On positivity and self-care

Heart made from different colored hexagons

(Note: The bulk of this post was written in answer to a question about how to become better at positivity and self-care on one of my favorite websites.)

A little about me so you know where I’m coming from: I have Panic Disorder with Agoraphobia, Social Phobia, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and Mood Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (because I have symptoms of several of the Bipolar disorders, but don’t fit entirely into any one of them). I’ve been in and out of therapy for more than 25 years, and on and off meds for more than 20. My current meds include two mood stabilizers, an anxyolitic, and a benzodiazepine.

I’ve struggled a lot over the years with many of the same issues you’re having. Miserable self-esteem. Negativity and cynicism. Surviving depression and abuse. Triggers. Panic attacks. Feeling unsafe. Pathological perfectionism. Over-thinking and over-analyzing everything. Being utterly terrified of making a mistake, never mind actually failing. Here are some of the things that have helped me.

My newest coping mechanism is one my therapist strongly, maybe even emphatically, suggested just a few months ago. She recommended I undertake a creative hobby with a tangible output, so I had a physical thing to concentrate on that would occupy my mind. The underlying theory here is that if I focus on this I can’t obsess about that. She suggested Pinterest (come follow me!) as a starting place for ideas. I spent probably five or six hours that day on Pinterest, looking for anything that looked both doable and cheap. A few days later, I visited family and asked my mother for ideas, since she’s one of the most creative people I know.

Mama taught me how to do English paper piecing so I can make quilts, pillows, purses, all manner of fabric crafts. It’s my new obsession; I love it. I’m working with hexagons – or hexies – since they’re so versatile, and probably have a good 800 sewn so far. The first project I’m going to finish is one I hadn’t even thought of when I started out – a decorative pillow for my daughter’s bed.

You’d think my perfectionism would rear its ugly head with arts and crafts, and it tries to now and again. However, I can fight it back a couple different ways. First, perfect is boring. I don’t want my projects to be boring. My paper flowers are fun and whimsical. My initial letters are colorful and well thought out. My hexies are as good as they need to be. Which would you rather own, one of a million perfect, mass-produced bed-in-a-bag quilts, or one that was hand-crafted but may have a few quirks?

Second is a phrase I came up with when I was writing an article on how to make the hexies: Imperfection is inflection. Each of us is imperfect in our own way; that’s what makes us unique and gives us our own voice. One of my biggest challenges with the hexies, for example is that I can’t count to two. Seriously. I want to do two stitches in several places, and I put one, or three, or even four, because I can’t remember if I’ve only done one or not. That’s just one minor thing that makes my hexies unique.

Keep Calm and Count to 2... or maybe 3

Another means of helping me deal with my demons is 7 Cups of Tea. 7 Cups “is an on-demand emotional health and well-being service. Our bridging technology anonymously & securely connects real people to real listeners in one-on-one chat.” It’s a peer support network. The Listeners are trained to be sounding boards who can help you figure out how best to deal with whatever’s going on in your head at the moment. Listeners were members first; they understand where the members are coming from because they’ve been there.

If you don’t want to talk one-on-one, 7 Cups has other areas that can offer support. There’s your Growth Path, where you do one or more quick activities a day that are designed to lift your mood. Those are things like writing down two things you did well recently, or one small step you can take today towards self-care. There are Group Chats for a variety of topics, including Anxiety, Depression, and LBGTQ+. There are Forums for more than 60 discussion areas, including Psychotherapy and Self Care. My personal favorite, especially for days when I just can’t interact with other people, are the Self-Help Guides, including Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT), Panic Attacks, and Traumatic Experience. 7 Cups is where I found this video on ACT, which I watch probably at least once a week.

I found another coping method while working with a business mentor and several colleagues. We’ve been working through a book called Finding Your Direction, by Bill Cantrell. Bill uses a workbook when he’s teaching courses on the text. One thing it explores is the roots of our current behaviors – why we do what we do. I realized that a lot of my current behaviors and beliefs were based on what five-year-old me thought and believed.

Five-year-old me thought that if I knew everything, I could do anything. So I undertook to read the encyclopedia. The whole thing. Once I was done, I was certain I could do absolutely anything I would ever want to do, because I knew everything. Until my parents pointed out that there was a world of knowledge that didn’t exist in the encyclopedia. Since I couldn’t know everything, did that mean I couldn’t do anything? I decided that whatever it was I wanted to do, I would have to know everything there was to know about that subject before I could get ready to get started to get going.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, We are always getting ready to live, but never living.

