Whirl Wind

Gods its been a while. Where to start?

Last semester was fantastic! I got to have music that I wrote performed publicly for the first time, and everyone (seemed to) love them! Best feeling in the world!

The holidays are always a kind of rough time, but they themselves went well enough. I enjoyed spending time with friends and family and got some really awesome shirts. They’re kinda like “men’s” dress shirts but shaped for a “female” body, complete with extra buttons to keep the shirt from puckering(?) around the chest.

And they come in flannel! For some reason I’ve found wearing flannel to be super affirming. I just love how I look and feel!

Then there was January. I hate January. All the cheer and excitement of the winter holidays is over and it’s just dark and cold.

January is when my father was dying. And even 22 years later, it still hurts. It will probably always hurt.

But I realized I’m not mourning him anymore. I was able to talk to Wakana about it completely dry-eyed… until I got to the impact it had on my relationship with my mother. Then I started crying.

Mom and I still don’t verbally acknowledge what time of year it is. There’s that kinda glance that we both know, an unspoken agreement not to talk about it. It makes me sad.

But we’ve come a long way and for that I’m incredibly grateful. She’s more and more of a friend, someone I can … maybe not quite confide in, but definitely talk to about things that are important to me. And she’s super supportive about the composing.

Speaking of, when I said “composing would be living” I was right! I’m absolutely loving it!

I used to watch movies and point to the credits when they list the composer and orchestrators and say “that’ll be me someday!” I thought it was a pipe dream, just a fun thing to imagine while working toward a “safe,” “stable” career.

Then the opportunity came to compose for an independent short film. It’s a shit ton of work for a student director under a tight deadline and it’s unpaid. I’ve never formally studied anything about composing for film, I’m just kinda making shit up as I go…

… and I’m loving every minute of it! It’s challenging and rewarding and so far the techniques I’ve been trying seem to work. (They’re probably not the most efficient, but hey, I’m learning!) I’m more confident than I think I’ve ever been about anything that I can make this score awesome. And it’s gonna be shown at film festivals, possibly internationally. People will hear my music! They’ll see my name in the credits! It could be the start of my dream career!

And you know what, even if it’s not, it’s a great experience. I’m turning out music faster than I thought possible. I’m almost constantly being inspired. I’m choosing my job over other potential activities because I genuinely enjoy it more.

And even as I’ve been sick with a horrible cold, I have my world-ending coughing fit and then pick up right where I’d left off composing. Honestly with all the classes and socialization I’ve missed, and just the distress of coughing so much and so hard (it’s physically forced me to start crying), I think this project is what’s been keeping me going. It’s something meaningful that I can do in bed between naps and feeling miserable.

It’s also teaching me to be less of a perfectionist because I’m writing for a client. He needs to like the music in order for it to be included in the film. So there’s not really much point to me making a piece perfect before sending it to him, just to risk him saying it doesn’t fit with his vision or whatever. It gives me permission to jot down ideas, try to express them clearly (damn notation is hard!), and get them to him asap. That makes it more of an open, collaborative process that enriches both our understanding of the film and our respective arts.

His last couple bits of feedback made my heart sing! It’s wonderful!

why I don’t like the term “Recovery”

Disclaimer: If you find it empowering, that’s fantastic! I don’t want to shake that. Your mental health and well-being are much more important than my opinion. This is post is about my personal relationship with the term.

CW: potentially ableist language, references to death, descriptive imagery of quasi-suicidal feelings

I don’t like the term “Recovery” because it suggests that there’s something to recover.

Which works if it’s like: “Last week I sprained my ankle and for a day it hurt too much to put weight on it. Over time I was able to start moving it around and whatnot… and now I can get around the house no problem. Though to be honest it’s still a bit swollen and painful.”

That is recovery because I remember a time when my ankle didn’t hurt, wasn’t stiff, and I could walk normally. I have a sense of there being something I had, then lost, and an idea of what getting it back would be like.

And for some mental health experiences I think that might make sense. If it were just a matter of my father and both my grandmothers and my dog who was like a brother to me dying within 5 years of each other during my adolescence, then maybe there would’ve been something there before those traumatic experiences fucked everything up that I could try and recover!

