Monday, December 12, 2011


I am one of the lucky college graduates who managed to get a full-time job with benefits within a few months of walking across the stage. In some ways, it was an easy transition—I work at the same place I worked while I was in school, but have gradually taken on more responsibilities and hours.

At the same time, the last few months have been nothing but a huge transition. My fiancée has returned from Afghanistan, I’ve taken on a few more financial responsibilities, and I experienced the strange phenomenon of not having to do any back-to-school shopping. But truthfully, I’m not even close to being done with the transitions. Walter is moving to Seattle in a couple of days, which is exciting but also terrifying. I have my own health insurance now, and have worked out plans with my parents to take on the rest of the bills that they still handle, but sometimes I wonder if I can do it. Once Walter is finished with active duty in February he won’t have a job or health insurance. In May, we’re getting married. And at the moment, we aren’t very clear on where we’ll live after the wedding or where we’ll even be past September.

I work at the Center for Change in Transition Services, a state-needs project funded by the Washington State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (yes, that’s a mouthful). The Center works with students in special education who are between the ages of 16-21. In the special education world, these are the ages of transition for young adults, during which schools are legally required to provide specialized instruction that prepares them for the postsecondary world—college, vocational training, employment, or whatever else comes next. The problem is, most young adults don’t know what is coming next. The addition of a disability only complicates matters.

The irony isn’t lost on me. Much of the work I do is to help young adults a few years younger than myself transition into the big scary grown-up world, when half the time I don’t know if I can handle it myself. Many of the students are in special education because they have mental health issues like the ones I have.

Growing up is scary enough for a healthy young adult, but if you throw in the intensity of anxiety, depression, obsession, addiction, etc., it can seem unbearable. To make it worse, many young adults suffer in silence because of the stigma around mental illness or the failure of the adults around them to recognize their distress. And the cherry on top? About three quarters of lifetime mental health issues begin by age 24.

I work with students with disabilities, but the truth is that everyone my age is in transition right now, and transitions are stressful. The post-graduate world is a bit of a grim place, and how are you supposed to figure out what you really want to do anyway? Besides, no matter how many people we have supporting us, what ultimately defines our lives are the choices we make. That's a lot of responsibility.

Scared? You're not alone.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Diplomas ...and other pieces of paper

Five years ago I walked across the stage of my high school graduation. I clanged like a mountain goat as I walked to the front with four medals around my neck, three of which were academic departmental awards. I wore my National Honors Society Pin (I was the president) and delivered a valedictorian speech.

By the end of the summer, I was in the hospital being treated for an eating disorder, depression, and anxiety.

Five weeks ago I walked across the stage of my graduation from Seattle University. I didn’t wear a single medal or pin. I did wear an honors hood, but it was for a Magna Cum Laude GPA rather than Summa Cum Laude. My name was listed in the program for the two years I had spent in the Honors Program, but I stayed firmly in my seat while the student address was given. I hadn’t won any awards.

But that morning I had eaten breakfast. I hadn’t had a panic attack in months. I didn’t remotely want to hurt myself. In other words, I was graduating from college the healthiest I had been in years.

It bothered me, at first, standing outside KeyArena while some of the other students clanged like mountain goats. My neck felt bare, and I remonstrated myself for not working hard enough. If only I had studied a little more, or worked a little harder, or maybe if I was smarter, I could have been one of the students dripping with awards.

But then I thought about how hard I had worked. I thought about the Honors classes that challenged me more than I thought possible, or the late nights spent researching for papers I thought might kill me. I thought about the way my intellectual world had expanded and my interactions with the world had deepened. And while I spent a lot of time studying, I had also done a lot of other meaningful things. I had been in three full-length plays and two one-acts, taken voice lessons, spent a brief time on a kayak team, been a member of a peer health team on campus, and worked regularly during junior and senior year. I had also pursued my own passions, and built important relationships with friends. Every quarter had its own unique challenges, and sometimes, just getting through to the next one was the biggest victory. There were the long nights I wasn’t sure I could survive, the disappointments and setbacks and personal tragedies that I sometimes thought might drown me. There was last spring, when I found myself checking into the hospital, unsure of whether I could keep myself safe through the week much less graduate.

Not all accomplishments show up in gilt letters on diplomas or are announced during ceremonies. A medal isn’t proof of the mettle it takes to deal with the world. The things I am proudest of don’t have anything to do with my GPA or my class standing. That doesn’t mean I don’t respect those who have worked for their accomplishments, but I also know that there are lots of amazing, talented young people who weren’t lucky enough to have the support that I did or get help when they needed it. The piece of paper I earned after four years is an accomplishment, but the bigger one is being alive, healthy, and full of hope for the future.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Spring Is In The Air

Yes, folk, it’s spring. For a lot of people this means allergies, unpredictable weather, lighter clothes, and nature show segments acted out in the back yard. If you’re Christian, Christ is resurrected. If you’re a prankster, you plan an elaborate hoax for April 1. If you like the outdoors, it’s time to polish up the boat or get out the hiking boots.

For me, spring involves some of those things but it also tends to mean a time of year that is particularly difficult. Spring is when my worst mental health episodes tend to develop, for reasons I do not really understand clearly. It may have something to do with the traditional school calendar, in which the culmination of the year brings the most stress. It may have something to do with a lack of vitamin D in the winter months. It may also have to do with unpredictable weather and a sense of a loss of control. Whatever it is, my springs have tended to involve medication changes, increased medical visits or even hospital stays, self-destructive behaviors, shame, and exhaustion.

I recognized this pattern fully last year when a particularly rough winter/spring transition landed me in the hospital briefly. I was able to check out again in a week and continue classes, with understanding from my professors, but the whole experience reminded me again how fragile my mental health can be sometimes. If I tell someone about my struggles with mental health, the response is usually something like, “Wow, that’s really awful. But you’re okay now, right?”

And I usually assure them I am, because that’s what we both want to hear. The truth is, though, that I deal with the reality of my mental health on a daily basis. There are days when I have to make a conscious decision to eat regular meals. I have to talk myself out of self-destructive behaviors. Sometimes I still give in, and then I have to be careful not to beat myself up for it too much.

