What I Need is What I Fear is What I Need

Wakana (my music therapist) has been helping me learn to assert myself, particularly in the realm of acknowledging, accepting, and acting on my emotions. I’ve learned to express my needs and wants, politely disagree, and set boundaries. I’m still working to develop these skills; it will probably be a lifelong process. But the foundation is there, and I feel pretty good about building on it.

The thing is, most of my work has been in the realm of one-on-one interactions. I have individual music therapy with Wakana. Our marriage counselor helps Fox and me have more intentional, supportive interactions with each other. I’m learning to assert myself in conversations with my mom, or situations in which Mom is accompanying me as I interact with another person (such as my dress fitting), or appointments with healthcare professionals.

I get lost in group situations. Even spending time with friends, there’s usually some point during our time together when I feel overwhelmed, overlooked, and unheard. I was barely able to participate in that one support group meeting I went to (no, I haven’t been back yet). Forget about being heard and acknowledged when my family is involved. I think about having most of my and Fox’s families all in one room just over a month from now and it seems like the worst idea I’ve ever had. If it’s not a disaster, it will definitely be overwhelming. I will probably be disappointed by at least some of them. What was I even thinking?

I really need to develop social skills. It’s not just me, people with psychiatric and/or mental health issues tend to have underdeveloped social skills. I’m inclined to believe that lack of a healthy home environment, same-age siblings or cousins, and appropriate modelling interfered with my ability to develop my social skills – particularly when it came to interacting within a group. I was also bullied and ostracized at school, which further limited my ability to practice social skills in a peer group. This in turn had a harmful impact on my mental health. I don’t know to what extent this hypothesis can be generalized, but we’re social creatures and society is the environment we have to adapt to.

Lack of social skills means we need group therapy and opportunities to practice interacting in structured group activities, so we can have some semblance of support in developing those skills. Actually, part of why I like tabletop gaming so much is because most games structure group interactions and lend themselves to turn-taking, so everyone gets some opportunity to be the center of a attention – seen and heard – for a short time.

Most of the psychological services I’ve been able to find in my area focus on the individual. Individual therapy, opportunities for individuals to submit their creative works to be posted online, classes individuals can attend and learn from that may provide some opportunity for group interaction, but that isn’t the primary focus. I have enough individual stuff going on, I really need to work on my social skills in a group. Why can’t I find one?

The answer is: because I’m afraid to find one. There’s a support group that meets weekly that I could be going to, but I keep finding some excuse not to go. I have briefly joined and enjoyed participating in at least 3 additional groups I can think of right now, I but stopped showing up after just one or two meetings, even though I’d had a positive experience.

I don’t know if it’s that I don’t fit in or I don’t want to fit in, or something else entirely. Maybe I want to abandon the group before it has the opportunity to abandon me – or worse, consume me. I don’t want being part of a group to mean losing my autonomy.

Being in a group situation takes all of my energy; I feel like I need to be at my best to come out of it feeling anything other than drained. To put it in terms of Spoon Theory, interacting in a group takes so many of my spoons that I can only do it on days when I have more spoons to begin with; most of the time it requires me to borrow spoons from the next day. Just getting out the door on time looking presentable can take several spoons. Sometimes, by the time I’ve introduced myself, I just don’t have the spoons I need to follow a conversation, navigate the complex thoughts and emotions that fill the room to the point where I don’t know which ones are actually mine, formulate responses, and get people to pay attention and listen to what I have to say. How can I develop social skills for interacting in a group if I don’t have enough spoons to exist in that group, never mind trying to learn something?

I need a group activity that restores spoons, such as creating music or art. Music in particular is a completely different way of interacting: you’re listening and “speaking” simultaneously, so everyone gets heard. You are a part of something bigger than yourself, you can hear it and that makes it so much easier to feel and internalize. Every part matters, even – no, especially! – the supportive, “background” parts.

I have less experience with art, but being creative is energizing. Focusing on my own artwork gives me a socially acceptable way to back out of the group activity a little bit to recharge without leaving it completely. It opens up the possibility of positive interactions, such as commenting on an aspect of someone else’s artwork (e.g. use of color) that I like. People are more likely to have and express more positive emotions that I don’t find overwhelming – I might actually get a high off them. I can also communicate something visually, so I don’t have to rely quite so much on the verbal communication I find so challenging.

