Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Writing My Story

Taken from Catholic Insight
I would love to be able to write a book detailing how I helped myself to move out of the darkness of depression and have an (almost) normal life. I want to help people who are still struggling as I was.

But one of the things standing in the way of writing the story of how I stopped feeling depressed is that I want people to see that I didn't have to be miserable. There's this whole genre of "dark night of the soul" memoirs, where people go through some terrible time in their lives and somehow get through it to where they are now "cured" and better off.

I can't talk about how I was cured because my sickness was always within my power to cure, I just didn't know it. My story is more one of slap-to-the-forehead realization. Why did I go through all that? Well, because I didn't know.

I only seemed to be unhappy. I wasn't really unhappy. My brain was making me feel unhappy, just as the brains of my family members made them feel unhappy. I didn't have a bad childhood; it only seemed bad because I was seeing it that way through the lenses of my brain chemistry. My family and I had no reason to be unhappy. We had everything we needed--food, clothing, shelter--and the means to provide for ourselves. What we lacked--a light heart, an appreciation for life's blessings--kept us from knowing we were happy. 

What made my childhood unhappy was the same thing that made my adulthood unhappy--an anachronistic brain. The glass half full/half empty theory applies here, but it isn't just a matter of seeing things in a different light. You have to notice that the reason you're seeing things that way is that your brain is making you see it that way. In other words, you have to realize that the light is within your control, or that the light you were born with is something you have work around.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Chicken-pecking Problem

Eating cake every day causes my brain to crave cake to take away the craving that has been created by eating cake. Arrghh!

It's like a protection racket: if you don't eat cake, I'm going to make you regret it. I need to eat cake to keep me from torturing me. I have to eat cake to protect myself from my brain. But my brain started it to begin with.

I feel bad, so I eat cake, which makes me feel better--until I feel bad again, but this time it's because I didn't eat cake. And I need to eat more cake to feel the same as I did before I ate the cake. Oh, it's bad.

Negative reinforcement: doing something to prevent a negative outcome. Like those poor chickens in the experiment: keep pecking the lever or you'll get shocked. Keep paying the enforcer or you'll get your business burned down. Keep eating cake or you'll feel bad.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Monster in the Middle

There's something else going on in the middle that prevents me from carrying on through to the end. Middles are not just non-stimulating; they can sometimes be downright frightening.

Because the ever-present anxiety is not as effectively muffled or distracted in the middle, it can reappear. The fear is like a basso-continuo in a music score. It's there, you can feel it, but not really notice it until the the other, busier, higher register instruments have stopped or quieted.

So more than any other phase of a project, the middle is where fear dwells. It's like a monster waiting in the clearing for me to cross, or like the enemy waiting to let loose on the troops who have to cross open ground to reach their objective. It's easier to stay where it's safe, but eventually I have to try to cross. Think of Pickett's charge at Gettysburg.  That's what moving through the middle is for me.

What to do about it? I'm working on that.

The Trouble with Middles

Lately I've been considering my trouble with middles.  I'm good at starting projects, but when I get past the "honeymoon" phase, I start to bog down and eventually stop (not quit, exactly) until the mood strikes me to take it back up again.  Of course, at that point it's more like a new beginning because I've been away from it for so long.

This attraction to starting things has to do with my brain chemistry, I think. I like beginnings because I'm learning things and my brain is focused on understanding and acquiring skills and knowledge. Once I get past that phase of rapid and stimulating learning, however, doing the project helps me less and less. And because my brain is not absorbed in something challenging, there is room for anxiety to creep in, anxiety which will need to be put aside in order to continue. So, since the now familiar activity is no longer giving me the help I need, the anxiety stops me from continuing.

But unfortunately, starting but never finishing projects is not very productive, especially with those projects I really want to finish. So I've been working on how I can help myself to push through the middle and get the satisfaction that comes with finishing something.

Those few projects I have finished were difficult to continue with, and when I was finished I had a feeling of relief, but also irritation that the project was so difficult to complete. I didn't get the satisfaction of having completed it because I was remembering how hard it was to slog through.

So there has to be a situation where I can keep going but still enjoy the doing of the project while I'm doing it, not just the joy of having done it, of getting it over with.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Misinterpreting Sensations

This morning when I woke up and felt the way I usually feel--terrible--I tried to identify the actual sensation. I determined it is not pain--in the physical sense, anyway. But people do talk about emotional conditions as painful. What kind of pain are we talking about, then?

It feels like fear, as I've said many times in this blog. But is fear painful, then? What makes it painful? Perhaps it's the autonomic responses to threat, such as blood pressure, heart rate, adrenaline rush. Are those things painful? I guess they are because the body is being stressed to the limit, but when the threat is real, the response is intended to be short-lived. Fear that is not based on real threat and that doesn't go away is called anxiety. The pain comes from the long term nature of the response, maybe.

