I Don’t Want to Be a Canary in a Coal Mine

https://blogs.wsj.com/moneybeat/2017/11/09/are-high-yield-bonds-the-canary-in-the-coal-mine/

Wall Street Journal

Americans without mental health conditions like to talk about people with anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions in intriguing ways.

They like to offer us a billion home remedies and natural fixes instead of encouraging us as we seek medication and/or therapy. As such, instead of looking at us as people, they see us as projects who need curing instead of grace.

And then there are those who put us on odd pedestals that I personally never asked for.

They call us canaries in coal mines, extra sensitive to the pain of the world and, as a result, its saviors.

To be honest, I’m not sure which one is worse.

On the one hand, I don’t want my pain diminished and the treatment I seek for it to be demonized. On the other hand, I don’t want to be the world’s savior. And I don’t want my fellow people struggling with mental health conditions to have that burden placed on them.

Because yes, canaries warn coal miners of toxins in the air so they could get out and save themselves.

But those miners also let the canaries die.

That’s the country in which we live. We don’t live in a country that takes care of us. We don’t even live in one which heeds our warnings.

We live in a country that demonizes, ostracizes, and casts us aside.

So please, don’t put us on this pedestal, whatever your good intentions may be, even if it’s out of your desire to rewrite the narrative around us. Please, just let us be people who care deeply about the world and need deep care.

Because even though we are your prophets, activists, and healers, we have to manage our own conditions so your pain doesn’t kill us.

Anxious Activist, Part 1: Gratitude as a Tool for Self-Care and Social Justice

For the next three weeks, I will be posting an Anxious Activist post on Wednesday afternoons, highlighting spiritual practices which could assist in better self-care and self-maintenance for activists living with anxiety. This first post will focus on the spiritual practice of gratitude.

Please note: I am a bi-racial (white/Arab American passing as white), cis-gendered, heterosexual, and able-bodied woman who writes through those lenses. I know there are a number of mental health conditions which could be discussed in relations to self-care and activism, and I will be writing only about anxiety, as a person living with anxiety and not as a medical professional.

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Every night for the last six weeks, I’ve engaged in a daunting spiritual practice.

Each night, I’ve opened my pink Princess Peach journal and written down four moments for which I felt gratitude in the previous 24 hours.

They range from a clean house to a productive work day, hearing back from my therapist to playing a favorite song, even coloring a Pikachu page gifted by my colleague’s son and maintaining a collected mental state when I felt tempted to spiral out of control. My husband and his actions come up a lot, as do our Brooklyn Nine-Nine marathons and snuggling with our kitties. On particularly rough days, I find myself scraping the bottom of the barrel for anything positive to include, but I still write it down.

Gratitude as a spiritual practice has been on my mind for several years. I remember my friends from the Pentecostal church of my youth engaging in the practice on Facebook either for the month of November or, for the more ambitious types, a full year. They would post photos with captions about their gratitudes, and I found my timeline full of snapshots of children, steaming mugs of coffee and tea, spouses, life events, and clean kitchens.

I enjoyed seeing their photos and gratitudes, but I often worried that they acted more as signs of privilege and remedies to “first-world problems” instead of actual examples of God’s grace. Since I’m a person with a significant amount of privilege as a white, cis-gender, heterosexual, and able-bodied person, I didn’t think it right to broadcast what was going well in my already great life and call it a manifestation of God’s favor. It didn’t seem to do any justice or provide any assistance to people with less power and privilege. Not to mention, I was already a major cynic at this time, and expressing gratitude for such “mundane things” seemed beneath me and my nihilistic worldview.

But as I began to engage more in political and social activism and dealt with the constant threat of burnout, mental exhaustion, and apathy, put into hyperdrive with my anxiety, I thought back to those past posts of gratitude and wondered if these folks were onto something.

