Broken Words

There are certain phrases I’ve been programmed to say, regardless of their validity or fairness.

I’m fine, just tired.

I’m sorry, it’s all my fault.

I can’t draw.

Honesty is for the internet, because the conversations online are often less taxing than ones offline. Also? I’m often a coward. It’s easier to take the blame or shrug off the problem than it is to risk the people I know telling me they don’t believe me. My current counsellor calls me an ‘unwilling people pleaser’.

He kinda has a point.

I found myself, over and over, saying I couldn’t draw today. Silliness happened online, and I wanted, needed, to draw it. Me feeling inspired to art, knowing it would be seen by someone I respect the hell out of? It’s rare.

When I was in highschool, I had a shitty art teacher who made me feel like crap about everything I tried to do. I started out passionate, engaged. Not a shocker: growing up when I was asked what I wanted to be, my answer was almost always ‘writer, singer, artist’. Sometimes ‘palaeontologist’ so I could work with my big sister. By the time I graduated I was half-assing assignments like nobody’s business because, over and over, that art teacher told me I was shit at art, and eventually I gave up and started believing.

Grade nine, she ‘helped’ me with an assignment, taking over and adding glue and white paint to the surface of my artwork while I was out of the room. She’d suggested the addition, and I’d said no, I didn’t think it’d work with what I was trying to do. She failed me for those additions, because they were too much and ruined the overall look of it. It clearly didn’t go with what I was trying to do.  She even managed to break the triptych I’d made for an art showing at the school, cutting the linking chains and gluing Velcro to the back of the timber, and basically making sure it couldn’t be salvaged after the event. She hung the pictures- of ghosts, because I was a morbid little shit even back then- upside down. I remember looking at everyone else’s work, all beautifully presented, with mine arranged upside down and lopsidedly haphazard, hidden in the back like it was an embarrassment. In class, the old cow would stand behind me as I worked, pointing out flaws and asking why I couldn’t be like her favourite student.

Four years of that, and it was ingrained pretty well that I suck at art. It took years to even pick up a coloured pencil again. But the thing is, I enjoy being creative. And I’m even okay at it when I get out of my own way.

For the first time in forever, I decided to make something and show someone. It’s not perfect, granted- I’m not going to be animating anything for Disney. But I like it. It’s cute. And it makes me happy. It also makes the person I’m giving it to happy, which is kinda the point.

But still, even looking at a piece of paper covered in proof to the contrary, in the back of my mind I hear ‘I can’t draw.’ To the point I got spooked. I actually worried whether one of my friends would be angry about it- even though he’s the kindest, most easy going person who would never give someone shit for imperfect art. I was genuinely worried he’ll be mad about a picture because ‘I can’t draw’ and he might be offended that I took the silly and made an ugly picture of it even though I know it’s not ugly and actually like it.

My brain is a complicated place to be.

We all have a running narrative of bullshit forced into our heads from ourselves, but also from those around us. The unhelpful relative who tells us that we could stand to lose some weight if we want to get/keep a partner. The teacher who told us boys only like girls who smile (jokes on you, asshole: I still get hit on when I’m scowling, so there!) The helpful sort who explained that creativity is a hobby, not a career, and starving artist is all you’ll ever be because you’re not talented enough to be in the minority of successful art makers.

I’ve recently started cognitive behavioural therapy, which is fucking phenomenal for someone who likes picking things apart to study them. It’s hard, sometimes, but I kinda love it, because it’s like dissecting a story to see how the author made it work.

I am the writer of my life story, and gods dammit, but I’ve made it a hell of a complicated narrative.

In a way, in CBT sessions we play a game: find a negative thought currently fucking me up, and figure out where it came from. What started that fear, or running monologue? And how do I change that belief now?

I was scared to show a friend a picture of some My Little Ponies because a woman told me when I was younger that I can’t ‘do’ art properly. Given she was in a position of authority on the subject and was bullying the hell out of me, I started to believe her, to the point where that voice in my head telling me I suck is hers, even after all these years.

What I didn’t expect was how that ‘you’re not creative’ fucks me over as a writer. I’ve been writing fiction for years, but rarely sharing it. Certainly never getting it published away from spheres I control, even though I want to be an author. But I hesitate, over and over.  Because ‘you’re not creative’ wormed its way into the part of my creativity that means the most to me.

The bullshit we’re told is sneaky. It gets into the nooks and crannies you don’t expect it to be in, until you’re left wondering what the absolute fuck is wrong with you. You chalk yourself up to lazy asshole levels of uselessness, beat yourself up emotionally for the wasted effort, and never realise that there might be something just below the surface.

We’re all a melting pot of our own baggage, and the baggage other people have dumped onto us, knowingly or not.

