[A Suitable Metaphor]

So sometimes explosions can be helpful. Things did not go well within the EP the other day, everyone was very unhappy, and I came this close to resigning (or being kicked out)… but it made me realize how important the EP is to me. So the next day I apologized and had my meeting with Wakana and told her everything. She said it’s a thing that happens to people who’ve had traumatic experiences and who’ve been enmeshed and whatnot, like I have… I’m afraid to get too close and be overwhelmed, so I push people away. I get anxious about being on the outside so I create the situation where I’m on the outside because at least that’s familiar and oddly feels safer even though it sucks. I told her all about how it’s always been rare for me to feel like part of the group (I feel more like an outsider trying to interact with the group). And I told her all about my friend asking me to be his business partner, and feeling out of the loop, and feeling guilty that I wasn’t doing more, and feeling like I couldn’t do more because of various things happening over the summer and and…

She told me if something’s important to me I need to commit to it and actually follow through, even when it means doing things I don’t want to do, even when it’s work. She helped me realize that I had dropped the ball by not telling my friend that I was feeling out of the loop and didn’t know what to do and felt like I wasn’t doing enough and felt bad about that and so on. I realized that as hurt as I felt about the whole situation, when I stepped out of my own head and looked at the bigger picture, him giving me a much smaller role in the company makes a lot of sense. I’m actually the one who gave myself that role, if I’m being completely honest. Complaining about it to the people who have been working their butts off, instead of talking to him directly, was counterproductive. Well, except that it pulled everything out into the open and provided a valuable learning opportunity.

When I called my friend he was my friend. We he asked me about my efforts to switch programs and I told him how that’s going and he told me how he’s been doing and what he wants for the company and so on. He made it clear that what happened needs to never happen again. I told him how I’ve felt this whole time and apologized. He said that if I need to talk to him about anything I can call him. Overall I didn’t really get everything I wanted from the conversation, but we’re still friends and that’s enough. And talking to him helped me feel a lot more “in” the company.

I bounced back and felt fantastic telling our new social media person she’s awesome (it’s the damn truth!). I took an article about something I wasn’t particularly interested in, learned about it, and was happy. I got to be creative figuring out how and what to write about it. I also got to finally post an article I’d done a lot of research for over the summer, which felt fantastic not just to see it up there and getting views and whatnot (so glad we waited) but there was also the satisfaction of having two things to offer the group. I want to do this work and I feel more a part of the group than before for the first time, thanks to how everyone has moved on from the explosion.

And today we got a request from someone who wants us to interview them and write an article!!! We were all squeeing because this is the kind of thing we were dreaming of a few months ago and now it’s happening!!!

… and speaking of It Happening… I finally heard back from the composition department… around the same time all this stuff was going on, that’s why I hadn’t written about it yet. The chair expressed appreciation for certain aspects of my composing, but said there are other aspects I need to work on – and I agree with his assessment wholeheartedly. He said I would make an excellent addition to the program after addressing the issues he’s concerned about, hooked me up with another faculty member to take composition lessons with, and suggested I take the theory courses so that if I reapply and am accepted I won’t have wasted any time! So instead of waiting until next semester to start I should be able to enroll in composition lessons next week… OMG IT’S HAPPENING!!! And it’s happening now!!!

I’m so excited! but also for some reason I’m kinda fixated on the fact that for the first time ever I’ll just be studying music, not in conjunction with or alongside something somehow related to behavioral science. The form, the relationships among frequencies, the interplays of rhythms and melodies, the sounds that can be made by various instruments, how to intentionally weave all of this into something… well, it depends on what you’re going for. Expressive. Magnificent. Soothing. Arousing. Inspiring. Divine… All of it, right there.

 

And Banji’s home. And my mom is awesome. And I’m getting to connect with nifty people doing stuff we enjoy. And I survived dusting my desktop for the first time in way too long. And everything just feels… balanced. Like right now there’s this perfect harmony going on, but it takes a lot of concentration to maintain and things are going to tip one way or the other, it’s not sustainable as it is, there’s a certain energy and tension and yet calmness, focus, maybe even peace. That moment of silence between the cadence and its resolution. The calm before the storm… Which I guess is oddly appropriate since it’s Mabon (either today or tomorrow), the Autumnal Equinox. Everything is in balance for this brief day and night and then we descend into the darkness and cold of winter. But there’s a certain power and strength and majesty to the darkness that I love and that I can…

okay, let’s be honest, it’s feeling more and more like Halloween. I could go into the significance of Samhain and the sabbats and so on but seriously. HALLOWEEN!!! Who doesn’t love this time of year? I need to stop writing and start figuring out my costume because damnit I’m dressing up this year and it’s gonna be awesome!!!

Building Confidence Through Experience

I’ve been meaning to get back into blogging for a while now. There’s so much, I’m really not sure where to start. And there’s always the intimidation of a blank page… I’ve gone to start a new post many times, then backed out.

Nearly every time, this saved draft has come up. I’ve tried deleting it – I wrote it in early June for crying out loud! – but still it remains. I read it this morning and nearly cried at the end. I’ve come so far since writing this. I’m gonna go ahead and let it speak for itself:

Continue reading

This Post Took Three Days to Write

As I was crafting my last post, I came to understand why I was prioritizing a game over the mountains of important things (some of them very good) that are exploding in my life. It’s a defense mechanism.

