A Sunny Focus

What you focus your attention on matters

I wasn’t exactly wrong, but I wasn’t exactly right

On August eighth, I made the following post on Instagram:

Depression and anxiety tell you that if only you were different in some way — stronger, smarter, whatever — you wouldn’t be feeling what you are feeling.

It’s funny-not-funny how often I post things for other people and nearly immediately need them for myself. I’m not sure if the Universe is telling me to put my money where my mouth is, or if it’s saying that I need to test my ideas one more time. Just one more time — for now.

So, settle in, my children, and I shall tell the tale of how I tested this particular idea one more time.

Monday was my birthday. I can’t fully explain what happened that morning. In a very real way, this is because nothing happened. Despite this, I was not enjoying my birthday morning; on the contrary, I was miserable.

I know this isn’t rational, but I was really angry at myself for not being cheerful on my birthday. I mean, the day had barely started, I hadn’t interacted with anyone, and almost nothing had even occurred. By my reckoning, I should feel pretty happy.

What I wasn’t accounting for that morning was my mental illness and its penchant for growth. For a mental illness to grow, it must be fed. The insidious thing about it is that it can feed itself. On the morning of my birthday, it did exactly that.

(Go ahead and insert ominous music here, if you’re into that sort of thing.)

When I was making coffee, I dropped the basket that holds my coffee-making supplies. Nothing broke, nothing spilled, no one was hurt, and nothing was even dented. This was, to all appearances, a non-event. There were literally no consequences beyond bending over to pick it up.

And yet, I was filled with despair and anger when this happened. Yes, these words are dramatic, but I assure you they do not exaggerate my feelings.

I couldn’t articulate why I was feeling those feelings at all, much less why I was feeling them so extremely. All I knew just then was that it took a supreme act of will to finish the simple act of getting the coffee started.

Quickly, I began to analyze my feelings.

Pro-tip: Do not analyze your feelings while you are still actively feeling them.

There was definitely anger. The anger was berating me because I couldn’t even manage a simple task I had done a thousand times before. What kind of an idiot can’t even get a basket out of the cupboard without dropping it?

Naturally, I did not want to be the target of my own anger. In a subconscious and lightning-fast defensive maneuver, I tried to block using the idea that dropping the basket was just an accident.

Narrator voice: It was, in fact, just an accident. Nevertheless –the block failed.

In my state of mind, the thought didn’t soothe the anger. It only fed my despair.

“Ah, yes,” said despair. “Things are still going wrong. Despite everything you have tried to make things right, there is no end in sight to the wrongness. Even gravity is your enemy today. Just give up.”

No longer was this about how well I was or wasn’t concentrating on a mindless task.

Now it was about everything that was going on in my life:

  • My recent bout with sleeplessness
  • My attempts to balance being there for my mother as she healed and the rest of my life.
  • My attempts to balance my responsibilities with a therapeutic dose of fun.
  • My attempts to internalize the concept that fun is therapeutic.
That escalated quickly.

Sure, I had been taking steps (ha!) to alleviate my stress, but (said my depression) they were Not Good Enough. They would never be good enough. I would never be (and, frankly, never have been) good enough, said depression.

Anger led to despair, and despair led back to anger. Soon, I was zooming down a well-worn path in my mind.

“People who are not fundamentally flawed don’t get launched into despair when they drop something,” said my mental illness, while growing larger. “They just pick it up and move on. Fall down seven times, stand up eight. Everyone knows that. Loser.”

The feeding frenzy had begun.

Here’s the set-up for another should-be-but-isn’t lovely scenario:

My husband was recently hired for a new job, which he starts next week. He’s looking forward to what he will be doing at his new job, and his daily commute has been slashed to a minute fraction of what it was.

During the transition from his old job to the new, he was able to take most of this week off. The plan for the week was for him to decompress, rest up, maybe get some things done, and just enjoy life a bit.

