Category Archives: Mental Health

Focuses on mental health and recovery from mental illness

On Being Present

Previously published on my Tumblr page, http://a-woman-apart.tumblr.com

I briefly mentioned the book “Presence” by Amy Cuddy in my last blog post. I know that in that one I focused on the fact that I felt bad for “needing” to read a book like this to feel better about myself, but that wasn’t fair because it overlooked all of the great insights in the book. I learned a lot, and actually enjoyed it so much that I finished it off in less than a week.

In the notes that I wrote after I was finished, I summarized presence as “bringing your authentic self to a a situation”. In the first chapter Cuddy describes the struggles she endured after suffering a traumatic brain injury in a car accident, and how afterwards her difficulty with learning undermined her self-confidence. She talks about the times when she was so afraid about presenting her research that she clammed up and wasn’t able to express herself effectively. That is because, she said, that negative emotions like fear and anxiety cause us to become inward focused- we are not longer able to “be present” and really be focused on the ideas or message that we are trying to convey. Instead, we become hyper-focused on our own nervousness and sense of discomfort.

She also shares about how important authenticity is to people who are hiring other people or negotiating various business deals. People who are making decisions on whether to invest in a particular project stated that it was important for them to feel as though the person presenting the project really believed in what they were putting forth. In other words, they needed to show genuine enthusiasm for the idea. They also didn’t like to see people who seemed to be “trying too hard” or were pushy or aggressive. Interestingly enough, they said they didn’t mind if the person was a little nervous because “they’re doing something big, something that matters to them” so it makes sense if they feel a little nervous.

Throughout the rest of the book, Amy Cuddy expresses how we can reclaim our personal power and “bring your boldest self to your biggest challenges”. We can do things like practicing yoga and “power posing”, which is scientifically proven to increase testosterone (the hormone associated with greater risk taking and initiative) and decrease cortisol (the “stress hormone”). Even doing simple things like sitting up straighter and using more open, relaxed posture can increase our sense of confidence and feelings of being grounded. We can also use imagery techniques like picturing ourselves flying or just imagining ourselves performing difficult tasks with pride and enthusiasm before we go out and actually do them.

With this year coming to a close, it is common for people to be considering what kinds of “New Years’ Resolutions” that they will be making. Miss Cuddy explains why this doesn’t actually work too well for us. The goals we set are too lofty and ambitious. For example if we plan to “exercise three days a week” and we aren’t able to fully meet this goal (we only go once or twice) it tends to lead to us abandoning the goal altogether. She says that instead- and she uses herself with running as an example- that we should give ourselves small “nudges”. We should say, “Today, I’ll eat healthy” or “I’ll stretch for 15 minutes”. Those incremental changes can in the end lead to big results, without us feeling like we have resolutions hanging over our heads like a threat.

I’ve noticed that as I’ve been reading the book and trying to implement some of the principles, I’ve been experiencing less depression and more confidence. There’s a chapter in there that’s titled “I Don’t Deserve to Be Here” that goes over “imposter syndrome”. It explains how people in all sorts of careers and fields often have a pervasive feeling that they are “fake”, or that their positions in life have more to do with “luck” than with their own talents. These feelings of “being an imposter” tend to increase- rather than decrease- with every new achievement. I can definitely relate to having these feelings. Even though objectively I’m doing well in school and I’m handling my life well, the sense of “wrongness” persists. I find myself asking myself “what now?” every time that I achieve something good. The better the grade, the more I think that the teacher may have given it to me in error. Knowing that other people are struggling with these emotions- and that they have nothing to do with objective reality- I can reject these feelings and instead begin to celebrate my accomplishments. I can tell myself, “Actually, you do deserve to be here.

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No Regrets?

Previously published on my Tumblr page, http://a-woman-apart.tumblr.com/

I wrote at the end of my last entry that I “have no regrets” about moving away from Christianity, and I realize that that isn’t totally true. I don’t actually feel like I’ve made the wrong choice, but there are some unfortunate things that have come into my life from making this choice.

#1: Isolation

I’ll be the first to say that the sense of alienation is probably mainly caused by me. My family and Christians in my life who know about my situation haven’t tried to push me away, but I’ve found myself feeling somewhat distant from them. The most typical reactions from my Christian friends who’ve found out about my doubts, is to offer to pray for me or just to imply that this is simply something that I’m “going through” and I will come out on the other side with renewed faith and a better relationship with God. There is no denying that there is a certain dismissiveness- and in some cases condescension- in these statements, but I understand that they do not at all come from a place of malice or judgement.

Anyway, despite everyone being relatively welcoming- and as supportive as they can be- I’ve chosen not to attend any more Christian groups and to limit my attendance at Sunday service. This has been really hard, because church has always been a safe, comfortable environment for me to socialize with people. I’ve tried looking into other groups but I haven’t been able to make a lot of progress with my search so far. Trying to find a new social circle to be involved with is really hard, especially for me as a relatively introverted person who has a lot of anxiety about driving to new places.

#2: Self-doubt/anxiety

Even as a I grow more comfortable in my “state of disbelief”, there are still moments when I wonder if I’m really wrong. I wonder if there’s a loving, all-powerful Creator-God of heaven whose kind embrace I am withholding myself from, or if alternatively, there is an omnipotent tyrant in the sky whose wrath I am inciting by my actions. Often the benevolent and fearful God are described as being one and the same, and at any rate, I feel that I must be displeasing Him. In doing so, I am also displeasing his followers- and that includes close members of my family.

