Art Therapy Season

I keep romanticizing about how great it would be to be an artist, a real artist. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to draw something that actually looked like the thing you wanted it to look like or paint a fantasy landscape of silver, violet, and green? When I wake in the mornings I often wish I could paint my dreams or sculpt a lion with a giant mane out of clay. Wouldn’t it be fantastic to be able to chisel a unicorn out of stone or carve a sparrow out of wood? I know people who can do these things and I confess I feel a tinge of jealousy toward them.

As it is I can barely sketch even the basic shape of a cat or a fish. And even then I can’t seem to master shading or a three-dimensional appearance. When I draw, I still draw like a child. Side-by-side my sketches look not much different than those I drew as a 10 or 11-year-old. Suffice it to say, I’ve no chance at a career in the visual arts. But that doesn’t mean I don’t try only it’s not for money or recognition. No, I create to maintain my sanity.

This week I pulled out the photographs I’d had professionally printed last year and thought of what I could do with them. I’m not so naïve as to think I could actually sell any of them. After all, the scenes were composed on instinct and I was rarely conscious of the “rule of thirds” or any other such compositional standard professionals insist are what make a photograph objectively “good.” I just took pictures because they felt right. And here is where I show my lack of skill as a writer as well. You see, I never seem to have the words for why I feel compelled to photograph a particular thing either. I just do.

For me, photography is therapy. When I take a picture, I’m focusing on what’s around me, not what’s inside me. Most of the time it’s hard to shut off my internal monologue, but the camera helps me forget about me and I need that.

Photography therapy is a kind of art therapy and art therapy was a main staple at most of the psych units I had the luxury of staying in. Usually there weren’t any instructions or strict guidelines imposed on us either. We were just taken to a room full of crayons, markers, paints, glue, paper, glitter, and other safe, creative tools and, under supervision, we could do as we pleased.

Since I was inept at drawing or painting, I tended to dabble in collage. There were almost always old magazines to rip apart and be expressive with. And so that’s what I did. I searched for words and images I could express myself with as well as something I could look at when I returned to my room and to remind me of all the reasons I had yet to live; all my dreams still left unfulfilled. 

I loved collaging so much in the hospital that I started to do it at home. Again, nothing of value to anyone but me. But the mere act of ripping magazines apart and trying to find new ways to lay out images is soothing to me. Today I (mostly) finished the one pictured here: a combination of a photo I took last year on Hollywood Blvd. and a bunch of old ticket stubs from the cinema. When it’s completely finished, I’ll hang it on my wall. I’m happy with my work, but I’m not convinced the world would be.

My dad, who happens to be my mom’s primary caregiver while she recovers from knee replacement surgery, has been out of town since last Wednesday on a week-long trip with his fellow MIT alumni to New Mexico, visiting (from what I gather) missile museums, radio telescopes (like the ones in the final scene of the 1997 film Contact), listening to lectures, and other stuff that none of the rest of us in this house would be even remotely enthusiastic about. He’d planned the trip around the original date Mom was scheduled for surgery and when the surgery had to be postponed, he kept his plans and it’s not been too bad. I mean, my sister’s here. Also, Mom’s been in recovery for about three weeks so she’s already doing quite a lot on her own. But she still can’t be left alone. She still needs help with the dog. She needs someone to drive her to her appointments. She needs help picking things up, carrying things, etc. In other words, whatever I do on my own time, it can’t be anything that would require a lot of uninterrupted time to complete. This includes novel-writing. 

So what have I been focusing on? Art therapy. And, as an extra bonus, Mom spends a great deal of he time in the living room where my craft table is so I can work and still be right there when she needs me.

As far as exercise, eating right – it’s all somehow happening, although my morning walks have turned into evening or nighttime walks. I imagine that will reverse very soon. The season of Hell is quickly coming and that’s when the walks will have to start at sunrise or earlier. I suppose that it’s all just as well that I don’t have a “real” job with all that life’s thrown at me lately.

Acts of Rebellion

I was never a rebellious teenager and when I hear the stories of those who were, I kind of wonder if maybe I missed out on something.

It was rebellion enough I suppose to have a temper that flared at home but I still somehow keep at bay everywhere else I went. I had that goody-two-shoes act down so well I even managed to fool myself sometimes. Peers thought I was near perfect and were shocked when I told them about how I struggled with Algebra 2 and Geometry so that I had to repeat them in summer school. They found it hard to believe that I couldn’t even make it through a semester of physics or trigonometry. At the university level, I was a C student in my favorite subject: French. Ironically, my French friends studying in the U.S. (where English was their second language) were getting invites to the honors society. But I’m getting sidetracked, right?

My rebellion didn’t come when I was in high school. Instead it came when I left home and it wasn’t a rebellion just for the sake of rebelling. It was a shift in how I thought; it giving doubt the permission to freely infiltrate my faith; it was giving myself free license to do things my parents would never approve of. In fact, there was a time when I felt a lot of anger toward my parents, blaming them for many of my problems with adapting to the world. Thankfully I recovered from that phase although there are quite a few things my parents and I don’t see eye to eye on still. But I assure you, it is possible to love someone with whom you disagree.

Now I’m living with my parents again and the years have flown by so quickly that it hardly feels like I’ve actually been here very long at all. I remember how fiercely I lobbied my social workers at the hospital to help me find a place to live that wasn’t my parents’ place. But it was no use. The best I could do was postpone the inevitable for a month or so. Eventually I had to accept defeat and return home in a shroud of shame.

My older sister had moved back long before me only she didn’t seem to feel any shame over it. In fact, she talked about her future with confidence. Even now, at age 40, while still living with Mom and Dad, she continues speak confidently about her future (although her plans have changed a few times over the years with little to no acknowledgement of the conflicting plans she spoke of before).