I was suicidal last week – or, at least, the voices in my head were. It took everything I had just to pay attention in piano class last Thursday; thank the gods the instructor didn’t call on me to improvise in front of everyone!

Banji came over on Friday and helped me clean the area around my computer desk. I’m amazed by how much better I feel just being in this space now! It was really awesome of her … and it was also incredibly stressful for me. I kinda want to say maybe it wasn’t the best timing, but if I hadn’t done it then the clutter would have just kept making me increasingly miserable. It was the timing we had, so I’m glad we did it. I needed her support.

I visited with her family on Saturday. Her uncle was there; he kept criticizing her cousin and making passive-aggressive comments that were too subtle to respond to appropriately but could be devastating to a child’s self-esteem. I tried to ignore him, to connect with everyone else present, to enjoy our group activities… but it grated on me. Like a mosquito bite in a very awkward place. (It reminded me of how my mom has treated me, my own inner critic, and the cognitive distortions that make depression such a devastating illness.)

After they left, Banji and I were free to enjoy each other’s company. We played duets, sight-read my current composition project on a variety of instruments, and improvised on piano. The piano improvisation became incredibly silly, referencing inside jokes that are over a decade old. It felt so good to laugh with her, especially over shared experiences that helped form our relationship. It helped restore some of the sense of continuity I’ve been missing.

Then we moved to the couch and she decided I make an excellent pillow. We talked for hours. While I was holding her, everything felt right. My worries melted away. I felt whole, complete.

And I had hope for a future where little things like eating dinner together and playing duets and talking on the couch all night can happen whenever we both want them to.

Then Sunday came, and she had to drive home. For 5 hours.

I’m not suicidal anymore. I’m just sad. It’s going to take a lot of work to make our dream of living within a short drive of each other reality. (And even then, everything won’t magically be perfect.) A lot of it is outside our control. I have to include Fox in all my major decision-making. It’s big and scary and overwhelming.

Lately I’ve been trying to do too many things that are big and scary and overwhelming:

I’m re-taking 2 classes I had to drop 2 years ago because they were triggering my worst depression symptoms. In that time I was supposed to do useful things like find a medication that works for me and improve my music skills. Well, if Lamictal/lamotrigine has any chance of working, I need a much higher dose. The APN took me off it, then had me on 25 mg; I got frustrated and stopped taking it, then realized it seemed to help reduce my suicidal ideation so started taking it again yesterday… The point is I’m kind of starting over on it, I need to increase my dose gradually, and by the time I get any clinically significant benefit from it (or a different medication, if the APN puts me on one when I see her in three weeks) the semester will be over. I’m on my own. As for my music skills… they’re not as improved as I’d like, but I’m working on them. They’re serving me better than I’d expected (when I trust them).

The point is, these classes are challenging me in every way imaginable, but I just have to keep struggling through them. If I drop them again I might not be able to finish my degree.

Even if I do everything I need to, my school has a limit for how long you can take to graduate, and I’ve reached it. I’m at the mercy of a stranger who gets to decide whether I can have the extra time I’ll need to finish my degree. My recent experience of strangers making important decisions that affect my life has not been very good.

I’ve also re-structured my personality (in therapy) to the point where I have to change the way I interact with my mom. If I don’t, I’ll just continue doing unhealthy behaviors that ultimately hurt both of us. The ways I interact with my mom have been shaped my whole life to reduce the overt conflict between us and prevent her from abandoning me or falling apart emotionally or having to change the unhealthy behaviors she developed to adapt to live with her parents, etc. Changing them means risking the very things I’m programmed to avoid happening. I don’t always choose the best alternative behaviors, and she doesn’t always react well to them.

Based on our recent conversations, we’re both acutely aware of this and feel threatened by it. We’re afraid of… whatever comes next – but we also want the ways we’ve been relating to each other to change. I don’t know whether what each of us wants is compatible – or healthy. She won’t give me a straight answer when I ask her to join me in family therapy.

On top of this I’m (sort of?) coming out as non-binary. I’m in this really painful place where I’ve fully accepted it as my gender identity, but I’m not fully out to the people I interact with most regularly. They keep using the pronouns associated with my assigned gender; every time it happens it’s like a tiny stab in the heart. I don’t correct them because I’m not sure how to do so constructively. (And somehow it’s almost comforting because it’s familiar?!)

Worse, no one seemed to notice when Fox used my pronouns (in a shining moment of glory that filled me with joy) on Saturday. There was an almost imperceptible pause (that I might have imagined), and then the conversation continued as though nothing revolutionary had just happened. No one asked about the strange way he’d referred to me (“ze”). Their brains probably changed their perception of the phonemes to match their expectations.

Finally, my plan for this semester had been to join social groups on campus that might help me feel better about existing. My contact at counseling services has been respectful of my gender identity and tried to help me join a group that addresses some of my needs. But I just can’t stop thinking of it as yet another place to be misgendered! I feel like withdrawing into what’s safe and familiar, and where I know I can be perceived as I am… not reaching out into something new and scary.

The LGBTQ+ coming out group would probably be perfect… except that it’s a new social situation I’d have to adapt to. I imagine once the conversation started I’d either find it easy to participate, or get something out of listening to other people speak. But when it’s time to leave the house I feel anxious about entering a new, unpredictable social situation. I don’t feel like I can handle those at the moment.