At best I feel like a disappointment- at worst I feel that I may be in peril of “gaining the whole world and losing my soul” as Jesus was said to have said. I have to often remind myself that the idea of being cast into a burning lake of fire for eternity on the basis of mere belief or disbelief, is frankly absurd. If there is an afterlife, surely, our lives would be judged on the basis of our actions, and even if our actions were truly reprehensible they could not merit eternal punishment.

In some religions, being a truly horrible person just means that at some point your soul would be destroyed and you would no longer be reincarnated. Even though this is also a permanent punishment, the one punished does not in effect suffer for all eternity- they simply cease to be. That may be frightening as well, but, in the end, it’s all speculation. No one really knows what happens to us after this life- and that means that any number of things could be true, or none of them. Basing my entire life on any one assumption by itself sounds a lot like putting my eggs into one basket.

That being said, even though I’ve reasoned this all out quite neatly, hearing sermons about “losing this life” or even just offhand comments from Christians about hell and eternity can trigger all sorts of low-key nervous feelings in me. Sometimes, even without hearing these statements, the feelings can be triggered indirectly by random flashbacks to messages that have been drilled into my head for years. Even after separating oneself from the religion, one can still feel lingering feelings of guilt, shame, or “wrongness” that don’t seem to have any specific point of origin.

#3: Feeling lost

I used to pray a lot for strength and guidance, and sometimes, I still do. Now, though, I don’t have a very specific idea of who I’m praying to, and what it all means. In the past, praying to God for help with something also meant “putting it in His hands” which meant willfully choosing not to worry or be concerned with it. It meant quoting scriptures that detailed his “promises”, “meditating on the word” and choosing to praise, worship, and trust Him for the desired result. There was a certain element of “spiritual warfare” which included praying together with other people, and speaking out against any thoughts of doubt that might enter my mind.

If that sounds like a lot of work, in some cases it was. The draw of it all was that I felt that someone was listening- I felt that a Higher power was going to intervene on my behalf. Sometimes I felt literally refreshed and felt a sense of inner peace when praying. Even though I would still experience indecision, I used to believe that God was going to “work everything together for good.”

Now, I still believe in a higher power, but I believe that his/her/its role in human life is somewhat limited. I feel that I can seek guidance from this Force, but in the end a lot of the forward motion in my life is left up to me. This is both empowering and sobering. I now believe that I can’t just pray for things to be better, but I have to be the change that I want to see in the world. I believe that the Divine works through frail human lives to bring about good on this earth. I don’t believe that God has any sort of physical form, but rather is the life-giving force that exists in all of us. So in that sense, he/she/it isn’t really a “person” that we can implore to do this or that.

Another thing I now believe is in my own insignificance. I am not better or more deserving than anyone in this world, and being extremely devout isn’t going to stop bad things from happening to me. I also don’t believe that good or bad events are being orchestrated by some Divine Being. God was silent during the massacres in Sudan and Rwanda, the Holocaust, and havoc that occurred from the “Holy Wars” of the medieval times. There were- and are- times when peoples’ faith/religious convictions implored them to help others. Many Christians helped to hide Jews, but on the other hand, after it was over, the Catholic church was hiding Nazis and aiding in their escape. Religion is neither good nor bad, but good or bad people alike use it to justify their actions. What does that really say about it all?

It’s easy to get lost in this world. It’s easy for me to wonder if anything I do in life really matters. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the possibility that this life really is the only one that we have- that there’s no do-overs, that there’s no heaven for the righteous, no hell for the sinners, that we all simply get put in the ground and then we’re either remembered or forgotten. When I think about it like that, I have to ask myself if I’m really living the life that I want to live. It’s easy to wonder- “what are they going to say about me after I’ve died?” What legacy am I going to leave?

Not having any idea about any of it, or any romantic paradigm in which to frame things, is really hard. This is my reality, though, and I have to face it. So yes, there have been some regrets- but there’s no turning back now. I feel like I’ve seen a glimpse at the truth, and I don’t want fairy tales anymore. I’ve had some incredible good fortune in my life, and as great as it would be to think that that was due to my personally assigned guardian angel, I don’t know if I can tell myself that I’m that special.

I’m not special. I’m just me.

Achievement Exhaustion

Previously published on my Tumblr page, http://a-woman-apart.tumblr.com/

I’m going to be reviewing some of the ideas that I explored in my blog post entitled “Just Do It” in which I discussed why raw grit and determination alone aren’t always enough to push you to success. I actually started thinking more about this concept after watching some motivational/inspirational videos on Youtube (I’ve been watching these videos on and off for about a month now).

These videos usually encourage you to look deeper within yourself for the inspiration to push yourself forward. They talk about things such as examining your motives, eliminating time wasters and distractions, crafting clear goals, utilizing systems of reward and punishment, and tracking your progress. I can’t deny that all of this is really good advice, but there’s just one little problem- and that is that sometimes despite doing all the “right” things you just can’t seem to stay on the track that you’ve set for yourself.

For me, the problem is that I used to just be tired. I’m not talking about ordinary levels of exhaustion that can be cured by a good meal and a nice nap. I’m talking about bone-tired, skeleton-stiff, brain-clouding migraine levels of fatigue that won’t go away no matter how much rest you seem to get. Like in another post I quoted the lyrics “Wake Up Exhausted” and that’s exactly what happens- you “just woke up like this.”

This can be a sign of a number of things, but the main message is this- you’re probably doing way too much. The threat of burnout is very real in a number of fields and you have to make sure you are setting appropriate priorities, instead of just trying to do everything all at once.

