The Feeling of Feelings

Acknowledging one’s emotions is an important part of the process of recovery from mental illness. A lot of people never really develop very well emotionally, and I was no different; from an early age I put a lot of energy into distancing myself from what I was feeling, and in later life that came back to bite me, and hard.

One of the interesting things I have found, though, is that each emotion for me seems to have an associated physical sensation. It’s taken a a fair amount of time to really pinpoint them all, which is odd, considering that we are feeling some degree of emotion virtually all the time. But I think some of them don’t really register until we feel an emotion strongly, and I would think that these particular feelings could vary from person to person.

For me, one of the ones I have felt to a fair degree recently has been a feeling of fear or panic. This isn’t something I have mentioned before, but my neighbors, over the past several weeks, have been prone to loud, seemingly violent, fights. I hear them through my ceiling; yelling and screaming and slamming of things into the floor, and at first I found it annoying, but as it grew more frequent, I began to wonder if it was something like domestic abuse. I eventually had to call the police on them, and now every time I hear them I fear that it will be something bad, or that somehow I will get involved. This fear manifests itself as a tightness in my chest, my heart beating really strongly, and a little out of sync; it makes it feel like blood is rushing through my head.

Anxiety is much easier to express; anxiety can be set off by a lot of things, but hearing from anything involving a new job is almost certain to set it off. I have it sometimes when talking with friends who are having rough times; I don’t want to say the wrong thing, but I also want to be a helpful and supportive friend, and that can be a tough road to navigate. It feels like butterflies in my stomach; the easiest way I can describe it is that feeling you get on a rollercoaster when climbing up the first big incline, that feeling of apprehension – is this really a good idea?

Guilt is one I am familiar with, largely because while Is pent so long worrying about the lies I was telling to everyone around me during the worst periods of my depression. Guilt just made me feel sick to my stomach, like I needed to throw up, even when there was nothing in my stomach. Oddly, it didn’t ever make me any less hungry, and it only ever actually made me throw up once, but it really spent a lot of time working its unpleasant magic on me.

Anger is pretty easy; I sometimes find myself going straight to anger in traffic when something crazy happens – which is not unusual in Houston traffic, sadly. It only happens when I drive alone, too, which is strange. Anger is just a burning needs to do something immediate, often violent; I tend to satisfy this by saying or yelling quite an interesting array of things at my fellow drivers, warranted or not. I try not to make rude gestures where they can see me, or hit anything, because I don’t want to engender similar anger, but the yelling kind of feels good to get out.

Sadness is probably the one I have the most intense experience with, considering my depression. I haven’t felt a whole lot of it lately – at least, not to the extent of my worst depressions, or anywhere near that – but I have had moments of disappointment, like being turned down for a job or reprimanded by a manager, that remind me. It’s oppressive; it makes me feel tired, so tired I don’t want to move, or work, or do anything but maybe eat or sleep. It makes me lose interest in things, to just want to sit, sleep, withdraw from the world. It’s dangerous, and can be very insidious, and so I have to watch out for it often.

Joy is the emotion I haven’t had a lot of experience with – well, not until October or so. It was when I first realized I had feelings for Calla, and found out she had feelings for me, as well. My heart almost popped out of my chest, and when I was around her it still felt like that. When I was trying to describe how I felt to her, I used something similar to the rollercoaster description I used above – except for with her, it wasn’t the anxiety of the climb, but the feeling you get right at the apex of the climb – the flash of terror, but then the realization that you’re about to do something awesome.

That covers the five biggies – fear, guilt, anger, sadness, and joy, with anxiety as a bonus. So, how do emotions feel physically when they manifest for you? What kinds of sensations do they create? Think about it, then think about how often you’re feeling each; it can be a sobering conclusion.

The End is the Beginning (is the End…)

So, earlier today I heard from Calla that she is finally leaving Menninger, and moving on to another facility. I know what it is, and where, but I’m not going to put that here; it’s not my place to say. I know that she’s relieved to finally have an answer on this, and that makes me feel better, and I feel hopeful that she’s going someplace where she can really get some help. But I’m also sad that she’s going to be leaving, because I won’t see her for a long time, months maybe; and I’m scared that once she’s gone, I’ll lose her.

It’s not really a rational fear, because I know she doesn’t like losing people any more than I do, but then, fear isn’t generally rational. I know we’ll still be in touch, though I’m not sure if it will be by phone, e-mail, or regular mail. I don’t know if I’ll ever get a chance to go visit her where she’s going, either because I might not have the time to take off work or because they might not allow visitors.