I’m falling back, regrouping, re-prioritizing. This isn’t a matter of entertainment, personal growth, or self-actualization. It’s about survival. (Maybe my brain wouldn’t be in survival mode if my body were consistently getting the nutrients it needs…)

Anyway, priorities. The big 3: food, sleep, and physical activity. Let’s add emotional intimacy to that: hugs are amazingly comforting. Research across psychological disciplines consistently finds that the relationship between therapist and client is the most important part of therapy. Being emotionally available and supportive and non-judgmental heals, whatever the therapist’s orientation(s), modality(ies), and technique(s).

My mental health must be my first priority (followed by my physical health). Without that nothing else matters because I won’t be alive to enjoy it…

My classes come next; it’s very important that I pass both of them. Even if I don’t get the extension I need, I might be able to re-apply to the program and keep the credits I’ve already earned toward the degree – or transfer them to a new school if necessary. I’m so close to finishing, it’s painful.

The groups I wanted to join come last – possibly after video games. I thought they would help me to grow as a person, receive support for the issues I’ve been struggling with, and develop important skills I’ve been lacking … maybe even to make friends? I also decided at the beginning of the semester that it’s okay if I just need to focus on my classes right now. Making that decision – setting that boundary – is a way I can assert myself. That’s putting my hard work in therapy into action!

The nice thing about the LGBTQ+ groups is that they happen every week and I can show up when I’m ready to. I can make the decision of whether to go up to an hour before the group meets; my decision has no effect on whether I’ll be allowed to join in the following week. This week I decided not to go, but by the time one rolls around again I might be up to it. I’m thinking of calling and asking for a basic idea of how the time in group is structured, so it won’t be quite so unpredictable.

The counseling services group isn’t like that. It’s a specific 6-week course (complete with homework) and I’ve already missed the first week. I was invited to join in the second week (that is, today), but I’m feeling very ambivalent about it. On Tuesday I was wondering why I even wanted to be part of this group in the first place. By last night I was thinking maybe it would help me feel more confident and able to focus in my Thursday class (and more likely to go, because I’d already be on campus). The group closes after the second week, so if I miss it again I can’t join. I’ve been asked to let the facilitator know my decision ahead of time.

Perhaps it would be best to tell her I’ve decided against it. I already have a lot that I’m struggling with. I want to send in my own written appeal for periodontal treatment, I need to start working on the request for extended time in my academic program, I have instruments to practice, and I have papers to write. I’m counting primarily on the paper to get a halfway decent grade in piano class. If I don’t join this group, I’ll have more time and energy to dedicate to those things. I won’t have to deal with the social anxiety it’s bringing up. And I’ll have more time to recover from waking up before I have to coordinate getting ready to go somewhere with everything I need for the day, etc.

The main appeal of the group is that it’s an opportunity to practice yoga, meditate, learn ways to calm the nervous system, and cope with difficult emotions. I could do the yoga and meditation on my own … theoretically … but experience tells me I won’t. I need – and crave – structure and social support. I need to get outside my own head and receive feedback from someone other than my inner persecutor.

Just last night I had a great experience in my group music therapy class. I’d decided to show up, take notes, and role play for my group mates to the extent that I felt comfortable, but refuse to take a turn as therapist. Everyone else had taken their turn and I felt very shaken up, on the verge of tears. I felt raw, exposed; the muscles in my body tensed to the point where it felt like I couldn’t move. I sat very still for as long as I was able.

But the co-instructor came in and my group-mates told him I was the only one left who still needed to go. I couldn’t bring myself to come out as having a mood disorder, but I was as honest and vulnerable as possible: I said I’d been having a rough time and was feeling very raw and didn’t think I could lead a group in that emotional state. He asked if there was an experience I thought I could lead the group in, that might also help me to feel better.

I was going to do the intervention I’d come up with for my piano class, but sitting at the piano I had my back to the group and couldn’t find a practical way to remedy that. We were role-playing children, so my group-mates suggested I try a simple children’s song with two chords and play on guitar. I agreed to a song someone suggested, and the next thing I knew I was playing guitar fairly fluently, singing, using the song structure to maintain order while allowing the “kids” to be spontaneous and creative and interact with each other, and having fun. I was even able to take constructive criticism and try some of the suggestions that were offered.

I learned so much from that experience and felt so much better afterward … because I was present and vulnerable with others; I allowed them to support me. And they did. They were awesome! They gave me the push I needed to succeed.

I was hoping to have a similar experience with the counseling services group. We’d all be there to learn to overcome certain insecurities and practice new ways of being with ourselves and others. If I didn’t feel like it’s helping me, I could always drop out. Short of dropping out, I could decide the degree to which I want to participate (including whether to do the homework). It’s only five weeks. I might have made new friends, or at least learned something useful…

… But then I talked to my contact at counseling services, and she suggested I “put it on hold” so I can “focus on stabilizing my depression.” She seems to think it’s not really the kind of group I need right now. Perhaps I can try it in the fall.

I feel empty, deflated, tired, and maybe just a little bit relieved. and thirsty. Maybe I’ll just sit here. Indefinitely.