Let’s say, though, that you aren’t experiencing that type of fatigue, but your whole life is sticking to a strict schedule, always making lists, constantly tracking your goals, staying on a particular diet, etc., and maybe you’re just bored. You may be making progress, but there is absolutely no variation or spontaneity in your routine. You have to make room for play in your life. It seems like an oversimplified suggestion, but you have to remember to actually have fun.

I think this actually goes double for people who are working, studying, or just generally doing this thing called life and dealing with a mental illness. Remembering to take time for yourself doesn’t mean that you’re losing sight of your purpose and your intent. Iyanla Vanzant actually pointed out in her book, entitled, “The Value in the Valley” that your purpose is bigger than just the individual goals that you might set for yourself. There is no specific prescribed method for success. There is still work involved, but you should be able to progress naturally- you should allow your passion to lead you. If some of that is fizzling out, you might want to re-examine what’s going on with you.

When I first decided to drop out of my theory class, I felt so torn. I felt like I was taking the “easy way out”. I believed that I owed it to myself to push myself to the absolute limits of my endurance, and I thought that being under constant pressure was somehow beneficial to my growth as a student and musician. It turns out, that the opposite may be true. Of course, I need to work hard, but having some free tme again has unlocked some of the creativity that was quick disappearing from my work. Another bonus is that I don’t feel achy, fatigued, and “cloudy” all the time. I actually feel like I’m an active participator in my life again.

So everything has its place. A relentless pursuit of achievement may seem good on the surface, but it isn’t always helpful to have tunnel vision. Sure, be focused, be mindful, but remember that there’s “more to life than chasing out every temporary high”. If you see life as just a staircase that you are constantly climbing you might not be aware of the bigger picture. Spend time with your friends, participate in hobbies that you enjoy, and know that you’re valuable as a human being- regardless of what achievements you have unlocked.

Talking a Good Game

Previously published on my Tumblr page, http://a-woman-apart.tumblr.com/

I know that when it comes to writing about spiritual growth on here, I “talk a good talk”. “Walking the walk”, however, is actually the bigger component to actual growth and that’s something that I really struggle with.

To this day, when things don’t seem to be going exactly as I’ve planned them, my default reaction is to panic. When things become difficult, my first impulse is to doubt myself and wonder if I’m really qualified to be doing whatever it is that I’m doing. I also tend to have a stronger impression that things in general are going to culminate in the worst possible outcome for me, instead of considering the possibility of them improving or ending favorably.

I think at the root of this behavior, is the false belief that if I picture the worst possible scenarios that it helps me to prepare for these imaginary disasters. I sometimes tell myself that I’m “just being realistic” and that this is actually the best way to approach things. I know that it isn’t true- I’m just giving into pessimistic attitudes that do not serve me. Also, these attitudes do not line up with the evidence that I’ve been presented with. Most of the times, what I’ve feared has never come to pass. So then, what is the point of being afraid?

I still think that the fear gives me power somehow. I believe that if I flinch before receiving the blows that I expect life to rain on me, that I’m somehow able to make them hurt less. When the blows don’t come, I am left with all of the bodily tension and stress of anticipating and preparing for them. This reaction also becomes an ingrained habit that makes it difficult for me to relax even when I am not being threatened.

I told my friend that I think I know what is the root of this desperate need for “control.” My theory is that it comes from living in a very restrictive household as a child. I had little control over my life’s circumstances, so my reaction has been to try to maintain strict control of my life in other ways. Of course, the idea of “control” is an illusion. We are ultimately responsible for how we handle the things that happen to us in life, but there is so much that happens in life that we do not have any influence over. We can choose to be a careful driver, but we don’t have control over a sudden rainstorm that may pass over and causes the truck in front of us to slide out of its lane and hit us. The best thing we can do is just to make sure we are wearing our seatbelts.

“Wearing your seatbelt” does not amount to living life terrified of accidents or misfortune. It’s more like a mental attitude of choosing to just be prepared for bad things that could happen without constantly dwelling on them. After all, how often do you consciously put on your seatbelt with the thought “I could get thrown out of the car today if I’m hit and I don’t wear this”? Some of us only wears seatbelts because the law says to. Most of us, though, just know that it’s safer, so we put it on out of habit. We’re not ruminating on all the grim possibilities. That’s how I eventually want to feel about preparedness in life; I want to come to a balanced state of mind where I am prepared but I am not afraid.

Obviously it isn’t possible to live a life totally free from fear. As I mentioned in another post, fear can be an important warning sign that something is not right with a certain situation. It is crucial in alerting you to danger. The fear that’s harmful for me personally- and I think for lots of other people as well- is the feeling of suspense or being “on edge” that can easily become a part of daily life. This is also probably a good description of certain clinical anxiety disorders (if you think you might need medicine or therapy to help with your anxiety you should definitely try to find a way to get that help).

In summary, I just want to be able to “practice what I preach” on here a little bit more. I wrote a lot about “The Value in the Valley” and I know that a lot of the principles in the book are at work in my life. Purpose and intent are guiding my actions. I am trying to follow the inward voice of my conscience a little better. I think it’s still the courage that I have trouble with- I have trouble maintaining the belief that everything is going to turn out just the way it’s supposed to, and that even if it isn’t the way that I would’ve chosen, that it’s ultimately for my benefit. My trust in the “process of life” is low.

I want to change that.