I also have hope, though, because it sounds like the place she is going has some very good people who specialize in her issues; when she talked to them with her social worker from Menninger, the person at this new facility was basically finishing the social worker’s sentences when they were talking about Calla’s diagnosis, which sounds like a good sign to me. Oh, and they have equine therapy, and Calla loves horses. If she can get the kind of help she needs dealing with her issues, maybe when she’s done we can find out if there’s really a relationship in the cards for us.

So, it’s a real mix of things going on, in my head and heart right now. And I don’t know if that has anything to do with it, but I actually tried my hand at writing tonight, for the first time in a very long time. It’s nothing terribly long, or deep, and it might not even be very good; I’ve had blog entries that were longer than this attempt at writing. I’m not even sure I can call it a story; it’s under a thousand words. I know, though, that there are some people who read my blog who are interested in anything I might try to write, especially because some of them (cough, cough, ahem) keep asking about it, so I’ll post it here without further comment. It’s my own work, not for repost without attribution, etc.

Home Sweet Home

Hello, earth.

It’s been a long time. To me, it’s been twenty years as I record this, but to you it has probably been far longer.

You may remember me; my name is Major John Abrams. I am, as I say this, the last surviving member of Earth’s first manned mission to Mars.

I still remember it like it was yesterday; I was checking instruments in the cockpit with Brody, and we were still weeks out from Mars. We were joking, like we always did, to try and keep from being bored – there’s really not all that much to do on a straight shot to another planet, even traveling as fast as we were. I can even remember the joke I was telling him – “What did one shark say to the other as they were eating a clownfish? This tastes funny!” Terrible joke, but it was all I could think of. Strange, the things you remember.

Anyway, there was a bright flash of light, and the last thing I remembered as everything went white was both of us gasping. And then, when I woke up… well, I wasn’t in the cockpit anymore. I wasn’t really sure where I was; I’m still not sure where I ended up. All I know is it wasn’t the cockpit, it wasn’t Mars, and it sure as hell wasn’t Earth.

For one, the plants weren’t green. They were red, kinda purplish. And the sky looked orange, almost like a sunset. Man, I remember sunsets. I wandered around for a few minutes, not really thinking about what was happening. Then I saw him – well, it, really – my first alien. It was stunning, and I think I passed out, because the next time I opened my eyes, it was a lot closer.

It looked almost like a bipedal dog – well, if dogs had nictating membranes on their eyes, used advanced photon weaponry, and could speak alien tongues. It was trying to talk to me, but it wasn’t English, or Spanish, or German – those were the only three languages I knew. I just stood there, trying to make sense of it all. I still don’t know if I really have.

That first alien – I called it Monster, because that’s what it turned out to be – eventually decided that, since I couldn’t speak to it in any language it knew, I must not be smart enough to keep my freedom. So it took me as a prisoner, or a slave. And that was the start of my exile.

For twenty years, I traveled across the galaxy. I think it was just one, but I’m not really sure; I just know it wasn’t ours. I was a slave, a servant, a warrior, a laborer, a pilot, and more. I traveled the stars; I visited hundreds of planets. I met more alien races than I can keep track of; I stopped trying to keep records after the first fifty. I’ve had to learn four new languages, and phrases in a dozen others, none of them close to anything on Earth. I never stopped looking for a way home, though.

I’m still not sure what happened to me all those years ago. But I miss my home; I miss baseball, blue skies, apple pie. I miss my parents; my brothers and my sister. I miss my girlfriend, and even after meeting Monster, I miss my dog. I have been looking for a way home for twenty years, and I’m tired. My bones ache with it – even the arm I lost and had replaced. I’m almost sick of it. In fact, I am.

A month ago, I found some aliens near the edge of this galaxy – I think on the side closest to ours, but without really knowing how travel and distances work out here, it’s hard to tell. And I started telling them all about Earth. How easy a target it is – no space-based defense, no real laser weaponry, nuclear weapons at best. I told them about all the minerals, the gases, the metals that Earth had. And I made sure to tell them about all the billions of people – the defenseless, helpless people. They know what a good worker I can be, how good I am in a fight, what I can do, and so they listened. Because I want to go home.

I don’t know if we’ll get there before I die. I doubt we’ll get there before this does, and that could take decades; everyone I know may be dead by the time this arrives, if it ever does. But I just wanted to let you all know that war is coming, from places far beyond anything you’ve ever thought of. Destruction and death are going to rain down on Earth, and nothing will ever be the same. You may be more developed when the invasion gets there, but don’t fool yourselves – it won’t be as easy as the movies.

I waited so long for help, and it never came. I begged and I pleaded, but I never heard anything from anyone on Earth. I was all alone out here, in the dark of space, and there was nothing to comfort me. I was the farthest man from home, and nothing else could seem to get me any closer. So this is your notice, Earth. I’m coming home, dead or alive.

Homes is a four-letter word.