Trying to find an arts-based group geared toward mental health in my area has been like hitting my head against a brick wall. Either I don’t know where to look, or they just don’t exist. I could reach out for help; that might be my best chance of actually managing to find something.

There are quite a few art-related groups in my area on Meetup.com; the difficulty I’m facing is selecting one I feel comfortable joining and might actually go to. Looking at some that seem promising, I feel like I’m going to cry because I simultaneously want to join in the fun and question my ability to do so. Will I be accepted?

Taking the First Steps

Fox and I have started taking a course about developing Android apps on Coursera. We started accessing the Week 1 materials yesterday, watching videos and downloading the software development tools we’ll need to participate in the course, and beyond! It felt really good to be focused on learning, get new software, and start playing around with what I’d just learned. I’m very glad I have a structured course in which to learn how to use the software development tools, so I can take advantage of all their features should I choose to use them to develop new apps.

I’m also eagerly waiting for my new tablet, which runs Android, to arrive on my doorstep. It will be the first time I’m able to fully and freely access “smartphone” technology, including all the apps that already exist. Even if I never develop new software of my own (or decide tablets and smartphones aren’t the right platform for it), I’m hoping that I can use my new tablet to help improve my own mental health (and not as yet another time-wasting device!).

As awesome as it felt to DO SOMETHING toward a goal I feel passionate about, I do foresee some areas of frustration and obstacles I’ll need to overcome:

1) Software development seems to require a different way of thinking from what I’m used to; none of the material covered in the videos we’ve watched so far seemed intuitive to me. I felt like some of it might’ve gone over my head. I’m not really used to that – if anything, I’m used to material being easy for me to understand.

But, I was able to learn algebra by copying everything the teacher put on the board until I started seeing the patterns in it. I decided to major in music because I was similarly challenged by the first semester of music theory, so I wanted to take the second semester. I can face this challenge! I just need to be aware of it and willing to accept some frustration while I navigate it.

2) I’m very codependent with Fox. He’s been very supportive of me since I first came up with the idea to develop software that might help me overcome some of the difficulties I’ve been facing. He suggested Android apps and offered to take the Coursera course with me.

But I don’t know how interested he really is in learning this stuff for himself, and that could make this process difficult. He seemed annoyed with the course creators for requiring students to interact on the forum, frustrated because if his laptop is able to run the required emulators at all they will be painfully slow, and less enthusiastic about the learning process than me. I don’t want him to feel like he has to do something he’s not really interested in or doesn’t find satisfying.

I was hoping that he would help me stick with the course and complete it – if nothing else so I could recall that experience when faced with uncertainty, instead of perpetuating this image I have of myself as someone who never completes anything. But now I foresee being faced with the difficult dilemma of wanting to watch the next video lecture, but also feeling like I should wait for him because we’re “taking the course together.” I need to stay firm and focused on what will be best for me – what I can do to learn and keep up with the course, whether we’re watching videos together or not. If he decides it’s not for him, I need to be able and willing to fly solo.

As much as I wish I could let go and trust him to take care of me, the truth of the matter is this: it will only lead to resentment when my needs aren’t met. We both need to figure out how to take care of ourselves, and each other. It’s not easy.

3) I’ve gotten some encouraging responses from people I’ve told about my idea, but for the most part I’m frustrated by lack of response. I’m especially frustrated by lack of comments on this blog.

I know I need to take at least some responsibility: I’ve been intentionally vague about the software I want to develop, how I want to develop it, and what I want it to do. I’m not sure how much is safe to disclose online; I don’t want someone to steal my idea (especially not some big wealthy company that will use it to make money and prevent others from making free or inexpensive versions, or worse use it for even more invasive advertising). But if I’m going to get feedback I need to give people something to respond to, something they can understand and connect with and want to respond to. How do I protect my idea AND get the feedback I need to create a program that others might also find useful? Well, I’m also taking a course about entrepreneurship on Coursera, maybe it will give me some ideas.