The thing about epiphanies is that they’re fucking worthless on their own. I am really, really good at having them- at picking things apart and understanding why they’re happening. What I suck at is figuring out how to fix things.

I’m getting slowly better though. Here, I know that Van Gogh had a good point: if you hear a voice saying you can’t paint, paint and it’ll stfu. Push through, and take some of the pressure off, and suddenly that big scary ‘can’t’ is turning into a ‘kinda can’. Take the Dory approach (just keep swimming), and ‘kinda can’ turns into ‘can’ turns into ‘fuck me, I’m awesome’.

When they said you have to suffer for your art, I had no idea that they actually meant that you’ll probably suffer crippling self-doubt and a society given belief that you’re unworthy to call yourself a creative. But there you go.

The Sunday Circle: The Smurf Haired Girl Vs The Depressive Episode

[For those not in the know, Peter M. Ball hosts the Sunday Circle on his blog every week, which you should know because you should honestly be stalking his blog by now. This is my response to his questions.]

 

This week didn’t go well. I had PLANS- the sort that needed to happen, the sort that have been struggling to happen with a move and a bunch of drama associated with it. Last week was to be the week I got back on track. I wanted to get to today’s post triumphant and maybe just a teensy bit smug about it all.

The problem, of course, was that I was so busy plotting my triumphant return to getting shit done that I missed the rather obvious issue: I was stacking the deck against myself. If you look at my post from last week, you’ll see it’s the queen of the big-ass to do lists. It’s ridiculous.

And it should have been a glaring neon sign that I was about to be in bad brain territory. Whenever I’m about to struggle, my body lets me know in advance with a random flurry of preparation. Like extreme nesting, I try to do as much as possible so that while I’m feeling like shit, I can at least tell myself that I’m not screwing anything up overly much.

The week started off well. I was focused, I was there. And though the problems I was tackling were breaking my brain and taking forever, I was seeing progress. And then… I wasn’t. There were distractions galore stealing my time, and frustrations that honestly need to be dealt with, and then I fought with someone I adore, and spent two days curled under a doona, freezing my ass off and getting increasingly frustrated that my body’s way of dealing with massive amounts of conflict and stress is with shock symptoms for days afterwards.

So my achievements became ‘I did some writing work’ and ‘I kinda just gave up on getting the fucking blog formatting right this week and decided that’ll do, pig’. That’s… that’s pretty much it. I got a few writing jobs done, and it seems they were well received (I got a charming text from someone I reviewed that absolutely fucking made my day), and I stuck my pride to the sticking place and tried to resolve the big horrible fight of bullshittery when, let’s be honest, I’d have rather just pretended nothing ever happened, because resolution runs the risk of more conflict and more days stuck hiding under doonas unable to do a gorram thing beyond listen to my ‘Depression: The Musical’ playlist and wishing coffee made itself.

So because my headspace is still far too close to shitty territory for my liking, this week, I’m approaching it from a much different- much smarter- direction. I’m scaling back. I’m trying a new rule: one thing daily for my business, and one thing daily for me. That way, on the good days, I can throw more into my day, and on the bad days, I can do the absolute minimum and not feel like a total screw up.

What am I working on this week? Mostly the writing adjacent stuff. I need to get the distractions sorted- the problem with living with a chronic procrastinator when I’m pretty damn good at procrastinating myself is how easily it turns into both of us getting to the end of the day, having done not a fucking thing. That can’t keep happening. Boundaries must be set and enforced.

The collaborative review blog I made, Reviewers of Oz, still needs work. But it’s going to be part of a blog tour for an author’s novel release in mid April, and that needs to be a massive priority. If I can do that well, it’s a damn good way to start moving from ‘new, shitty blog’ towards ‘new, but kinda sorta professional and accepted’ blog, and I want that.

I’m reviewing A Rock & Roll Writers Festival next weekend, which should be a hell of a lot of fun, and a good chance to learn more and chat to some writers and artists I haven’t gotten to meet before. And I’ll need a couple of reviews written for it and delivered by close of business Monday. Doable.

Other than that, I want to get back to writing 2k a day (made easier because Camp Nanowrimo starts next month, which is an ass kicking to get it done, at least), and reading for an hour. For the most part, these are my ‘one a day’ goals.

What’s inspiring me? To be honest, the blind panic that happens when I realise I’ve fucked up; that I’ve missed the glaring warning signs that shit isn’t going well when I know damn well I need to be vigilant. This time, I was really lucky. It didn’t last as long as it could have before I was able to drag myself out of the blue mood. But part of my business plan as a freelancer has to be taking care of myself, and minimising these moments. So figuring out how to pay better attention clearly has to be a priority.