Here is a quote from NIMH website that discusses panic disorder, when the full-blown fight or flight response is triggered by something other than a true threat:
Researchers have found that several parts of the brain are involved in fear and anxiety. Some researchers think that people with panic disorder misinterpret harmless bodily sensations as threats. Panic Disorder
I believe that the lesser form of fear sensation, anxiety, is also the result of misinterpretation of bodily sensations, primarily originating in the brain. But maybe there are non-brain sensations that are being misinterpreted. I've never thought of that. I'd have to do some research to find out. By that I mean, try to pay attention to what is happening in my body when I feel afraid.

Can I make myself stop feeling it by not focusing on it? Or by focusing on it in a different way?

I have always said that the next step people who suffer take is the one that causes the problem: the misinterpretation of the sensations as threat, followed by the search for the source of the threat.

I'm doing some more thinking about this idea of misinterpretation.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Curiosity Killed the Fear

Spike the curious cat, taken from Wikimedia
I've been feeling bad a lot lately, and when I feel bad, it's mostly fear that I feel (occasionally anger). The fear is not rational, I believe, but is real nonetheless. It is a collection of sensations that are unpleasant and often interfere with my functioning, especially when they keep me from sleeping.

I try not to give in to baseless fear, but it's not easy. As I've said in this blog and elsewhere, fear is only one response to new phenomena. The other is curiosity. Instead of being afraid of changes in life, we can be curious about them, investigate their contours, see what there is to see that is interesting, amazing, strange, wondrous.

As we age, we experience more and more change, most of it unwanted, such as the death of loved ones, changes in physical capabilities, etc. How can we do something other than fear those changes? That's a good question. One way is to be curious about them. But how to do that? I don't know yet, but I'm going to work on it.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Let It Be

Taken from PsychCentral.com

A feeling--whether good or bad--is just a collection of sensations until we identify it as a feeling. But we don't pay much attention to those sensations because we jump right to the identification, the judgment, if you will. Then immediately after identifying it, we look for the cause or the origin of the feeling so that we can control it--either make it go away or stick around a while longer. Usually we decide that the feeling is coming from something or someone outside ourselves.

"You make me happy," we say, or "You piss me off!" You is identified as being the source of the feeling in these two instances. If only I could get You to stop or continue doing whatever is causing the identified feeling, then I would be happy, we think.

Mental health counselors recognize this tendency people have to blame or credit others for our feelings, so they urge people to describe their feelings in a way that leaves out the blame by using "I" instead of "You": "I feel bad when you do that," or "I feel angry right now."

I think that's a good idea because it gets away from claiming a source outside oneself for a feeling. However, I think we need to go one step further: Don't be so quick to identify the feeling; instead, focus on the sensations. The sensations, after all, are what are actually occurring. They are the empirical evidence being used to draw your conclusions about what you're feeling. It seems very few people even pay attention to what feelings actually consist of.

But how does one do this? Well, you can pay attention to your breathing, your heart rate, whether or not you feel pain or congestion or cold or heat. Look at your facial expression: are your eyebrows up, down or neutral? Is your mouth turned down, poked out, open, closed? Are you smiling, grinning, snarling? All these are observations that can be compiled to determine what is going on inside of you.

So, instead of saying, I feel sad, you can describe your symptoms in a more physical way. Make empirical observations about sensations, facial expressions, body position, etc.

This not only slows down the rush to judgment, but it also allows you to pay more attention to what is going on inside of you. What you are sensing may be different from what you think you are sensing. And it helps you to calm down, to not immediately act on your sensations.

Think about how actors determine how to express feelings in a play or film: they observe others emoting and copy those expressions, body language, gestures. You can do it too if you make the effort. Look at an array of faces showing different expressions: chances are you can read them quite well. In fact, those who can't are at a considerable disadvantage in social situations. Then add body language, gestures and you get closer to identifying what is going on with the person.

But I think it's helpful to suspend judgment, even when you have what you consider to be a good set of clues. What sensations are you feeling inside when you're sad, angry, happy, scared, neutral?

Then, when you've got all the data you can collect, what do you do with it?

Nothing. Just let it be. Whether the sensations are pleasant or unpleasant, just hold on to them. Try to experience the sensations without labeling them or trying to act on them. Just note their presence.

Say to yourself, "I'm experiencing rapid heart rate, breathing is quicker, my chest feels heavy like I can't breathe." Think about how what you're experiencing now is different from what you were experiencing earlier. Then just let those sensations be there. Don't try to control them, but don't act on them right away, either.

