August 21, 2016 § 1 Comment
One of the things that’s haunted me most about living with mental illness is my inability to explain or account for it–to myself or to others. My earliest internal experiences of anxiety, for instance, was of being strange to myself, having thoughts and feelings that not only overwhelmed me but that didn’t make sense, thoughts and feelings that felt somehow other to myself. Part of me but different from me at the same time. I had no language for what I experienced, which caused secondary trauma when I could not communicate my distress to anyone–or when I tried, later, and was met with confusion, skepticism or inadvertent invalidation. After all, the things I felt and thought didn’t make sense to me–why should they make sense to others? It didn’t make sense: that I would fear vomiting so much, for instance, that the arrival of a letter in the mail after school one day in 4th grade, stating that I had been randomly selected to audition for a kids’ game show, would make me ball up on the couch crying. To do that I would have to travel out of town! And if I traveled away from home I might get sick! I knew it didn’t make sense, and I was embarrassed. I knew I couldn’t tell anyone the real reason I was scared. It was too weird. But I was filled with dread and despair and a desperate feeling of being unsafe nonetheless. « Read the rest of this entry »
December 14, 2014 § Leave a comment
i know that the standard prescription in these situations is to take care of yourself. or take care of yourself first.
but i’ve always had a hard time visualizing what that actually means. i know that when i get triggered and can’t stop crying or fall into a paralysis of depression or want to refuse food to the point of starvation, it makes little sense to take a hot bath with candles or eat something nice. i simply can’t imagine any way out of my state, even though i have the DBT cards where i’ve thought through very carefully when in a normal rational state what i should do when i’m not.
what is self care, anyway? about a month ago i picked up a zine posing the same question, in which the anonymous writer talked about the insufficiency of care when the problem, as in many cases of trauma, is the lack of a self. or, maybe, the development of a self tightly built around a wound, a self organized to protect against trauma. a self fortified by a multiplication of maladaptive strategies intended to protect and conceal an original injury. in that case, s/he says, what we need is not to take care of that construction of self, but to transform it, to become something other than what we’ve been. to live a life that is not organized around an original wound.
i came to similar conclusions this afternoon when i was running–which is like one of the last things i want to do when i’m stuck in the panic of a trauma response, even though i know exercise helps and it’s on my DBT cards etc. the thought i had was:
when all my energy wants to bend toward someone
please stay, please come back, please hold me, please love me, please don’t leave
what i need to do is to retract that energy to a center, keep it close. when everything in me longs to turn outward, to grasp and to pull, i need to pull it back in. i need to turn it inward. i need to retreat and take my space, to seek refuge in solitude–or in being with others, doing other things. i need to run or lift. i need to meditate and pray. i need to listen to dharma talks. i need to read and write. i need to go outside and observe nature. i need to visit my parents, play with my child. i need to go to meetings–support group and community organizing both. and i need to do these things for as long as it takes for my panic to subside. even if that’s a day. even if that’s a week.
in writing this down, it occurs to me that this thought took shape in stages or drafts. an earlier form presented itself when i was emailing a friend:
he’s still away, but we’re talking and trying to figure out how things can be different, better. i know it’s more complicated than just his mental health struggles, because i have my own trauma that plays out in relationships, which makes it harder than it otherwise might be. so i’m having to confront and think through my piece of our dynamic.
and then this morning, when listening to a dharma talk online, the teacher said, roughly:
fear’s not in the way, it’s the way. if we don’t have a practice of opening to the vulnerability that’s in our body, we don’t discover the openness that is the pure expression of love. open to the truth of impermanence, that there is no ground. the real truth of loss. but opening to loss is what opens us to tenderness.
just sitting with the freefall when i’m in it, when i’m doing everything to keep from being in it. a cessation of striving and grasping. i can’t do anything about anything. there’s nothing to try. a relief, a liberation. all i can do is use this time to focus inward, to bring my energy back to a center. to transform a self that has emerged from injury. i know the buddhists go further and reject a notion of the self as fictional, but in this case it seems a useful or strategic fiction. a provisional notion, a notion that helps me respond with kindness to my own suffering instead of deepening it.
(here’s another thing. i have decided that it makes more sense to describe my borderline stuff as “trauma that plays out in relationships.” it is less stigmatizing and pathologizing, more forgiving and kinder–putting the emphasis on what happened a long time ago that now continues to manifest in my present experience, rather than on an identity that is static and defective. putting the emphasis instead on the temporal, the phenomenal–once i was injured, now i am compelled, in the future i might have some other relation to that injury. it opens up room for change and transformation. to name it in that way is also just more descriptive of what my experience is.)
