Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Laying my cards on the table

Whoa guys.  It's been five months since I posted on this blog.  In my drafts folder I have half-written posts on amazing kale soup, a care package from Portugal, my favorite sources for recipes, a cheap guide to NYC, new shelves, and killing my garden.  (You're probably sighing in relief that I didn't actually post some of those.  Shelves?)  I plan to finish some of those posts.  But not today.  Today I'm going to talk about something pretty personal.  Shit’s about to get real.  And long.  You have been warned.

I've been having a tough time lately.  Everyone gets into ruts, I know.  And everyone feels depressed from time to time.  For me, this knowledge can be comforting, but it can also trigger terrible guilt.  Lots of people have problems (bigger problems than mine!) and still do the things they need and want to do.  So why can’t I?

I struggle with a few mental health conditions that sometimes make it difficult for me to stay organized, complete basic day-to-day tasks, meet deadlines, and, some days, leave the house or even get out of bed.  I need a lot of external structure to keep myself going, and that is just not something you get when you’re employed part-time and/or a student.  I am basically always behind in school, frantically trying to pay bills on time, and frustrated about my messy house.  I get overwhelmed very easily and quickly dive into complete avoidance mode, which usually means watching hours of Netflix and ignoring phone calls.  This is not a good way to live, my friends.

But I also don’t think it’s terribly uncommon.  People just don't like to admit that sometimes it's hard to do things everyone "should" be able to do.  I think people with mental health disorders are often seen as lazy or selfish, and it's easy to internalize these beliefs and slip into a terrible cycle of stress-getting behind-depression-getting more behind-stress-depression.  We also get constant messages that if you want or need to do something, you should just do it.  Want a clean house?  Just clean it.  Want to be a chef?  Just become one.  Want to feel less stressed?  Just stop stressing!  I find myself thinking that if I could just do x, y, and z, everything would be better.  And that’s probably true.  If I could just do x, y, and z, things would be better.  But I can’t.  People with ADHD, depression, or whatever else truly can’t just do it.  This is difficult for a lot of folks to understand, but it’s the truth.

I recently read an interview with someone who struggles with chronic depression, and she said that what sets people with mental illness* apart from others is not necessarily the problems they’re struggling with.  The difference is that people with mental illness have weaker (or non-existent) coping mechanisms.  That really stuck with me.  I’m not lazy or unmotivated or incompetent.  I just have a brain that shuts down when under stress instead of finding productive ways to cope.  And while I can learn (and have learned) ways to better manage this reaction, I’m not sure that initial response will ever change.  And I really want to be okay with that.  It's how I'm built.  Like having broad shoulders--I can wear clothes that flatter, but I can't change the size of my bones.

So there you go.  I know this is pretty personal for the blog, but that’s where I’m at.  Like I said, when I’m feeling behind and guilty, I avoid—even things as seemingly trivial as blogging.  And I have found that the best way to break out of avoidance mode is to be completely honest and lay all my cards on the table.  So that’s what I’m doing.  And now we can go from here.

*"Mental illness" is the term she used.  I'm a little uneasy with that word, and I'm not sure certain conditions, like ADHD, should be considered "illnesses."  But since she used it, I'll use it here.


Mimi said...

Caroline--As usual, you are incredibly brave. I admire you so much for that and I admire your parents as well because, though truth-telling is hard and you are now grown, there is a part of you that has always been supported for that truth-telling. I, too, have struggled with that same issue of shutting down, even more so when I was younger and hormones wreaked their havoc on whatever other chemical imbalance was at work. No matter how well I have done at something, no matter how talented people thought I was, I always waited for the other shoe to drop; the day when it was too much, too complicated, and the paralysis could not be overcome. That day has never come, not in any way that counted. I have certainly had troughs to dig my way out of but as time has passed, I see that the troughs are normal. I strive for evenness. "Just do it" just doesn't work for me very often but, somehow, it all gets done and even pretty well some of the time. You are amazing, insightful and talented. Melinda

Angela said...

Do you ever read Hyperbole and a Half? Allie has a way of putting these things that hits the nail on the head..."Why I'll Never Be a Grown-up" is one of my favorites.

"If I could just do x, y, and z, things would be better. But I can’t. People with ADHD, depression, or whatever else truly can’t just do it. This is difficult for a lot of folks to understand, but it’s the truth."

I'm not sure that it's always a matter of "can't" -- it's a matter of how many chainsaws you can juggle at once, and for how long, to keep up that front of normalcy. I have Aspergers, moderate prosopagnosia (face blindness), and I struggle with the resultant anxiety problems that come from years of trying to cope with those things with very little help. Most of the other people I know with similar issues can, with great effort, overcome the challenges of their disabilities and force themselves into lockstep with society -- but it requires so much effort that it's utterly exhausting. I can mask, pass, and "keep up" -- but at the cost of maybe 75% of my energy, and all the other things a grown-up life requires, from work to bills to cleaning to essential personal relationships, have to be dealt with on that remaining 25%. That's what people don't understand. If you want me to do things on your schedule, a certain way, then I am perpetually running on 25% battery power. Of course I'm going to run down faster.

This is what I have such trouble getting people to understand. It's not that I think doing the dishes is hard. It's not that paying the internet bill on time is all that difficult. It's that things that they can put on auto-pilot (small talk, recognizing your co-workers, getting dressed in the morning without forgetting something vital like shoes), I have to do very consciously and deliberately, so managing my brain to get the little stuff all done is like trying to use a computer where you have 238 internet browser windows, ten Word documents, two movies, six CDs, and all those little programs that usually run in the background open all at the same time, and trying to figure out what I should be looking at RIGHT THIS SECOND so the computer doesn't explode. And then if you manage to do that and keep it up for a while, the ultimate compliment our society gives you is to tell you that the marathon you just ran, that struggle you just had, was invisible -- "Really? I didn't even notice you had ____."

I don't have much that's helpful to say except that I know where you're coming from -- and that *I* am impressed when someone who's dealing with ADHD, or anxiety disorder, or depression, is out there trying to carve out a well-rounded life, because I know how much effort it takes.