The Pathology of Happiness

Previously published on my Tumblr page, http://a-woman-apart.tumblr.com/

As someone who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I am well aware of the highs and lows that are associated with it. I have been so low and depressed that I wanted to do nothing but stay in bed all day, yet often found myself unable to sleep. I have been so “high” that I thought it was a good idea to spend rent money from my dad on a camera and later drive all the way to another state to see my friends (I used my credit card to pay for everything).

Bipolar disorder has been described as a “disease of feelings.” The problem with this is, that we cannot escape feelings- experiencing them is an essential part of the human experience. Depression is rarely soul-crushing immediately. It starts with a persistent inability to enjoy the things you are doing, and then magnifies as you slowly begin to leave off doing those things. In the same way, mania doesn’t start off with you being 100% impulsive or delusional. It begins with hypomania- and one of the symptoms of hypomania is “unusually elevated mood”. All of the sudden the world around looks a few shades brighter, you experience increased energy and focus and you feel like you can accomplish almost anything.

Managing my mood disorder means being highly aware of my feelings and whether or not they’re getting out of hand, and watching out for mania is one of the main things I practice.

Unfortunately, this sometimes results in being suspicious if out of the blue I wake up and I’m feeling better about things than usual. It means wondering if my excitement and enthusiasm when I’m talking about something new could be described as “pressured speech” or if my extra energy could lead to irritation or an angry outburst. It means wondering if when I splurged on that one thing I was moving into the impulsivity that is characteristic of mania.

In other words, I begin to study and look for the “pathology of happiness”- all of the negative things that can be associated with what just feels like “being happy.” Just like I don’t want to get “too sad” I don’t want to become “too happy”; I don’t want to become manic. This is because the mania is what leads to the poor decisions, the destructive behavior, and ultimately the hospitalizations (in my case). A sense of grandiosity is capable of persisting that can lead to a complete loss of touch from reality.

I do wonder sometimes, though, if my fear of mania is putting a damper on my ability to express happiness and joy. I’ve been hospital-free for almost five years, but I still look back on that dark time in my life and seek to make sure never to return. Even when I know I’m doing all of the right things- getting sleep at night, taking my medication daily, and sticking to a routine- I still feel afraid that my emotions are going to get “out of control.” If I feel under the weather, immediately my mind goes to the worst possible outcome, of me eventually being unable to get out of bed and go to work and therefore getting evicted. Or if I’m happy and having a good time, I wonder if I’m becoming “too excited” and may launch into regrettable behavior.

It is possible that my concerns are being exacerbated because this is traditionally the time of the year that I’ve been hospitalized, but I know that these concerns are always a low-grade hum in my mind at all times. I am always thinking at some lower level of consciousness, “don’t let your feelings get out of hand.”

The good part of this story is that I am not without support. I have my best friend, who, if I did start to launch into something that was abnormal, would notice immediately. I am still under the observation of case workers, even though it’s been years since I’ve had an episode. This was because the frequency and severity of my episodes- the last of which was a schizophrenic one that got my diagnosis changed to schizoaffective (bipolar type). Also, my last hospital stay was three months, which is a pretty long time.

I’m very grateful and happy that I’ve been episode-free for so long. I think I have relaxed from the level of worry I was at early into my recovery, so it’s possible that this low-level vigilance is something that I’ll have to experience for the rest of my life. I feel like I will never be in a position where I will feel fully comfortable, or fully confident that I will never again experience the devastating effects of mental illness. In my case, I don’t believe I will ever be “cured”. Instead, it will be something that I always manage and live with.

“Just Do It”

Previously published on my Tumblr page, http://a-woman-apart.tumblr.com/

I’ve been thinking a lot about a specific concept with regards to the idea that when it comes to changing aspects of our lives, that we should “just do it.” I usually find myself thinking about this when there’s some news story about someone overcoming struggles through what seems to be raw grit and determination. I think of the man who walked miles to Wal-Mart every time he wanted a meal and lost like 500 lbs; or, the man who walked 3000 miles across the country and lost like 300 lbs. and gained a new perspective on life. I think of people- like Taraji P. Henson- who’ve moved to new places with barely any money so that they could pursue their dreams.

These are inspiring stories, and they usually get me to thinking “Could I really do something like that?” I look at some of my habits- eating habits, spending habits, etc.- and I am well aware that there are things that I would like to change. Ideally I would lose weight, save money for travel, exercise more, explore new hobbies and talents, and so on. When I look at my life, I ask myself “What’s stopping me?”

In a way, it’s fortunate that I turned this criticism inward, because before I did it was very easy to just look at other people and say “Well why don’t they just do x, y, and z and work towards changing their lives?” and then when I look at my own life I see that I could ask myself the same kinds of questions.

The truth is, that I don’t exist in someone else’s reality- I don’t live their Truth. It’s possible to be so beaten down by life, or just by the chemicals being imbalanced in our brains, that forward motion seems like it is almost impossible. Even though it’s true that every big goal- like losing weight can be broken down into a series of smaller goals- daily exercise, dietary changes- it can be incredibly difficult to stay on track.

When it comes to money-related goals, poverty is very consuming and cyclical. You can put away small amounts of money in savings and gradually build it up- but it isn’t uncommon for one small emergency to wipe you out and force you to start from scratch. If you don’t have money to pay your bills, you are punished with yet more bills in the form of late fees and overdraft charges. If you borrow money to cover your costs, you then have to worry about paying back interest.

I think if it was easy for people to “just do it” then they would- but for a lot of us it isn’t that easy. Sometimes it’s mainly fear that is holding us back, and other times it’s circumstances that are outside of our control.