On My Own

So just recently I moved into my own apartment. This may not seem like a big deal, but it has to be seen in context. Despite being 33, I have never lived on my own; I have always lived with either friends, roommates, or family. It isn’t something I have spent a lot of time thinking about in the past; I always just accepted the presence of others. No, it’s more than that, I always wanted other people around.

Isolation has, for essentially the entire time I have suffered from depression, been one of the biggest triggers for my depression. When I spend too long away from other people, especially friends or family or other people I care about, depression rears its ugly head. But it almost never does so in a big, showy way. My depression takes its time – it works slowly and subtly, taking months to set in, so that I don’t notice what is happening to me. 

By the time I do notice my depression has been slowly taking control, most of the time I am too far gone to do much about it – or even care. One thing I do know is that, while I may not know what is going on with my slow downward spiral, the people around me tend to. My friends and family notice long before I do that I am getting depressed – at least, when I am not making an effort to hide it. So being around them has been a sort of safety net for me – I don’t have to watch myself if they do it for me.

But, as much as I love my friends and family, it isn’t their job to watch me for signs. It is my life, and I can’t rely on them for my well-being. That’s a lot of pressure to put on my friends, and it isn’t pressure they need. I would like them to watch and see, but it shouldn’t be because I am not bothering to look at myself, which is what I have done in the past – it should only happen as a last resort, when I am simply too oblivious to see what is happening to me.

I’ll be honest, this living alone scares me. Yes, I can, in theory, have women over without worrying about my parents walking in. I don’t have to check with anyone else about any company I have over, I can watch what I want, decorate how I want. But I also have to rely on other people being willing to come over and visit me. I don’t have anyone who is guaranteed to be spending time here with me; I have to be the person to go out and invite others over, and I have to be the one who deals with it when some of them inevitably say no. I don’t deal with rejection well, historically, so that is intimidating. 

I’m generally a pretty passive person. I don’t have the energy or the personality to be constantly asking people if they want to come over. Like at least one other former client in the ste-down program I left last week, I essentially just issued an open invitation to all the people I know around here to come over and hang out whenever I’m around, because the door is always open. It hasn’t really caught on yet. I don’t know if it will. I would love for someone to just come over and walk in and hang out, like I have done with the other former client, but I don’t know if that will happen.

It’s a little disappointing to have virtually nobody respond to invitations like that. It’s something I find hard to do, because I don’t want to seem needy or pathetic; I just want to hang out with people, and have other people feel comfortable enough with me to just come over. But it’s only been about two weeks, and I have no idea how long it took for that idea to catch on with others, so maybe it will start soon. Maybe I just have to keep reminding people that it’s a cool, safe place to hang out.

Maybe I’m just afraid to spend too much time alone. Maybe the reason my apartment seems empty is because, apart from me, there is almost never anyone else here. I don’t know, and I don’t know when I’ll find out. But until then, for those of you who know me and are reading this – you are always welcome at my place. If I have a book you want to read, a movie you want to watch, a game you want to play, feel free to borrow it. What’s mine is yours; what good is stuff if I can’t share it with friends?

Home Alone

Sorry, I will not be imitating Macauley Culkin – though I have been known to booby-trap the apartment from time to time, just to keep people on their toes. No, instead, I’m going to talk about what I’m currently feeling, why I know it’s a crazy thing to feel, and ask for suggestions on how to fix it. Sound good? Alright, we’re all on the same page. Except that one guy. You know the one. No, don’t look his way. Eyes over here.

Right now, though I am back from St. Louis in the city I hope to be calling home, it doesn’t feel very home-y. I went to groups this morning, but many of the people I normally talk to weren’t there, or were otherwise occupied. I did get to spend a few minutes with a friend after groups, but only because I was helping her fix her Wii so she could erase someone else’s Netflix info and add her own. I have tried to contact a number of people in the last two hours all from the step-down program, but to no effect. I’m not sure why; maybe they’re all busy. There’s a little part of my brain, though, that, while little, is very loud, and is yelling “Nobody wants to talk to you! You suck!”

I know that that isn’t true, because I know my friends, and they wouldn’t do that to me. It is very likely that they are all busy; not too long ago I was pretty busy, and I don’t know that I would have been able to answer a text. It can often feel, though, like I am the one who has to do all the reaching out – that I have to ask people to do something, that I am rarely invited. While I sit here typing and feeling lonely, though, I know that feeling is an unwarranted one. I am making some critical errors with my feelings. For one, I am assuming that since nobody is currently responding to me, that I am being ignored, or that people actively dislike me – this is a type of cognitive error called catastrophizing, because it involves assuming the worst in any situation. I also know that I am not always the person who reaches out – that would be an example of confirmation bias, or filtering, where I am filtering out all of the thoughts and memories that do not match what I am currently thinking and feeling, while remembering all the things that support what is on my mind now.

