How to Talk About Not Being Okay

How do we talk about not being okay?

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Being vulnerable is that scary, that human. It’s scary to risk rejection because we have been a sloppy mess in front of someone. It’s scary for society to witness the breakdown.

The alternative, however, is that we stuff our feelings until we explode. Or we manipulate others so we don’t have to feel. Or we try to control everything until we cannot function anymore. None of these are good ways to deal with feeling like a mess, but ironically, those methods can seem more functional in the short run. They give an illusion of power — power over oneself, power over other people, power over situations.

I have very raw moments in my life. Although it’s kept well under control, I have a mental disorder. I have breakthrough times in February and October. During those times, I have sleep disturbances that keep me exhausted, severe anxiety, and a general feeling of being overwhelmed. I have to talk about it because it’s an overwhelming bad feeling and, at the time I have it, I feel like it’s always been there and will always be.

I’ve come up with some rules for myself on how to talk about not being okay:

  • Choose wisely who you will talk to and how much to disclose.
    • Mere acquaintances might rate an “I’m under the weather right now.”
    • Coworkers might rate very simple situational statements, like “My father died.”
    • Good friends, if they can handle things, might rate a description of what’s going on with some frankness, like “I have seasonal affective disorder right now and I’m doing pretty poorly.” This list is to protect you from the people who might reject you or the message.
    • The best thing, though, is to approach people who are supportive toward you.
  • Don’t use your friends as therapists.
    • Don’t rehearse negative scenarios on them and expect them to argue endlessly against you.
    • Also, don’t unleash your worst behavior on them. Treat them like friends and honor their feelings.
  • Apologize if you have behaved badly, just as you would when you’re not overwhelmed.
  • Do not expect your friends to keep dangerous secrets, like suicidal or homicidal ideations, for you.

If you are dealing with depression, anxiety, bipolar, schizophrenia, or other mental health issues, your best support system is not a substitute for therapy, whether that be psychotropic prescriptions, talk therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, or others. Reach out to your health care providers or get yourself some providers on your side.

I hope this has been helpful. I feel like I’ve clarified some things for me, and I hope that I’ve helped others think about this, because all of us have heavy times.

Reminiscing the Blues

Listening to 70’s music

Nothing sets me to reminiscing quite like the 70’s singer/songwriter playlist on Apple Music. It’s almost painful to listen to, because the music cuts through to my childhood, which was not always a pleasant place. I had to deal with isolation, heartbreak, and the day-to-day chaos of living with my mother. Any memories of my childhood evoke sadness, even if they’re happy memories.

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Listening to “American Pie” by Don McLean or “Helpless” by Neil Young makes me feel like someone is pulling my memories out of my mind and laying them bare for all to see. I feel every bit of loneliness; I want to cry.

Yet I still listen because those are my memories. They are who I am. Remembering them makes me feel more whole, because otherwise I would be drifting through life without an anchor.

Happy memories

It’s fair to wonder if I have good memories of childhood. To be honest, I don’t have many, or at least few that I remember right now. I remember the good Christmases at my grandmother’s, I remember cooking with my parents, I remember sessions with my speech teacher (who was sort of a deputized school psychologist’s aide, I’ve been told), I remember playing in kindergarten, I remember playing outside in the summer.

Strange thing, though, that music doesn’t evoke those moments. I listen to the old music and feel the sadness. Music helps me reminisce the blues.

Day 40 Lenten Meditation: Cry

I don’t cry often. I don’t know whether it’s because I’m a basically strong person, or because my bipolar medications keep me calm. But I feel the tears lurk, looking at the world’s situation under COVID-19. 

Highly contagious with about a 2% death rate. That seems small — 98% will survive it — until you look at the number of people in the world. As of this morning, there have been 9100 deaths in the US, half in New York City. And there’s no end in sight despite sheltering in place.

I’m feeling discouraged, and I normally have faith in our ability to surmount nearly everything. I feel tears come to my eyes as I read the news. I don’t read the news much, because of this feeling of despair, the reality of the numbers which still conceal the human cost. 

I can’t quite cry. If I could, I think the sadness would pass for a while, because crying is healing. Crying is like a good thunderstorm, giving us release from the sadness. A good loud cry is what I need right now. I’m not there yet.


Things haven’t been going well lately.

I think I’m feeling the emotional toll of losing two cats (the long-time cat Snowy and baby kitten Belvedere) in a week. Strangely enough, Belvedere is the hardest to get over, even though he was only five days old; he had a purity about him with his little milk mustache and his snuffling my hand. 

There’s not much good to balance that unless you count the fact that I’m still writing. I don’t want to go to work today; I just want to sleep.

Of course I’m going to go to work. That’s top priority; in Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs (a psychological construct), physiological needs (food, clothing, and shelter) are the foundation that needs to be satisfied before we fulfill any other needs:

And physiological needs cost money, which one gets by working. 

In a deep depression (which I am not in), I have to remind myself of this basic fact because the inertia and hopelessness weigh me down into immobility. In a hypomanic state (which I am also not in), I have trouble concentrating on the need to go into work. In either case, the larger than life emotions of bipolar overwhelm the logic of everyday life. So constructs like Maslow’s Hierarchy keep me focused on the facts of life.