So, I anticipated the arrival of spring this year with some trepidation, but also with renewed determination. For one, I really, really want to graduate. I want to be healthy enough to spend my spring doing things I enjoy with friends and other people important to me, rather than trying to pull myself out of a downward spiral or decide whether I should check into a treatment program. Also, I want to be safe and strong for my fiancé, currently serving in Afghanistan.

This spring started off a little rough. I had a wonderful trip in Europe with Walter, but coming back home to school a week late was an unpleasant adjustment. I slipped back into an old habit, and then perpetuated the cycle by punishing myself for giving in. Using the excuse of a fairly major paper that I couldn’t seem to get going on, I isolated myself a bit socially. I used sleep to escape, and then only proceeded to get angrier with myself as deadlines drew nearer.

I finished the paper, and instantly felt relief. I spent lots of time with my friends and had a great weekend. However, after a few days I realized that the paper had only been the focus of my anxiety, rather than the root of it, and sooner or later the next stressor would come along.

Unless you live under a rock in Siberia (in which case you wouldn’t be reading my blog) you know that Osama bin Laden was killed this weekend. I heard about it as my ride picked me up from the airport after a lovely weekend trip to Arizona. I suppose my thoughts had the same trajectory as most Americans: Was it really true? How did we know it was actually him? How did it happen? What did this really mean for the world? What did this mean for me and those I love?

The last question is the one I have lingered on the most. As someone who has declared her intent to marry a service member, however, the question was inevitably wrapped up with the concerns of a military significant other. I usually make a point not to watch the news, particularly anything that has to do with Afghanistan, but I like to listen to NPR when I wake up and I spent a fair amount of time online, so it’s hard to ignore it completely. Lately I have been hearing more than usual: the large jailbreak in the south, the announcement of the spring offensive, insurgents’ warning to civilians, and now bin Laden’s death and all the speculation about the kind of retribution his supporters will take.

And so, while the rest of the world was processing the news, I couldn’t stop thinking about what this might mean for Walter, who will be in the thick of it for another five months or so. There has been a lot of debate about the moral validity of celebrating bin Laden’s death, but I honestly can’t say how I feel about it other than deeply frightened. Right now, it is impossible for me to disentangle the reality of a life ended from what the consequences for someone else’s life may be. And so, unable to face the anxiety I was feeling, I went to bed and stayed there until my phone calendar alerted me to an appointment with my therapist that I had rescheduled and forgotten about. As I tried to explain the crippling fear I was feeling and the terrible sense that something bad would happen and I would fall apart. After all, it was spring and it had happened before.

I asked her what I should do, and she answered with something along the lines of, “Just keep going.”

It may not have been the most satisfying thing to hear at the time, but I knew she was right. I needed to eat, take a shower, go to class, do my homework, keep myself safe, take my dog on a walk, no matter how overwhelming those things sounded. I started by going home and eating lunch, and moved forward a bit shakily from there to a shower, class, and homework. My anxiety hasn’t exactly evaporated and it probably will not any time soon, but at least I am functioning—baby steps, as Bob would say. 

Part of living with mental health issues is accepting the reality that not every day is a good day, but a bad day doesn't indicate a breakdown. Even though I have had difficult seasons in the past, I know more about myself now than I ever did, and I am so fortunate to have the amazing support of family and friends. Someday I hope that I can look forward to spring for the flowers without fearing what else it might hold; but until then, I'm doing what it takes to move forward.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Perfectionism Monster

I haven’t written a blog for awhile, and for that I would like to apologize. After a few not-so-subtle suggestions from my fiancé and family members, I have decided to break the ice and jump back in. I was trying to decide why it has taken me so long to come back to the blog after the craziness of my vacation, and I think the answer came tonight in a conversation with my aunt and uncle.

“Is it because you don’t want to do it anymore?” my aunt asked. “Because you don’t have to do it if you don’t want to.”

But that’s not it. I have really enjoyed my foray into blogging, and have even mulled about things to write about since I’ve been home…but I thought that first, I should write up some of the travel stories I had collected while in Europe. I had started one of them, a longer post, but kept feeling like it wasn’t quite good enough…and so I couldn’t finish it.

Uh oh. That sounds an awful lot like the perfectionism monster sneaking in again.

The point of this blog in the first place was to let my writing be read, even if it was just by my family and friends. I wanted to write short, imperfect posts around a coherent theme that were well thought-out but somewhat spontaneous. And then, before the perfectionism monster could start whispering little words of doubt in my ear, I would simply press the button to post it.

And somewhere that got lost. I mean, sure, I would like to write insightful and precisely-worded pieces all the time, but if I can’t ever let it go beyond my own keyboard, then what’s the point? (See my Emily Dickinson post for more on this topic.) And even though my fiancé seems convinced that each post I write is “the best one yet” I know that is probably not true…much as I would like it to be.

And so, even though I have been back for a couple of weeks now, I kept making excuses. Some of them were quite valid. I have been busy trying to catch up on homework, go back to work, clean my house, do laundry, get groceries, buy dog food, etc, plus go out of town for a conference the first weekend I was back and spend time with friends… Yes, all this is true. But before I felt I could post another blog about things that were happening right now I thought I needed to finish the post I had started. After all, I promised you travel stories.

But my aunt hit it on the head. When I protested that I did want to keep working on the blog but I just couldn’t quite post yet because I wasn’t happy with it she asked, “Do you think maybe you’re setting your expectations a little too high?”

Ladies and gentlemen, meet the perfectionism monster. She’s a bit of a shape shifter, and the form she takes depends on the situation, but she usually looks a lot like my fears. If I am feeling body-conscious, she takes the shape of a gamine, statuesque, waif-like woman who wears pencil skirts that encapsulate her narrow thighs, expensive silk tops, sky-high stilettos, and hair that is always perfect no matter the weather. If I am feeling inadequately intelligent, she takes the form of an ivy-league-educated woman wearing a power suit and holding several PhDs. If I am feeling overwhelmed by the messy state of my house (it happens often) then the perfectionism monster turns into a British aristocrat, exacting in her need for cleanliness and emphatic that a well-bred woman know how to keep a well-tended house. And if the root of my perfectionism has anything to do with an artistic pursuit, such as writing, the monster becomes the nastiest critic in the New York Times, or some other cherished publication. I imagine her pushing up over-priced horn-rimmed glasses as she drinks a cup of chamomile tea and reads my work; then, she whips out a pen with blood-red ink and scribbles some words like “dull” “cliché” “over-wrought” “predictable” “facile” or “idiotic” and throws the manuscript into a flaming pile.