Learning to recognize that I am doing some of these things has been very helpful to me, because it helps me to realize that, often, there is a part of my mind that is actively working to sabotage me. Maybe it isn’t working that way purposefully – humans are, after all, hardwired to think of the negative before the positive, because always expecting the worst rather than blindly hoping for the best kept our primitive ancestors alive. But that part of my mind doesn’t behave rationally, it behaves emotionally. I feel a little lonely, and so it leaps into action, trying to find ways of justifying why I feel that way. Now, in some situations, this might be useful, but right now it is just annoying, because I have to try to block out those erroneous thoughts and feeling with the rest of my brain. Doing that while typing a blog entry, as you might imagine, is kind of hard.

But it is something I couldn’t have done before I came to treatment. I would have felt those feelings, and after a few minutes, assumed that they were the truth, that those thoughts were facts. I would have felt sad, pathetic, and lonely, all because I didn’t get any answers to tiny text messages for an hour or two. Now I can recognize those errors, single them out, and ignore them (though, to be honest, I wouldn’t mind some company). If you want a concrete example of what I have learned since coming to Menninger, I don’t know that I can give you statistics and facts, but this is about as close as I can get.

I can tell that little part of my brain to sit down, shut up, and let me get on with my day. While it doesn’t always feel good, it does tend to help, especially in situations like this. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some booby traps to set – I think I saw a Joe Pesci lookalike earlier…

Fighting Fear

Fear is something I have had a lot of, and frankly, I’m a little sick of it. It makes me uncertain, it makes me doubt everything I think about and everything I do, and it burrows inside my head like a worm inside an apple. It makes me feel like my heart is about to pound its way out of my chest, like I am constantly about to throw up, and it makes my mind run so fast that I can’t sleep very well. So I’d like to be done with it for a little while.

Largely, my fear has been talking to my parents again after our somewhat explosive and extremely unpleasant phone call last Wednesday.  I don’t think anybody involved got anything they wanted, just a lot of fear, sadness, anger, and frustration. But since the topic is, and will likely continue to be, my life and how it will move forward, I think that I need to take a more active and assertive role in this. I’ve been a passive participant in my life for too long; it was easier to just let my parents guide my life, especially when I was most depressed. But letting them direct my life also made my depression worse, because I was so afraid of what they would say about my life that I didn’t know if I could do what they expected of me. So now I have to move away from that and become the prime mover in my life, and that’s a scary prospect, for both me and for my parents. 

I don’t want to hurt their feelings, but at the same time I also need to be able to let them know that it is my life. I cannot let the fear I feel when my mother starts sounding disappointed or my father starts getting angry put me back in the shoes of a child. It feels awful, and it doesn’t do anyone any good; it makes me withdraw, and it frustrates them. So, fear or not, I have to be able to confront this and let them know what I am thinking and going to do – and that while I welcome their help and advice and support, it cannot come in the form of yelling or crying. 

A fear I have recently managed to face – even if it did only take a few minutes to do, while I worried about it for at least a day – is the fear of rejection. Specifically, romantic rejection. I have, historically, had a terrible record in this area; my first try ended very badly, and subsequent attempts to venture into the area of a romantic relationship have been met with rejection and then depression. And so, when I realized that I had feeling for someone – though the signs had apparently been there for weeks, and I was just a little slow on the uptake – I wasn’t sure that I wanted to face the fear to come. I feared being rejected, not just as a romantic interest, but as a friend as well – that telling her about how I felt would be met with a total stop to our friendship.

Her friendship is one of the things I have come to value most in treatment, and so the fear that I would be rejected both as a romantic interest and as a friend was nearly crippling. Like I described earlier, I had this terrible feeling, like my heart was beating so fast and pounding so hard that it would burst out of my chest, and that’s when it didn’t feel like it was lodged in my throat. Once I realized what I felt, I kept looking for reasons not to tell her, that maybe it would just go away, but the feeling just got worse. It took a lot for me to realize that burying my feelings wouldn’t work and wouldn’t help, and even more to realize that I had to tell her how I felt.

I did tell her, and while it didn’t go as well as I could have hoped, it also didn’t go nearly as badly as I had been catastrophizing. We’re still friends, and I think she realizes what it took for me to be able to tell her, even if she can’t return the feelings. Even better, that feeling that my heart would just rip itself out of my chest like that scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (but without Mola Ram) went away. Sure, there was disappointment and sadness, but not crushing depression; she wasn’t rejecting me, just letting me know her feelings weren’t the same as mine. Being able to do that actually makes me feel better about having to talk to my parents.