What am I avoiding? The world, maybe? I’m avoiding the part where I have to sit people down and say, ‘as much as I love spending time with you, we can’t keep just hanging out all day. Both of us have stuff to do, and I need to make things happen in a way that isn’t possible when we’re doing this.’ I hate the very idea of that, because it means putting my stuff ahead of someone else’s, and the implication that my work is more important than talking to them about the stuff happening in their world makes me feel like twenty shades of asshole. Which, it shouldn’t. I know that if I was giving a friend advice, I’d be telling them to set that boundary. I’d be telling them that if after weeks of talking it out, nothing’s changing, than continuing those conversations isn’t going to be helpful. That it’s never a bad thing to prioritise your life, and your goals.

Now I just need to get my overly anxious, people pleaser brain on board with that.

Ugh.

Fail. Fail Better.

At the beginning of the year, I set myself an ambitious, but not entirely unreasonable challenge: 2,000 words of writing every day for the year. Which sounds kinda cruisy until you do the math: that’s 730,000 words in a year.

…That’s a big number.

I kicked ass in January, and came close to hitting 1/7th of my goal in the first month of the year. February? Not so much. Life became about the stress of the move, big time. If you’ve ever had minimal money and maximum need for accommodation in Brisbane (or anywhere with unreasonably high rent)… you know what it’s like.  2k a day became ‘get your work done and survive’.

It’s hard getting back into the swing of writing. Even with so small a break, it feels like the muscle memory has died off in the weeks I’ve been freefalling and focused elsewhere.

The voice of anxiety is booming that it’s doomed- how can I catch up? To be back on track means getting another 86k written this month. That’s a big ask with a sprained finger I’m meant to be resting.

Shall I give you a moment to get the dirty jokes out of your system?

crowley is bored
I’m waiting…

We good to continue? Lovely. No, it wasn’t doing anything fun. It was hauling stuff around. And now every time I use it to hit a key (or turn on a light, or use my phone… or…) it reminds me, rather painfully, that I need to cut that shit right out this instant. I want to write, but I also kinda want the pain to stop, too.

So how do you get back on track when it feels like that goal lives on the impossible end of the spectrum? You learn to fail better. I managed about 13k last month. I doubt I’ll make 100k this month to compensate, and that’s okay, even though in this moment anything less than 100k feels like an epic kind of fail. I’m already at 14k- I’ve already beat last month’s word count in two days of work. Instead of saying ‘I must hit 100k’, let’s say 70k- about 10k more than my set monthly target. If I add that little bit extra each month, boom. I’m caught up by the end of the year. It still feels like a bit of a failure, because I’m rocking the anxiety girl chic right now, but it’s failing better than last month, at least.

It’s not always about the massive instant fix. Sometimes, slow and steady is the better option.

Goals and Life

Last month, life went fairly well. Rocked the fiction writing goals, made progress on a bunch of stories- things went so well I blasted past my original word count target by 30k-ish.

I rocked it like a hurricane.

This month? Not so much.

I’m frantically house hunting, which, if you’ve ever tried to find affordable, pet friendly, public transport accessible housing in Brisbane, you’ll know it’s the mental equivalent of stabbing yourself in the arm, over and over every single day, hoping that this time it won’t hurt as much. Funnily enough, that doesn’t help get things done.

At the same time, I’m packing, or trying to. It’s a slow process to try and find all the little bits that have gone awry over the last year, especially when you work from home and actually have to… y’know, get that work done. It’s even more fun to be trying during a heatwave, in a house without air con or fans, with three cats demanding regular attention.

In ye olde worldy days, when I was young and stupid, I asked writers- a lot- how they managed to make it all work. I mean, let’s be honest: life is a shit storm sometimes. How does anyone get anything done in that?

And almost every single writer trotted out that painful line ‘if you value it, you’ll do it’. Which, let’s be honest, is the sort of privileged, hunk of shit answer that sounds like it’s given to them along with the publishing contract in a cheesy ‘how to’ guide style format. I’m gonna be honest: as soon as anyone says it, I assume the biggest issue they’ve ever faced is a slightly sore toe. Maybe a vague sense of unease that lasted about five minutes.

I tend to roll my eyes and look for someone slightly more real and relatable to talk to.

You can value the hell out of something, and still not be able to give it the attention it needs or deserves. The truth is that sometimes, life is gonna kick you in the crotch, and you’re gonna need to rest instead of forcing your way through the pain to the other side. Sometimes, other things need to be of higher value in your life. Like not being homeless. Or not having to replace a bunch of stuff at the worst possible time. There are gonna be times when you write like it’s the easiest thing in the world, and there are gonna be times when every word feels like you’re dragging it kicking and screaming from a tar pit and trying to scrub it clean while it tries to rip your arms off. That’s pretty damn time consuming.