When it comes to change being facilitated in my life, I’ve noticed that there are usually two catalysts- outside circumstances and inward motivation. For a lot of the bigger changes that occurred in my life I have needed an outside push. The first of those came when my dad moved me out of his home into the recovery residence. I needed the change of circumstances, but I wouldn’t have been able to make it out on my own. I was stuck. The second came when I needed to move out of the recovery residence into my own apartment- I had really stayed longer than I needed to and I wasn’t exactly “in recovery” but if I hadn’t been given a deadline I might still be there today.

Looking back, though, there have been times when inward motivation- the kind of “just do it”ness has been influential in moving me forward. I used this when I started going to college. I applied for financial aid right after I turned 24, and starting going to classes with almost no encouragement from anyone else (while waiting for financial aid I had to pay for classes out of pocket). I was in developmental courses for about a year (and I also had to take a summer of computer literacy) and then moved on to my music courses. I slowly stacked more and more on my schedule. I’ll be taking 11-13 credit hrs in the Fall.

In a book I like to read called “Boundaries” (by Dr. Henry Cloud), he reminds us that boundaries are not built in a vacuum. This includes the boundaries that we make with ourselves. The truth is that even though we may be able to get through on grit and determination alone, a lot of the times that isn’t the case. I’ve needed people in my life to challenge me- even people that were only appearing in my life for that very limited space of time. They’ve come in the form of parents, teachers, and even the head of the recovery residence. Different caseworkers and therapists have also been important for me in reaching my goals.

If I’m not able to be the person that I want to be, it may be that I require a little bit of assistance. There’s nothing weak or shameful about needing help. Sometimes it is as simple as just breaking down big goals into smaller ones, listing out what I need to do, gritting my teeth and doing it. I may have to do things by myself if there are only a few- or not any- people rooting for me. Other times I will have the help and support of other people and it will be the missing link for me in attaining success. Either way it will require a lot of hard work and I’ll have to dig deep for the strength I need.

I haven’t reached all my goals yet, but I won’t give up. I’m also aware that once I reach the goals that I have, there will just be new goals to take the place of the old ones. So in that sense, I’ll never ever “arrive” at any place- I’ll just keep moving.

The Past

Previously published on my Tumblr page, http://a-woman-apart.tumblr.com/

My mom asked me what I do with all of my free time before work now that I’m not in class, and I rattled off a list of [legitimate] things, like running errands and meeting with my caseworker. I wasn’t being dishonest, but the truth is that I do spend an awful lot of my “free time” that isn’t occupied by other things here on Tumblr. 76% of the time I don’t find anything particularly thought-provoking, but on occasion I do find something that has me wanting to think- and I spend a lot of time just thinking about things.

I’ve written about my childhood on here frequently, and it is to be remembered that even the worst of childhoods has some happy moments in it. In a couple of my posts I held a really optimistic, sunny view of things- reminiscing to times of playing outside with my younger brothers. I can also remember how I would read stories to my younger sisters. Also, my youngest sister would just sit on my bed when I was lying around and we’d talk about things, like anime and just silly stuff.

There’s never only one side to things. Actually, because of life experience and being able to see life outside the religious lens, I think that I’ve actually broadened my perspective quite a bit. I no longer have to be self-deprecating when I attempt to cite the ways that being raised hyperreligiously has damaged me. I no longer have to be angry and sad and not really understand why. I no longer have to be at the mercy of a mental illness that created so much distance between me and my loved ones; my mental illness was always there, even in the happy times- and if I “surrendered to God” it was supposed to cure it- but now it no longer has the hold on me that it used to.

At the same time, I can look at the past with more than just contempt. I could just go ahead and say, “If I didn’t go through X I wouldn’t be the person that I am today” but I think that’s just a way of sugar-coating tragedy. It’s true that I wouldn’t be the person I am today- I might be a person with more self-confidence, stronger friendships, and healthier relationships (you never know). I can embrace the past objectively and in a healthy way, without “painting it black” or “sugar-coating” it. It wasn’t all bad, but it wasn’t “great” either and that’s perfectly all right.

I think there’s a saying, “I may not be where I wanna be, but I’m right where I’m supposed to be” and I think I can just apply that saying here- even though it might spawn its own set of questions as to whether or not “fate”, “destiny”, “synchronicities”, or “serendipity” are actually valid parts of our experience of life on earth. The idea that I’m “supposed” to be at a certain place or “supposed” to do a certain thing, that I have a “calling” and all of that can be equal parts romantic and equal parts horrifying, depending on whether or not we’ve “missed out on our calling” or not.

For now, I think I will go with the idealistic notion that my past and current suffering are part of a grander purpose- the betterment of myself and others. I will do this without pretending that God, the Fates, or some other force “simply knows best” and is directing my life accordingly. I am starting to believe that I have more freedom and agency in how my life turns out than I could’ve believed possible before- taking into consideration time, chance, “luck” and privilege, of course.

I now believe that I am in control of me- that it’s up to me how to view the past and how best to apply that knowledge to how I live my life. The past doesn’t have to control me, even though it’s undeniably a part of who I am.

It really is possible to rise above your circumstances. I’m doing it every day.

Recovering From Hyperreligiosity

Previously published on my Tumblr page, http://a-woman-apart.tumblr.com/

It’s been years since I’ve been more or less “free” from the hyperreligious environment that I was raised in, but the residual effects of having been raised in that environment are a part of me still. Also, even if my childhood hadn’t been as abusive and isolating as it had been, I would still face an internal- and probably external, as well- struggle now that I no longer consider myself a part of the religion of my childhood.