I wonder if I’ve fallen into a trap. How is it that the life I tried so hard to run from in the past still managed to catch up with me?

My faith eventually returned but not as it was before. I don’t belong to a church but I have a strong sense that I should be doing more for those in need. I just can’t figure out what. And let’s face it, even if I had the money, I’d want to do more than just donate to such-and-such charity. I’d want to get my hands dirty. I want to talk with people, hear their stories, be part of a community. That, of course, is not beyond the realm of possibility. But sometimes my heart breaks when I do talk with someone in need and I have to tell them in all honesty that I have nothing more to give than my presence and my time. Then sometimes they’ll look at me as if I’m wasting their time. I mean, obviously I have a home and plenty to eat. Clearly that’s a sign that I have money, right? I do, I suppose. But it’s not my money. I can’t do with it as I please.

I told my mom today that if this were my house and not theirs, I’d have people sleeping on the couch all the time. I’d take in refugees and homeless folk if I could. But maybe it’s best I can’t. I’d probably take in too many or mistake helping them with enabling them. I’d probably become co-dependent. My own mental illness would prevent me from being present all the time for theirs. I’d become discouraged and lose heart.

I wonder then if an act of rebellion in my household now would be to break free from the vicious cycle I’m stuck in. When I argue with family members these days, it’s often about politics or theology. Am I still a Christian if I don’t believe homosexuality is a sin? Can I still be a Christian if I don’t believe in a literal hell? Can I still be a Christian if I didn’t vote for Trump? Can I still be a Christian if I’m a pacifist? For many of us the answer is a qualified yes. But it is difficult to live in a household where I am the only one who holds these beliefs to be true.

I’m not at all skilled with arguing my side either. I know why I believe what I do and I’ve read and heard enough evidence for me to feel confident in those beliefs. But too often my emotions cloud my thoughts and weaken my testimony. I can’t argue with them, but I can still love them.

To be fair, there is much encouragement in my home when it comes to professional, academic, creative, and healthy pursuits. I managed to fit in about three walks last week. This week walking at least that much should be easy to achieve too, provided I go in the evening as I did today. Here in Arizona I know the nice weather won’t last much longer but I’ll take it while I can.

Don’t Look At Me Like That!

I’m starting over.

Last week was an utter and complete failure in terms of my quest to be healthier. Granted there were a couple of barriers that were beyond my control. I mean, the common cold swept through my house, hitting three-fourths of us. My mom was, thankfully, the only one to escape it. She had knee replacement surgery scheduled for last Tuesday and it’d already been rescheduled from several months ago when Mom fell and broke her arm (an injury that required its own surgery) and had to cancel the first appointment. I was able to join my dad in visiting Mom right after the operation, but I had wear a mask over my nose and mouth to keep my germs from spreading. The rest of the week I stayed home, not just for my sake but so as not to spread the virus any further.

The common cold might be a reasonable excuse for staying home and not exercising, but is it a legitimate reason to relapse in diet? I mean, did I really need fried food more than twice in the span of four days? Was it wrong to indulge a tasty, sugar-filled soda twice? How did I rationalize it at the time? I can’t remember. Did I say something like, “Well, it can’t hurt if I only do it now and then.” or “Who cares if I die young? If I can’t enjoy what I eat, what’s the point in living?” At least that’s what I used to tell myself before when I’d stopped caring.

Of course, when I screw up one goal, I start to think about how I’ve screwed up in other aspects of my life as well: education, work, relationships, etc. A week before yesterday, I took part in a free webinar. Hosted by Mike McHargue (a.k.a. “Science Mike”) it was kind of experimental and the subject was Making Your Mark. And so I listened and took notes and he posed a couple of questions for all of us wanna-be-world-changers. He asked: “What do you do best in the world?” and “What do you care about more than anything else?” And though my mind has taken these questions quite out of context this week, I was pleased when he specifically addressed those of us with more than one passion. I remember he advised us to take a close look at the many things we’re passionate about and search for a common thread.

The quest to identify the common thread in my interests has consumed my thoughts ever since, though I used being sick as an excuse to put off doing any serious inquiries (trust me, it’s a daunting task spanning over twenty years of archived, personal writings, and that’s just the start). Judging by my inner monologues at least, the common thread is me. I’m always studying myself, analyzing myself, wondering why I think, act, and look the way I do, unintentionally comparing myself to others and society, trying to figure out how they see me so I can convince them to accept me as one of them; so I can show them that, despite all my imperfections, I’m worthy of love; so I can ease my fear of growing old alone.

But of course, I can’t do that.

Someone once recommended I see the film Welcome to Me because the protagonist, she said, reminded her a bit of me. I watched it and enjoyed it for many reasons but in no way would I’d acknowledge that Kristen Wiig’s character and I were much alike. I mean, this fictional woman not only wanted everything to be about her but she did so at the expense of other people in the her life. It didn’t occur to her to think of how her actions could affect those she loved most. She hadn’t yet learned to respect boundaries. At the same time, when she felt any sort of emotional turmoil in her own life, she didn’t hesitate to ask others to be there for her.

No, she wasn’t a narcissist. In fact, she suffered from borderline personality disorder, a diagnosis I was once given but I’ve worked hard with psychiatrists, psychologists, and other mental health professionals to overcome those destructive, alienating behaviors that are hallmarks of the disorder. Dialectical behavioral therapy has been the most effective treatment. But it’s offensive to patients with BPD to be labeled “narcissistic.” What’s the difference? Remorse. When a person with BPD realizes what she’s done, she’ll feel bad about it. Someone with NPD doesn’t care what the other person feels.