My goal this month was 52-ish thousand words. I’ve just passed 12k. And, honestly? That’s okay. That’s actually pretty damn phenomenal, given the circumstances. Instead of focusing on the lost 40k, I’m focusing on the found 12.

The more stress I throw at myself to get it done, to try and write 40k and pack and move and house hunt and…and…and… the more I’m going to struggle. The more I try to play catch up, the more I throw guilt into the mix, the more impossible it’ll feel, and the quicker I’ll give up. Guilt kills creativity.

So instead, I’m kicking back and relaxing. I’m saying it’s totally fine that there will be months where I get nothing much done. It happens. Life goes on. 12k is infinitely worthy of celebration in a month like this.

Hell, 10 words in a month like this? Still a number to be proud of. Surviving the month without getting a single word down would have been worthy of celebration.

Sometimes, where you’re at is enough. Sometimes, you need to put down the goals you’re beating yourself to death with, and accept that next month will be better.

Progress, not perfection, right?

Vale, General.

Carrie Fisher died today.

I’ve been able to make my peace with a lot of the deaths this year, but this one? This one fucking hurts. Carrie Fisher was the sort of kick ass woman I always wanted to meet, and the sort of brave human being I hope I can be. As a writer, she kicked a hell of a lot of ass. And maybe one day I’ll actually talk about that without spending 10k fangirling.

But as a human being? Holy hell, all the ass she kicked.

She was honest about her mental illness, rather than hiding it. She did so, so much to try and fight the stigma attached to mental illness. She stepped back when she wasn’t coping, and gave herself permission to treat her illness with compassion and kindness instead of trying to force her way through when she knew it wasn’t really possible. That takes a hell of a lot of courage. Pushing through the stigma and bullshit to maintain a career is damn near miraculous.

It can be really hard to find role models with mental illnesses, because more often than not, the media crucifies them for their ‘quirky behaviour’. When the world scrutinises the hell out of your every act, the easiest way to survive in the public eye is to hide any hint of illness from the world. And no one has the right to begrudge someone making the choice to survive instead of risk their mental health challenging the unfairness. She fought, and that makes her a big damn hero.

She was honest about her aging. When the spank-bank warriors rioted online about an actual human woman daring to age (and, y’know, apparently impact the ability for strangers to jack off to an image of her from decades ago), she gave exactly zero fucks. Seriously, go look at movies and count the older women playing dynamic, action-focused or leadership roles within the story. Go listen to actresses talking about how hard it is to get work after a certain age while men can grey and wrinkle without anyone caring overly much about it. Rocking her grey hair rather than hiding it while doing press? Kind of a big deal, y’all.

And her most iconic role, while mostly remembered for that fucking bikini, is such an amazing role model for girls and women. Leia fights on, even when everyone else runs away. Those heroes who get all the attention? They all ran the hell away. Luke runs away and hides on a freakin’ planet. Han runs away and goes back to smuggling. Chewie runs away with him. But they’re not the only runners. Ben runs away to join the enemy. Leia doesn’t run away. She loses everything, over and over, and she just keeps fucking fighting. She doesn’t wait for the heroes to get their asses back into the fray, she just gets it done without them.

But that’s not all that makes her an amazing role model.

When Rey returns after Han’s death, what does Leia do? This girl is a stranger to her, even if it’s clear Han cares for her at least a little. But Leia offers the girl comfort and company. The pair share their grief while the rest of the world celebrates the overall victory. She doesn’t begrudge the girl’s emotions, doesn’t get jealous or petty, or any of the other territorial shit that allegedly makes for interesting tension in stories around female interactions. She’s maternal, caring. She sees someone in pain, and even though she’s in so much pain herself, she tries to help ease Rey’s grief. Her love was just murdered by her son, and she’s offering support to someone else.

Leia as a General is respected, listened to. She’s not presented as trying to get the menfolk to listen and respect her- they already respect her. She’s proved her worth, and doesn’t need to keep trying to prove it in order to stay in power. She listens to her people, she acknowledges their ideas and their value as part of the team, rather than trying to do it all. And part of her strength is her compassion. She’s not closed off, not bitter and cold like so many other women in leadership roles in fiction. She cares about the safety of her people, even when she knows they’re likely going to die. She knows her people by name, and gives them the respect they’re due

You don’t respect her because she was a princess first? Look at all the fucks she gives.

You think her best days required a stupid bikini? She will choke you on the straps and jam metal and fabric down your throat, and go about her day.