Fear is such a hard opponent to fight, because it’s inside you. You can only really make it go away by doing what you’re afraid of; otherwise the fear grabs hold of your life and takes control, and you probably won’t like where it takes you. Fear can be useful, at times, to keep you from doing overly dangerous or crazy things, but you have to be in control of it. If you let fear control you, like I have for large parts of my life, you start forgetting what it was like to crawl out of the cave it has put you in, and that makes it that much harder to crawl out when you finally decide to.

Express Yourself

I’ve had a rough couple of days. I can’t really say too much about it now, because it is something that I am still working on, but I can tell you about how it made me feel and how it affected those around me. It was not one of my finer moments, to be sure, but I think it is worth talking about – or rather writing about – in the interests of trying to avoid a similar problem in the future.

Wednesday night, I felt awful. I was angry and sad and didn’t know what to do about it; while I was trying to find some way to help myself deal, I sent out a group message to other people here at the step-down looking for company. Luckily, a friend was able to help me; we went out to grab some dinner, which helped out some, and I got to talk to another friend and talk through some things, which helped even more.

The next day was the 4th of July, and I spent a lot of the day asleep because I still felt awful. Eventually, when I did wake up, I sent out another group message, this time asking if other people might want to go to the pool at our apartment complex. When I went down to the pool, I found it full of other families with no room for an extra person, and, discouraged, I returned to my apartment – where I sent out another group message, being extremely passive-aggressive, saying that the pool was a bust, and unless other people had suggestions, I was heading back to bed. I didn’t go back to bed, but I did start watching TV, and barring dinner and a movie, I watched TV for much of the rest of the day.

Friday morning, I found out that my group messages were very uncomfortable for someone, because it made them feel like they ought to help even when they didn’t feel up to it. I had never even considered that as a possibility, even though it seems like a way I would have reacted. My thoughtlessness and selfishness in sending out those messages – and the passive-aggressive behavior in the last one – caused at least one person, and possibly more, discomfort and maybe worse. It’s far from what I was trying to do, but I let my anger, which I hadn’t been able to express in a healthy manner, manifest itself in those messages.

I’ve been a repressed person for a long time. Especially anger, because the main person who tended to make me angry – my father – was someone I couldn’t show it to, because I was afraid of the kind of reaction it would get. I learned to hold it in, and try to express it in other ways, but those ways were frequently not enough, and so it would come out at inopportune times – often towards people I liked and cared about, in ways they didn’t deserve.

I may have been entirely justified in feeling awful, but it would have been more healthy for me – and less hurtful to others – if I had just expressed how I was feeling to the people who made me feel that way. Instead, I shut down and hid it away from them, and in trying to shove it into a closet, metaphorically speaking, it squeezed through the cracks and came out in a bad way. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I screwed up and it caused problems for others. I’m sorry about that, and now that I can see how that is a problem I can work on it, but I can’t promise it won’t happen again, only that I will try my best to express how I feel to those I feel it towards. There are definitely feelings towards others that I have been hiding, or trying to, and it may be causing both them and me more harm than good.

This is just one small part of what I find out about myself on a near-daily basis, and almost none of it is easy. I’m glad I have friends around me, people I care about, and people who are willing to help me with my treatment, even if it is uncomfortable for me to find out what they have to tell me. Is it any wonder that I want to stay here and keep exploring these buried parts of me?

Dum Spiro, Spero

One of the parts of my life I find most difficult to think about these days is the area of love. By love, I don’t mean friendship, because I know my friends love me and I love them, and I don’t mean family, because that’s essentially the same. No, I mean romance, and my general lack of success in that area.

Feeling unloved has been one of the key components of my depression for a long time. There were times I felt totally unloved, and unlovable, which I am told is not all that uncommon in people with depression. Even now, it is something I struggle with, because my experience in the romantic arena has been, frankly, not too great. I have never had a girlfriend, which at 33 puts me over 80% of the way to being a Steve Carrell character, only not as funny. I had one relationship, which largely failed because I was emotionally unavailable when I wasn’t deep in depression. Every time I have asked a woman out has ended badly for me.

There are times I wonder if it is still worth trying. As a guy, I have never been good at reading the signs from women; as far as I know, there’s only been one instance where a woman was attracted to me, and as noted above, that didn’t work out so well. I just can’t seem to observe any proof that women are interested in me, which means either I am totally blind in that area or there’s really nobody interested – for now, I’ll go with the former. Without having any idea if a woman is interested, I find myself afraid, perhaps unreasonably so, that I will once again be rejected, and that’s a leap I find myself unwilling to take.

While I am told I have a great sense of humor, which is something that people find attractive, I know that there’s a lot about me that isn’t terribly attractive. I’m short and overweight, both of which contribute to self-esteem issues that are deep-seeded. I don’t have much in the way of fashion sense; most of my wardrobe is untucked collared shirts, t-shirts, and jeans, with a few pairs of khakis thrown in. I have difficulty initiating conversation, and I am hard-pressed to continue conversations with people I don’t know.