So maybe I am like the protagonist, Alice Klieg, in more ways than I’d like to admit. I write this blog that matters to very few people, I imagine. But it matters to me and I don’t know if it’s about mental illness or religion or social justice or being a Francophile or photography or simply achieving goals. Honestly it would’ve been very unlikely for me to ever to write about mental illness had I never been given first-hand experiences and diagnoses. For example, I might never have struggled with so much weight gain had I not been prescribed anti-depressants and mood stabilizers. I probably would’ve have been too busy with work and/or family to write for fun (and not profit) if I hadn’t been hospitalized enough for be approved for SSDI and not have to work . In fact, much of what I write about is informed by life experiences I never expected to have. I suppose it’s like this for many of us.

 

Week Two Summary

I don’t want to write this today. Is this becoming a theme?

Last week sucked although, admittedly, the obstacles I faced were probably more psychological than real. This week I have the real ones as I’ve got some sort of cold-like with sore throat, coughing, sneezing – the works. Is every attempt to lose weight going to be like this? Only once last week did I dawn my exercise clothes and walked for over an hour just for exercise. Then everything, including diet, fell apart.

But I have been digging through my old writings again, searching for patterns. Clearly this battle has been going on for a very long time.

I flipped through some old “morning pages” to try and find answers. On March 8, 2009 I wrote: “So I started reading The Writing Diet by Julia Cameron. She’s the one who suggests morning pages.”

And so Morning Pages have been in and out of my life since then. I’m endeavoring to do them now, although I took the weekend off. I took the weekend off of everything it seems.

2009 was a significant year. It was the year I could find no other alternative but to move home with my parents after I’d been hospitalized about two months prior. This was the hospitalization that led to SSI Disability on the recommendation of two different psychiatrists and one psychologist. I felt ashamed then but I wrote it off as temporary. Sure, there was no cure for my mental illness but I could learn to manage it. I could pass as “normal” if I wanted to, or so it seemed.

Continued from that same day, “I’m tired. I never knew living at home without a job could be tiring. There is constantly something that needs to be done, whether it’s building a bookshelf with my dad or helping my mom preserve her scrapbooks….On top of that it’s hard for me to stick with one project because I always feel I should be doing something else. Like this writing. I don’t know yet how useful it will be and I’m already struggling to keep my eyes open.”

Later that year I learned I had a condition called hypothyroidism. Untreated it’d been causing insufferable drowsiness. As it turned out, it was a common side-effect of the lithium I’d been taking but it seemed to all my doctors that taking one more pill for my thyroid each morning was far less risky than trying to come up with psych meds that had fewer side-effects. And the new drug worked. The only downside is that it, too, does not cure. It only manages. So I’m on thyroid medicine for life, too (probably).

March 9, 2009 I wrote “This is the largest I’ve been in my entire life.” Unfortunately, not much has changed. The only thing I’ve learned is not to even bother searching for clothes in a store that doesn’t have a “plus-size” section anymore. Even if I’m only going in to buy a hat or a handbag, I feel like the everyone else in the store is disgusted by me.

March 10, 2009: “I weighed myself this morning and I was one pound more than I was yesterday. This trying-to-lose-weight thing is incredibly frustrating. I think that’s why I’ve given up in the past.”

That’s one reason I don’t weigh myself anymore but last week I had an appointment with the psychiatric nurse practitioner and his nurse weighed me before our session. As I’d been trying to eat well and exercise the past week, the number she told me was not pleasant. But then I asked her if she had my weight from before (last December) and she said yes and told me what it was and I was a full 3 pounds lighter. Success? Not really. There’s about a 10-pound rage I’ve fluctuated between since 2009 and I was still within that range.

I took some time away from morning pages until 2016.

On January 27, 2016 I wrote (regarding weight):

“I want to blame the medicine. Weight gain is almost always a key side-effect of psych meds and I’ve seen some of my fellow SMI folk refuse treatment on that principle alone. There’s this feeling that fat is so repulsive that we’d rather suffer depression, mania, or hallucinations than gain weight. Is that really what society teaches us? Outward beauty is more important than mental health?

“Anyway, I don’t think psych meds are entirely to blame, at least in my case. My clothes started feeling tighter around my 19th birthday. I shed those pounds a couple years later when my best friend turned me into a runner and even after a knee injury took me out of the game, I didn’t gain weight again for a little over a year. That weight gain coincided with working the third shift at a call center. Exercise became difficult and my diet was not so great either. My medicine probably played a part too, at least when I was willing to take it…”

The pages go on to explain all the more recent obstacles I’ve had toward achieving weight loss. Of course many of them are superficial or apply uniquely to my situation.

There are more morning pages to consult, but this is all I have the energy to do for tonight.

I’ll give a report next week, but I have a feeling it won’t be much better.

Week One Summary

I can see right away that I’m a terrible at keeping my word. I mean, I’d hoped to be asleep by about 9 PM and it’s not going to happen. Not if I want to write this. Or maybe I’ll just write super fast. Yes, that will happen and there will be no errors for you to point out! (sarcasm intended)

My first week of trying to become a better person was met with fear and anxiety which physically manifested somewhere in my chest. In other circumstances that may have been cause for alarm but not this time. No, this time I fully embraced it because I knew the only way not to feel it would be to revert back to the unproductive me. So this kind of fear is welcome. It makes me feel I’m on the right track, even if last week felt like a small failure.

The good news, I learned that coffee doesn’t have to taste good for me to crave it. So I rinsed off the old French press and brewed a pot first thing in the morning (most days). Monday, of course, I set out on my first intentional exercise in ages (a neighborhood walk) but it turned out to be quite nippy on a March morning before sunrise, even in the Valley of the Sun. So I turned back and traded my shorts for sweatpants. The following day I waited until after sun-up to exercise. This works for now but when the summer heat finally hits, sunrise will be the only time to exercise outdoors without dying of heat stroke. For most of my fit friends around here, the gym becomes a necessary tool for staying in shape. I don’t belong to a gym and trying to join one is a bit complicated for me but I’ll figure something out.