But there’s not.

Because my parents didn’t know how to parent me in the ways I needed. Which isn’t really their fault. They didn’t get the parenting they needed. Probably because my grandparents didn’t get the parenting they needed either. Because… well, there are reasons why my great-grandparents left their homelands and came to the U.S., possibly with small children – or in the case of one of my great-grandmothers, completely alone. I don’t know the specifics, but I can look into what was happening during that time.

This isn’t about that. “Recovery” isn’t about that. It’s about my life and experiences.

Which were shit.

Not all of them. But the term “Recovery” suggests to me that I should be looking back at my life before those traumatic experiences to find something I want to recover. Most of what I see is darkness. Most of what I feel is pain. And the moments that aren’t are ones I can’t get back, because the people they belong to are dead. And to be honest they’re overshadowed by the pain. The sorrow. Grief? Anger? that horrible sensation of being alone and hungry gazing into the Abyss while some terrifying monster eats you from the inside and you’re drowning and all you can hear are your own cries…

Or we can go with the language my therapist used: she called it Complex PTSD. There’s not one or more easily identifiable traumatic experience(s) I could pinpoint and say yeah, before that was good, let’s recover that. Instead there was a childhood of emotional abuse and neglect.

When I look back at what I had, I’m grateful that on a material level there was never anything I needed and couldn’t access. Food, clothes, shelter, and healthcare were all there. I was safe for the most part, physically speaking. There were aspects of my education that could’ve been better, but they were offset by things that were better, so… I dunno. I’m just trying to acknowledge that I’ve always had financial security, and that’s extremely important. And my grandmother was awesome. And my mom did what she could – at least, she meant well, she just… I’d say she could’ve done better, but if that were true she probably would’ve done better, is all I’m saying.

My point is: I don’t see anything that I want to recover.

I see things I wish I could go back in time and change. I see things that make me sad, angry, wistful, nostalgic, grateful, or glad that part of my life is over. I see strengths and areas for growth and things I’m proud of and things I regret and experiences I’ve learned from.

And I see myself hanging on through all of it – yes, loving people supporting me (including my mom), that’s very important – but it’s the choices I make that guide me from one place to the next.

The choices I’ve made are why I’m breathing today.

So there really isn’t anything to recover. The things that would be worth recovering are still there – are more there now than they were in the past. There have been things for me to discover, maybe – like being able to acknowledge my own resilience – but not recover.

It feels more like I’m BUILDING something. It’s constructive. I’m in Constructory.

I’m looking back at all this pain and realizing it didn’t kill me. And if I could live through that, I can live through just about anything. I’m giving myself permission and acknowledging my ability to recognize when I need to “just hang on” for a while, and trusting myself to do it, and to get my feet back under me when there’s something to stand on again. I’m learning to reach out for help when I need it, (and figuring out who and how to ask,) and actually using that help constructively.

I’m looking back at the things that have made me feel alive – and the things that haven’t – and choosing what to keep, what to discard.

And unlike with my ankle, where I know what it’s like to walk normally, and I’m trying to get that back, I DON’T KNOW WHAT I’M BUILDING. It’s not something I had before, it’s something new and it’s both exciting and terrifying. For example, I was freaking out for much of the semester because I’d never felt so happy and it was great but it was also overwhelming. Like in April when I had a fantastic meeting with my advisor and he told me I was getting an A in music theory… then I sat on the stairs for an hour crying… and then I went to the library to do my homework.

I’m embracing and building upon my love of music. Composing. (and theory!)

I’m composing myself.

Loving Shadow – Part 3

This is Part 3 of a rather long journal entry I wrote recently and decided to break into 3 parts. Part 1 provides some background information that may be helpful for understanding this and the previous part. Part 2 introduces 2 characters who seem to represent aspects of my psyche that need to learn to work together: the Healer and the Wounded One. In this post I describe how I would like to see their relationship progress, particularly in terms of my character’s (the healer’s) role and development.

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Finding the Words

It’s been five weeks since … I still don’t have a label for it. It just is.