So right now I’m sleepy and sad. It’s an easy day at work today, as I get to watch other people run a poverty simulation. Then there’s the weekend, and time to recharge.

In Search of Small Happinesses

How do I kick myself out of these blahs?

These aren’t bipolar blahs, they’re just plain blahs. Lots of rejections, one dead cat (RIP Snowy), nothing exciting to look forward to. Except my birthday, and I have my psychiatrist’s appointment that day. So lots of reasons to stay blah.

If I want to stay blah, I can rehearse my hurts and aches and pains, hoping that I can win some sort of concession from God (“Look at all this crap that’s happened to me. I deserve some compensation!”). Note: It doesn’t work, and it keeps me from seeing good things that could be happening. 

It’s my responsibility to do what I can to get into a better mood. I wouldn’t say happiness is a choice, because that’s unfair to people like myself who face depression. But I can help myself until I feel better or. in the case of depression, till the meds kick in or I can talk to someone else. When I’m depressed, it’s so much harder to think of these, much less do them. Work helps me connect with people, and that helps a little, as does forcing myself to write. These things don’t get rid of the depression, but they take the edge off it.

What can I do? I think I’ve talked about this before, but I need a refresher, so here I go again:

  • Gratitude journaling — three things I’m grateful for every night. I admit I fall behind on this, because at night I generally want to sleep.
  • Walking — I could walk to coffee this morning. That might be a good thing.
  • Pet therapy — with five cats, this isn’t hard to do. 
  • Getting out — I’m contemplating the Board Game Cafe, as usual.
  • Accomplishing something using my character strengths — I have a story I’m writing which I’m not currently in love with; I can send Whose Hearts are Mountains off to dev edit; I could come up with a new story. Or submit more queries/submissions.
  • Connecting with people — Board Game Cafe works.
So I’m off to take care of my mood.

Moulage day

He looked better before I beat him up.

This is what I came to do. This is moulage.

Second and third degree burns are done with unflavored gelatin and grease paints.
This is the most unalloyed creativity I get to do in my life. No worries about whether I’m doing well enough, whether anyone notices my work, whether I’m accomplishing anything — people tell me that me and my crew are freaking out everyone out there.
I’m an insecure person at times. I can ignore it when I try to get a novel published because I’m so excited about the creative process. But when the rejections come in, I wonder what I’m doing trying to get published in the first place.
With moulage, I will never be renowned. I will never work in Hollywood. I’m good enough and cheap enough (free) that people will need me to do the stuff I do. I have lost this in writing, where I keep saying “If I were good, I’d get an agent/get on Amazon Scout’s hot list/get published” because people CARE about successful authors.
In other words, moulage is a return to my childhood (in which I was a lot like Marcie). Writing has become the struggle of being heard as an adult.

Eulogy of My Husband’s Mother, Whom I’ve Never Met

My mother-in-law died a week ago at 83 from complications of uterine cancer. I will go with Richard to Kansas for a memorial service in March — possibly March 17, our wedding anniversary.
This seems oddly fitting, because Dorothy Steffens died believing her only son had never married. I will meet Dorothy for the first time at the internment.

Obviously, there is a story behind this. Dorothy Steffens suffered from mental illness and dementia. She was, Richard said, alternately demanding, doting, and delusional during his childhood. Richard was the only son of a Chinese mother and her farming husband, so he got more of his share of the doting — even smothering — behavior. His sisters weren’t as favored.

Dorothy became a divisive character in any household she lived in, setting spouse against spouse with frightening accuracy. Her cognitive decline added to her emotional turbulence, complicated by Type 2 diabetes and poor self-care. Soon the sisters realized that the only way Dorothy could be cared for was to place her in a nursing home.

In the nursing home, Dorothy became fixated on a savior who would sweep her from the nursing home and take care of her forever. At one point she had targeted the doctor at the home. When Richard and I were planning our wedding, however, she had pegged her own son as her knight in shining armor.

Which is why, when Richard sent her a wedding invitation, Dorothy tried to break out of the nursing home to stop the upcoming wedding.

Richard’s sister Linda called Richard — “How could you send Mom a wedding invite?” Richard had assumed that he should give his mother another chance to be the mother he’d wanted; it hadn’t worked that time either. It was agreed that Richard would fly down to Texas and assure his mother that he had broken up with me.

Of course I had fantasies that I would meet his mother and that she would bless our marriage. On the other hand, I am pragmatic, so I sent Richard to Texas to break us up in the eyes of his mother.

I had never met Dorothy E. Steffens when she died. She never knew I had married her only son. From all accounts, she would have tried to break apart our marriage either before or after the fact, and she might well have succeeded.

Strangely, though, I think I understand her. Sometimes, a child grows up in desperation — perhaps during the Chinese-Japanese battles of WWII — and no amount of safety or security will be enough. Because there’s never enough love, never enough food, never enough reassurance, the child demands more and more. The child who struggles with mental illness loses bits and pieces of their safety to the disease and needs even more to cling onto, and it’s never there because we don’t understand the broken glass of their perception.