That’s carried through to today. I research, and analyze, and refine, and over think before I ever take the first step. But now, I can ask myself a new question about doing all that: why am I letting a five year old determine how I act today? Five year old me had no idea what I would be capable of doing today. (Granted, she could count to two…) She couldn’t possibly have conceived of the technology we have, the opportunities, the industries that didn’t exist back then. So why am I letting her run the show? Same goes with eight year old me who felt like she wasn’t good enough and 11 year old me who decided that since getting all A’s and one B meant being grounded, she had evidence that she wasn’t good enough. While I have compassion for those scared little girls, I’m not letting them run the show any more.

My final coping method came from this article by Jon Morrow. He’s wheelchair-bound and can only move his eyes and lips. But he became a millionaire who’s traveled all over the country, and now lives in a condo in Mexico. After a car accident that left him pinned under his 300 lb. wheelchair with both legs completely shattered, he spent a month in the hospital. While he was there, he made himself say, “Okay, this is my life now. What’s next?”

That’s now written on a Post-It Note stuck to my monitor. You see, in addition to my psychological illnesses, I’m also physically disabled. Nobody knows why, but I can only walk a few feet, or maybe yards on a really good day, unaided before my legs give out. My arms, abs, well, all of my muscles are similarly affected. I have two dozen doctors and take about 30 medications for this and other health issues (including fibromyalgia, asthma, tachycardia, and GERD). Whenever I’m having a rough day health-wise, I can look at that Post-It, think of Jon Morrow, and soldier on.

And now for my two trite truisms – with apologies for the alliteration and triteness both. First: if I can do it, anybody can do it. I’ve sucked at self-care and positivity for most of my life. And I mean really sucked. Not just a little sucking. I’m an overachiever. So if I can make strides like I’ve made recently (I actually complimented myself on something a couple weeks ago!), anybody can.

And second: This, too, shall pass. I spent more than 20 years calling my Daddy to ask him to tell me that before my therapist asked me the obvious question, “Why not ask him to leave it in a voice mail for you?” So now when I’m awake and miserable at 3 a.m., I can hear him telling me, just like he has for years. Every time I play the message, I feel better. Why? Not just because it’s Daddy and he loves me, but because he’s been right every time. This, whatever it is, always passes.

What coping mechanisms do you use when your self-esteem and self-care aren’t where you want them to be? Let me know in the comments!

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The Should

One of the biggest demons in my life is the Should Monster. He’s a great, looming beast, reminiscent of the Jabberwocky. He’s always there, hanging over my shoulder, telling me what I Should be doing instead of what I’m actually doing. He’s a real son of a bitch, the Should.

Today, he’s telling me I Should be researching an article that’s due on Monday, that I have absolutely no knowledge of the topic. I Should be submitting more job proposals and articles. I Should be working on my hexies, and making newspaper reeds to weave a basket for my incense, and making tissue paper flowers to adorn my walls, and finishing a how-to article to go on my new blog of writing samples, and working in Evernote to get all my Shoulds organized, and contacting a customer or two for my Mary Kay business, and being coherent through all of it.

Thing is, my body just won’t even today. The longest I’ve managed to be awake is about 45 minutes, since I first woke up around 6. It’s going on 1530 now, and I’ve accomplished nothing. But that’s ok.

Yesterday, I had a nerve block done, where needles go in through my cheek, back through my jaw, to deaden the nerve that’s causing my facial pain. I also had a rather dramatic appointment with my lung doctor, who sent me immediately for a bunch of tests, and ordered a bunch more for next week, and scared the hell out of me by telling me I could have a blood clot in my lungs. Thank the gods I don’t, but we still don’t know what’s wrong.

I think my brain and body are just overwhelmed. I’m coming into a depressive swing this week, after several weeks in  mania. That’s not helping me stay awake either. You see, when I’m in a manic phase, if I sleep four hours a night, that’s a lot. I’m more likely to be awake for two or three days at a time, sleep two hours, and do it again. The up side is that I get a lot done. The Should loves my manic episodes.

I’ve let the Should rule my life for far too long. I’m done now. He can just have himself a seat and leave me alone. I’m putting tomorrow’s date on today’s wish list and going back to bed.