December 11, 2014 Enter your password to view comments.
November 23, 2014 § Leave a comment
i don’t know what to make of this, this pattern of selling myself well and then being unable to handle it and making an incendiary exit. one thought is that there is some core validity to my reactions–like, there really is a lot of bullshit at any job. and wage labor itself is inherently bullshit. but then, i also think that most folks have a less intense response. they have thicker skin. my propensity for intense emotional states means i’m more perceptive, more attuned to internal contradictions and dysfunctionality, but in a way that eventually becomes painful and self-jeopardizing. in most employment efforts i’ve undertaken, my pattern is to get progressively more and more stressed by bullshit and eventually unable to handle it. my mom used to roll her eyes and say, “it’s just a job,” but i knew that what i was experiencing was the reality of labor’s alienation under capitalism!! for instance. it’s always been easy for me to see the macro in the micro, the political in the personal, but also very hard for me to handle.
in some jobs, like waiting tables at denny’s or working at a dry cleaners or beauty supply shop or whatever, the bullshit curve is very very short. like 2 days to a few months max.
in other jobs, where i’m doing work that is meaningful to me, i’ve been able to function well for a time, before getting more and more distressed. in my last job, for instance, i did fine for about a year and then became increasingly anxious and overwhelmed before essentially imploding. but a lot of that was also because the organization itself was actually unhealthy (see this post).
the longest i stuck with something was the almost 8 years i was in grad school. even then, i was pretty fucking disablingly anxious ALL THE TIME. but the work rhythms of academe allowed me to manage that better than a 9-to-5. i could work when i was able and not work when i wasn’t. or, even when i was very incapacitated by anxiety or depression, i could still do my work cuz it was more solitary than public. except when it wasn’t–in which case i was having panic attacks in class.
but the anxiety also eased up significantly when i was done with coursework and just writing my dissertation. it was really minimal when i was dissertating and working as a research assistant rather than teaching. as an RA i had no public performance to manage. my work spoke for itself and that was enough.
but the good thing about getting older is that your patterns appear with greater clarity. and when your patterns and triggers become apparent, you can devise workarounds. so as i take a few months off from paid employment and think about what comes next for me, meanwhile trying not to internalize a view of myself as failed and incompetent, i’ve put together this list of things i’ve learned about what kind of work does and does not suit me. it’s a nice sort of balance between “i’m defective and unfit for survival” and “wage labor under capitalism is slavery” (which of course it is). anyway:
STUFF I CAN’T ABIDE FOR LONG:
–highly stressful, chaotic work environments, even if the work is meaningful
–boring and repetitive service industry jobs that feel meaningless or actively exploitative
–jobs that require extensive public performance–being socially “on” for long periods of time
–jobs with intense hours or which require relentless output without periods of rest and recuperation
–jobs with a lot of internal dysfunction or motivation through criticism and fear
–jobs that expect you to put caregiving work, health or community involvement second to productivity
THE FLIPSIDE OF THAT: STUFF I CAN DO SUSTAINABLY:
–jobs where folks are laid back and chill
–jobs where i can make my own hours and control the intensity of work flow
–jobs that allow me to balance work and caregiving responsibilities
–jobs that require lots of thinking work – the ability to focus and concentrate for long periods of time
–jobs that offer a lot of space for self-motivation and execution of long term projects
–jobs that are relatively solitary and which reward individual creativity
so, it seems like i should either go back to academia (in a more flexible adjuncting kind of capacity that allows me to do other things); look for a research job (they must be out there); figure out how to freelance the stuff i’m good at (writing, teaching, researching, community organizing); retrain for some new skill set that allows for self-employment (therapist, acupuncturist); or enhance training i already have so as to obtain more stable, reliable work (get a sociology master’s or MFA so that a community college hire is more feasible; get my alternative certification to teach high school English). but, also, i think i could still do the paid organizer/social justice nonprofit work IF the organization was internally healthy and accommodating.