This, my friends, is why it’s so hard for me to post a blog. Or get ready in the morning. Or clean my house. Or write a relatively simple literature paper for a senior synthesis class that is due next Thursday (true story). Sometimes it takes the form of procrastination, and from the outside it can look an awful lot like laziness, but lurking in the background is the perfectionism monster, eyeing me with anticipation and waiting for the moment to pounce. Sometimes I can keep her at bay, but sometimes I have a harder time of it. Right now, with graduation and a million other “endings” and transitions staring me down, I tend to feel like I better make my last shot my best one. And then, I get nothing done.

I heard a writer at a conference once talk about the way she addressed this compulsion for perfection in her own writing, by using the metaphor of a second personality—the “bitch” who worried about grammar, structure, etc. She said that for her first draft or two, she had to “lock the bitch in the closet” or she would never get anything done. Her alter-ego was useful in the revising stages, but if she didn’t give herself that initial freedom then she would never get past the first page.

Okay, perfectionism monster. Sounds like you need a little quiet time in the closet. Turn the light on, read a book, think about things, but don’t make any noise and don’t come out until I let you out.

That is, if I ever let you out.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Notes from an Anxious Traveler

First of all, I apologize for my long hiatus! I'm afraid winter quarter finals and preparations for my Spring Break trip to Europe got the best of me, and for the last week and a half I have been on said vacation with my I'm afraid the blog was neglected in the meantime.

Walter and I are currently in Venice, enjoying all of the beauty, art, music, and good food the city has to offer. We have also spent time in Arles, France and Mallorca, Spain, as well as a day in Barcelona, and I have quite a few stories to tell. I am still working on processing the experiences and I am sure that quite a few will be recounted here in the future...but for now I will simply jot down a few thoughts.

1. For the anxiety-afflicted, travel becomes a veritable minefield. Fortunately, I have a wonderful travel partner who is absolutely amazing when it comes to my nervous tendencies, but sometimes they still get the best of me. While it is not always possible to use the self-soothing techniques I might employ at home, I have narrowed in on a couple of things that consistently help no matter where I am. Focusing on the breath is a good standby, of course, and always the first thing to try. Also, a cup of tea and a pastry can cure just about anything. And sometimes, the key is simply to slow down a little. It is impossible to see everything, and taking a little nap when I get overwhelmed doesn't mean I haven't used my time well.

2. Dogs make my life better, whether I'm in Seattle or Spain. Just seeing a dog eases my anxiety level, and there are plenty of adorable dogs to be seen. In the places we have traveled, people seem to love their dogs and simply accept them as part of the environment. There are a lot of dogs off-leash but none of them are aggressive, or even particularly concerned with other people nearby. However, I might make a bit of a fool of myself when I coo at every canine that passes within sight...

3. Unexpected things happen when you travel. This is a problem for someone like me, who likes to know what is happening at all times. It especially becomes difficult with the language barrier, which really exacerbates the feeling of helplessness. However, in the end things tend to work out. Even when you lose your fiance at a train station in France and meet up with him in Spain twenty-four hours later. But more on that another time...

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Guilt, Molasses, Slugs, and other Slimy Things

For those of you who have been following my blog, you will recall the mishaps involved with baking my mom’s cookies. Just in case you had become complacent in the thought that I have conquered the cookie once and for all, rest assured: my ineptitude came into play once again tonight.

One of the main ingredients in the cookies is molasses. I realized once I had started making the cookies that I was running low on molasses. Why this didn’t occur to me earlier in the day when I was at the grocery store is a question that I asked myself, but still haven’t found the answer too. However, I determined that I had enough to make one last batch.

In an effort to get every last sticky drop from the bottle of molasses, I screwed the top on, turned it upside down, put it in the microwave and punched in twenty seconds. I checked after ten seconds but decided a little more time couldn’t hurt. I shut the door, punched the start button, and went to turn on the oven. Behind me I heard a sinister crackling noise, and then a sudden boom! I spun around and opened the door, revealing a scene much like the one on CSI I was watching involving a pipe bomb. For those of you who know better than to microwave sealed bottles of molasses excessively, let me assure you: the combined aroma of caramelized sugar and carcinogenic melting plastic is not pleasant. I still have a headache.

Which brings me to the main topic of conversation: I skipped class today. Yes folks, this is a confessional. I woke up, considered showering and getting ready, and then composed an email to my professor and went back to sleep.

I don’t do this often. I have missed two other classes this quarter, once in the same class because I overslept, and once in a different class because I was sick and in the middle of tech week. Do you remember the perfect attendance chart in elementary school? Oh, how I loved those little foil stars lined up in a row. In high school, I rarely missed class even if I was sick—I was too concerned about having to make up the work or missing something important. In college, I miss a few classes a term usually due to oversleeping or illness, but even when I am sick I usually attend class (I have even been sent home by a couple of professors). However, I think I can count the number of times I have deliberately “cut” class on one hand. Maybe on a couple of fingers, like my thumb and forefinger.

Responsibility is an admirable quality. Dependability and timeliness are fantastic traits. (Okay, so maybe timeliness, especially in the morning, is not always my strongest suit, but at least I always try. Blame fashion.) However, I have found that the slimy underside for these respectable goals is a guilt-driven need to please the people I look up to. Why did I want the gold stars? So that my teacher would be proud of me. Why didn’t I want to miss class in high school, even when I was sick? I was afraid of getting a lower grade and disappointing my teachers. In college, I am afraid that if I miss class or back out of other responsibilities I will be perceived as a flaky college student who isn’t ready to deal with the real world, and my professors/advisors/boss will look down on me as such. Guilt looks a lot like fear and people-pleasing sometimes. If I miss an assignment, sleep through a class accidentally, or under-perform on a test or paper, my first reaction is to be worried about what my professor thinks. It’s the same for work or extra-curricular activities. I hold myself to a high standard—one in which I never forget anything, run late, or get too overwhelmed to handle everything. The guilt and fear that inevitable slip-ups create can simmer and build pressure, until set off by the stress of finals or some other precipitating factor. What happens then usually creates a much bigger mess than if I had simply taken the time to care for myself the way I needed—i.e., allowed the molasses bottle to empty naturally rather than overheating it.

