Chemistry Lessons

Some days you hear a voice taking you to another place
Some days are better than others
–U2

I haven’t been blogging much lately. I haven’t been writing much of anything lately, aside from posts on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. This is in part because it’s summer, and I don’t do well in summer. But it’s also because my anxiety has been off-the-charts bad for some time now. It’s been a while since it was this bad. Every day I make it through without having a panicky meltdown is a success. Every day that I’m able to leave the house and interact with people without crying is a success. Every day that I’m able to write a coherent sentence is a success.

My therapist and I are working on it. We’re looking at possibly changing my meds, because my brain chemistry is clearly fucked up and the meds I’m taking don’t seem to be cutting it. She also made some suggestions (well, something between “suggestions” and “orders”) on how I should change my diet. I’m trying to go easy on myself while also taking a really hard look at what the hell is going on in my brain.

This is complicated stuff, especially when you don’t have much in the way of an attention span or patience, especially when your self-esteem is erratic at best, especially when you’re friends with amazing writers but you’re having trouble putting two sentences together. (Writing this post is like slogging through a bug-infested treacle swamp.) But even at my worst, I’m optimistic about life. I don’t always feel like I’m capable of living in this world, but I’m in love with this world. And I have an amazing support network of friends and family who remind me as much as possible that this is a fight worth fighting. I can get through this.

I’m hanging in there. I’m doing my best. And I’m looking forward to figuring out the best way of dealing with my wonky brain chemistry, getting this mess sorted out. I’ve been better. And I will be better again.

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Graturday (Father’s Day Edition)

Today is Father’s Day. (At least, it is in my neck of the world.) My own father was never really a big Father’s Day celebrator, so I don’t usually make a big fuss about it myself. But there are some things I’m grateful for that tie in rather nicely with Father’s Day, so…

I’m grateful that I’ve gotten the chance to be a dad, and I’m grateful that a girl as funny, kind, considerate, smart, geeky, and all around cool as my daughter Morgan chose me to be her dad. I seriously lucked out.

I’m also grateful that Morgan’s mom, Julie, and I have been able to move past the anger we had with each other and with ourselves after our marriage ended. We’ve been able to rebuild our relationship into a solid friendship, where we can joke with each other and be supportive of each other (even as we both know and openly acknowledge that we could never be–and probably should never have been–in a romantic relationship with each other).

And I’m grateful that my father, Rick, helped teach me to laugh at and be in love with life, to help out people who need help, to fight for people who are being mistreated, to support the underdog, and to live a life of public service. He shared his love for Barney Miller, St. Elsewhere, Aaron Copland, and Bob Newhart with me. I didn’t start watching Star Trek: The Next Generation until Rick told me it was good. He told me goofy jokes, encouraged me to treat myself to guilty pleasures, and got angry with me about politics. When I’m silly, indulgent, caring, passionate, romantic, and quixotic, it’s in part because of Rick.

 

Neverending Stories

I want to talk about some thoughts I’ve had regarding creativity, learning, and the way our brains work. I’ve never formally studied neurology, psychology, or education, so this is basically a punk thrash song. If you’re not big on that kind of thing, back out now.

My library developed an early childhood literacy program a few years ago which we call “6 by 6“–six skills by age 6 that help develop a child’s literacy. Some of those skills are: “have fun with books,” “talk, talk, talk” (using a large, broad vocabulary), and “tell stories about everything.” Parents, guardians, caregivers, and early educators can help children a lot by helping them develop these skills. Studies have shown that children who develop these kinds of early literacy skills grow up to be much more literate teens than children who don’t develop these skills.

A very strong principle of librarianship is “life-long learning.” We never stop educating ourselves, whether it’s by taking formal courses and attending seminars and workshops, attending professional conferences, or just reading and investigating things on our own. It’s along the same lines as educators and academics. I don’t think life-long learning is something that is or should be specific to librarians, educators, and academics. Everyone should be learning new things throughout their life. And it seems to me that the principles we put forward in our 6 by 6 program never stop applying to our education.

Which brings me to fandom. When I was in elementary school, I played with my Star Wars action figures, making up new stories (and often giving the action figures new names, personalities, and roles in the story) based on the original Star Wars movie. I drew comics and wrote stories that heavily ripped off from Peanuts, Dick Tracy, Star Trek (the original series), Scooby-Doo, Disney and Warner Brothers cartoons, kaiju movies, and the books and superhero comics I loved. Engaging with pop culture like this helped exercise and develop my creativity and my understanding of story. It helped build my vocabulary and inspired me to seek out more information on the world around me. I believe this kind of play is crucial to us, and it’s a shame that much of it is left behind as we grow out of childhood and into adulthood.

