“Life takes you to unexpected places. Love brings you home.”

Right after I’d recommitted to finding an internship and completing my music therapy degree… a friend called and asked me to partner with him in a new business he had been laying the groundwork for for several months, and felt ready to launch. It’s a great opportunity to make a living writing about things I’m passionate about, and he seems to think it has the potential to be quite lucrative. I’ve already enjoyed writing a couple articles for it, and everyone I tell encourages me to go for it (well, except my mom, but she’s skeptical about pretty much everything). I’ll be honest, I’m a bit wary regarding the whole entrepreneurship thing myself – and I’ve made it clear I don’t have the funds to invest in this endeavor financially – but I’m also hopeful: it’s a chance to make more money than I probably would as a (beginning) music therapist, doing something I enjoy, without performing emotional labor. Well, at least it would involve considerably less emotional labor.

Around the same time this happened: my godmother was (still is) slowly recovering from complications from bariatric surgery (there’s a reason spell check wants to change that to “barbaric”); Banji’s dad was (still is) dealing with health issues brought on or exacerbated by treatment for yet another type of cancer (he’s had a few); Fox’s dad fell and had bleeding on the brain; and my mom was diagnosed with stage 1 uterine cancer. I could have maybe dealt with all the other bullshit, but my mother having cancer, after everything else, was the last straw. Since being diagnosed she’s had a hysterectomy and they’re confident they got everything and she’s recovering well enough… but we’re both still scared – or at least I am. My mother had (we’re gonna keep this past tense) my mother had cancer, WTF!!!

I just… can’t. I emailed my academic advisor, thanked him for the work he’d started trying to help me find an internship, and told him I need to put it on hold again because I’m dealing with family health issues. I feel like every time I’m starting to make progress on this, something happens to fuck with my head, I’m on an emotional roller coaster, I’m not ready to start this career that’s all about supporting people emotionally… and finally – FINALLY – I realized that maybe I’ll NEVER be ready. There’s no reason for me to believe things won’t keep happening to rock my boat, and I’ve found the best thing I can do is hang on until the storm passes… I can’t support people through shit like that on a professional level while I’m struggling with it myself. I mean I guess I could, but what would it do to me?

Maybe… and it’s still new enough that part of me doesn’t want to let go, but I think it’ll come around, eventually… maybe I don’t want to become a music therapist, or work in any “helping profession.” The idea of working in a field where I can just perform intellectual labor (maybe some physical labor, but minimal emotional labor) has never been more appealing. There have been signs, like when I flat out didn’t do an assignment for one of my graduate psychology classes because I realized it wouldn’t hurt my grade too much, and I didn’t feel like dealing with the personal/emotional shit it was bringing up. Or when I stopped working on my degree for 2 years to dabble in third-party politics. Or when people started telling me I come alive when I talk about this entrepreneurship opportunity (but not when I talk about finding a music therapy internship). When I think about it I’m like “but damn, I want to finish this degree, have the M.A. after my name that I went tens of thousands of dollars into debt for.” But, I dunno… maybe once we get this thing off the ground I’ll be able to pay off the debt in a couple years and then, well, I can probably still finish the degree, or get a different one, or just say “hey I’m successful in a career I enjoy, who needs a degree?”

(I had a dream in which I switched to music composition… and if I’m not mistaken they’re both “M.A. in Music with a concentration in __________” – so yeah, that might not be entirely unrealistic. But I don’t really feel enough motivation to focus on composition right now to make that work… Right? I mean, yeah, Banji’s moving back home and will be taking classes on the same campus and it would be awesome if we had classes at the same time: we could get dinner and study in the library together wearing matching [school name] sweatshirts and it’ll be almost kinda like being in undergrad together again instead this time we’ll both be commuters and… nah. Being a professional composer is a pipe dream. I haven’t even dabbled in it for years. Yes I know I majored in music because I fell in love with music theory, and I’d absolutely love to take another course in it… I’ve joked if someone’s complaining about having to take it I’ll offer to take it for them… but I just… It’s more debt, okay! I can’t ask that of my mom. Really… Yes I know there are scholarships I could apply for but… well, I guess it wouldn’t hurt to see if it’s remotely feasible, and what the process would entail… I do miss composing, and it could help with branding for my new business…)

Omg what have I gotten myself into? The point is yeah, this is the second time it’s happened. I went into college majoring in psychology and minoring in music, then had a “mid-college crisis” in which I decided to major in music (but finish the psych major as well, I was so fucking close). Then I went into grad school for music therapy (I wanted to be a music therapist, really, it wasn’t that “trying to become a professional composer is unrealistic” – honestly!) and interestingly managed to satisfy all the requirements except the one that involves actually working full time as a music therapist. (Because of the application process, honest!) And I can’t help thinking I could just finish the degree this coming fall semester! if I didn’t have to get a fucking internship and work in the field WHAT AM I DOING? This is ridiculous.