Well I guess I could say “my old wounds got torn open, setting me back a year or two in my recovery to how I felt and functioned about 18-24+ months ago.” (‘Recovery’ – to the degree to which I find that term relevant – isn’t a unidirectional, continuously-getting-better process. It’s complicated and messy and all over the place. So this can’t be a setback, just an unexpected and more-difficult-than-anticipated part of the journey. Perhaps a necessary part? It’s certainly reminded me of how vulnerable I am – but also how resilient I am.)

I’m inclined to say “that’s a bit melodramatic” but, well, it’s my truth. Coming back from that hasn’t been easy. For a while I took a break from activism, particularly the being-a-leader-in-a-grassroots-organization stuff. I’ve been getting back into it, almost to the point where I feel like I’m “pulling my weight” again – putting in effective work commensurate with the roles I have. But I’m also addicted to Terraria, my apartment is as messy as ever (what an understatement!), and my relationship with Fox … let’s just say both my therapists seem to agree it should be my primary focus. And one basically suggested he should quit his job so he’ll have energy to put into our relationship.

It’s been about 3.5 weeks since I visited Ron in the hospital and 2.5 weeks since ze was released. Ze lost zir job and couldn’t go back to zir parents’ house because their terms were unreasonable to the point of being unhealthy, so ze is currently homeless. People are doing what they can to help and ze says ze feels better. Ze seems better too – most of the time. Sometimes zir “speech seems pressured” but it’s usually connected to particular topics, and it’s possible to move the conversation elsewhere. Ze listens to me.

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Using Words to Say What They Cannot

Playing The Sims 3 too late Monday night all but ruined Tuesday. My plan had been to pick up textbooks from the bookstore on campus, leave from campus to go to my music therapy session, then return to campus for my evening class, attend class and come home. Instead, I overslept by 45 minutes. I was sluggish, groggy, and disorganized. I left an hour later than I’d intended. When I got to the bookstore there was a long line; I was worried about being horribly late for my session, so I left without accomplishing what I’d gone to campus to do. 😦

I was late for the later time to which I’d pushed back my session when I realized I was running late, but my therapist (Wakana) was very nice and actually allowed it to go on longer than our usual hour. Fox came with me, per my request, so we could work on some stuff together:

The Issue

I’ve been feeling very trapped in our relationship, like I can’t express myself fully. It’s fueling the depression. Sometimes I feel like he’s trying to shape my thoughts regarding a topic (e.g. saying we know my pet rats are smart) or change some aspect of something I’ve said (e.g. repeating it with an inflection that suggests a different emotion/meaning, or changing the wording). He (almost) always has a response for (nearly) everything I say and most of what I do; that response always seems to convey either approval (like I need it) or the suggestion that I should do/think/say something different. When he doesn’t respond, I worry that I’ve broached upon an unapproved topic.

Other times, I feel like his actions (e.g. opening a drawer for me) or reactions (e.g. shrinking away when I express anger) limit my ability to be an active agent in accomplishing my goals. I feel like he doubts my abilities when he helps without me asking him to. I feel unsafe expressing anger – and harnessing that energy to complete tasks – when he shrinks away from it. I worry that I’m being too aggressive. I almost never practice music when we’re together because I know he doesn’t like hearing the same thing repeated over and over again. I waited almost an hour and a half to call Banji Monday night because I felt uncomfortable excusing myself from Fox to do so.

I don’t know whether these are red flags suggesting an unhealthy dynamic to our relationship (as my mother seems inclined to suggest), or whether I’m taking his behavior too personally. One of the mental distortions in depression is perceiving others’ neutral behaviors as somehow negatively directed toward oneself – for example, as disapproval. Knowing this can help me quiet the Critic enough to get through a day, but it might also cause me to doubt instincts that I really need to trust. Do I need to just be myself, assert myself, do what I need or want, and leave it to him to express his needs directly? Or is something more sinister going on here?

The last thing I need is an abusive relationship.

What Words Can’t Say

I am distressed by the impact of Fox’s actions on my quality of life, but just as distressing is my impulse to ask him to change his behavior and speech patterns to better suit my needs. How is that not limiting his ability to express himself fully? Don’t we both have that right?