It seems to me that writing fanfic, role-playing (both the formal tabletop games I grew up playing and the looser internet role-playing many people do today), creating GIFs and internet memes out of pop culture, mashing up pop songs, playing in fantasy sports leagues…these things (and activities like them) are all important culturally (which is a different but related topic), but they’re also important for our brains. They continue the acts of having fun with books (and movies and TV shows, etc), learning and communicating with a broad vocabulary, telling stories about everything, making education playful and play educational. It’s better to actively engage with books, movies, music, etc than it is to passively consume them. Our brains change as we grow older, but not so much that we need to stop interacting playfully and creatively with the media we’re presented with. If we want to stay sharp, if we want to continue to grow, we need to always be playing and learning.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to take a nap. (Nap time is something else we should continue from childhood. But that’s another post for another time.)

My Evil Twin

There’s blood everywhere. It’s thin and runny in some places, thick like syrup in others. It’s bright red. Is blood really that bright? Shouldn’t it be darker? And the people, the people have been dismembered to the point of being completely unrecognizable, shredded pieces of anonymous meat. They could be anyone or anything.

Amongst the gore, the boy stands with slumped shoulders, calm. His white face, framed by unruly black hair, is pure innocence. “I killed them because I had to,” he says, like it’s the most reasonable thing in the world. “I needed to do it.”

I had a meta-dream the other night. What I mean is, I had a dream in which I discussed dreams I had when I was younger. Real dreams, not dreams that existed only in the context of the meta-dream. (You know when you dream about something, and in the dream, it’s all very real, but when you wake up, you realize you never really lived in Belize for a year or explored German castles with Matthew Perry in high school?)

When I was in middle school, I had a series of dreams in which I had a twin brother. Not an identical twin. He was paler than me, with darker hair. His name was Damien (yes, like the boy in The Omen) and he was a horrible, horrible kid. In one dream, he was very kind and nice until he got angry–and his anger was easy to provoke. Then he would fly into murderous rages, beating and killing children and adults. In another dream, he rarely got angry, but he’d decided to make slasher movies in which people were actually killed, and he did all the killing. My dreams about Damien were tense, violent, and bloody. They scared the ever-living hell out of me.

I’ve always been afraid of real violence and have never been a very confrontational person. Damien was my opposite: direct, confrontational, and happy to hurt people. Did he represent real desires in me, subverted and repressed by my environment and education? Did the potential for me to be like Damien exist in my? Does it exist now?

I don’t know. I hadn’t given any thought to those dreams in many, many years, until my subconscious dredged them up the other night in another dream, a dream about terrifying, bloody, rage-filled dreams. A dream about my dreams about my evil twin.

The Electric Ghost Tornado Ride

I got a pretty good night’s sleep last night. It’s a gorgeous, sunny day with temperatures in the “Josh’s favorite weather” range (60s-70s F). It’s the last day of the work week before a weekend that involves me driving to Wichita with my daughter to see the Go-Go’s and hang out with my imaginary girlfriend, Jane Wiedlin. My job is going well, I had fun playing Pathfinder with friends last night…this is an excellent day.

It’s also a day when my anxiety is running really high. On my drive to work, my hands clutched the steering wheel like they were glued on, my knuckles white. Every time a car or truck passed me on the road, my heart skipped a beat. I feel like my clothes don’t fit me right and look stupid on me. When I see myself in the mirror, I look fat and idiotic. Everything I’ve said in the past week, no matter how trivial or conversational, is running through my brain, my mind scanning every sentence and phrase for blunders.

We’ve come a long way in our understanding and perceptions of mental health, but there’s still a lot of thinking that people can just “get over it.” “What do you have to be depressed about? Why are you worried when it’s such a nice day?” And while it’s true that situations and environments can trigger or compound anxiety, depression, compulsions, etc, they also exist independent of that. I can step back a bit, step outside of myself, look at how my brain chemistry is spiking my anxiety even when everything today is so good, and it fascinates me. It’s strange and amazing how our brains function, even when (especially when) they’re not functioning in the ideal way.

I can step back and look at it, but I can’t get away from it. I can take meds that help regulate my brain chemistry. I can use techniques to help keep myself calm and to deal with unhelpful thoughts that come up. But I can’t just look at the beautiful, blue sky, feel the delightful breeze whisk around my skin, count all the blessings in my life, and flip a switch that turns my anxiety off.