Progress

Last night’s class was great! Whereas in the past I’ve been terrified to show imperfection and extremely critical of myself, last night I was eager to receive feedback. I was uncomfortable about the class watching last week’s video of me acting as therapist in my small group, but the instructor pointed out something I’d facilitated without being aware of it. This element had been very effective in supporting the goals for the group: free expression and interaction among members.

Then we broke up into groups for hands-on experience, with the task of dealing with “problem group members.” The instructor recommended lyric analysis; for once(!) I immediately knew which song I wanted to use. Another group member was a bit better prepared and group consensus seemed to be for her to go first, so she did. I’m kind of wishing I’d gone first because the instructor came in while she was leading and gave a lot of useful feedback. The whole thing got video recorded, which meant (unbeknownst to us) that there was not enough memory left on the device to record a second mini-session. (Spoiler: So there’s no video of me leading.)

I left plenty of room for one of the other group members to go next, but there was an awkward silence as we all looked at each other. So, I volunteered. Perhaps I could have been a bit more direct about my desire to take a turn leading, but that’s working against an entire childhood, much of my adolescence, and even some of my (young) adulthood spent learning to step back and “give the other kids a chance.” (Including teachers refusing to call on me unless I tricked them into thinking I wasn’t paying attention.) I may have taken it to a bit of an unhealthy extreme, but I’m working to correct that…

I felt so good to go because I wanted to go, not because I had to. I felt ready. I presented the song in the way I felt comfortable with and that left me free to focus on connecting with the group members as we sang. I facilitated a verbal discussion that helped one of the group members come to her own conclusions that were supportive of her therapeutic goals, despite initial rejection of the primary imagery in the song. I tried several strategies to engage a silent group member without losing the ones who were participating. Even though she was quite successful in remaining disengaged, I felt good about the creativity I’d employed and eager to keep working. She later told me that it had been very difficult for her to resist engaging with the group, and that the only way she’d managed was by diligently avoiding eye contact with everyone.

Best of all, I felt accepted by and connected with my small group-mates, and comfortable in the class as a whole. I feel like I’m back on track and more alive than ever!

Medical Update

I ran out of Lamictal because my appointment with the APN on Friday was cancelled for reasons outside my control. The receptionist said the “other doctor” would refill my prescription that day. Nada.

I called today around 11am and the same receptionist said the APN would take care of the prescription within the hour. “I’ll call you.” Four hours later, no call. I called back at 3pm and she said “by the end of the day.” I had important things to do today, so I couldn’t sit around waiting for it. But, according to the voicemail I just listened to, it’s waiting at my pharmacy.

I called my dental insurance to find out if there was any update regarding my periodontal referral for my Endangered Molar. I had received authorization for a consultation only; the periodontist (whom I saw on January 22nd) had to request authorization to actually treat me.

The dental insurance representative said they hadn’t received any such request from the periodontist! It’s been almost four weeks! And to make matters worse, she tried calling the office three times and kept getting a busy signal. She said she’d leave a note for someone to try again later.

When I’d met with the periodontist, she seemed to be on my side. They said “we’ll call you to make an appointment,” so I was a good patient and waited. They made it seem like any delay would be because of the insurance. I trusted them! I feel betrayed.

In related news, I went to get a root canal on Root Canal Molar last week. The endodontist-in-training attempted to perform the root canal, but had difficulty accessing it for several reasons – including but not limited to my inability to open wide enough for her to reach the back top of my mouth. Apparently the tooth is also rotated toward my cheek, making it even harder to access. We both put in our best effort, but all she really ended up doing was beating me up.

We’re officially at 6 months since I started having unbearable toothaches, and I still have yet to receive treatment! The bone damage near those teeth keeps getting worse; I can see it as a growing dark area in the x-rays.

I have an appointment to go back and try the root canal again… In two weeks… But I’d really rather not. We’ll need at least a couple of painfully long visits just to complete the root canal, then another 2 or more for the crown – if it’s approved – and there’s a chance I may have a problem with it later and have to come back again…

No, just no! That’s not happening! I’d rather just get the damn thing pulled and be done with it! I don’t even want to replace it with anything.

So now I have to convince the endodontist-in-training to refer me for an extraction and wait for that to be approved… I just hope I can communicate with her directly – and that she’ll follow through in a timely manner – without jumping through a million hoops. I can’t tell you how often I’m tempted to try and pull both teeth out myself!

But wait, it gets better! The sleep study that contributed to my crisis two weeks ago failed to reveal whether I have sleep apnea! The doctor had called me to discuss the study and, when I told him I’d slept much worse than usual, suggested we try an in-home study. I agreed and he said someone would contact me to set it up…

I was just thinking it was time to call them and find out what happened, when I received a letter from my insurance company saying they were terminating treatment by an out-of-network provider. The letter didn’t say what treatment; in fact, there is a sentence that doesn’t make any sense because the [insert colourful phrase in gorram Chinese here] who prepared the form letter didn’t bother adding what I consider the most important information! The only clue I had was at the very end: “cc Obnoxious Sleep Center.”

I was very worried that they would turn around and make me pay for the on-site sleep study (that had proven to be a waste of time and fucked up my head). I had trouble focusing on other things all weekend, I was so angry! I hated the insurance company for sending me an unedited form letter – instead of calling me to address the issue and offer help. I also suspected the sleep center of lying to me, billing my insurance for treatment I hadn’t received, etc. In short, it all made me feel very unsafe.