If it’s even possible to switch to composition, I could probably satisfy the requirements in a heartbeat, and love it.

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Vulnerability is Strength

As much as I love writing potential scenes between my and another character in my friends’ Exalted (tabletop role-playing / collective storytelling) game, I feel like I’ve been getting too far ahead of what has actually happened in the game. It’s been a difficult temptation to resist, so I tried to compromise by initiating a conversation with the player of the other character – in which I intended for us to discuss how the bond between our characters might develop. I figured if I’m gonna keep getting ahead of things, it’s better to do so with the other player’s input instead of allowing myself to become overly attached to an alternative / inaccurate version of his character.

Instead we ended up having an awesome, rather long conversation that included the friend who pulled him into the game and mostly had nothing to do with Exalted. We geeked out, laughed at ridiculous YouTube videos, and were otherwise very silly together – which was just what I needed, honestly; it was so much fun! At one point the conversation took a surprisingly personal turn, considering it was like maybe my fourth time talking to this individual and the first time that wasn’t primarily focused on gaming. We touched briefly on some of the trauma / loss we’ve each experienced, were honest and supportive of each other, and agreed that it’s important to be vulnerable. I shared that that’s something I’ve struggled with for as long as I can remember: whether it was needing to suppress my grief in order to function in school, trying to “be strong” for my mom because (I thought) she couldn’t handle my emotions, or otherwise just wanting to ignore my depression and have a “normal” life, I have fairly consistently fallen into the trap of what my friends called stoicism and I’ve seen referred to online as toxic masculinity.

Vulnerability is a theme that’s gaining prominence in the scenes I’ve been writing between the two characters. My ‘healer’ character initially wants to ‘fix’ the ‘wounded’ character; they avoid touching this individual because doing so evokes overwhelming emotions that make them feel vulnerable, and that terrifies them. But even in the earliest scenes I wrote they tell their story and literally show their wounds (scars), revealing that in a way the two characters aren’t that different. In one scene they instinctively reach for the ‘wounded’ character’s hand as the latter leads them through the Underworld; the ‘wounded’ character responds by squeezing the ‘healer’ character’s hand reassuringly (and it works). In another scene my ‘healer’ character braves their fear of touch and vulnerability to hug the ‘wounded’ character, with the intention of supporting them through a particularly difficult and absolutely essential milestone. Both characters end up holding / supporting each other while crying on each other’s shoulders; in that moment the two characters are both simultaneously ‘wounded’ and ‘healer.’ It becomes a milestone in both characters’ growth, as well as the development of the relationship / bond.

In the most recent scene I’ve written, the ‘healer’ character is severely wounded in battle and ends up unconscious. The ‘wounded’ character holds them until they awake because that is the only way to keep them safe, warm, and relaxed enough to get the rest they need to heal. Upon waking, the ‘healer’ character is able not only to accept but to enjoy the touch, and is finally honest regarding their ambivalence toward intimacy / vulnerability with the ‘wounded’ character. While explaining this they begin to consciously acknowledge that they trust in the ‘wounded’ character as a result of that character’s actions, which are more important than the character’s status as a Deathknight instead of a Solar. The two are finally able to enjoy being close without the ambivalence / awkwardness that has defined their relationship up to this point. (Of course the scene is getting way, way ahead of the game and relies on my – not necessarily the other player’s – interpretation of how the ‘wounded’ character may develop.)

For so long my whole inner Committee has perceived the Wounded One as needing protection, incapable of fending for themself or really doing anything. We – especially the Healer – haven’t considered the Wounded One’s agency or strengths, to the point that they may not even be aware of them. But the Wounded One was the first out of all of us; they created many if not all of us. Maybe we need to trust them more.

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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Loving Shadow – Part 2

This is Part 2 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 next part. In this post I introduce 2 characters who seem to represent aspects of my psyche that need to learn to work together. I describe the current attitude my character, a healer, has toward another player’s character, a … well, severely wounded individual.