If only it were that easy.

Twice Bitten, Thrice Shy

I’d say it’s natural and normal to react badly to a dog bite. Who likes being bitten by a dog? But how many people get sent into a spiral of low self-esteem and insecurity from a dog bite?

We always had pets in my houses when I was growing up. My dad had an outspoken preference for dogs, but mostly had cats. My mom has always liked to have at least one dog and one cat in the house at any given time. The main dog we had at my mom’s when I was a kid was a cute and energetic but fairly neurotic Bearded Collie named Cookie.

My dad talked a lot about how bad my mother was at training and controlling dogs. He said it was because she lacked any sort of interior authority, which dogs could sense. My dad talked a lot about how weak my mother was. I loved my mother and thought she was as strong as most people could or should be, but I still internalized the idea that “can’t control dogs” = weakness, something my father would disparage and laugh about. My dad would sometimes compare me to my mother, as well as tell me (from childhood well into adulthood) that I was passive-aggressive and manipulative, which were other ways he had of saying someone was “weak.” (My father valued directness and honesty, despite the fact that he was often neither of those things.)

Dogs are not easy pets to have. They’re generally quite clever and eager to please their owners, but they need to have clear pack hierarchy established and reinforced. What might seem to me to be a common sense way of establishing order can turn out to be the opposite of what a dog needs to keep it in line. I like dogs, but I’m generally much more comfortable with cats as pets. When Berkie adopted Dicken, she read a lot on dog behavior and training. We weren’t living together at that point, so I didn’t read up on training and looked to my companion for instruction. I’ve done my best at interacting with the little guy, but I am, admittedly, inconsistent and don’t always behave the right way with him. Add to this that he is clever and eager to please but also loves to test his boundaries and can sometimes just be a little asshole. He gets cranky with me in particular, especially when he thinks I’m encroaching on his quality time with Berkie.

Last week, I got up to let him outside early in the morning. After he came back inside, we both headed up to go back to bed. He wasn’t happy about me coming back to the bedroom and started growling and barking at me–which isn’t all that unusual, but Berkie and I just tell him to shut up and get off the bed, which is usually the end of it. This time, he bit my leg, then when I grabbed him and told him no, he bit my thumb. Neither bite was bad enough to draw blood, but they both hurt and startled me. And then yesterday, he was chewing on the fluff he’d pulled out of one of his toys, and when I started taking it away from him, he bit my other thumb, hard enough to draw blood on both sides of the digit. After both bites, I pinned him down to re-establish my dominance, but it’s pretty clear that he doesn’t really see me as an alpha.

Which shouldn’t really be that big a deal. Berkie has nicely, patiently explained to me things I was doing wrong and things I could do to rectify the situation. I’ve done my best to listen and be open to her instruction. But there’s this strong voice in my head–a voice that sounds exactly like my dad–telling me that the dog is biting me because I can’t project any kind of authority. Because I’m just too damn weak.

I’m sure anyone reading this is thinking, “Ignore those inner voices! Forget what your dad said! He was full of shit.” And he was. I know that. But these are long-established thought patterns in my head. I wish it were as easy as just ignoring them. I wish I could just say, “Fuck it! I know I’m strong!” But I look at the bandage on my thumb and I see a big, obvious sign that I’m weak. I assume everyone who sees it knows that it means I’m weak. I look at this 20-pound mutt and I feel nervous that I’ll never dominate him. And I feel stupid for letting my father knock me down from beyond the grave.

This will pass, as all things do. But today? Today, I’m feeling like a weak-willed, cowardly crybaby.

Graturday 7

I skipped doing a Graturday post last week–I was not having the best week ever. I’m a day late with this one, but…better late than never again, right? Right!

1. I’m grateful for my friends and family who are always quick to lend me their support when I need it, even when the reasons for needing it are poorly articulated. I posted online last week about feeling horribly low, and although I didn’t really articulate what was the matter or just how low I was (for the record: extremely), I got more good wishes and emotional support than I expected. And it helped. More…well, more than I can really articulate.

2. I’m grateful for my parents and the way they raised me. Specifically, they brought me up to be friendly and gracious. I think I was that way by nature, but they definitely nurtured it and taught me good manners. Which is a big reason why, I think, I get so much support from people when I’m low.

3. I’m grateful for my brother and sister-in-law and their two kids. My nephew, August, had a birthday today, and my niece, Hazel, had one a couple of weeks ago. Both kids are delightful and very dear to me, as are their parents. Love you, Neffs!