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Well, that was unexpected

If you’ve known me for any amount of time, you know that I struggle with the unholy trinity of poor self-esteem,  anxiety, and perfectionism. It’s a perfect storm of negative self-talk and self-denigration. It’s been so bad at times that I’ve found myself saying things to myself that I wouldn’t say out loud to people I hated.

If you know all that about me, then you’ve also known me long enough to know that I’m a musician. My first public performance was less than a week after my fifth birthday, singing Carol of the Questioning Child with Mama and the church choir on Christmas Eve. I’ve had formal lessons on voice, piano, concert flute, piccolo, alto flute, clarinet, oboe, and trumpet. At last count, I can play more than 40 instruments with varying degrees of success. I’ve brought people to tears with my singing. I once understudied the lead role in an opera, and a song I composed was performed to a standing ovation from over 400. Somewhere, I’ve got an album full of ribbons and certificates that would tell you how good I am. You wouldn’t have to take my word for it.

But take my word for it; I’m a really good musician.

However…

If you’ve known me for any amount of time, you know that I struggle with the unholy trinity of poor self-esteem,  anxiety, and perfectionism. It’s a perfect storm of negative self-talk and self-denigration. It’s been so bad at times that I’ve found myself saying things to myself that I wouldn’t say out loud to people I hated.

(Yes, I just repeated all that. Yes, it was on purpose.)

I am my own worst critic. I set impossible standards for myself, then lambaste myself endlessly for not meeting them. So much so that if you were to find me after a performance and compliment me, I would take the opportunity to tell you exactly where and when and how I screwed up. I would ignore all the amazing things I’d just done with my instrument, regardless of which instrument, and excoriate myself until my soul was laid bare and you could see exactly how little I thought of myself.

I spent about four hours today putting together a Spotify playlist full of every “I’m gonna get up and get out and be magnificent and kick ass and take names” song I could come up with. That’s on top of the seven hours I spent yesterday compiling the list in the first place. It’s got everything. MC Hammer to Miley Cyrus. Disturbed to The Pointer Sisters.
Frank Sinatra to Kanye West. Jimmy Eat World to Meat Loaf. Eminem to Lesley Gore. Right Said Fred to Whitesnake. Five and a half hours comprised of 77 songs of awesomesauce.

And of course, since I’m a singer, I’ve been singing along. It dawned on me at one point that I wasn’t just singing along, I was using proper technique to sing along. Belting out Wasted or crooning Hero, didn’t matter. Soft palate up, jaw dropped, rib cage out, while I was browsing web pages and playing solitaire.

Then it happened.

Michael Crawford popped up. I love Michael Crawford. He was singing Not Too Far From Here. I adore Not Too Far From Here. I stopped doing everything else, turned my chair towards the invisible audience of thousands outside my window, and sang.

And then it got strange.

After I let go of the last note, I grinned, wiped away a tear, patted myself on the back, and said out loud, “That was nice. Good job, Kriss.”

I’ve obviously lost my mind and need to see my therapist as soon as humanly possible.

Positive self-talk has to be bad for the environment. Or baby seals. Can’t save the whales with positive self-talk. All these psychiatric medications I take (four of them!) have clearly warped my mind. I sincerely hope it’s For Good.

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On pain and the management thereof

Pain is a funny thing.

I have seven chronic medical conditions that cause pain. One is said to be the most painful disorder known to modern medicine. The first of the seven started when I was just a kid – scoliosis. The last started just a couple weeks ago – insane muscle cramps. Whenever medical folk ask me where the pain is, I tell them the easier answer would be where the pain is not.

Every time something new hurts, though, it’s the worst pain ever. The muscle cramps had me screaming for the better part of six hours. On the upside, it was one of the fastest ER visits I’ve ever had. Unfortunately, it was also one of the “We can’t find anything wrong, here’s some drugs, go home” ER visits. I’ve had a lot of those.

Sewing last night and early this morning, I was working with a very stiff fabric. Bad idea, won’t ever buy that again. I wound up having to put a band-aid on my thumb I use to push the needle through. Not because it broke the skin; it didn’t. But because it eclipsed the pain in my mouth. Which is good and bad, I suppose. It’s bad that I was having more pain somewhere else. But it’s good that the new pain distracted from the slightly older pain.