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Loving Shadow – Part 1

This is Part 1 of a rather long journal entry I wrote recently and decided to break into 3 parts. It is intended to provide the background necessary to understand the 2 subsequent parts, which explore themes that have basically taken over my life for most of the past month. The background given in this post is my understanding of / perspective on a fictional universe. It only focuses on the details that are salient to the points I needed to make.

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Blog for Mental Health 2015 – aka the elephant in the room

a smiling elephant walking toward the right side of the image and spraying water from its trunk: over its back and onto the words "2015 blog for mental health"

Blog For Mental Health 2015 badge by Piper Macenzie

This is my third year taking the pledge:

“I pledge my commitment to the Blog for Mental Health 2015 Project. I will blog about mental health topics not only for myself, but for others. By displaying this badge, I show my pride, dedication, and acceptance for mental health. I use this to promote mental health education in the struggle to erase stigma.”

I absolutely love that the primary image in this year’s badge is an (adorable) elephant! It just so happens to fit perfectly with where I am on my mental health journey:

I’ve spent the past 2+ years learning to accept that my “mental illness” is an inextricable part of me, while also working to unlearn the distorted beliefs and once-adaptive behaviors that keep me from fully expressing my true Self. One of these beliefs is perfectionism, particularly when it comes to playing guitar and piano in class: I believed I had to conform perfectly to academic, musical, and social expectations in order to be accepted by my peers. I have also spent my whole life trying to hide the fact that I (like anyone else, though perhaps sometimes to a greater degree) have times when I feel insecure, frustrated, angry, guilty, vulnerable, sad, anxious, confused, etc.; that there are times when I don’t know what to do and times when I make mistakes. I did this throughout my childhood and adolescence to provide some stability to a family that often felt determined to tear itself apart. But it became overwhelming as an adult.

Eventually I just couldn’t do it anymore, and I didn’t know how to function in society without doing it. So, I withdrew. At times I withdrew a bit too far, disappearing into video games. But, for the most part, I think the withdrawal was both healthy and necessary. It enabled me to prioritize my mental health above other concerns for the first time in my life. It required me to be honest with myself and those closest to me, in ways I’d never dared before.

Blogging for mental health has contributed immensely to this process. This blog gives me a safe place to share my thoughts on topics I might otherwise consider taboo. Writing helps me get a better sense of what I’m thinking and feeling, to better understand what’s really happening beneath the sudden flashes of anger or crushing guilt or hurricane of conflicting emotions. (It probably has something to do with a distorted belief.) Sometimes I receive comments from other bloggers who offer support, congratulations, advice, encouragement, and the knowledge that someone can relate to my experiences. I can see that people are reading the blog (even if they don’t respond directly); my voice is being heard. And I have the opportunity to read about the experiences of other bloggers, to connect with them through comments, to feel a sense of community.

(Sounds good, right? Join the Blog for Mental Health Project!)

So, elephants. I’ve come a long way on my mental health journey; I’m replacing my distorted beliefs (e.g. “I have to be perfect to be accepted.”) with more realistic ones (e.g. “It’s okay to let my imperfections show.”). I’m even trying out new behaviors, like telling my small group I’m not sure what to do or admitting to a classmate that I’m (also) terrified to play in front of our piano class. So far they seem not only to accept, but maybe even to like me.

I think the next step is to be honest about my mood disorder in my everyday life, with people who know my legal name. I won’t be as candid as I am on this blog, but it’s important to talk about mental health issues. I especially need to be able to do it in my music therapy classes, conferences, and (someday) my work environment. I want to help create communities of mutual support, where talking about mental health issues is the norm and it is safe to be genuine.

Not only does talking about mental health issues give others permission to do the same – which could save a life – but it has been and still is a safety issue for me. I need to be able to say things like “that was triggering for me,” “I’m not role-playing anymore; this is how I actually feel,” or even “I need a break from this, can someone come out to the hallway with me?” When I speak up and receive support from someone else, my emotions and destructive thoughts can’t overwhelm me. I feel better about, well, everything.

Blog for Mental Health FAQ | Take the Pledge! | 2015 Official Blogroll

I Aim to Misbehave

I recently read 2 great articles about depression that I’d like to share. In Miles and Miles of No-Man’s Land, Libba Bray presents an extremely accurate depiction of what it’s like to have depression. I really love the imagery Bray uses and the recognition that depression “is not a consistent state. […] it has its manageable days and its acute, life-threatening flare-ups.” I’d recommend the article to anyone who wants a better understanding of what depression is like, or who is having depression symptoms and feels isolated. Sometimes it can feel like you’re the only one who’s ever had these terrible thoughts and feelings, and it helps to know that others have been through it too; they know what it can be like. (This is my opinion based on my own experiences.)

