Coursera update

Yesterday I was sad and discouraged to realize I was taking the Coursera courses I’d signed up for because I wanted to be taking courses, not because I was interested in the material I’d be learning. Today I’m glad I realized that – because I found a course I am very interested in, that started yesterday and goes on for 14 weeks! I think I hadn’t initially signed up for it because it overlaps with the Spring 2015 semester, but today I’m thinking that shouldn’t be a problem. I can enjoy it prior to the semester starting, and one the semester starts I can determine how engaged I will remain in the course. The great thing about Coursera is that it’s risk-free: you can do anything from watching an occasional video to completing all the coursework multiple times and being a constant presence in the forums. My goal is to watch all the videos and complete the graded coursework once for each week until the Spring 2015 semester starts, then engage with the material as I’m able (prioritizing my other responsibilities, of course). It feels so good to be excited about and motivated to do something and OMG I’m even setting goals! Realistic, attainable goals. This is pretty significant. Go me!

Does This Mean I’m Getting Better?

I’ve been taking some baby steps toward (finally!) completing my master’s degree and starting my career. It started with taking guitar and piano lessons during the Spring 2014 semester. Though I didn’t practice anywhere near as much as I would have liked, I did learn some useful things, acquire valuable resources for continuing my development on both instruments, and benefit from attending lessons semi-regularly.

If nothing else, being on campus enabled me to learn about two opportunities to compose music with clear guidelines, a deadline, and a chance of having the work performed. I’ve found composing to be very challenging but also very rewarding, well worth the effort for its own sake… and I look forward to hearing my first piece performed. The challenge I’m facing is not writing music that sounds good – sometimes that comes too easily – but using organized sound to evoke in the listener the difficult and complex emotions I’m trying to express… while also sounding good enough that the listener will want to continue listening. Right now this is the big thing that keeps me going: I can’t compose if I’m decomposing.

I’ve also been paying attention to emails from my academic adviser. Two were about new internship opportunities that both sound like they’d be excellent training for working with populations I’d be interested in. One is a little bit more in line with my interests, while the other involves an opportunity to work with someone I already know to be an excellent supervisor. I’m so tempted to apply for them both and (hopefully) start an internship in the Fall… but then I look at the requirements and my anxiety flares up.

Part of me just wants to get on with my life already, but the other doesn’t want to rush things. When I push too hard against my anxiety, it pushes back and the next thing I know I’ve been playing Skyrim (or The Sims 3, or another video game) for the past two days, and it’s the only thing I can think about for weeks. I’ve been telling my adviser I want to wade slowly back into the field with some supervised experience that, frankly, doesn’t require me to compete with others to get it. From my perspective, it’s an extension of the field experience that had been part of my training until it was time for me to apply for internships and I started having difficulty continuing my studies. (It was around the same time my current depressive episode hit hard and Banji moved several states away.)

Pursuing that option is a bit less straightforward and means it will be longer before I can get paid to work in my field, but I also perceive it as less risky. I can’t convince a potential internship supervisor who thinks someone else is a “better fit” to work with me instead, but I can keep emailing and calling my adviser until he’s set up a placement (something he has to do for other students, anyway). I expect we’ll set up clear requirements and any written work will make sense with what I’m already doing on-site, so I’ll have the structure I need to succeed. Then it’s just a matter of doing the work; I wish I could say with confidence that it’s totally under my control and of course I’ll stay on top of things, but experience dictates otherwise. What I can say is that I’ll work hard and learn from the experience and probably earn at least a B. Hopefully I’ll be able to work with my adviser and supervisor to overcome (or accommodate) any difficulties that come up as a result of my anxious depression or otherwise. Worst case scenario I’ll try and withdraw by the deadline to prevent it from hurting my GPA.

My adviser’s other email was about an online course I intend to take over the summer, primarily for its on-site experiential component. I wish I could benefit from that experience and then apply for the internships mentioned above, but their application deadlines are much too soon. I’m hoping that in addition to “getting my feet wet” again (and networking!), this course will help me set up some kind of adaptive schedule/routine for myself. Class won’t be meeting in person, but I can decide on days and times to take my laptop (a nice privilege) to the library and do schoolwork. Maybe I can even contact the other students about setting up a study group?

