Monthly Archives: September 2016

My Kingdom

Tuesday wasn’t a great day for me. The anxiety, depression, and loneliness I wrote about, combined with the stress of some adulty things I need to get done, hit me hard in the morning and I hate a wee freakout. I mood my swung around all day, feeling good about myself, feeling terrible about myself, feeling good about myself, feeling terrible about myself…I was a yo-yo man, always up and down.

And then, that evening, I put on my primary go-to song for bolstering my self-esteem, “The Game” by Echo & the Bunnymen. It’s not a fist-pumping rock anthem, more pop poetry, wide-eyed whimsy and dreamy determination. It’s not even from the Bunnymen’s best (or my favorite) album. (In fact, I’d go so far as saying it’s one of their worst, filled mostly with overproduced songs that aren’t the bands usual caliber. But even their worst album is better than most other bands’ work.) and “The Game” has always been magical to me, especially the lyrics of proud defiance. Listening to it again brought back feelings of confidence, hope, boldness, and a lack of concern for what naysayers tell me. (The biggest naysayer is, of course, my own low self-esteem, and the anxiety and depression that egg it on.) I felt more like the Josh I want to be. I felt like I’d…come home.

I moved a lot growing up. From grade school through high school, I went to eight different schools in six different states and two countries. I moved again to go to college and moved frequently after college. I’ve lived in Kansas City more than any other place, but that’s not all at one time, moving away and coming back a number of times. And even with all the time spent here, I still don’t feel like Kansas City is my home. I don’t feel like any place in the world is my home. There are places I feel particularly comfortable, places I feel drawn to, but there’s no one place I feel I have roots buried in. I’m sure I’m not alone in this, but for me, home is a state of mind, a place within myself where I feel…not just comfortable, but centered, confident, so full of wonder, hope, enthusiasm, and magic I might burst. That’s where my roots are.

Lately I’ve been feeling so lost, overwhelmed by a lot of life stress, summer depression, social anxiety. I’ve looked at photographs of myself when I was younger and wondered what happened to that dream-eyed boy who was still dealing with loads of messy head stuff but still managed to stumble through life with a sense of “this is who I am and I’m good this way.” I miss living in that mental space and I’ve felt cut off from it. But there are songs and albums, movies and TV show episodes, comics and books that help bring me back to there, where I’m walking out in bluer skies. So there’s hope.

There’s always hope.

The Empty Chamber

now life is sweet
and what it brings
I try to take
but loneliness
it wears me out
it lies in wait
— R.E.M., “Leaving New York”

I haven’t been getting out much lately. And by “lately,” I mean for at least the past year. I’ve had good reasons to stay home…well, I’ve had reasons. I’m tired. I don’t have the time. I don’t want to spend the money for gas. I won’t know enough people there. There’s a movie I want to watch…on Netflix…which I can watch any time.

The fun thing about being an extrovert with social anxiety is you need to be around people and interact with them, but you’re also afraid to be around people and interact with them. I’ve been letting my anxiety–and my seasonal depression this summer–overrule my extrovert nature. And while I’ve felt bad about not accepting invitations from friends to social gatherings, I’ve been fine staying at home with my cat.

At least, I thought I was fine.

PLOT TWIST: I haven’t been fine.

A week ago, I had a pretty packed weekend, full of more socializing than I’ve had in…I can’t remember how long. A college friend I hadn’t seen in over 20 years came through town on Friday night and crashed at my place. We stayed up late talking, got up early the next day and talked some more before he got back on the road. He was the first guest I’ve had in a year. Saturday night, I went to a sort of “nerd prom” at a dive karaoke bar with my sister-in-law and a friend. While I got too shy to talk much with other people, I did get dressed up and out of the house (and even sang a song!). One of my best friends was in town that weekend, and on Sunday morning we met for coffee and catching up.

Now we jump ahead to this past weekend. Besides a tabletop game event my library did on Saturday (which was a lot of fun, but I was on the clock, so I don’t count it as socializing), I…watched a lot of Supergirl on Netflix and hung out at my favorite coffee shop. Alone. On Sunday afternoon I got hit with a revelation like a sledgehammer to the chest: I’m lonely. Powerfully lonely. And it’s mostly because I’ve spent over a year isolating myself from all but a few sporadic in-person interactions.