The other article, How to Be a Good Depressive Citizen by Ferrett Steinmetz, calls authors out on the tendency to write about depression after the fact in carefully-worded posts (like Libba Bray’s) that describe – but don’t directly express – the pain. It’s a double-edged sword: someone with depression doesn’t want to be That Person causing all this Drama on social media sites, possibly saying horrible things about their loved ones, and making everyone else feel bad. There are real risks involved in being too open online. But there’s also a need to be honest about one’s experiences while suffering from depression, to express the raw overwhelming emotions and insecurities as they happen. Believing one is not allowed to do so can make the depression worse by reinforcing the underlying assumptions that fuel it.

Being a “good depressive citizen” can also perpetuate the stigma associated with depression and other mental illnesses. It keeps controlled, “sane” descriptions of a phenomenon as the norm, the actual experience and expression of mental illness as “other,” “crazy,” “insane,” and unacceptable. It makes us invisible when we most need to be seen, incomprehensible when we most need to be understood. It invites judgment when we need empathy. It creates the illusion that depression is something that belongs in one’s past, an obstacle to overcome, and that someone who’s not actively recovering from it – showing steady improvement – is lazy or manipulative or taking advantage of someone or otherwise being bad. That illusion interferes with people’s ability to show each other – and themselves – much-needed compassion.

I found the comment by “NotDepressed” on Steinmetz’s article to be quite upsetting. I considered quoting it here, but I don’t want that kind of toxicity on my blog. There is one sentence that I will quote because it’s a great summary of the stigma we face: “I have sympathy for your plight, but not for the mindset that it should be ok.” Based on the rest of the comment, I take that to mean this person would feel bad for me because I have depression, but wouldn’t tolerate my emotions, perspectives, or behavior. They wouldn’t consider me worthy of employment – or their time. They would want me to “go get help” and come back when I can be “up-beat.”

Well, sorry, but there isn’t a magic pill I can take to make everything better. “Help” isn’t a makeover. It’s not like I forgot to brush my teeth. Recovery from mental illness (to the degree it’s even possible) is a process that takes time. And while it’s happening I still need to live my life. With all my imperfections, thanks. We all have them. And no one is up-beat all the time. (No, not even Kaylee from Firefly.)

I’m so glad this is some random stranger on the internet responding to someone else’s blog post, and not someone I actually know in real life. But I do wonder if there are people in my life who would respond that way if they found out about this part of me; I also wonder how many people with mental illness have a person like this in their life. I find these thoughts very scary and painful – even though the people I have opened up to have been accepting and supportive.

I’m also very angry that this person posted something so potentially hurtful in response to an article that people with depression are likely to read, particularly because they used second person (“you”) throughout the whole thing. When I read things written in second person, I feel like the author is “talking” to me specifically and I take their message more personally. I imagine this is likely a common response, considering how second person is most commonly used in everyday speech. Songwriters intentionally use second person to make their songs more intimate.

How dare some random stranger who has no idea what I’m experiencing tell me that expressing my emotions, thoughts, and otherwise existing as a depressed person is not okay?! How dare they say I’m wrong for accepting myself and asking others to accept me as I currently am?!

The central theme in all of my efforts to “recover” from anxious depression has been a movement toward perceiving myself as a person who has inherent worth that can’t be measured, earned, or diminished. When I perceive myself as worthwhile, I am more capable of taking care of myself, reaching out for help, taking risks, challenging destructive thought patterns, and trying the healthy behaviors people keep suggesting. I’m open to growth and new possibilities.

It’s when I doubt my worth that the worst of my symptoms flare up. Now, it’s not some random person on the internet’s responsibility to make sure that everything I read when I go online affirms my worth. From what I can tell, it’s usually my own thoughts that cause me to doubt my worth – automatic thoughts in response to triggers such as failing to do something I’d considered important. I need to address those thoughts, challenge the underlying assumptions, and sort through my emotional clutter. I also need to accept those parts of myself that I’ve rejected – and nurture the ones I’ve neglected – so I can be whole again.