I called my insurance about the letter today. It had been intended to inform me that the in-home sleep study was denied because they don’t think I need out-of-state treatment. I explained that I wouldn’t be treated out-of-state, both the sleep center and my home are in the state that’s currently paying for my healthcare. But apparently the company (parent company?) that would ultimately receive the funds is based in another state. My results might have to be processed in another state, etc. To be honest, I understand why they wouldn’t want to pay for that. I just wish they’d told me in a more straightforward way!

The doctor who is ostensibly treating me was and may still be trying to get the decision reversed. As far as I’m concerned he’s welcome to continue (or not); I’ll follow through with whatever works best for me. I now have a list of names, addresses, and phone numbers that may or may not be accurate contact info for in-state sleep specialists.

I’d almost rather not even bother! But if I do have a sleep disorder, treating it could go a long way toward helping me function better in my daily life. I need all the help I can get – especially with two emotionally-intense graduate-level classes. I just need to consider whether trying to access treatment is worth the disruption it’s causing to my everyday life…

I’m considering the possibility that I might be better off going untreated, at least until my classes are over. Then I don’t have to play phone tag, listen to musak while on hold, reschedule my life around appointments that only add to my difficulties, and constantly feel like I’m beating my head against a wall. I estimate that more than half of my current stress would be eliminated if I weren’t trying to access healthcare (particularly dental) at this point in time. I kind of need to stay on my psych meds (I think), but perhaps the rest of it should be put on hold.

On a much more positive note, I took some steps toward finding a potentially-therapeutic group experience today. I met with the leaders of the “coming out” counseling group and told them that I’m trans*. They admitted that they’ve been having trouble finding members and expressed concern because the couple of clients they do have are cis, coming out as lesbian or gay. They would want to have at least one other trans* person in the group so there would be someone I could relate to on that level.

I appreciate that, even though it is a bit disappointing. At least they’re willing to work with me to find a group that might work, whether it’s the “coming out” one or another focused on general interpersonal issues. I expressed my interest in the latter and they said “if you don’t hear from us in two weeks, give us a call.”

They also encouraged me to join the extracurricular LGBTQ+ group I’ve been considering; that helped me overcome my reservations and actually show up for it today.

The facilitator was sitting at a table, surrounded my empty chairs. I walked over, said “my, what a lively group we have today!” and sat across from him. We talked for a bit about random things (completely unrelated to sexual orientation and gender identity) and had several awkward pauses.

Then he asked what I was hoping to get from the group. I told him I want a safe place where people will see me as I am: queer. He said that’s exactly what he intends for it to be, and what it had been in previous weeks when people actually showed up. His words were welcoming, but he seemed skeptical regarding whether he would see me again.

I think I’m actually more encouraged to return than I might have been if there had been a group. I felt like I bonded with the facilitator, and that makes me want to come back. I felt safe there; knowing it’s a safe place will make it easier to be there as part of a group. I feel less like I’m inserting myself into someone else’s party and more like I’m helping to establish the group. Next week we’ll be starting on the same page.

Reframing

many picture frames of different shapes and sizes, painted a variety of colors, standing up and leaning against each other. from magpieweekend.com

many picture frames of different shapes and sizes, painted a variety of colors, standing up and leaning against each other.
image credit: Becca at magpieweekend.com

Lately I’ve found myself reframing stressful experiences by highlighting the positive aspects, seeing them as learning experiences, or considering the new opportunities they provide. A prime example of this occurred while I was walking to class last Wednesday, feeling absolutely horrible about myself for being late. I thought about how I felt (almost suicidal), what had triggered it (fear that I would never belong in a group), how I would have responded in the past (stayed home, possibly hurt myself), and how I was behaving at the time (going to class!).

I wasn’t exactly in the best frame of mind to think positive thoughts about myself, but I imagined the instructor saying, “Wow, you were feeling that insecure and you still came to class? That shows a lot of dedication! This must be very important to you.” In other words, I imagined someone else saying something positive about me – the thoughts were my own and they contained positive self-talk, even though I couldn’t express and experience it directly as such. That’s… actually quite healthy.

Since then I’ve taken some time to put the whole incident in perspective. There were a lot of factors that made doing my schoolwork and showing up on time for class on Wednesday very difficult for me. I’d spent most of the weekend decluttering, a task that – while necessary and healing – I found very stressful. Fox had offered to join me in continuing that task on Monday, but instead we ended up shoveling snow. I stayed up all night in preparation for a daytime sleep study on Tuesday… during which I did not sleep. Lack of sleep alone probably would have been enough to undermine my ability to function on Wednesday, and I was already painfully aware of the 17th anniversary of my father‘s death on Thursday. I believe it may have predisposed me to cognitive distortions like only viewing the negative aspects of things, generalizing, and catastrophizing.

As much as I’d like to be functional at this time of year, it seems most adaptive to accept that I will need to take “mental health” days on and around February 5th – and to plan accordingly. At the very least, I need to do my best to avoid making extra appointments around this time, especially since I never know how the weather might impact my plans. It’s not a weakness, it’s making an informed decision and engaging in self-care.