I feel horrible bringing it up, especially since he’s done so much to show his love for and dedication to me. He’s stuck by me through some very rough times, shown me more respect than I was once inclined to show myself (and still have trouble requesting from others), and even remained supportive and present while terrified by the strength of my anger. (I think it helps that I was not angry with him at the time.) How dare I question his motives?

I worry about falsely accusing him, controlling him until he’s forced to become someone he’s not, hurting his feelings, and/or driving him away. The anxiety steals my voice and silences my thoughts. I have trouble coming up with the words to express how his behavior is affecting me – or, how I feel in response to his behavior. If I manage to think the words, I can’t bring myself to say them. My mouth and vocal cords refuse to work.

If I manage to say something, I don’t communicate it clearly. I think it comes across as nitpicking about this instance of the behavior instead of trying to address the broader pattern. Fox becomes defensive. I get frustrated and fall into a cold, hostile silence full of pain, anger, and guilt. At some point we both let it go. Rinse and repeat.

Tuesday morning was particularly bad because we were both cranky from lack of sleep, and on a schedule. It didn’t help that (as he expressed later) he was trying to navigate the thin line between giving me the nudge I need (and have requested) and being overbearing; I felt like he was guilty of the latter. I was convinced he was controlling me and I hated him for it. Even when he went to take a shower and I was putting our breakfast dishes in the dishwasher, these thoughts were running through my head. I felt abused, unappreciated, neglected.

Finding a Voice

I talked to Fox about feeling trapped on our way to the music therapy session. I told him I hoped we could use music to work through some aspects of our dynamic that I was having trouble understanding and expressing in words. He agreed to try. We also talked about what happened Tuesday morning to try and find better ways of interacting. I suggested we work together as a team, with a routine and different jobs we each know we need to do, to make mornings run more smoothly. He suggested we have a technology curfew – no computer/internet use after midnight or too soon after waking – to help us get the sleep we need and start the day focused on reality.

(I’m breaking the technology curfew to write this, ironically. But he’s not here to be affected by my choice; he’s at his own home near his campus. I’d probably benefit from maintaining it whether he’s here or not, though. There’s just one problem: late night is my favorite time to write!)

The music therapy session was the one part of the day that went well. Wakana opened it by asking what our objective was, so I explained my perspective of what was going on and desire to use music to work through it together. We showed Fox how to play a variety of instruments, then he and I selected several to improvise with. He played the djembe (African hand drum held between the knees/thighs). I started with the cymbal, but when I saw that it was interfering with his music-making, I switched to the “nicer” and “quieter” malimba (African thumb piano).

If I’m making music with one or more other people, I listen to and might watch them, but the majority of my attention is on my own playing. This time, most of my focus was on Fox: his playing, facial expressions, and other body language. I tried to give him time to find a rhythm and play something that made sense with it. I got frustrated and even once played loudly on his drum when he played very quietly around the edges.

It was only when I backed off and became engrossed in the melody I was playing on the malimba that he was really able to join me. We responded to each other in the music and smiled at each other. He started to play with more confidence and volume. Where before my cymbal playing had interfered with his ability to play anything, I found I could punctuate and to some extent respond to his rhythmic patterns with it … then go back to playing the malimba. We connected and had a lot of fun.

Using Words

I was a bit annoyed when it seemed like Wakana was focusing mostly on Fox’s experiences, but listening to Fox speak was actually very helpful. I learned that, like me, he feels like he is putting a lot into our relationship and not getting as much out of it as he would like; his needs aren’t getting met. He expressed that he’s trying very hard to support me in dealing with my depression, all the transitions that are happening in my life, and day-t0-day stress. Sometimes it’s hard for him to figure out how to fit in his own needs, particularly because he doesn’t want them to have an adverse effect on me. It reminded me so strongly of what I’ve learned about the therapeutic relationship – the therapist should never use the session to meet hir own needs at the expense of the client – that I actually told him very firmly “You are not my therapist.”

I think sometimes we both need to remember that his job in our relationship is not to meet my needs. We are two individuals, equals, both of whom have needs that need to be met in a mutual and reciprocal way. I can’t meet all his needs and he can’t meet all of mine; we each need to find ways of taking care of ourselves and reaching out to other people for support. I think a lot of my anger toward him comes from forgetting this.