I thought about the posts from people of privilege living in their safe and secure walls, and I also recalled the examples of grace expressed between groups of marginalized people. I thought of the Black Lives Matter youth rallying support for all victims of police brutality, the strength of LGBTQ+ siblings who continue to engage with faith communities who cannot decide if they want to include or exclude them, and the radical and vulnerable expressions of love Muslim leaders showed to victims of anti-Semitic persecution.

So when I finally decided to take up a gratitude journal, I decided not of focus solely on the tokens of privilege in my life. Instead, I learned to focus on the gracious actions done by people around me, and the moments of grace I extended to myself when I was less than “perfect.”

Practicing the art of gratitude can be a positive influence for our activism. When we note moments of grace and mercy in our lives, we become more gracious and merciful people, first to ourselves, then to each other. When we remember to accept the cup of water handed to us, we might be more inclined to share some sips from it or pour a cup for someone else in need.

This practice can also remind us we are not alone in this life or in these struggles. Noticing how others have reached out to us in our difficult times, through a message, an embrace, a gift of food, or practical assistance, we might begin to notice how even in our most anxious moments and in the most troubling times, there is someone by our sides who is with and for us. We might even become inclined to be that support for another who is marginalized, either by a systemic issue or their own trauma and pain.

And, perhaps most important of all, practicing gratitude will remind us to extend grace to ourselves. Perhaps we will be more gracious with ourselves when we deal with anxiety, burnout, failure, and other traits and results normally deemed “undesirable.” Perhaps we will learn to accept we are both holy and dust, divine beings in limited bodies and spaces, and we will learn to be gentle with instead of rough on ourselves. We need the strength to keep going, and self-expressed grace can be the balm to soothe and heal our wounds that we might otherwise seek to make worse.

And as I look at these moments of grace extended to others, I learned more about extending that same grace to myself, because how can I give a cup of water to another when my own cup is bone dry, and I am dehydrated?

Gratitude is a radical action, for the one in a position of power and the one on the margins. When we remember we all belong to one another, we express gratitude for God’s loving presence among us. When we remember we as individuals are beloved by God, in our divinity and our humanity, we express grace to ourselves when we are not at our best. And it could whet our appetite enough to seek more grace not only for ourselves, but for those to whom little grace seems to exist.

My First Anxious Moment

I remember I was 4 years old. Or 5.

I remember my best friend Emily was visiting me.

We were in the living room. Toys were scattered on the floor. My doll house. My fire truck. My Barbies and a few stuffed animals.

And I was crying inconsolably.

I sputtered out my reason between the sputtering sobs: “Emily doesn’t want to be here. She doesn’t like me. She isn’t having fun.”

My mother told me it wasn’t true. She even point blank asked Emily if she was having fun, to which she graciously, and perhaps falesly, replied “Yes.”

Later on, we went to the playground at the school where Mom worked, right across the street from our apartment.

Emily climbed the jungle gym. I stayed on the ground, once again weeping.

Same fears.

“She doesn’t want to be here.”

“She doesn’t like me.”

“She isn’t having fun.”

Same consolations.

“That’s not true.”

“She does like you.”

“She is having fun.”

And the big one: “The only reason she wouldn’t be having fun is because you’re so upset.”

Which inadvertently caused me to feel more upset.

Emily played. I wept.

(Emily and Mom, if you’re reading this and remember that day, I am so sorry.)

It’s been 23 years since this first anxious moment, and I’ve seen it play out so many times.

In friendships, classrooms, romances, my interactions with my family, the workplace, and church.

In every close relationship I’ve had, there comes a time when the song inevitably plays, and it often gets stuck on repeat.

“My best friend hates me.”

“My teacher doesn’t think I’m smart enough.”

“My husband is mad at me.”

“My parents are judging me for not being like them.”

“My colleagues don’t think I’m as good as them.”

“My fellow Christians look down on me.”

It’s a song I hate, yet it plays on and on, rarely ceasing.

That’s not to say things haven’t improved.