Considering everything that was going on, I handled myself quite well on Wednesday. I actually got up, got dressed, and tried to go to class. I traveled all the way to the classroom door before my anxiety got the best of me. The class has a strict attendance policy, so I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned about the consequences. But all I did was miss one class. That’s a very minor mess up in the grander scheme of things.

More importantly, when I got home I wrote a blog post about my thoughts and feelings. I expressed what was going on instead of allowing it to consume me; this kept me safe until Fox came home, hugged, and comforted me. Even though I couldn’t reach out to anyone directly, the public post let Banji know what was going on. She reached out to me and we had an awesome, healing conversation. The written record has also made it easier for me to talk about and reflect upon what happened. This blog is an awesome resource that I’ve created for myself and that you, my readers, have helped maintain as a safe space. Thank you.

The imagined conversation in my most recent post is a reframing of my Wednesday class as an opportunity for growth and healing. This is a big deal for me. Yalom (the author of our primary textbook) recommends understanding mental illnesses in terms of how they affect our relationships – both with other individuals and our ability to function within groups. He instructs (group) therapists to treat these difficulties, for they are the true pathologies clients face. In this class, not only do I have to function in a group where the expectation is that we’re all “normal” (to be honest, I have a hunch that at least 20% of us have mental illnesses – probably more considering we’re all studying to be therapists)… but I’m also studying myself as the “other” as I read and listen to class discussions about people with mental illnesses, “their” problems, and how to treat “them.” It’s all about what I need and often feel I can’t have, what I simultaneously strive for and run away from.

This class is the embodiment of my psychopathology, including (especially!) the internalized stigma. I’ve already had to drop it once; on Wednesday I thought that history would repeat itself. But in reality I have a choice, and that choice is mine alone. I can decide I’m not ready to face it so directly; far from “another failure,” this option opens all sorts of opportunities to me. I could focus more on activism, composing, write a book, find a job, volunteer, hang out at Fox’s workplace all day, read every book in the library … there are too many possibilities. I spend my life playing Skyrim because I’m overwhelmed by all the possibilities. But they’re there! And each one comes with its own challenges. Each one will probably cause me similar problems, all linked back to some aspect of my psychopathology. Each one holds some potential for personal growth.

Or I can keep going to class on Wednesdays and be in that group, whatever that means. I’m increasingly convinced that it needs to include coming out as having mental illness, even if the conditions are not ideal. I could be so vague as to say “I have a mood disorder” or explain that “I live with depression, anxiety, and occasional hypomanic symptoms.” I’m leaning toward the latter because it paints a more interesting, complex, and accurate picture.

I really hope that whatever I say will encourage the other students in that class who have mental health issues to speak up, because there’s no way I’m the only one. One of the readings for this week (by Yalom) was all about how the therapist needs the courage and confidence to be human in the therapy group – fallible, affected by group members, and in the process of learning about zirself through zir experiences in the group. Part of being human is having mental health issues – by Yalom’s definition, difficulty relating with others and functioning in groups, and even doing things that aren’t necessarily healthy in an attempt to be accepted by a group. Group therapy is therapeutic because it provides a safe place to stop doing those unhealthy things and try out new ways of being with individuals and groups – a space that is created and maintained first and foremost by the therapist. How can we create such a space for our clients, if we can’t do it for ourselves?

Before I can do it for my (future) clients, I need to do it for myself. I’m already a member of a group of student therapists who are learning to do group therapy and (probably) feel just as uncomfortable as I do. As much as I want to claim that I’m coming out to help and/or teach the other students in my class, what it ultimately comes down to is that I can’t struggle to pass as “sane” anymore. It hurts too much and requires too much energy. I need to be in the world and I need to be fully myself, including my mad self. Why not here and now?

Links:

Everyday Health: Cognitive Restructuring

Mind Tools: Cognitive Restructuring – with free downloadable worksheet

Sometimes the Answer Lies Within

I’ve been rehearsing the conversation I need to have with the instructor of my group therapy course, preferably before our next class. I’ve told “him” about my desire need to experience group therapy as a client, my difficulty dealing with groups, how I’m impacted by existential issues – which would make for an excellent post – even spoon theory.

In my imagination “he” patiently listened while I explained all this stuff and why I couldn’t join the class on Wednesday, even though I’d gotten dressed and traveled to campus and was standing right outside the fucking door. Then “he” took a deep breath, looked me in the eye, and said:

“This class isn’t therapy, it’s an academic class. But maybe it can provide the experience you need. Think about it: you like your small group mates – that suggests some sense of safety in that group and desire to belong to it, yes? They’re also trying new things in front of a group; it’s a common experience you can support each other through.

“Trying to be in this group – the small group and the whole class – is relatively low-risk. If you see these people again, it will be in maybe one or two more classes, or perhaps as colleagues… they’re not going to make or break your entire life. You have plenty of experience losing relationships and forging new ones. You have survived, even thrived. You’ll continue to do so regardless of what happens here.

“So take a risk. Be yourself with them. If you can also find group therapy, great, I’m sure it will help you a great deal. But don’t walk away from the group you’ve already joined. Use the resource you’re holding in your hands.”

I have no idea what the actual, separate person who is the instructor of this course – and happens to also be my academic adviser – will say when I talk to him in real life. I hope he’ll be willing to work with me to make the course a bit more accessible. But it almost doesn’t matter anymore.