You think she can’t win the war because she has lady bits? Still, not a solitary fuck available to give.

You think she’s too old to get shit done? She will stomp your throat into the dust and then get the hell back to work. Why? Because she’s not a damsel. She’s not a strong female character who falls apart as soon as the hero arrives, or who suddenly loses her ability to do her job because ooh, there’s a cute guy there! She’s focused, she’s driven, she’s passionate, and professional, and she’s capable regardless of what the men around her are doing.

And if you don’t think that means the world to women like me, you’re so, so wrong.

RIP, Carrie.

 

 

Why Voice Matters

Back in my photography days, I worked with a start up Not For Profit that wanted to teach photography to the groups least likely to be given the opportunity to learn.My mentor’s most cherished moment was having a student crying, because she’d never thought she’d get to try photography. No one had ever thought to ask this woman if she’d like to try it.

Her photography was stunning.

The participants in the classes absolutely rocked. Their pictures told stories beyond the obvious. They saw the world differently, and looking at their artworks made it easier for me, and many others, to see the world a little differently, too.

Though we sing the praises of the healing power of creativity, we tend to only let it be accessed by the affluent and the able bodied. We assume that disability of any kind means unable, rather than differently able, and a lot of fantastic voices and ideas are lost to that social stupidity.

This year’s Queensland Poetry Festival seems designed to kick the status quo squarely in the balls. The focus is on resilience, and giving space to those who rarely get a look-in at such events. And you know what? It’s glorious to watch it all unfold.

The event I went to today, for example, involved performances by Word On The Street, and Brotherhood of the Wordless.

Word On The Street is a poetic offshoot of The School Of Hard Knocks. The School works to engage, educate, and empower disadvantaged, socially excluded, and marginalised people through a range of creative projects. They kick a lot of ass creatively, and if you ever get a chance to see a performance by any of the School’s programs, do it.

Today’s Word On The Street performers were performing for the first time at a festival, and honestly? You couldn’t tell. These are the sort of heart-breakingly honest, painfully beautiful poems. They weren’t your typical love poems; instead they were raw, utterly spellbinding stories of loss and strife, filled with the sort of hope the world needs so much more of.

The beauty of their work was in the way they found ways to make universal some very specific experiences. I can’t, for example, tell you what it’s like to be so hungry that a piece of chicken from a rubbish bin is a cherished find. But through the artist’s words, it was hard not to relate to those longings, those places in life where desperation and drive come together. It was hard not to think about those moments where our joy looks incredibly different to the joys felt by those around us.

You’ve got to admit, that’s a lot of emotional punch in a poem about a piece of chicken.

*

The Brotherhood, meanwhile, are a group of performance poets who, due to a variety of conditions, can’t speak. At this point, you’d be forgiven for asking how the hell that works. Though the poems are crafted by a non-verbal artist, they’re spoken by a support person (usually a family member of friend).

That is really, really important, y’all.

This isn’t someone speaking for a non-verbal person in the traditional sense (and by that I mean: this isn’t a person deciding what a non-verbal person thinks or feels, and gate-keeping the thoughts and feelings of another human being), but sharing deeply emotive, utterly important work. The speaker is the brush through which the art is shared, not the artist or the artwork.

If you ever get the chance to see the Brotherhood perform, do it. Because here’s the thing: if you’re a teacher, you need to see this. If you work in disability services, you need to see this. If you spend your days caring for people with severe health issues, you need to see this. If you’re a parent with a non-verbal child, my Gods, you need to see this. Why? Because it’s easy to forget in the constant chaos that you’re working with people with hopes, dreams, and ideas to share.

But also? If you’re in love with language and creativity? You need to see this.

Like Word On The Street, the Brotherhood is the good kind of kick in the ass.

As a society, we think that inability to verbalise thoughts equates to an inability to think or relate. And you know what? All the big themes are there in the Brotherhood’s work. Love, longing, hope, and fear. But there’s also humour. There’s creativity. There’s everything that mainstream society fails to see in non-verbal or differently abled people.

The poetry from both groups is heartbreaking, poignant, and intellectual. It cuts through the social BS about what marginalised people are seen as capable of, and points out something it’s far too easy to forget: race, gender, religion, or circumstances, we all share core fears and experiences. We all want to be loved, and we all get scared that we’ll never find someone who sees us as we are and thinks we’re enough. We all want to be valued, and we all want to contribute. And we all want to share our experiences and ideas with those around us.

Both Word On The Street and The Brotherhood value people, and stories, that we don’t often give a lot of attention to. And giving those people the space and time to be heard? It’s so, so important. Not just because they’re entitled to that space and time- because they are. Not just because watching marginalised people unapologetically take to the stage and deliver powerful truths is beautiful to see and utterly vital- because it is.