Here are some of the things that I’ve experienced since leaving the religion.

#1: A sense of isolation/separateness from other people

This was unfortunately a big part of my life growing up as well (when I still considered myself to be a Christian). I was homeschooled, and while homeschooling does not have to be isolating at all, it was extremely so in my case- and I think it was/is even worst for my younger siblings.

My dad would often tell us that we were “set apart” by God, that sanctification met “separateness”. He would say that Abraham was called out by God to leave his family and kin, and so we were called out as well. He said that if God saved eight people in the day of Noah, that we were not too few to be set apart and saved.

I only saw this in hindsight- but he would often try to undermine my friendships, and my mom’s friendships/relationships with her family. If I acted out, he would say “You’re spending too much time around X”. He told me that he once unplugged the phone when my mom was on the phone with her sister- because he felt like “they were talking too long” and acted like he was the victim because she told him off for it.

People that grew up in healthier religious families often don’t understand my distrust, and feelings that my dad ran a cult. They’re like “your dad loves you” and I know, of course he loves me, but that doesn’t excuse or justify the things that he’s done in the name of love (including threatening physical violence). So now even though I do still feel close to the Christian religion in some ways, I often feel like when I go to church or religious groups that I can’t totally identify or fit in anymore, and the old feeling of otherness and separateness creeps in again.

2#: Confusion and Indecision

Since my whole worth used to be wrapped into what I believed about God- and I no longer espouse those beliefs anymore- there is an underlying uncertainty about everything that I do (I recently reblogged a post about this). Sometimes I would just feel really insecure and unsure of myself and have no idea why (investigation revealed that these were old feelings of guilt left partially by the old religion).

Now that I’ve left the Christian faith, those old ideas about “belonging to God” and “offering yourself as a living sacrifice” have been abandoned, but it is easy for me to forget that I actually have a right to say no to things, that I have a right to decline something if it makes me feel uncomfortable, etc. Some of it just isn’t the religion- it’s from the way I was raised in general. My dad commanded absolute authority as the God-appointed “head of the household”, and whatever he “heard” from God was to be followed without question.

Now I know that other people don’t get to decide what’s right for me- I do and I am perfectly qualified.

3#: Feeling Unqualified/Unworthy

This is very much related to the feelings of #2. A lot of the “confusion and indecision” comes from feeling like I am not “qualified” or “worthy” of making my own decisions- especially since I am a woman. Biblically speaking, a woman is supposed to submit firstly to her father (if she is unmarried) and later to the man she was going to marry. I can’t count how many times my dad would suggest a course of action for me because it would “work well when you’re married with children”.

He already had my future mapped out- with little to no input from me. To this day, any time I talk about things that I want to do, my dad will always correct me and tell me “if GOD wants this thing for you, don’t turn it down” or “it makes me sad that you talk about what YOU want but you don’t include GOD” and on and on.

Really, God has absolutely nothing to do with it- because this is coming from the man who said, “You all better be careful to listen to me, because you never know when I’m talking and when God is the one talking through me” and going on about his “righteous anger” and all that crap.

Honestly, I am so sick of it. I’m sick of the fact that I’m the one who has to be in recovery for this- that I’m the one who does so much work, who is always so accommodating, who is always concerned about stepping on toes or making other people feel uncomfortable that I’ve lived in a fog for years, struggling to wrestle my very life from the grasp of “fate” and “destiny” and “what you’re supposed to do” and “what God wants for you” and “what the Bible says.”

This was supposed to end like all my other blog posts- neat, logical, looking at all the angles but I think it’s time that I let myself be angry for what happened to me, for what is happening to my siblings, that I no longer confuse “intentions” with “reality” because-

You judge yourself by your intentions. They judge you by your actions. -Unknown

It doesn’t actually matter whether it was intended to be harmful or not- they did hurt me, and if I let them, they would still be ruining my life today.

Syrup is still syrup in a sippy cup. -Melanie Martinez “Sippy Cup”

Guilt

Previously published on my Tumblr page, http://a-woman-apart.tumblr.com/

I think I’ve addressed guilt in a lot of my articles, here, going deep into its roots in gender inequality and religion (with the two roots sometimes intersecting). If you feel that you are inherently sinful, but bought and “saved” from the fires of hell by the bloody death of your Savior, you may feel obligated to do everything you can to pay Him back for His worthy sacrifice. When you fail to achieve perfection- as you inevitably must- you may be wracked with guilt and continue to feel “dirty” no matter how much you try to cleanse your soul with repentance.

Your level of guilt is likely to be higher if you’re a woman- and higher still if you’re a Fundamentally religious woman. Fundamentalist adherents of the world’s three main religions encourage guilt in women in many ways- these are just a few.

Fundamental Christianity: The woman is the “weaker vessel” and must “submit to the authority of the man.” She must be chaste and reverent  (“She who lives in pleasure is dead while she lives”). She must keep her head covered, be silent in the church, and “not exert authority over a man.” It is her duty to “bear children and guide the house”.

Fundamental Islam: It takes the testimony of two women to equal that of a single man. Women are to cover their hair and bodies as not to prove as a temptation for their male counterparts. A woman can inherit only a fraction from a dead relative of what her male siblings/relatives can inherit. Fathers and brothers are mandated with “maintaining the purity” of their daughters/sisters.

