Compassion / Pay It Forward

TW: mention of suicidal ideation

Ron had two really bad days in a row, and didn’t sleep in between. Ze told me ze was suicidal. On the first day I took time from my visit with Banji to have an extended phone conversation with Ron, anything to keep zir connected. On the second day I drove for five hours, successfully chaired a 90-minute meeting, reconnected with Fox after 5 days apart, then welcomed Ron into our home at 10:30pm. We decided to hang out in the back yard.

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(Don’t) Let them in, (don’t) let them see …

So… umm… I “might be” in love with Ron. And ze’s in love with me. And we’ve been connecting on so many amazingly awesome levels … It’s magical. I feel like I can talk to zir about anything. And I want to share the universe with zir.

(I should probably take a moment to mention that I’m in a polyamorous vee with Fox and Banji, and we’re open to additional romantic partners. They both seem more comfortable with this new development than Ron and I are!)

I know I was wary about this before, but I feel like our efforts to get to know each other are having a positive effect on me – including in the direction of finally doing something about all this clutter …

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The Revolutionary Won – with Help

Fox and I just got home from an organizational meeting for the Bernie Sanders campaign in my state. I introduced myself in front of a group, shared why I support Bernie and admitted to some of the insecurities that have kept me from being more involved, attended training to be able to canvas and phonebank … and signed up to be a co-leader of the campaign in my town. Wait, what?

We were talking about stuff I’d been considering anyway. It was so motivating to hear the message: these things are important and we’re going to support you in doing them. And if I’m a leader I’ll be helping people organize who already share something in common with me: we’re all Bernie supporters (as my therapist assured me on Friday). There will be less pressure to reach out to people who may not share views or may even be hostile to them.

It was so cool to be surrounded by people – there were about 30 of us – of all different ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds who all believe in Bernie and the political revolution. We talked about how it’s particularly relevant to us as individuals, to our towns, and to our state as a whole. I felt energized, connected, powerful, like I can make a difference. It felt good.

It’s a first step. The other co-leader said he’d call me tomorrow so we can begin organizing. I’ll need to start figuring out how to do things like registering voters at local schools and securing meeting places and setting up events to canvas, phonebank, etc. It will be work… but it will be good to have something meaningful to do, something that will make a difference. And something social.

Fox helped me get out the door & figure out where to go. He reassured me when I felt uncomfortable. He cheered me on when I was outgoing and proactive. He backed off when it became clear that I was engaging fully and with confidence. It was everything I needed. And he said he’ll support me in my leadership position, which is really awesome.

Find out about events near you at Map.BernieSanders.com/

Also please check out feelthebern.org for information about where Bernie stands on the issues, how to vote, and how to get involved in the campaign.

Out of the Darkness: In Search of Solidarity

Last night was the Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk in Boston. I wasn’t there – to be honest, it had completely fallen off my radar – but I saw one participant’s posts on Facebook. I spent much of the night taking note of their updates in my own impromptu vigil.

For anyone who doesn’t know, the Overnight is the fundraiser by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: a 16- to 18-mile walk that takes place from dusk to dawn. I’ve been suicidal, and I know people who struggle with suicidal ideation, who have attempted suicide, and/or have lost a loved one to suicide. It’s a cause that’s near and dear to my heart.

I have yet to participate in the Overnight, but one aspect of it I find particularly attractive is the Honor Beads. There are 9 different colors, 6 of which represent the loss of specific relationships (i.e. child, partner, parent, sibling, relative/friend, and first responder/military.). There are also colors for people who support the cause and/or know someone who struggles.

A green square with a string of beads in darker green. The words: "I wear green for my personal struggle. American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. #OvernightWalk" in white.

Out of the Darkness Overnight image to share on social media. “I wear green for my personal struggle.”

I like that participants can choose to wear green honor beads to represent their own personal struggle. It’s a way to silently communicate: “I’ve been to hell and I’m still standing!” It’s possible to meet eyes with another person wearing green and know they’ve been there too. And if you’re still in hell, it might be easier to connect with others who can understand what you’re going through. Such visibility can be healing.

I first learned about the Overnight two years ago, during a time when I was actively struggling with suicidal thoughts and feelings. At the time I wrote: “Above all, I am walking for myself, because everything we do to promote mental health and prevent suicide benefits me directly. I am walking to save my own life.”