Yes, the thoughts ring in my head, but most days, the volume is low. The annoying sound becomes background noise, and some days, I can even hear a lighter, sweeter, calmer melody instead. Most days, I have some degree of control over the sound, so even when I notice the noise drifting to an uncomfortable level, I am conscious enough to turn it down.

That’s the medication and therapy and other forms of self-care at work.

And then there are days I lose control of the dial, and it’s cranked to 11, and the speakers threaten to blow out.

That’s also the medication and therapy and other forms of self-care at work, but instead they are losing to my mind, which has gone into dumpster-fire-mode. (It’s like normal mode, only over-caffeinated and with fangs).

When I find myself in these moments, I start to wonder.

I wonder what my childhood might have been like if I had actually felt like a child, not someone carrying the weight and worries of the world on her small shoulders. I wonder what my adolescence could have been like if the anxiety had not paralyzed me from pursuing my dreams of theater, athletics, and writing. I wonder how much less strain and baggage my friendships, family relationships, and marriage would contain if I could actually trust that all of these people loved me for me.

I wonder what is it like to be truly free from this burden, to not wait for the next panic attack, or to not beat yourself up when you say the wrong thing, or to not question if your dearest loved ones are out to get you.

I only catch glimpses of that Promised Land of No-Second-Guesses once in a while, and they are freeing and wonderful.

But to live a whole life like that? I doubt I’ll ever know what that’s like.

It’s hard to accept that the fears you had at age 4 are still the ones you carry in your heart in your late 20s, and maybe even will carry your whole life.

And the only way out I know is through struggle: the daily struggle to keep my thoughts from consuming me, to consciously remind myself that I am loved when I only feel worthy of hate, to battle with my mind on a regular basis.

I struggle, alone and with others on my journey, so I may rest again at the feet of contentment.

And each time, I hope the respite lasts longer than the previous one.

My Second Session with the New Therapist

Office

ChiroAssociates.us

I met with my new therapist for our second session last Wednesday.

During our first session back in December, we covered all of the basics: introductions, symptoms, triggers, an outline of my family dynamics.

It was nothing strenuous or profound. I did not leave with high hopes or a soaring self-esteem, but I did walk out feeling content with how we connected and the hope that we had solid ground from which to build a relationship.

This second session, on the other hand, was the most exhausting one of my life.

It began easily enough. She asked me how my holidays were. They were good.

She asked how I felt overall. I told her I was OK.

She asked if I had experienced any intense episodes. I had.

She asked what happened.

What I wanted to tell her was that my husband Bryce and I had a discussion that went from civilized discourse to mild argument, which caused me to downward spiral into a panic attack that left me in tears, gasping for air, and berating myself for being both a terrible partner to my husband and a pathetic excuse for a woman.

I only got as far as saying an argument took place that resulted in a panic attack.

And then I found myself silent.

She asked about the topic of our discussion-turned-argument. I said I couldn’t remember, and for a moment, I really couldn’t. After all, it had been weeks ago, and sometimes I mercifully wipe my mind blank of the details once a panic has passed.

It didn’t take me long to remember the topic, yet when I did, I did not want to share it with her.

At first, I told myself it was because the topic (a slight difference in political opinion) wasn’t important. Then, I told myself if she knew what happened, she would judge me for being too argumentative. Then I feared she would judge my husband for being too pushy, then judge me for being too submissive, and then I outright feared her having so much power to judge me when I needed help.

For what felt like forever, but was probably more like a minute, I sat in silence, my legs crossed, my hands clasped together, my head down, my shoulders tense, my forehead beginning to sweat.

I couldn’t find the next words to say. I didn’t want to find them, either.

I had met this woman on exactly two occasions, and I already feared her opinion of me to the point that I could not share anything with her, even if it would allow her to help me (which I did not trust her to do).