There’s also the pesky need for a paying job… I think I’m going to have to bite the bullet, apply everywhere that’s hiring regardless of whether the job description makes me want to vomit, be a different (upbeat and energetic!) person at interviews, and see who hires me. It’s about as far from appealing as you can get but I need the money and I keep telling myself any amount of income will feel better than no income. Anyways I’d really like to be working or at least have a job lined up by September, but that first composition deadline (see above) is actually a higher priority.

By the way, have I mentioned how frustrating it is that everyone wants upbeat and energetic employees? Being downbeat and lethargic doesn’t sell, I get that, but they might as well advertise that they discriminate against people with depression and/or social anxiety. It really feels like I need to become a different person – or at least pretend to be one – in order to have any shot at finding a job. Certainly there are other attributes, such as ability to learn/follow directions, ability to listen, knowledge in a certain field(s), ability to count money, understanding of word processing and spreadsheets, etc. that contribute to employability. If you want me to mop the floor I can mop the floor, hell I’ll even smile at any customers who meet my eye while I’m doing so. They’d probably prefer I didn’t start conversations with them or pull them into some sort of energetic dance routine while they’re trying to do… whatever they’re doing. Not everyone likes upbeat, energetic people; some relate better to calm, quiet people or knowledgeable, straightforward people or active listeners or compassionate people. I can do any or all of those; sometimes I can even pull off upbeat and/or energetic, just not all the time.

Anyways, I’ve been putting in some nice work: the above and continuing to see Wakana regularly. Meanwhile, Fox has been sleeping on the couch, watching YouTube videos, and playing Skyrim. To be fair, he also does the dishes (mostly – I help sometimes), heats up food, and if I remind him enough times he’ll do the laundry (and complain about it).

I was feeling very resentful toward him because now my mother is supporting both of us, I’ve burned through my resources feeding him that would have lasted a lot longer if I’d only spent them on myself, and any progress I’m making is despite his rather depressing influence on me. I had resolved to give him a deadline by which he must either A: show he’s putting in significant work toward advancing his career goals and our goal of raising a family together, or B: move back in with his family of origin (which would be inconvenient for them as well as him, but they’d be better able to support him financially as well as in making the progress he needs).

Then we talked, and I just couldn’t be that confrontational; the only way I could get the words out was by expressing concern for his well-being and that I want/need him to work on improving his health, starting his career, and contributing financially. Even if it means asking me to help him with things, I’m happy to help where I see him showing interest at the very least. He listened and expressed wanting to contribute more and agreed to make an effort; we hugged and felt better. I guess time will tell if the conversation changes anything.

To be honest I’m inclined to keep asking him to move out on the back burner as a possibility, but I want to do my best to be supportive of him. It goes against everything I’ve been reading, writing, and talking to Wakana about detachment, but I did vow to stay with this guy through thick and thin. Despite everything logic would dictate, I still love him (and I recognize that part of loving him is not enabling him, but pushing him to work toward the goals he’s had since before he met me). The worst part is the effect the situation has had on our relationship: we’ve lost nearly all our passion and emotional intimacy. Sometimes I still feel some of it when I make a real, concentrated effort to engage him in conversation and/or an activity we both enjoy. I hope it will come back if we both nurture it enough.

I guess on some level I blame his current level of depression on myself because he – we both – seemed a lot more functional when we first met. I can point to other factors that have contributed to my current difficulties, but for him there’s whatever he had going on before we met, some family stressors that may or may not be bothering him – he doesn’t really talk about how they impact him emotionally, so I’m not sure how big a role they play – and, well, me: coping with my anxious depression symptoms, adapting to my reduced sex drive and emotional withdrawal from him, supporting me emotionally, distancing himself (farther) from his friends, moving to a new location, living with my mom… honestly, it’s gotta be hell. Maybe we’d both be better off if he moved out and we waited to live together until we can both get the mental health care and raise the money we need to have a healthy, mutually-supportive relationship living in our own house.