Is this an issue I can really address in treatment here? I’m not sure. I see relationships forming around me, and I am happy for my friends, but I also don’t see much hope for me in this area. I don’t even really remember what having feelings for someone is like, other than that I remember as one of the best, and worst, experiences of my life. I’m not sure that I would recognize what that feels like if it happened. I feel like being alone might be all that I have to look forward to, and it is hard to come to terms with that.

I have some physical issues to work through in regard to relationships, as well. Not regarding my appearance, but rather because I am not very good at allowing myself to be touched by other people or to know when to reciprocate. With people I don’t know or trust, this is pretty severe, but even once I get to know people I have problems. I never know when to give a friend a hug, or put a hand on their shoulder, or what to do when the object of such affection. I imagine I would be even worse in a romantic relationship; the combination of overactive protective impulses and difficulty with physical intimacy would not make for a great relationship.

I know that a lot of this is just fear talking; that I am probably a lot more likely to end up having some sort of relationship than I realize. But it is a hard fear to shake, because I have been without any kind of relationship for so long. I am really afraid of being hurt again, because the first time was so bad that I felt like I had nothing left, that it just hollowed me out. Again, I don’t blame anyone; I was a relatively unemotional person who went from virtually no emotional response to one of the strongest emotional situations you can have, and then when it ended I just didn’t have any means of coping with what I was feeling.

So I am trying to have some hope for my love life. Even if I don’t know if anyone will ever have feelings for me, or if I will ever have feelings for anyone else, hope is what I got. Like the blog entry title says, dum spiro, spero – while I breathe, I hope. I’m tempted to get a tattoo of that to remind me about it constantly. Because really, if I don’t have hope, what do I have?

Love still terrifies me, though.

Introspection

There are a lot of things about ourselves we take for granted. Most of us don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the reasons why we do certain things, because if we did, it might be uncomfortable – or we might learn some things about ourselves that might help us out.

This was part of what happened with me at Menninger. My team (my psychiatrist, social worker, and my contact nurse for the day) would get together every week for rounds, and I would come in and talk to them about concerns I had, directions I wanted to go with my treatments, or how I was feeling. If I didn’t have an abundance of material, they would start to ask questions or pointing out things they had noticed about my behavior, whether over just that week or my entire stay. For the most part, rounds were relatively tame; while they asked challenging questions and tried to push me harder, I knew that was what they were supposed to be doing and I accepted it – at least, until one week.

I went to rounds with nothing in particular to talk to them about; I figured that my team would have something to say, and that we could easily occupy our time discussing that. I was right, but it wasn’t easy. What my team did was tell me that they felt I was doing very poorly at introspection – that is, looking inside myself to look for the reasons why I did certain things, rather than look for external answers or study other people.. The two examples they pointed out were two things I was employing, unconsciously, at that exact time – my tendency to fidget and to answer challenging questions and statements with vague or nonspecific answers. They felt that, unless I spent some time thinking about things like that, that much of my treatment would be fairly useless.

I left rounds feeling like I’d been hit by a Mack truck. I had spent a great deal of time during the worst periods of my depression being inwardly focused, but mostly that had been about how worthless and hopeless I was. This was different, and it was hard. I didn’t want to look at myself that closely, because I was afraid of the things I might find out.

My fidgeting is something that probably anyone who knows me and watches me for more than a few minutes notices. I tap my feet, bounce my legs, swing my knees, crack my knuckles, rub my hands together, roll my shoulders and my head (often with a serious of distressing cracks)… I do this all the time, and most of the time, it is unconscious. I don’t even notice I’m doing it. And, when I started to think about why I did it, it is because, on some level, I am constantly anxious. Often, it is kind of unspecific anxiety, and so it helps to release nervous energy. But when things in my life are making me more anxious, then I fidget more, whether faster, or more often, or more intensely. It’s a pretty good sign of my anxiety level, and yet it was something I had never even considered.

My answering of challenging questions with vague and nonspecific answers was the other example my team gave me, and I thought long and hard about that, as well. I don’t know that there was a specific reason that I did it, but it became clear to me that it was a defense mechanism to avoid answering things that made me feel uncomfortable or conversations that would take me places I didn’t want to go. Unfortunately for me, those were often places and things I needed to discuss in treatment if I wanted to try and change they way I was thinking and to let other people in. I’ve asked a number of people close to me to call me on this if they notice it. But it’s not even my primary defense mechanism socially.