Three days out of the four I’d committed to were days I did some form of exercise (usually walking). The rest of the week I made excuses. Not good excuses, but at least this week I can start over again.

Food? My blender from Wal-Mart was definitely not a waste. I did what my friends told me, experimental variations of different ingredients: peanut butter, frozen fruit, spinach, non-dairy milk, apple slices. It was all lovely! Well, apart from the cleanup. The key is to clean it up before anyone else in my family tries to. I’m still working on that. At least I have a nice, thick re-useable straw. It’s perfect.

I ate normal food too: salads, stir-fry, eggs and meatless sausage for breakfast…

Writing? I started doing morning pages again (as suggested by Julia Cameron). But as far as novel writing goes, I hit a creative block last week. I have so many doubts about my characters! And, to be honest, I’m kind of getting bored. Now I realize that if I quit because of boredom and/or creative blocks, I’ve already proven I don’t have what it takes to be a professional writer. But is that really what I want to be anyway or is that just the only option I feel is available to me? I’ll get back to you on this.

Over the weekend I went to this “Mental Health and the Gospel” conference which was kind of amazing because it actually happened in a church with participants from several Christian churches. But it was also kind of frustrating because the focus was on common mental health issues like depression, anxiety, trauma, and addiction.

Don’t get me wrong! I’ve suffered some of these too, but the thing that I long to hear someone talk of more than anything is the psychosis and hyper-religiosity which is perhaps only experienced by a fraction of a percent of church-goers, but I was one of them and I think the pastors who spoke with me could’ve definitely used a little help in dealing with my particular issue. Some didn’t even see my experience as a symptom of mental illness. This didn’t help me when I was still in denial as well.

Now it’s Monday. Time to act like a grown-up and get back on a schedule (one that is sure to be disrupted in the near future but I gotta at least try).

The Aches and Pains of Transformation

I wonder how it feels to be a caterpillar transforming in its chrysalis? Does it feel pain? Does it feel fear? Does it know it’s going to become a butterfly in the end? Did it ever see itself as beautiful before, when it was just a caterpillar? Has any caterpillar ever chosen death over transformation? Or is a caterpillar bound by the laws of nature to accept its fate?

I was a butterfly once, or at least I played one when, in second grade, I was assigned the role of “butterfly” in our school play “Goin’ Buggy.” It was a silent role but when the chorus sang “pretty little butterfly come fly away with me,” myself and, I think, three other girls spread our wings (which were made by a parent, I think) and pretended to fly to the back of the room.

I loved to sing back then and I thought I was kind of good at it too, although, in listening to cassette recordings from those days, I clearly didn’t have the gift I thought I did. But I kept practicing. I kept trying to memorize the songs I enjoyed listening to (mostly songs from musicals because, let’s face it, at that age my musical tastes where inherited from my mom). From ages 9 to 19, my voice improved enough to convince other people that I could, in fact, sing. I even had the luxury of taking private voice lessons and performing solos at church and school and retirement communities. People told me I was good, not just friends and family but complete strangers too. After while, I came to believe them and to think singing was my only true gift. Why else was it easier for me to become someone else through songs rather than words alone?

As a freshman in college, I began as a vocal performance major, but it only lasted a semester. Being around so many people whose voices were far superior to mine had a sobering effect. I was left with no choice: I had to find a new calling and, eventually, I did.

I’ve always been hyper self-aware and self-conscious in any social setting. Even now I carefully study the people around me and measure myself up to them. Yes, counselors have warned of the danger in making comparisons, but I can’t seem to give it up completely. In fact, that’s one reason I still feel shame even though most of the time no one criticized me at all. But in the rare times when someone does criticize me for something that makes me look or seem weird, I pay attention and made a concerted effort to change. It’s a thought-process I carried to the extreme when I studied abroad in France when I made it very clear that I wasn’t just in France to learn French. I was in France to become French.

You’ll learn how that all played out when you read my memoir someday but for now, let’s bring you up to date.

I turned 38 last week and, as my peers like to say, “shit just got real.” I’m freakin’ old! (or so my 18-year-old self would’ve said) and you know what? Very little has changed for me since I started this blog a little over 3 years ago. Oh, the lost ambition! the failure! the tears! How the hell did I end up on a one-way train to “Loserville”?

No matter. Now’s not the time for psychoanalysis. No, we’ll save that for other blogs. Rather now is the time to change and I’m gonna take a bold step and tell you that I’m going to be challenging myself in both work and fitness until it becomes habit forming and I want you to be a part of it.

This is a picture I took back in 2016. I basically look exactly the same today. In other words, I’ve tried stuff like this before and failed miserably but this time has to be different. It just has to. So I’m doing all the things my friends and internet research has instructed me. I’m goal-setting, scheduling, journaling, list-making, and having friends hold me accountable. Last but not least, I’m blogging about it once a week starting today. Stay tuned.

 

Failure and Secrets

I’m behind on my writing. This was supposed to be done as soon as I returned from L.A. and I did try and scribble a few notes, but there were too many distractions.

Forgive me. That’s always my excuse. It doesn’t matter where I go or what I do. There are always too many distractions. I could be locked in a small room with nothing on the walls and no access to the internet or any other means of communicating with the outside world, just a pile of blank sheets of paper and something to write with. Yet even in the silence my mere thoughts would distract me and I’d invent stories or write lyrics to a song no one else would want to hear or sing. I’d daydream about how my writing would save me from a life of poverty and shame; about book signings and hugs from strangers who somehow felt less alone when they read my words. I’d fantasize about traveling the world on book royalties and reuniting with friends I haven’t seen since my youth. Perhaps the daydream would then turn dark as I’d wonder whether they’d remember me or even want to see me. I’m old and fat now. When they were part of my life I was young, spirited, and fit. I can’t reverse the aging process but maybe I could have a decent figure again.