As it stands, I see our roles changing. Since we met I’ve increasingly been taking on the “sick role,” a sociological concept originally developed by Talcott Parsons in the 1950s. I’m the one who has a serious illness, I’m the one who needs support and comfort and help accessing healthcare, me me me. Everyone must drop their entire lives to help me. Fox was thrust into the role of caregiver (or “supporter,” as he put it) and our relationship skewed so most of our collective energy went to trying to help me (and was ultimately sucked into the black hole that is anxious depression).

And the painful thing is, most of it wasn’t even about him! It was about wanting my mother to finally stop doing the very same thing to me and, well, be a mother. She’s finally become emotionally independent enough and started providing me with enough helpful support (and I’ve gotten enough of it from loved ones and Wakana) that I don’t feel the need to flail and cry at the top of my lungs anymore. I still need support from loved ones, therapy, and possibly meds, but I don’t want to be in this role anymore. I’ve seen what it does to caregivers (Mom, Uncle “D”, Aunt “A,” my cousins, myself, my ex, and now Fox) and to relationships. And I’ve found it so stifling, especially when I think I’m “doing my job” and “getting better” just to “relapse” the next day. I just want to be a person, and perhaps I have some needs that are different and maybe even a bit more intense than other people’s, and that’s okay. We can all handle it. No more black holes.

Now I’m stepping out of the “sick role” and Fox – I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt – has fallen into it. I want to be helpful and supportive but I can’t risk this being a yo-yo cycle of one of us becoming just better enough to keep the other from committing suicide, then that person gets just better enough to keep the first from committing suicide, rinse and repeat. We each need to be a healthy, capable, functioning, whole person, because that’s what we each need. When we come together, I want us to make magic. It doesn’t really matter to me whether we’re living together or not while we work toward becoming whole, though I’ll admit to crying as I write this. What matters to me is that we both get there… even if it means separating.

Whose Goals Are These, Anyway?

It’s been four years since I realized the sadness that usually hits mid-January to mid-February wasn’t lifting, and decided to get help. Almost four years – let’s call it 3.5 years – of working with Wakana; in all this time we never discussed my goals. What do I want to get out of therapy? Under what circumstances will I decide I no longer need it?

Well, so far I’ve grown a great deal. I’ve learned the importance of setting and enforcing boundaries. I’ve learned that doing so doesn’t mean I don’t love the other person; it can actually help me love them better. I’ve gained more respect for myself, even coming to view myself as inherently worthy of love, boundaries, healing, etc. I’ve gained a stronger sense of my own identity and what I’m passionate about. I’ve reclaimed academic learning/achievement and music making as things I do primarily for myself – well, for the most part. I’m still working on practicing piano and guitar for myself and not to impress my teachers.

I still have some important things to work on. A lot of the emotions and experiences I’d suppressed are coming up again, with the potential to undermine entire days. I’m not sure I ever fully processed my emotions around needing to maintain extremely high levels of academic achievement to keep my parents’ relationship from descending into utter chaos. That seems like something I can let go of, though, especially since now I know that most of their problems had nothing to do with me, and the academic achievement did have some benefits for me. I’ve finally forgiven my father for his mistakes and, more importantly, released myself from the disappointment I felt.

There’s still the matter of my father’s family of origin, whom I’ve been distancing myself from; I haven’t spoken to them in ages and part of why I took Fox’s last name is so I would no longer have the same last name as them. They were horrible to my mom and clearly only pretended to care about me; they abandoned me as soon as I began asserting myself (and my right to receive part of the inheritance from my grandmother).

I’m fine with them not being part of my life anymore, but clearly I’m still angry about what happened. I’m definitely angry at my father’s brother, and I’m not sure if there’s also residual anger at his sister that’s still repressed. She just disappeared – whereas he failed to take on the role my parents had trusted him with when I was born, tried to manipulate me, and had the gall to show up at my uncle’s funeral. I feel threatened by his ability to reappear when I’m at my most vulnerable and remind me of all this shit; I’d much rather just be able to move on with my life.