My primary social defense mechanism is humor. When things start getting too serious, or too emotional, and I want to try and lighten things up so I don’t have to explore areas that may make me hurt or feel uncomfortable emotions (which, at the moment, is still most of them), I look for ways to tell jokes or make amusing comments. To cover for my insecurity and feelings of shame about being in mental treatment, and of needing treatment, I often tend to make jokes about ‘being shacked up in the wacko basket’ or the like. I put an amusing face on a serious topic, and keep myself from having to feel the associated emotions, while often also deflecting the conversation to something more pleasant for me.It is something I had noticed myself early on in my treatment, and pointed out to others so that it would be easier to notice, but there are times I still find myself sliding into that.

The one behavior that may be least obvious to other people, but the one which probably involves the people closest to me the most, is my overly vigilant behavior. When I am out in the company of people who I care about, in places where I don’t feel safe or secure, I tend to become extremely aware of what is going on in the area around me. I know I can’t control things, but I feel that I can at least protect my friends if something happens. There’s a reason for this, which I won’t go into now, but essentially, it means I am constantly scanning the area, assessing potentially threatening people. I tend to walk slightly behind and to the left of someone I care about, which lets me match their pace, see where they are at all times, and, if necessary, shove them aside in case of attack. If I’m in a group, I stay until I can make sure everyone I care about is accounted for; this led me, at Menninger, to stay behind at meals until the last people I was close to left even when I had a sufficient level of privilege to leave earlier. I know that this behavior isn’t realistic, and that in all likelihood my friends and loved ones don’t need a bodyguard, but it’s something I find myself doing regardless of necessity. Largely, it’s because I don’t feel any concern for my own safety, but I feel intense, painful anxiety at the thought of losing someone I care about, and so I do whatever I can to minimize the chance of that happening.

These are just a few of the more obvious things that I found out about myself while doing what my team had asked me to do, and there are more, though I figure these examples are enough to illustrate my point. While it can be uncomfortable to leave that part of our head that never looks inward, we can find out a lot of things about ourselves that we weren’t really aware of if we do. Some of those things will be uncomfortable, and some of them we’ll want to change, and there are others that we’ll look at and be happy for or proud of. But turning your investigative capacity inwards rather than outwards, I have found, is a rewarding experience. You might not find what you were looking for, but you will almost certainly find something of worth.

…Leads to Anger

One of the biggest problems I have had in treatment, aside from my depression, is dealing with fear. It’s not fear on anything necessarily material – though I am afraid of spiders, sharks, and aliens, in that order – but for me, my most painful and crippling fear has been the fear of rejection.

Those of you who have read some of my previous entries, or know me personally, know that my childhood was all over the place, literally – four states and four countries, with varying times in each. This made it hard to connect, especially as I was often not only a new kid at school, but I tended towards being one of the smartest. I’m not claiming to be a genius – by the time I got to college, I wasn’t even the smartest person in my dorm room, let alone the average classroom – but I was a shy, quiet kid who liked to read and study, so I did very well in school.

Most of you probably know that new kids in class don’t tend to be treated very well in most places. Smart kids, or kids who ‘look’ smart or nerdy, get unpleasant treatment as well. I got both, which tended to make my time in school relatively unenjoyable. So I developed, effectively, a talent – invisibility. I don’t mean literal invisibility, obviously, but rather the kind that makes you easily overlooked by the more aggressive kids in class. I sat in a chair near the back, often near a corner, and rarely answered anything a teacher asked, even if I knew the answer. I walked slowly, imitating others, trying to blend into the crowd, and for the most part, it worked.

This talent, however, came with a downside – since I avoided almost everyone else in school, it was hard to really form friendships. I tended to make most of my friends, short-term though many of them were, outside of school, in activities like Cub Scouts or Boy Scouts. This trend continued well into college, until I met a couple people who helped to bring me out of my shell. Oddly, though, my high school years were nowhere near the nightmare that popular culture makes them out to be form nerdy kids – I actually kind of liked high school, though some of my most serious problems started there. But I went to an all-guys high school, when fed into more fear.

I was already afraid of many of the people around me, afraid that they would reject me for being nerdy (I started wearing big, thick glasses when I was ten, and only got smaller, thinner ones a few years ago). I was badly bullied in 8th grade, which led to my parents sending me to an all-boys Jesuit high school. While this stopped the bullying, and let me be a little less guarded around my classmates, it also kept me from interacting with a major part of a teenage boy’s life – teenage girls. I had no interaction with the fairer sex until my junior year of high school, and that did not go at all well for me. I had had little real experience with emotions until then, and a number of people actually referred to me as somewhat robotic, a moniker I enjoyed. But that lack of contact with girls, along with my terribly stunted emotional status, led me to fall hard for someone, and then be absolutely broken when things ended. 