I was very disappointed when circumstances prevented me from being able to participate in the walk, but at least I was able to raise some money to support the cause. I don’t know how many people were inspired or encouraged when they saw me wearing the T-shirt, but one person thanked me.

Words cannot express how grateful I am for the hope, happiness, self-esteem, and health I have now. I no longer feel like my life needs saving; that is something I will not take for granted. (Because honestly, it’s not guaranteed.) I want to do whatever I can to “pay it forward” – to help others who are actively struggling.

Registration is currently open for the 2016 Overnights, which will take place in San Francisco May 21-22 and in New York June 4-5. I haven’t registered yet, but I’m seriously considering it. I’ve started talking to loved ones about forming a team.

I would love to hear from you if you’ve participated in an Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk: what was your experience? How do you recommend preparing (beyond info available on the website)? You’re welcome to leave a comment, or contact me if you want to write a guest post.

Mental Health Resources

I was thrilled to learn that there is a Crisis Text Line for people in the United States. Send your text to 741741 any time you are in crisis to receive support. The organization is hiring and accepting volunteers. They’re also expanding to help people in other countries develop similar resources.

Additionally, MoodNetwork is a research study in which people with mood disorders and our family members can work as equal partners with doctors and researchers to develop better treatments. The network is currently accepting research participants.

Assertiveness

I had my long-awaited periodontal treatment yesterday! It was surprisingly straightforward: she accessed the inside of my gums, flushed the area with water, did the bone grafting, and stitched me up. I estimate the whole thing took maybe 45 minutes. The worst part was getting the local anesthesia.

I was very proud of myself. The radio was on when we were first setting up; it sounded to me like people were yelling at each other. I found it was amplifying the anxiety I already felt about having the procedure and anticipated feeling while people were working in my mouth. So, I requested that it be turned off “to help me manage my anxiety.”

(I think my mom was the one who actually got the staff to comply with my request – not the doctor. I don’t think she would have done that if I hadn’t said something. I’m grateful that she advocated for me.)

As soon as the radio was turned off, I instantly relaxed. It was like I had been naked under a thick, heavy blanket made of an abrasive material that covered my whole body and shrouded me in darkness. When the shouting (on the radio) ended, it was like someone had removed the blanket; I was suddenly wearing comfortable clothing in a room with just the right amount of light. I could breathe easier – literally. It was amazing.

I tensed up to varying degrees throughout the procedure, but was reassured when the periodontist checked in and told me what she was doing. The worst was when she needed to give me an extra shot of painkillers. There was adrenaline in the mixture and it made my heart start racing. I managed to communicate my distress; she told me to breathe deeply, counting to five, and exhale slowly. That made the rest of the procedure much easier to endure – even when my sensitivity returned before she was done with the stitches. (I decided I’d rather endure that discomfort than the pain of another needle.)

I was irritable and out of sorts afterward and actually told my mother I needed her to stop talking to me about stressful things. I took the medications they’d prescribed and relaxed for a couple hours.

And then I went to class. Not only did I exist in class, but I was fully present. I took notes and contributed to class discussion. I did my best to support a group member for whom the material hit close to home and disclosed that I am actively struggling with depression. My group mates acted like it was no big deal; I’m simultaneously relieved that this revelation probably won’t impact their acceptance of me… and annoyed that I didn’t get more attention! But perhaps they handled it in the way that’s best for everyone involved. I need to be just another person in this big scary world, not someone who’s considered different, deficient, “other.”

I even role-played a member of the most difficult population for me to face: cancer survivors. I’m very fortunate in that I’ve never had cancer myself, but it has had devastating effects on my family – and, as a result, my mental health. I have mixed feelings about survivors: of course I wish them well and support them in their efforts to overcome a horrible illness – especially the social pressure they face to “stay positive” during an extremely stressful time. I also… experience them as a painful reminder of what – who – I’ve lost. Some of my most painful memories.

I consciously and very actively set up mental blocks to protect myself emotionally. (e.g. “I have no idea what cancer survivors are going through.”) The blocks prevented me from getting – and staying – in character, but it was what I needed at the time. I saw a threat, made a conscious decision, established and maintained a boundary. Yet I was able to talk about it with my group mates, remain present with them, contribute to their learning (I hope), and learn quite a bit in the process.

The periodontist said the prognosis for my tooth is poor due to the location of the bone loss (between the roots).

I say eff that! I want to keep this tooth, so I will! I’m going to make a full recovery.

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.