Going back to the topic of the argument, she suggested that I write down the details of those incidents in the future so we could talk about them more in depth. It was a solid suggestion, yet it took all of the energy I had within me not to run out of the office and never return.

I knew she was a doctor who needed to know how to help me, and I needed to do some work, too.

But I didn’t want her to help me. I wanted her to leave me alone.

I think she sensed my resistance, because she backtracked to the holidays again. I still didn’t want to say much to her, but I was willing to talk about spending time with my family, so I relented and gave her the information.

From the holidays, she asked about me and my mom. From there, she asked about her and my stepdad. From there, she asked about me and my husband. Gently and slowly, she helped me peel back those layers, but only enough to take quick peeks before closing them up again. She knew better than to cut too deep into an already frightened soul.

Finally, miracle of miracles, I told her more about the argument. I explained to her why I felt attacked, the contents of my thoughts, the ensuing exhaustion, and the patterns I noticed. She was able to give me some solid advice in regards to being a good spouse and having a solid sense of self in the midst of those heated moments.

It ended up being a really productive, albeit very stressful, session. I was glad I stuck around, and I was even more grateful she understood how to honor and work with my limits.

The session came to an end. We shook hands, and I walked out of her office still a bit shaken but feeling more solid and secure than I had in weeks.

I even made sure to schedule an appointment for February.

I’m looking forward to getting to know my new therapist more and actually allowing her to get to know me. I’m still afraid of being vulnerable, and that I will never have a bond with this new therapist quite like the one I had with my former. This being said, I need to keep telling myself that’s OK as long as, in my time with this new person, I grow and become more well.

I’m taking baby steps right now, and it’s hope in these little steps that gets me back in her office.

Sometimes, Anxiety Wins

anxietyart

Anxiety by Giuseppe Cristiano

You try to keep it at bay by exercising 30 minutes a day or cutting sugar out of your diet.

You try to keep it under control with deep breathing, yoga, prayer, and spending time with loved ones.

You try to reason with it by finding the cycles, patterns, words and wording, and reminding yourself they are “just thoughts,” even when they feel like the most true statements in the world.

You try to fight it by telling it you’re more than those dark thoughts say you are, by saying you’re beloved despite all of the flaws it hurls at you like jagged stones, and by asking it kindly to shut the hell up.

Sometimes, you win.

The thoughts quiet to a dull roar and gradually subside. Calm returns, and you continue your routine, maybe a bit more weary than you were before but otherwise unscathed.

Other times, you are pummeled.

The stones cut deep, and the blood flows freely. You curl into a fetal position, out of defense and because everything seems to cave in on you. But still, the stones continue to hit, and they hurt something terrible, and when they finally cease, you lay there weary and languid, wondering if you will ever find the strength to rise again.

And as you nurse yourself slowly back to health with tears and fitful sleep, you wonder why nothing worked. You wonder why the medication or the lifestyle changes or the therapy sessions or any combination thereof didn’t fortify the floodgates.

Maybe you’ll even wonder the most paralyzing, frightening thought of all: was it all my fault?

 

You’ve had these experiences countless times before, but even though you’re used to them, each time can feel more unsettling than the last. Even if your recovery time is better than it has been in the past, it still shakes you to your core and leaves you trembling after the dust has settled.

Because, damn it, what did you do wrong? What could you have done better? What could you have done to have a fighting chance, to not be crushed, to stand strong and not lose the battle?

It’s a terrible question, crushing in its despair and isolating in its seeming loneliness.

And yet, most of us with a mental health condition have asked it.

I wish this wasn’t the case, but I have to admit it:

Sometimes, anxiety wins.

This shit happens. It still does and probably, to some extent, always will.

And it’s not because we didn’t try hard enough, or because we didn’t love ourselves enough, or because we didn’t do enough yoga, or because we consumed a teaspoon more of sugar than usual.