Pain medication makes life much more frustrating.

I’m foggy-brained enough without the side effects of Norco. I’ll start to do something, and in the middle of it, forget what it was I was doing. I lose track in conversations. Half the time, I don’t know what day it is. I once famously asked Daddy for 10’s three turns in a row playing Go Fish with him, Little Man, and Lulu.

But this is a whole new level of fog. I spent five minutes trying to thread the wrong end of a needle. Where there’s no hole. At all. A couple hexies after that, I was confused because the end of the thread wasn’t showing up as I pulled the needle through the fabric. I completely missed that I hadn’t threaded the needle at all that time.

Pain management is a whole ‘nother ball game.

It’s a toss-up, then. Do I want to be physically miserable, i.e. in pain, or psychically miserable, i.e. brain fogged? I’ve tried for 20 years to find the balance between the two. Generally, I lean towards gently creating pain elsewhere, to distract from the existing pain. I don’t want to injure myself. This isn’t self-harm. It’s little things like digging a knuckle into a pressure point. Last night’s sewing.

Then there are days like this. Recovering from surgery, fighting a fever, and every pain condition flares up. I’ve seen people jokingly say “My everything hurts,” but for me, that’s the gods’ honest truth. Wait, I take that back. My left ankle feels ok right now.

However, above all the pain, I strive to avoid suffering. I have a quote on a post-it note stuck to my monitor that says, “Pain creates suffering only when you refuse to accept the pain.” I’ve long since accepted the pain. I haven’t given up on eliminating it by any means fair or foul. But it’s there. It’s part of me. It’s part of my authentic life.

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A funny thing happened on the way to the surgery

During every part of waiting for surgery, I had my hexies out. I was sewing hard and fast, trying to keep anxiety at bay. It mostly worked. Having my Rilly bear there helped. All the nurses asked about what I was working on, and I was more than happy to explain. Anything to keep from talking about medical things!

One nurse was particularly interested, because she’s always wanted to quilt. She asked all kinds of questions. I explained that my therapist strongly recommended I participate in a creative endeavor with a tangible output, so I could see that I was getting somewhere, to help manage my anxiety and bipolar. She delved into more detailed questions about what other projects I’d been working on. And went into great detail about the hexies, how they worked, how did you sew them together, did the papers stay in, and more.

After a good ten minute conversation about my newfound artistic pursuits, she looked me dead in the eye and said, “Well, you’ve just got it all together there, honey.”

When I finally stopped laughing, I put my hand on her arm and said, “Oh, God bless you, ma’am, because you’re the only person on this green earth who thinks so!”

After I left the hospital, I called Daddy to give him an update. Then I told him I had a funny story for him. I got through “Well, you’ve just got it all together there, honey,” but had to stop for him to burst out laughing. He stopped suddenly and asked, “Wait, that was the punchline, right?” I assured him it was, and he went back to laughing.

Now I’m torn; I can’t decide which is better medicine, hexies or laughter.

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There is wisdom. Or, y’know, not.

I had my two lower wisdom teeth removed yesterday, under general anesthesia. The surgery itself went fine, especially given that the doctor I’d met in the office and whom I was expecting to be actually doing the procedure wasn’t. Everyone kept asking me, “And it’s Dr. Max doing your surgery?” My response was always, “I’ll take your word for it.”

I had my teddy bear, Rilly, with me. He comes to most hospital visits and ER trips. I got him early in the morning the day Little Man was born, and he’s a great source of hugs. Not so big on conversation and can’t drive, so Kevin came with me too. So did my traveling hexie bag; the hexies were enough of a hit that the nurse supervisor on the surgical floor heard about them, and asked about them as she was walking us out.

Had some issues with two of the nurses. The first, on the recovery floor, tried to give me a drug that it’s all over my chart I can’t take. I don’t think the facial itching would have caused too many problems, other than peeling off a couple layers of skin, but projectile vomiting after oral surgery could cause some complications. And then when I had some major leg cramping, said she couldn’t do anything and walked away. Another nurse came over and flexed my feet until the cramps let up.

