondriac (“You’re a hypochondriac,” thank you) but I have felt for a long time that there is something intrinsically wrong with me. Several things, apparently, since this is entirely separate from the depression. I have always been terrible in social situations (or, in the least, I have been hypercritical of myself during social situations). When my mind detects a disturbance, be it an itch, an unpleasant smell, pain (either sharp or dull), temperature too high or too low, sweat, or even a particle of dust resting on the corner of my flippin’ glasses, I have to correct the problem immediately. Put multiple issues in front of me at the same time, and my processor is likely to fry, leaving few resources available for things like meaningful conversation or accurate work.

I once had a supervisor who never seemed to clean her glasses, and it drove me up the wall every time I talked with her — it was never her I talked to, it was always the particles of dust on her glasses that my eyes would focus on. I would think, “How could she possibly live with her glasses in that condition!” And she would have to repeat her directions multiple times because I wouldn’t be able to focus on what she was saying. In the end, I don’t think she liked me very much.

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A bit like that, yeah. In fact, a whole lot like that.

So what do I do about this?

I have no clue. It’s not like practicing “being uncomfortable” is going to get me anywhere. I’m stuck in a rut, summertime makes things worse, and I have a feeling that even writing this down is going to get me in trouble with someone someday. But I have to get it out there or else I’m never going to get help with this. Writing is the only way I know how to communicate anymore.

And I can’t just “handle it”. I can’t just “do it”. There has to be some mental exercise I can do, some way to change my thought process to help me accept stimuli in a more productive way. There has to be a better answer than just “get over it”, because I’ve been in this rut for many years now, and I think it’s a little bit bigger than a speed bump at this point.

How do I overcome hypersensitivity and overstimulation?

Mental Chains – Wherein I Apologize For Everything

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Man, this is the first time in a two and a half months that I’ve missed writing something for my blog. I always knew consistency would be my greatest foe in accomplishing anything, no matter how good the reasons for missing. The reasons are pretty good this time, granted: I had my first real panic attack since starting Effexor, and this time the panic attack was brought on by pain from a digestive condition my poor body has been developing over a few years. The pain has come and gone in the past, but this time it’s arrived in full force. It was bad enough on Tuesday that I came home early from work sobbing. If you’ve never seen a bearded man uncontrollably cry from pain and panic, wait around a while for me. I can’t imagine it’s very fun to watch, though.

I’ve probably written about this already, but have you ever heard of the phrase “getting pecked to death by ducks”? Sure, it looks kinda funny when it’s happening to someone else. But when it’s happening to you, you want nothing more than to boot-kick the damn ducks (metaphorically speaking, of course) and find some peace and quiet.

That’s what the last five years of my life have been. If it’s not numbing depression, it’s the thought of depression returning. If it’s not depression, it’s sinus issues and headaches. If it’s not headaches, it’s aches, pains, and sweating from a sedentary lifestyle (in the desert without AC in my car). If it’s not all that (which is rare), it’s this latest digestive problem (which is now becoming utterly unmanageable). The real problem isn’t that there are so many ducks, exactly. I’m a big guy; I can tackle an individual duck (metaphorically speaking, of course). Missing a day of work every now and again isn’t the problem. It’s that all of my ducks are becoming monsters that are learning new and exciting ways of ganging up on me all at once and I don’t know how to deal with them en masse.

So I have to apologize. To everyone I know. Over and over.

To my readers: I’m sorry I failed to write something entertaining today. The word “therapy” is in the title of the blog, though. The hard part is I’m not sure I can pledge to do better in the short-term. Next week I have a consultation with a general surgeon to see what my options are to take care of my latest issue, and it might take me some time (hopefully no more than a few days after the procedure) to recover if surgery is the best option.

Have you ever felt like you have to apologize to someone else for existing? This is what stigma sounds like. Whether it’s true or not, I feel like I’m so much a barrier to the success of my group that I prefer to erase myself from the equation before I can cause more problems. I’ve quit jobs out of the blue because it’s too embarrassing to admit my problems and work through them because I’d rather not trust my burden to anyone else’s care. It’s sad, I know. I don’t believe I’ve ever been the “victim” of anyone else’s stigma but my own, to be honest. It’s my own shame that separates me from personal happiness.

And that’s my great conundrum: I like to speak pretty clearly about the personal problems I face (within reason, naturally), but that’s just the first step. Am I willing to stop regarding myself as nothing more than an inconvenience to others? Am I willing to trust others to help me find solutions to them?

No worries, though; I’m not about to quit my job, curl up in a ball in my room, and want to die. No, I’ve done enough of that. I have more ducks incoming, and they’re shaped like college classes and (hopefully) graduation, full-time work, and medical bills.

Good ducky. Nice ducky. Want some bread? No? Than what do you wanOUCHMYEARS!

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THEYBITMYFINGERSOFFHOWDUCKS DON’TEVENHAVETEETH!?

So yeah, sorry for the lame post today. Monday’s will be a great one.