And then there’s my mom. She’s been providing for my material needs and I’m very grateful for that. She cares and she wants to be supportive but somehow our interactions always become about me tending to her needs at the expense of my own. Even my desire for her to take care of me in my time of illness, to finally be able to open up to her and trust and be nurtured by her… in the end, it just keeps me from becoming self-sufficient and reaching out to others who can help fulfill those needs. At times I feel like an angry baby screaming at the top of my lungs that someone should coordinate all my mental health care for me and bring me to therapy and so on. It would be nice, considering she was willing to temporarily relocate to drive her brother around, if Mom would do something similar for me. Instead I get to be responsible for Dog for at least a few more weeks, and who knows what will come up once she’s home again?

But I’m an adult, and on good days I’m fairly high-functioning. I’d prefer not to have to make certain phone calls, but I can do it. (And I do believe the process should be streamlined to make care more accessible to those who need it the most.) Hopefully my insurance will include someone to coordinate my mental health care, once my coverage starts (in 9 days)… and if it doesn’t I’ll be disappointed but not incapable of figuring that stuff out on my own. I’ve already looked up a primary care provider and psychiatrist, each of whom is part of my plan and within easy driving distance. If they don’t work out for some reason, I’ll just keep looking until I find someone who does. As much as I want support in dealing with this shit, I can’t let lack of support keep me from receiving the care I need. (No, I don’t think I can rely on Fox for help with this.)

As for other goals, I’m at a weird place where everything from my loved ones to Wakana to my own inclinations suggests I need to “get a job” and preferably start my career. Ideally I will complete and perhaps even use my master’s degree. That seems like a – if not the – primary goal of my therapy: rehabilitation, so I can be a productive member of society. Right? Wakana certainly seems to think so.

Yet, every time I get a nudge in that direction, I dig in my heels. It feels like a death sentence. I’d be giving up everything I’ve worked toward these past 4 years, and going back to being a “good little girl” whose work benefits everyone else at the expense of my well-being. I’ve finally learned to put my own needs first, don’t ask me to stop in return for a paycheck… even if it is doing something I find meaningful, something that makes the world a better place. How can you ask me to abandon myself and focus on helping other people? Especially when my mother still hasn’t nurtured me?

Well, it seems obvious now, but that’s only because I allowed myself to have this gut reaction, to feel it, and to give it words. It’s out in the open, where it needs to be. My biggest fear: that if I move on with my life – starting my career, having a family, etc. – I have to stop taking care of myself. Like some authority will decide I don’t need (or deserve) mental health care anymore. I’m afraid what supports I do have will fall out from under me. That I’ll focus all my attention on taking care of others at the expense of myself.

That doesn’t have to be true. I can keep seeing Wakana; having a job might just mean we need to adjust our schedule a bit. I can certainly receive health care, even if it means having to take time off from work every once in a while. (The doctors I found work exclusively during normal business hours, when I imagine most employed people are at work.) If I do find medications that help manage my symptoms, there is nothing to keep me from taking them before, after, or even during work. I might even make better use of my free time because my life will be more structured; I won’t have the whole day to think “I’ll get to that later.” I might make friends. I might feel better about myself because I’ll see the difference I make in other people’s lives, even if it’s just helping them feel better while I’m interacting with them.

As for deciding I no longer need therapy… I don’t really know when I’ll decide I no longer need it – maybe never! I obviously don’t want to decide I no longer need it once I’ve started working again. In the past I’ve terminated therapy prematurely, in part because of problems with my therapist. So right now I don’t really trust myself to be able to tell when I’m ready to leave therapy, but that’s okay. There’s still time to figure it out.

And this blog will be here for as long as I need it. If I can’t write in this blog for some reason, I can start a new one or just journal privately. My demons will see daylight. And maybe some of them – like the fear that I’ll stop taking care of myself if I start working – will become allies.

Escape to Dragon Valley Pt. 2

I started out my The Sims 3 game with a recently-married young adult couple and their small dog. They initially moved into a small apartment in Bridgeport, the most city-like of the available worlds. It seemed the most thematically appropriate 1) for the careers I intended them to pursue (Music and Styling) and 2) because the low cost of the apartment enabled them to afford a better quality bed and a laptop. (I think on some level I wanted it to mirror my experience of sharing the equivalent of a one-bedroom apartment with Fox.)