Let’s talk about failures. So far it seems that all I’ve done is fail.

I’ve failed.
I’ve failed to finish the degree I truly wanted.
I’ve failed to stay in any romantic relationship.
I’ve failed to hang on to any job for more than a year.
I’ve failed to be a faithful friend through thick and thin.
I’ve failed to keep my promises.
I’ve failed to keep my faith.
I’ve failed to love myself.
I’ve failed to become a responsible adult.
I’ve failed to stay safe.
I’ve failed to stay healthy.
I’ve failed to do as the doctors advised.
I’ve failed to manage my mental illness.
I’ve failed to be the change I want to see.
I’ve failed to keep fighting.
I’ve failed to keep hoping.
I’ve failed to keep believing.
I’ve failed.

Thankfully, I’m not the only one who’s failed and, if we’re honest, I’m sure most of us have a longer list of failures than we’d care to admit. Therefore, that sense of connection was sure to be found at a museum that celebrated failure like The Museum of Failure, a pop-up show at the A+D Museum in Downtown L.A.

I’d wanted to see this exhibit since I first read about it. Of course, back then it was a world away in Sweden. But when I saw that it was coming to my neighboring state of California, just 400 miles away, I managed to make a short road trip around it.

Last April I’d visited The Museum of Broken Relationships in Hollywood. There, heartache was celebrated and I was moved to see otherwise ordinary objects become meaningful when given a beautiful and sad story. All the while acknowledging the irony of having such a melancholy museum adjacent to the Walk of Fame where so many of the honored celebrities had publicly suffered the pain of broken relationships, perhaps even because of the recognition they’d worked so hard to achieve.

One might call a broken relationship a failure but on the flip side, every failure can be a learning opportunity. We do we so often try and bury our brokenness as if it’s too shameful to bring to light? I’m writing from a Starbucks and I can tell you this, if a barista fails to make a drink correctly, tell them what was wrong and they’ll gladly remake it for you, free of charge. They’ll apologize, of course, because that’s just good etiquette. But then they’ll remake it better than before and they’ll become at their job in the process.

I walked to and from my motel and the Museum of Failure that 26th day of January. It was a 2.8 mile walk each direction (according to Google Maps). The museum didn’t open until 2 PM that day allowing me to leave early with ample time for exploration and photography in between.

Though the museum focused on design failures, the failure to provide help for the ever-growing homeless population almost right outside the door was even more pronounced. I wrote some about it last year when I visited L.A. It’s something I wish I could do something about but there’s no blanket solution and I don’t know where to start so how could I blame anyone else for feeling the same?

I know one thing: money alone will not fix it. So I took photos and talked with a few people. That was all. I may have given $5 to someone, I can’t remember. All I know is, after seeing the way the homeless were living, all my complaining about my cheap motel seemed trivial.

Broken relationships, failures – they all kind of fell under the umbrella of everything that Frank Warren’s Post Secret organization seems to cover. I mean, all of us are weird. All of us hurt. All of us seek comfort, love, and understanding. We all need to be assured that we’re not alone

.

The inside of the above Post Secret book that I bought used. It seems like a story in itself.

So I went to the Post Secret: The Show last night. I went alone. But that’s normal for me at this point in life. I went to L.A. three times in the span of a year and never bothered to invited anyone to join me. I hear people complain about going to the movies alone, but I’ve been going to the movies alone since I was 19 or 20 and now that I’m almost 38, it doesn’t phase me anymore. There is beauty in being alone and I truly enjoy it at times. If I’m in the right mood, I meet some of the most interesting people when I’m alone. Although few of these strangers I have memorable conversations give any false impression that they themselves are “normal.”

So I go to this Post Secret show alone and, on one side, end up sitting by young couples who appear normal and, on the other side, a young, single person who maybe came with the young people on the other side of her. I don’t know; I was too afraid to ask. But all around me I could hear joyful conversations between friends, family, and husbands and wives.

I was fine, at first. But then my secret was read on stage and I lost all semblance to “normal” I may have walked in with. And wow! Frank Warren himself surprised us by taking the stage and leading a Q and A. One of the women who stood a couple times and owned up to her own heart-wrenching secret looked so familiar. We’d met before, I think. But where had we met? I suppose I could’ve asked her later when I saw her again in the lobby, but I didn’t. I was too afraid. The place where I’d hoped to find kindred spirits turned out to be a weird, alternate dimension that I’d stepped into by mistake. Besides, I was convinced that, although I’d not owned up to my secret, everyone could see right through me.

The actor who’d read my secret stood in the lobby. I was a little surprised to see that no one was talking to him in that moment. But a single glance at his face and I became overwhelmed with shame. I couldn’t talk to him let alone approach him. It’d be too humiliating and he’d probably judge me harshly or worse, he’d pity me. Why did I share that secret? There were so many others I could’ve chosen from. Why did I pick that one?

Outside I climbed to a higher place, away from it all but still with in view of the theatre.

I wrote some thoughts then left, figuring it was too late to redeem myself. Why do I have such annoying thoughts?

I listened to Gungor’s song Am I on repeat in the car. It’s a song of both introspection and prayer; an intimate conversation with God. From the very first time I heard it, I felt like this song was written just for me.

Then, I pulled into a parking lot and spoke into a camera.

I follow Post Secret on almost all the social media outlets. It’s mostly, but not always, secrets. Sometimes they seem to promote people reaching out to people, especially when there’s a strong movement to prevent suicide.