He is the love of my life, my rock in the storm, and my partner in crime. It’s probably safe for you to substitute any cliche in that genre because it’s all true. He deserves every good thing he could possibly hope for during this week off.

Look at this face. Is this not the face of a man who deserves all that’s good in life?

Oh, by the way —

Did I mention that the first weekday he was off was Monday? As in, the Monday that was my birthday. The Monday I was inexplicably miserable the moment I woke up. The Monday of the mental illness feeding frenzy.

Yes. That Monday.

“Look at you,” whispered my mental illness, as it fed greedily on my misery. “You’re so fancy and special with your anxiety and your depression and on your birthday, no less. Go ahead, Miss Fancy Pants. Ruin his relaxation by having an episode. It’s what you’re good at after all.”

If you haven’t guessed what comes next, either I’m not very good at foreshadowing, or you don’t like guessing.

I broke down. I completely fell apart — in a parking lot, no less. I find it adds a certain Je ne sais quois to do these things in public. I mean, I was in the car. I wouldn’t want to make an actual scene, but if I can introduce an extra element of humiliation into my emotional collapse, why not? Go big or go home, I say.

via GIPHY

Leaning on the dashboard, causing no end of distress (both real and imagined) to my wonderfully supportive and deeply introverted husband, I cried and cried.

“I’m ruining everything because I’m so selfish and unbalanced. I’m inflicting my misery on you and on my mother and on everyone I care for. I need to just suck it up. Obviously, I’m too screwed up to be happy. That’s no reason to drag everyone down with me.”

You are not suffering because you are not good enough. You are suffering because you are ill and the voice that says otherwise is a symptom of that illness.

—————————-

This story has a happy ending. A good cry (even if it’s embarrassingly public) usually goes a long way to relieving emotional pressure for me. Since my outburst was brief, I didn’t ugly-cry long enough to keep me from going into the mall. We had a good walk and I got a cool t-shirt.

At no time during the day did I call BS on the lies my mental illness was telling me. I didn’t follow my own advice. You may wonder why not. It might seem as if I have no ground to stand on to give advice like this. (Hey, this is nothing I haven’t heard from my mental illness!)

The reason I did not call BS is that while I’m in the throes of these thoughts and feelings, those lies sound like the truth. They are, after all, echos of parables and proverbs, aphorisms and adages. Even if I had retained the presence of mind to tell myself I was ill (as opposed to faulty), I wouldn’t have believed it just then.

There are a lot of lessons to be learned here. I’m starting with the lesson that knowing something in your head isn’t enough when you’re under attack. You must know it in your heart, in your bones, and in your very soul.

The next lesson is that the only thing wrong with the notion of “fall down seven times, stand up eight,” is the implied timeline. You don’t have to get up right after you fall. You haven’t failed if you don’t bounce right back up. Whenever you get up is the right time to get up. Sometimes you’ve got to recover from the fight first.

The final lesson I have today is this: just because you’re not wrong doesn’t mean you’re completely right. (That works both ways, by the way.) I’m not too proud to put an addendum on my social media post:

You are not suffering because you are not good enough. You are suffering because you are ill and the voice that says otherwise is a symptom of that illness.

That voice is loud and it is persuasive. That is why you must fight it when you are at your strongest. Whenever you can, as often as you can, and in whatever way you can, tell yourself that you are not a bad person. You are a person who is ill and illness isn’t a sign of a bad person.

Tell this to yourself when you are at your strongest. Tell it to yourself when you don’t feel like you need it. You need it.

You need it when you don’t think you need it because you are throwing out a lifeline to the future. If that voice strikes again — the voice which is symptomatic of this illness– it will strike when you are at your weakest. If you haven’t engraved these words on your heart, you may not be able to find them when you need them.

Say it out loud, or in your head, or in your journal, but say it as often as possible. “I AM NOT BAD. I AM SICK AND I CAN HEAL.”

It isn’t a matter of “getting better.” It’s a matter of healing. You are already perfectly good.

Brightest blessings, Sunny

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