At first I played my couple more as two individual sims than as a coherent family. They each had a career to pursue: Carina dove straight into the Music career track and Jason found his way into the Styling profession. Carina spent several hours most days per week at work, requiring minimal attention from me; she also spent a lot of her time home from work practicing violin and guitar. (The game requires guitar skill for both the rock and symphonic branches of the Music career, but I thought violin was more appropriate to the symphonic branch – which I was having Carina pursue. My solution was to have her improve both skills at the same slow pace.)

I thought I’d have fun controlling Jason during his work days as a stylist; I actually got to change the outfits and hairstyles of other sims in town! Unfortunately his clients kept missing appointments and I lost interest in giving makeovers to random sims. So, I had him decide to quit his job and try to find work in a more conventional career track. He tried Business first and quickly received an opportunity to pursue a career in Politics, so I had him change jobs, thinking it might be interesting. He sold his drafting table (required for the Stylist profession) and got an easel instead, which enabled him to paint many valuable works of art. I think he’s made more money selling paintings than going to work.

There was added pressure on Jason to work in a less-than-ideal career track because the couple desperately needed to save up money so they could afford a larger home. The apartment was too tiny and there was no door to the bedroom, so it was often impossible for Carina to practice her instruments without disturbing Jason. (In real life I go for long stretches of time without playing music because I don’t want to disturb Fox.) They had a short time when they weren’t getting along – and even spent Snowy Day apart from one another! – largely because Carina kept practicing when Jason was trying to sleep. The rush to move became even more urgent when Carina became pregnant with their first child; there was no way 3 people could live there comfortably! (In real life Fox and I will also need to find a larger home before we can start having children.)

Eventually they were able to move to Dragon Valley, the new world I’d acquired and was eager to explore. They received a grant to fix up and live in a fort that had been destroyed by dragons. (How wonderful would it be to receive a grant enabling one to buy a nice house in a good neighborhood?) It provided them a far more spacious home, where Carina could practice at any time of day or night and Jason could go in a different room (with a door he could close!) to sleep. Their baby, Aaron, even had his own bedroom.

It was a slow process, but they were able to make the space their own. I had a lot of fun finding creative ways to keep the living-in-a-fort feel while also dividing up the space into usable rooms and making it a functional home. My favorite thing about it is the very open layout on the first floor, which makes taking pictures for memories easy from almost any angle – no walls in the way or awkwardly being able to see inside the bathroom. I’ve also enjoyed having the space change over time, documented in their memories. It gives me a sense of continuity and accomplishment: look how far they’ve come!

I’d wanted this to be a much more essential story element than it ended up being: Carina found dragon eggs in the basement of the fort-turned-home! Way before she (or I) expected, the eggs both hatched: the first into a green-thumbed treasure-seeking dragon I named Kes, and the other into a death-themed logic-oriented dragon I named T’Pol. (No, I’m not a Trekkie. What ever gave you that idea?) They’ve helped the family out a great deal – Kes by providing useful resources and T’Pol by equipping each family member with a death flower, which will save their lives once should a tragedy (fire, drowning, electrocution, being hit by a meteorite, etc.) occur. My sims love playing with the dragons, talking to them to learn gardening and logic, and carrying them around, but the dragons require a lot less maintenance than I’d expected. They’re more like other household objects than pets. It works well enough, I guess, but it’s a little bit disappointing. (That won’t keep me from trying to acquire and raise the other kinds, though!)

Having Aaron kind of forced me to play my sims more like a coherent family. Jason really loved teaching and playing with his son, but wasn’t really getting anywhere (or anything out of) his job. I was also struggling to come up with a career-related goal for him, but I loved watching him play with Aaron and wanted to give Aaron the best possible start. So I had Jason quit his job and become Aaron’s full-time caregiver, while Carina continued to advance in her career and make plenty of money for the family to live on (especially since they’d been responsible with the money from their grant). It was a little bit frustrating because I wanted Carina to be more involved with raising her son while also excelling in her career, but – as in real life – that’s extremely difficult to pull off in The Sims 3. Fortunately, I had a way to express that within the game memory system: Carina had a mid-life crisis! It was a wake-up call for her (and me) to become more involved (to involve her more) in Aaron’s life.