October 22, 2014 § 5 Comments
Y’all madfolks (and non-madfolk allies) might not know that in my other life–when I’m not blogging about bipolarity or whatnot–I work as a social justice organizer and community educator. Or that in my previous life I was an academic, that I came up in the academy writing about issues of embodiment and was greatly politicized there around issues of disability justice. Anyway–
I made the decision to leave my current position the other day at a community organization that does impressive and absolutely vital social justice work in my hometown. This organization is very effective in challenging the broader powers that be, but the internal dynamics are also very difficult. I’ve come to believe that this is because of the constant confrontational stance we deliberately take vis a vis power structures–we end up turning on ourselves in ways we become accustomed to position ourselves in relation to oppressive forces externally. So there’s a lot of bickering, a lot of unnecessary meanness, a lot of public scoldings. There’s also a kind of manic intensity to the work that makes it really hard to draw boundaries and take care of yourself.
Leaving was a hard decision for awhile, and for awhile I didn’t know I was even making it–I just kept hearing a little voice whispering slow down, take a break–and then, yesterday morning, it became not hard at all.
What happened was this: the past few weeks have been stressful and I started getting sick. Physically, but more problematically in terms of its disruption to my everyday functioning, mentally. I started having a lot of anxiety and then began to rev up and feel manic (er, hypomanic I guess). When that happens I don’t necessarily need to do anything more than scale things back and slow down. Reduce my stimulus. Focus on one foot after the other, cautiously. I still feel that if I had been able to just take like a month off last spring, I wouldn’t have needed to go into the hospital. But I wasn’t able to–or felt I wasn’t able to, plus I was manic so I didn’t want to stop–so I just kept getting worse and worse, and then I crashed into depression and had to take a week off anyway because I became unable to work. And at that point, I was having so many symptoms that, even with a week off, I could not put off psychiatric care even a few days, at which point I checked myself into the hospital. At that point I had just been diagnosed and was completely unmedicated, so I was desperate to see someone and get on the right meds so that I could keep going without having to break down completely. So that’s what happened last spring, and why since then I’ve been very concerned to maintain boundaries around my time–because if I get too stressed out or can’t keep a regular schedule, I start having symptoms.
Now, my boss knows about my bipolar diagnosis. I was very open with my coworkers about getting diagnosed and going to the hospital. (Though I did not tell anyone about my even more stigmatized borderline diagnosis–ha.) And I’ve had conversations with my boss about the kinds of things I need to do to maintain stability and how that affects my performance at work. So when I started having symptoms this past week, I decided that I would let people know that I needed to scale back some of what I’d been working on. What always tips us over into dysfunctionality as an organization is that the amount of programming we do is very intense–we basically have a big community event every weekend, plus long term planning for even bigger community events–and then, because we are also a social justice organization, we feel compelled to jump in as community organizers when urgent issues arise. Which they always do. And which is okay, because we care about those issues. But it’s just that little extra when we’re already at capacity that ends up making me sick.
So yesterday when I went into work, I told my boss that I had been having a lot of panic and manic energy and requested that some of the organizing work be delegated to other folks so that I could focus just on programming, thinking that if there was a more critical need it was the programming we were doing. In other words, I told her I was getting sick and asked for accommodations. She got very frustrated and irritable and scolded me by saying that if I delegated those tasks, I’d be putting more pressure on the full time workers who were already doing a million things and staying till 9pm every night etc. She granted the accommodation, telling me just to focus on the organizing work, but she also made me feel like shit in the process and implicitly suggested that it was my illness that was the problem, not the insane workload or how we divide up the labor.
(Note that “full time” at my work means available for *everything* and willing to work as much as it takes–sometimes 50-60 hours a week–to get it done. Note too that I am the ONLY worker in the organization with a child. Or a partner who also lives with psychiatric disability. And so the stakes involved in my staying stable are high.)
After this exchange, I left the building because we were asked to move our cars from the lot for other folks who needed to park there. I texted my boss that I was very upset from our conversation and that I was taking some space to cool off, would return to finish something I had left unfinished, and then leave again. I called my partner and cried. I called my mentor and cried. She told me to come over to her house right away, where she reassured me that what happened wasn’t my fault. Afterwards I went back to work and finished what I said I would finish. And then I left again.
Somewhere between work and home I came to the understanding that I’d had enough and needed to leave, and started composing a letter in my head. When I got home, I wrote it all out and sent it to all the staff members and the board of the organization. Before I paste the letter here, I should say that I’ve left other intensely stressful jobs in dramatic ways and I wonder what this means–is it part of my illness/instability, that I become so anxious that I get crazy? Or am I more attracted to crazy, high stress work environments because of my own intensity? Or is the world just generally unaccommodating to folks more vulnerable to panic and affective/energetic swings?
Anyway, here is what I wrote, with apologies for the funky formatting–for some reason when I paste text, it loses its paragraph returns:
That’s my story.