Orthodox Judaism: Women who are on their periods are considered “unclean” and have to be housed in separate housing during the “days of their impurity.” Women are also considered as “unclean” following childbirth, and the length of time that they remain unclean is longer if they give birth to a female child than it is for if they give birth to a male child.

Of course, teachings of the world’s three great religions are harsh towards men in many ways as well (think male circumcision), but it’s easy to see how women might feel “less than” as a result of some of the teaching of the more “orthodox” brands of the three main religions. It is also noteworthy that even in areas where people do not adhere to these strict interpretations of the teaching, the effects of these beliefs being held so long still trickle down into modern society.

1) Women are still invalidated/“defeminized” if they cannot- or choose not to- give birth to children

2) Women are taught to marry before a certain age or “be an old maid” or
“spinster” whereas men are taught to pursue their careers and social development

3) The natural process of women’s menstruation is still thought by many to be “disgusting”

4) If a woman is strong-willed she’s considered “bossy” or a “man-eater/hater” whereas men who are strong-willed are seen as “confident” and “commanding”

5) Terms like “feminazi” are still used against women who stand up for gender equality

6) You can be an “old cat lady” but there’s no equivalent term for men

7) We have “purity balls” for daughters and fathers, with no corresponding event for parents and their sons

8) Women are still held responsible if they are sexually assaulted by someone i.e., What were you wearing? Had you been drinking? Did you really tell them no? Is this your partner? Did you lead them on?

9) Promiscuous women are “sluts”, promiscuous men are “players”

I really could go on and on with this list, but I think I’ve made my point. So really, on top of being saddled on with the religious guilt of being a “sinner” I am also saddled with the cultural guilt of being a “woman.”

So when I feel guilty about overeating, oversleeping, overworking, or underworking, some of it has to do with what I have or haven’t done- but more of it has to do with what I am. A huge part of it is thinking that if I make myself feel bad about not doing something, that I can go ahead and not do the thing- as long as I keep on feeling bad. It’s about a fear of letting go- a fear of speaking up and saying “I’m tired, not now” or “I would rather work on something else” or “I would rather not go tonight”. I’ve become so accustomed to being told how I should live, who I should be, and what I should do that I have forgotten there is a key operative word here-

No.

No, I don’t want to. No, I don’t have time. No, and I won’t feel guilty.

I used to think that guilt was a good motivator for doing things. Like, if I could make myself feel just bad enough, I would be able to fit into the mold of what other people wanted me to be. I could finally do something for my dad for once, and have him be impressed and happy with me. I could finally “pay him back” for not living life according to his desires and principles, if I could just compromise with this one thing.

The problem is that it’s never just one thing- if it’s not one thing, it’s another.

Like, right now I’m doing a job for him, and he’s given me neither a time limit or a deadline, but him supporting me financially in order for me to live in the apartment is contingent on this one thing. I had been working on the project faithfully, then I had to take another month off due to summer classes getting really intense. I’ve reached a snag in my working on the project though- for the life of me I cannot figure out how to fix this one issue.

So I started to get frustrated. I started to think about how his financial assistance had helped- the money which is probably so little to him- and made such a difference for me- and previous projects that he had financed and that I had been unable to complete. I started to think about how I had much more time now, and i should be able to figure out this one problem.

I started to feel guilty.

So I had to take some time off, to think and really pray about it. To come to the realization that it wasn’t about the project- I could do it, even if it would take more time- but rather that I was holding myself to some ridiculous standard, a standard that my dad didn’t even hold me to- and a standard I certainly didn’t hold him up to.

Even if he was going to complain about all the times he’d funded me and I’d failed, I would never bring up all the times that he didn’t fund me- when I did what my heart was calling for- and I succeeded. This wasn’t about me failing or not failing. My dad even admitted that really the project was for me, that I would need the skills from this project to succeed when I inevitably failed at my music career. So essentially, this whole project is based on the assumption that I am going to fail at what I’m really passionate about doing. Is there any wonder that my heart isn’t totally in it?

So yes, I feel guilty. Though the more I look at things, the more I see that guilt is counterproductive to motivation. After it’s robbed you of your joy and peace of mind, it also stops you from doing the very thing that you think would bring that joy back- and that’s move you closer towards your goals. Guilt is an emotion that sweeps the rug out from under you, and then blames you for falling.

I may fall, but I’m definitely rising up again. I won’t be ashamed of being tired, I won’t be ashamed for putting something off, I won’t be ashamed for “not being good enough.” The fact that I want to do well and am with all my power working towards that makes me good enough.

I won’t ever allow guilt to permanently derail me from reaching my destiny.

That being said, I don’t think my guilt issues can really be dealt with by logic alone- or even adding to that encouragement from friends. I was able to deal with a lot of my issues in therapy but had to discontinue when I phased up into a different mental health program at the clinic. I think I am prepared to seek out a therapist again- I’m pretty sure there is someone who is covered by my health care.

There’s Gotta Be More to Life (and I think I’ve found it)

Previously published on my Tumblr page, http://a-woman-apart.tumblr.com/

All through my teenage years I lamented the daily events of life. I hated waking up- especially late- but I stayed up so late every night that it was almost inevitable. I was homeschooled, but hated that too and could never concentrate on my studies. I was emotionally out of control.

My parents always told me that things wouldn’t stay the same forever. They knew that I felt “trapped in four walls” but they tried to encourage me. I vacillated between having grandiose schemes for things and being wracked with hopelessness. Even when things were going well, i was always waiting for the inevitable return to mediocrity. On my worst days, I would watch the clock tick down and just pray for nightfall. When nightfall finally came and I was in bed, I would toss and turn restlessly, both dreading and wishing for morning. I was dissatisfied in the very truest sense of the word.