It was kind of rare for the whole family to experience things together, except that I had them attend each season’s festival. My primary purpose for doing so was to have them take a family picture, which I used to keep track of the family changing over time. They also got to have some season-related fun together and with other sims from town. As time has gone on I’ve had them spending more time together. The deaths of their two dogs were very sad, but were also shared experiences. Jason, Aaron, and Ryan shared the experience of sightseeing in Egypt, while Carina played guitar for tips. (I’m not crazy about her excluding herself from their adventures; I feel like I’m struggling to really integrate her into the family while also advancing her career.) Most recently, the family got to come together for 2 birthday parties!

When they’re not directly engaged in activities together, they’re each doing whatever is immediately necessary to keep the household running smoothly. Whoever has gotten the most sleep (or is closer) gets up to care for the crying baby. If there is no prepared food in the fridge, a hungry sim cooks a group meal so the others can also eat – possibly even together! Whoever is closest / in the best mood / is not immediately engaged in skill-building takes out the trash, helps the child with homework, reads a bedtime story, repairs the broken sink, etc. It’s tempting to have whichever sim is best at something (e.g. cooking or gardening) be solely responsible for that task, but I’ve found playing that way to be quite frustrating. This game has taught me that maybe it’s better not to have roles, but to have everyone equally responsible for everything – at least to some degree.

Jason has developed an interest in photography and decided to pursue that as a possible career – despite the fact that his paintings are currently worth a lot more than his photographs will be worth for quite some time. I finally decided to make it his goal to raise both the painting and photography skills to level 10. He just grew up into an elder, so his time is waning. He feels very accomplished to have raised his son, Aaron – now a young adult – and continues to be invested in his second son, Ryan’s, development. He hopes to have grandchildren to help raise as well.

Carina has achieved her lifelong dream of becoming a hit movie composer! She’s getting close to elder-hood, but still has plenty of time to enjoy the career / position / job that she worked so hard and sacrificed so much for. She is also very proud of her sons, especially Aaron who has graduated high school and become a young adult. Investing in businesses around town is a way to ensure future generations of her family will have income, and I’ve used a good chunk of Carina’s lifetime happiness points to acquire objects that any sim in the household can use even after she dies.

I guess, due to the nature of her main goal, Carina has been more focused on her own individual advancement and career success than on being part of the family as a whole. She’s still contributed in her own way by carrying, giving birth to, and financially supporting her sons, even if she’s been less involved in raising them (and it’s not like she hasn’t been involved at all, just less than Jason). Her success has paved the way for them and future generations to have a much easier time in life. And dude, being a hit movie composer who can play guitar and violin in her sleep and whom everyone trips over themselves to photograph is quite the accomplishment! I’d say she has a great deal to be proud of.

For the record, she has NOT given in to demands that she exercise in order to shape her body into what people think a celebrity should look like. She’s an older woman and a mom and an extremely successful musician; people can accept her as she is or go harass someone else, thank-you-very-much.

Aaron has picked up the torch as my new young adult, with all the excitement and opportunity that suggests. His lifetime goal is to be a Renaissance sim – to raise 3 skills to level 10. He’s well on his way to that with painting. I haven’t really decided on a career for him yet and I kind of have notions that he and his brother might open some kind of shop (toy or otherwise; this possibility was unlocked by a recent purchase, so I’m eager to enjoy what I paid for). I’m getting frustrated with failed attempts to make his imaginary friend real (the game didn’t register the first step I took toward the relevant Opportunity). It seems most likely I’ll have him marry and raise a family with his high school sweetheart.

Finally, Ryan has decided he wants to become a world-renowned surgeon. That should be a fun and interesting career track to pursue; I’m not sure I’ve had a sim complete it yet. I’m also thinking of having him be a chess prodigy. For some reason I’m loving the idea of having the youngest member of the family be a genius and quite unlike the rest of the family, yet still a loved, respected, and integral part of it. I like that it’s safe for him to express himself freely and pursue his dreams, even if he doesn’t fit in – no, especially because he doesn’t fit in.