When I called my mom this evening I explained that I had taken the day to grocery shop, clean house, do some cooking, work on homework, meet with my scene partner, and also spend time curled up in my new pajamas watching a favorite TV show and drinking tea with my puppy. And instead of berating me for my irresponsibility she said something along the lines of, “Good for you for making a choice and not beating yourself up about it afterward.” Note: the conversation did NOT include anything about me being an ungrateful or lazy daughter. Who would have thought?

One final note: after taking my dog out for her evening potty break I was scratching her belly and came upon a slug stuck in the curly fur under her arm. Slugs are not easy to extract from dog hair, and this specimen was no exception. Finally I got the little guy free and as he squirmed on my finger I delivered him outside. I’m sure I’ll spend much more time worrying about decisions or mistakes I make, but for now, my microwave is clean, my dog’s fur is slug-free, and I don’t feel guilty about skipping class.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Wisdom on the Inside of a Mint Tin

“You can’t depend on your judgment when your imagination is out of focus.”

-Mark Twain

I found this quote on the inside of my mint tin this morning. I picked the mints up recently at my neighborhood co-op, finding myself in need. They happen to be certified organic, allergen-free, and vegan, and I liked that there were only three ingredients on the back and I could pronounce all of them, but I’ll admit that the main sell was proximity to the cash register. While I still don’t know if I have found my Holy Grail of mints I am rather fond of them at the moment…perhaps more so because of the quote on the inside of the lid. Even better: it’s a literary quote. And its timely arrival in my life solved a problem.

For those of you who have not been counting down the days, this week is Eating Disorders Awareness Week. I had been planning to do some extra-special blogs in honor of it, but have unfortunately been reminded recently that I am still technically a full time student with a multitude of extra-curricular responsibilities approaching the end of a busy term…and thus, it is Tuesday night and I am only blogging now. I had hoped to put up a quote to kick the week off but on a Google search couldn’t find anything that satisfactorily balanced the fine line between inspirational and sappy and also stimulated my intellect. This was when the mint tin entered the picture.

The quote may not seem immediately relevant, and I’m sure that Mark Twain had no inkling of eating disorders when he penned it, but it connected to something I recognized. My experience of my eating disorder emphasized a profound disconnect between reality and perception, judgment and imagination. When I began to realize that my perception of my body, food, and the world around me was incredibly distorted, I felt as though I could no longer trust my instincts. My mom used to say that my “antennae” were receiving bad signals.

At the same time, the dreamlike imagination and creativity I had always fostered was sadly out of focus. Instead of experiencing a range of emotion, I retreated to painful extremes. Rather than conjuring new worlds and characters, I became obsessed with minute details of the (seemingly) simple routine of nourishing my body. As I starved my body and deadened my emotions, I also starved my imagination. With the decline of my dreams came the rise of despair: I began to believe that my future was hopeless, and I was never, ever going to return to a life that was bearable. Why did it matter whether I ate or not? I was only going to amount to a failure anyway. If this need for control killed me, then so be it. I didn’t think it mattered enough to prevent, and the alternative—facing my emotions and opening myself up to disappointment—was almost unimaginable.

I’m not saying the only solution to my eating disorder was rekindling my creativity—I also needed several months of intensive therapy, medication, meal plans, and full treatment team—but for me, hope and imagination are always connected, and when those are stifled I enter a very dark, bleak place that I cannot see out of. I can no longer trust my intuition, instincts, or judgment to point me in the right direction, because my internal compass has become so skewed. When I am able to dream, I am also able to discern between healthy and unhealthy behaviors.

Etymological note: The inside of my mint tin actually printed the quote with the American English misspelling "judgement" (addition of an e). Having seen this version of the word many times and being the stickler for spelling that I am, I wanted to know the distinction. It turns out that when good ol' Noah Webster reformed American spelling he was also asserting cultural independence from its colonizer. Anyone who has taken a basic sociology class will tell you about the importance of language in making meaning, and I intend to discuss it in a future post...but anyone who is as hopelessly nerdy as I am can appreciate the revelation that Webster is the reason for one of my major pet peeves: theater vs. theatre.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Yes, I talk to my dog...and it's a good thing!

One of the especially bright spots in my life right now is my little dog, Georgiana. If you have recently spent time in my zip code then you are probably acquainted with her, but if not, Georgiana is a white teacup poodle just shy of five pounds but Texas-sized in personality. She likes belly rubs, warm laps, and new friends, and dislikes wet, cold, or loud things. Her favorite pastime is chasing leaves and scraps of paper, and her biggest pet peeve is inconsiderate people who move her toys (she put it there for a reason, dammit!). Georgie also demonstrates innate empathetic tendencies and a love of good fashion.

I like to think I can communicate with Georgie. I’m not just talking about simple commands here—after all, neither of us have much use for fetch, finding it paternalistic and oppressive. No, I mean that we have conversations.

Let me give you an example, taken from earlier this morning.

Me: Your breath smells like salami.
Georgie: Your breath doesn’t exactly smell like roses, sunshine.
Me: But I don’t feed you salami. How did you get salami?
Georgie: I have my ways.
Me: We forgot to brush your teeth last night.
Georgie: Correction: You forgot and I rejoiced silently lest you remember.
Me: We’re going to brush your teeth tonight. And maybe give you a bath.
Georgie: Fat chance. What’s in it for me?
Me: You’ll smell pretty.
Georgie: I always smell pretty. I am pretty, therefore I smell pretty. Thus, I do not need a bath.
Me: I sense something lacking in your logic but I can’t quite put my finger on it...
Georgie: My logic, like my hygiene, is flawless.
Me: I think I’m going to take a shower now.
Georgie: It’s about time.
Me: But seriously, why does your breath smell like salami?

Before you start worrying that I’m hearing voices (not an issue I have dealt with in the past) I have to admit that our conversations are not actually this detailed. However, there was a time recently when I wished they were. Until about a week ago Georgie had not been feeling well. This particular bout of illness lasted a couple of weeks and consisted mostly of digestive tract distress, much to the chagrin of her roommate. As a small dog with a delicate stomach, Georgie is prone to episodes of incontinence, and so at first I thought it would pass (no pun intended) but by the second week of multiple late night potty breaks and unpleasant kennel incidents, I realized that something was not right.

But try as I might to decipher her furry expressions and whimpers, I just could not quite figure out exactly what was wrong. We went around and around this way as we waited for our veterinarian appointment for a week. I would have done just about anything to make Georgie feel better if she could have told me what it might be. In the meantime, I focused on lots of head scratches and tummy rubs, and tried to be patient when she needed to go out four times in the night. Finally we went to our vet appointment and started on a course of antibiotics. Within a few days the problem cleared up and everyone was much happier.

Communication is hard, even when you’re part of the same species. While I still believe that Georgie and I have some kind of affinity for subliminal communication, (and I talk to her regularly and think she understands just a little of what I’m saying) our communication style can lead to a lot of misunderstandings. (Me: I would like to take a nap now. Georgie: It’s time to play!) But even when I’m talking with my human friends who are capable of understanding more than two hundred words, many things go unsaid. Instead of asking how someone is doing, I assume they’re fine. Rather than call someone up when I wonder how a big event went, I wait for the next time I’ll see them. I think about other people I know and love all the time, but the extra step of sending a quick text message, note on Facebook, or email usually doesn’t happen. Social withdrawal is often a symptom of depression for me, and it has damaged more than one relationship through neglect. Every time this happens I beat myself up for being a bad friend and then usually find a negative way to take it out on myself…and in the future, try to keep just a little more distance between myself and other people rather than run the risk of hurting someone I care about.

Maybe this is why I get along so well with Georgie. While there are certainly times I seem to intuit a kind of disappointment in me (Where have you been and why are you so tired?? It’s time to play!) she always ends the day by snuggling up and giving me a kiss. Even when I’m afraid I’ve been a bad mommy by forgetting a meal or neglecting her walk time, she reminds me that what is important is contact, interaction, and communication…in whatever form it takes.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

When Things Go Wrong

I apologize for the lack of posts this week. It has been my goal to post at least twice a week, but I happen to be in the midst of the not-so-happy convergence of midterms and tech week, and am meanwhile trying to fight off a cold. If you have ever been or known an actor then you know about the ultimate time-warp of tech week; if not, keep reading.

Tech week is the first time that the technical aspects of theater—lighting, sound, set transitions, costumes, hair and makeup—are added to the work that the actors have been doing for weeks. Theater is ultimately a collaborative process, and so tech week can be alternately the most satisfying and the most maddening part of getting the show together. For the last show I was in I counted over fifty hours of rehearsal in the span of seven days; my part in this show is small, but on this Saturday and Sunday alone I have twelve hours of rehearsal each.

I have been through quite a few of them by now, but never cease to be amazed by the time and energy drain of the week that many actors affectionately term “Hell Week.” Ideally, the elements of light, sound, costume, props, set, etc. would congeal effortlessly on the first run-through. However, that never happens, and a scene transition can take hours to get right. Usually most of the kinks are ironed out by opening night; but at some point, things will go wrong.

Actors are notoriously superstitious, but that’s because theater is a notoriously finicky medium. Little trips or stumbles that are commonplace in everyday life become disastrous onstage. Of course, some mistakes are worse than others. A small slip-up, like a wardrobe malfunction or a missed line, may just be a little hiccup. But sometimes the accidents are big, like the time my friend was elbowed in the face during a fight scene and developed a whopping black eye in time for the curtain call. Recently, a friend was stranded onstage waiting for the sound cue of a five or seven minute long interview that never came—the speaker was in the television set and it had somehow come unplugged. After kicking the TV for a few minutes in very real frustration, she attempted to summarize the main points of the recording, which contained the name of the play and main themes, among other things. She did an admirable job, but it was agony for those of us standing backstage.

I spend a lot of time worrying about little bumps and hiccups, onstage and offstage. A good stage manager or actor makes every effort to ensure that mistakes don’t happen, but sooner or later they do. In my own life, when things are going well, I am afraid of doing anything to disturb the balance. What is most distracting about mistakes for actors is that a missed line or a disturbed prop breaks the moment onstage, taking the actor out of their imagined circumstances and forcing them into an intellectual realm that is not as authentic. The same applies to my own life—if things are going well but I cannot escape the nagging fear that I may become depressed again then I am unable to fully experience the good things.

But the truth is, eventually things will go wrong. I will have a bad day, or a panic attack. I will feel sad about something, or I will beat myself up for some mistake. Although I would love to say that my most recent bout of depression was my last, it is always possible that it will return some day. And although I do my best to make healthy eating choices, it is a daily struggle that I do not always win.

As for my friend with the black eye, no one even noticed it during the curtain call, and in subsequent performances she was able to cover the bruise with make-up. And as for my friend with the missed sound cue, my parents didn’t even know that anything had gone wrong (although they admitted the play made more sense the second time around). The show goes on, and most of the time other people don’t even notice the little bumps that can seem like the end of the world to the person onstage.

So maybe I should stop worrying about them so much.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

En Route to the Parlor

 An English teacher asked me once about my reticence to share my writing.

“Are you going to live your life like Emily Dickinson, lowering things out of your bedroom window instead of actually showing people what you can do?”

That may not be an exact quote, but I was about fourteen and still a little shocked that an authority figure bothered to pay attention to me. The idea stuck with me though, and for a long time the answer was, “Well I’m nice and comfortable in my room and people are scary so why not? Besides, it worked out for Emily in the long run…”

But I knew he had a point, of course. No one can write in a vacuum—Emily didn’t either. She still communicated with the outside world, even if toward the end of her life she could only listen through the door and occasionally pass notes or gifts to the social gathering beyond. And so I have tried slowly, very slowly, to ease myself into a place where I am comfortable with other people looking in on that private universe. I’m still afraid of rejection, naturally, but the terror has eased enough that I can live with it.

This also describes the gradual process of coming to a place where I feel comfortable enough to discuss my struggles with mental illness. I have believed for awhile that the best way to fight stigma around mental illness is to talk about it, but wasn’t brave enough to be the one to do it. I still can’t say that I’m comfortable bringing it up in casual conversation, but I know that often I can write about things more easily than I can talk about them. So, this blog is my way to transition from listening behind the door to dropping a few notes out of the window. Hopefully I’ll make it out into the parlor soon.

And so, as I make that transition, I want to clarify that this blog is intended for anyone it might speak to. I have received a few questions recently about how “private” it should be—the answer is, if I had wanted it to be private I would have made it that way. I am expecting that it will mostly be read by my friends and family, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. If you think you know someone who might be interested or who may be dealing with some of the same things (and I guarantee that you do, whether you know it or not) feel free to share it with them. Take it to your knitting group if you’d like, or your trampoline class. If you know a literary agent send them the link (haha…but seriously) or “accidentally” include it in the PowerPoint presentation at your next staff meeting or class. You get the idea. What I have to say is not necessarily any better than any other blog out there (I can point you to some excellent ones) but I believe that the more people there are talking about this the better. Naturally, I would prefer that the blog be used to start dialogue in a respectful way, but ultimately I don’t have much say in that. It’s the risk of leaving the safety of my bedroom.

So please, use it however you are comfortable: comment or just read, subscribe or don’t subscribe, share it or think about it on your own. If you are worried about missing even one witty and insightful post, just enter your email on the right side and you will receive automatic notifications.  If you would like to send me a personal message feel free and I will do my best to respond in a timely manner—I’m still a student after all. Suggest things you might like to hear about. Also, if you happen to live somewhere near me, don’t think that what I blog about has to stay in cyberspace. If you have a question or want to talk about something, please do. Remember, my goal is to get out into the parlor, where I can take part in the discussion and possibly even become a positive voice in someone else’s struggle.

For whatever reason, Emily Dickinson did not feel safe beyond the confines of her room. She still experienced a deep range of emotion and carried on relationships that lasted her whole life. It is impossible to say what might have been different if she had been able to share her poetry with the world or venture outside her bedroom door, but what she left behind continually reminds me to be brave enough to take that step.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Happy Chinese New Year...sort of

Tomorrow (Thursday) is the Chinese New Year. This is not something I would normally keep track of, but I was reminded by my coworkers today that I should clean and sweep out my house tonight and wear red tomorrow for good luck. I’m not typically a superstitious person (with the exception of knocking on wood and never saying Macbeth in a theater) and as I intimated in my earlier post, I’m not much one for New Year’s celebrations. Besides, I have absolutely no Chinese heritage, nor any great knowledge or experience of the culture, aside from a newly discovered love of dim sum and the occasional craving for orange chicken.

So this does not explain why I came home this evening and cleaned every dirty dish in my kitchen, sprayed down my dog’s plastic kennel liner and washed her blankets, wiped the counters with disinfectant, took out the garbage, and then scrubbed down my bathroom, including my tub, sink, toilet, and floor. That reminds me—I didn’t shake out the mats. I should probably do that.

I have a friend with bipolar disorder who tends to houseclean when she is feeling manic. I don’t have manic episodes, but I often clean when I feel overwhelming emotions, particularly anxiety. And so, although I do not have bipolar disorder, my cleaning style tends to have two poles: when I feel sad or depressed my pervading sense of worthlessness slows me to a near halt, but when I feel anxious I tend to operate as if I’m on a gerbil wheel, running as fast as I can to escape myself. It may make for a shiny kitchen, but I’m still miserable.

At the end of my cleaning spree, I really wanted a bath in my nice clean tub. I got out some new bath salts, started the water, made some tea, lit a candle, and compiled the perfect playlist. With my dog watching curiously from the bathmat, I stepped into my relaxing bath and then stepped immediately out.

The water was cold. Not lukewarm, or room temperature, but cold. I live in an old building, and it probably should have occurred to me that the hot water runs out sometimes, even though it has never been a problem because I shower fairly quickly and always in the morning. Not wanting to waste my new bath salts, I sat down in the mint- and lavender-smelling water and shivered for about three minutes before I gave up.

This is the thing about holidays that celebrate the “new”: as much as I may want to sweep out all the dirt and hairballs of the last year, they tend to collect again in the corners within a few weeks. In my emotional extremes, I either helplessly watch the dust collect or I scoop it up agitatedly. Lately, however, I have spent most of my time somewhere in the middle, cleaning things when they ought to be cleaned and letting them sit when my attention is focused elsewhere. Tonight, I tilted a little toward one pole. I can pinpoint the trigger as an intersection between routine frustrations and an interaction that I perceived as critical of me. As usual, it wasn’t intended that way, but it still initiated the feeling that snowballed into anxiety when I came home to a sick dog and a messy house. In the past, I have used self-destructive behaviors to escape from the intensity, but tonight I was able to redirect my agitation just enough so that my tub got the worst of it. I made tea, which is something that soothes me, and attempted a relaxing bath. When that failed, I wrote about it.

I probably won’t be handing out any gifts in red envelopes tomorrow, but whatever I end up doing will involve an effort to stay in that space between extremes, where the future is not too overwhelming and the past is not so shameful. Dim sum, anyone?

Saturday, January 29, 2011

My Story

This is the post that I have been avoiding. I was commenting recently to a friend how much starting this blog has felt like “coming out.” I have dealt with diagnosed mental health issues for over five years now but still find it immensely difficult to talk about, even with friends. Most of the time, I guard my diagnoses like dirty secrets, skeletons in my closet, personal flaws that I must disguise at all costs. I have been overwhelmed by shame for my “abnormalities” and fear that if those close to me found out about the crazy person I’d been hiding…well. Say goodbye to a social life.

But I also believe that the only way to combat stigma and effect change for others who may struggling is to talk about it and share honest experiences. So, here I go. 

In the spring of my senior year of high school, I was diagnosed with clinical depression by my general practitioner. I began a regimen of fairly low-level anti-depressants, and while they seemed to help at first, I was barely hanging on by summer. I began therapy, which helped, but could not combat the increasingly dark thoughts and obsessive behaviors that were beginning to control me. These behaviors mostly focused around eating and a need for physical perfection, spurred by intense anxiety, self-hatred, and fear. Things worsened throughout the summer, and by July I had begun to experiment with cutting, other methods of self harm, and thoughts of suicide. My parents discovered the self-injury and took me to the doctor again, who told us this was beyond her scope and we needed to pursue specialized treatment. We went to the Emergency Room at her suggestion, where we were told that they lacked the resources necessary to help me. Instead, they referred me to an eating disorder treatment program.

I faced an intake evaluation with a therapist the next week, and was admitted into the hospital treatment program shortly thereafter. I was still unconvinced that I had an eating disorder, but I was supposed to leave for college in a little over a month and decided that it would be best to take care of whatever minor problem there was so I could go to school. I was scared by the increasingly dark thoughts of self-harm and suicide, and had begun to suspect that my mind and body were betraying me. The program provided me with a psychiatrist, therapist, nutritionist, and group therapy. I entered the hospital ready to nip the problem in the bud and move on with my life.

It wasn’t quite that easy. The first week was excruciatingly difficult, and I began to realize that there was something seriously wrong with the way I viewed food and my body. I was seized regularly with what I now recognized as anxiety attacks—I had experienced them before but did not know what they were. I was not sleeping well, I felt physically sick most of the time, and the future seemed as flat and blank as a sheet of white paper. The effort of eating when I didn’t want to and talking for the first time about the demons that littered my thoughts exhausted me in a way I had never experienced. I was irritable, volatile, and extremely sensitive. I thought my nutritionist had it in for me, my psychiatrist wasn’t taking me seriously, and my therapist was unreasonable. By the end of my second week my therapist told me that I wasn’t going to school any time soon, and I realized she was right. It was three weeks before I was supposed to leave. The idea of dropping out of college humiliated me; all I wanted to do was climb into a warm, dark cave and never come out.

And so in August and September when all my friends were entering the fray of college life, complete with roommates, professors, and illicit substances, I was still in the hospital. I stayed there through October, until I was discharged into a different program that included weekly individual and group therapy, and saw a nutritionist and psychiatrist independently. I went through several more medication changes and regularly vacillated between progress and regress. I got a job as a bank teller, and in the spring I applied to a different college than the one I had been planning to attend for as long as I could remember. I was accepted into a competitive honors program, received a full tuition exchange scholarship, and moved onto campus in September. And so the story had a happen ending…more or less. But as I entered my freshman orientation I could not shake the fear that my new classmates would discover my secret. I found a therapist, psychiatrist, and nutritionist near campus, and began to build relationships with them. I also began to make friends and regain confidence in my academic abilities.

But I rarely, if ever, revealed the true reason I had taken a year off after high school. My stock answer was something along the lines of being really burnt out after senior year and taking some time to work and earn money. This was not exactly a lie, but it also did nothing to account for the suicidal depression, crippling anxiety, and physically, emotionally, and spiritually destructive eating disorder. And, looking around, I began to realize that I was hardly the only one struggling. I longed to reach out to other young women and men in pain, but the wall of fear seemed insurmountable.

One of the most healing things to happen during the year I spent at home was that I began to write again. I have written fiction consistently since I can remember, but the pressure of the last year had almost completely sucked away my creative impulse. I began to write about my experiences, reframed in the character of a girl who was very much like me (her name was also a near anagram of my last name). As I wrote I began to discover and process things that even therapy had not fully addressed. The story sprouted supporting characters and parallel plot lines, until a novel-length manuscript emerged. As I realized that writing was the best way I could relate my struggles, I also began to recognize it as a way that I could share my experiences in a human, relatable way. I dreamed that my writing would become a platform to open discussion about the experience of mental health and combat the stigma I feared.

It has taken me almost five years, and that dream is still strong. But first I have to be willing to share my story publicly, even if I still fear what people may think. Consider this my coming out.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Cookie Monster

On Friday night around eight o’clock I decided to make cookies. As a rule, I keep a cupboard that is well-stocked with cookie-making supplies, but the particular cookies I wanted were a vegan recipe that my mother, cursed with several food sensitivities, had adapted. They have a few unusual ingredients that I do not keep around, so I loaded up my reusable shopping bag, fired up Pandora radio on my phone, and headed to my local co-op. I get distracted easily in grocery stores (so many beautiful vegetables! And artisan breads! And organic juices!) so the expedition took a little longer than I had planned. I got home around 9:30 and began mixing up a batch of cookies while watching an episode of Law & Order on my computer. Since my computer was occupied, I read the recipe on my phone. The recipe calls for a cup of chopped nuts, and since I do not have a nifty chopper like my mother, I had to do it all by hand. I also realized partway through the process that I did not have any baking powder, so I ran to the corner store and bought some. I chopped, mixed, plopped the dough on a cookie sheet, and put them in the oven, while meanwhile the bad guy was caught and prosecuted. I felt like it was a job well done for a Friday night.

A few minutes into the baking process I got impatient and opened the oven door, only to realize with dismay that the entire batch had melted into a gooey, nutty mass across the bottom of the cookie sheet. I looked over the recipe on my phone and remembered that the recipe called for shortening, but I had used butter instead. This did not seem like a problem, but as I saw no other explanation I assumed it must be. Once again I ran to the corner store, bought a tin of shortening, then returned home to chop, mix, plop the dough on the cookie sheet, and put them in the oven, while meanwhile the police saved the little girl in the nick of time. By now it was after 11:00 and I really wanted those cookies.

I opened the oven again, only to be confronted by the same gelatinous puddle. This time, I consulted the recipe on my computer. The display on my phone had cut off the very first line: 1 cup white flour.

You ask, didn’t it occur to you that there should be some flour? Well, I had included the half cup of whole wheat flour and oats on the recipe, and while I thought it didn’t seem like much the batch only makes nine cookies. Besides, I had also been distracted by victimized children and debates about the justice system.

Tired, upset, and really craving a cookie, I skyped my fiancé in Afghanistan.

“Don’t let those cookies beat you, sweetie,” he said. “You show them who’s boss.”

And so, at 11:45, I headed back to the kitchen. This time I used my coffee grinder for the nuts (not recommended, it reduced the peanuts to powder) and included the cup of flour. I checked the oven nervously after two minutes, but everything seemed to be running smoothly. Feeling a bit smug, I reported my victory via Skype.

The buzzer rang and I opened the oven door, anticipating my warm, fresh cookies. As I removed them from the sheet, I had a cruel shock.

I had forgotten the chocolate chips.

At this point, I should probably come up with some kind of comforting moral-to-the-story. A friend even suggested that I change the ending so that the last batch came out perfect. Perfection was what I wanted, after all—it’s what I always want. I want to move through life without saying the wrong thing or forgetting to do an assignment or losing track of an appointment or making a mistake…ever. I want to be perfect. I believe that if I am, everything will be okay and I will be happy. The problem is, this drive for perfection is accompanied by overwhelming anxiety, crushing self-hatred, and dangerous self-destructive behaviors. Besides, even a five year-old knows perfection is impossible.

I ate the cookies that night, and although they didn’t have the chocolate chips they were delicious. I went to bed exhausted but satisfied, and even if everything wasn’t perfect it was okay. Last night I made another batch of the cookies, making sure to include the chocolate chips. On Law & Order, a kidnapped nun was rescued after the friendly neighborhood psychic was exposed as the culprit. Justice was served, and I enjoyed a fresh, hot cookie out of the oven. As I lay in bed that night, thinking about the day with satisfaction, I went over the recipe for the cookies in my head.

And I realized I had forgotten the vanilla.

Mom’s Cookies

Stir dry ingredients in a bowl:
• 1 C white flour
• 1⁄4 C whole wheat flour
• 1 C chopped mixed nuts (I use 1/3 almonds, 1/3 peanuts, 1/3 pecans but you can
use any mix you prefer. Walnuts are good too. Be sure to get UNsalted)
• 1⁄4 C sunflower seeds (raw and unsalted)
• 1⁄4 C old fashioned oats
• 1/3 C chocolate chips
• 1⁄2 t baking soda
• 1 t baking powder

Whip wet ingredients together in a large bowl:
• 1⁄2 C shortening (like Crisco)
• 1⁄4 C molasses  (always do shortening first then put the molasses & syrup in the
same measure cup)
• 1⁄4 C maple syrup (not imitation, the real stuff. It will be expensive.)
• 1 t vanilla

Dump the dry ingredients in the wet ingredient bowl and stir until everything is
moistened. I use a big spoon to stir and use the same spoon to put the cookies on the pan.
I make 8 big cookies out of this recipe. 

Bake at 350 degrees for 12 minutes.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

What Emily Dickinson has to do with my blog...

Emily Dickinson is one of my favorite poets, and the title for this blog came from a poem by her. I think a lot of people my age find Dickinson inaccessible for her rather archaic styling and use of meter. It took me a long time and the happy convergence of some good English classes, Shakespeare directors, and writing professors before I was able to appreciate the value of meter. Dickinson wrote primarily in different hymn meters. "Amazing Grace" is a good example of a common meter, like the one she (roughly) used for "Hope is the thing with feathers." I do not consider myself foremost a poet, but I can say that the time I was assigned to write a poem in common hymn meter it came out sounding like a bad jingle. And I worked at it, I promise. So the fact that Dickinson can simultaneously use and subvert this wickedly difficult form and in the process write such unexpected and radiant poems is rather amazing to me.

And she was never recognized during her lifetime. Posthumous speculations posit that an anxiety disorder like agoraphobia may have been the cause of her eccentricities and reclusive habits, and scholars have mined her poems and letters for psychoanalytic details. I'm less interested with the precise nature of her disorder than with the brilliant glimpses of victory and struggle that emerge in her work. Her distillations of triumph, despair, love, dejection, fear, and hope ring true to me after more than a century and several changes of aesthetic taste. This metaphor of hope in particular lodged itself in my head even during times when I was about to give up. As a result, it seemed like the perfect title. Check out a beautifully illustrated anthology called My Letter to the World and Other Poems (Visions in Poetry) by Isabelle Arsenault for a haunting visual interpretation of her work.

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Contest for writers interested in literary fiction

One of the blogs I have been reading for awhile now (before screwing up the courage to start my own) is holding a contest that ends tomorrow, Sunday Jan. 23.  This is the link!

Check it out and check out the great posts about literary agents!

My New Year's Un-Resolution

I love the holidays. Every year I anticipate the time with family and old friends, traditions, gift-giving, and yes, food. It wasn’t always this way, of course; there were a couple of years when food-centered holidays drove my anxiety levels up to panic and the idea of sitting around a table celebrating the bounty of harvest at the grocery store was like a scene from a bad horror movie. Maybe this had something to do with the alarming size of cutting implements used in preparing the Christmas turkey, but it probably had more to do with the fact that I was struggling with an eating disorder at the time. Since the years when I dealt with the acute symptoms of my eating disorder, holidays have become a pleasant and joyful time for me again, but every season I still have to deal with two major pet peeves that without a doubt crop up again and again in group settings.

Number One: The discussion of how much food has been consumed and how much weight will be gained as a result.

Number Two: The subsequent onset of New Years and the profusion of resolutions that involve losing said weight.

And so, over the years, I have grown to associate New Years resolutions with this never-ending cycle of dieting and guilt. I know a lot about guilt, especially the kind that is largely unfounded and emerges from the persistent sense that I am a “bad” person. For me, that kind of guilt is related to my perfectionism, and the habitual sequences of self-criticism that used to dominate my inner dialogue. Every day is a step in breaking the cycle, and while it’s not always forward motion, it’s better than stasis...or so I like to tell myself.

The root word of resolution is, naturally, resolve. To me, resolve has a stronger connotation. A resolution might be a decision that a committee makes, but a resolve is a commitment, a promise to yourself. In my thesaurus, one of the synonyms for resolve is tenacity. A writer introduced that word to me at a conference I went to years ago in high school. Her mantra was that tenacity was more important than talent. I’ve heard it many times over since then, but for whatever reason, her simple message made a huge impact on my adolescent brain.

So, Alice-like, I choose to celebrate an Un-Resolution this year. The first part involves this blog: having resisted the online media phenomenon for so long, I have some trepidation. But if I am going to live as if I believe that tenacity is more important than talent (which I do) then I have to start advocating for myself. Would I like to make a living doing what I love? Yes. Will it take a lot of hard work and more than a few disappointments along the way? Oh yes. History shows that the moment I think I have my life planned out I am thrown a curveball. So, I might as well start with the failures now.

And the second part of my New Year’s Resolve? Never, ever, ever give up.