I used to be suicidal, but I don’t want to kill myself anymore. It’s been many years now since I made any attempts. Thankfully there are no new scars on my wrist or anywhere else on my body since 2008. But the loneliness is still crushing at times. I live with my family for now and I stay alive in large part for and because of them. But sometimes I fear being alone when they’re all gone. I hope I find someone before then to spend the rest of my life with. If not, at the very least maybe I’ll have a friend I can move in with, someone who likes cats. Or I suppose I can move into one of those groovy senior citizen communities where I’ll have my own place, but I can still hang with others like me.

Like Me, Love Me, Whatever

When did I stop caring about “likes” on Facebook?

I suppose it was shortly after the prank.

Allow me to back up a little bit.

You see, just a few months leading up to the prank I’d already begun an informal investigation into my addiction to Facebook “likes” (or “likes” on any of my other social networks for that matter – Twitter, Instagram). I started by asking my friends how they felt when others “liked” their posts. They were about 50/50 in terms of being greatly affected or completely indifferent. But those who could live in a world of social networks, share things, and not feel disheartened when nobody formally “liked” their posts, felt foreign to me and curiosity got the best of me. I actually wanted to be like them. I wanted to be able to share whatever I wanted with whoever I wanted and not care what other people thought. I even went so far as to begin filming a humorous video in which I engaged in a handful of attention-seeking gestures in hopes of understanding what I needed to do to maximize the number of “likes” I received.

During my research, I began to notice something about those who seemed indifferent to social media “likes.” They may have been immune to the emotional pull of Facebook, but the  real root of “like” addictions is our common need for approval.

Think about it. Deep down, don’t we all want approval from someone? I discussed this with a friend who never cared about whether or not anyone “liked” what she posted on Facebook she freely admitted that her own self-esteem was boosted whenever her boss praised her for a job well-done. For the rest of us, maybe we seek the approval of a parent or pastor or spouse or close friend. If that’s the case then really the main difference between FB and RL is the level of superficiality. Why does it matter what someone I barely know thinks? Why does it matter how someone I haven’t seen in 15 years or more reacts to a post? Honestly, if social media didn’t exist, would I even care?

In many ways, social media is like an adolescent popularity contest. It’s refreshing to meet one of those rare souls who manages to be secure in who they are regardless of whether they fit in with the cool cliques or not. It would be fantastic if we could learn to love ourselves or even just to like ourselves like that.

I’ve spent enough years in and out of psychotherapy to know that my own “like” addiction is strongly linked to my life-long struggle with low self-esteem and trying to find my self-worth. Combine that with unstable moods, a stunted development into adulthood, and some kind of personality disorder and you have someone at a very high risk of engaging in an unhealthy relationship with Facebook.

Despite the frustration of often feeling unheard and unwanted on FB, there was one thing I always prided myself on in all my posts and that was my commitment to honesty and vulnerability. So you can imagine the betrayal many of my friends and followers must have felt the day I decided to tell a lie.

True, in my mind it didn’t exactly register as a lie. It was a meant to be an innocent joke, a harmless prank. Lots of people do pranks, right? I mean, once I remember a Facebook friend announced that he was engaged and no seemed angry at him when he later confessed that he made it up. And perhaps it was a the memory of his prank still lodged somewhere in my subconscious that made my own decision to change my relationship status just for fun feel okay.

Admittedly it was an impulsive decision. I’d never had the occasion to change my relationship status before. The last time I was in a serious relationship was a year or so before I had a FB account. Then one day I was hanging out with a good friend, painting the walls at her place, laughing, regressing, and making up silly stories. In one story we imagined a romantic relationship for us and, swept away in the moment, I logged onto Facebook and updated my relationship status to say “in a relationship.” Then I watched wide-eyed as the “likes” and “congratulations” poured in.

Then I thought, how strange that all that honesty and vulnerability I’d freely dispensed up until then remained in obscurity without any of the available reactions put to use. Yet a mere change in relationship status and suddenly everyone I know is awake and cheering for me.

I continued my ruse for a few more days. Only a couple of friends persistently tried to call my bluff but I refused to allow anyone but me to blow my cover so I misled these friends as best I could. I even tried to enlist the help of a mutual friend. But it all backfired when I made a fake break-up video that some mistook as a real cry for help (compelling me to remove it immediately and consider a career in acting). After that I reset my relationship status to “single” and tried to derive a deeper meaning from it in a follow-up post.

I tried to make it a kind of teaching moment, lamenting to all who cared about what a sad commentary it seemed that people see the act of being in a relationship as far superior to remaining single.

But my friends politely and lovingly disagreed with me. They believed the “likes” had more to do with Facebook’s algorithms that tend to make changes in relationship status more visible to other newsfeeds than anything else I post. So I can’t take this personally, in other words, but at least some of my friends are willing to engage in meaningful conversation about it with me.

For the next few days, I couldn’t stop thinking about my failed prank. Even though only one person directly expressed their disapproval to me and no one unfriended me, I felt an immense sense of guilt. I mean, honesty is perhaps the most important virtue I look for in a friend and I’ve always tried to model it, almost to a fault. But who would be able to trust me now?

In the midst of my inner-turmoil I realized something. Despite all I’d done, I didn’t actually hate myself. Yes, I’d learned a very important lesson and I desperately wanted to talk it out with this one friend I’d somehow offended, but when they turned down my invitation, I pursued it no further. I figure when they’re ready to talk, they’ll let me know. There’s a good chance this particular conflict isn’t really about me anyway.

So what changed in me? How did I come to love myself after so many years of self-hatred?