Those hormonal, bipolar days are now far behind me. The hopelessness is gone, but a lot of the restlessness remains. I notice how strangely time seems to pass, with the seasons seeming to change overnight and days blurring together like the landscape on a train ride. Sometimes I look around and wonder just how I got here. I know it was through a series of choices, some seemingly insignificant at the time. Applying for financial aid, enrolling in a class, showing up, studying, going to work everyday, a little exercise here and there, maybe cooking today instead of eating fast food. If you take each day of work done and compare it to the whole, it doesn’t seem very significant, but when you add everything together, you have years and years of acquiring knowledge, building relationships, and self-discovery. Every action taken today brings you closer to some point in the future. You may not be at the place where you envisioned- in fact, you may be some place better.

So yes, there’s more to life than “chasing down every temporary high” because those highs that seem temporary could be a part of a greater picture of overall growth. We are told to “never underestimate small beginnings”. As for the lows, those are important too- they force us to look at ourselves, reflect on our actions, and make important changes. We often don’t work on fixing things until they actually break down, and after they break down we learn how to take better care of them so they’ll hold up a little better in the future.

In the end I see that my parents were right. Absolutely nothing is permanent. This also means that nothing is really guaranteed, either. We could do everything we can to maintain our health and security and still be faced with a terrible crisis in the future. Alternatively, we could be in the midst of a terrible crisis and a sudden solution arises. In my experience, things are a little less sudden and a little more gradual than that, but the bottom line is that “change gon’ come”.

So what is the meaning of life? I think it has a lot more to do with “rolling with the punches” than it has to do with arriving at some sort of set plateau of knowledge and understanding. The meaning of life is doing what you love, and sticking to it through the highs and the lows. It’s about being flexible, but not flaky. It’s about having principles and standing by them. It’s about loving other people and being loved in return. It’s about “knowing myself even as I am known.” It’s about discovering so much but always knowing there’s more to be discovered.

I realized that part of the reason that I’ve been so happy lately- despite the exhaustion- is that I am really doing something that I love. Studying music really brings me joy. I couldn’t see the point of all the drills and exercises that we were doing before, but now when I dream I see notes dancing around sometimes. I still can’t quite “hear what I see, see what I hear” but now this musical language is really starting to take hold for me. So no matter how hard it is, no matter how much I may struggle, despite migraines and staying up late with the homework swimming before my eyes, I know I’m doing the right thing. That’s so important. The point isn’t having an easy life, it’s overcoming challenges and feeling like my struggle serves a purpose.

There’s a video on the Youtube channel “Vsauce” about boredom. The host goes into talking about how when boredom often coincides with moments of great creativity. It requires us to think deeply about things and innovate to alleviate the boredom. Also, he showed evidence from a scientific experiment that people whose brains were deprived of stimulation (sight, smell, taste, sound) began to display hallucinations to make up for the lack of stimulation. We weren’t meant to do the same lifeless, boring stuff over and over again.

There’s a proverb in the Bible that’s as follows;

“Hope deferred makes the heart sick; but when the desire comes it is a tree of life.” -Proverbs 13:12

I think my heart was “sick” for many years and now I’m starting to come into my own life: my own religion, my own career, my own education, my own friendships.

I used to wonder for the longest time if some of my bad habits were from an addictive personality. Now, as I look back, I can see that each habit serves as a crutch for aid with one problem or another.

For example, at one point I was very “addicted” to caffeine. I would drink coffee in the morning and then have sodas in the afternoon to stay functional. Then I wouldn’t be able to sleep well because of drinking caffeine so late, and the cycle would repeat over again. When I finally got put on the right sleeping medication, I slept like a baby and started to forego even my morning caffeine. Problem = solved.

Before, I spent so much time on the internet as a teenager that I fell behind in school. I’m in college and concentrating just fine now, and that all happened when I began to get treatment for my mental illness. Problem = solved.

Now I guess my main thing is overeating, which I’m pretty sure is a combination of hormones, the side effects of sleep medication, and stress. If I can somehow regulate those things, I’m pretty sure that that problem will too go away. Also if I feel better, I’ll incorporate exercise into my day better. In the mean time, my “self control quota” is being fully utilized in just my day to day existence as an employee and a student. Does this make me a bad person? No. It just means that I only have so many spoons and they’re otherwise occupied.

So what have these things taught me? For one, I need to experiment with positive reinforcement. Shaming and guilting myself for my shortcomings has never resulted in my improvement. Maybe saying things like, “I deserve to feed my body healthy things” or “Let me exercise and get my blood flowing” and things like that work better than, “You pig” or “You’re eating so fast, you slob” and other things. Maybe I need to work on the issue itself and think of the “bad behavior” as more of a symptom. Once I get my anxiety under control, I’m sure I’ll be healthier overall.

Thinking like this, is just another of the ways that I feel like I’ve improved. I used to use caustic, critical self-talk at all times. Somehow, now, due to medication and to lifestyle changes my brain is calm enough to where I can actually reason with myself- my quality of life has improved. Life is about turning “oh no, it’s ruined!” into “how can we fix this?”

Trust me, life gets better- it really does.

it’s really cheesy, but whenever I get overwhelmed I think of these lines from Paramore’s “Careful”;

You can’t be too careful anymore / When all that is waiting for you / Won’t come any closer / You’ve got to reach out a little more

Just keep reaching.