Creativity, and especially stories, are so, so powerful. They give us a chance to learn and grow in a profound way. They give us a chance to see the world in a new way, and to learn to be better, more compassionate and empathetic creatures. They save us in our darker moments, and they help us to remember that we’re not alone. We need stories that are vulnerable, yes. But we need stories from voices that we don’t often hear from.

We need stories from people who aren’t white, who aren’t male, who aren’t heterosexual, who aren’t able-bodied. We need stories from the disabled, from the homeless, from the mentally ill, from those struggling with addictions.These are voices desperately needed in our world, because everyone deserves to know they’re not alone, and that someone else has experienced and survived similar circumstances.

We believe that fairy tales teach children that dragons can be defeated. But isn’t it just as vital to remind adults that they’re not alone, and that their experiences are valid, and worthy of being shared?

This isn’t about saving people, or patting people on the head and pretending to care. It’s not about extreme misery-lit, and competitive miseries. It’s about remembering that we’re all human, and we’re all worthy of having our stories shared, acknowledged, and respected.

 

The Anxious Life

Here’s the thing about anxiety: oftentimes, people assume it’s this vague sense of unease. A slight worry. Normal. Far too often in media, ‘anxiety’ is shorthand for quirky, worrying soul who just needs a hug/shag/romance to change their silly ways. You know, in the same way, ‘bipolar’ tends to be played as either violently deranged (which, hi, unfair) or hyperactive with the occasional moment of sadness to add contrast.

We don’t often talk honestly about what it’s like, and the impact it has.

Let’s take me, for example. I went from ‘omg this festival was AMAZING let me tell you ALL THE THINGS’ to utter radio silence. That’s what it’s like living with anxiety and depression for me.

It’s Mental Health Awareness Month for a few more days, and I’ve spent a lot of time watching other people talk openly and compassionately about their experiences with mental illness. And rather than do my usual ad-libbed excuse for bailing on blogging for a while, I’m going to be honest. Like, really honest. Feel free to abandon ship and avoid the potential overshare, but on the other hand, feel free to treat this as a class in writing one form of anxiety. Assume trigger warnings for self harm and suicidal thoughts, and react accordingly.

Also? It needs to be noted that I’m unmedicated because I’m part of the very, very statistically tiny group of people whose reaction to meds is having them ramp up the problem, rather than making life easier. This is not the reaction most people have to meds. A random internet person’s experience is not a valid reason for other people not to be medicated, mmkay?

And, for the record, this is not my banal attempt at an anti-med crusade. Let me be clear: I am 100% totally pro meds if and when they work for you. Please don’t be that person who responds with either a rant about the awesomeness of their particular meds (I’m 100% thrilled they work for you, wish they worked for me, but alas), or a rant about my single-handedly corrupting the med-needing populations of the interwebs (which has happened before, and is why I generally bypass mentioning meds ever).

*

Like all the best attacks, you don’t see it coming.

It starts off small. You don’t notice the anxiety rising until it makes it hard to breathe, the way a frog doesn’t notice the rising water temperature and sits until it’s flavouring soup.

You don’t notice the way everything changes, even though everything does.

The colours dim around the edges, but there’s so much happening- always so much happening- that it passes, unnoticed. In a constant flood of things to do and be, who notices the tiniest steps they take?

Jokes don’t make you laugh quite as much. Things that are normally simple become ever so slightly harder. Words get harder to find. It’s harder to be around other people, to follow their trains of thought and remember what you’re meant to say in response. It feels like a dance you don’t quite know the steps for. All the while, the things that were easy to overlook start having more and more meaning. Other people’s mistakes start feeling deliberate. Forgetfulness feels malicious. Fear starts feeling logical. 

There are shadows in the edges of your vision, and you avoid looking at them. You make a point of pretending they don’t exist. You know what grows there, you’ve been here enough for that flare of instinctive fear, even if you’re still somehow missing the neon warning signs that things are about to go badly (but look what still needs to be done! I’ll just do this, then I’ll step back. Then I’ll rest. Honest). You don’t notice the random moments where your mind begins slowly, quietly, adding a background mix-tape of horribleness to your day. You’re not enough. This is shit- what the hell is wrong with you? You call yourself a writer? Why? You’re not enough. You’re never, ever, actually enough, and you never fucking will be. Holy shit, you’re such an idiot. How does anyone not notice just how stupid you actually are? You know they’re gonna figure it out soon, right?