I guess part of it was planted in me over the summer when I attended family counseling with just my sister and me. We live in the same house and, for some reason, especially in recent years, almost all my anger and frustration has been directed toward her. But she was never the source of it all and so I had to learn to redirect my anger. I had to learn to treat her with the same respect I do everyone else. And yes, I’m still working on that, but it’s getting better.

At the same time I was receiving one-on-one counseling with a different therapist. She taught me about early childhood trauma and how it still can have a strong grip on us well into adulthood. This led me to identify a trauma trigger that had plagued me for as long as I can remember and, when set-off, had me crying right then and there, no matter where I was. It wasn’t a big deal when I was a kid but as a woman in my late thirties it’d become increasingly embarrassing.

The trigger, for reasons still unknown, turned out to be any situation in which I was caught breaking a rule without realizing it and, as soon as another person made me aware of what I’d done, I’d emotionally become a child again, reacting as though I’d done something terribly wrong and would have to be punished. Suffice it to say, I’ve lived my life as an avid rule-follower to the best of my ability, as a way of (on a subconscious level) avoiding punishment, real or imagined.

So I told my counselor this and, though she didn’t specialize in trauma therapy, she still gave me advice for someone who was dealing with PTSD from any sort of trauma. She told me that whenever I feel the tears and the fear of punishment overtaking me, to tell myself that whatever it was that happened to me in my childhood isn’t happening to me anymore. This is a different time, a different place, with different people. And low and behold, I’ve not had those uncontrollable tears triggered since.

Why would the conquering of such a minor trigger result in a greater self-esteem? Well, remember, those were uncontrollable tears that manifested in the public sphere with not even warning enough for me to run to the nearest ladies room and hide. Of course, the key word here is “control.” To be able to control an emotion that I was unable to control for many years means I might have more control over my life than I previously thought.

For those of you who follow the enneagram, I’m a four and I’ve only just begun to delve into the positive aspects of all that entails. But at least in knowing I’m a four, it’s as though everything about my personality, including my craving for constant validation, actually makes sense. Admittedly I’m no enneagram expert. I’m just putting that out that there in case you happen to be like me. It is a beautiful thing, even for someone like me who longs to be “unique” or “special” to basque in the knowledge that she can be just that and still feel connected to others.

This past year I wrote a book, a memoir. I’ve not yet found a publisher nor have I actively sought one out, but it still feels like an immense achievement and it has sewn in me the desire to write more, take more photographs, and create more videos. I’ve never won the masses over by doing any of these things, but for once I’m okay with that. It’s enough now just to know that my work is out there. Anyone can find it if they want to.

Anyway, here’s to 2018! May it be the best year yet!

What You Didn’t Know

Though I can in no way enforce this, I do you think your viewing experience of my latest video would be much more enhanced if you knew a little bit of why I chose these specific songs and images.

Let me start by saying I put a lot of thought into this. Nothing heard or seen in this is without meaning, at least for me. However, it began as sound. About 6 months after I returned from France (roughly 14 years before this video was made), I sat alone in my dorm room with a tape recorder and began speaking my thoughts into it. I don’t remember exactly what compelled me to do so. Perhaps I meant for it to be a letter, a “talking letter” as my dad called them when we made audio cassettes to send to our relatives when I was a child and all my extended family lived out-of-state. Then, when I was in France, I made “talking letters” for my best friend and my parents. Occasionally I’d take my tape recorder with me as I roamed to capture the sounds of other people’s voices as well. But most of the time it was just me, alone in a room, longing to share with my thoughts with another human being.

The six months leading up to my first bipolar manic episode were, up until then, the most challenging, exuberant, and melancholy moments in my life. There was a constant, unprecedented flux of emotion and, whether it was the highest of highs or the lowest of lows, I longed to tell someone about it, anyone. But once I’d made the decision to live alone in a tiny studio apartment in Montpellier, I came to the instant realization that no matter how happy I was at the end of the day, having no one to share my thoughts would instantly bring me down. And so, with no a computer of any sort, no TV, and rarely enough money to buy more minutes for my prepaid cell phone, I talked into my cassette tape recorder, I prayed and read my Bible until God felt completely real and became my sole companion, and I wrote like mad until I actually succumbed to madness.

Music calmed me in my solitude. I didn’t bring any sort of portable CD player with me because I intended even before I left to buy a plug-in mini-stereo once I arrived in France. Originally, I wasn’t even going to bring my own CDs because I was so committed to hearing French and only French, but at last I caved in and packed a small CD wallet with Christian music, much of which had already brought me comfort over the years. I justified this decision by reminding myself that, as my French friends in the US had informed me, this kind of music wasn’t even available in France. In the end, I was grateful for my decision and all the songs you’ll hear, except the first one, came from that collection of CDs. By contrast, I was actually tricked into listening to the song by Avril Lavigne. You see, in my loneliness I would often wander through the music stores and listen to the samples they had on display with their complimentary headphones. One day, when I was particularly sad and lonely, I saw the name Avril Lavigne, mistakingly assumed she was French, and began listening to her songs in the store when I stumbled upon “I’m With You” and felt as though she’d written the song just for me because that was exactly how I felt in that moment. So I impulsively bought her album and played it over and over again in my studio. Eventually, in the height of my mania, I made a mixtape for a friend beginning with her song and ending with “The Time is Now” by Twila Paris, the song which, as you’ll learn when you read my memoir, was the song that happened to be playing when I encountered God in a mystical, terrifying, and beautiful moment in which I neither heard voices nor had visions but felt, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he was there in the room with me, reminding me that he was there for me and that I needn’t be afraid.