Many of the feelings that cause people trouble start inside their brain with bad brain chemistry. Acting to get rid of bad brain chemistry involves doing something that doesn't cause harm to you or others. But before you can act constructively you have to recognize that the sensations are something other than what you first think they are.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Good reasons to feel bad

Thought for the day: Just because you have a good reason to feel bad, doesn't mean it isn't brain chemistry making you feel bad. Your brain makes you feel bad, and when you cast around for a good reason to feel bad, you can find one sooner if something in your life is worthy of sadness. But you should still try to make the bad feeling go away if you can.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Ideal Team

As I discussed in the previous post, many people grow up in families that do not embody the spirit of the ideal team as it is envisioned by employers. Yet they are expected to function in a work setting as if they did grow up in such a team.  Or, they are expected to be able to learn to be ideal team players by merely being reminded that they should work as a team. Or, at the very least, they can learn to be good team players by receiving instruction in team work.

How many courses, workshops and seminars are given in teamwork: creating a team, developing a team, leading a team, working as a team? Businesses are very insistent these days that employees conform to the ideal team concept. You see it in every job description, every ad for a job opening, no matter how low-level. I think employers must often be disappointed when their employees fall far short of the teamwork mark, when even their leaders are not really skilled at teamwork. And yet functioning as an ideal team continues to be the goal of every group.

Is it a skill that can be learned? If so, then it does not consist of a simple set of behaviors. There's more involved, I think, in simply learning how to act in a group situation. And that is because every group situation is different, and most are not the type employers want in their workplaces. And the fact that they don't know that is hindering their progress in creating the ideal team.

But how can an employer find out what kind of team her employees grew up in? Just asking might be seen as nosy. Perhaps she'd be better off asking herself that question--start there, perhaps. But even if she could glean that information somehow, what should she do with it?

Good question. More later.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Everyone's a Team Player

For most of my life I've believed I am not a team player. When I was a kid, I didn't get picked for teams because I had no athletic skills, or so I thought. I probably did have such skills but didn't know it because no one encouraged me to play sports or do anything athletic, so I never practiced.

Since sports is where most people learn to be a team player, I felt like I missed out on that part of life. But being a part of a team, as I recently learned, is not limited to playing sports. People learn to be on a team because it's a naturally human thing to do. We are all on teams from the time we are born until we die because we are human and need to be with other people to survive.

Many times I've heard people say, "I don't need people. I don't need anybody." My father was one of those people. But he was wrong, and he knew it. We do need people, like it or not. And the liking of it is the sticking point for a lot of people who don't think of themselves as team players. Many of those people are proud of it, too. It's a badge of honor to be a loner in our culture, a maverick, a fiercely independent individualist. Unfortunately, that cultural value does not mix with the requirement of many occupations that an employee be a "people person" or to be able to "get along with coworkers"--to be a team player.

But the kind of team player most employers want is a very particular kind. He or she must be able to work together with others in a cooperative manner that results in getting tasks accomplished with creativity and friendly competition but no unpleasant conflict or strife. 

Unfortunately, that's only one kind of team and certainly not the experience of many, maybe even most people who grow up in families in this country. As I mentioned in the previous post, our first and most influential team is our family, and that team is probably not very much like the ideal team sought after by most businesses. But it is a team, nevertheless. And what people learn about team is learned in that first group.

For instance, I learned in my team to be anxious about my team mates, worried and uncertain about how they were going to react, trying to figure out what I needed to do to get attention from them.  I learned that helping and being cooperative were not valued. My father was an autocrat, so instead of cooperation, he got silent, smoldering acquiescence, or secret and sometimes bold, even at times harmful, rebellion. Constantly fearing rejection, my teammates never asked for help, or love, or attention from each other. They just got angry and sad when they didn't get it. 

And the the failure to give the desired but un-requested help was seen as a sign of disloyalty, as was being helpful or friendly to people from other teams (such as friends). In fact, how we looked at other teams and people in them was the clearest sign of our sense of being a team. We expressed our team spirit by complaining about, criticizing and fearing other people who were not part of our team. Despite our longing to be like the families we saw on TV (Cleavers, e.g.), we expressed disdain for them because they seemed like phonies or some other such contemptible type of person--not like us.

People who grow up in teams like mine develop into the particular kind of team player who will succeed in that kind of team. Unfortunately, when we are forced to join new teams--when we go to school, go to work, get married, join the military or a club or a church congregation--we might have difficulty. It's not because we are not team players, though; it's because the team we played for was different, sometimes drastically so, and learning how to play on the new team involves much more than simply learning the playbook. It often means learning a whole new way of thinking about the world.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Missing My Team

Yesterday I watched a TV program about how retired NFL players sometimes have a hard time dealing with no longer playing football. One of the experts in the film talks about how humans are essentially group animals, that we are at our best when we are around other humans, our team. This expert used that idea to explain why professional athletes are especially unhappy when they separate from their teammates at retirement. They find they must replace their team with another sort of team in order to feel happy.