That experience affected me so much that it took me years to even come close to getting over it. I spoke to a handful of girls in college, and never with any intention of asking any of them out; I was still in pain from my previous attempt. In fact, the only women I really got along with in college tended to be women who were already dating other people. My relationship experience was a factor in my loss of faith, because I felt that no benevolent deity would let someone be hurt that badly (yeah, yeah, I was 19 at the time, melodrama was practically my middle name). I don’t blame anyone for this; it was a confluence of events that all came together to cause me this much grief. But it made talking to women who I didn’t feel were ‘safe’ extremely difficult.

After college, my depression really took hold, and I think fear was the last thing to go – at least, fear of rejection. When I finally attempted suicide in 2007 and failed, after my recovery, I enrolled in graduate school, to encounter entirely new experiences with fear of rejection. In graduate school, professors want students to interact, to discuss, to answer questions, and to be active in class – and this was the absolute opposite of what I had spent  almost 20 years doing. I floundered for a while, especially because I felt that I would look stupid not just to my professors, but also to my classmates. I had to preface every presentation I gave with the fact that I was not a good speaker. And, despite a high level of very intelligent, very attractive women in graduate school, I had difficult looking my female classmates in the eye.

It took much of my time in the Masters program to figure out how to interact in class. I had to train myself to act in a totally different way than I had before; I was no longer trying to avoid appearing smart, because everyone in the program was smart – I had to work to show people that I was, in fact, smart. Even then, my fear of rejection led me to speak to few people outside of class, because I was afraid they would talk to me and in doing so discover that I was really much dumber than I sounded in class. It took me until 2010 (that’s three years, for those of you keeping track) to start meeting people’s eyes in conversation. And by that time, I felt that I was sufficiently over the disaster that was my relationship life to try to ask someone out. But that went, shall we say, poorly. My only two attempts to ask a woman out were fumbling, awkward, and total failures. On a third occasion, while I was asking a woman a question totally unrelated to  dating (though, to be fair, I did find her attractive), I was pre-emptively turned down, which shocked me so much that I never got around to asking her the question I had originally been trying to ask.

To make matters worse for myself, I have always, despite having periods of rebellion against my parents (yes, I had a Goth phase, and no, you can’t see the pictures), craved the approval of my parents – or rather, feared their rejection. It was this fear that led me to lie to them about taking summer courses between my junior and senior years of college (which resulted in some very heated arguments), and then to later lie to them about what I was doing in St. Louis – which eventually led to my first suicide attempt in 2007. Things picked up for several years, but even after 2007 I had severe problems with fear of their rejection, even though they’d given me no real indication that my fears were justified. So when I started falling behind (as I saw it) in my PhD progress, I started lying to them again. I justified this to myself by thinking that I would eventually catch up to the lies I was telling, and so they wouldn’t really be lies, just delays in communication. But I kept falling behind, while the lies kept moving forward, until eventually I felt so guilty, and so afraid of what would happen when I was found out, that I felt the only way to go was to try to kill myself. That happened in January of 2013, and it led me, in February, to Menninger.

At Menninger, many of my fellow patients were women, and since we were on a unit together, in relatively close quarters all the time, I was at first kind of terrified. I was really terrified of interacting at all – what if they didn’t like me? What if they thought my problems were so much less than theirs that they didn’t think I was worthy of being there? And so both I and my team were astounded when I stood up in our first community meeting to tell people that my silence wasn’t a result of smugness or arrogance, but fear, and that I would talk to whoever came up to me and started a conversation – and that I would work on starting conversations myself. I remember that after doing that I could hear nothing but the blood pounding in my head, and felt my heart going a hundred miles an hour.

Oddly, as I spent my time at Menninger, many of the people I formed the closest relationships with were women. Granted, it was relatively safe, because even if I had wanted to form any kind of romantic relationship, we never had more than 29 minutes of privacy, but I found that after hearing some of them talk about their lives and problems, it was much easier to talk about mine. By my 5th week, I was volunteering information about myself without even being pushed to do so. Even here at the step-down, many of the people I am closest to are women, which is a huge step for me. Maybe by the time I leave, I’ll be feeling confident enough to try to get into the dating game.

I’ve also spoken to my family about my fears, unfounded though they may be, about rejection. We’ve talked about pressure and perceived pressure, about displaying emotions or trying not to, and even, I think, made some progress in how we can talk to each other calmly and actually talk about our thoughts and feelings. Even my friends outside of the program have provided a huge amount of support, being willing to talk about anything I cared to share or ask about, and I owe them a huge debt of gratitude for that.

So, it turns out that, much like the quote from the movie this post title was taken from, fear does lead to anger. But if you take the time to examine your fear, and why you have it, and really look at the root causes and how silly they can be when you get to the cause, realizing how groundless your fears are can help you move away from them, help the anxiety caused by that fear to dissipate, and help you get past the scary things in your head.

Still hasn’t made me any less afraid of spiders, though.