The order of songs on the mixtape was intended to be a soundtrack to my journey from beginning to end, from mourning to dancing (actually side A was all English but side B was the same idea, but all French music) Thus, “The Time is Now” became God’s words to me as well. A few days later, I’d abandon everything and walk into the unknown only to be intercepted by French law enforcement en route to Spain and ultimately taken to a psychiatric hospital in Thuir, France. Three weeks later, my dad flew to France to bring me home to the States – not that I wanted to go home, but no one gave me the choice. They told me I was sick and that I wasn’t able to think clearly and that everything they were doing was in my best interest. I didn’t believe them, but I obeyed, thinking this was perhaps God’s plan for me after all. After all, did Jesus resist arrest even though he knew he’d be beaten and nailed to a cross to die? No.

I made the audio track before I pieced together the images for this video. In fact, this is a remake of a similar video I did about 6 or 7 years ago. The only other faces you’ll see are people from that time in my life, people who would have been on the receiving end of my emotional outcries. I understood very little of what I was going through back then; they understood even less. But I still count them as friends and, even though we’ve not seen or spoken to one another in what feels like lifetimes, I still hope that, should we ever meet again, the spark of friendship will reignite and we’ll laugh and sing as we did when we were young.

Where’s the Value in Me?

It suddenly dawned on me the other day when I was talking with the makeup artist and salesman at Nordstrom. He told me that I needed to take better care of my skin or else no amount of makeup of any kind would look good on me.

But, I argued, it’s all too time-consuming and besides, I have a difficult time starting any new habit, especially if such a change would make me healthier or more attractive.

Well, he said, I think that’s really more of a self-esteem issue than anything else.

That was it. I was dumbstruck and the uninvited tears resurfaced. It wasn’t really a dramatic moment, of course. My voice remained calm and my breathing steady. In fact, I could easily dismiss such tears as allergies even though I knew full well that wasn’t true. No, what he said had actually triggered an involuntary emotional reaction. I could feel it in my chest and in my spine.

I smiled and requested a tissue, apologizing profusely. I’m sorry for this pitiful display of weakness I can’t seem to control. I’m sorry you had to witness it. I’m sorry it exists. I’m sorry I exist.

Then I blamed it on the bipolar disorder, although I knew that was kind of a lie. But it just felt easier to be dishonest at the moment than to take a stranger into the labyrinth of all my abnormal psychologies. He played along and started telling me about someone else he knew with bipolar disorder and my tears let up.

If a mental health professional were to sit down with me and ask me right now if I have suicidal thoughts, I would have to say no simply because I don’t have any sort of plan. I’ve not been collecting sharp objects or hoarding medication. I’m not romanticizing about death in my private fantasies or anything. No, I can assure you beyond a shadow of a doubt that if death takes me before I grow old, it won’t be by my own hand.

Then she’d breathe a sigh of relief and write somewhere in her notes like: this patient is not suicidal. She can keep her shoe laces, her drawstrings, and all the under wires in her bras. She is free to go where she pleases, no need to be monitored 24/7.

But she wouldn’t be completely right. I don’t meant to say I’m in immanent danger. But I’ve also not fully bought into the idea of growing old, especially when I perceive that phase of life as being incredibly lonely. I mean I’m 37 years old, my peers all seem to have spouses or kids or nieces or nephews or some combination thereof. They don’t seem afraid of entering their senior years completely alone because they have a plan for coping with old age. They seem confident in knowing their life will always be of value to someone. But I’m not confident, at least not for me. Furthermore I’m the youngest of my own family making the odds favorable that I’ll be the last in my family to go so what’s the point in prolonging such misery?

My diagnosis of bipolar disorder many years ago seemed to solidify this morbid take on life. After grieving my old life and spending most of that grief in denial, depression, and anger, I finally decided to take care of my chemical imbalance. I also spent years in and out of therapy because, let’s face it, I suck at dying and I figured if didn’t learn how to at least “pass for normal”, I’d lose the few friends I had (who were the people I longed to spend most my time with) and never make new friends.

It was hard but I did what I could and it kind of worked except for that nagging feeling I carried with me that I’d never be good enough. You see, back then I was woefully behind all of my peers in this race called life and, since then, I’ve felt that it’s too late to catch up. I’ve fallen too far, perpetually left in the dust.

On the other hand, it’s not like I perceive anyone else to be as doomed as I am. Even those who have greater struggles than me I tend to hold in greater esteem than I hold myself and I know I’m a hypocrite for thinking it. But give me every intellectual argument in the world for esteeming myself and believe me, I’ve heard it before. Telling me again and again that I’m valuable and loved will never be enough because internally I will be telling myself this: You’re only saying this because you’re my friend (family member, mentor, pastor, counselor, etc.) and you have to say this. You don’t really mean it. I’ll say thank you because that’s what you want me to say but I never have and never will believe you if you so say anything kind about me.

I’ve been wondering a lot lately why I can’t follow my doctor’s orders when it comes to taking care of my diet. I’ve been wondering why I can’t stick to a regular exercise routine or remember to follow the dentist’s instructions each night and wear my night guard. But now I think I know . The reason I can’t get on board (and stay on board) with any new habit that’s good for me physically is because I just don’t see the point anymore. I’ve almost stopped believing I have the ability to impress anyone let alone me. Yet I still write. I still photograph. I still hope in a way, but it’s not enough.

To be sure, my struggle with how I see myself predates any mental illness diagnosis, but it had a fighting chance when I was in college, at least in the three years leading up to my first hospitalization. In my late teens and early twenties, I began opening my mind more and allowing myself to change. I even went in search of change (as many young people do) by going out-of-state to school and, ultimately, across the ocean. With each new city, state, or country I stepped into, I knew I had another chance to be a new and improved version of me. But the illness reset much of that progress and it became harder to move forward when so few of my peers stood with me anymore.

I guess the question, then, is, how do I fix this? After all the emotional damage, how do I truly learn to love myself?