What matters is that I have this voice inside me. These are my thoughts. I have this resource I can tap into whenever I need. I can see the world more complexly than my mental illness would allow.

I find it interesting that I’ve chosen my academic adviser – someone I trust and admire, but whose pedestal has been cut shorter as I’ve observed his limitations over the years – to represent this guiding voice. He’s already told me that my mental illness need not prevent me from entering this field – actually, it might make me a better therapist. He is not only a professional therapist but a trainer of professional therapists; this can’t be the first time he’s dealt with someone like me. If anyone can help me right now, I think – I hope – he can.

And if not the actual person, my internalized version of him can. That means I can. It’s I’m taking an extremely challenging experience and turning it into an opportunity for growth, and more importantly trusting that I already have what I need to get through it in one piece. I just need to trust myself – and I guess I already do.

I just need to believe that I am worth the struggle, the pain, the uncertainty. Not that life is worth living – honestly, that’s up for debate. That Imy dreams, my creativity, the ways I want to influence the world, the relationships I hold dear – that I am worth living. That I – whatever unique meaning or purpose I create for myself in this meaningless void called Earth in the 21st Century – I am worth the pain of existing every second of every day.

It doesn’t “get” better. I will make it better, or die trying.

No, seriously, become ethereal.

TW: suicidal thoughts

In Skyrim you learn Dragon Shouts that let you do awesome things like breathe fire, cross a distance in the blink of an eye, and even force a flying dragon to the ground. The Become Ethereal shout temporarily suspends you between the physical and spiritual worlds. You cannot harm anyone, and more importantly, you cannot be harmed.

Combine that with invisibility, and you basically have the only way I feel I can safely exist right now.

One of my classes is about group therapy, intended to train students to be good group therapists. We’re reading The Theory and Practice of Group Therapy by Irvin Yalom. Before today I would have said that the more I read it, the more I want(ed) to participate in group therapy as a client. I think I need to have that experience for my own healing and before I can responsibly become a therapist.

The feeling was coming up as I read before class today, so I decided to call and see about joining the psych counseling group I mentioned in my previous post. The receptionist asked if I’d ever worked with campus psych services before. I said I’d tried but been unsuccessful. Then she said she didn’t know if the group was still open and transferred me to the person in charge of it. No answer, so I left a voicemail. No response (yet).

I tried joining a group by this organization once before. The person I’d spoken with had said she didn’t think short-term therapy would be good for me given my psych issues. Even though she offered to refer me elsewhere, I felt rejected. My experience today brought up the expectation that this is likely to happen again; they probably don’t want to deal with anyone who has severe – or even moderate – mental health issues.

The clinic Fox and I have been going to doesn’t offer groups that would be appropriate and won’t give me a referral. Even Wakana hasn’t been helpful in this department. I doubt I could find an appropriate group covered by my insurance, and Mom already seems to resent paying for my individual music therapy. I feel like there is no place for me.

I kept reading and what I read confirmed my fears. The very issues driving me to pursue group therapy would probably make me incompatible with the group they’ve created (to address a separate issue that’s just as important to me as any of the members they’ve deemed worthy of it). If I’m not a good fit, then I won’t benefit and may be harmful to the group.

And even if I were granted the privilege of joining a group, the early stages might be toxic for me. They consist of people measuring each other up and jockeying for position in the group. Initial attempts at unity and mutual support degrade as members become very critical of each other. I fear that in such an environment I would at best be ignored and at worst become a scapegoat… or just be outright rejected!

I wondered if this might be happening in class and felt unsafe with it. I thought that if it’s already bringing up all these issues, maybe I should drop the class. But if I do that, it will definitely take me much, much longer than the allowed time to graduate. I already need to request an additional year – that still might not give me enough time.

Then I read Yalom’s thoughts about tardiness and absenteeism and started to feel guilty about all the (non-therapeutic) groups I’ve left. I’d be running late for some reason, then embarrassed about being late so I wouldn’t go, and finally feeling weird about missing meetings so I’d drop out. I’ve done this more times than I can count. Any group leader would be wise to exclude me. The more I read about how harmful this behavior is, the worse I felt.

All the while the clock was ticking. I couldn’t even finish the chapter before it was time to go to class. I took too long in the bathroom. I felt anxious about my inevitable tardiness, but resolved to go to class because there’s a very strict attendance policy.

I arrived almost half an hour late. I looked through the window in the closed door to the classroom, but didn’t see a seat I could slip into easily. I hid in the bathroom to sort out my thoughts. Maybe I could join my small group when the class split up for the hands-on component? But my fellow group members are very nice and likely to ask friendly questions that are my worst nightmare – and even if they didn’t I’d have to explain myself at some point. (Maybe in front of the whole class! – they’d definitely be wondering…)

If I made up an excuse for being late I’d probably end up caught in a lie. When I’m feeling so vulnerable that I want to hide under a rock is not the time (I want) to come out as mentally ill (by admitting that the reading triggered me). I’d feel so much safer doing it so I could share things I’ve learned about therapy by experiencing it as a client. (How very academic of me!)

I looked at the time and realized that even though I was quite late, there was still the majority of the scheduled class time. I could still get quite a bit out of it. I tried to muster up the courage and looked in the room again… but still didn’t see any easily-accessible open seats. Anxiety got the best of me and I left, feeling defeated. I’m not sure how I got home in one piece. I crept back into my apartment and hid.