It’s all so softly spoken, so far in the background of the sideshow carnival of shit needing your attention, that it takes an age to realise it’s there at all. Maybe you notice, once or twice, but the odd brain glitch is easy enough to ignore. Besides, you’re used to that negative soundtrack, used to ignoring it. And maybe you falter, just for a moment, when the expected you’re not enough slides into no one actually cares whether you live or die, but the moment flickers and passes too quickly. You call bullshit, shake it off, and go back to what you were doing.

And if you’re really, really paying attention, that moment of worry is enough to shake you loose from the spiral. You realise something is wrong, and do so soon enough that it’s possible to get off the ride. You’re not always that lucky. Sometimes, you shrug off that worry. You know what suicidal feels like, and this isn’t it. A single, overwhelmed moment isn’t anything to worry about, right?

*

The colours keep dimming like autumn in reverse. They soften and fade, and your brain takes it in like it’s normal. But sometimes, in the rare moment when reality sets in hard and sudden and you’re faltering and trying to remember how to survive these moments, sometimes you wonder. You wonder if one day you’ll open your eyes and see greyscale. You wonder if one day, you won’t shake that change, and you’ll never get those colours back. And you wonder if it actually matters at all.

There’s helpful advice everywhere, though. Walk it off. Talk to someone. Write it out. And even though the words are everything in your life that you value, the one thing you can usually hold onto, you stare at the page and can’t figure out a single thing to say. So you don’t. At all. Writing used to be like skipping through a field of wildflowers, picking up the words that caught your fancy and resting them on the page. Now it’s a room, its ceiling covered with helium balloons with the words you need emblazoned on their tops so you’ll never actually see them. Now you’re jumping, stretching, straining to grab at words, any words, hoping you’ll somehow manage to grab the one you actually need. Now words are a frustration, a security blanket set on fire and thrown around you.

Now they hurt, and feel unsafe. Now they’re one more thing that makes you feel stupid, and makes it easier to doubt, and hate, yourself.

You spend hours staring at simple messages and emails, trying to figure out a hidden meaning that doesn’t exist. You try and figure out how to sound like everything is fine because you don’t want that worry. You don’t want to be the reason that their smiles dim and falter, the one ruining things for those around you. You don’t want to bother people, and more than that, you don’t want to deal with the niggling doubt that it’s all a lie.

People lie. And you’re so, so bad at picking up on that when there are emotions involved. Your brain can, does, list out the fuck ups you’ve made, the people you trusted when you shouldn’t have, the moments you thought someone cared but then you realised how one-sided it all was. The curse of the people-pleaser. Look at all the screw ups, and tell me you know for sure that you’re not just fucking up again? The mix tape of self-doubt and loathing can’t help but stick the boot in when you’re at your lowest. That hidden track in the back of your mind is brutal, and the longer it plays, unchecked, the worse it gets.

*

The problem with social hibernation is that everyone is busy, and it’s likely that most of the people you know will wander onward, oblivious. But your brain has been practicing the better off without you monologue in the mirror again, clearly, because people are busy starts becoming they don’t care. So you stare at the occasional email a while longer, then mark them unread. You’ll get back to them tomorrow, when things are less… whatever this is.

You know, though, what this is. And you hate yourself for not catching it sooner, and not having the ability to just walk it the fuck off. You’re a grownup, dammit, and it shouldn’t be this hard to post on freakin’ Facebook. So you go, and you reply to someone’s post, and verbally dissect yourself for hours after because holy shit you sound like an idiot. What the hell is wrong with you? You should never talk to them again, you freak. Now you’ve done it, you’ve shown everyone what a moron you are. Bravo.

Still, you try to keep pretending nothing is wrong. You plaster that shit-eating grin into place, start sounding drunk at social events without ever having touched a drop (don’t let them see. Don’t let them figure out just how fucked you’re feeling right now. Don’t make their smiles fall away, because then you’re ruining their night too, and being selfish. Just fucking smile and survive). And if your jokes are a little ragged or just the wrong side of sharp? Well, it’s not like people don’t already know you’re a snarky little shit, and there are precious few people in the firing line, anyway.

Every time it feels normal and easy to be around other people, your brain tells you it’s a fluke, or that you’re clearly missing something, something that’ll show you why it’s all actually going horribly wrong. And every time you screw up (always you, never them), it’s further proof that you’re a shitty human being who can’t even manage basic conversation.

You can’t remember what you sound like, or who you are, when you’re not drowning in anxiety. And the meds don’t work for you- leave you actively, compulsively suicidal, and hallucinating things that left you terrified of the kitchen for months after. They took the soft rumble of that mix tape and left it screaming in your head days after you stopped taking the tablets.