And I need to be more selective about my media consumption. As I told Wakana, “I was looking for myself on Facebook, but I ended up getting lost instead.” There’s a lot of hurtful messages out there, a lot of people like “NotDepressed” thinking they can tell marginalized groups what is and isn’t acceptable behavior, or even that they just don’t deserve to exist. It’s very difficult to avoid internalizing those messages, especially if you’re constantly bombarded by them from a young age. I’d like to see less hurtful messages and more people supporting each other, using their privilege to defend marginalized groups, working together, etc. It’s there and I think it’s growing, but it’s not necessarily going to be the first thing that shows up. I need to actively seek it out.

Going back to the title of this post: The purpose of this blog is for me to write about depression as I’m experiencing it. To be honest, I find being a “good depressive citizen” much easier than expressing my deepest darkest emotions as I feel them, especially in writing. The main reason why I’ve been posting so sporadically the past few months is because my symptoms were quite severe. I was spending a lot of time playing The Sims 3 and otherwise avoiding reality. (I have to admit it: I have an addiction. A very serious, even life-threatening one.) It wasn’t that I wanted to hide what I was experiencing and be a “good depressive citizen,” but that I didn’t know how to express what I was feeling; I often felt like I didn’t really have anything to express. When I wasn’t playing The Sims 3 I was oversleeping, spending too much time on Facebook, and trying to keep up with life. There wasn’t any energy left for blogging.

Then this past week or so, something changed. We set the clocks an hour ahead. The days have been getting longer. We had a couple days that really felt like spring. I’ve been knitting and reading fiction novels. I became very angry about the way Fox and I have been living and made some efforts to clean. I actually met with Wakana in person for the first time in weeks. I had a fantastic weekend that included a visit from Banji and didn’t crash afterward. Sometimes I even feel happy for no apparent reason.

A huge part of it is that people I love and respect went out of their way to show they care about me; Fox’s immediate family even came to visit and cooked for me. I was able to talk about my feelings and concerns, feel listened to and understood, and even consider my situation from a different perspective. And I was able to reciprocate without feeling overwhelmed. That felt very good.

Another part of it is that Fox went away for the weekend to spend some time with his friends; I needed to stay home to take care of the dog. I knew I would need to get through the weekend without him so I reached out to others for help, and the result was fantastic. I got to spend time with other people I care about and found that I do quite well – possibly even better! – when I have the house to myself. I feel like my brain is working differently, and it probably is. Like a fog has been lifted and a weight has come off my shoulders. (Now, if only I could go somewhere without people I’ve known for over a decade asking me where he is!)

It’s not that I don’t love him or that I don’t want to live with him, but the way we’ve been living together really isn’t healthy for me and is probably just as bad for him. At the very least, we need to find things to get each of us out of the house interacting with other people; the times can overlap but should also provide each of us some time home alone. I’m working on asserting myself, but for the time being (and possibly forever) the only time I can really make my own decisions is when I’m alone.

So I had a great weekend and I’m feeling a lot better than I had been. I’m starting to get into my old interests again and actually do things that are meaningful to me. I want to do something to celebrate the Spring Equinox. I want to get back into focusing on my life, my career, who and what I want to be.

I want to walk away from the depression and never look back. But I know from experience that that’s not how it works. Depression is episodic; some people might be fortunate enough to only experience one episode, but it’s common for a person to experience several episodes over the course of their life. This is at least my third, it’s kind of hard to say. I still have symptoms: I’m tired and achy and grumpy (especially in the morning) and sad for no reason and anxious about leaving the house. In the middle of the awesome weekend I had to tell the Critic to stop berating me and instead help me play the passage I was sight-reading on viola. The symptoms are just less severe, and for me that feels wonderful. Miraculous.

I’m afraid it won’t last. The severity of my symptoms will fluctuate; I really hope I won’t be suicidal or inclined toward self-harm again. I do believe that I’ve grown a lot in terms of being less co-dependent, perceiving myself as a person with inherent worth, asserting myself and enforcing much-needed boundaries. I also have a lot more to learn.

I’m clinging to every good moment, especially when I feel happy for no reason. I’m also trying to let myself feel whatever I’m feeling and do something to improve my mood if necessary. Today Wakana taught me HALT: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. If I feel any of these I’m supposed to stop and do something about it. Maybe that will help me maintain and improve upon my current level of functioning. Even if all it does is deter the next time my symptoms become more severe, I’ll have a time when I can live life more fully. Isn’t that what this is all supposed to be about?

Whatever happens, I’ll do my best to portray it honestly.