My own thoughts are my worst enemy. They have been battering me this entire fucking time: I’m worthless. I’ll never be able to support myself financially. I’m a burden and I’ll always be a burden. I should kill myself…

But the worst and most painful thought was this:
(I should contact [name] about this!)
No. Everyone who could help is probably busy, unavailable, or has more important things to do. They would be upset. You shouldn’t bother them.

I’m alone. I feel like my voice is gone. I thought about going to the ER but I don’t think they could help me. I think I’d be mistreated and that would make it worse. I feel like there’s nothing I can do… except maybe play Skyrim. It’s better than cutting myself…

Right?

New Year’s Resolutions for 2015

Last year I resolved to remember that my episodic mood disorder NOS is part of me – not all I am, but not somehow different from the “real me” either. I think I did a pretty good job of that throughout the year.

This year I want to renew that resolution and make a few more:

  1. to be physically active – let’s try 10 minutes per day
  2. to join and regularly attend in-person meetings of a group
  3. to express my spirituality
  4. to do something musical every day
  5. to keep in touch with people I care about

Why these resolutions?

1. I’ve been saying for a while now that including physical activity in my daily routine would be good for my physical and mental health. I feel so much better when I do something that gets the blood pumping – usually walking for longer than it takes to get from one room of the house to another, or dancing. I’ve seen what an extremely sedentary lifestyle has done to my godmother (who is still in the hospital, doing better but Mom wouldn’t say she’s “okay” yet) and it scares me. The extent to which I was winded after carrying a chair up one flight of stairs yesterday scares me. I don’t need to be in tip-top shape, but it’s important that I improve my stamina. I want to be able to do things. I want to feel alive.

2. I’ve gotten a lot better at being with myself or interacting with one other person, setting boundaries and asserting myself and the like. I’ve always been more comfortable with one-on-one interactions. However, especially since I realized I’m an extrovert, I have increasingly felt the need to be a part of some group. I had my friends over yesterday to celebrate the holidays and, as crazy and overwhelming as it got at times, I felt great. I was tired last night but today I want to do it again; I hate the idea of being alone. I know I can’t be interacting with people in groups all the time, but I need it to be a more regular part of my life. Hopefully the classes I’ll be taking in the Spring semester will help, but I need non-academic social groups, too.

One group I’m considering is Clutterers Anonymous because I don’t even know where to start trying to clean my apartment. Fox is just as much of a clutterer as me – if not even moreso – and I learned the behavior from Mom. Ideally the three of us would all go … but he has work and I don’t want to be dependent on her to interact with this group. I need to be able to attend it myself regardless of whether they come with me. I would have specified this group in my resolution, but if it doesn’t work out for some reason, I want to be able to find another group and have it count. The most important thing is to get out of the house and be social.

Another possible group is that Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance support group I attended once and haven’t been back to since. There are also a ridiculous number of Meetup groups in my area; all I have to do is join and actually show up. I’d even be willing to count going to different groups’ meetings toward this resolution, as long as I stay remotely consistent with it (say, at least twice a month?).

3. Spirituality is an important part of who I am that I had been neglecting until very, very recently. I used to feel at one with nature, dance under the stars, direct the energies of the various elements as they flowed through my chakras, practice zen Buddhist meditation, and pray. Even though I didn’t always agree with the lyrics, I found the act of singing or playing sacred music to be a profound spiritual experience. All of that fell apart as situations changed and I withdrew instead of adapting.

Now Fox is going to work most days and I worry about his safety. About a million things could happen to him; I could lose him. You just never know these days, and the world just seems to be becoming more and more dangerous. If I get caught up in thinking about this stuff, it could destroy me. So instead I pray: “Keep him safe.” I close my eyes and visualize him coming home to me. I send out my love and wishes for his protection and clothe him in armor made of positive energy. It helps me feel better. And so far he’s been safe.

I want to expand on this to more fully live my spirituality, especially acknowledging the seasons as they change.

4. Music is another important part of who I am, that I’ve also been neglecting. Among other things, I got too caught up in trying to do it perfectly; I was so worried about making mistakes that it interfered with practicing! That bright, cheerful, simple song would become painful and strained, until I’d drop my instrument and start crying. I was trying to force something that wasn’t there, and suppressing what I needed to let out. I need to find a way back to making music that is for me. It starts with picking up an instrument – any instrument – and trusting myself. Wakana helps in our music therapy sessions, but I only see her once a week. I need to build on what she’s given me.

5. This resolution is kind of difficult and I’ll be honest, I’m tempted to take it off the list for this year. The people I care about are kind of scattered, living in different states and/or busy with their own lives (and/or lacking funds for transportation). I intend to call or text or email or contact via Facebook or something, but then the time just keeps going by and … nothing. People aren’t exactly the best at contacting me, either; many of my family members go through Mom.

I want to maintain and strengthen the connections I have, so I want to try and reach out to them more often. Maybe send a text when I’m thinking about them or something. Emails. I still need to send out thank-you cards. I need to address why I don’t like calling people on the phone. This could probably be its own post, but at the moment I’m struggling not to fall asleep…

Yuletide Blessings and Happy New Year!

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?