Not only do they miss their team, but they miss their function within the team and the sense of purpose and accomplishment they gained from being a member of that unit.

People's families are like teams. Whether they are functional or not, one's family members constitute a team with which a person feels more or less close. Even though you may not like your team, it's still your team and you belong there, whether or not that's a comfort to you. When you lose members of your team, you grieve for more than just the loss of that person. You are also grieving for your team.

Recently I lost both surviving members of my family nearly at the same time, and that has proven hard, not only because I miss the people they were, but also because they were my team. I no longer have a team to belong to and so I feel that loss too. I no longer have a place and a purpose within that team and so I feel diminished. Like the NFL players who miss their team and seek to replace it, I need to replace my team with a group of people who will provide me with a purpose and a sense that I can contribute to that group in some important way.

I've never considered my family as a team because we all had bad brain chemistry and so most of the time we were at odds with each other, feeling fear and anger much of the time, coupled with a longing for more closeness, for real acceptance and a sense of unity that never seemed achievable for very long. But we were a team, and did feel that we belonged together, even if it was because we were all miserable. When you're part of such a team, you get some satisfaction from being screwed up together. But unfortunately, it gives you a skewed view of what it means to be part of a team.

I think that's part of the reason why children who are abused by their parents and other family members express outrage and despair when they are taken away from those terrible people, even though the child is likely to end up dead or permanently traumatized. People who don't grow up that way don't understand it, because they can't fathom how anyone would want to be a member of such a toxic team.  But you don't choose your original team, and it's hard to conceive of being without it; you don't see the foster family or the family you are currently staying with as your team. It's another team, and you might even see it as a rival team.

That people can hold such views is puzzling to people who grew up in a nice, helpful, well-functioning family. They believe the virtuous qualities of their family make them a strong team. They don't consider that it's mostly because they were born into this team and don't know any different that they want to hold onto it and to try to persuade others to leave their less healthy family group. Of course they're right to like being in a good family, but it's just luck that they were born into a functional instead of a dysfunctional team.

Anyway, it's kind of a revelation to me to realize that I do belong to a team after all, and that I had a purpose and a role in that team and now my team is gone and I'm alone and missing having a purpose in life. So like those NFL players who are sad because they miss playing football, I'm going to strive to find a replacement for my team.

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Calm After the Storm

I have a temper, as other people often put it--a problem with sudden rage, a response to brain chemistry that I find hard to control. I start yelling at a coworker, friend or loved one for what must seem to that person like no reason, sometimes saying things I regret later.

What's interesting about this phenomenon is that though it looks like rage, the feeling is actually fear. The feeling is always fear, but the response differs. Sometimes it's flight, sometimes fight. Rage is fight. The best defense can be a good offense when you are being attacked.

But unfortunately, the rage is wrong when the situation doesn't warrant it. Chances are you are not being attacked; perhaps you're only being criticized, or thwarted, or confused. None of those situations call for sudden, uncontrollable rage. Yet it happens because the mind is reacting to what it perceives as danger. The stakes seem high but in reality they are not.

It doesn't matter that the response is wrong, however--not to the brain, anyway. Venting the rage works to make the person feel better, and that's what counts. Unfortunately, everyone else feels worse. The short-term effect is relief, but the long-term effects may be ruined relationships, loss of employment, or worse. People who take the rage past verbal abuse to violence might end up hurting or killing someone before they can stop.

For me, the rage is like a sudden, violent thunderstorm. It comes out of the blue and pow! Thunder, lightning, heavy rain, high winds. The storm wreaks havoc, then it's gone--just like that--and the clouds clear, the sun reappears and the sky is a bright blue behind a beautiful rainbow.  Looking around, though, we see the downed tree limbs and the destruction the violent storm left behind. Sometimes the consequences are severe--damage to property or even life. It's never as if nothing happened. In the aftermath, there are always signs of the storm's power.

When the rage comes over me like a sudden thunderstorm, it leaves just as suddenly. I feel better then, but looking around, I see that no one else feels better. People might be angry, stunned, even frightened. Those are the lingering signs of the destructive power of my rage. Coworkers, friends, loved ones remember what it was like. They view me in a different light after that, one that includes a knowledge of my potential for sudden harm.

My mind selects this stormy solution, but only because it's familiar, it's convenient and it works. At least in the short term, anyway. I need to choose a different solution to the bad brain chemistry, but that's not easy because doing so requires that I see the storm coming and avoid it somehow. Depression can sweep over me without anyone (but me) noticing right away, so I have time to do something about it before it harms my relationships. Rage, on the other hand, is immediately consequential. The harm occurs and is over before I even register that it is brain-chemistry-induced.

So, I'm still working on that early-warning system that will help me in my quest to avoid erroneous rage.