The second was my discharge nurse. She stopped in the middle of my discharge instructions to take a personal phone call. It was Mark, who she’d matched with on a dating site. She didn’t think going out with him would be a good idea, because she was seeing someone. But somebody was moving to California soon, so maybe. They exchanged Facebook info and selfies. It was about that time Kevin went to get that supervisor I mentioned earlier. She “offered to help” my discharge nurse, and wound up taking over. The supervisor was absolutely wonderful.

I’ve been taking my pain meds on the clock, since I know exactly how much chasing pain sucks. All I’ve eaten has been jello and bananas, since I’m supposed to stick to soft foods through tomorrow. Sunday, depending on how things are feeling, I can add food back as long as I can tolerate them.

There was great concern over my oxygenation levels. A normal saturation level is 95% or higher. The only way mine even got TO 95% was on oxygen, taking deep breaths. And that was before the surgery. Talking it over with th enurse supervisor, I mentioned that over the last couple months, I’ve had sats consistently in the 80-85% range. She became very concerned and recommended I get in to see my pulmonologist as soon as I can. I’m already on supplemental oxygen at night, along with my bipap machine for sleep apnea, but she thinks I may need daytime oxygen too, until we figure out what’s going on. So I’m going to work on that on Monday.

Overall, not the worst surgery I’ve had. Not the best either. I’d have thought that for such a minor thing as wisdom teeth removal, it would have been better than it was. But we’ll see how things go in the next few days.

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I wanted to

I wanted to be a Marine.

When the military recruiters came to my high school my senior year, I talked to the Marine extensively. I saw the Corps as a family that was always there and never left you behind. They were tough and tenacious, strong and secure, all things I desperately wanted to be. But I had asthma, I had scoliosis, I had torn cartilage in my knees. So I couldn’t be a Marine.

I wanted to be an economist.

When I was around eight or nine years old, my Daddy Gob gave me a college level economics textbook. I loved it. I devoured it. I could tell you about supply and demand, scarcity and efficiency, micro, macro, and supply side economics. I loved the JA class that was taught during American History in middle school. Economists’ worlds made sense; the numbers always added up. But then came my high school economics class. It was taught by a man who I’m sure meant well; unfortunately, he did not do well. He killed my love of economics. Killed it dead. So I couldn’t be an economist.

I wanted to be President of the United States.

I had no real idea of what the President actually did. But he was important and powerful, and I wanted to feel important and to feel powerful. People looked up to him as a role model. He got to meet scintillating people and go to fascinating places. Then came social studies and history classes, and I learned about all the responsibilities and pressures Presidents had to deal with. I decided that the power of choosing who lives and dies was not one I wanted. So I couldn’t be President of the United States.

I wanted to be a professional musician.

My childhood vision was somewhere between Jem and the Holograms and Julie Andrews. I wanted to sing and play the piano, and as I grew older and learned more instruments, I wanted to be paid to play them as well. The last time I sat down and counted, I can play 47 musical instruments. Not all equally well, of course. I’m nowhere near as good on the accordion as I am on the sousaphone. My trumpet playing is eclipsed by my clarinet prowess. I do ok on bowed psaltery, but far better on oboe. My best instrument is the concert flute, with piccolo and alto flute close behind. But it’s my first instrument that let me reach this youthful dream; I was paid $50 each time I played the piano for one of the services at the church I attended. I am a professional musician.

I wanted to be a counselor.

I enjoyed learning about people and always seemed able to give good advice. (In hindsight, I probably should have taken some of my own advice…) I thought the human mind was the most alluring thing on earth. Out of this three pound lump of gray matter could come Ode to Joy or Auschwitz; The Tell-Tale Heart or Helter Skelter; the polio vaccine or ISIS. I wanted to understand it. And I wanted to help others understand their own psyches. I wanted to help people live better lives. My vision was working in an office of some sort. I volunteer on a peer counseling website, 7 Cups of Tea, where I’ve had conversations with people all over the world, basically acting as a sounding board to help them work out the issues they’re having. I am a counselor.

I wanted to make a difference.

I have moved people to tears with my singing. I insisted a friend who wasn’t feeling well see a doctor; the chemotherapy her doctors started the next day extended her life by a few months. I was such an inspiration to some of the top women in Mary Kay China that they wanted to have their pictures taken with me. All I did was go to a company event in a wheelchair. I sat across my kitchen table from a woman who, after a pampering session with me, told me she felt pretty for the first time in her life. She was in her 40’s. I have two children who take after me. I have made a difference.

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