I’ve let my anxiety and depression convince me that I don’t need to spend much time with other people. “You need to have conversations and think out loud? Hey, that’s what the internet is for! You don’t have to leave the house for that! You need physical contact? You’ve got a cat curled up in your lap! What more could you possibly want?” But I do want more. I need more. I need to be in the presence of other people. I need face-to-face conversations. I need touch. I haven’t been getting enough of any of that for a long time and it’s catching up to me, draining me, wearing me down.

I’ve seen a number of creatives give advice along the lines of “If you want to be a writer/painter/musician/whatever, you need to be selfish with your time. Don’t make social engagements. Don’t go to parties. Tell your friends and family you can’t hang out with them. Make time for yourself to be creative.” Which is great advice…unless you’re talking about extroverts. Well, this extrovert, anyway. I’ve written before about how a problem I have with writing is that it’s so often a solitary endeavor, and I’m not a solo operator. I need my band, my time-traveling companions, my S.T.A.R. Labs friends, my Justice League teammates. (Hashtag squadgoals.) Even if I’m writing on my own, avoiding people to have lots of alone time won’t make me more productive, it will just make me more depressed.

I have to stop listening to the lies depression and anxiety tell me. I have to stop letting them use my creative urges as a weapon against me. I have to work on my social connections, and build new ones as well, because I have fights to fight and dances to dance and dreams to dream, and I absolutely cannot do it alone.

Fighting with Style

In his book The Happiness Trap, Russ Harris offers many techniques (based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) for dealing with depression- and anxiety-related thoughts that get in the way of you living your life to its fullest. I’ve found ACT to be quite helpful in dealing with the lying, sabotaging voices of anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. One of Harris’ techniques in particular has been on my mind lately. He suggests that you take the unhelpful, self-destructive, negative thoughts that recur in your head (“Why try to make friends with that person? Nobody really likes you.” “Don’t bother applying for that job. You’d never get it anyway.” “Wow, you’re so fat and ugly! Could anyone actually find you attractive?”) and repeat the thoughts in your head over and over in a silly voice or as a goofy song. Take away the seriousness of the thoughts, turn them upside-down, and take away some of their power over you.

It recently occurred to me that this is a lot like Spider-Man.

One of Spider-Man’s signature traits is his wisecracking, mocking his opponents when they fight. He refuses to be completely serious or take his enemies too seriously. He does this in part to throw his opponents off, to keep them distracted and off-balance. He also does it to keep himself from getting too overwhelmed while fighting. Making fun of your enemy, refusing to give them the respect and seriousness they demand, is a good way of taking away at least some of their power over you. This is how I’ve dealt with bullies in the past, especially ones who were a lot bigger and more physically imposing than me. Instead of just giving myself over to anger and fear in the face of a strong, terrifying antagonist, I would play it cool and laugh at their attempts to intimidate and control me. Of course, even if I was playing it low-key and silly, inside I was furious, terrified, hurt. But not giving the bullies my fear and anger helped me feel better about myself, like I was internally stronger than them.

If I could do this with real people who were threatening me, why can’t I do this with the voices in my head that also try to intimidate, control, and undermine my best intentions? Aren’t one’s negative, self-sabotaging thoughts basically you trying to bully yourself? And aren’t bullies a lot like a hero’s rogues gallery, a collection of enemies that try to pull you down and keep you down? Aren’t I basically fighting Doctor Depression and The Fear-Master and The Insecurity Blanket? They’re strong and they’re sinister and they’ll do anything to get me to lose. They make me furious, terrified, hurt. But one thing I’ve got that they do? A sense of humor. Wit. Absurdity. The problem with taking these villains seriously is it gives them more power and can send me into a downward spiral. “I keep thinking shitty things about myself! Not only are the voices right, I do suck, but I suck even more because I can’t get these mean voices to shut up! I’m so weak!”

Well, maybe I’m not strong enough to silence the negative voices completely. Maybe shutting them down completely isn’t even the point. The point is, I’m strong enough to keep fighting, and I’m clever enough to fight with style, to dance around them, mock them, tease them, take them down a peg or two. “Hey, Doc Depresso! Why so glum, chum? Here, I’ll put a smile on your pretty ugly face!” “Yo, Fear-Master! You sure are good at baiting me! You’re like a…master baiter! BAM!”

Hey, whatever works, right? Excelsior!