I’ve also finally come to acknowledge that, whether he is intentionally or subconsciously controlling me or not, I am putting stupid amounts of energy into trying to control him. Let me say that again: I am controlling him. For a while I was reading a book Wakana had recommended, titled Codependent No More: How to stop controlling others and start caring for yourself by Melody Beattie. As soon as I read the subtitle I denied that I could possibly be guilty of controlling others. My mother did that to me, Fox was doing it, even Banji. Everybody else. Not me! I was the victim.

Now I’m thinking maybe I should give this book another read with the understanding that maybe more of it applies to me than I had thought. Maybe Fox and I can read it together – codependency is something we both struggle with and a significant, 2-way issue in our relationship.

Wakana also gave us a valuable tool we can use to better assert our needs to one another, while still respecting each other and being polite. She suggested that if one of us wants to talk to the other about something, we set a date – it could be “in half an hour” – so we both have time to prepare mentally. Then no one’s activity gets interrupted and everyone’s needs can be discussed, hopefully addressed to the satisfaction of all parties.

A New Vocabulary

Wakana and Fox also helped me find the words to better explain something that’s been happening to me that is very distressing, interferes with my functioning, and has yet to be addressed by mental health professionals despite my attempts to bring it up. Sometimes I freeze up (I used to say “get stuck”): I feel like I either can’t or really don’t want to move; sometimes my head is swimming with thoughts. Sometimes I can’t think at all. All I can do is hold still and feel my body.

From my subjective experience it seems similar to my understanding of catatonic episodes, though for me it usually only lasts a few or maybe several minutes. I’m afraid to use that word with mental health professionals, though, in case I’m wrong. My understanding is that, even in the context of depression (vs. schizophrenia), catatonia is considered a severe psychotic symptom. One of my major goals in life is to avoid being involuntarily committed to inpatient psychiatric care – or needing it, for that matter. Applying inaccurate labels to myself around authority figures does not seem conducive to that goal.

Wakana didn’t use that word, though, she put it in the context of trauma response. There are 3 typical responses to a traumatic experience: fight, flight, or freeze. She noticed that, in my suddenly-much-clearer-than-usual explanation of the symptom, I said I feel overwhelmed by my (often self-deprecating) thoughts and conflicting emotions. “It’s anxiety,” she said, “probably linked to a past trauma.” There have been several times when I’ve frozen up to varying degrees – from feeling like I couldn’t move to completely shutting down emotionally – in response to trauma, such as: hearing my parents argue (as a child); learning my father had just died (as a preteen). Those responses seem sensible. Freezing in response to my own thoughts as an adult is a bit of a concern. Clearly I have a significant anxiety disorder that coexists with and feeds into my depression.

Well, now I have the words to describe one of my most distressing symptoms, and a nudge from Wakana to address it with Psychiatrist B.

But It Comes with a Cost

The downside to the extra session time Wakana gave us is that I left her office too late to make it to my class on time. I was beating myself up mentally for being late, especially because I did not have the book the instructor had emailed us three times saying to bring!

I tried checking my email to see if the order had been filled, so I could at least get the book and keep up with assignments, but I didn’t have an internet connection. I was too exhausted to deal with showing up significantly late for class without the book, never mind attempting to learn anything (and driving home afterward).

I went home with the Critic angrily lecturing me about the extra money I’d wasted on transportation to campus and how irresponsible it was/looked to miss the first day of class – especially as a graduate student! It went so far as to tell me I’m not allowed to spend an equivalent amount of money on other things! (Suggesting maybe I shouldn’t would be reasonable. Saying I’m not allowed is a bit harsh.)

I told the Critic that I’d made my choice and to shut up, but the guilt lingered. It only faded when I decided to make an appointment to meet with the instructor during her office hours. I’m also thinking I should look into filing for official disability accommodations with the school; it might be the difference between graduating and being forced to withdraw – i.e. give up my dream career – “for medical reasons.”

If I were given a choice between that and being involuntarily committed for inpatient psychiatric care, I’d take the latter – at least temporarily.