You’re terrified of hearing that screaming again. Terrified of how little control you had in those moments, when your brain told you that survival meant you had to feel something, anything, and the only option left was pain and the desperate, all consuming need to escape that sense of nothingness that stole your breath and your sanity and left you shaken and more terrified of yourself than any monster in any story you’ve read.

Your luck held through two attempts at medicating, and people stopped you before you went too far. But luck runs out, and you’re not ready to sign on for a voluntary suicidal phase. So you grit your teeth and struggle through because your life expectancy is higher that way.

You grit your teeth, and you force yourself through the basics: eat, sleep, drink things that aren’t coffee or alcohol. Shower. Call your mother. Get out of bed. For fucks sake, it’s not climbing Everest you lazy shit.

*

You survive, as best you can. You force yourself to keep on working (because the work, you prioritise. The work is a port in the storm, even if only for a few hours). You grit your teeth and remember that this shit doesn’t last forever (are you sure? Do you really, honestly believe that? Luck runs out, kiddo.)

Then comes the bad day. Too much is asked of you, too many unkind thoughts or frustrations get wedged down deep instead of vocalised, and the human body isn’t meant to cope with that kind of stress. You feel it first in your chest.

You don’t notice your heartbeat until it changes, don’t notice the act of breathing until you can’t fucking breathe. You feel it building like a summer storm in Brisbane. Your chest tightens, lungs start to strain even though there’s nothing stopping you breathing. For fuck’s sake, you’re not running a marathon here. You disgust me. Can’t even fucking breathe right. Your heart responds by beating faster. And your brain, your beautiful, messed up, glitching brain, freaks the fuck out.

Sometimes, it’s telling you that something bad is going to happen. Sometimes, it’s that mix tape blaring louder than you can stand it. And sometimes, everything shorts out and it’s white noise and nothingness, and that’s the worst. It reminds you of the white noise of the meds, of the inability to feel, and your first instinct is to do something, anything, to remind yourself that you can actually feel and this is not like those very bad days.

It’s like an asthma attack, but so much worse. A shift from breathing to not, from fine to freaking the hell out in the span of moments. If you’re lucky, you’re near enough to a bathroom to hide in a stall and wait it out. If you’re unlucky? You’re sitting in the gutter four doors from your house, pretending to tie up your shoes (they zip up, dumbass) or pretending to be sending a text (no one shakes like that sending a text, moron. They probably think you’re some drunk having a tantrum), face hidden by hair as you try and remind your body that breathing is important.

This time, though, you find a public bathroom, and hide in there and try not to acknowledge that the picture on the back of the toilet door is trying its damndest to make eye contact with you. And maybe there’ll be a day where you can laugh about freaking out about the staring gaze of an ad about the symptoms of panic attacks, but right now breathing is a problem. And having someone- even a photograph of a someone- watching really isn’t helping.

There comes a point where you start crying, which really, really doesn’t help. Adding another difficulty to breathing is the worst kind of idea, but apparently your body hates you right now because you’re crying and you can’t stop. And through it all, there’s a quiet mumble in the back of your mind that you can’t breathe and that won’t change, and they’re gonna find your corpse sitting on a toilet lid and drowning in tears and snot. It doesn’t help, either. You hear people wander into the bathroom, force a hand over your mouth (it’s too hard to breathe, they don’t care anyway, why bother?) until they’re gone. You don’t want someone knocking, know you can’t answer if someone asks if you’re okay.

Finally, though, you breathe. You drag in oxygen like it’s the sweetest thing you’ve ever encountered (which, come on, you’re in a bathroom, it’s not). You hide until the tears stop, and the shaking fades to acceptable levels. It takes a while, and you’re exhausted by the time it’s finally, finally possible to leave. You stagger home, fall into bed, and get up as little as possible for as long as you can stand.

Days pass.

*

Slowly, the colours come back. The constant thrum of that mix tape fades and vanishes. You laugh again, and it feels rusted and strange at first but it gets easier after a while. The words come back, and you cling to them tightly.

But you hesitate, wary of trying to be social. It’s hard to step up, to find a way to apologise for vanishing, harder to pretend it won’t happen again when you know damn well it probably will. You feel broken, exhausted; a wide gaping wound flinching at the slightest pressure. It’s hard to remember that people are generally awesome, and tend to shrug off the occasional vanishing act. So you overcompensate, trying to be better in the moments you’re there to make up for the drama that shows up eventually. You compliment those around you (that’s what people do, right? They make other people feel good about themselves and now it’s awkward isn’t it and oh gods why am I so freakin’ bad at this?), you exhaust yourself trying to make up a slight that precious few even noticed, and no one actually cares about. For a while, you’re hyper-vigilant about anything that could bring that mix tape back into focus, but then life gets busy again, and overdoing it just this once won’t matter, right?