It’s because the exercise, medications, diet, and techniques don’t stop the attacks. After all, they are our tools, not our cure. They are our assistants but not our salvation. We carry them to support us in our lifelong diagnosis.

Sometimes, they keep the anxiety at bay. Other times, they fail us.

And that’s OK. And you’re OK.

You’re OK.

I know it can be hard to believe. The sense of hopelessness following an anxiety attack, combined with the cultural expectation that we hold ourselves together at all times, can be crushing.

But the hard days are as inevitable as the good, no matter how high your dosage or how many times you went to the gym or your therapist this month.

And when they happen, whether you stand victorious or lay defeated, you are OK. And you have permission to let go of the expectation that you’re only OK if you “won” the battle.

Because it’s not all about winning. It’s about surviving long enough to feel like we’re thriving again.

You are OK, beloved. You had a hard day, and you are OK.

And I’m glad you’re here.

Mental Health Tips for Activists vs. What I Actually Do

Binge

1. Fast from social media, for minutes, hours, or even days at a time.

What I actually do: Refresh my Facebook and Twitter feeds all day every day, when I get anything resembling a breather or a break at work, or when I’m not stimulated enough by the world around me. You don’t want to miss anything after all, right? What kind of an activist would you be if you missed something BIG?

2. Designate time every day to practice deep breathing and meditation.

What I actually do: Hit snooze an extra ten times in the morning, because focused breathing is too much to ask me to do before 8 AM.

3. Meet with a therapist to process the highs and lows of your activism.

What I actually do: Drag my feet on finding a new therapist, because the new one “won’t be the same” (read, “as good as”) as my former one.

4. Make time to connect with friends and family. Whatever you do, don’t isolate yourself.

What I actually do: Hide in my room and binge-watch Netflix and binge-read Buzzfeed. 

5. Remember, self-care is an act of resistance. If you want to sustain yourself in the fight for justice, you must take care of yourself, and these steps (along with others) can help.

What I actually do: Allow “white guilt” (I’m sustaining an oppressive system and don’t deserve rest) to paralyze both my activism and my efforts and self-care while attempting to tell other people to do for themselves what I won’t do for myself.

Questions My Anxious Self Asks Non-Anxious People

anxious

Agoramedia

What is it like to just relax and not worry that you’re forgetting some huge responsibility and therefore can’t allow yourself to fully enjoy your self-care time?

What is it like be like to hear someone’s story and not immediately use it as a yardstick against which to measure your own quality of life and well-being?

What is it like to understand right away that when someone asks you a question, they do so out of curiosity, not because they’re trying to trip you up or make you feel insecure in your lack of knowledge?

What is it like to hear someone critique you without feeling your complete sense of worth drain away from you?

What is it like to wake up from a weird dream and simply accept it as a dream and not as if it is said deep, terrible things about who you are and how your life is?

What is it like to make a mistake at work and not immediately assume you’re going to get fired because you’re useless and replaceable?

What is it like to look at your partner and just understand that they love you unconditionally instead of assuming they are so annoyed by you that they only reluctantly deal with your garbage?

What is it like to accept that you love this person more than life itself without second-guessing yourself anytime you notice someone attractive or see other people more “lovey-dovey” than the two of you are?

What is it like for your friends to do things without you and not assume they are leaving you out on purpose because they can’t stand you?

What is it like to have questions about life without becoming so fixated on them that you can’t see the world around you?

What is it like to have political conversations without either blowing up on those who disagree with you or shrinking into yourself because you don’t trust that your answers are good enough?

What is it like to be secure in who you are and confident that you are enough?

What is it like to not panic about the state of your bank account every time you hand over your debit card or hit “Complete Purchase” on a screen or pay a bill?

What is it like to not have to worry about when the anxiety is going to come back in ways that will crush you after months of peace?

What is it like to not have almost every single memory touched by anxiety’s constant presence?

What is life without anxiety like?

I still don’t know. I don’t know if I ever will.

So tell me: what’s it like?