An Enemy of Creativity — Envy

Last night I had a dream in which I was hanging out with an ex-boyfriend of mine who had had a comic published and going into animation. (Note: said ex-boyfriend failed composition the first time he took it and can’t draw, although his best friend in college had a flair for comics illustration.) He announced his feat to all and sundry, from a science fiction convention to the barista at the coffee house. I was quite getting sick of it, but I was also getting envious because I wasn’t getting published.

The dream segued into an art classroom much like my high school art classroom, where I struggled with great inspiration but the inability to render my imagination into a pleasing reality (just like high school). I was actually trying to sculpt a flower petal-by-petal with shortening and cornmeal, for unknown reasons. I got into an altercation with a woman I know of, who I know to have no small amount of artistic talent. She impatiently flounced around the crowd of tables and made her displeasure known. “What kind of an art room is this! There’s too many people, no room to move — “

“There’s another class in the normal art lab,” I tried to soothe her despite my exasperation.

“Ethics, I’ll bet,” she sniffed.

I envied her the ability to think highly enough of herself and her talent that she could be a disagreeable prima donna.

In the dream, I explained both of these scenarios to my husband, the first one in person, the second by phone. Upon analysis, I decided the dream was about envy — envy of someone who manages to break through and be regarded as excellent in their field. The fact that both were unpleasant about it suggests that I’m afraid to do what they did to get ahead of me — namely self-promotion. I’m envious about that ability to say “this is why you should read me” instead of merely “this is what I wrote”.

I struggle with self-promotion. A combination of Midwestern Humble upbringing, insecurity about my writing, and a sincere desire not to make others feel small makes it hard for me to assertively sell myself. Yesterday I read a primer on “how to write a good query letter”, and it exhorted the writer to mention how they had met the agent previously, and how the author’s book was in the vein of other writers the agent handled. I haven’t met any agents, but I suppose I should see who’s handling the authors I follow, although I don’t know if my books are like theirs. To me, this seems like so much presumption and schmoozing, which I’ve always avoided with all of my Quaker heart.

All that said, envy is an enemy of creativity. Why? Because it twists a writer in knots and flares up all the insecurities they’ve kept buried. It’s hard to be creative when you’re miserable and self-absorbed.

How to deal with envy? Own it, feel it, but contradict the messages in your mind that say you’ll never get published (never is a long time), your stuff is worthless (you don’t know its worth; don’t judge), nobody will ever read it (this is a deep, dark pessimism you can get rid of simply by finding beta readers), agents don’t like it (agents don’t get to read in depth; polish what you have).

I do this all the time. It’s almost become a ritual of cognitive journaling.

Back to the dream, and my husband. I’m also envious of him, because his first book has just the sort of rollicking, light SF in a John Scalzi vein that will raise attention before mine will. I’m encouraging him to finish and market the book because he deserves to be published, all while being envious.  I know that if he gets published, I will have to wrestle with the belief that my calling is to stand at the starting line and watch the runners speed past me. I’ll have to do more cognitive journaling, I guess.

Christmas in the time of despots

By the way, I don’t need you to be Christian; I’m not Christian in the way most churches recognize. But here are more thoughts on Christmas.

I was thinking of my least favorite Christmas song (“All I Want for Christmas is YOOOOOO”) and asked my husband if there were any recently written Christmas songs that didn’t peddle a fantasy, either about snow, mistletoe, family Christmases, etc. or at the praise song level that didn’t address the social justice aspects of Jesus’ message. Older songs actually address social justice issues, from pointing out Jesus’ lowly birth to Masters in the Hall mentioning that Jesus would cast down the proud. We need social justice more than ever, but the dialog is sorely missing at Christmas, drowned out by jingle bells and commercials.

I wrote this out of my sadness and depression in this season, watching the humanity of the United States slowly bleed out drop by drop by legislation and regulation that favors the rich business people at the expense of the poor, people of color, and the LGBTIQA (sp?) community.

I dared myself to write the social commentary I wanted to see. I don’t have music for it, so if anyone wants to contribute that, let me know, and maybe I’ll become a singer-songwriter again:

I’ve memorized the carols
As I wade through Christmas crowds,
With lyrical exhortations
To casteth down the proud
The mighty have proclaimed themselves
So far above the fray
They stake their claim in Jesus’ name
But they forgot to pray.
I have to sneak to pray the words
I’m not supposed to say:
I want a real Christmas
I want the Peace on Earth
I want the Good Will promised
With Jesus’ lowly birth
I want to see the lions
Give shelter to the lambs
I want to see the low raised up
And the Kingdom born again.
I’ve read the Christmas story —
The migrants on the road
There to appease the government
Despite Mary’s heavy load
I’ve read that Baby Jesus
Was born among the poor
But now we’re told the poorest
Deserve to live no more
And we would starve poor Jesus
If he returned once more.
It’s hard to see it’s Christmas
With trees in black and white,
My mind seems far too weary
To deal with all the spite
I light a single candle
For strength on every day,
To love and give to all creation
Any way I may,
And every day to shout the words
I’m not supposed to say: