Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Well yeah, but...

This has been accepted as an article for The Mighty. As they edit for length and content, here is the full piece just in case anyone is curious.

Gratitude is a beautiful feeling. It connects us to the people and things in our lives in a way that can be hard to put into words. It allows us to show compassion for those who don’t have the same things to be grateful for, and a little bit of it can go a long way.

Normally, I use Thanksgiving to recount all of the things I’m grateful for. I don’t make an official list or anything, but I look back on the year and give silent thanks for the people and things in my life. This year, though… Well, it has been anything but normal.

It goes without saying that this has been a rough year. Obviously, it has been far harder on some than on others, but I don’t think 2020 will be getting a “Best Year Ever” mug. Certainly not from me (though if anyone knows where I can send a strongly-worded letter to the universe, please feel free to pass that information along).

As manageable as my depression has become over the last few years, this time of the year is always a little extra tough for me. Add to that a global pandemic and an election for the ages, and the last couple of months have not exactly been all rainbows and puppies.

When I sat down with my Thanksgiving meal this year and tried to come up with what I was thankful for, my mind was instead flooded with negativity. Just a few weeks ago I was struggling to find any kind of joy in my life; if joy was barely within reach, how was I supposed to manage gratitude? Maybe if the idea was to list all the things that have helped make this year such a train wreck, that would be far more doable.

So, that’s what I did: I let the negative thoughts and memories fill the space in my head I was trying to save for gratitude. I thought about the things that had caused me pain. I recalled numerous times I had cried and plenty more when I was thisclose to crying. I remembered heartache, grief, frustration, anger… I probably could have gone far into the night if I’d kept at it, but at a certain point, I found myself thinking, “Well yeah, that sucked, but…”

That’s when the light bulb flickered to life. “Hey, wait!” I thought (or likely said aloud to myself, as I am wont to do). “I bet there’s a ‘well, yeah, but…’ for a lot of these things.” As someone who often encourages others to look for silver linings, it seemed like a good time to follow my own advice. 

With this in mind, I came up with a number of “wellyeahbuts” to offset some of the gloom and (plot twist!) they look suspiciously like gratitude. For example…

Negative Thing: My Grampa passed away early in the pandemic. It wasn’t COVID-19, but coronavirus is what kept me from going to see him or my family. I was trying to do the safe thing by staying at home and I lost track of how many times I changed my mind about what to do. I also lost count of the emotions I went through. It wasn’t easy to process.

Well yeah, but… The facility Grampa was in let immediate family visit before he passed, and my mom was able to give him my love for me. Ultimately, he was with people who loved him, which is the most important thing of all. And as for me, I will always have my memories of him and the knowledge that he loved all of us so very much.

Negative Thing: I started seeing someone in January, before the world went crazy, who I fell for. Hard. We had this amazing connection and so much in common, and I felt so good when I was with him. I thought he felt that way, too. Until he decided to move across the country. Even then, I held out some hope, at least for friendship. Two weeks later, he unfriended and unfollowed me, and didn’t even text me to explain himself until my best friend called him out. It all made me question everything he’d ever said and everything I thought I’d felt. We haven’t had contact since May and it still stings to recall.

Well yeah, but… We really did have some amazing times together. (If it hadn’t ended so poorly, those memories would be a lot rosier, but I digress.) Even if the connection wasn’t real to him, it was to me. So, theoretically, I could find a connection like that again with someone for whom it’s mutual and who will respect me and communicate with me. That was also the strongest I’d felt for anyone since my divorce and it’s nice to know that maybe there’s hope for me to feel that in the future.

Negative Thing: Seasonal depression hit especially hard this year. I didn’t really feel it coming on so much as I suddenly realized that I just didn’t care about doing anything and that I would rather nap than anything else. Eventually, it progressed to crying myself to sleep with no idea why I was feeling so awful, breaking down mid-day for no apparent reason, and even more naps.

Well yeah, but… With a little encouragement, I reached out to my doctor to ask if an increase in my antidepressants would be an acceptable path forward. I got the green light and it hasn’t been long, but so far, so good. I also have an awesome therapist who is able to talk me through some of what I’m dealing with and offer some suggestions to help. And I have amazing friends and family who check in on me and have reached out to me when they felt I might need a hand.

Negative Thing: Self-quarantining/staying ‘safer at home.’ I’m introverted to boot, but I used to visit my parents probably once a month (or once every other month, at least) before this; during the pandemic, I have seen my mom twice and have only seen my dad briefly via video chat. I live alone (save for my two dogs) and work from home, so staying home means being alone (as was the case this Thanksgiving). I can count on one hand how many people I’ve hugged since March, and I had to cancel two separate trips to visit my two best friends. Basically, it all sucks.

Well yeah, but… I’ve managed to stay healthy through this, as have many of the people in my life. Oddly enough, the pandemic has made me more social in some ways. I now have regular video chats with friends and family and have been particularly active in a few Facebook groups. I miss hugging people and spending time with them (especially my parents), but I find some comfort in knowing that I haven’t somehow contributed to the spread of the virus and that I’m doing my part to help keep everyone as safe as possible.

In the end, I came up with a fair number of “wellyeahbuts” to counter the negatives, and I’m pretty grateful for that. Things look more than a little different this year, so to those who have been struggling with gratitude or counting their blessings as I’ve been: try looking for some “wellyeahbuts” to help put a spin on things. You might not be able to come up with much or you may feel afterward it was just a waste of time. Well yeah, but… at least you tried.  

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

To those who think the shooting of Jacob Blake was justified: I'm sorry.

I'm sorry that you believe that resisting arrest or noncompliance is grounds for homicide. Yes, I know that Jacob is still alive (potentially paralyzed, but alive), but you don't shoot someone multiple times just to subdue them. Shooting someone seven times in the back is attempted murder. 

I'm sorry that you feel like anyone you deem to be a 'criminal' deserves to be treated with violence. Never mind the whole 'innocent until proven guilty' concept our system is supposed to be founded upon; even criminals are human beings. And though it is also broken and fails people far too often, we have a whole system in place to determine the punishment for criminal activity. That's not for an officer to decide.

I'm sorry that you are more hurt, more outraged by the destruction of property than the destruction of a person's life. What is happening in Kenosha is horrible and it's true that most of the people affected by the damage being done likely don't deserve to go through this. But a man's life will never be the same, nor will the lives of his children, his friends, his family, nor anyone else who witnessed the incident. Buildings are much easier to rebuild than someone's life.

I'm sorry that you probably won't read this, or if you do, that your mind won't be changed at all. You have every right to believe what you choose, as do I. You might feel like we don't have "all the facts" yet, but I struggle to come up with a 'fact' that could possibly justify the action taken against Mr. Blake. He could be evil incarnate, but if no one's life was in immediate danger, then it is my belief that there was no reason to shoot. 

Most of all, I'm sorry we can't agree on this. It doesn't mean we can't be friends or that I love you any less, it just means that we see the world, and its people, very differently. 

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Caring For Your Erika: Depressive Episodes

EDIT: I just wanted to preface this by saying it was meant to be part tongue-in-cheek and part serious, as is kind of my style. I don't expect anyone to 'take care of' me when I'm depressed, but should anyone want to help out or better understand what I might be going through, here you go.

No two people are the same. I mean, you can be scarily similar to someone else, but there will always be differences. The same goes for mental illness: no two individuals' mental health struggles are the same. Symptoms, triggers, reactions, needs... they all differ based on the person.

Every so often, I find myself bawling and feeling worthless for no known reason. This is part of what I define as a depressive episode, and when it gets to that point, it's really hard to just suck it up and keep on keepin' on. About a month ago, I called into work because I couldn't stop crying and spent the day on the couch with my dogs. I was never in any danger, and I've certainly been through worse, but this one was like a sneak attack and I was completely unprepared for it. As I just went through something similar again, finishing this post seemed like a good idea.

I'm lucky to have a few really excellent friends who have seen me through some really rough times in my life (feel free to go back and read about some of the fun) and continue to be here for me. But even the closest of friends, those who have been through the worst of it with me, sometimes aren't sure what to do when an episode hits, or might not be aware that I'm in the midst of one. So, ladies and gents here is a quick guide!

Caring For Your Erika During a Depressive Episode

Part 1: Identifying A Depressive Episode

How exactly does one know if their Erika is experiencing depression? It's a good question and, unfortunately, there isn't an easy answer. Sometimes your Erika will tell you straight out that it's happening; that's usually a pretty clear indicator that an episode is occurring. But if your Erika is playing a bit coy, here are some things to look for:
  • Your Erika may be quieter than usual. Her responses may be shorter and carry less emotion than normal, or she may take much longer to respond in the first place (both when speaking face-to-face and via text/message). This is often an early warning sign, though be sure to rule out sleepiness and 'hanger' as possible causes.
  • Your Erika may not be eating. If stressed, Erika has a tendency to overeat, but in the throes of an episode, she is much more likely to skimp on food instead.
  • Your Erika may be crying. This sign is much easier to read in person but can be a strong sign of a depressive event.
  • Other indications may exist and should be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
Part 2: What To Expect

Once you've determined that your Erika might be having a depressive episode, what can you expect to happen?
  • Crying. You may think your Erika's tears have dried up. She may go minutes, even hours, without so much as a drop. Do not assume that this means your Erika is done crying. She's not.
  • Neediness. Even more than usual, your Erika may seem to lean on you. She may even come to resemble ClingWrap in her efforts to ensure that you are not leaving her in her time of need.
  • More crying. See above.
  • Pushing. Despite the previous point, you may feel your Erika pushing you or your attempts to help away. This does NOT mean she does not want or need your help. In fact, she may need it even more than you know.
  • Self-deprecation. Your Erika may begin to doubt her awesomeness during this time. She may feel unworthy, make negative statements, and feel all around bummed about herself. 
  • Yet more crying. How many tears can she possibly have?? Only time will tell.
Part 3: How Can You Help?

So, how can you best help your Erika when in the midst of a depressive episode? There's no tried and true method that will work each and every time, but there ARE a few things that are likely to help.
  • Let her cry. It might make you uncomfortable, but trying to stop the crying is not going to work. Let it happen. If you prefer not to be cried on, sit a safe distance from your Erika and have plenty of tissues handy. Asking or telling her to stop crying is not advised; you've been warned.
  • Reassure her. Even if she doesn't ask for it, even if you feel like a broken record, even if you don't understand WHY you're reassurance matters... Give it a try. Remind your Erika that you are there for her - if and when she needs you - and that your friendship is not so fragile as to be broken by this episode. If she pushes too much, give her a break for a bit. She may just need some time to let your affirmation sink in.
  • Assist as you are able.
    • If you're nearby, you can offer in-person comfort. Does she need to talk? Lend her your ear. Does she need a hug (the answer is almost always yes)? Cuddle up or, if you're not the cuddling type, grab the tiny dog or a stuffed animal and let her hug her heart out. Has she forgone eating? Bring her a bite to eat (she responds especially well to ice cream and chocolate).   
    • Not available or close enough to visit? That's fine! Texting helps. So do random memes and videos of adorable and/or funny things. Kindness has many forms and travels long distances with little effort. Just checking in with your Erika can be a major help.
Part 4: After The Episode

Unfortunately, these things do not always disappear as quickly as they have seemingly appeared. A depressive episode can wreak havoc emotionally, mentally, and physically. It may have passed and your Erika may be feeling a bit better, but odds are good she is a bit exhausted in some capacity. She may need a nap or some extra chill time before facing the world again. It's possible that some plans will have to be adjusted or canceled to allow her to fully recover. Sometimes recovery takes a few hours, other times it may take a day or two. Try to be patient with your Erika during this time; she knows it's a pain in the ass and feels bad about it. Trust me, she'd rather just be feeling better. Give it time.

Notes & Tips

These little tidbits didn't really fit in with the above-outlined parts of the episode but may be noteworthy nonetheless.

  • Offering help is much appreciated, but your Erika is unlikely to speak up and say what she needs or wants because she feels so undeserving. She may view any offers of help as insincere or as being borne out of pity. Likewise, she will often feel unworthy of requesting anything on her own, assuming it would be a burden or seen as an act of selfishness. 
  • Depressive episodes, even within the same person, can vary. Your Erika might get through one episode all on her own, but be nearly incapacitated by the next. Unfortunately, she won't know how it will play out until she's smack in the middle of it. Isn't the unpredictable nature of depression exciting?
  • Depression is NOT a choice. And your Erika is doing things regularly to cope with it, such as daily medication and regular therapy sessions. Hell, even writing this all out is a great outlet and coping strategy! 
  • Last, but not least, a reminder: No matter how hard it is in the moment, remember that this is temporary. Your Erika has been through a lot, and yet she's still here. She's stronger than she thinks and braver than she knows. She might not see that in the face of darkness, so remind her that she has the tools to get through this. And if all else fails, offer her a flashlight.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Text Anxiety: Why I Overuse LOL, Punctuation, and Emojis (And Secretly Wish Everyone Else Would, Too)

A couple of months ago I wrote a post about texting with anxiety. It felt really good to get it out there, to give some insight into what goes on in the depths of my anxious mind and maybe reach some people, perhaps even people who have experienced text anxiety themselves. If it went over well, I was even going to submit it to The Mighty; maybe I can help heal the world, one post at a time!

It got 4 views.

Eh, better than nothing, right? Nevertheless, here I am, writing another post about my anxiety and texting. Because reaching 4 people is still something.

The last post was largely about sending and receiving texts, which is obviously step one. By no means does the anxiety stop there, though. There's the anxiety of crafting a good message. And the anxiety of waiting for a response. And, for me, the effects of anxiety on my interpretation of a response. This post is going to be about the latter.

As an empath, I'm usually pretty good at reading people in person. There are times when I struggle; if my own emotions are particularly strong in a given moment, they can sometimes taint the 'signal' I'm getting from someone else. For example, if I'm feeling particularly low/sad, and someone I'm with delivers a dry, sarcastic remark (which I'm usually all about), I might mistake their tone as hostile or annoyed instead of joking. Many times, all it takes is a moment to look at them, to absorb facial cues and body language, as well as remind myself that most people are not inherently mean and my mind loves to play tricks on me, and I can usually reassess and figure out that they're kidding. Phew!

The issue with texting then, as you likely already guessed, is that I'm missing all of those clues: tone, expression, body language... all out the window. Imagine an entire conversation in which the person you're speaking to has a blank face, doesn't move, and remains monotone throughout. Would you have any idea what they were feeling? Probably not. So what do you do?

If you're like me, you project. I think of it like watching black and white TV. At a certain point, my brain just kind of fills the color in for me. Not in a conscious way necessarily. I mean, I don't literally start seeing colors in place of grayscale. But my imagination makes suggestions, and if push came to shove, I could tell you what I think the colors are or should be.

Reading texts can be similar - without being able to hear the actual tone intended for a statement, my brain comes up with a tone in order to assign additional context and meaning. And often, I imagine it's dead wrong, but short of asking things like "How did you mean that?" or "That was a joke, right?" after every text, there has to be at least a little bit of guesswork on behalf of the recipient.

Likewise, I fear that whoever is reading a text from me is going through the same struggle. What if I don't properly convey my emotional response in this brief interaction? What if they think I'm being a raging bitch-monster when I'm just trying to be my lovable, snarky AF self?! It legitimately makes me anxious just thinking about it.

And I know I'm not alone here. Think about the 'evolution' of LOL. Remember what that actually stands for? Laughing OUT LOUD. Unless we're all a bunch of hysterical hyenas, we are NOT reserving it for just those times. These days its use is, more or less, intended to convey some kind of tone. Sometimes it suggests, "I'm gonna say this thing, but I don't want you to take it too seriously." Or maybe, "I'm just responding positively to your humorous statement/gif/whatever; I don't actually have anything to say but I don't want you to feel ignored." Or my personal favorite, "I don't want shit to get awkward if we're not on the same page here, so I'm using these three letters as my own personal safety net."

It doesn't stop at LOL either; I, personally, have several ways of trying to inject tone or emotion into messages. Punctuation and capitalization are probably the most obvious (which is why I overuse the hell out of exclamation marks), but there are others. Extra letters, for example. If someone tells/shows me something and I like it or am impressed, 'nice' becomes 'niiiiiiiiice.' The more disappointed or displeased I am, the more Os get added to the word 'boo' or 'no.' And when I'm excited, the number of Ss that get tagged onto the end of a 'yes' or an occasional 'yas' can vary from a few extra to "Did her finger get stuck?"

The most polarizing way to establish mood/tone/whatever, though, has to be emojis (or emoticons; yes, I know there's a difference, but shut up). As we all know, some people love the little dudes to the point of overuse. Some people aren't fans of using them at all, except in extreme circumstances. Others find them downright obnoxious. Personally, I think they're pretty helpful, not to mention kind of fun to use.I'm 99% sure that my friends think I'm just an emoji whore, but it's more than just a cute little image to me. Emojis help me express the sentiment of a statement, and they REALLY help me interpret the tone of someone else's, especially when the text is a one-word response. 'Okay' is not a particularly warm word. We know it represents an affirmative response, but that doesn't mean it's always a POSITIVE response. The same goes for words like 'sure' and 'fine' (which many argue almost always means the exact opposite). Check it out.

Person 1: Hey, you wanna catch a movie tonight?
Person 2: Sure

Obviously, the response is affirmative, but the individual doesn't sound super excited. As Person 1, I'd be reading into that WAY too much (because it's what I do). Do they REALLY want to go to the movie, or are they just saying yes for the sake of saying yes? Am I bugging them by asking? Should I back out of it to let them off the hook? The mind races, and inevitably I'm assuming the absolute worst when all they really meant was 'sure.' BUT, add a smile in there, and...

Person 1: Hey, you wanna catch a movie tonight?
Person 2: Sure 😀

As stupid as it might sound, that little yellow dude grinning like an idiot makes me feel immeasurably better about Person 2's response. Like, aha! They're happy to be asked and happy to say yes. This is good and fills me with much happiness of my own. Huzzah!

I'm working on trying NOT to read so much into simple messages, but it can be pretty rough sometimes. If I just used a plethora of smiley faces and exclamation marks but your response ends in a period (dun dun DUN!!), it's hard to redirect my brain from immediately thinking you clearly hate my guts and never want to talk to me again. Or, at the very least, that you're obviously not as jazzed about the topic at hand as I am and probably think I'm kind of a goober.

So, if you don't worry about this kind of stuff, you've probably determined that I am all kinds of certifiable. I'm not saying you're wrong. Maybe I am crazy. But maybe you like me anyway. And maybe you know OTHER people who think/feel similarly (perish the thought!) and want some insight to help you communicate better. On the other hand, if you DO worry about this kind of stuff,  now you can cue up 'You Are Not Alone' and bask in the knowledge that someone else is your brand of crazy! 😊

Thursday, January 2, 2020

The Myth of the Rational Empath

I've written before about being an empath. Not of the supernatural variety, but of the highly sensitive, deep feeling, empathetic to a fault variety. It may be why I startle easily. It probably contributes to my over-apologizing. It absolutely causes me to feel things differently than others. And, like anything in life, it has its good parts and its bad parts. 

This is a subject I have a hard time with because I fear judgment. I want others to think that I'm strong and capable and sane, and I worry that my empathicness (is that a word? It is now!) is more likely to be seen as a weakness, something that makes me somehow less capable and less rational than others. 

And so I've put this off. I've started it again and again. Drafts have been deleted or rewritten to no avail (pretty sure I started drafting this iteration at least 3-4 weeks ago). Then I was reminded of this: 
With my semi-recent #sorrynotsorry challenge (which went well, for the record!) and the looming thoughts surrounding my own insecurities about being an empath and HSP (highly sensitive person), this tweet opened the floodgates. I still didn't write it all at once, because I'm easily distracted this time of year, but here we are getting it done (finally).

The big thing to know is that I feel things deeply. Sometimes unnecessarily so, or to my own detriment, but it's just how I've always processed emotions. And it's not always a bad thing!

It's why I enjoy putting thought and energy into giving gifts to people (even strangers - I loved being a part of Reddit's Secret Santa this season!) in hopes that it'll bring them a smile. It's why I don't really like cooking or baking for just myself because the real joy I find in it is when someone else enjoys what I've made. It's why I get weirdly attached to characters in shows, movies, and books (like when I cried because Weebo "died" in Flubber) and go through a brief mourning period when I end a particularly good series and why I like to rewatch and reread those series so I can visit those characters over and over. Whether we're lifelong friends or new acquaintances, if I feel like we've connected, then you're part of my circle - that means you have my friendship, my respect, and my loyalty (even if I don't have yours).

On the other hand, it's why when my depression starts spiraling, it often happens so quickly that I can't even recognize what's going on until it's too late. It's why the thought of my friends or family in pain makes me hurt - sometimes physically - especially when there's nothing I can do to help them or nothing I can say that will ease that pain. It's why things that may cause small amounts of anxiety in some people result in me having panic attacks (or damn near) out of the blue. When my heart breaks, it takes a long time for me to pick up the pieces, and I've probably even lost a few bits along the way. 

I wear my heart on my sleeve for all to see and, in doing so, it gets scratched, snagged, and scarred along the way. My heart is easily bruised and sometimes that can be really hard. But I believe that having my heart at the ready also means that I can more easily find great love and appreciation for even the smallest things. It often means that I don't have to dig deep to find my compassion. And though I'm not always happy about it, one rarely has to guess how I'm feeling - it's all out there to be seen, whether I like it or not. 

And I'm not sorry for any of it. I would rather feel things too severely than not at all. Numbness may seem easier, especially when things get bad; trust me, I've been there. But to experience positive emotions as strongly as I do? It's worth every sob session, every soul ache, every piece of my heart I've left behind on my path through life. 

What I AM sorry for is the lack of understanding others seem to have regarding empaths and HSPs. It's easy for people to just see that part of someone and make assumptions. People frequently have this notion that the higher one's emotions run, the less rationally they think and act. And for some empaths, maybe even the majority, it does work that way. But as with any group of people, assuming we're 'all the same' is useless at best. Being sensitive and feeling things intensely does NOT mean I am an inherently irrational person. 

Are there times I act largely based on what I feel? Of course. Are there times that my emotions - or the emotions of others - hit me so hard that I get overwhelmed? Yep, that happens, too. Nonetheless, strong feelings and a tender heart don't mean I'm incapable of thinking rationally and reasonably. Logic and emotion are not mutually exclusive, nor are they inverses of one another.  

Maybe we need to stop seeing everything as one thing or another. Maybe we can challenge the ways in which we think of people - including ourselves - so that we stop believing in limitations that don't have to exist. Maybe we can stop judging those we barely know and instead focus on learning more about them and finding who they really are.

Or, maybe I'm the exception to the rule. Maybe I'm a mythical being: The Rational Empath, she who is the veritable "riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." The elusive creature of great beauty and wisdom, who will bring you good luck if you catch her!

But probably not. I'm pretty easy to catch...